Black History Month at the JI: Talking about Jane (Newell)

By February 19, 2013

By Quincy D. Newell

Wikimedia Commons

Jane Manning James (Wikimedia Commons)

Jane James haunts me. Not in the way you?re thinking?I don?t see her ghostly specter on cold evenings, or hear her humming a tune in the other room as I?m trying to sleep. What I mean is that she just won?t let me go. Every time I learn something new about her, it seems that I go down a rabbit hole. It takes me days to return, mentally, to whatever I was doing. James, an African American woman who converted to Mormonism in the early 1840s, moved to Nauvoo after her conversion and worked as a servant in Joseph Smith?s home. After Smith?s death, she worked for Brigham Young. She was in one of the first companies to arrive in the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1847, and she remained a faithful Latter-day Saint until her death in 1908. She left a pretty substantial paper trail, including a short autobiography, an interview with the Young Woman?s Journal, appearances in the Woman?s Exponent, and multiple petitions to church leaders for endowments and sealings. (The largest published collection of this material is in Henry J. Wolfinger, ?A Test of Faith: Jane Elizabeth James and the Origins of the Utah Black Community,? in Social Accommodation in Utah, ed. Clark S. Knowlton, American West Center Occasional Papers [Salt Lake City: University of Utah, 1975], 126-172. I have a new transcription of James?s autobiography and a reprint of that Young Woman?s Journal interview coming out in the Journal of Africana Religions this spring.) 

Most recently, the rabbit-hole experience was catalyzed by Brittany Chapman, who told me she had found a mention of Jane James in Emily Dow Partridge Young?s diary. She sent me the text (which I checked out for myself as well, mostly looking for any other mention of James in the diary). Here?s what Young said:

Jan 27th [1875] Jane James came in to day. she has had considerable trouble since she has been in the valley. Her husband left her for a white woman (a fortune teller) and she has buried several of her children. All have their troubles, whether black or white. (Emily Dow Partridge Young, Diary and Reminiscences, Holograph, p. 11 [MS 22253, LDS CHL])

We had known that Jane?s husband Isaac, also a black convert to Mormonism, had left Jane, in 1869 or ?70. We had even thought we knew where he went: the 1880 census shows a man called Isaac James living in Portland, Oregon (where I grew up). Occupation: janitor. Race: mulatto. Marital Status: divorced. But: a white fortune teller??? We hadn?t known that (potentially salacious) detail. All I wanted to do after receiving this intelligence (thanks, Brittany!) was comb through the Salt Lake newspapers, looking for fortune tellers. I wanted to track this woman down, figure out who Isaac left with, who Jane?s rival was. See what I mean? Rabbit hole. Be careful, or she?ll start haunting you, too.

The fortune teller, for me, was the last straw. I?ve been working on a book about nineteenth-century African American and Native American Mormons? religious experiences, a book in which Jane James figures but is, and should not be, central. I?ve decided, though, to add another project: Jane James?s biography. Maybe, just maybe, if I write that, she?ll leave me alone. I?m taking suggestions for titles?leave ?em in the comments.

I?ve been thinking a lot about Jane James?s agency these days (partly because I?m revising my paper from the ?Women and the LDS Church? conference in August for publication in a volume edited by the conference organizers, Kate Holbrook and Matt Bowman; but also because it?s a good thing, when writing someone?s biography, to think about what kind of power she had to shape her life). There are two conversations I seem to have regularly when I?m talking about James. The first happens when I discuss her with people who have never heard of her. There are lots of these people, both inside and outside the LDS Church, but this conversation tends to happen with outsiders. One of the first questions they ask me is whether James was a slave. (It?s fascinating to me, incidentally, that the only allusion to James?s race at the monument to her in the Salt Lake Cemetery is the phrase ?born free.?) The question is perfectly fair: many of the African Americans who went to Utah in the nineteenth century did so because they were enslaved by white Mormons. The question illustrates what anthropologist Saba Mahmood characterizes as

normative liberal assumptions about human nature. . . such as the belief that all human beings have an innate desire for freedom, that we all somehow seek to assert our autonomy when allowed to do so, that human agency primarily consists of acts that challenge social norms and not those that uphold them, and so on. (Mahmood, Politics of Piety [2005], 5. See also Cathy Brekus? Tanner Lecture, published in the Journal of Mormon History in 2011.)

