Playing Jane

The history of a pioneer black Mormon woman is alive today.

Max Perry Mueller

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.

 

Last summer, I went to Salt Lake City to look for Jane Manning James in the archives of the LDS Church History Library and the archives of the Utah Historical Society.5 I hoped that Jane would speak to me from scratchy microfiche and dusty letter-books. I hoped she would tell me how she dealt with the precarious place in which she lived out her life as a black Mormon pioneer in Zion, simultaneously at the center and on the margins of the nineteenth-century Mormon experience. I planned to "ask" her: How did you understand your status as a beloved member of the community, celebrated as a friend of the first prophet's family, as a pioneer of 1847, and as a steadfast member of the LDS Church? At the same time, how did you come to terms with LDS Church policy that, due to your race, defines you as innately cursed and thus unworthy to receive the same blessings as your fellow white saints?

Although this was my plan, during my time in Salt Lake City, I found that the archives are not the only or even the best place to find Jane. Certainly, the archives shed light on the question of how Jane in writing subtly challenged the Church's marginalization of blacks within Mormon history and within the Mormon community. But it was in my interviews with Jerri and in my observations of her reenactments that I discovered the canon is not closed on Jane's story. The legacy of Jane's black Mormon experience unfolds today in the lives of modern black Mormons like Jerri, who strike a precarious balance between their ongoing struggles with the Mormon "folklore" about black spiritual inferiority and the spiritual truth they find within their own Mormon testimonies of faith.6

My primary focus here is on Jerri, or, more accurately, on placing Jerri's and Jane's experiences together to illuminate how each woman came to terms with her unsettled place in her faith community. That said, since Jane serves as a role model for many contemporary black Mormons, including Jerri, and since the legacy of Jane's nineteenth-century Mormon pioneer culture continues to define modern Mormon identity, it is important to explore Jane's world before attempting to understand Jerri's.

 

On Thursday, April 16, 1908, only hours after her passing, the Deseret Evening News published a front-page obituary of Jane Manning James.7 Such star treatment—the obituary's prominent placement and the urgency with which the announcement went out to the public—was usually reserved for the deaths of high-ranking LDS officials or leading Utah politicians. Yet Jane occupied neither an ecclesiastical nor a political post. As the Deseret Evening News reported, "Aunt Jane" was in fact a "colored woman" whose exceptional status derived from her extraordinary life, during which she participated in some of the most important events in early Mormon history. Five days later, the Deseret Evening News reported that hundreds of Jane's friends, black and white, crowded into a Mormon meeting house in Salt Lake City's eighth ward. There they listened to LDS Church President Joseph F. Smith deliver a remembrance of the faithful Mormon woman he had first met 65 years before in Nauvoo, Illinois, when he was the 5-year-old son of Hyrum Smith, Joseph Smith Jr.'s younger brother.

The great fanfare with which the Mormon leadership marked Jane's death belies the fact that for at least the previous 50 years the Mormon hierarchy had worked to marginalize black Mormons in Mormon history and community. Joseph Smith's vision for the restored Christian Church was initially racially egalitarian. In the 1830s and 1840s, early Mormon leaders had ordained black men to the Mormon priesthood, a position understood as a necessary prerequisite for achieving leadership status within the Mormon community and for reaching the highest levels of heaven.8 Only after Joseph Smith's death in 1844 did Mormons move away from their original policy of racial universalism, instead espousing a theology similar to many evangelical Protestant churches in antebellum America: that blacks' dark skin marked them as permanently suffering under a set of divine curses. Mormons reasoned that blacks were set apart from and inferior to whites, and ineligible for any religious leadership position.9 In 1852, Brigham Young declared that "Any man having one drop of the seed of [Cain] . . . in him cannot hold the priesthood"—a position that would become formal Church policy over the next half-century.10 In 1908, the same year he eulogized Jane Manning James as a faithful saint, Church President Joseph F. Smith declared that his uncle, Joseph Smith Jr., had stripped the priesthood from Elijah Abel, the most famous black priesthood holder and a close friend to the prophet, when the prophet became aware of Abel's true race—a statement that directly contradicted many Church records.11 This racialized theology also meant that black Mormons like Jane Manning James could not access the temple where Mormons receive sacred ordinances for themselves and for their dead family members, ordinances which Mormons believe are required for the eternal exaltations of their souls.

