Jane Elizabeth Manning James: Black Mormon History

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I met Jane in high school, well, not literally, but that’s when I learned of her beautiful legacy. Her story saved me when I was struggling to find my footing in a place where I felt alone. At the time that place was Utah. I had wound up there kicking and screaming (unfortunately literally), from Atlanta, Georgia.

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Here’s the thing, nobody told me that there was actually NO PEPPER in Salt Lake. I feel like it should have been somewhere on the “Welcome to Utah” sign as we entered the State.  Something like (Please read the following in your best flight attendant voice):

WELCOME TO UTAH, we are known for and truly do have the greatest snow on earth! Please be aware that the climate is very dry, regular lotion will not work, extended stay may cause extreme ashiness. Also of note, by crossing our beautiful state line you have increased our black population by 100%. Expect to be the only black kid in your class and congregation.

Obviously I’m being a lil’ dramatic. What Utah did afford that I had never experienced before, was the opportunity to live amongst members of my faith. In ATL there were lots of brown folks, but I was often the only LDS person in my circles. In Utah I was meeting more Mormon folks my age than I ever had, which was thrilling, but I was also meeting some folks who called themselves Latter-day Saints, but were not treating me like a sister in the gospel.

By the time I got called the N-word at a church youth activity, I was already prepared for the adult leaders to do nothing about it. They didn’t do anything when people touched my hair without permission and they never did anything about the racial jokes and the asinine questions. Eventually I decided, my parents paid 10% just like their parents paid 10%, and if they could insult me at church then we were gon’ solve it at church. And if the tussle caused some damage, I figured they could it take it out of the tithes. Yep, my Mad Black Mormon days started a long time ago.

You know that scene in The Color Purple where Whoopi Goldberg tells Harpo to beat Oprah? But Oprah ain’t havin’ it, so she flashes on Whoopi and she’s: “All my life I had to fight!” Yeah, that was me…at church. Luckily I found Jane before I ended up in jail, like Oprah did in the movie.

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JANE ELIZABETH MANNING JAMES was an American pioneer and early member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Jane, a free black woman, was born in Wilton, Connecticut. After hearing Mormon missionaries preach, she embraced the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and excitedly shared the Good News with her family.

In 1843 Jane, along with 8 of her family members, embarked on a journey from Connecticut to join Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo, Illinois. When they reached Buffalo, New York they purchased steam boat tickets, but after their luggage had been placed on board, they were denied passage because they were black. Their money and luggage was not returned to them. Undeterred Jane rallied her family and they walked 800 hard miles to Nauvoo. Jane recounted:

“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 and our prayers were answered and our feet were healed forthwith.”

When they reached Illinois, law enforcement threatened to arrest them if they did not produce free papers. Jane and her family were not slaves who had been granted freedom, they had been born free and therefore did not have, nor need free papers. By the grace of God they were able to convince the authorities of the truth. They were allowed to continue on their journey and reached Nauvoo, but not before having to cross a stream of ice cold water up to their necks.

Once in Nauvoo, they were invited into the home of Joseph (LDS church founder) and Emma Smith. After hearing of their treacherous ordeal, Joseph Smith said;

“God bless you. You are among friends; now you will be protected.”

After the rest of her family members found housing in their new town, it was decided that Jane would live with the Smiths. The Smiths and Jane forged such a friendship that Brother Joseph and Emma asked Jane if she would like to be sealed to them as a member of their family.

In Nauvoo, Jane met and married another black Mormon, Isaac James. After Joseph Smith was killed and persecution of LDS church members continued to rise, Jane made the decision to travel West with Isaac and her church family. Weary of another long Journey and unsure of what they might meet in the West, Jane’s family opted out of making the trek to Utah.

As did the other pioneers, Jane endured great hardship on her journey, she gave birth on the trek West and in September of 1847 she arrived in the Salt Lake Valley. As the troubles on the trek began to fade into the past some forgot the brotherly love they shared in Nauvoo and began to seek division among saints of different skin colors. Sister Jane was now referred to as Black Jane. Despite the change in those around her, Jane stayed true to who she was as a woman of faith.

Eliza Partridge Lyman, whose husband was away serving a church mission wrote, in her journal:

“April 13th [1849] … May the Lord bless and prosper them and return them in safety. He left us without anything from which to make bread, it not being in his power to get it. … Jane James, the colored woman, let me have two pounds of flour, it being half of what she had.”

