The life of Jane Manning James, with Quincy Newell [MIPodcast #107]
Jane Manning James stood out among early Latter-day Saints as one of few black converts. She was baptized into the Church as a free black woman in Connecticut and migrated to Nauvoo with her family, where she soon found herself working in the prophet Joseph Smith’s home. After his death, she traveled west with the Saints and lived the rest of her life as a faithful member—though she was denied participation in the Church’s most sacred practices.
Through the years, Jane Manning James has been left out of books on African American history, women’s history, histories of the West, and until more recently, she was even left out of histories of her own church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Dr. Quincy Newell recently published the first scholarly biography of this remarkable Latter-day Saint. The book is called Your Sister in the Gospel: The Life of Jane Manning James, a Nineteenth-century Black Mormon. Dr. Newell joins us to talk about it in this episode.
Images of Jane discussed in the episode are available in the transcript.
Quincy D. Newell is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Hamilton College. She is co-editor of the Mormon Studies Review and author of Your Sister in the Gospel: The Life of Jane Manning James, a Nineteenth-Century Black Mormon.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges.
Jane Manning James stood out among early Latter-day Saints as one of few black converts. She was baptized into the Church as a free black woman in Connecticut and migrated to Nauvoo with her family, where she soon found herself working in the prophet Joseph Smith’s own home. After his death, she traveled west with the Saints and lived the rest of her life as a faithful member—although she was denied participation in the Church’s most sacred practices.
Through the years, Jane Manning James has been left out of books on African American history, women’s history, histories of the West, and until more recently, she was even left out of histories of her own church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Dr. Quincy Newell recently published the first scholarly biography of this remarkable Latter-day Saint. The book is called Your Sister in the Gospel: The Life of Jane Manning James, a nineteenth-century Black Mormon. Dr. Newell joins us to talk about it in this episode. Send questions and comments to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
HODGES: Quincy Newell, welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast today.
QUINCY NEWELL: Thanks, so much for having me.
HODGES: We’re talking about a book that you just published called, Your Sister in the Gospel: The Life of Jane Manning James, a nineteenth-century Black Mormon. And Quincy, you start this book off with this engaging sentence: “Jane Elizabeth Manning James has haunted me for more than a decade.” Tell us about that haunting.
NEWELL: [laughs] Well, the project began because I was working on a larger project about nineteenth-century African American and Native American Mormons. And Jane James just kept popping up and she kept taking over more and more of my brain space. And so, it felt to me like she was sort of floating around telling me that somebody needed to write her biography. And I joke that I finally just made a deal with her—I said I would write her biography if she would leave me alone! So, I’ve written the biography; we’ll see if she leaves me alone now. [laughter]
HODGES: Yeah, let’s see if she holds up her end of the bargain. So, you were also intrigued by her autobiography in particular. You said it offers people an opportunity to see Mormonism at a different angle.
NEWELL: Right. I was really surprised the first time I read her autobiography. She talks about her religious experience in ways I wasn’t used to seeing Mormons talk about their religious experience. She talks about speaking in tongues; she talks about faith healings. And all of these kind of things are things that I wasn’t really expecting to see discussed by nineteenth-century Mormons.
So, I was intrigued by her religious experience, and those charismatic experiences in particular. And when I talk about speaking in tongues, what I’m talking about is not that she suddenly gains the ability to speak a foreign language that she hasn’t studied, but actually she’s speaking in what Mormons understood to be the language of the biblical Adam. So, she was almost possessed by the Holy Spirit and words were coming out of her mouth that she didn’t understand and nobody else understood, unless there was somebody else in the congregation at the time who was given the gift of interpretation. And that person would stand up and interpret the message that was being given through her, or through whoever was speaking in tongues.
So, that’s a really interesting experience to see happening in Mormonism. It’s not something that modern-day Mormons usually practice. But it was actually fairly common in nineteenth-century Mormonism.
HODGES: As you’re reading her autobiography, you’re noticing things that aren’t centralized as much in Latter-day Saint narratives today. Not only do you encounter things in her autobiography—like speaking in tongues and some practices that aren’t common to Latter-day Saints today—but also, she was black.
NEWELL: Absolutely. And there weren’t a lot of black people in the Church at the time. The nineteenth century is a time when the Church is really working hard to cast itself as white and so black people—there were black members of the Church, but they were few and far between and they’re not well-known.
HODGES: We’ll talk a little bit more about that later as Latter-day Saints struggled to achieve whiteness. People can also check out the interview with Paul Reeves that we did earlier on the podcast. Listeners can go back and get some more background there.
But as for you, Quincy, what background did you bring to this project? You’re a white person yourself. And what your connections to religion are, because you’re dealing with a religious topic. Tell people a little bit about your own background.
NEWELL: Sure. I have a PhD in American religious history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I went there because I wanted to study with Laurie Maffly-Kipp, who is an expert on religion in the American west—that is what I was interested in doing. And that’s how I ended up doing this project. My first book was about Mission, San Francisco in California, looking at Catholicism and Native Americans.
I’ve always been interested in underdogs, and so I was really interested in race and ethnicity and Mormonism in the nineteenth century. Mormons are a huge part of the story of religion in the American west. So, I came to this project through this interest in, “Wow, what was it like to be an African American Mormon in the nineteenth-century?” Trying to understand the construction of race and religious identity together.
So, as a white woman who is doing this project and as an outsider to the Church, I think one of the things I’m able to bring to the project is distance. I’m not invested in this story in the same ways that an African American person or a member of the Church might be. And that gives me a little bit more freedom to imagine, I think, the possibilities for Jane’s life and to explore some avenues that might not matter to people who have other kinds of investments in her life.