In her writings, Jane steadfastly proclaims submission to the LDS Church hierarchy, as was the norm among most Utah Mormons.12 In her "Life Sketch," dictated to her family friend Elizabeth Roundy in 1893, Jane insists on her devotion to the Church presidents as God's prophetic authorities on earth.13 She even offers a specific prayer for Joseph F. Smith, the president most responsible for institutionalizing the racialized theology: "I hope the Lord will spare him, if this [is] his holy will, for many years to guide the Gospel ship to a harbor of safety." Still, in her "Life Sketch" Jane offers an indirect but powerful challenge to Joseph F. Smith's rationale against blacks holding the priesthood, pointing out that this was the practice of the original Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith Jr.

The bulk of Jane's narrative recounts her relationship with Joseph Smith Jr., whom she depicts as being welcoming to all his faithful, white or black. Jane writes that when the road-weary Mannings arrived at the Nauvoo mansion, "Brother Joseph said to some white sisters that was [sic] present, 'Sisters, I want you to occupy this room this evening with some brothers and sisters that have just arrived.' "14 Jane remembers that Joseph Smith was willing to open the doors of his home to black Mormon converts and to integrate the mansion's living quarters, seemingly without a thought to the racial implications of such an act. This description of the prophet acting with compassion toward a poor black family who showed up on his doorstep suggests that at the very least Smith did not see race as a fixed social barrier. Jane does not mention that she witnessed Smith ordaining any black men, but, based on the portrayal of "Brother Joseph" that Jane creates, it is hard to imagine, as his nephew Joseph F. Smith would assert 60 years later, that Joseph Smith Jr. would strip a trusted friend like Elijah Abel of his priesthood simply because he discovered that there was "black blood" in Abel's genealogy.

While we do not know how widely Jane's "Life Sketch" circulated during her lifetime, we do know that Jane instructed Elizabeth Roundy to read the narrative at her funeral. This means that in April 1908, Joseph F. Smith had to sit and listen as Jane—from the grave—offered an alternative historical take on the racial disposition of Mormonism's original prophet.

Jane's challenge to the racialized theology of late-nineteenth-century Mormonism went beyond subtle critiques of the historical record. In 1870, after she divorced her husband, Isaac, Jane grew concerned about her own spiritual exaltation and that of her children, which required that they be sealed in a Mormon temple to a priesthood-holding man.15 For at least the last 25 years of her life, Jane petitioned each successive Mormon president to grant her access to the temple. In 1884 Jane sent a letter to President John Taylor, in which she balanced respect for Church authority with a subtle challenge to the conclusions that Mormon leadership had made about the proper place of blacks in the Mormon community.16 In the letter, Jane states that she accepts the authority of scripture as presented in the LDS Book of Abraham—the text most often used to justify the ban on blacks holding the priesthood—namely, that the curse of Cain deems blacks unworthy to hold the priesthood: "I realized that my race and color [mean I] cant [sic] expect my endowments as those who are white."17 Citing another verse from the Book of Abraham, Jane insists that because she is a child of Abraham, to whom God promised the salvation and eternal life of his seed, she, along with "all the families of the earth," should be eligible for exaltation. Based on this rationale, Jane concludes her letter by pleading, "Is there no blessing for me?"18

Jane's request to President Taylor was denied. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, she tried different approaches to persuade Church authorities to grant her temple privileges. For example, based on the invitation the Smiths had made to her decades earlier, Jane requested that she be sealed to the original prophet's family. In 1894, this request was granted, with the exception that she be "adopted to the Prophet" not as his child, but "as his [eternal] servant" in exaltation.19 And the Salt Lake Temple adoption records indicate that Jane herself was not permitted to enter the temple to participate in her own circumscribed adoption; instead, a "proxy" stood in for Jane during the ceremony—an unusual occurrence, since proxies were almost exclusively employed for dead participants.

