Quincy Newell

Jane James


1820s (Early):  Jane Elizabeth Manning was born in Wilton, Connecticut.

Ca. 1825:  Jane’s father Isaac Manning died; Jane went to work for the Fitches in New Canaan, Connecticut.

1839:  Jane’s son Sylvester was born, the first of eight children.

1841 (February 14):  Jane became a member of the New Canaan Congregational Church.

1841–1842 (Winter):  Jane was baptized and confirmed in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

1843 (Fall):  Jane and her family left Wilton, Connecticut and traveled to Nauvoo, Illinois.

1843–1844:  Jane was employed by Joseph Smith, Jr. and his family as a domestic servant.

1844 (June 27):  Joseph Smith was killed.

Ca. 1845:  Jane Manning married Isaac James, a Black Mormon from New Jersey.

1846 (Spring):  About two-thirds of the Latter-day Saints, including Jane and Isaac James, left Nauvoo under Brigham Young’s direction.

1846–1847 (Winter):  The Latter-day Saints, including Jane and Isaac James and their family, camped at Winter Quarters, Indian Territory.

1847 (Summer):  Jane and her family were in one of the first companies of Latter-day Saints to reach the Great Salt Lake Valley.

1840s (Late) – 1850s:  Jane and Isaac James and their children worked for Brigham Young; they also established their own agricultural operation.

1870:  Jane and Isaac divorced.

1874:  Jane James married Frank Perkins, a Black Mormon and the father-in-law of her son Sylvester.

1875:  Jane and Frank, along with other Black Mormons, performed baptisms for the dead in the Salt Lake City Endowment House.

1876:  Jane’s marriage to Frank Perkins dissolved; she resumed using the surname James.

1885:  Jane’s son Sylvester was cut off from the LDS Church for “unchristianlike behavior.”

1888:  Jane was baptized for several female relatives in the Logan, Utah Temple.

1890:  Isaac James returned to Salt Lake City and took up residence with Jane.

1891 (November 19):  Isaac James died.

1892:  Jane’s brother Isaac Manning moved to Salt Lake City.

1894 (May 18):  Jane was sealed as a “servitor” to Joseph Smith in the Salt Lake Temple. A White woman stood as proxy for Jane because she was not permitted to participate in temple sealing ceremonies.

1894 (November):  Jane was baptized for her niece in the Salt Lake Temple.

1908 (April 16):  Jane Elizabeth Manning James died. She was survived by her brother, Isaac Manning, and two of her children, Sylvester James and Ellen Madora, as well as several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.


Jane Elizabeth Manning was born on a spring day in the early 1820s, most likely at her family’s home in Wilton, Connecticut. [Image at right] Her mother, Philes, was enslaved at birth, but had been free for at least a decade by the time of Jane’s birth. Philes’ mother, also called Philes, remained enslaved as she was too old to benefit from the gradual emancipation laws that the Connecticut legislature had passed in 1784. Little is known of Isaac Manning, Jane’s father, though a local historian claimed in the late 1930s that Manning had come from Newtown, Connecticut, about eighteen miles from Wilton. Isaac and Philes had at least five children together, including Jane, before Isaac died in about 1825.

Perhaps because of her father’s untimely death, Jane Manning went to work for the Fitches, a wealthy White couple in nearby New Canaan when she was six years old. She may have been indentured to the Fitch family, obligating them to pay her family and provide her with food, clothing, lodging, and possibly education in return for her labor over a fixed number of years.

Around 1839, in her late teens, Jane gave birth to a son, whom she named Sylvester. The identity of Sylvester’s father, and the circumstances of his conception, were questions on which Jane remained steadfastly silent throughout her life. Rumors circulated in her family (among her siblings and her descendants) that the father was a White man; her brother said the father was a White preacher. According to his granddaughter, Sylvester himself said his father was a French Canadian. But Sylvester’s phenotypical differences from his mother and her younger children (whose paternity was known), on which these assertions relied as evidence, are not reliable markers of racial identity. Since Jane herself apparently left no indication of the identity of Sylvester’s father, we cannot know with any certainty who he was.

Similarly, we cannot be sure of the circumstances under which Sylvester was conceived. It is possible that Jane had a consensual relationship with Sylvester’s father, even if it was not a legally documented marriage. However, her adamant silence on the matter may itself be evidence that Jane was raped, a trauma that was largely unspeakable for nineteenth-century women and especially for Black women like Jane, who had to be particularly vigilant in maintaining their reputations against the stereotyping of White society.