HODGES: And it puts you in an interesting position because you’re not a Church member. You’re part of the academy. But you also are aware of these different audiences. You’d like Latter-day Saints to read your book. You want your book to be respectable and acceptable according to the standards of academic research as well.
How does that wrestle play out when you’re thinking—You know Latter-day Saints, even personally. You have friendships. You’re also a part of the academy. There are expectations there. Did you wrestle much with that or does that come more easily to you?
NEWELL: You know, that wasn’t a huge tension for me. Partly, this was not my first book. And so, I didn’t need this book in order to achieve tenure in my academic institution. So, I wasn’t writing in particular for an academic audience especially. I was writing a book that I was interested in the story and I wanted my audience to be able to engage that story.
So I was writing with my first-year students at the University of Wyoming in mind. I was writing with my family members, who are not academics, in mind. I was writing with my friends, who are Latter-day Saints but maybe are or maybe are not academics, in mind. I wanted to write a book that people could read and enjoy and share with their friends.
HODGES: And then, did your own religious background inform the project at all?
NEWELL: Not in any specific kind of way. I grew up in the Presbyterian church. And I would say, I’m not active in that church anymore, but I think it shaped my own view of the world and of humanity in some particular kinds of ways.
Presbyterians—most of them don’t know it, but they’re Calvinists. And so, we have a fairly low low opinion of humanity. And I think that shaped my view of this project in certain kinds of ways. I was much more willing, I think, than some people might’ve been to sort of see the pain and see the bad and to sit with that and to expect it.
HODGES: Yeah, that’s one of the things I find interesting. To remember how historians are bringing their own backgrounds into their projects. And that leads the questions that they ask and how they see the sources and all those sort of things.
Speaking of sources, before we get to the story of Jane’s fascinating life in particular, let’s talk a little bit about your own approach—about historical sources, memory and how it’s used.
There are many of paradoxes in your book, I think. For example, at one point you observe that, “for a nineteenth-century free black woman born in Connecticut, Jane’s life is comparatively well-documented.” You’ve got a lot of sources. A lot of other people don’t have a lot of records left over. But at the same time, she’s been left out of books on African American history, women’s history, histories of the West, and until more recently, even histories within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So, lots of records, not a lot of coverage. What’s going on there?
NEWELL: Well, I think there’s a couple of things going on there. One is that for a nineteenth-century black woman, Jane is well-documented. But for a nineteenth-century person, she’s comparatively little documented. We have so many written records about so many nineteenth-century figures and the documentary record for Jane is sort of needle-in-a-haystack kinds of stuff—which seems to be the projects that I take on. So, there’s that piece.
How well-documented she is depends on what kind of scale you’re looking at. But I think the other piece that matters here is that Jane’s story doesn’t fit the kind of grand narratives of American history. She’s not moving from slavery to freedom. She started out free, but then she joins a church that seems to oppress her. And so, I think for a lot of historians, she doesn’t fit into the narrative that they want to tell and so she gets left out of our stories.
HODGES: You point out in the book that people have been tempted in the past to tell simplistic stories about Jane. Some people might depict her as this religious dupe or a victim. On the other hand, people might see her as simply this paragon of faith—this faithful hero. You say the work of historians often troubles the waters in our grand narratives. What do you mean by that?
NEWELL: Well, I think that what’s so interesting about history—the reason I think a lot of us are drawn to it—is because we have these sort of standard narratives in our heads. But what’s interesting about it, and what makes it human—what makes it something that we want to learn more about—is that it’s always more complicated than those standard narratives. And I think Jane’s story in particular shows us many of the ways that those standard narratives are not complex enough.
And to be fair, those grand narratives have to lack nuance. They can’t incorporate everything. So, they have to leave out a lot of stuff that’s contradictory. But at the same time, it’s the contradictory stuff that makes it interesting and makes it worth dwelling on and thinking about over time.
HODGES: Another paradox, I think, in the book is—and it’s associated with the same idea of there being a relative abundance of sources about Jane—is the fact that historians like you, even given the records that you have, can only glean so much from them. So, talk for a minute about your main sources for the book and what some of the limitations were of those sources.
NEWELL: Sure. So, Jane told her life story multiple times. We have her autobiography which she dictated to Elizabeth Roundy sometime between 1902 and 1908. We have a couple of other interviews that she gave. Other people’s summaries of her story. And all of those, I think, are really useful sources for understanding her life.
The trouble is she didn’t write any of them in her own hand. We don’t have a strong sense, I don’t think, of how she shaped them for her particular audience that she was imagining at the time she was telling these stories. And we don’t have a good sense of how the white people who were taking those stories down, how they were editing those stories as well. So there’s a lot of editing that’s going on in ways that we can’t see, and we can’t know now. And we have to account for that.
And then they’re all retrospective accounts. So, she’s telling the story of her life near the end of her life. We don’t have a contemporary diary where she’s saying, “Oh, I got baptized today.” And talking about that.
So all of those accounts are shaped by what Jane is thinking is important at the time that she’s telling the story. They’re shaped by the reasons that she’s telling the story. And she’s leaving a lot out. That’s one of the main limitations of those sources.
But the other thing to know is that Jane shows up in all sorts of different kinds of records. She shows up in other people’s diaries. She shows up in meeting minutes for Retrenchment Society and Relief Society meetings. She shows up in church records and tax records and all sorts of other kinds of records. So a lot of what I was doing with this book was trying to take every instance of Jane showing up someplace in some kind of record and weaving those together along with a whole lot of contextual information to kind of fill in the gaps.