Scholars of the priesthood ban have suggested that Jane Manning James's minor personal victory may have played a painfully ironic role in the hardening of racial lines in the Mormon community. It is likely that Jane's persistent requests to receive temple endowments was one reason why Mormon authorities firmed up their position on banning black men from holding the priesthood.20

When Jerri Harwell reenacts Jane's life story before the Genesis Group, she brings two different black Mormon experiences to the meeting house pulpit. Jerri brings to life Jane, the black Mormon woman of 1893, the year she dictated her autobiography, divorced and often in penury, beloved by many, but forbidden from entering the temple. But the Genesis Group audience also knows Jerri's own story, either because they've read her book Leaning on Prayer, or because she has shared her testimony with them.21 They know about Jerri's middle-class background and her marriage to the president of Genesis, to whom she was sealed for time and eternity in the Salt Lake City Temple in 1987.

The purpose of Jerri's doubled reenactment—two testimonies of faith embedded in one narrative—itself takes a double form. The reenactment seeks to answer the conventional evangelical question: How does a soul find its way to redemption and truth in the gospel? But it is the assumed incongruity of black and Mormon identities that reveals a second, more compelling question: Why would a black woman, of either the nineteenth or the twenty-first century, look to find a gospel home among the Mormons, to seek membership in a "white" church governed by a male patriarchy, a church which, until recently, has shown at best ambivalence toward her membership?

Jerri's response to this assumed incongruity is to reject its basic premise. In doing so, she reveals that there is as much continuity as there is change in both her own and Jane's testimonies of faith.22 The message that together Jerri and Jane proclaim is that the LDS Church is not racially particularistic, condemning black saints to its margins because they are inherently inferior to their white brethren. The LDS Church, or more precisely its gospel, is universal, belonging, as the Book of Abraham says, to "all the families of the earth." However, both women make this proclamation, not because of their own experiences with fellow saints or with Church hierarchy, but because of their intimate prayer lives with "Heavenly Father."

The continuity between Jerri's and Jane's experiences, as well as the importance of prayer for both women, is evident in Jerri's own spiritual autobiography, Leaning on Prayer.23 The book, which details Jerri's conversion to Mormonism and her experiences as a black Mormon woman living in Utah in the post-1978 era, is a meditation on prayer as a source both for self-understanding and for Mormonism's true message. For example, Jerri writes about how she used prayer to deal with her own frustrating experiences navigating the racialized theo-politics of the LDS Church. In 1977, she was a 19-year-old college student and a new convert to Mormonism living in suburban Detroit. During her conversion process, the local Church leaders informed Jerri that black Mormons were not permitted to occupy the same "callings" (leadership and service positions within the Church) as their white brethren. Jerri was initially unconcerned with the ban on black men holding the priesthood, saying, "Being a woman, I couldn't hold the priesthood anyway, so I didn't think too much about it." Yet Jerri became "irate" with "Brother Anderson" after he dismissed her expressed interest in serving as a missionary. Jerri recalls Brother Anderson asking, "Whom would [you] teach?"—insinuating that potential white converts would not take missionary lessons from a black Mormon.24

Jerri writes that for several days she did not pray, "because I could not bring myself to pray to a God who established a church that excluded blacks from the priesthood and from serving missions." She was angry at God, not only for excluding blacks from his restored church, but also for making her black: "I seem to hurt all over. Why isn't it time for blacks to hear about the gospel? . . . Why was I born with Negroid blood? Why me? God, why me?"25

