The life of Jane Elizabeth Manning James abounded in gender, racial and religious struggles. Most would have become cynical, whereas Jane lived her life obedient to the dictates of her spirit; always eschewing the pressures to embrace acceptance, of the status quo. She viewed her life struggles as tests of worthiness for her life goal. Such a matured outlook must be trumpeted during Women History Month.
Jane Elizabeth Manning was born free into a poor family in Wilton Connecticut on May 11, 1819. When her father died while she was at an early age, Jane lived with a prosperous white couple and serve as their domestic. In that household she was Christianized, impregnated by a visiting Presbyterian minister and gave birth to her first born, a son.
After hearing a Mormon missionary preach, Jane Manning renounced her previous faith and chose baptism into a Mormon covenant. Desiring to live among members of her new faith, she led her family on an eventful 800 miles journey from Wilton to the Mormon community at Nauvoo IL.
On arrival, Jane Manning was directed to the home of Joseph Smith. The events of this family’s 800-mile journey and Manning’s determination to live in the Illinois Mormon community impressed him. He employed her as his domestic and offered to adopt her into his family. Ignorant of the spiritual benefits of adoption, Jane declined.
Life in Illinois was a mixed blessing. Jane Manning married Isaac James, another Mormon; grieved the murder of Joseph Smith and experienced the expulsion of the Mormon community from the Illinois. Determined to be a part of the rebuilding of her faith community, the James’ family and expelled Mormons journeyed westward. They were to be among the first Mormon immigrants to enter the Salt Lake Valley.
After many years in the marriage, Jane’s husband left the marriage. As a single mother, life was very difficult. But Jane demanded of her family a strong work ethic. She became a washerwoman to supplement the family income. Many trials befell her family but they persevered. Through the trying times, she never wavered in her faith. Jane wrote in her autobiography, “ I “[paid my] tithes . .. [kept] the word of wisdom and … set a good example to all.”
At age 72 James became concerned about the status of her afterlife. She began to write to the Presidency of the Church to grant her and her family adoption and sealing into the faith; – at first to an African American Mormon priest then to Joseph Smith. Neither request was granted.
After many denials, the Church approved Jane James to be baptized for her kindred family, and by proxy she was sealed and adopted into eternal servitude to the Joseph Smith Family. Joseph Smith’s son stood proxy for his father. James was not allowed to attend the proceedings.
Not pleased, Jane James again followed the counsel of her spirit and continued to seek adoption and sealing for herself and her family.
She wrote to the Mormon Church leader, John Taylor:
“I realize my race and color and can’t expect my endowments as . . . white[s] . . . [but] 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? “
After an extended period, Isaac James returned to the family ill. She accepted him, nursed him until he died – one year later, and buried him from her house.
The year prior to Jane’s death, the Church proscribed that none with African blood in their veins could to be elevated to gain adoption or sealing in the faith.
On April 16, 1908, Jane died. The Desert News , the local Mormon paper, printed:
Few persons were more noted for faith and faithfulness than was Jane Manning James, and though of the humble of the earth she numbered friends and acquaintances by the hundreds. Many persons will regret to learn that the kind and generous soul has passed from the earth.
This eulogy summarizes the accounts of Jane’s generosity and support of the Mormon Church, its community, and to her faith brothers and sisters.
In 1979, the Mormon Church reversed its proscription against African Americans. In this new Church, Jane Manning and her family were sealed and adopted to ordination.
Documents attest to Jane’s unswerving faith, to her moral life and to her diligent commitment to the Mormon community. These are noble reasons to remember Jane James. But the reason she deserves to be remembered in history is far more profound.
Jane James made her critical life decisions subject only to her spiritual counsel. In particular, her decisions to embrace the Mormon faith and to travel 800 miles to live in a Mormon community, both required great courage and indescribable faith, considering the attitude on gender and race.
Abandoned in marriage, Jane’s courage and faith became her refuge. Never did she waiver from her covenants nor did she become bitter towards the servings of life. Her ongoing battle for spiritual adoption and sealing of herself and her family shows the measure of this courage and faith. This petite black woman stood against the giant structure of her church with perseverance, her sling; and stones from the Word to eventually find a soft spot that slew the giant of her church’s resistance – a true reenactment of the David / Goliath story.
Jane Manning James’s life path is an instructive guide from which to gain wisdom. It is an example of obedience to self-counsel. As this is the only path on which one never compromises self, it is a superior course over conformity or acceptance. Further on this path, the spirit is always available to counsel and it never counsels beyond one’s capabilities. More importantly, when followed, the soul rests in peace.
Notes were taken from:
Karen A. Johnson, Undaunted Courage and Faith: The Lives of Three Black Women in the West and Hawaii in the Early 19th Century, The Journal of African American History, Vol. 91, No. 1. 2006.
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