This assumption about rational choice, self-interest, and agency leads to the logical conclusion that no right-thinking black person would stay in the LDS Church once its discriminatory racial policies became clear. From this perspective, Jane James could not have been exercising authentic agency because she chose to occupy a subordinate position in the LDS Church rather than leave it.

The second conversation typically occurs with people who know the historical record: they know that James was visibly black, they know she was free, and they know that she was excluded from the temple ceremonies she desperately wanted to perform. They know she left a paper trail documenting a campaign to get permission to receive her endowments and be sealed, a campaign that lasted two decades or more. The problem here is the same as in the last conversation: why would James stay in a church that excluded her? Here, my interlocutor explains James?s decision to remain in the LDS Church as discrimination became more entrenched over the course of the nineteenth century by suggesting that ?other churches at the time were just as discriminatory.? Some of you may be familiar with a variant of this conversation that revolves around the priesthood restriction that prohibited black men from being ordained in the LDS Church. You may have found, like I have, that pointing out that a few black men were ordained during Joseph Smith?s lifetime does not actually resolve the question, since one must still account for the black men who remained in the church once the priesthood restriction was put in place.

The suggestion that the LDS Church was just like other churches sends us into a conversation about comparative discrimination: were the Presbyterians worse or better than the Mormons? Where did the Methodists rank? Which denominations ordained black preachers? Which churches segregated congregations? The idea here is that James?s decisions to become and to remain LDS were the most emancipatory, empowering decisions available to her at the time. In other words, they are a manifestation of James?s agency. Put optimistically, this perspective sees the LDS Church as the best in a set of imperfect options. Put more pessimistically, this approach implies that James was stuck: she joined the church when the possibilities for racial equality were wide open, she became more entrenched in the church as (unbeknownst to her) the church became less egalitarian, and by the time the discriminatory policies became clear, James was too invested leave.

But the result of characterizing James?s agency in this way is to gloss over the very real discrimination that she faced within the LDS Church and the strength it took to deal with that discrimination on an ongoing basis. Moreover, the argument is counter-factual: James had other choices?black churches?that almost certainly would have provided a less discriminatory environment. There were at least two black Protestant churches in late-nineteenth-century Salt Lake City to which James could have defected, if she had wanted to. James?s husband and most of her children left the LDS Church. The existence of these alternatives, and the evidence that people with whom James was close exercised the option of leaving the LDS Church, require that we account for Jane James?s steadfast Mormonism in a different way.

I don?t think that James felt stuck in the LDS Church. Her words don?t convey that impression. It?s clear that her history with the church, and particularly the time she spent with Joseph Smith and his family, was important to her. That history formed a protective hedge around James?s religious life, one that she carefully tended by remembering and recounting her experiences. I think she found religious power in the LDS Church: she experienced and performed healings, she spoke in tongues, she saw visions. James appears over thirty times in the minutes of Retrenchment Society meetings, printed in the Woman?s Exponent, bearing testimony, praying, and otherwise participating actively in that organization. Focusing on her exclusion from the temple distracts us from what James found in Mormonism and obscures the reasons she stayed in the Church.

