A blessing, scripture, and an interview.

By February 28, 2018

In my current project, I am thinking about how a text becomes scripture—how people develop a relationship with a text. On this last day of Black History Month, I’m thinking about three items that reflect relationships to scripture that affect the life of Jane Manning James: a blessing, scripture, and an interview.

Last year, JI friend and alumnus, Max Perry Mueller published his first book: Race and the Making of the Mormon People (Chapel Hill: UNC, 2017). (Matt reviewed it here.) While Mueller accomplishes much here, for me one of the most significant sources that contribute to Mueller’s chapter on Jane Manning James, and his argument in general, is her first Patriarchal blessing. Hyrum Smith blessed Jane in Nauvoo in 1844 just a few months before his death. Intense scripturalism consistently marked the Smith family oral tradition and this blessing is no different.[1] The blessing includes these words: “for he that changeth times and seasons and placed a mark upon your forehead, can take it off and stamp upon you his own image.”[2] Though Mueller notes that the blessing does not explicitly mention Cain, the King James text uses the language “the Lord set a mark upon Cain” after Cain’s fratricide (Gen. 4). Hyrum channels the language of the King James (and nineteenth-century eisegesis) as he voiced the blessing to Manning.[3] Moreover, Hyrum continues channeling Joseph’s new scripture—by specifically quoting the Mosaic expansion of the Genesis text: “Behold I say unto you jane if thou doest well thou shalt be accepted; if thou doest not well Sin lieth at the door.” (Moses 5:23) Hyrum Smith isn’t questioning this ideology, he accepts it as fact: Jane is of African descent and she bears that mark, yet like Cain even after sin, she has the opportunity to repent.

There is a lot to unpack here, not the least of which is the theological violence to label another soul as the seed of Cain. As Mueller highlights this blessing he points to the lived impact of scripture and its interpretations. Mueller takes the Mormon’s new scripture seriously and extensively analyzes the Book of Mormon text regarding its relationship to race and its potential. The Book of Mormon is foundational for his argument of white universalism.

The final piece I’m thinking about today is another source that Mueller highlights, a quote from Manning in the Deseret News in 1899.[4] Dr. Elvira Stevenson Barney reported that Manning expressed that, “I am white with the exception of the color of my skin.” Mueller argues that Jane “believed that she had successfully disassociated herself from herself from her cursed biblical forefathers.” (149) However, thinking about the function of scripture—is that the only possibility? Did Jane buy into their scriptural eisegesis—that she needed to throw off “her cursed biblical forefathers”? In her autobiography, Jane describes herself as a frequent reader of Restoration scripture and laments the physical eye problems that later inhibited that reading on her own.

Jane Manning James would not be the first to rehabilitate racist interpretations of scriptural text. Moreover, this is in line with her history. Writing to Church President John Taylor in 1884, she made a nuanced argument founded in the Book of Abraham to argue her worthiness to receive temple blessings. The far majority of references to color in the Book of Mormon refer to conditions of righteousness. Could the potential of scripture enable her to construct her own salvific understanding based in her own righteousness and sense of self as understood from scripture? “If all [were] alike unto God,” why would Jane’s experience be any different? Could this response to Barney be an instance of what W.E.B. Du Bois called “second-sight”—a “double-consciousness” to enable people of color to speak to those harboring racist ideologies without unnecessary confrontation while still maintaining one’s individuality and personal worth? In the Book of Mormon, Alma questions members of the church at Gideon if they had “the image of God engraven upon their countenances?” Jane’s patriarchal blessing promises her this possibility through faith and obedience. As an individual develops a relationship with the text, interpretations of the text have the ability to limit and confine as well as expand and transform circumstances and individuals. Jane’s consistent message to her leaders was that she was worthy to receive the fullness of temple blessings, despite their denial.



[1] Mueller’s transcription of this portion of the blessing reads: “for he that changeth times and seasons and placed a mark upon your forehead, can take it off and stamp upon you his own linage.” As he visited the Maxwell Institute in October of last year, Max showed us this image of the original blessing and the ever-astute Kristian Heal noticed that the word is not lineage misspelled, but it is “image.”

