(This Question and Answer took place between Dialogue and Quincy D. Newell, an associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College and co-editor of the Mormon Studies Review. Dr. Newell recently finished her new book, Your Sister in the Gospel: The Life of Jane Manning James, a Nineteenth-Century Black Mormon, which will be published by Oxford University Press in May.)
For more articles like this, please visit the Fall 2018 Issue.
What led you to write about Jane Manning James?
A number of factors, really, but I think the main reason was that James kept popping up in the research I was doing for a different (but related) project on nineteenth-century African American and Native American Mormons. It was a challenge to keep the broad focus of that project instead of zooming in on James’s experience. The tipping point was when Brittany Chapman Nash contacted me to tell me that she (Nash) had run across James in Emily Dow Partridge Young’s diary. There, Young reported that James’s husband Isaac had left her (Jane) for a white fortune teller. All I wanted to do was pore over Salt Lake newspapers to see if I could figure out who that fortune teller was! I didn’t end up following through on that desire, but between that experience and the encouragement of several colleagues, I finally decided to really dig into James’s biography as a project in its own right. I joke that I made a deal with James: I would write her biography if she would then leave me alone. We’ll see if she keeps her end of the bargain!
How is Mormonism’s history viewed differently when seen through the eyes of James, rather than those of, say, Brigham Young?
I wrote about this in a lot more depth in an essay for Patrick Mason’s collection Directions for Mormon Studies in the Twenty-First Century (University of Utah Press, 2016), but the short version goes something like this: when we follow scholar Carolyn Walker Bynum’s advice and “look with” James and other non-white Latter-day Saints at the history of the nineteenth-century LDS Church, rather than “looking at” Mormons of color, the standard narrative starts to fall apart. I think that’s because we usually take white men like Brigham Young as our universal subjects—we see them as “normal” and everyone else as “different.” (Even when we’re looking at white women, we mark their difference—we know we have to pay attention to their experiences as women, that we can’t let gender go undiscussed. But I don’t think most scholars feel the same imperative to discuss white men’s experiences as men.)
“Looking with” James, the experience of nineteenth-century Mormonism looks really different. For example, the temple is much less important than it is in most accounts of the LDS Church. James did baptisms for her dead in the Endowment House and in the Logan and Salt Lake City Temples, but she was never permitted to receive her endowments or to be sealed in family relationships even though she petitioned for those privileges repeatedly in the last decades of her life. She was sealed (or “attached”) to Joseph Smith as a servant in 1894, but she was not allowed to enter the temple for that ceremony—someone else stood as her proxy. Her main spiritual experiences came in other settings—she had visions and dreams, spoke in tongues, and participated in faith healings throughout her life, even as those kinds of charismatic experiences became less common among Latter-day Saints. Those experiences gave James a sense of connection with God, and a sense of God’s favor, and I think that helped make the temple, as well as the priesthood, less important in her religious experience. We think of the priesthood as ubiquitous in early Mormonism—it seems like people convert one day and get ordained to the priesthood the next. So for men, the story goes, this new religion is really democratic—authority is widely distributed by way of the priesthood. And women are generally seen as priesthood-adjacent: they don’t hold the priesthood, but their fathers and husbands and brothers and sons do, so it’s easy for them to access the blessings of the priesthood. That wasn’t true for James: she didn’t hold the priesthood, and neither did the men in her family. So the church looks a lot more hierarchical. Nevertheless, she felt connected to God and empowered by God to perform healings on herself and on other people, so spiritual authority was still available to her—just not in priesthood form.
How should scholars of the Mormon past improve integrating stories like James’s into the broader narrative, rather than keeping them on the margins?