In 1841, Jane became a member of the New Canaan Congregational Church, where the family that employed her were also members. The Fitches may have been concerned about her moral scruples, given her recent unwed maternity, and church membership may have been a way to assuage their worries. It is also possible that Jane saw the structure of church discipline as a potential tool to use against an unruly employer or other townsperson; or, perhaps, she might simply have been convinced of the truth of the church’s message, or felt that this was the necessary next step in her journey into adulthood. Whatever the reason, she was received into membership on February 14, 1841. However, she later said, she “did not feel satisfied, it seemed to me there was something more I was looking for” (Newell 2019:144).

About a year later, in the winter of 1841–1842, Jane heard a Mormon missionary preach and she became convinced that she had found the “something more” she had been seeking. A week later, she was baptized and confirmed as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the LDS, or Mormon, Church). Jane’s family (her mother, step-father, siblings, and siblings-in-law) appear to have been baptized and confirmed around the same time. Jane later said that “about three weeks after [her baptism and confirmation in the LDS Church] while kneeling at prayer the Gift of Tongues came upon me and frightened the whole family who were in the next room” (Newell 2019:144). This appears to have been Jane’s first experience of glossolalia, an experience she would continue to have throughout her life. For Jane, this experience served to confirm her sense that the Mormons offered that spiritual “something more” for which she had been searching.

After their baptisms, Jane and her family, along with the other LDS converts in southwestern Connecticut, began preparing to “gather,” to join other members of the church in Nauvoo, Illinois, where the church was based at the time. In September 1843, they sold their family home and departed, joining a group of Black and White LDS Church members for the trip west. Led by the missionary who baptized Jane, the group made its way southwest from Connecticut to New York City, and thence up the Hudson River to the Erie Canal, which took them west to Buffalo and the shores of Lake Erie.

At Buffalo, or perhaps somewhat later in Ohio, the Black members of the group were separated from the group and denied further passage, quite possibly because of Ohio’s stringent Black Code, which required that free Black people entering the state post a bond of $500 and provide “free papers” proving their status. Some of the Black members of the group may have turned back toward Connecticut at this point, but Jane and her family determined to press on. Jane arranged for the group leader to take her trunk with him to Nauvoo, then she and the other Black people who had decided to continue set out to walk the rest of the way, a distance of over a thousand miles.

Jane and her family arrived in Nauvoo in the late fall of 1843. Initially, they stayed with the LDS prophet, Joseph Smith, Jr. (1805–1844) [Image at right] and his wife Emma Hale Smith (1842–1844) until Jane’s family members gradually found employment and lodging elsewhere; only Jane and her son Sylvester remained in the Smith home. The Smiths employed Jane as a domestic servant, a role that afforded her privileged access to the prophet and his family. Jane’s charismatic experiences continued during this period. She later recalled that as she washed Joseph Smith’s temple robes (special clothing used for temple rituals that were being developed in Nauvoo), the Holy Spirit “made manifest to me that they pertained to the new name that is given the saints that the world knows not of,” a reference to the sacred temple ceremonies from which Jane would eventually be excluded because of her race (Newell 2019:146).

In later accounts of her time working for the Smiths, Jane recalled that Joseph Smith treated her like a member of the family. “He’d always smile, always just like he did to his children. He used to be just like I was his child,” she told one interviewer (Newell 2019:150). Jane also said that Joseph Smith offered to adopt her as a child, reinforcing her sense that she was treated like other members of the family. When Jane recounted this story, she and her audience both understood the offer of adoption to be a reference to a temple sealing ceremony, in which Jane would be spiritually bound to Joseph Smith as a child, and therefore connected to him as a family member in eternity. She repeated this story frequently, probably in hopes of convincing church leaders to carry out the ceremony that she had refused when it was first offered because, she said, she “did not understand or know what it meant” (Newell 2019:147).

At some point during her time in Nauvoo, Jane met and married Isaac James, another Black convert to Mormonism. Like Jane, Isaac was from the eastern United States. He arrived in Nauvoo from New Jersey. Isaac helped raise Jane’s son Sylvester, and he and Jane went on to have seven additional children between 1846 and 1859, five girls and three boys (one of whom was stillborn).