Let me be clear: I?m not saying we should dismiss the temple restrictions that James faced as insignificant. She expended a lot of energy trying to overcome them, and it is important to account for the ways this exclusion shaped James?s experience of the LDS faith. But in addition to accounting for this exclusion, we must also acknowledge James?s robust religious practice, acknowledged and even encouraged by the white Latter-day Saints surrounding James. At that Women and the LDS Church conference in August, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich pointed us to the work of Phyllis Mack, who has written extensively on early Quaker women. Mack wrote,

To dismiss [the religious woman?s] gestures of surrender and self-denial as a rhetoric of self-abnegation, as false consciousness, or as a covert expression of resistance to the dominant male order is not only an over-simplification of her psychology; it is an avoidance of our responsibility [as historians] not merely to search for examples of female strategies of self-assertion under patriarchy but to look steadily at women?s own ideas about ethics, autonomy, and spirituality. (Mack, ?Religion, Feminism, and the Problem of Agency: Reflections on Eighteenth-Century Quakerism,? Signs 29, no. 1 [2003], 156.)

Our politics today make it so tempting to dismiss the early LDS Church as racist, and to write off Jane James and other early black Mormons as dupes and victims. Or they tempt us to excuse the LDS Church, explaining that the racist attitudes and policies we find were a product of their era, no different than any other institution at the time. But as Mack makes clear, we?ll never make sense this history unless we ?look steadily? at these black Mormons and try to understand them on their own terms.

Article filed under Biography Categories of Periodization: Origins Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Gender Race Women's History


  1. Phenomenal post, and very needed.

    And thrilled to hear about the biography plans! A proposed title, 19th century pamphlet style: “The Haunting Spirit: In Which the Author Seeks To Rid Herself of Jane James’s Ghost by Writing her Autobiography. A True Telling of a Black Convert to Mormonism Who Found Both Liberation and Discrimination. Documented Through Documentation and Spiritual Confirmation.” You’re welcome.

    Comment by Ben P — February 19, 2013 @ 8:06 am

  2. This is great, Quincy. Your last comment about figures like Jane James being used to excuse the early racism of the Mormon Church points to something that has been bothering me for a while. As someone who works on race within Mormonism but who doesn’t focus on African American experiences within it, I am troubled by the lack of comparable figures for Latin@ or Polynesian Saints. Although there were hundreds, if not thousands, of Hawaiian, Tahitian, and Mexican Saints during this time period, they don’t serve the same emblematic purpose. No one has written a play about Tearo or Jonathan Napela. Black Mormon history is partially popular because the Priesthood Ban is such an obvious example of racial exclusion, but I wonder if our focus on it sometimes blinds us to more subtle forms of racism and exclusion, not only against African Americans but against other racial groups. This is not a criticism of your work. One of the things I like about your work is that it places Black Mormon and Indian Mormon history into the same frame, forcing people to think about race as something more than a black-white binary. Reading your post, however, made me wonder why so many people are haunted by Jane James and not by other instances of each exclusion?

    Comment by Amanda HK — February 19, 2013 @ 8:50 am

  3. Thank you very much, Quincy. I don’t really have anything to add, but I greatly appreciate your work.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 19, 2013 @ 9:47 am

  4. Thanks, all! Ben P, love the title. Oddly, my working title for the book is similarly 19th-century style. It seems the default title for all things Jane James is “Is There No Blessing for Me?”, borrowing a line from her autobiography. It would be nice to find something different, if only for the variety of it. “The Haunting Spirit” is definitely different…

    Amanda HK, GREAT point. I think a couple factors contribute to Jane James’s ubiquity. First, she’s relatively well-documented, so she’s available for interpretation (and haunting). Second, the record is open to different interpretations, as I discussed, which makes it possible to use James both to vilify the LDS Church (as some anti-Mormon websites do, for instance) and to depict it as “always already” diverse. James herself can stand as a symbol of patient, submissive, self-sacrificing motherhood or as an icon of faithful persistence fighting against injustice. And so on. So, much like Sojourner Truth (as interpreted by Nell Painter), she becomes a rich resource for Mormons and non-Mormons who want to talk about the LDS Church today. I don’t know of any other non-white Latter-day Saints whose histories could work this way (which is not to say they don’t exist…) Finally, I think the extreme visibility of the priesthood and temple exclusions (in contrast to the “other more subtle forms of racism and exclusion” you refer to) has motivated more excavation of the story of black Mormons for a longer time. (I could go on, but these are just supposed to be comments, not another blog post! I’ll just note here that this question of the “emblematization” of Jane James will make up the final chapter of the biography I’m writing.)

