Associate Professor Religious Studies Quincy Newell recently received the Mormon History Association’s prize for the Best Article in Mormon Women’s History for her essay “What Jane James Saw.” The article was published in Directions for Mormon Studies in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Patrick Q. Mason and published by the University of Utah Press in 2016.
Jane James was an African American woman from Connecticut who converted to Mormonism in the early 1840s. Newell said that in some ways, James was the “Forrest Gump” of 19th-century Mormonism – “she worked for the founder, Joseph Smith, and for the next church president, Brigham Young. She knew all the powerful people, and she kind of shows up in the background of most of the major developments in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the LDS, or Mormon, church) during the 19th century.”
In “What Jane James Saw,” Newell shows that by looking at LDS church history from James’ perspective (rather than from the perspective of elite white men like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young), a very different story than the one normally told about Mormonism emerges.
According to Newell, one difference is that the importance of temple ritual fades (James was barred from most temple rituals because she was black). Instead, charismatic experiences like visions, faith healing, and speaking in tongues stand out more.
Second, although a few black men held the LDS priesthood during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, by 1852 Brigham Young had basically prohibited the ordination of black men. All other worthy men in the LDS church, regardless of race, held the priesthood. Newell says James couldn’t have held the priesthood because she was female, and women are still not ordained in the LDS church. Because of the priesthood restriction that Young articulated, none of the men in her family could hold it either.
“Although it’s easy to see this aspect of James’ life in negative terms—as a gap, or a hole, in her experience as a Mormon—taking her perspective reveals that the priesthood was far less central to James’ religious experience than we might expect,” Newell says. “Instead, like a lot of early members of the LDS church, James prioritized the exercise of spiritual gifts as a mark of religious authority. Those gifts were not dependent on priesthood and were not limited by gender, and in some ways they created an alternative authority structure in the church.”
Finally, Newell says, James talked a lot about Joseph Smith after he died, and the Joseph Smith she remembered was quite different from the Joseph Smith that many white Latter-day Saints recalled.
“The variety that James introduced into memories of Joseph Smith illustrates that Smith’s legacy was not settled—instead, it was (and remains) the subject of ongoing debate, and looking at which version of Joseph Smith prevails at any given time in the church’s history is a clue to the issues the church is wrestling with at that time.”