In 1844, Joseph Smith was killed by a mob, setting off a succession crisis in the LDS Church. Brigham Young (1801–1877) [Image at right] emerged as the leader accepted by approximately two-thirds of the church, and within about a year, church members left Nauvoo and headed west. They paused during the winter of 1846–1847 in what is now eastern Nebraska at a site called “Winter Quarters” (present-day Omaha), and continued in the spring, eventually arriving in the Great Salt Lake Valley. Jane and her husband Isaac were in one of the first companies to arrive in the valley in July 1847. Most of Jane’s birth family had stayed behind in the Midwest.

When they arrived in the Great Salt Lake Valley, Jane and Isaac both worked for Brigham Young, but eventually they established their own agricultural operation. They did moderately well for themselves: tax records show that they owned as much as, or more than, many of their neighbors.

In 1870, though, Jane and Isaac divorced. The reasons for their split are not documented, though Isaac may have been disillusioned with the church to which Jane devoted so much time and energy. Isaac left Salt Lake City and Jane moved from the property the couple owned on the outskirts of the city to a more centrally located home downtown. As the 1870s wore on, Jane’s family structure unraveled further: her daughter Mary Ann died in 1871; her son Silas died in 1872; and her daughter Miriam died in 1874. Thus, half of her eight children had predeceased her by the middle of the decade. Meanwhile, her unmarried teenage daughter Ellen Madora had given birth to a baby in 1869. She left the child to be raised by Jane while she went to live in San Francisco, California, where she was convicted in 1879 of “keeping a house of ill repute” and fined $50 (Thiriot 2015).

Perhaps in an effort to reweave her family ties, Jane appears to have married again in 1874, this time joining her fortunes to those of a man named Frank Perkins, her son Sylvester’s father-in-law. There is no official record of this marriage, but Jane began signing her name as “Jane Perkins,” and since she was allowed to take part in various church activities during this time, we can conclude that church leaders saw the relationship as official. However, around 1876 this relationship also broke up. As with its formation, there is no documentation of its dissolution; the only clue is that Jane stopped signing her name as “Jane Perkins” and returned to “Jane James.”

By the mid-1880s, Jane was facing increasing challenges in holding her family together. After a stint in Nevada, Jane’s wayward daughter Ellen Madora moved back to Salt Lake. Perhaps in an effort to help Ellen Madora get back on her feet, Jane transferred the deed to her house to her daughter, who then took out a mortgage on the property. But a few years later, though, Ellen Madora could not make the mortgage payments and transferred the deed back to her mother, who took over the loan.  Meanwhile, Jane’s son Sylvester was cut off from the church in 1885 for “unchristianlike behavior” (Newell 2019:107).

Apparently unable to sustain a marriage relationship, having lost four children to death and perhaps feeling that she was losing Ellen Madora and Sylvester to the secular world, Jane seems to have turned her attention to eternity. In March of 1883 she paid a visit to John Taylor (1808–1887), the president of the LDS Church, to request permission to receive her endowments, the first of two temple rituals Latter-day Saints believed were necessary to attain the highest degree of glory after death. Taylor rebuffed her, telling her that he “did not think the time had yet come for [her] race to receive the benefits of the House of the Lord” (Newell 2019:106). Jane was nothing if not persistent, though. Over the next two decades, she continued to petition church leaders for permission to participate in the temple ceremonies that would allow her to reach the highest degree of glory in the afterlife and to spend eternity with her loved ones.

Jane’s first husband, Isaac James, returned to Salt Lake in 1890. He moved into Jane’s home, whether as a reconciled husband, as a lodger, or as a charity case, is not discernible in the historical record. Isaac was rebaptized and welcomed back into the LDS Church in July 1890, but whether Jane and Isaac could give themselves a fresh start as a couple was a different question entirely. As it turned out, their time together was short: Isaac died in November 1891 after an illness of six weeks. Jane was alone again.

The following year, Jane’s brother Isaac Lewis Manning (1815–1911) arrived in Salt Lake and moved in with Jane. [Image at right] Isaac had stayed in the Midwest when Brigham Young led the majority of the church to Utah. His wife had died the previous year, though, and as far as he knew, Jane was the only family he had left. He was received in the LDS Church by rebaptism in March 1892, and both Jane and he were active members of the community, attending worship services, going on excursions organized for “Old Folks Day,” and so on.