That is a challenge that people face when they’re doing African American history and when they’re doing Native American history in particular—a lack of records written by the people that were interested in telling their stories. And so, this is a sort of standard challenge that folks in my field face. And the contextualizing of information and filling in gaps using other information that we can find about the time period, about the group of people, about whatever it might be, is a pretty standard way of dealing with that.
HODGES: I think readers might be surprised with how often you say in the book, “Records don’t tell us exactly how Jane felt about x, y, z.” Or, “This part of her life we don’t have a lot of information, but this is the area that she’s in. Here’s kind of some things that are going on.” It seemed to me one of the key tools that you used in the book as a historian was the tool of imagination, the tool of conjecture, as legitimate historical tools. And that happens frequently in this book. Were there models for you doing that?
NEWELL: So, Jon Sensbach does this really really well. He is a historian of Afro-Atlantic religion, particularly focusing on Afro-Moravians. And he seems to have—his sort of habit is to say in his books, “We don’t know what the answer is to this question that I’m asking, but here are some possibilities. And here is the evidence for all of these different possibilities. And here’s the one that I think is most persuasive and here’s why.”
And so that’s the kind of model that I’m following in this book as well.
HODGES: Do you sense resistance to that? Like, when you’re teaching, for example, are students saying, “Wait a minute, why are we using imagination here? What’s that?”
NEWELL: Well, yeah. I think a lot of people—not just my students, but a lot of readers really want a kind of, “Just the facts, ma’am” kind of story. And we don’t have that. And so, I cannot provide that. So, I try to say that upfront in the book that I’m not going to be doing that, because the evidence doesn’t support that kind of a story.
HODGES: And I think it allows you to even do a little bit more in some ways, though. Because, for example, when you talk about—and we’ll get to this more later, when Jane and her family are gathering to Nauvoo, you say, “They could’ve gone this route. They could’ve gone this route. They could’ve gone this route.” And there are different implications for any one of those routes. There are different black codes in different states. There are different circumstances that they would face on the water versus on the land and all these things. So, it also kind of allows you to give people some American history that isn’t just about the actual thing that Jane did, because we don’t know.
NEWELL: Right, exactly. And it makes it sort of fun to research and to write because I have to try to imagine myself into these situations and sort of see if I can see what it would be like to a fly on the wall in that situation.
HODGES: Did you ever think “I wish we just knew which route”?
NEWELL: Oh, I so—yes, absolutely. So many times!
HODGES: Alright, so we’re talking today with Quincy Newell. She’s associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College. We’re talking about her new book, Your Sister in the Gospel. It’s a biography of Jane Manning James—a nineteenth-century black member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Let’s get into the records here now and learn a little bit more about Jane. And I should add too, you include an appendix here with several primary sources—some patriarchal blessings, some of Jane’s own first-person accounts. So people that pick up the book will not only get your interpretation, but some of the primary documents to follow along and see what you did with them.
Now, Jane was born in the 1820s. This is a time that, you say, just surviving the first year of life was an accomplishment, particularly for a black child. What are a few things that you could find about her earliest years?
NEWELL: Well, we don’t know a lot about her earliest years. Jane picks up her autobiography when she’s a young girl. She starts with, essentially, being bound out to work for a white family in the next town over.
HODGES: Not as a slave exactly, but they could kind of—
NEWELL: I think probably she was an indentured servant.
HODGES: Right, so they kind of—Tell the difference between that.
NEWELL: So, in Connecticut at the time Jane was born, slavery had been—The legislature had passed a series of laws instituting gradual emancipation. So, Jane’s mother had been enslaved but was emancipated before her daughter was born. So, Jane was born free. But Jane’s grandmother was too old to be freed under the gradual emancipation laws.
HODGES: In part because they wanted slave owners to be responsible for older people. They didn’t want to be like, “Oh, not my problem anymore.” Is that right?
NEWELL: Exactly. And so, Jane’s grandmother was enslaved for the rest of her life. Jane was born free, but her father died when she was fairly young. I think that’s probably why she ended up becoming an indentured servant.
The terms of indenture—this was a fairly normal thing to do at the time. The idea was that Jane would be assigned to this family, the Fitch family. They would pay her family; her family would get some monetary compensation. She would live with the Fitch’s. They would provide room and board for her, maybe even some education. And she would learn the skills that she would need to make a living as a domestic servant for the rest of her life.
HODGES: Housekeeping, cooking, cleaning?
NEWELL: Housekeeping, cooking, ironing. All those kinds of things. So, a lot of what I was working on in that pre-Mormon section of her life, which is not well-known, is trying to fill in that context. What would it have been like to be Jane in that time and place?
HODGES: How about religiously? What was the religious situation for her?
NEWELL: The 1820s is a time when the Northeast in particular is experiencing a movement that historians called the “Second Great Awakening.” This is a time when African Americans in the United States become Christians in large numbers for the first time. And so, we know that Jane’s mother was baptized in 1795 into the Congregational Church. We don’t have any baptismal records for Jane until 1841 when she decides to join New Canaan Congregational Church, which is the Congregational Church in the town where she was working.
She doesn’t give us any sense of why she joined the Church. There a number of different reasons she might have decided that it was time to join up. But she joins the Church and she gets baptized on the same day in 1841. And at that point she was the unwed mother of a young son. So it may have been a way of assuaging her employer’s fears that Jane’s morals were in jeopardy. It may have been a way of gaining some leverage over her child’s father—we don’t know who he was.
HODGES: And that’s a delicate subject in the book too because you talk about the possibility of rape or that there were unequal power relations between what happened there. And Jane herself—
NEWELL: Never talked about her son Sylvester’s father. Yeah, yeah. And she was adamant that she wasn’t going to talk about it. There was curiously about who Sylvester’s father was even when he was a sixty-year-old man. And people sort of asked around Jane, but the assumption was that she wasn’t going to talk about it.