When Jerri decided to make this heartache "a matter of earnest and sincere prayer," her faith was rewarded:

sobbing and pouring my heart out to God . . . I ended my prayer asking Heavenly Father why blacks could not receive the priesthood, I felt a burning and heard the Lord say, "I have never given a reason." What? I thought. I had researched and read so much on the priesthood restriction that surely the truth, the reason was in there somewhere. Again the Lord repeated his answer and said, "I have never given a reason." I took him at His word. All that I had been reading over the past several months were the opinions of men.26

Jerri did not use this knowledge gained from prayer to challenge the "opinions of men," opinions apparently not shared by God. Instead, the following Sunday, she sought out Brother Anderson to apologize for how she reacted when he informed her that she could not serve as a missionary: "I knew better than to curse in the Lord's house, but I had come pretty darn close. Brother Anderson accepted my apology and told me he loved me and admired my faith."27

Jerri was eventually able to serve a mission, but only after the LDS Church lifted the ban on blacks holding the priesthood, which occurred on June 8, 1978, after the Mormon leadership received revelation instructing them to do so. When she heard the announcement during a television newsbreak that day, instead of confirming the news with a phone call to a fellow Mormon, she knelt in prayer. Before she could even finish asking the Lord if the news was true, Jerri recalls, "my whole bosom began to burn. My whole body seemed to burn from within. It was true! 'Does this mean I can go on a mission?' I inquired. 'Yes,' came the reply."28 Jerri believes that this experience allowed her to learn early in her "spiritual growth not to lean on or depend on my own understanding. As I searched the scriptures diligently, prayed always, and believed that I would receive an answer to my prayers, I often did."29 It is also fair to say that Jerri learned early "not to lean on" the opinions of Church authorities, but instead to define her own sense of worth within the community and her rightful place within it.

In my conversations with Jerri about her experiences as a black Mormon woman in the LDS Church and about her experiences reenacting Jane, Jerri has suggested that she believes that Jane, too, turned to prayer when she needed reassurance. Referring to Jane's three-decade- long struggle to get Church authorities to grant her temple endowments, Jerri said, "Certainly something must have kept her going. We know James was a prayerful woman." Jerri points to her favorite passage from Jane's narrative to support this claim. After being denied passage across Lake Erie with their fellow white Mormon converts, Jane describes the arduous trek across the frozen Midwestern countryside that she and her family endured:

We walked until our shoes were worn out, and our feet became sore and cracked open and bled until you could see the whole print of our feet with blood on the ground. We stopped and united in prayer to the Lord; we asked God the Eternal Father to heal our feet. Our prayers were answered and our feet were healed forthwith.30

To heal the pain caused by her fellow Mormons' refusal to recognize her as an equal member of their community—pain manifested in real physical suffering—Jane also turned to her prayerful relationship with God.

Jane and Jerri both write of their dedication and service to the Church. In her "Life Sketch," Jane writes: "I pay my tithes and offerings, keep the Word of Wisdom. I go to bed early and arise early. I try in my feeble way to set a good example to all."31 We also know that Jane participated in her ward's Relief Society, the women's service branch of the LDS Church, though she was never invited to occupy a leadership position in this organization, or even to lead Sunday school classes (as most of the Relief Society members did). Jerri has served as a counselor to the president of the Relief Society for her community. Yet, in Leaning on Prayer, she writes that her association with the Relief Society, an organization she thinks is too conservative, came about only through divine intervention. When her bishop called Jerri to the position, she initially refused it. She writes that it was God who convinced her to accept the calling, telling her that she was part of his plan to change the organization from the inside.32

Jerri sees the LDS Church as a "denomination," organized and governed by people, and as such, it is imperfect. For Jerri, the impact of this imperfection has perhaps been most profound on the Church authorities' misunderstanding about black Mormons' proper place in the restored Christian church. While being careful not to challenge the statements of leaders like Brigham Young, whom many black Mormons in private blame for the priesthood ban, Jerri has stated plainly that "the ban was never a doctrine, never a commandment. It was a practice. It started as a whisper and snowballed." Whatever its true origins, for Jerri, the effects of this snowball are especially apparent in the lack of diversity in the LDS Church's upper hierarchy. She has told me that, more than once, when looking at the picture-chart of the LDS Church's General Authorities found in the centerfold of the semi- annual General Conference brochure, she has declared sarcastically, "Zion is still all white. All is well in Zion!"