Jane’s continued petitions for temple ceremonies finally seemed to bear fruit in 1894. For more than a decade, Jane had been requesting permission to be sealed as a child to Joseph Smith. She said that Joseph himself had offered her this opportunity, through his wife Emma, and that she had declined the offer at the time because she did not understand it. However, she wanted very much to reverse her decision now. However, church leaders seem to have balked at giving their founding prophet a Black daughter for eternity. Instead, they agreed to seal Jane to Joseph Smith as a “servitor” in eternity. The ritual was performed in the Salt Lake temple on May 18, 1894, but Jane was not present (even though she was alive and well and living only a few blocks away) because she was Black. Instead, Jane was represented by a White woman who stood as a proxy for her.

The 1894 compromise did not satisfy Jane, nor did it satisfy church leaders. No evidence has been found that this ceremony was ever performed again, indicating that church leaders did not find it an effective way of structuring eternal relationships. Jane returned to requesting that she be sealed to Joseph Smith as a child. Minutes from a 1902 meeting of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the highest governing body of the church) noted that “Aunt Jane was not satisfied with this [ceremony], and as a mark of her dissatisfaction she applied again after this for sealing blessings, but of course in vain” (Newell 2019:116).

Jane died in April 1908. She was survived by her brother Isaac Manning, and two children: Sylvester and Ellen Madora. Her death made headlines in the local papers, and her funeral was well attended. Joseph F. Smith (1838–1918), the president of the LDS Church at the time and the nephew of church founder Joseph Smith, spoke at the funeral.


As a Black woman, Jane did not occupy a position of authority in the LDS Church that would have allowed her to develop doctrine or promulgate her own teachings. She consistently articulated her acceptance of church leaders’ teachings. Nevertheless, she found ways to resist church doctrines that restricted her full participation in the tradition. For example, in an extended correspondence with President John Taylor regarding temple privileges, Jane pushed back against the LDS interpretation of the curse of Cain (Genesis 4:11–16) to mean that Black people, as descendants of Cain, could not participate in temple rituals. “My race,” she wrote, “was handed down through the flood & God promised Abraham that in his seed all the nations of the earth should be blest & as this is the fullness of all dispensations is there no blessing for me?” (Newell 2019:105). Invoking scriptural promises of blessings to all of Abraham’s descendants and LDS millennial expectations, Jane sought to parry the popular racist interpretations of scripture that excluded her from the blessings she so deeply desired.

By challenging restrictions on her temple access, Jane inadvertently may have contributed to the development of the ideas that undergirded that exclusion. As scholars like historian W. Paul Reeve have shown, the priesthood and temple restrictions, which kept Jane and other Black Mormons from participating in crucial temple rituals and prevented most Black Mormon men from holding the priesthood (and thus from exercising leadership roles in the church or providing priesthood blessings to their families), crystallized slowly over the latter half of the nineteenth century (Reeve 2015:188–214). As church leaders made decisions about individual cases, they slowly accumulated a body of examples from which they ultimately deduced the broader priesthood and temple restrictions, which they justified with theological explanations of racial origins and curses. When she pressed her case for temple endowments and sealings, Jane spurred these discussions among church leaders, with the unintended consequence that in their conversations, church leaders clarified and justified the very restrictions she was attempting to cut through.


When Jane joined the LDS Church, Mormonism included a variety of charismatic elements. Most prominent in Jane’s accounts of her life were speaking in tongues and communicating with the divine in trance, vision, or dream states. As mentioned above, Jane’s first recorded experience of glossolalia occurred shortly after her LDS baptism. In her autobiography, she also recounted a mystical experience of divine communication. Doing the laundry for the first time in Joseph Smith’s home in Nauvoo, she said,

Among the clothes I found brother Joseph’s robes. I looked at them and wondered. I had never seen any before, and I pondered over them and thought about them so earnestly that the spirit made manifest to me that they pertained to the new name that is given the saints that the world knows not of. I didn’t know when I washed them or when I put them out to dry (Newell 2019:146; spelling and punctuation modernized).

By the end of Jane’s life, these practices had largely fallen out of use among Latter-day Saints. Nevertheless, she found a willing audience (and occasionally an interpreter) for her glossolalia in women’s meetings. She also bore her testimony in these gatherings, and sometimes spoke about dreams and visions she experienced. Other women also spoke in tongues and recounted dreams and visions at these meetings, so Jane was not alone as a practitioner of an older, more “traditional” form of Mormonism.

