The Spiritual Life of Jane Manning James, A Nineteenth Century Black Mormon

Salt Lake Temple (Flickr, Jerry and Pat Donaho)

Quincy Newell’s Your Sister in the Gospel: The Life of Jane Manning James, A Nineteenth-Century Black Mormon explores the fascinating life of Jane James, an African American woman who converted to Mormonism in the early 1840s and lived most of her life in Salt Lake City. Jane’s grandmother was enslaved in Africa and sold to Ebenezer Abbott in Wilton, Connecticut in the late eighteenth century. Her mother was likewise born enslaved there in 1785 but gained her freedom under the state’s 1784 gradual emancipation act. Jane was born free, likely in Wilton during the early 1820s, but was indentured to Joseph and Hannah Fitch in New Canaan, Connecticut around the age of six years old. While the 1820s was a period of intense religious excitement around the country and witnessed thousands of African Americans converting to Christianity, we have no details of her religious life before the 1840s. She joined the New Canaan Congregational Church on February 14, 1841, although she never relates just what drew her to that congregation. She had not been a member for very long before she heard Charles Wesley Wandell, presiding elder of a small Mormon congregation in Norwalk, Connecticut, preach and became convinced it was the true gospel. By the spring of 1842, she had been baptized in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) and become an official member. Newell states that as “a young religion, Mormonism may have seemed more egalitarian to Jane than the historic respectable Congregationalism of New Canaan. Mormonism also presented an expansive, inviting vision of a radically different future in which believers played a vital role in building God’s kingdom on earth” (21).

Just a year after her conversion to Mormonism, Jane began making plans to leave Connecticut. Mormon missionaries had been preaching about the “gathering,” or the time when Latter Day Saints “should ‘gather unto Zion,’” so Jane followed suit and prepared to move to Nauvoo, Illinois, the headquarters of the church. This move was not without its difficulties. For one, Jane was one of few Black converts to the faith so would have had to rely on whites for many necessities of life. Second, Illinois had strict Black codes that required any Black migrants to show freedom papers, a situation Jane was unaware of before making the trek. This requirement would make finding employment difficult. Jane would also encounter racism in Nauvoo, although she did feel welcomed by Joseph Smith, for whom she eventually began working as a domestic servant. While this job lasted just a year before Smith was murdered, Jane always recalled the time as one of particular importance for her faith. Furthermore, Newell argues that Jane made a key contribution to Mormonism in her support of the idea of plural marriage, which was still a secret practice but one she gained knowledge of while working for Smith.

After the uncertainty following Joseph Smith’s death, Jane joined a group of migrants heading West once more. They stopped first in Iowa in 1846 before moving on to the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. It is there that Jane would spend the rest of her life. Over the next few decades, Jane married two different men and had 9 children. She built a community through attendance at church and participation in voluntary organizations such as the Retrenchment and Relief Societies. But the possibilities for salvation through Mormonism always eluded Jane because of her race. While Joseph Smith had seemingly accepted her, he also denied Blacks from participating in the priesthood of all believers that would have allowed them to engage in the temple rituals necessary for their salvation. This meant that her husbands and sons could not provide blessings for their family, instead having to rely on whites. And while Jane received two “patriarchal blessings” from members of the Smith family, her place in the afterlife was never truly secure in her eyes.

Newell does an excellent job teasing out the many ways that race and gender inflected Jane’s experience as a Mormon. She notes that in the early twentieth century, Jane gave multiple accounts of her life that dwelt at length on her connection to Joseph Smith, likely in an effort to shore up her place in the afterlife. If she could convince contemporaries, for example, that Joseph Smith had attempted to adopt her in the 1840s, she might be able to secure a “sealing” ritual that would bind her family to that of Smith in the afterlife. All these efforts were of no avail, however, and Jane’s place in paradise would not be secured until the late twentieth century, when Mormons rediscovered her story and began to incorporate her into histories of the movement.

While Jane’s story may appear tragic, Newell is careful to note that in many ways Jane had a robust spiritual life. Just three weeks after her baptism in the church, for example, Jane began speaking in tongues, a spiritual gift that would have served as a confirmation of her faith. At various times she practiced faith healing and experienced religious visions, all of which were celebrated by women in the Relief and Retrenchment societies. Indeed, these two organizations provided Jane with acceptance, community, and “a venue in which she could live up to LDS ideals of femininity” (135). She and her husband Isaac also owned their own land and livestock, providing a measure of independence that eluded thousands of African Americans working as sharecroppers throughout the South.

Jane’s story complicates and add nuance to our understanding of both Mormon and African American history. Newell notes that histories of Mormonism often focus on white male leaders, thus her book provides a history of Mormonism from below. The book likewise broadens our understanding of nineteenth-century African American religious history, which privileges the experiences of those in mainline Black denominations such as the AME and AMEZ churches. Even as Mormon theology served to differentiate and oppress its Black adherents, African Americans nevertheless carved out spaces for themselves in the faith and, at times, made important contributions to it.

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Chris Cameron

Chris Cameron is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His research and teaching interests are in African American and early American history, especially abolitionist thought, liberal religion, and secularism. He is the author of 'To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement' (Kent State University Press, 2014) and 'Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism' (Northwestern University Press, 2019). Follow him on Twitter @ccamrun2.