It is perhaps fair to say that Jane's and Jerri's decisions to participate so actively in church life is a pragmatic decision, allowing them to remain connected to the Mormon religious community, which, though not unproblematic, they nevertheless understand to be essential for their spiritual development. Jerri's experiences with the LDS Church perhaps allow us to see Jane's laundry-list of faithful service to the Mormon community, which she included in her "Life Sketch," as means to an end, a way in which she could justify her worthiness to the Mormon hierarchy, the gatekeepers of the temple where Jane looked to fulfill her spiritual life, caring for herself and for her family.

In her "Life Sketch," Jane writes that her own conversion to Mormonism led to the conversion of most of her immediate relatives. While Jane highlights the fact that she was able to convince her family to leave their homes in Connecticut and join the Mormons in Nauvoo, she does not mention that the only other family member who eventually settled in Utah and remained Mormon was her brother Isaac. By the time of her death in 1908, her eldest son had been excommunicated, her other children had left Utah, and none of her grandchildren were active members of the LDS Church.33

Like Jane, Jerri's conversion to Mormonism led to the conversion of some of her closest relatives. Impressed with the changes they saw in Harwell's life after her mission in Texas, Jerri's brother and sister grew interested in and eventually converted to Mormonism. Yet, just as it was for Jane, the Church, for Jerri and her family, has been as much a source of loss and regret as it has been a source of hope. Since the 1978 revelation, the LDS Church has publicly embraced its newly rediscovered universalism by touting its missionary work in predominantly black neighborhoods in American cities and in African countries, areas where missionaries had almost never proselytized before. Despite these efforts, a "racist folklore" still pervades all levels of Mormon culture, the legacy of more than a century and a half of racialized doctrines and policies.34 During the last two decades, Jerri and Don have raised six children in the LDS Church. Jerri reports that on several occasions the Harwell family, especially the children, have encountered overt racism within the Church. Years ago, when Jerri complained to her ward's primary school president after her son was called the n-word during Sunday school, Jerri was rebuffed and was told "you need to get over what happened three hundred years ago." Jerri responded: "I don't know what you're talking about. My son was called a n— seven days ago." Despite Jerri's prominent role in the Mormon community and her willingness to defend her children, none of her six children are members of the LDS Church. Reflecting on her children's inactivity in the Mormon community, Jerri told me: "I hope to think that it is because they don't believe. But yes, racism played a part."

Jerri's painful acknowledgment of her inability to keep her children active helps us to understand Jane's similar experience. Jane, too, must have been profoundly frustrated that none of her offspring chose to embrace the church she so clearly loved. And Jerri's experience suggests that it is likely that racism was also a factor in Jerri's children's decision to reject the LDS Church, a religious community that rejected them as potentially worthy Mormons. Perhaps Jane's persistent quest to get access to the temple, baptize her dead relatives, and preserve their eternal souls was borne out of this frustration. In the temple baptismal font, Jane could be baptized for those loved ones who could not, or would not, be baptized themselves.

 

Taken together, Jane's and Jerri's experiences show how two women separated by more than 150 years came to terms with their precarious places within the Mormon community. While acknowledging the authority of the LDS hierarchy to write history and theology, Jane and Jerri understand that eternal truths, not the least of which is the truth of their own worthiness as black Mormon women, come not from the lessons of the institution, but directly and unmediated from their own personal testimonies of faith, which are received and reaffirmed in prayer.

