This is the first post in a roundtable on Quincy D. Newell’s Your Sister in the Gospel: The Life of Jane Manning James, a Nineteenth-Century Black Mormon (Oxford University Press, 2019). Look for more posts in the coming week!
Quincy Newell’s biography of Jane Manning James is a concise, informative study of one of the best-known Latter-day Saints of African descent. It is not the first study, nor the last, to examine Jane’s life and faith.[i] Born a free woman in Connecticut and buried a free woman in Salt Lake City, Jane James’ experiences are a crucial part of any study of Mormonism and people of African descent. Newell notes in the introduction that Jane’s life is “comparatively well-documented…she left multiple accounts narrating her personal history, some of which were published during her lifetime, and she appears in many other sources, including other people’s diaries, meeting minutes, and church and government records” (1). Despite the presence of these sources, many parts of Jane’s life remain mysterious to historians.
For all the words left behind by Jane, or about Jane, two words repeatedly used by Newell stick out to me.
These words reflect a lack of certainty around conclusions or sources in historical writing. More importantly, these words do work. They show that the author’s reading is one of many by acknowledging the tentative and contingent nature of sources—they reflect scholarly humility. These words can also signal empathy through a counterfactual moment to the reader. They can bring readers into a storytelling past, asking readers to imagine how a biographical subject might have felt at certain moments in his or her life.
For instance, a grandmother or aunt “likely” attended to Jane’s mother at her birth, and “likely was marked by West African traditions” (8). “Perhaps,” later in her life, Jane allowed her ex-husband to board with her because she hoped Isaac James would pay rent or because she felt it “her Christian duty” to provide shelter (109-110).
I admire Newell’s use of these words because they reflect a willingness to concede that there are things that historians cannot find out. Newell’s scholarly humility allows her to follow Saidiya Hartman’s call to read “against the grain,” in order to recover the motivations, feelings, and events of non-white people and others who left behind scant records. Following Michel-Rolph Trouillot, she reads against the emptiness of the archive (saying that Jane has the most documents written by or about her of any Black Latter-day Saint is not to say that she left behind as many records as historians would like).
Newell’s willingness to say “likely” and “perhaps” also reflects a move forward for the field of Mormon Studies. The field excels at the methodological innovations of the 1960s and 1970s, such as social history and intellectual history, reflecting when many of the New Mormon History’s founding mothers and fathers attended graduate school. The attenuation to social and intellectual history also plays to the sheer number of sources available in Mormon archives—it is astounding how many average people’s diaries, missionary pamphlets, and leader’s sermons scholars have to work with. Because of the wealth of sources, many scholars hesitate to say anything that cannot be definitively proven when making their arguments.
As American historiography more broadly has developed since that time, and, in some ways, become more interdisciplinary, Mormon Studies has not embraced new innovations, like race, gender, colonialism, transnational, or sexual history. These methodologies require more “likely’s” and “perhaps’s” than social or intellectual history, when those approaches can rely on what is there rather than what is not. I do not mean to disparage those methodologies. I only mean to say that making arguments based on what is plausible often requires putting one’s neck out to a greater degree that being able to quote a direct source.
Newell explores the history of sexual violence, the gendered lives of both white and black Latter-day Saints, and speaks to structural inequalities within Mormonism. She helps us to see the big picture of Jane’s life, what it was like and what it could have been like, without unnecessarily getting bogged down in her methodological frameworks. She ties all of her arguments to deep archival research performed by others (many historians have written about Jane) and, in some cases, provides copies of her sources so that others can push the historiography forward. This type of historical work is not possible through just a close reading of available sources; Newell’s methodology allows scholars to better understand what life would have been like for a nineteenth-century Black Mormon.
Newell’s book has received plenty of positive attention in the
media and at the Mormon History Association. It will stand as an example of how
to write a biography of someone from underrepresented groups in American
religion. Perhaps we could all learn from this short biography how to take
intellectual chances and incorporate new methodologies to find new insights
into popular topics.
[i] Newell uses “Jane” rather than “James” when speaking about her subject because Jane’s surname changed so often. See Your Sister in the Gospel’s introduction for further explanation.