    And J. Stapley: thanks! The feeling is definitely mutual!

    Comment by Quincy Newell — February 19, 2013 @ 10:33 am

  5. This is great, Dr. Newell. Thanks for contributing it here. And I join Ben and others in expressing excitement about the biography. I especially liked this:

    But the result of characterizing James?s agency in this way is to gloss over the very real discrimination that she faced within the LDS Church and the strength it took to deal with that discrimination on an ongoing basis.

    We’ve previously riffed on Phyllis Mack’s writings on women, religion, and agency here, as well, which might be of interest.

    Comment by Christopher — February 19, 2013 @ 10:42 am

  6. Quincy–

    Beautifully done. I think that you know that I too am “haunted” by Jane Manning James (while I was in Utah last year, my daily runs often took me by her grave). Her story has moved out of the center of my own project. So I’m very glad to hear that you’re taking on the (long over due) biography, and your deft reading of her life, and its significance, will be so invaluable to scholarship on the intersection of race, religion, and gender not just in Mormon Studies, but in American religion, too!

    Comment by Max — February 19, 2013 @ 1:15 pm

  7. Indeed, Quincy, this is an important intervention, not only in the scholarly literature, but also in ways that both Mormons and non-Mormons discuss Mormonism’s racial past. I’m looking forward to the published product.

    Comment by David G. — February 19, 2013 @ 1:40 pm

  8. Christopher, thanks for that reference. I am a sporadic blog reader at best, and hadn’t seen the earlier discussion of agency. Max and David G., thanks! I should note, I don’t want to imply that the question about other churches is not useful. We can, and we should, place the LDS Church in its historical context, and part of that context is what other religious institutions were doing at the time. I just don’t want us to stop there, or to assume (as we often seem to) that Mormonism was somehow inevitably Jane James’s last stop. As we know from the many stories of people who converted to Mormonism and then left the church, Mormonism was not a given for James.

    Comment by Quincy Newell — February 19, 2013 @ 1:58 pm

  9. Quick question: Have you been able to find out more about the fortune teller story? Is there any corroboration for the story?

    Comment by Amanda HK — February 19, 2013 @ 2:28 pm

  10. I haven’t tried yet. That particular Salt Lake trip, I was (semi-) able to resist the siren call of the rabbit hole (oh geez, these metaphors!) So I really wanted to go through the SLC newspapers in search of the fortune teller, but I didn’t actually do it. (Yet. I’m still planning to.) If anyone finds a reference to a white female fortune teller in Salt Lake around 1869 or so, please let me know!

    Comment by Quincy Newell — February 19, 2013 @ 2:33 pm

  11. “Reading your post, however, made me wonder why so many people are haunted by Jane James and not by other instances of each exclusion?”

    Quincy answered this briefly; it really is about source materials. The only other black member from that time who has comparable documentation is Green Flake. Marinda Redd and Alex Bankhead did have one chance to tell their story to Julius Taylor, who made a special trip down to Spanish Fork to interview them in 1898. In the interview they mention Green Flake and Jane James and they mentioned Marinda’s involvement in the Relief Society, but neither of them seem to have made statements of the type that lend themselves to this kind of religious/racial narrative.

    I can only think of one other religious/racial statement in this context and that’s about Venus (Redd) Cupid, but the source is unfortunately unreliable.

    Comment by Amy T — February 19, 2013 @ 3:58 pm

  12. Amy,

    That may be true for African American Saints, but it’s not for other racial groups (which is what I was gesturing towards). We have the diaries of a nineteenth-century native Hawaiian missionary, which run to three or four volumes, and Jonathan Napela’s life is VERY well documented. Although Hannah Kaaepa never produced any documentation herself, there’s lots of information about her in the Young Woman’s Journal, contemporary newspapers, and in the Book of Remembrances her husband produced about her life. I’m not sure if the same is true for Native American or Latin@ Saints but Jared T. or David G. might know.