HODGES: She’s living in a predominantly white community. She’s used to being around mostly white people. It’s the Second Great Awakening. Religious revivals are going on. A lot of people are thinking about religion. She joins a congregation, but apparently it doesn’t really stick. She encounters missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1842. Why do you think she was drawn into that?
NEWELL: You know, she never talks about that either. She talks about—she joins the Congregational Church, but she didn’t feel satisfied. She was looking for something more. What that means is a little enigmatic, but I think one of the things she may have seen in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is this millennial expectation that Jesus was coming back soon and the Latter-day Saints were going to participate in the building of the kingdom.
So the world was going to change in a really important kind of way—quite probably in Jane’s lifetime. Congregationalism, on the other hand, was very much a kind of status quo religion. The expectation was that you would fulfill your place in the hierarchy of society and if you did a good job with that you would go to heaven when you died.
So the idea that the world might be upended and the social hierarchy might be thrown out and completely re-written, I think might’ve been really attractive to Jane.
HODGES: In the book you lay that out in terms of a new future for her, a new home, a place she could go, and a new role as a black woman in America and in a religious tradition. And at the top of the interview, you also mentioned her spiritual experiences. She later talked about speaking in tongues and sort of miraculous experiences like that that really drew her into the faith.
We’re talking today with Quincy Newell, associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College about her book, Your Sister in the Gospel.
So, Jane is baptized a Latter-day Saint. And she and her family decide to gather to Nauvoo where Mormons are gathering to at this time, which you say was an especially enormous leap of faith. How were the stakes different for black converts like Jane compared to other converts to the Church?
NEWELL: For black people in the United States, travelling was a hazardous thing to do, whether you were going across town or whether you were going across the continent. Movement opened you up to a whole range of possibilities of harassment and white people felt pretty free to harass black people out in public spaces. So Jane and her family were subject to all sorts of possibilities in terms of segregation, discrimination, and oppression as they were traveling. They were subject to demands for their free papers. A sort of racial surveillance system and the assumption underlying free papers is the idea that black people, by default, were enslaved and they had to prove otherwise by carrying documents with them. And any white person was empowered to demand those documents. And so, that surveillance system.
Several states had what we call “black codes,” which were systems of laws designed to regulate the movement and the lives of black people in particular, and often to prevent black people from coming into those states. Ohio and Illinois both have pretty stringent black codes. Black people were subject to capricious demands for additional money on top of their fares. They might not be given the fare that they had purchased, all those kind of things. Traveling while black was a hazardous thing to do.
HODGES: Not only did Jane and her family face all these additional hurdles, but they also faced problems within the community of faith, with fellow Latter-day Saints. For example, you talk about the man who baptized Jane, Charles Wandell. He led the group that Jane and her family left with to go to Nauvoo. They ended up being separated and then by the time that he arrived at Nauvoo, he was charged with un-Christian conduct for something that he had done along the way.
NEWELL: Right. Charles Wandell was brought up on charges of un-Christianlike conduct for leaving the black members of his group at Cleveland and essentially abandoning them. So, Jane and her family—Jane says that they separated at Buffalo, that their fares were demanded at Buffalo rather than at Columbus, which was where she was trying to get to. And so they weren’t taken further.
In other accounts of her life, she says that they were left at Akron or “Eckland.” She says, “Eckland” but I think she meant Akron, or at Cleveland. So, the fact that Wandell was brought up on charges for leaving people at Cleveland helps us figure out maybe what the route was for this group. In any case, yes. Jane and the other black members of the group are not—they’re refused passage further from wherever it is that this separation happens.
HODGES: You say they had to post a bond or something in order to do it.
NEWELL: That’s my suspicion. She never explains why they were refused passage except that she says they couldn’t pay at the time that payment was demanded. It seems odd to me that they wouldn’t be able to pay their fare at the beginning of the trip, but that they expected to be able to pay their fare at the end of the trip. My suspicion is that more money was demanded than they had available to them at any point.
So, Jane gives Charles Wandell her trunk containing all of her belongings. And she and the rest of the group set out for Nauvoo on foot. By the time she gets to Nauvoo, she discovers that her trunk has not made it with Charles Wandell. She puts an ad in the [Nauvoo Neighbor, the local paper, and the title is “Lost” and she’s sort of looking for any information about this trunk. But all of her belongings have disappeared. And so, for her, that’s a really traumatic experience.
I think she worked really, really hard to make sure that people knew she had never been enslaved. And the process of walking from New York or Ohio to Illinois meant that her belongings—what she was wearing wore out. And so, she looked more and more like a fugitive slave. And so to get to Nauvoo, thinking that she would have fresh clothing and she would have some possessions, and then to discover that nothing had made it, I think for her was just shattering in many ways.
HODGES: Do we know what happened to Wandell? He was brought up on charges?
NEWELL: He was brought up on charges. He was not convicted, and I think that’s because nobody testified against him. The stakes for the black people involved were a little bit different than we might imagine. They don’t gain much by testifying against Charles Wandell, but their situation in Nauvoo is precarious.
HODGES: What was it like when they got there?
NEWELL: Well, Jane says that when they arrived in Nauvoo, they faced all kinds of “hardship,
trial, and rebuff.” And eventually, they find Orson Spencer who points them to Joseph Smith’s home, and they’re welcomed into Joseph Smith’s home. But Nauvoo was a bustling city at the time they arrived. Immigrants are arriving all the time. And the city is struggling to accommodate all these new arrivals. It’s hard to find work. The city is not well off. I think it’s a cash-poor economy to begin with.
