Unafraid to Ask: Jane Elizabeth Manning James and Ordain Women

janeThere is no more sympathetic figure in Mormon history than Jane Elizabeth Manning James, African-American Mormon pioneer, beloved member of the Joseph and Emma Smith household, and patient, yet relentless, petitioner for LDS temple blessings that remained withheld from her because of her race. Like her friend, the Prophet Joseph, Jane believed that in merely asking she would not be “upbraided.” Although Jane’s requests to receive full temple blessings in her lifetime were refused, she was never defeated in her spiritual quest and continues to inspire those who rediscover her story today.

Jane’s history is well-known in Mormon circles, primarily due to the tireless and eloquent efforts of Margaret Young (along with her collaborator, Darius Gray). Young has recreated Jane’s life so vividly, in such fully-realized media, that one stands all amazed how she performed the artistic ordinance of resurrecting Jane from the dead, producing her story in a novel trilogy (Standing on the Promises–soon to be available in audio format, narrated by Young herself), a play (“I Am Jane”), and a documentary film (“Jane Manning James: Your Sister in the Gospel”).

After Jane’s baptism in 1843, she led a group of family members to Nauvoo, Illinois, walking much of the distance by foot as their “feet cracked open and bled until you could see the whole prints of our feet with blood on the ground.”  Homeless after her arrival there, Jane found not just employment, room and board with Joseph, Emma and Mother Smith, but also a loving family life among them: “Brother Joseph sat down by me and said, ‘God bless you. You are among friends.’”  She crossed the plains with the pioneers, arriving in Salt Lake on September 22, 1847: “Oh how I suffered of cold and hunger, but the Lord gave us faith and grace to stand it all.” She regularly attended Relief Society meetings in Salt Lake City, sharing her thoughts frequently, sometimes in tongues, while others interpreted (including President Z. D. H. Young among other interpreters). Of the Prophet Joseph she said he was “the finest man [she] ever saw on earth.” She died on April 16, 1908, and President Joseph F. Smith was a speaker at her funeral.

But all was not well in Zion for Jane. Late in life, after suffering the unbearable loss of many loved ones and facing the end of her own mortality, she desired desperately to receive her temple endowments and to be sealed to her family, even though church doctrine at that time did not allow her race to have access to those blessings. Beginning in 1884, Jane undertook a deferential, yet persistent, attempt via letters and meetings to persuade church leaders to grant her temple attendance requests.

jane 2In 1884, Jane wrote a letter to President John Taylor after she visited him in his home to talk about her personal salvation. While Jane acknowledged that the church did not allow her to receive her endowments, she made a theological case for expanding church doctrine to permit it, citing the blessings of Abraham through which all families of the earth would be blessed. “[I]s there no blessing for me[?]” she asked. Jane asked President Taylor to advocate her case before the First Presidency, hoping they would grant her request. It was denied, although she was allowed to be baptized for her dead kindred in the temple shortly thereafter.

Again in 1890, Jane wrote a letter to Joseph F. Smith, counselor to President Wilford Woodruf, once again renewing her request, asking also to be sealed by adoption into the Prophet Joseph’s family (an LDS doctrine formerly taught in the pioneer period, but discontinued today). This was also denied. In 1894, Jane met with President Woodruf asking again to receive her endowments in the temple. President Woodruf blessed Jane for her faithfulness, but declined and reminded her that it was against church doctrine. A year later, in 1895, Jane appealed again to the First Presidency asking to receive her endowments, but was denied. In 1902 her requests were presented before the Quorum of the Twelve, but denied, although she was allowed to be sealed to the Joseph Smith family for eternity as a servant, an arrangement that was unacceptable to her.

In August 1903, Jane made one final attempt, hoping her request might be granted by new LDS President Joseph F. Smith. In her letter to the church president, she asked to receive her endowments and requested a meeting with President Smith to discuss her requests. It is unknown whether President Smith ever met with Jane, but her requests were yet again denied. Jane died shortly thereafter. 75 years later, after the 1978 LDS priesthood revelation that changed Mormon doctrine and allowed all worthy members of all races to receive their endowments, Jane received them via proxy in the Salt Lake City temple .

In spite of Jane’s numerous, persistent requests and the inevitable denials by General Authorities based on the then-current LDS doctrines, to my knowledge, no one then or now has ever considered her a critic of the church or an apostate.

As the title of this post suggests, whenever I think of Jane’s numerous First Presidency petitions and refusals, my mind turns toward a group of modern LDS women who are seeking their own additional blessings in the Mormon Church, namely the women who support the Ordain Women movement (“OW”). Like Jane, they are persistent in asking, in a deferential and respectful manner, that their ecclesiastical leaders seek inspiration to give them the additional blessings of full participation in church leadership and management via priesthood ordination. Certainly the two scenarios (Jane’s and OW’s) are not the same–none are, of course–but while I personally find the similarities strikingly self-evident and persuasively favorable to OW, the differences are worth noting.

The main difference I can see is that Jane had personal, private meetings and correspondence with LDS General Authorities, whereas OW made its requests by publicly asking for ordination and seeking admission into Mormon general conference priesthood meetings, both of which were reasonably expected to receive media attention. Some have criticized OW’s public actions as “quixotic publicity stunts” possibly tarnishing the reputation of the church, but I believe this is a misunderstanding of OW’s intent as well as the limited avenues OW has at its disposal in the modern church to make known the requests of its supporters.

Until the membership boom experienced by the LDS church during and after David O. McKay’s administration, individual members of the Mormon Church could, and often did, make appointments to meet personally with top-ranking General Authorities, including the Church President. So, near the turn of the 20th Century, Jane Manning James had direct, personal access to the highest-level leaders of the LDS Church when she made her requests. Today, the size of the institution makes such access impractical, with local leaders and the LDS public relations department being made responsible to receive and respond to similar requests, the result being that such petitions nowadays likely never reach (at least officially) the desk of the leaders who are responsible for making any requested changes in church policy and procedures, let alone allow for an in-person exchange of thoughts.  And, whereas Jane’s ecclesiastical leaders apparently knew her (or knew about her) and her desire to faithfully serve, today’s sprawling, worldwide church organization, coupled with our transient society, both result in such personal connections being difficult to make between leaders and followers, and if made, to sustain over a significant period of time, often ending in a frequent distrust of motives and loyalty when someone among the rank-and-file asks for change in Mormonism.

It is not impossible that 100 years from now women will be ordained to the LDS priesthood and occupy positions in the Mormon Church as General Authorities. If that occurs, our OW sisters today may very well be considered the Jane Elizabeth Manning Jameses of our age, unafraid to ask, providing similar inspiration for those in the future who seek additional blessings. 

Sources: “‘Is There No Blessing for Me?’: Jane Elizabeth Manning James, A Mormon African American Woman,” Ronald G. Coleman, African American Women Confront the West, ed. by Quintard Taylor and Shirly Ann Wilson Moore (2003: Univ. of Oklahoma Press); “My Life Story,” by Jane E. Manning James, transcribed by Elizabeth J. D. Roundy, Wilford Woodruff Papers (Salt Lake City, Utah: Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints); “Playing Jane: The history of a pioneer black Mormon woman is alive today,” Max Mueller, Harvard Divinity School Bulletin 39 (1 & 2) (Winter–Spring 2011); “Jane Manning James: Black Saint, 1847 Pioneer,” Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Ensign (August 1979); and “Jane Manning James in the Woman’s Exponent,” J. Stapley, By Common Consent (October 19, 2007).