By July 4, 2019
Quincy Newell’s biography of Jane Manning James is a significant and important piece of scholarship, not only for the field of Latter-day Saint history, but also for African American, women’s, Western, and the larger field of American religious history. Newell carefully takes readers through these histories and shows how Jane’s life connects all of them. This is a critical aspect of Newell’s methodology because even though Jane’s life is fairly well-documented, scholars must necessarily rely on the historical context of Jane’s life to help tell her story. Fortunately for her readers, this is something that Newell excels at. As J Stuart pointed out in an earlier round table post, Newell uses words like “perhaps” and “likely” when describing possible interpretations of the events in Jane’s life rather than imposing her own narrative. Indeed, Newell’s work serves as an example of how historians should approach subjects with limited documentary evidence while still connecting that subject to wide historical developments.
One of the merits of Newell’s work is that she provides us a view of Mormonism through Jane’s life, which in and of itself is a “history of Mormonism from below” (pg. 135). Mormon history has been told and retold through the lives and tenures of its leaders—important white males—and by subverting that structure, Newell illuminates the lived religious experience of an African American woman who made the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints her religious home in spite of all that she went through. This “from below” approach encourages research centering on how women of any and all races participated in Mormonism from the nineteenth century to the present. As Newell and others have demonstrated, scholars are only beginning to scratch the surface of Latter-day Saint history that incorporates source content created by women, particularly as it relates to women of color.
Newell’s Your Sister in the Gospel is not the final word on Jane’s story. Instead, it is a foundational monograph for future studies on other Latter-day Saints who were not in powerful leadership positions and whose experience as a member of the church was impacted by their race and gender. Indeed, the appendices included in the back of the book (including two patriarchal blessings) make it more of an initiative or starting point than an exhaustive conclusion. It’s fair to say that Newell hopes that these primary sources will help other scholars interested in black Latter-day Saints in the nineteenth century and that scholars in other fields will benefit from the eased accessibility of these documents.
In the epilogue, Newell briefly mentions how Jane has been remembered by Latter-day Saints in the last few decades and especially in the last three years. Jane is a very interesting historical subject, but so is her legacy and the narratives that are claimed and told (or performed) about her at certain moments in time. I’m particularly intrigued by the possibilities for studies on the memory of Jane and how both black Latter-day Saints and the church at large have utilized her connection to the life of Joseph Smith and early church history. Your Sister in the Gospel provides a sound historical basis for such studies and will inform further memory projects about Jane in the future. And in its own way, Newell’s book is as much a presentation of historical research as it is a part of the zeitgeist in Mormon studies and more recent popular trends in Latter-day Saint culture. This timely biography of Jane Manning James succeeds in informing and participating in current memory-making developments.