Jane's and Jerri's experiences also help scholars of American religion begin to answer a broader set of questions. First, do religious people on the margins of their communities affect the center of authority of these communities? If so, how do they go about doing this, and what does this mean about the struggle for equality and acceptance of those who are marginalized? Jane's ambivalent status as an exceptional black Mormon woman, but a black woman nonetheless, probably helped her effect change, but perhaps not in the way she hoped. Her quest to get her temple endowments may even have had the opposite effect she intended, moving the LDS Church to make a limited exception for her, but in the end also encouraging the Church to form a more racialized sense of who is understood to be a truly worth saint. Second, what function might racial persecution play in the history of a much-persecuted religious community? Jane's and Jerri's experiences suggest that while white Mormons' history of excluding blacks from full membership might have put the LDS Church in accord with the position of many Protestant churches in the mid-nineteenth century, by the end of the twentieth century, the Mormons' racialized theology put them at odds with much of the American religious mainstream.

As for Jerri, much has changed for black Mormons in the century that separates Jane's from Jerri's life in the Salt Lake Valley. At least officially, black Mormons no longer find themselves on the margins of Mormonism. They are no longer barred from entering the temple or fulfilling leadership positions in local Church institutions, though as Jerri points out, a glass ceiling seems to remain in place for blacks serving in the Church's hierarchy. Ironically, black Mormons' greater presence in the center of the Mormon experience might mean in some cases that they have less power to affect how the institution handles issues of race, because Church leadership sees racial inclusion as "complete." Despite multiple requests from leading black Mormons since the 1978 revelation, the hierarchy has not moved to repudiate its former stance against blacks achieving full membership status.35 Jerri and her own children have experienced firsthand the hierarchy's position of allowing the history of its own racialized past to go unchallenged. Black Mormons continue to endure the maltreatment borne out of a racist folklore about their supposed inherent unworthiness, while they also struggle to have their white Mormon brothers and sisters acknowledge the reality that this racist folklore is still pervasive in Mormon culture.36

Jerri's hope is that through events like her reenactments, Jane's popularity will continue to grow in both black and white Mormon circles. She believes that learning of Jane's unique status as both a beloved pioneer and persecuted minority will reveal to her Mormon audiences two interrelated realities, two testimonies of faith: first, the historical relevancy of the black Mormon experience as a group whose experience of both religious and racial persecution makes them particularly Mormon; and second, an understanding that the LDS Church needs to embrace this historical black Mormon experience, in part as a means to come to terms with the continued legacy of its own racist folklore, a history which has helped to keep Mormonism on the margins of American religious culture. In this sense, what happens in a nondescript meeting house on the outskirts of Salt Lake City might have an effect on what happens 10 miles to its north, in the wood-paneled offices of the LDS Church president overlooking Temple Square.


