10 Questions with Quincy Newell

We’re happy to have an other of our co-posts with Kurt Manwaring. This is 10 questions with Quincy Newell. Newell is an associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College. She’s also the author of Your Sister in the Gospel: The Life of Jane Manning James from Oxford Press. James has been a focus of attention the past few years with quite a few things written about her and a well regarded film focusing on her interactions with Emma Smith. One of the great things in the last decade of Mormon history has been a close attention to the lives of early black Saints along with a closer understanding of racism in the Church. Newell was one of the historians who helped initiate this era in church history.


Introducing herself and her book, she writes,

Your Sister in the Gospel is the biography of Jane Elizabeth Manning James, an African American woman who grew up in Connecticut in the early 19th century and converted to Mormonism in the early 1840s. She and her family moved to Nauvoo, Illinois, where the church was then based, and Jane worked for the founder Joseph Smith as a servant. After he was killed in 1844, she went to work for Brigham Young, who became the next leader of the church.

Jane married another black convert, Isaac James, and they moved to the Salt Lake Valley with the church. They were in one of the first companies to arrive in the Valley in 1847.

Jane remained a faithful Latter-day Saint for the rest of her life, and died in 1908. In addition to telling the story of Jane’s life, I also reproduce five key texts in an appendix to the book: her two patriarchal blessings and three versions of her life story.

I tried really hard in the book to write in a way that spoke to a broad audience, not just other specialists in Mormon Studies. Some of the stuff I write is aimed at my colleagues in the academy; this, I wrote for my first-year students at the University of Wyoming, for my family members, for my friends, for the moms of my LDS colleagues.

Newell makes the choice of calling her topic by her first name Jane for interesting reasons.

I thought about this decision a lot, because the politics of naming are so fraught—especially when we’re talking about African Americans and women, who have not always had much power to name themselves.

Jane James used at least three surnames during the course of her life: her birth name, Manning; her first married name, James; her second married name, Perkins; and then she returned to using “James” after her second marriage dissolved.

From a strictly logistical point of view, that makes it really difficult to refer to her by last name with both clarity and accuracy, especially because many of the sources I used were produced when she was using one surname but concerned a time in her life when she used another surname.

For African American people, surnames were often a symbol of “self-ownership,” but it’s also important to recognize that all of the surnames Jane used—or at least, all of the surnames we know she used—came from the men in her life, and were in some ways a mark of their claim on her.

The only name she used consistently throughout her life was Jane, so ultimately, that’s the name I decided to use throughout the book as well.

Regarding Jane’s arrival in Nauvoo:

Jane said in her autobiography that when she and her family got to Nauvoo, they “went through all kinds of hardship, trial, and rebuff,” at least until they got to the Smiths’ home.

It’s hard to know what she meant by this—were the residents of Nauvoo unwelcoming, or worse?

And why?

It might have been because they were black, at least in part—but it might also have been because they looked poor, and with hundreds of immigrants arriving in Nauvoo every day, already—established residents might not have been thrilled about the idea of having to take in even more people who might not have the resources to provide for themselves.

Once Jane and her family got to Joseph Smith’s house, she said, things changed—it’s clear that she felt deeply and fully welcomed by Emma and Joseph Smith. I think that’s why she spent so much time on Nauvoo in her autobiography. She was over eighty years old by the time she dictated it, but almost half of her account concerned her time in the Smiths’ household, which lasted about eight months.

In Salt Lake City, near the end of her life, Jane was an integral part of the community. I’m not sure she was treated any more or less as an equal than she was in Nauvoo, but she was definitely well-known to other Latter-day Saints, including those in power. She made a living by doing laundry, but she also made time to attend worship services and women’s meetings—she shows up in the LDS periodical the Woman’s Exponent in the minutes of both Relief Society and Retrenchment Society meetings. (Both organizations were religiously-based women’s groups.)

She was respected because she was one of the last remaining people who had known Joseph Smith personally, and she emphasized that aspect of her biography.

In print—meeting minutes, newspaper profiles, etc.—she’s frequently referred to as “Sister Jane James” or sometimes “Aunt Jane James.” These titles reflect her status in the community—she’s one of us, they seem to be saying—but at the same time, I think referring to her as “Aunt” (or “Auntie,” as one journalist did) echoes the use of this title for black “mammies” and has the effect of holding her at arm’s length.

According to Jane, Joseph Smith’s last words to her were in the context of a conversation about whether she and her sister Angeline should go to Burlington, Iowa, to look for work. Burlington was just across the Mississippi River and a little bit north of Nauvoo.

Jane recalled in her autobiography that Smith “said yes go and be good girls, and remember your profession of faith in the Everlasting Gospel, and the Lord will bless you.”

