Our very own Max Mueller has recently written a fascinating article on Jane Manning James that appears in the Winter/Spring 2011 issue of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin (Vol. 39, Nos. 1 & 2). In it, Max discusses James’ experiences as a black member of the early restored Church and in a parallel manner adds insight to the modern black LDS experience through a narrative on Jerri Harwell, a Genesis Group member who brings Jane to life for Utah audiences. Max’s research on James’ is adding significant insight into the life of a woman whose story is well-known but not necessarily well-explored. An excerpt:
On a muggy fourth of July evening, members of the Genesis Group file into a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) meeting house on the outskirts of Salt Lake City. Under the supervision of the all-white LDS hierarchy, but led by a cadre of black Mormon men, the Genesis Group gathers monthly for social and educational events that are intended to help black Mormons integrate into their local wards and teach them about their rights and duties in the Church’s worship life.1 At this particular meeting, the members of this increasingly multiracial community—made up of the few hundred African American Mormons living in the Salt Lake area, a growing number of African converts who have immigrated to Utah, and several dozen white LDS families who have adopted black children—have come to hear a history lesson, a story that has as much to do with shaping their present as it does with defining their past.2
On this night, Jane Manning James has come to give her testimony, to speak about how she came to join the LDS Church, and about her unique status as “Auntie Jane,” the best-known black Mormon in the late nineteenth-century Salt Lake Valley. Yet to members of this twenty-first-century Mormon community, fanning themselves with church programs to supplement the church building’s struggling air-conditioning, Jane is much more than their “auntie.” The African American woman making her way to the pulpit clothed in a colorful, multilayered prairie dress and a sunbonnet is their matriarch. Since 1978 when the LDS Church lifted the ban on blacks attaining full Church membership, the improbable journey of an unwed teenage mother and daughter of a freed slave, whose conversion to Mormonism placed her on a path that ran through the center of Mormonism’s nineteenth-century history, has been celebrated on stage, in books, and in documentaries and memorialized in monuments. While she has become a popular topic in articles printed in LDS-sponsored publications, most white Mormons have never heard of Jane Manning James. Among her spiritual descendents at Genesis, however, the mere mention of her name evokes thoughts of essential pioneer Mormonism: strength of spirit and body and long-suffering faith in the face of persecution. For contemporary black Mormons, Jane Manning James serves as the symbolic link that connects them to the mythology of the persecuted Mormon pioneers—the self-described latter-day Host of Israel forced to flee the United States and to seek refuge from religious bigotry in the intermountain West—a mythology that in many ways continues to set the boundaries of Mormon identity.
Jane has been dead for 112 years. The act of presenting Jane’s spiritual testimony on this night falls to Jerri Harwell, a college professor, author, and wife of the Genesis Group’s president, Don Harwell. For the past decade, Jerri has reenacted Jane Manning James for church and civic events throughout the Salt Lake Valley. Drawing mostly from Jane’s short autobiography, Jerri recounts Jane’s experiences as a servant to the first two Mormon prophets, a member of the first wave of Mormon pioneers to settle in Utah in 1847, a mother to a large Utah family, and a faithful, tithe-paying saint until her death in 1908 at the age of 87.3
Jerri dedicates much of her reenactment to describing Jane’s time spent in the Smiths’ “Mansion House,” the seat of political and ecclesiastical power in Joseph Smith Jr.’s Nauvoo, Illinois. In early 1844, new converts Jane and eight members of the Manning family who joined the LDS Church after Jane’s own baptism, trekked by foot from their home in Connecticut to gather with the other saints in the booming city-state on the bank of the Mississippi River.
Citing almost verbatim from Jane’s 1893 “Life Sketch,” Jerri reenacts Jane’s memory of what happened after the family narrowly escaped being jailed for traveling without free papers across Illinois—a state which had some of the strictest black laws in the antebellum North.4 Jane recalls fondly that it was Joseph Smith and his wife Emma who initially housed the Manning family when they arrived in Nauvoo. And because Jane grew particularly close to the prophet’s family, when the rest of the Mannings found work and housing elsewhere, the Smiths offered Jane a home in “the Mansion House,” as well as a job as a washerwoman. Channeling Jane, Jerri recounts:
The next morning [Emma] brought the clothes down to the basement to wash. And among the clothes, I found Brother Joseph’s robes. I looked at them and wondered—[as] I had never seen any before—and I pondered over them and thought about them so earnestly, so sincerely that the Lord made manifest to me that they pertained to the new name that is given the saints that the world knows not of.Jane’s quasi-mystical experience with the prophet’s dirty laundry was not the only event suggesting Jane’s close relationship with the Smiths, an intimacy that grew in the few, precious months Jane spent with the family before Joseph Smith was assassinated by an anti-Mormon mob on June 27, 1844.