Notes

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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).
  5. A pre-dissertation research grant from Harvard University's Graduate School of Arts and Science funded my summer 2010 research in Salt Lake City, and a Loeb Fellowship from Harvard Divinity School has allowed me to continue this research during the 2010–11 academic year. I am deeply grateful for this invaluable support.
  6. Robert Orsi has described the importance of combining ethnography and interviews of the living with study of the archives of the dead to understand both groups; Robert A. Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880–1950, 2nd ed. (Yale University Press, 2002), xxvii.
  7. The Deseret Evening News (currently published as Deseret News) has been published by LDS-owned business groups since its founding in 1850.
  8. The true origin of the ban on black men holding the priesthood has been one of the most controversial subjects in Mormon history. Since the 1978 revelation that lifted the ban, most Mormon scholars have come to the consensus that Mormon leaders did ordain black men in the 1830s and 1840s and that the ban developed only after Joseph Smith's martyrdom in 1844. Lester E. Bush, "Mormonism's Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview," Dialogue 8 (Spring 1973): 11–68; Newell G. Bringhurst, Saints, Slaves, and Blacks: The Changing Place of Black People Within Mormonism (Greenwood Press, 1981); Neither White nor Black: Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church, ed. Lester E. Bush Jr. and Armand L. Mauss (Signature Books, 1984). For discussion of the issue of race in early and contemporary Mormonism, see: Black and Mormon, ed. Newell G. Bringhurst and Darron T. Smith (University of Illinois Press, 2004); Jessie L. Embry, Black Saints in a White Church: Contemporary African American Mormons (Signature Books, 1994); Armand L. Mauss, All Abraham's Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage (University of Illinois Press, 2003).
  9. See Genesis 9:20–27, and LDS scriptures The Pearl of Great Price: Moses 7:5–8, and Abraham 1:21–27. See Alma Allred's essay "The Traditions of Their Fathers: Myth Verses Reality in LDS Scriptural Writings," in Bringhurst and Smith, Black and Mormon, 34–47.
  10. Lester E. Bush Jr., "Mormonism's Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview," in Neither White nor Black, ed. Bush and Mauss, 65–66.
  11. Newell G. Bringhurst, "Elijah Abel and the Changing Status of Blacks Within Mormonism," in ibid., 139–140.
  12. Jane's narrative, which includes both explicit submission and implicit dissent, can be understood as what James C. Scott calls a "hidden transcript." In her "Life Sketch," Jane adheres to the strictures of the "public transcript"—professed devotion and promised submission to the Church hierarchy—while also embedding within this public transcript a "hidden transcript"—what Scott describes as a "critique of power spoken behind the back of the dominant"; James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (Yale University Press, 1990), xii.
  13. The elderly Jane did not or could not sit down to pen her life story herself. Whether it was because she was illiterate, as is commonly believed; because she was going blind, as she states in the narrative; or because the story required a white Mormon to validate the claims she makes, the reason Jane employed a scribe continues to be a matter for debate. This act does remind us that validation by a leading white was a common practice with slave narratives in the nineteenth century. Testifying to its authenticity, William Lloyd Garrison provided a preface to Frederick Douglass's autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Harriet Jacob's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was validated twice, once by Amy Post, who is credited with helping Jacob write the text, and a second time by Lydia Marie Child, who edited the volume.
  14. James, "My Life Sketch."
  15. There are no records to indicate that Isaac James, whom Jane met and married in Nauvoo, received the priesthood.
  16. Scholars remain unsure if Jane herself wrote either this letter or the half-dozen other such petitions which have been located in the LDS Church History Library and Archives; see note 13.
  17. The Book of Abraham is an 1835 translation Joseph Smith Jr. made of Egyptian papyri that he purportedly purchased from a traveling mummy exhibition. Canonized by the Church in 1880, the book focuses on Abraham's life and struggles against idolatry and on the origins of the Abrahamic covenant and how it might be fulfilled by Abraham's descendents.
  18. Ronald G. Coleman and Darius A. Gray, "Two Perspectives: The Religious Hopes of 'Worthy' African American Latter-day Saints Before the 1978 Revelation," in Black and Mormon, ed. Bringhurst and Smith, 53. The original letters are reprinted in Wolfinger, "A Test of Faith."
  19. Salt Lake City Temple Adoption Records, A, p. 26. John Nicolson, Temple Recorder; Newell G. Bringhurst, "The 'Missouri Thesis' Revisited: Early Mormonism, Slavery, and the Status of Black People," in Black and Mormon, ed. Bringhurst and Smith, 24.