Smith was killed while Jane and Angeline were in Burlington, or at least that’s how Jane remembered it.

This memory seems to have been particularly poignant for Jane. I’ve suggested that she might have interpreted Smith’s words as a revelation especially for her. It was not uncommon for Smith’s followers to ask him for personal guidance in the form of revelations or “commandments.” Some of these revelations were later canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants, but not all of them were.

A particularly tragic aspect of Jane’s history is unfortunately her patriarchal blessing.

Jane received a patriarchal blessing from Hyrum Smith in 1844. (She also received a patriarchal blessing from Patriarch John Smith in 1889. I’m grateful to Jane’s descendant Louis Duffy for sharing both blessings with me and giving his permission to publish them in the book’s appendix.)

In that 1844 blessing, Hyrum Smith identified Jane’s lineage as that “of Canaan, the Son of Ham.” Most Latter-day Saints’ patriarchal blessings identified them as descendants of the tribe of Ephraim, so placing Jane in the lineage of Canaan is unusual but not hugely surprising: plenty of white American and European folklore at the time identified black people as the descendants of Cain and Canaan and therefore inheriting the curses placed on those two biblical figures as well.

A few sentences after identifying Jane as a descendant of Canaan, Hyrum Smith told her that “he that changeth times and seasons and placed a mark upon your forehead can take it off and stamp upon you his own Image.” So, within a couple breaths, Smith invoked the key Bible stories white Christians used to justify white supremacy. Max Perry Mueller has pointed out that in its conclusion, this blessing also quoted God’s warning to Cain in LDS scripture, warning Jane that “if thou doest not well sin lieth at the door.”

So even in her patriarchal blessing, Jane was explicitly reminded that she inherited the curses of Cain and Canaan.

Her desire to receive her temple blessings is also sad and tragic.

Jane performed baptisms for the dead on at least three occasions, in the Endowment House, the Logan Temple, and the Salt Lake City Temple. But toward the end of her life, Jane was deeply concerned with getting permission to receive her endowment and be sealed in the temple, rituals that Latter-day Saints believed were crucial to reaching the highest degrees of glory after death. (That belief has not changed in any substantial way.)

Jane wanted to be sealed to Joseph Smith as a child; she asked also to be sealed to a husband in marriage. (That husband’s identity varied a bit. Sometimes it was Isaac James; on at least one occasion, she requested a marital sealing to Q. Walker Lewis, one of the few African American men who we know held the LDS priesthood.)

Jane sent letters to church leaders; she also asked powerful women like Zina Young to write letters on her behalf. She went to talk with church leaders about these requests in person, as well.

I think she also cultivated her reputation as an upstanding Latter-day Saint who deserved temple ceremonies, regardless of her racial identity. She was a faithful Latter-day Saint, a mother, someone who fulfilled all the requirements of LDS women. She shaped her public image as someone who had known Joseph Smith, someone who Joseph Smith treated like his own child.

In some ways, I think she used her autobiography to tell church leaders, “Joseph Smith would have let me into the temple. Who are you to keep me out?”

During her lifetime, Jane didn’t get what she was after. Instead, the result of her persistent efforts was that the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles decided to create a ceremony just for her, that sealed her to Joseph Smith as a servant. The ceremony was performed in the Salt Lake Temple, with Zina Young standing as proxy for Jane (even though Jane was alive and well, and living only a few blocks away).

This ceremony is both horrifying and a remarkable instance of religious creativity. Church leaders couldn’t (I think) wrap their heads around the idea of giving Joseph Smith a black daughter in eternity, although they were fine sealing scores of white Latter-day Saints to him as children. So instead, they drew on the resources they had—in this case, my guess is that they looked at D&C 132, the line about “ministering servants,” and used that to create a new way to seal people to one another.

In any case, neither Jane nor the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles were satisfied with this compromise. The Q12 discussed this ceremony in the same terms they applied to other sealing ceremonies, but they used the verb attach rather than seal, as would have been standard in other kinds of sealing ceremonies. Jane applied again later for sealings, indicating that this ritual did not meet her needs; and the ceremony was never (so far as we know) performed again, indicating that the Q12 didn’t find it a satisfying way of constructing eternal relationships.

I think it’s important to sit for a minute with this ritual innovation that was invented to protect a racist system.

But, before your readers rush out to submit Jane’s name for proxy sealing and endowment ceremonies, I’ll also note that Linda King Newell performed these rituals for Jane shortly after the 1978 revelation extending the priesthood to men of African descent (and, by corollary, opening the endowment and sealing rituals to women and men of African descent).

The full interview is fantastic. I encourage everyone to head over to 10 Questions and read it in full.

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