    Comment by Amanda HK — February 19, 2013 @ 4:18 pm

  13. I am only familiar with the stories of two Southern Utah Native Americans who were associated with the Church, and the records are fairly sketchy in both cases.

    In the first instance, although Cora Keate Williams Hartman (a Piute) was baptized, her two husbands were not members of the Church and she died young, so her temple work was not done during her lifetime.

    The other case is Sarah Maraboots Dyson (Piute-Navajo), the wife of Ira Hatch. She went through the temple and was sealed to her husband during her lifetime.

    And, strange to tell, as much St. George history as I’ve read, I’ve never seen the question of the religious inclusion of the native Americans addressed, even though one of the stated purposes of the St. George Temple was for the use of the Lamanites. Hopefully the new history of the temple (Yorgason, Schmutz, Adler) will address the subject.

    Comment by Amy T — February 19, 2013 @ 5:58 pm

  14. Quincy, really great job! Thank you so much, and I look forward to your upcoming biography of Jane James.

    Jane came into my life in 1979 when Brent Metcalfe told me about her, Elijah Abel, and Walker Lewis. This led me to become a volunteer researcher at the then “Church History Department” under the supervision of Jim Kimball. He arranged for me to be able to hold and read the manuscript of her dictated autobiography. I was deeply moved by her narrative of Joseph’s reception of her to “Zion” (Nauvoo). I took that story with me to Brasil in 1980 and shared her story in every congregation where I served as a missionary. Or at least HALF the story. I always ended her tale with Joseph’s “Welcome to Zion…we dry up all tears here.” THAT is what I looked, prayed, hoped for. A place of refuge for my tortured soul, where I could find rest and turn all my tears of anger into tears of joy.

    Then I came out of the closet in the late 1980s and I finally acknowledged to myself the ugliest parts of Jane’s story. How awfully she was treated by fellow Saints on her way to Nauvoo, and all the heart ache and insults to her afterwards. Her tears weren’t dried up in Nauvoo or Utah, as Joseph had promised. Instead, for me, she became an invaluable example of one of the deeply faithful who was alienated, misunderstood, despised, feared, begrudingly appreciated, and discriminated against.

    Although I had to leave Mormonism to find and love my Self, she is still active in my life, bringing me into a community of “the Friends of Jane” – those of us who have found that she speaks quietly but firmly to us throughout our lives. Because of her I have met and come to love INCREDIBLE people, like Margaret Young, Darius Gray, and Jane’s descendant, Louis Duffy.

    I like to think that all of this attention focused on her is a karmic return for her years of patience, courage, and longsuffering faith.

    Long live Jane Elizabeth Manning James!

    Comment by Connell O'Donovan — February 19, 2013 @ 6:16 pm

  15. Amy T and Amanda HK: I think the documentation is only one factor that contributes to Jane James’s ubiquity. It’s necessary but not sufficient. It’s also important, I think, that her story lends itself to so many interpretations (viz. Connell’s changing understanding of Jane James), and that historical circumstances lead the LDS Church and its members to be looking for stories that demonstrate (or can demonstrate) positive relations between blacks and whites. When we talk about race in the United States we are still often talking about black and white. Native Americans, Latin@s, Hawaiians, Polynesians, Asians — they all don’t quite fit into that story, and so they often get brushed aside, ignored, or obscured. It seems to me that at least in the discussion of Mormonism, there may be a greater awareness of Pacific Islanders’ role in/experience of the development of Mormonism coming, so perhaps the stories you refer to, Amanda, will become better known in the near future?

    Connell, thanks for your kind words. (It’s so interesting how we have apparently no trouble recognizing Jane James’s agency in haunting, speaking, etc. now that she has died, isn’t it?)