And so, it’s hard for Jane and her family to find jobs. They don’t feel particularly welcomed by the general populace. And I suspect that’s because citizens of Nauvoo were looking at Jane and her family and thinking, “Oh boy, here’s some more people that we need to take care of. And these ones are black! And what are we going to do with these folks?”
Illinois, as I said, had a pretty stringent black code and so, even that may have put a damper on the welcome that Jane and her family received. If they didn’t have free papers, those who employed Jane and her family were subject to fines as well. So all of that made it more difficult for Latter-day Saints to welcome Jane and her family. And that’s not even including the anti-black racism that some Mormons probably held.
HODGES: One thing she points out later in life that becomes a huge part of her narrative is the reception she received from Emma Smith and Joseph Smith.
NEWELL: Right. So, Emma Smith—according to Jane—Emma Smith is standing at the door when Jane and her family arrive and she says, “Come in, come in!” And Joseph Smith immediately moves into action and sets up the sitting room so that Jane and her family can sit with the white guests at the mansion house and tell their story. And Jane leans on this story really hard.
She wants to paint Joseph Smith as welcoming, as a kindly, generous, paternal kind of figure in her life. And I think when she is telling that story, it’s later in her life when she is requesting temple privileges. And she, I think, is trying to set up a kind of implicit contrast between Joseph Smith, who welcomed her into the Church and into his family and into his home, and later Church leaders who kept her at arm’s length.
Jane is making the argument that Joseph Smith welcomed her into the Church and later Church leaders should follow his example and embrace her and bring her in and allow her to do the temple rituals that she is requesting, rather than saying, “No, she is a child of Cain. She should be kept on the margins.”
HODGES: And you talk about some of the invisible labor that Jane performed. We don’t have a record of all the things she was doing, but Joseph and Emma Smith invited her to stay with them as kind of help in the hotel kind of thing.
NEWELL: Right. I think Joseph and Emma were looking for domestic help to help run the mansion house. And one of the interesting things about writing this biography was in the Nauvoo period in particular I spent a lot of time reading biographies of Joseph Smith and of Emma Smith and trying to imagine that scene and then shift my focus so that I could see what was going on in the background of that mental photograph, so to speak.
So, one of the stories that I talk about is this very famous party that Joseph and Emma Smith throw on Christmas day in 1843. They have fifty couples over to their house. They have dinner for everyone. There’s a band and dancing afterwards. And Orrin Porter Rockwell famously sort of arrives on Christmas day to Nauvoo from having left a jail in Missouri and he decides to play a trick on Joseph Smith, so he stumbles into Joseph Smith’s house impersonating a drunk Missourian and gets into a fist fight—
HODGES: Sort of, long hair, beard—
NEWELL: Yes. He gets into a fist fight with Joseph Smith, basically. And then Joseph Smith recognizes him and welcomes him home and everybody’s happy and the party goes on.
So, imagining that scene, it was really interesting to sort of think about, okay, what does that look like to Jane? Jane who has to clean up after the fist fight and sweep up the shards of the broken plates or whatever it might be, right? Jane who has helped prepare the party, has washed and ironed the clothing that Joseph and Emma are wearing. They’re resplendent in a new dress for Emma and Joseph is in his military uniform. Jane who has helped cooked the food and prepare the table linens and is probably helping serve the food. Jane who will have to help with the clean up afterwards.
And then Joseph Smith and Emma Smith, they throw a party on New Year’s Day, so a week later. They throw a party for their anniversary on January 18th, so another couple of weeks later. That labor doesn’t stop, but it doesn’t get talked about in those biographies either. It’s that invisible labor that women often do—and often they’re black women in the nineteenth-century—that allows the white people at the forefront of the picture to be understood as hospitable, welcoming hosts.
HODGES: And also going on at the same time are the spiritual experiences that she later relates in her life. She recalls seeing temple robes—washing them for Joseph Smith and sort of discerning what their purpose is through inspiration. She sees seer stones that Joseph said he translated the Book of Mormon with. She learns about polygamy and talks about her reaction to learning about it, which is one of affirmation rather than dismay.
She also reports an interesting encounter that she had with Emma and Joseph where they actually asked her, in Jane’s reporting, to adopt her into their family. Not just in a legal sense, but in an eternal sense.
NEWELL: Right. So, in the 1880s Jane starts talking about this story pretty frequently. She says that Emma Smith said Joseph Smith told her, Emma, to tell Jane she could be adopted into Joseph Smith’s family. And in the 1840s when this offer was made, Jane says she didn’t understand and so she declined. But in the 1880s, now she understands the “law of adoption” and she would very much like to take Joseph Smith up on this offer.
HODGES: But now, by then, and we’ll get to this point in a moment, Church policy has changed. And so, the story itself is a way for her to try to get policy changed back again.
We’re talking with Quincy Newell. She’s associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College and she wrote the book Your Sister in the Gospel: The Life of Jane Manning James, a nineteenth-century Black Mormon.
Another thing that happened in Nauvoo for Jane is that she received a patriarchal blessing from Hyrum Smith. This is—a Church authority would meet with members of the Church, place their hands on their head, and pronounce a prayer, kind of a blessing on them about their life, about who they are and who they could be. And so she received one of these. It’s thought of by Latter-day Saints as kind of being like personalized scripture, something to them. How did you come to see this blessing and what stood out to you?
NEWELL: One of Jane’s descendants shared both of her patriarchal blessings with me. She received one in 1844 from Hyrum Smith and then one in 1889 from church patriarch John Smith. And these are fascinating documents. They’re published for the first time in the appendix to the book, which I’m really excited about.