  20. In a meeting of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the Church's First Presidency in early 1902, members of the highest level of the Mormon hierarchy discussed Jane Manning James's continued petition to receive her temple endowments. According to the meeting's minutes, the fact that "Aunt Jane was not satisfied" with the Church's decision to seal her to the original prophet as his eternal servant drew a lot of attention from Joseph F. Smith. The Church president's response to Jane's declared unhappiness was to assert that, like "stockmen engaged in the improvement of breeds . . . in all cases where the blood of Cain showed itself, however slight, the line [denying admittance to the temple] should be drawn there"; "Excerpts from the Weekly Council Meetings of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, Dealing with the Rights of Negroes in the Church, 1849–1947," George Albert Smith Papers, Manuscripts Division, Marriott Library, University of Utah; Bringhurst, Saints, Slaves, and Blacks, 148.
  21. During most Mormon meetings, time is set aside for the "sharing of testimony," when Mormons are encouraged to give spontaneous and (hopefully) brief stories of how they came to be Latter-day Saints and to proclaim their faith in the Church.
  22. A recent article, "History's Affective Turn: Historical Reenactment and Its Work in the Present," by the reenacting theorist Vanessa Agnew is a helpful source for understanding Jerri's reenactment of Jane's life story; Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice 11, no. 3 (2007): 299.
  23. Jerri A. Harwell, Leaning on Prayer: A Story of Faith Perseverance, and Conversion (Spring Creek Book Company, 2004). Jerri's book is part of a growing genre of black Mormon conversion narratives. See Wynetta Clark Martin, I Am a Negro (privately published, 1970), and Mary Sturlaugson, A Soul So Rebellious (Deseret Book, 1980). Keith Hamilton's Eleventh-Hour Laborer: Thoughts and Reflections of One Black Member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Ammon Works, 2010) is a compelling addition to this genre.
  24. Harwell, Leaning on Prayer, 12, 13.
  25. Ibid., 13.
  26. Ibid., 14.
  27. Ibid., 15.
  28. "Burning in the bosom" is a classic Mormon expression for evidence that, in prayer, God has revealed truth to the supplicant; ibid., 17.
  29. Ibid., 18.
  30. James, "My Life Sketch."
  31. "Word of Wisdom" is the laws of Mormon dietary restrictions. James, "My Life Sketch."
  32. Harwell, Leaning on Prayer, 52.
  33. My sincere thanks to Margaret Blair Young and Darius Gray, co-authors of the trilogy depicting early African American Mormon pioneers, titled Standing on the Promises (Shadow Mountain, 2000), for their ongoing help with my research on Jane Manning James. Louis Duffy, Jane's great-great-grandson, and Connell Donovan have also generously shared their own research and analysis of Jane's life. My thanks to Keith Hamilton for serving as a host and guide during my time in Salt Lake.
  34. Darron Smith's essay on his experiences as a black Mormon convert teaching African American studies at Brigham Young University is perhaps the most eye-opening testimony to the persistent nature of this racist folklore; Darron Smith, "These House Negros Still Think We're Cursed," Cultural Studies 19, no. 4 (July 2005): 439–554. See also Embry, "Black Saints in a White Church," 119–157.
  35. See Larry B. Stammer, "Mormons May Disavow Old View on Blacks," Los Angeles Times, May 18, 1998. In 1998, LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley made it clear that he believed the Church's work toward racial equality was complete; Hinckley told the Los Angeles Times that the 1978 declaration, which stated that "all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color," speaks for itself: "I don't see anything further that we need to do"; Larry B. Stammer, "Mormon Leader Defends Race Relations," Los Angeles Times, September 12, 1998. See also Richard Ostling and Joan K. Ostling, Mormon America: The Power and the Promise (HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), 105.
  36. Darron Smith articulated the problematic consequences of the hierarchy's choice not to do more to repudiate the racist folklore: "even though the priesthood ban was repealed in 1978, the discourse that constructs what blackness means is still very much intact today. Under the direction of President Spencer W. Kimball, the First Presidency and the Twelve removed the policy that denied blacks the priesthood but did very little to disrupt the multiple discourses that had fostered the policy in the first place. Hence there are Church members today who continue to summon and teach at every level of Church education the racial discourse that blacks are descendants of Cain, that they merited lesser earthly privilege because they were 'fence-sitters' in the War in Heaven, and that, science and climatic factors aside, there is a link between skin color and righteousness"; Darron Smith, "The Persistence of Racialized Discourse in Mormonism," Sunstone Magazine, March 2003, 31.

Max Perry Mueller, MTS '08, is a PhD candidate in American religious history at Harvard University, focusing on nineteenth-century Mormonism and African American religious history. His current research project involves early black Mormon pioneers to Salt Lake.