After struggling to fit in and make ends meet in Utah, Jane’s husband abandoned the family to chase opportunity in California. There had been no restrictions on black members when Jane joined the LDS faith, but now in Utah, she found herself pleading for eternal blessings for her family. After the death of Joseph Smith, subsequent church leaders instituted and continued a policy that denied black men the priesthood, black women their temple endowments, and black families sealing blessings and opportunities to serve missions.

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Jane’s faithful thirst to receive the fullness of the blessings of the gospel continued to be unquenched. She wrote multiple letters to LDS church leaders and even met with church presidents. Jane also wanted to be sealed to Joseph and Emma Smith as they had lovingly offered her in Nauvoo. In an 1844 letter to then church president John Taylor, Jane pleaded:

“Is there no blessing for me?”

Jane was finally permitted to do temple baptism work for her family and though she was not allowed to be at the sealing, she was sealed to Joseph and Emma Smith. However, it came with a sting, she could not be sealed to them as family, but was required to be sealed to them as their servant. These concessions did not dampen her desire, Jane continued to write. She passed away with a prayer unanswered, but also with a fire and passion for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jane said:

“I want to say right here, that my faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ, as taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is as strong today, nay, it is if possible stronger than it was the day I was first baptized. I pay my tithes and offerings, keep the word of wisdom, I go to bed early and rise early, I try in my feeble way to set a good example to all.”

I hope that Jane knows that she has set a good example for me, and in no way is it feeble! She didn’t just leave us her story, she left us her testimony. For any feeling alone in the pews at church, Jane has warmed a seat for us. What makes us feel different might be color, culture, economics, family status, what have you, but what Jane teaches us all is that we are never alone when we walk with our God.

I like Jane, keep my feet firmly rooted in the Gospel. While my beginnings in Utah were hard, it is where I met some of my dearest friends (without the beehive state there would be no Sistas in Zion) and Utah is where I found Jane. Jane’s story is not just, “if she can stay and her life was so hard, then I can stay too.” It should inspire us to think about what we each have to contribute to the Gospel and what legacy we will leave for those who come after us.

I’ve been the child that got called a racial slur, but I’ve also been the youth leader who knew how to dry the tears of a child that was bullied at church. I’m that youth leader that can slip a kid some shea butter so he doesn’t walk into the church dance with ashy elbows. As isolated as I felt back then, today I have a strong community of church family who love my differences and I theirs. Trials are hard and often unfair and when I am going through it, I think of Jane’s words:

“Oh how I suffered of cold and hunger, and the keenest of all was to hear my little ones crying for bread, and I had none to give them; but in all, the Lord was with us and gave us grace and faith to stand at all.”

I too echo Jane. I know the Lord is with us, and shall give us the GRACE and FAITH to STAND at all.

Hallelujah Holla Back,
Zandra

  • Bjennings

    Beautiful! I felt the spirit of truth. Both of you are amazing!!

  • TSP

    Thanks for the article and part of history I did not know. Yay for Jane and yay for you!!

  • OE

    Beautiful! May we all continue like Jane (you too)….NEVER GIVE UP….the Church is true!!!!

  • Neli42

    I just told my daughter about this sister the other day, but could not remember her name. I also did not know as much of her history as you have shared here. I am very happy to be able to go back and share “the rest of the story. “

  • Jim Dorigatti

    Have you read the “Standing on the Promises” trilogy of books by Darius Gray and Margaret Blair Young? They tell the stories of many faithful black Saints. They were quite an eye-opener for me — a white Utah-raised Mormon!

  • Jim Dorigatti

    Thank you for this article. Although we still don’t understand why the priesthood restriction existed, we still need to acknowledge it and not be afraid to discuss it. Have you read the “Standing on the Promises” series by Darius Gray and Margaret Blair Young? They tell the stories of many faithful black Saints and their trials of faith — quite an eye-opener for a white Utah-raised member like myself. God bless you, Sister.

  • Lisa Porter

    Love her! What a strong woman, yet humble! In my home ward in Charleston, SC, there lives another faithful sister like Jane, named Maud. Maud had been ever faithful to the gospel for 30 years and I love to hear her testimony when I am home. Maud is elderly and her mind is going, but her faith remains. Thank you for this article!