Jane Manning James: An Independent Mind
When Jane cited Emma's offer as a part of her 1884 petition to be sealed to the Smiths (repeated in several subsequent petitions), the restrictive priesthood policy was set, and her blackness was of greater importance than her faithfulness. President Wilford Woodruff (channeling Brigham Young's thoughts) wrote in his journal on October 16, 1894: "Black Jane wanted to know if I would not let her have her endowments in the temple [.] This I could not do as it was against the law of God as Cain killed Abel all the seed of Cain would have to wait for redemption until [sic] all the seed that Abel would have had that may come through other men can be redeemed."
Jane was instead sealed to Joseph Smith as a servant, Bathsheba Smith acting as her proxy in the temple. Nonetheless, Jane showed her independent spirit and her faith in the gospel of brotherhood/sisterhood. The minutes of a 1902 meeting of the Council of the Twelve report that "Aunt Jane was not satisfied with this [sealing], and as a mark of her dissatisfaction she applied again after this for sealing blessings, but of course in vain."
Her final petition, written to President Joseph F. Smith, was penned on August 31st, 1903—five years before her death. It included a stamped envelope for his reply. We have no record of how or if he answered.
In every letter written to church leaders, Jane concludes with "Your sister in the gospel." In one to Joseph F. Smith, she begs him to "be a brother." She writes to him as one who desires to bear "the same name as yourself" (Smith), clearly imagining that once adopted into the Smith family, all differences between their skin color will be irrelevant. Though she signs it "Your sister in the gospel," just as she has signed the others, she includes one postscript: "I am coloured."
Jane indicates in her first letter, addressing John Taylor, that she has a firm grasp on the scriptures. Though she seemingly accepts the lore of the day ("My race was handed down through the flood"), she quickly counters it with a reminder that "God promised Abraham that in his seed all the nations of the earth should be blest [sic] & as this is the fullness of all dispensations is there no blessing for me [?]."
The logic is compelling. If all things are now restored and God promised Abraham that all nations would be blessed through him, why would those faithful Saints of African lineage be prohibited in any way? In this dispensational paradigm, there are no future dispensations in which the promise can be fulfilled. There are several scriptures she could have been alluding to, some in Galatians:
Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham (Gal. 3:7-9).
Had Jane James read these scriptures before and recognized the personal promise given to her—that God would justify her through her faith? Had not she been commended for this faith? When she visited Wilford Woodruff, he blessed her for her faith before telling her that her request for temple privileges would likely not be granted. Joseph Smith had commended her and her family for their courageous journey, asking another guest, John Bernheisel, "Isn't that faith?" and then blessing and assuring them: "God bless you. You are among friends, and you will be protected."
Margaret Blair Young teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University. Her best known novels include the Standing on the Promises trilogy, co-authored with Darius Gray. These three books give the history, with some fictional liberties taken, of Black Mormon pioneers. The updated and revised versions will soon be available through Zarahemla Press and at Amazon.com. Gray and Young also made the documentary Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons, now available wherever LDS books are sold, and shown monthly on the Documentary Channel. Young is currently working on a film about Mormon missionaries in Africa, titled Heart of Africa.