The blessing from Hyrum Smith is such an interesting document. One of the things that patriarchal blessings often do is identify Latter-day Saints spiritual lineage. And—
HODGES: This identifies them as part of the House of Israel—one of the twelve tribes.
NEWELL: Right. Right. But for Jane, her lineage reaches further back. And Hyrum Smith says she is in the lineage of Canaan, the son of Ham. Which sort of connects her to the racial mythology of white Christian Americans at the time that traces African American’s status as enslaved people to a divine curse that Noah pronounced on his son Ham that pertained to his grandson, Canaan, and said that Canaan would be “a servant of servants.”
So Hyrum Smith is blessing Jane, but connecting her to this lineage that is cursed to be the servant of servants. And then he also makes a reference to Cain. He never mentions Cain by name, but he does say “God can remove the mark upon [Jane’s] forehead and stamp upon her his own image.” The mark upon her forehead is a pretty clear reference to the curse of Cain—
HODGES: —In the book of Genesis.
NEWELL: —in Genesis, yes. Cain murders his brother, Abel. God says, “Where is Abel?” And Cain famously says, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” And God basically says, “Well, yeah you are.” And God curses Cain and places a mark upon his forehead. And white Christians also believed that that mark was made visible in black people’s dark skin, so that the dark skin of African descended peoples became a way of seeing—it’s visible evidence of that curse that is passed down through generations, according to them.
So, Jane gets this blessing from Hyrum Smith that reassures her in a lot of different ways, but at the same time kind of saddles her with all of these racial curses that white Christians have associated with people of African descent.
HODGES: And we don’t have her immediate reaction. We don’t have a report from Jane about her reaction to that kind of theology or those kind of interpretations. And while all of this is going on, you’re telling about all the day-to-day things she’s going through. She gets married at this time to Isaac James. She has a new baby. And then Joseph Smith is killed and that rocks her world. She really was very very fond of the prophet. She said that she felt like she could just die—that’s one of the things that she reported.
She stays with the main body of Latter-day Saints and decides to leave Nauvoo and head west with them. And throughout this whole time, views of race in the Church varied. In this next chapter, you outline a growing discomfort among Latter-day Saints with inter-racial marriage in particular. Do you think that played a role in the Church’s shifting policies on race?
NEWELL: I think it certainly did. But I think it’s also important just to see how much Latter-day Saint views on race lined up with American views of race more broadly. Latter-day Saints were not particularly unusual in their understanding of a kind of racial hierarchy in the nineteenth-century. They commit to it in different ways, I think, than a lot of other white Christians do in the United States. It gets codified in different ways because of the developing sense of what the priesthood means in the LDS Church. But it’s not unusual for Latter-day Saints to be discriminating against African Americans in the mid-nineteenth century. That was true of all of the United States for white Christians.
HODGES: Your next chapter takes us to Salt Lake—the Salt Lake valley. It shows Jane as she came to work for Brigham Young, the next leader of the Church after Joseph Smith. She keeps finding herself employed by the—
NEWELL: —Church presidents!
HODGES: —Church presidents somehow. In Young’s own records, she’s identified as “help.” Put that in context and explain what the place of black people in Utah was during, or kind of up until the 1870s, really.
NEWELL: Sure. When the Latter-day Saints arrive in Utah, pretty quickly they set up a territorial government once that territory becomes part of the United States rather than northern Mexico. And one of the first things that new legislature does is to pass what they call an “Act in Relation to Service” that codifies labor by black people and sort of deals with the question of, “Is this going to a slave state or is this going to be a free state?” And basically, it seems to me that the Utah legislature is trying to kind of carve a middle way. They’re trying to say, “We’re not going to have unfree labor. We’re not going to have slavery. But those who are brought to Utah as slaves will be converted to indentured servitude and so we’re not going to have a fully free labor system either.”
The act requires the consent of the people who are being made indentured servants. And it’s easy to look back at that with twenty-first-century eyes and see how—to think of that as kind of naïve, that people would be able to give free consent to their indentured servitude. But I think there is a legitimate good intention on the part of the legislature to try and find a way to make a more humane labor system there.
HODGES: Would Jane have seen herself as different from indentured servants and slaves in Utah?
NEWELL: Yes, absolutely. She and her husband, when they get Utah, at first they are working for Brigham Young. And there does seem to be a difference in the way that their labor is seen as opposed to white people who are working for Brigham Young’s family. There’s a census that’s done in, I think, 1855 of Brigham Young’s family and you know, probably a hundred people are listed on it, but it includes all of his wives, all of his children, and all of the people working for him. And so, there are columns for help men and help women and then there’s another column for “Isaac James and Family,” and all of the members of Jane and Isaac’s family are listed, including their very young children, which seems to put them in a separate category from white laborers.
They are working for Brigham Young, but pretty soon they set themselves up on the outskirts of the city and they have a kind of agricultural operation. They seem to do pretty well for themselves. They’re in the middle to upper third of their neighborhood in terms of economic assets on the tax rolls. They seem to be doing alright. And then Isaac James and Jane James get a divorce in 1870 and that sort of throws things into a kerfuffle for Jane. She moves to the central part of the city and I think, really kind of throws herself into religious life.
HODGES: Right. The chapter talks about how she remained active in the Church, even at a time where her family was changing dramatically. She got divorced, she’s had children who have died, other children have left the Church. She’s kind of alone in her family in terms of remaining in the Church at this time. And we see her pop up in Relief Society minutes where she’s attending meetings and sharing her testimony and participating in the life of the community. She’s moved closer toward where the temple is being built.