In other ways, Jane was an exemplary practitioner of “typical” Mormonism throughout her life in the church. In moving to Nauvoo, and then to Utah, she conformed to the LDS doctrine of “the gathering,” which called members physically to “gather unto Zion,” or wherever the church was then located. This doctrine is no longer interpreted literally, but during the nineteenth century it resulted in the migration of thousands of Saints from around the world to the U.S. Midwest and, ultimately, to the Great Salt Lake Valley and surrounding Mountain West region.

The evidence is far from complete, but it seems to indicate that Jane also attended church meetings regularly and tithed a part of her income to the church. In the 1880s and 1890s, she regularly appears in the meeting records of women’s groups, the Relief Society and Retrenchment Society. She appears in her ward records as well, both as a contributor and a recipient of donations. And she occasionally gave to fundraising campaigns for specific causes, such as for the construction of the St. George, Utah temple.

Through temple rituals, Latter-day Saints believe they are able to effect specific, salvific changes for both living and dead people. There are three main categories of temple rituals: baptisms for the dead, endowments, and sealings. Jane was able to perform proxy baptisms for some of her dead. In this ritual, Latter-day Saints undergo the ritual of baptism in a baptismal pool at the lowest level of the temple “for and in behalf of” a person who has died. According to LDS belief, this ritual allows the deceased person to accept the gospel in the afterlife and thus be freed from “spirit prison,” if they choose to do so. (Baptisms for living people are performed outside temples in natural bodies of water or in purpose-built baptismal fonts.) Before the first temple was completed in Utah, this ritual was performed on a regular basis in a building known as the Endowment House. [Image at right] In September 1875, Brigham Young directed that the Endowment House be made available for Black members to perform baptisms for the dead, which Jane and a group of others did with the help of a handful of White priesthood-holders. Jane was also baptized for several of her female relatives in the Logan, Utah Temple in 1888; and for a niece in the Salt Lake Temple in 1894.

While baptisms for the dead are performed on the lowest level of LDS temples, endowments and sealings take place on the upper levels, moving believers physically higher as they progress through ritual stages that will allow them to reach a correspondingly higher level of exaltation in the afterlife. These rituals can be performed by living people on their own behalf, or on behalf of dead people, with the ritual participants acting as proxies for the deceased beneficiaries. Endowment and sealing rituals, which Latter-day Saints believe both assume and make available certain forms of priesthood, were closed to Jane because she was Black (Stapley 2018:17).

Endowments, for Latter-day Saints, are initiation rituals that guide participants through sacred history, teach them esoteric knowledge, and require that they make sacred vows. For present-day Latter-day Saints, they are rites of passage that move the initiate from childhood to adulthood, and they are often performed just before leaving for a church mission or getting married. Jane waged a years-long campaign to receive her endowments, writing letters to church leaders, meeting with them, and asking friends to write on her behalf. She was never allowed to participate in this ritual.

Sealings are temple ceremonies in which Latter-day Saints make human relationships eternal, ritualizing Jesus’ promise that “Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven” (Matthew 18:18). Technically, weddings performed in LDS temples are marriage sealings. Latter-day Saints believe that spouses joined in a sealing ritual will be married for eternity, and that any children they bear after being sealed to one another, by virtue of being “born in the covenant,” will automatically be sealed to their parents. Children born before their parents are sealed, and children adopted into the family, may be sealed to their parents to ensure that they are able to stay with their families forever. Near the end of her life, Jane James said that Joseph Smith had offered to adopt her as a child, and she requested permission to accept that offer by being sealed to him in the temple. Adoption sealings of the sort that Jane requested were not unusual at the time; many Latter-day Saints were requesting, and receiving, sealing to Joseph Smith and other church leaders, both deceased and still living. Nevertheless, uncomfortable with the prospect of sealing a Black woman to Joseph Smith, church leaders tried to compromise by creating a new ceremony to seal Jane to Joseph Smith as a “servitor.” This ceremony was performed in the Salt Lake Temple in 1894, using proxies for both Jane James and Joseph Smith. In this way, church leaders avoided opening the upper floors of the temple to Black people.