Sister Emma asked me one day if I would like to be adopted to them as their child. I did not answer her. She said “I can wait awhile so you can consider it.” She waited two weeks until she asked me again. And when she did, I said “no ma’am” because I . . . I didn’t understand or know what it meant!While Jane, a new convert to early-nineteenth-century Mormonism might not fully know “what it meant,” Jerri and the Genesis Group audience certainly understand the significance of this offer of spiritual adoption. In Mormon soteriology, such an adoption would mean that a lowly, black washer-girl would spend eternity with the Smiths, attaining the same spiritual blessings and level of heaven as the prophet himself. Jerri concludes this particular scene with an extended pause, allowing her audience to share, in silence, the recognition of what a missed opportunity this represented.
During the reenactment, Jerri not only conjures Jane’s words, but also Jane’s own colloquial, African American affectations, as Jerri imagines these would be. She draws her words out, dropping “g’s” and consonants along the way. These theatrical stylings serve to remind the saints present that despite the multiracial makeup of today’s Genesis Group, this is intended to be a gathering of Mormonism’s black community. Even the meeting house’s warmer-than-usual temperature is said to add to the ambience: as people found their seats before the service began, a Genesis Group member laughingly offered, “They must have turned down the air-conditioning to make it more ‘black church!'”
While efforts have gone into making this Genesis Group meeting feel and sound “black,” it is also very much Mormon. For example, the group opens the meeting with the singing of the classic LDS hymn “Where Can I Turn for Peace?” followed by the Negro spiritual “Do Lord, Remember Me.” The contrasting styles in which the two songs are performed—the former sung in a staid, on-the-beat manner, the latter shouted, clapped, and even danced out by the community—might seem to represent a cultural chasm between LDS and black church culture. Yet, the shared message in both songs, of deliverance from sorrow and persecution through faith in Heavenly Father, hints at a common ground. This intertwining of black and Mormon identities is essentially the message of Jerri’s reenactment: despite the long-held racialized theology which kept early black Mormons on the margins of the Mormon community and excluded them from official Mormon pioneer history, the fact that Jane’s life story places her at the center of nineteenth-century Mormon history means that black and Mormon are not mutually exclusive identities, and should never have been considered as such. Moreover, embedded in the act of remembering and reenacting Jane’s life story is a more implicit critique of the LDS hierarchy: the LDS Church’s history and theology makers who work in Temple Square fail to recognize black Mormons’ contribution to Mormon history, and likewise fail to recognize the important role black Mormons play in the modern church.
You can read Max’s full article here.
[Notes from original article]:
- Mormons are divided geographically into local communities called wards, which are overseen by lay “bishops” who belong to these communities. The Genesis Group is officially a “dependent branch [formed] to serve the needs of African-American Mormons,” and overseen by a member of the Quorum of the Seventy, the international hierarchy based in Salt Lake City.
- The LDS Church does not publish statistics on the racial makeup of its members. Scholars have estimated that since 1978, when the LDS Church lifted its ban on blacks achieving full membership status, the number of Mormons of African descent has increased from perhaps a few hundred worldwide to a few hundred thousand. Most of this growth has taken place outside the United States, the result of expanding missionary efforts to include blacks in Africa and Brazil. According to the 2009 Pew Forum U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, only 3 percent of Mormons self-identify as black; pewforum.org/Christian/Mormon/A-Portrait-of-Mormons-in-the-US.aspx.
- Kate B. Carter, The Story of the Negro Pioneer (Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1965), 11; Jane E. Manning James, “My Life Sketch, as Dictated to Elizabeth J. D. Roundy” (Wilford Woodruff Papers, LDS Church History Library and Archives).
- In his groundbreaking article on Jane Manning James, Henry Wolfinger points out that while Jane might originally have dictated her autobiography in 1893, it was clearly later revised and updated. For example, Jane calls Joseph F. Smith the Church president, a position that Smith did not assume until 1901. See Henry J. Wolfinger, “A Test of Faith: Jane Elizabeth James and the Origins of the Utah Black Community,” in Social Accommodations in Utah, ed. Clark Knowlton (University of Utah, American West Center Occasional Papers, 1975).