This is the third 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). Find the first and second here
Newell knows the value of a good story, but she is also wary of the simplistic historical messages that such stories send. Newell is critical of the scholars of religious history who tell only the liberatory story of Biddy Mason*, an African American woman who sued and won her freedom in a California court, and not that of Jane Manning James who repeatedly and unsuccessfully petitioned white male church leaders to receive her temple endowments. Newell critiques this absence in the historiographical record but she is also wary of the narratives that do get told about Jane. In the post-1978 era, after the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lifted the temple and priesthood ban on its black members, historians and members alike have searched for racial diversity in the Church’s beginnings. They have resurrected Jane’s story because it highlights this diversity and, more importantly, because it shows her close interactions with the movement’s founder, Joseph Smith. Newell is, however, also unsatisfied with these narratives. She writes:
as a scholar of American religious history, I often find these popular representations of Jane James deeply discomfiting. The stereotypes of blackness, the “traditional” constructions of femininity, and the selective presentations of fact that they employ make me squirm. They flatten Jane’s experience, tidying up the messiness of her life. (4)
Newell’s book therefore serves as a counter to this easy narrative about Jane. It is the anecdote to excluding Jane from the historical record and to over-simplifying Jane.
Newell returns to Jane’s memory in her epilogue with a different tone. Although Newell herself still takes issue with some of the ways that contemporary Mormons evoke Jane’s memory, she conjectures that Jane herself would have probably appreciated them. “All these instances suggest that more than a century after her death, Jane has finally achieved what she worked so hard for during her life: Latter-day Saints of all races now hold Jane in ‘honorable remembrance’ as Patriarch John Smith promised her would happen.”(138) Newell’s introduction and epilogue thus present us with a tension between Newell wants to convey and the way Jane herself would want to be remembered. Newell discusses how Jane sought respectability but gives us enough of her life context to understand the aspects of her life she wanted private. Yet Newell recognizes that the recent attention on Jane — from General Conference talks to popular votive candles — honors Jane’s experience in a way she so desperately sought during her life. But if the respectability she sought in the nineteenth century is now given to her in the twenty-first century, why is Jane still “haunting” Newell? (1) What is so important about Jane’s messiness if Jane herself did not wish herself to present herself as messy character?
The most important contribution of this biography is to add depth and complexity to Jane’s story. Newell wants readers to reckon with Jane’s complete life and not just the highlights and lowlights. In order to appreciate Jane’s first perceptions of Joseph Smith’s hospitality, we need to know that Charles Welsey Wandell lost her hard-earned possessions en route. She arrived in Nauvoo exhausted and with nothing. We cannot understand Jane’s exclusion from the temple without also seeing her regular participation in her local relief society. We cannot comprehend her hopes of sealing herself to a celestial family without knowing about her imperfect earthly one. It is Newell’s hope that we can understand the complex texture of Jane’s religious life. Newell shows us how Jane’s long life allowed her recognition as a founding pioneer and as one who knew Joseph Smith personally even as her racial identity pushed her to the margins of the community.
The sparse documentary record, however, means that Newell simply cannot show us Jane’s whole life. Her short book is nonetheless a lengthy consideration of the source material. Newell tells us what we can know about Jane and then dwells at length on what is absent. By doing so she lays bare some of the research process that historians undertake in order to get a sense of the historical context. Newell draws the silences out and gives them shape. In doing so she follows the path of historians like Jill Lepore, who wrote a biography of a different Jane with even less source material.
Newell has done years worth of research into Jane Manning James, the result of which lies in this book and in the articles she has published on this topic. This research serves to deepen Jane’s story, not to make it more palatable for us as readers. Newell narrates Jane’s life while inviting her readers into the sparse material that records her life. She leaves us copious footnotes and, in the appendices, the main primary documents she used to construct Jane’s life. In other words, Newell encourages us to approach Jane with the same complexity. She invites her readers into her process, gives us the tools to interpret Jane’s story, but warns us against the pit-falls of doing so in a cursory way.