In large part, I think it’s about following Bynum’s lead and looking with rather than looking at. Our sources often exert a kind of gravitational pull, drawing us back to the universal white male subject, so we have to resist that by trying to be aware of who we’re looking at, where we’re looking from, and who else might be in the room but just outside the frame, so to speak. One example is the famous (to historians of Mormonism) Smith Christmas party of 1843, which I wrote about in Your Sister in the Gospel and blogged about for Ardis Parshall’s Keepapitchinin. The Smiths threw a party on Christmas day for fifty couples—one hundred people!! There was food, and music, and general festivity. Joseph Smith wore his dress uniform; Emma Smith wore a new red velvet dress. The party is famous because Orrin Porter Rockwell showed up, having walked twelve days to get to Nauvoo after being released from jail in Missouri. He burst into the party pretending to be a drunk Missourian and got into a fight with Joseph Smith until Smith figured out who Rockwell was and everyone got to celebrate his return. So the party is famous for this wonderful moment of tension and release, and it shows up in lots of histories as a vivid, dramatic scene that also demonstrates the Smiths’ role as community leaders and generous hosts. (My favorite version is Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery’s telling in Mormon Enigma, because they tell this story with such verve and include such wonderful details.)
The bit that doesn’t make it into most discussions is that throwing a party like that is an enormous amount of work. James was working as a servant for the Smiths at the time, and her main role was as the household laundress, so she would have helped get Joseph Smith’s uniform and Emma Smith’s new red dress ready for them to show off at the party. She also would have washed and pressed any table linens that were used, and she almost certainly helped out with the cooking and cleaning. There are moments when I imagine that for James, Rockwell’s arrival was less a wonderful dramatic homecoming and more about figuring out where to seat an extra guest and how to unobtrusively clean up the mess he and Joseph Smith created when they faced off. The Smiths threw two more parties in the few weeks afterward—one for New Year’s, and one for their anniversary—so James was busy! It was her labor and that of other domestic servants that enabled the Smiths to throw these parties, but that labor is invisible in the historical record. We have to infer it from what we know about how things worked at the time and from the details that did get recorded about the Smiths’ hosting of the social event of the season that winter.
What did you find as the greatest struggle in reconstructing this particular life?
The hardest part for me to write concerned how James’s first son, Sylvester, was conceived. James herself refused to talk about it; different family members told different stories. There were lots of rumors that Sylvester’s father was a white man. It’s easy to pair those suggestions with the realities of white male supremacy and conclude that James was raped. But I also think we have a stereotype of black women as victims of white male sexual aggression. This is an especially common image when we’re discussing enslaved black women, but we often generalize that image to include all nineteenth-century black women, particularly those who had frequent contact with white men because of their jobs or other factors. I was really struck by a question that scholar Frances Smith Foster reportedly posed to a group of mostly white academics in a discussion of Harriet Jacobs, another black woman who was a contemporary of Jane James. Jacobs recounted her complicated sexual history with remarkable candor in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, but there’s still debate about some aspects of her experience, including whether she was raped. Foster called out the audience’s assumptions about nineteenth-century black women, asking “Why do you want all of us [black women] to have been raped?”
Foster’s question helped me be more careful about the assumptions I made regarding James’s experience, and historian Tera W. Hunter’s work gave me a much better understanding of the range of sexual and “marriage-like” relationships that African Americans formed before the Civil War. So even treating James’s silence as evidence (rather than as a lack of evidence), I don’t think we can be totally sure how Sylvester was conceived. My best guess is that he is the child of rape—but it’s a guess. I tried to honor James’s own complicated experience by laying all this out for the reader but not, ultimately, drawing a firm conclusion.
Do you think your work on James could provide additional help for modern Mormonism’s currently discussion on race in the church?
Well…maybe. I’m not a member of the LDS Church, so in some ways I’m just a spectator. I have tried to tell a story about James that includes as much of the complicated messiness of her life as I could. My fear is that modern Latter-day Saints will read Your Sister in the Gospel and gloss over that messiness, that they’ll see James as an example of faithful persistence in the face of difficulty and they’ll miss the pain and heartbreak she experienced. (By the same token, I also worry that outsiders will read the book and see it as an indictment of the LDS Church’s racism and sexism, that they’ll miss the joy and hope and community James found in the Church.) But maybe my work in Your Sister in the Gospel and elsewhere will help modern members of the LDS Church get a better handle on the assumptions they make about the Church’s past, and maybe it will help them see some of the ways that past, to quote Faulkner, “is never dead. It’s not even past.” That might deepen the discussion of race in the modern LDS Church in helpful ways.