Jane James has, perhaps, become more of a leader in death than she was ever able to be in life. Although she was largely forgotten by Latter-day Saints after her 1908 death, her story has been recuperated and put to use by both Latter-day Saints and anti-Mormons. While anti-Mormons have generally used Jane as an illustration of the LDS Church’s historical racism and hypocrisy, Latter-day Saint usage has been more varied. In this way, Jane James has come to resemble Sojourner Truth (1797–1883), whom historian Nell Irvin Painter points out has been adopted as a symbol for a range of political causes (1997:258–87).

For a range of Latter-day Saints, Jane James has become an important touchstone in thinking about the historical racial diversity of their church and the racial attitudes of the founder, Joseph Smith. [Image at right] The fact that Jane worked in Joseph Smith’s home and remembered him with admiration seems to support the notion that the first prophet held anti-racist views and the idea that the church was more accepting of racial diversity than its surrounding society in the mid-nineteenth century when Jane became a member. Thus, Jane’s story may be used as evidence that the LDS Church was always diverse. This is certainly how Jane’s story was employed in 2018 at LDS Church events commemorating the 1978 lifting of the priesthood restriction for Black men. Jane was also framed in these events, and in General Conference talks by members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, as a “pioneer,” not just because she was among the first Mormons to move to the Salt Lake Valley, but because she was one of the early Black members of the church and thus “pioneered” the way for other Black people to follow.

The representation of Jane James as a pioneer often dovetails with praise of her perseverance in the face of great obstacles. While accounts of Jane’s persistence rarely compare her explicitly to the widow in Jesus’ parable of the unjust judge and the importunate widow (Luke 18:1–8), the reference seems to be implicitly invoked, valorizing Jane’s frequent requests for temple privileges as a persistent quest for justice, rather than as an annoying pestering of church authorities. The characterization of Jane James that links her with the importunate widow has allowed lay members of the church to point to her as an example of activism in the cause of proto-feminist and racial justice ideals.

Simultaneously, more conservative church members have portrayed Jane James as an idealized mother figure who “wore out her life in patient humble service to others” (Smith 2015). Her story has thus been recruited to serve causes across the ideological spectrum of Mormonism. The relative lack of documentation of her own words assists in this recruitment, since there is very little evidence to show that she might have supported or opposed any given position.


The main challenge in studying Jane James’ life is the relative dearth of primary sources. Jane produced few sources herself (she dictated a short autobiography and left a few letters), but whether she wrote any of these herself, we cannot be sure. Compared to many of her White contemporaries, who wrote voluminously about their own lives in diaries, letters, and published accounts, the source base for Jane James is distressingly small. Much of it exists in a form that historian Jon Sensbach has described as “documentary shrapnel”: a passing reference in someone’s diary; a half a sentence in a newspaper clipping; a fraction of a square millimeter in a historic photo (Sensbach 2015:25).

Moreover, many of the sources that do exist are inaccessible to researchers. The LDS Church History Library holds a number of sources and, because they have been deemed private, sacred, or confidential (or some combination thereof), they are not made available for research. These include the temple record showing Jane’s sealing as a servant to Joseph Smith. Researchers must therefore rely on versions of these sources published before access to them was restricted or obtain them through personal connections with others who, by virtue of family, religious, or professional identity, may have greater access. Still other documents are held by private collectors and may simply not be known to researchers.

Working with the documents that are accessible, the key challenge for researchers is to understand the forces that influenced the shaping of those documents. For example, Jane James dictated her autobiography to a White Englishwoman named Elizabeth Jefford Drake Roundy (1830–1916). Roundy did not know Joseph Smith personally as she did not arrive in the United States until after his death. In the late nineteenth century, however, she became the leading proponent of the celebration of Smith’s birthday by the Latter-day Saints, campaigning relentlessly for the observance of the date and working to gather reminiscences of Smith from those who had spent time in his presence. That effort likely motivated Roundy’s work to record Jane’s autobiography, and at least partially shaped the story that Jane told. But Jane James also had her own motives for dwelling on her time with Joseph Smith in that document: knowing that it would be shared with church leaders, she seems to have hoped to show that Smith embraced her as a member of his family. She may have hoped that if she could persuade church leaders of the warmth of her relationship with Smith, they would grant her request to be sealed to him as a child. Such hopes almost certainly shaped both what Jane included in her account and what she excluded. She did not talk about having a child out of wedlock, for example, or about her divorce from her first husband, while she dwelt extensively on her positive relationship with Joseph Smith and her conformity to LDS gender norms. Uncovering the range of factors that influenced the production of each of the sources that illuminates Jane James’ life is crucial to understanding all that each source can reveal.