[2] Lavina Fielding Anderson deems the King James translation the “mother tongue” of the Smith family. The language of scripture weaves in and out of the speech patterns of the Smith family and they incorporate new scripture as well over time. The King James text as well as the new Book of Mormon text winds throughout the patriarchal blessings given both by Hyrum and his father, Joseph Smith, Sr. Lavina Fielding Anderson, “Mother Tongue: KJV Language in Smith Family Discourse,” MHA Conference, Springfield, Illinois, 22 May 2009. Copy in possession of author.

[3] Commonly accepted as fact in American and Europe by the nineteenth century that those who were of African descent were descendants of Cain and therefore bore the mark placed on Cain by God—equating the mark, cursing, and skin color was an imaginative pseudo-biblical interpretation. The blessing also includes that Jane came “down in the lineage of Cainaan the son of Ham which promises the fullness thereof is not yet revealed.” If you believe that the mark of Cain survived a universal flood, then you need a mechanism for its survival—this mechanism is believed to be found in Genesis 9 when Noah curses Ham’s son, Canaan (not linguistically connected to Cain), after Ham makes fun of his father’s nakedness while sleeping. See Colin Kidd, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant World (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 33-41 and in a Mormon context: Paul Reeve, Religion of a Different Color : Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[4] The impetus was clarifying an article that Barney saw in the Ogden Standard—Jane’s description of seeing the Urim and Thummin. Mueller importantly recognizes that all of Jane’s words are mediated by white women.

Article filed under Miscellaneous

  1. Thanks, Janiece.

    Comment by David G. — February 28, 2018 @ 8:26 am

  2. Thanks very much, Janiece. An excellent meditation on Max’s work. I can’t wait to read yours!

    Comment by J Stuart — February 28, 2018 @ 10:29 am

  3. Thanks for the write – up, Janiece. Really interesting analysis, and solid catch in note 1.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 28, 2018 @ 10:51 am

  4. Nice!
    It’s interesting to see Moses and Abraham alluded to, although I wonder if Hyrum isn’t quoting Moses (did he know it that well?) as much as reappropriating the KJV text on the fly.

    Comment by Ben S — February 28, 2018 @ 4:27 pm

  5. Thanks, all.

    Ben- For the first quote that I use, it could be either–they’re essentially the same. But for the second quote, it is clearly Moses. Genesis–If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? v. Moses–If thou doest well, thou shalt be accepted.

    Comment by JJohnson — February 28, 2018 @ 7:19 pm

  6. Thanks, Janiece, for this! The blessing is amazing. We need to do a critical reading of it and publish the original.

    The key question for JMJ, at least to me, remains: is she asking for an exception be made in her case? Or does she think they get the racial theology wrong?

    Perhaps even more critically, we need to remember audience (like Wheately’s “On Being Brought”). Is she using the own brethren’s theology subtly, as you suggest, to undercut their racist views? (this would fit with your Du Boisian view (and her reading of Restorationist theology)).

    Comment by Max Mueller — March 1, 2018 @ 1:22 pm

  7. Max-

    I think that asking to be an exception doesn’t mean she agrees with the racial theology. Yes, I think the idea of second sight always keeps in mind the audience. When considering her consistent petitions and her reasoning in the 1884 letter to JTaylor it seems a beautiful thing to me that she’s using the same text that others will later try to use to deny her those blessings of the temple. We already have the pattern with her. A woman with intelligence and agency has the ability to do the individual theological work–Smith certainly opened the way for that. You also brought up those prior authors who argued for some level of illiteracy and it feels like weighty claim that doesn’t match what scant evidence there is–really a violent claim on her agency. I know literacy is not a requirement for agency, but it certainly makes the idea of Jane using that theology subtly and personally much more possible.

    Comment by JJohnson — March 1, 2018 @ 6:24 pm

  8. I long for the day that some official Church source can dig into these topics in a more substantive way than the race and the priesthood essay. I think some institutional catharsis is badly needed.

    One minor question: In reference to the last paragraph of the OP, John Taylor passed away in 1887, so either the date is a typo or the letter was addressed to someone else?

    Comment by The Other Clark — March 2, 2018 @ 10:10 am

  9. The Other Clark- While I think the race and the priesthood essay was an important first step, yes much more needs to be done. Good catch on the typo. 1884. Fixed.

    Comment by JJohnson — March 2, 2018 @ 11:16 am

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