And at the same time, she’s still being forbidden from participating in the highest ordinances of the Church—in temple worship for Latter-day Saints. But she’s trying to find a way in anyway. There’s a remarkable account here about a group of black members, including Jane, who go to do baptisms for the dead in the Salt Lake City Endowment House in 1875. Tell us about that.
NEWELL: Right. Brigham Young, I think, decides that black members of the Church should have a day at the Endowment House when they can do baptism for their dead. And so that happens in September of 1875. Jane goes with her second husband, Frank Perkins, and a fairly large group of other African American Mormons to do baptisms for the dead. And Jane does only a couple of baptisms for people who are not related to her, but friends back in Connecticut who have died. So, they get to go to the Endowment House.
They go through the part of the Endowment House they need to go through to get to the baptistry, but that is the only part of the Endowment House, or later of the temple, that Jane is allowed to be in. And so, those baptisms are recorded in a separate book that is entitled, “Record of Baptisms for the Dead for the Seed of Cain, or of the People of African Descent,” and that’s by Brigham Young’s order that that title is made for that separate book. So, there’s this really interesting way in which black people are being again, welcomed into the Church, but kept at arm’s length at the same time.
HODGES: And in the next chapter you continue along that thread as you trace Jane’s ongoing requests to Church leaders to be allowed to do more temple ordinances, not just baptisms for the dead, but endowment, sealing, the higher ordinances there. What did her efforts look like in terms of the arguments that she was making? She was writing to Church presidents—what was she saying? Was she using scripture? Was she appealing to their emotions? What was she doing?
NEWELL: The answer is yes, she was doing all of those things. She does try to make a scriptural argument at one point. She says, “I know that my race was handed down through the flood and God promised Abraham that through him all the nations of the world should be blessed. And is there no blessing for me?” And that’s the really famous line from Jane James’s letters. “And so, shouldn’t I also receive those blessings?” That scriptural exegesis gets slapped down, essentially. The response is, “Yes, the time is coming when Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hands, but I don’t think it’s arrived yet.”
HODGES: Yeah, that’s an Old Testament reference. Check out Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s interview, she gives good background on that.
NEWELL: Jane doesn’t actually try that scriptural argument again. And for the most part, she’s not actually making any kind of principled argument about how black people should be allowed into the temple or black people are equal. What she’s trying to do is to say, “I should be allowed in the temple. I am a person who lived with Joseph Smith. I have done everything that I’m supposed to do as a Mormon woman. I have been an upstanding of this church. I am pious. God has spoken to me and spoken through me. Joseph Smith would let me into the temple, so why won’t you?” That’s basically the thrust of the argument, although she never puts it that baldly.
HODGES: Right. You see the pieces sort of spread throughout. And you also see, occasionally, some members of the Church trying to help. There were Relief Society sisters who kind of advocate on her behalf?
NEWELL: Right. Zina Young writes letters on her behalf. There’s a “Sister Ellis” who goes with her to call on the President at one point. So, she has some support among her Relief Society sisters.
HODGES: That’s probably one of the ways that she could keep appealing. She maybe didn’t feel so alone if there were others around her who felt similar to her.
NEWELL: Right, I think that’s true, and I think her patriarchal blessings also sort of come back and encourage her in certain kinds of ways.
HODGES: You say “blessings”—she got a second one.
NEWELL: She got a second one in 1889.
HODGES: Let’s talk about that. Was that unusual to get multiple patriarchal blessings?
NEWELL: I don’t think it was as unusual in the nineteenth century as it is now.
HODGES: And what did this blessing do? It was from John Smith, who’s Hyrum Smith’s son, is that right?
NEWELL: That’s correct.
HODGES: Okay, so he gives her the patriarchal blessing.
NEWELL: He gives her a patriarchal blessing and his, I think, is a little bit more positive in some ways. He doesn’t talk about her lineage at all, but he does say that “God has seen your trials and you will be blessed.” He says, “You will be known as a mother in Israel.”
HODGES: Which is a big phrase that you expand on in the book. We don’t have as much time now, but it’s basically identifying her as a respectable and good and excellent Latter-day Saint.
NEWELL: Exactly. It’s the higher honorific that could be accorded to a Mormon woman. And so, for her to know that she has been promised this respect and this status, I think must’ve been encouraging to her. But he still does say, “Even though you had a checkered past”—
HODGES: Yes, that’s the word, “checkered.” I didn’t know that turn of phrase was around back then!
NEWELL: I know! And he says, “Always look on the bright side. God will bless you.” It reminds me of those kinds of songs—I guess it’s Monty Python that it reminds me of. But it’s this very upbeat blessing that says, “Even though you’ve had a checkered past, you will be known among the community. You will be known as a mother in Israel.” And I think it encourages Jane to keep pressing for her blessings.
HODGES: And eventually it works, to an extent. It seems Church leaders tried a compromise type thing. What did it look like?
NEWELL: Right. So, Jane just keeps pestering the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. And finally, I think they’re feeling kind of worn down by having to say no to her over and over.
HODGES: She’s the impertinent widow. She’s like, “keep asking”, right?
NEWELL: Exactly, exactly. So, eventually they decide, “Okay, maybe we can give you of what you want while still respecting our own sense that we shouldn’t be giving Joseph Smith a black daughter in eternity.” She has been asking and asking and asking to be adopted to Joseph Smith, to take him up on that offer that she says he made in the 1840s.
HODGES: She’s very consistent with that story.
NEWELL: She is indeed. And so eventually the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles says, “Okay look, what we’ll do is this: we will seal you to Joseph Smith as a servant rather than as a daughter.”
HODGES: And it’s even a stranger word in the record. They say, “servitor.” Was there a difference, or were they maybe trying to dress it up a little bit?
NEWELL: My sense is that it was just some window dressing to make it sound a little fancier and maybe a little holier.