    Comment by Quincy Newell — February 19, 2013 @ 6:41 pm

  16. Amanda, intrigued by your question, I put on my old “Mormon” hat to remember how I used to feel 30-40 years ago when I was a believing member. I felt back then that Polynesian, Native American, and Latina/o Mormons held a privileged status as Israelite-Lamanites, blood heirs to the blessings of the Kingdom. While there was certainly racism against them, it was worldly racism, and certainly NOT institutionally coming from “the church.” I laugh at my naivete back then but that was my world view.

    Comment by Connell O'Donovan — February 19, 2013 @ 6:45 pm

  17. Thank you for this thought-provoking piece. It reminds me of the importance of following those hunches in the archives and allowing yourself to be caught up in or haunted by your subjects.

    What were Mormon attitudes toward fortune tellers in the 19th century? Anyone?

    Comment by Natalie R — February 19, 2013 @ 11:42 pm

  18. Natalie, my sense is that there is a complex attitude, depending on location, date, and whether the individual was a medium, used cards, or was a seeress and perhaps used a seer stone, for example.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 20, 2013 @ 3:05 pm

  19. In re-reading the Emily Dow Partridge passage, I think that it’s likely that Isaac James did not meet the white fortune teller until he got to Portland.

    Isaac signed off on Jane’s petition for a divorce on March 23, 1870. Elias Smith was the judge, and his holographic journals are at the Chili (Church History Library). I just spent the morning reading the entries for March but didn’t find anything on the divorce.

    But the divorce decree (Series 373, Reel 19, Box 14, Folder 046, Utah State Archives, Salt Lake County Probate Court records) clearly states “that the said parties could not live together in peace and union in the marital relations, and their welfare and happiness required that they should be separated from each other.” It was extremely difficult back then to get a divorce just on those grounds and I’m rather surprised Judge Smith allowed it. Usually a divorce required alcoholism, abandonment for a lengthy period, and/or “crim. con.” (criminal conversation, meaning adultery). Had Isaac James already met the white fortune teller in Salt Lake, I think Jane would have used that as a more sure way of divorcing him.

    Jane’s complaint four years after her divorce from Isaac rings a little hollow – but she’s obviously giving Partridge a laundry list of her grievances since 1847, and not in any chronological order.

    Comment by Connell O'Donovan — February 20, 2013 @ 4:25 pm

  20. Natalie – J. is correct. Responses varied by activity and perhaps also by the sex of the actor.

    Phrenology was extremely valuable to early Mormon leaders and I think Joseph Smith and all the original 12 had the bumps on their heads read and made into phrenological charts. Brigham Young and Wilford Woodruff used their charts throughout their lives. Note that I have never heard of a female phrenologist in the 1800s.

    Spiritualist mediums (usually but not always women) were quite prevalent in Utah in the 1850s and 1860s. Charlotte Ives Cobb Godbe was a medium that the Godbeites consulted in founding the Church of Zion. Some apostles embraced spiritualism (including Orson Pratt I believe). The Union Vedette (out of Ft. Douglas) opined in 1864, “The extent to which belief in spiritualism has spread through the State [sic ? territory] and the pecuniary success which attends the performances of the so-called mediums, is at last eliciting some examination from incredulous persons with a view to detect the imposition?” (June 14, 1864, p. 2)

    Fortune tellers were used by church members but it was generally frowned on during the 19th century. Elder John Sanderson was a fortune teller and astrologer in Springville, Utah in the 1860s. He was quite popular, although there were some Mormons who were disturbed by his methods.

    A. Milton Musser complained in the Deseret News of March 25, 1868, “Oh how humiliating it is to see a person holding the priesthood of God going to astrologers, necromancers and soothsayers for information respecting gold mines, lost stock [i.e. cattle], grasshoppers, &c.”

    Comment by Connell O'Donovan — February 20, 2013 @ 4:40 pm

  21. Quincy, this is a wonderful post. I love the research of those who are continuing to tell Jane’s story. Most are not LDS. THANK YOU!!

    Comment by Margaret Blair Young — February 23, 2013 @ 11:27 am


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