“I was interested in what it was like to be a black person in a church that was trying so hard to be white,” said Associate Professor of Religious Studies Quincy Newell in an interview with the Religion News Service about her new book Your Sister in the Gospel - The Life of Jane Manning James, a Nineteenth-Century Black Mormon. In the June 13 article, Black Mormon pioneer Jane Manning James finally gets her due, Newell explains what drew her to writing the first scholarly biography of James and how her life was significant in the history of the Mormon Church in the 19th century.
Newell seeks to correct some narratives commonly held about African American religious history generally at that time. “Her religious experience is so different from what we would expect—she’s speaking in tongues, she’s doing faith healings, she’s having all these charismatic experiences. Those have been pushed out of Mormonism but were actually very common in the 19th century. So her story provides a nice corrective to the standard narrative of Mormon history, which focuses on white men and, to a lesser extent, on white women. That history largely focuses on priesthood and missions and temple building. ... She gives us a different sense of what Mormonism is.
“She also gives us a different sense of the kinds of narratives we might want to think about in African American religious history. ... But if we start thinking about Jane James in that narrative of African American religious history, that helps us remember that Sojourner Truth got involved with the prophet Matthias for a while, and Harriet Jacobs got involved in spiritualism,” Newell explains. “There are already African Americans in these different small religions, which complicates and expands the narrative that all African Americans are Protestants.”