HODGES: And Jane didn’t even get to participate, right? Somebody stood in proxy for her in the temple?
NEWELL: Right. Zina Young was the proxy for Jane, even though Jane was alive and well and living only a few blocks away.
HODGES: Did that solve it for Jane? What was her reaction?
NEWELL: No, it didn’t solve it for anyone. We know that Jane went back to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and said, “No, actually I’d like to be sealed as a child to Joseph Smith.” And the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles—
HODGES: —And this was common. I don’t remember if you mentioned this, but a lot of people were sealed—At this time, sealing was sort of, joining this big network family. So, it wasn’t until later on that Latter-day Saints—I think it was Wilford Woodruff who changed that to sealing people to immediate nuclear families. But back then this was very common. She wasn’t asking for something unusual. Hundreds, maybe more, people had been sealed into Joseph Smith’s family. She just wanted into that.
NEWELL: That’s correct. She wanted exactly what so many white Latter-day Saints were asking for and receiving.
HODGES: Yes, so she wasn’t satisfied; the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles wasn’t satisfied. What was the outcome?
NEWELL: Well, the ceremony was never done again. So, I think it’s a reasonable assumption to think that the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles didn’t find this a satisfactory way to structure eternal relationships. Jane continues to go back to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and say, “Can I please be sealed to Joseph Smith as a child?” And they continue to say no.
Later, in 1978 when the priesthood ban was lifted, Jane’s temple ordinances were done and she, I believe, at that time was sealed to Joseph Smith as a child. And I believe that the servant sealing was cancelled at that time as well.
HODGES: So, it didn’t happen in her lifetime. How did she then spend the remainder of her years?
NEWELL: She continued to live in Salt Lake. She was active in the Relief Society, active in the Retrenchment Society, continued to go to worship services and to church meetings and that sort of thing. She was well-respected in the community in certain kinds of ways. Still kept at arm’s length in certain kinds of ways, as well.
HODGES: Yeah, there’s an interesting ending to the book where you talk about two different photos that show the paradox of Jane’s life. Maybe as we close here, describe those photos. And I’ll have those images posted on the website in the show notes.
NEWELL: Sure. So in 1897 and then again in 1905 there are these, kind of, reunions of the 1847 pioneers. And we have group photographs of these groups. And in 1897, the photograph shows Jane, but you basically have to have a magnifying glass to find her. She’s right smack dab in the middle of this sea of white faces.
HODGES: And it’s grainy. She could almost disappear into someone’s clothes or something.
NEWELL: Yeah, yeah. Almost. So, there’s that image of her surrounded by white people.
And then the 1905 image—Jane is much more visible but she’s on the edge of the group.
HODGES: And it’s a much smaller group.
NEWELL: It’s a much smaller group—they’re dying. But she is almost not a part of the group. She’s almost not physically connected, it seems like.
I love those two photographs in juxtaposition as a way to think about her life. On the one hand, she is positioning herself at the center of Latter-day Saint history and community. I’d like to image her throwing some elbows as she wades into the middle of that group in 1897. And she’s almost overwhelmed by the whiteness around her, essentially. And then in 1905, we see her on the margins. She’s part of the group, but in some ways just barely. And so, taken together, I think those are a really great illustration of her life.
HODGES: That’s Quincy Newell. She’s associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College and her latest book is Your Sister in the Gospel: The Life of Jane Manning James, a nineteenth-century Black Mormon.
Before we go, Quincy, I wanted to ask how working on Jane’s life challenged you as a historian. Did it change you in any way?
NEWELL: That’s a really interesting question. And I guess one of the challenges that I feel like sort of shaped my work on Jane was figuring out how to talk about the life of somebody who was so different from me and to think about the challenges of race particularly in the nineteenth century. And to think about how much I wanted to call out those things. To talk about the racism underlying the system of free papers, for example. And to think about the racism that shaped Jane’s experience in so many different ways. But also, how to think about her experience as a woman, her experience as a member of a religion that I don’t practice. And thinking about all those things together, bringing them together, I think, was the challenge I was facing.
HODGES: What are you working on now now that this project is done? And now that it’s been published—you finished it yourself a while ago, seeing how it’s actually printed.
NEWELL: Yeah, yeah. Although, I have been doing a lot of events surrounding the book and so I’ve still been mentally immersed in this book. But I’m going back to the project that Jane distracted me from to begin with. I’m working on a book on nineteenth-century African American and Native American Mormons—trying to understand what it’s like to construct a religious identity that includes both racial components, but also religious components in a church that’s trying so hard to be white.
HODGES: That’s Quincy Newell. She’s associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College. She’s also giving a lecture today at Brigham Young University as part of the Maxwell Institute’s guest lecture series. And we’ll be filming that, so it’ll be available on our YouTube channel. By the time this episode comes out, it will have been out for a while.
Quincy, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us about the book.
NEWELL: Thank you for having me.
HODGES: Thanks for spending your time with us.
HODGES: Now, here’s a recent review which we got in Apple Podcasts. It’s from “mjs1652.” It says:
“Thank you for bringing Deidre Green on your program to enlighten us as to the brilliance of Jacob. His message for current day members of the Church is astonishing. Dr. Green’s insight and incredibly articulate teaching about this refugee gives us all pause. We must be open to all opinions and viewpoints in order to feel the full impact of the atonement. I’m forever changed and want every member of the Church to hear this.”
Well, thank you for those kind words, “mjs.” I made sure that Deidre Green saw your review and I hope that others will follow in your footsteps and tell us what they think of the show in Apple Podcasts or wherever else they listen. I’m Blair Hodges, and we’ll talk to you next time on the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)