For scholars today, Jane James’ historical significance lies in how her story allows us to question received narratives and expand our field of vision. Scholarship on race in the nineteenth-century LDS Church has long focused on the priesthood restriction. Women were never ordained to the LDS priesthood, so this restriction did not apply directly to Jane. However, examining her experience allows us to understand more fully the far-reaching consequences of the priesthood restriction. Jane’s husbands and sons were not allowed to hold the priesthood, which meant that, unlike her White co-religionists, she could never receive priesthood blessings from a member of her own family (White 1980–1981:44). Similarly, because of developing LDS theological understandings of the relationship between priesthood and temple rituals, Jane could not receive her endowment or be sealed to her family members in the temple. The priesthood restriction, then, had profound implications that extended far beyond the ordination of Black men and shaped the lives and religious experiences of Black women and children as well.

Thus, to understand race in the LDS Church, Jane James’ story teaches us to look beyond institutional policies and their development to the lived experiences of those in the pews and to consider not only the men who were often the default subjects of institutional dicta but also the women who were often a secondary consideration for patriarchal institutions. This is a lesson that applies to the study of other religious traditions as well, of course. Any study of a religious tradition that does not include serious consideration of women’s experiences is incomplete.

Jane James’ life also offers a model for piecing together the stories of historical figures on whom only fragmentary evidence is available. [Image at right] Especially in comparison to the White leaders of the LDS Church, the sources on Jane’s life are scarce. Nevertheless, the field of African American religious history has shown that these sources can be supplemented with contextual information in ways that allow us to hang flesh on the bony skeleton provided by the sources, eventually yielding a robust picture of the figure in question. An apparent lack of sources then, should be seen not as a roadblock, but as an invitation to take a more winding, scenic route.


Image #1: Studio of Edward Martin, Portrait of a woman believed to be Jane Manning James, Salt Lake City, 1865–1870. Wikimedia Commons.
Image #2: Joseph Smith, Jr. from a daguerreotype taken by Lucian Foster between 1840 to 1844. Third-generation copy of the daguerreotype edited by an artist. Donated to the Library of Congress in 1879 by Joseph Smith, Jr.’s son, Joseph Smith III. Wikimedia Commons.
Image #3: Brigham Young. Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum, Historical Photographs and Special Visual Collections Department, Fine Arts Library. Wikimedia Commons.
Image #4: Isaac Lewis Manning, possibly with Jane James. Photo added by Carl W. McBrayer. Find a Grave, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/10505669/isaac-lewis-manning.
Image #5: Endowment House, Temple Block, Salt Lake, circa 1855. Albumen. L. Tom Perry Special Collections; MSS P 24. Lee Library, Brigham Young University. Wikimedia Commons.
Image #6: C. R. Savage, “Utah Pioneers of 1847,” 1905. Princeton University Library. Wikimedia Commons.
Image #7: Jane James, close-up, from C. R. Savage, “Utah Pioneers of 1847,” 1905. Princeton University Library.


Newell, Quincy D. 2019. Your Sister in the Gospel: The Life of Jane Manning James, a Nineteenth-Century Black Mormon. New York: Oxford University Press.

Painter, Nell Irvin. 1997. Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol. New York: W. W. Norton.

Reeve, W. Paul. 2015. Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sensbach, Jon. 2015. “Born on the Sea from Guinea: Women’s Spiritual Middle Passages in the Early Black Atlantic.” Pp.  17–34 in Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women, edited by Mia E. Bay, Farah J. Griffin, Martha S. Jones, and Barbara D. Savage. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Smith, Becky Cardon. 2015. “Remembering Jane Manning James.” Meridian Magazine, May 4. Accessed from https://web.archive.org/web/20100206222448/ on 3 February 2022.

Stapley, Jonathan A. 2018. The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Thiriot, Amy Tanner. 2015. “Mrs. Nellie Kidd, Courtesan.” Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History Blog (blog), January 6. Accessed from http://www.keepapitchinin.org/2015/01/06/mrs-nellie-kidd-courtesan/ on 3 February 2022.

White, O. Kendall. 1980–1981. “Boundary Maintenance, Blacks, and the Mormon Priesthood.” Journal of Religious Thought 37 (Fall/Winter): 30–44.


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Publication Date:
6 February 2022