Jane Manning James in the Woman’s Exponent

Jane Manning James is a great hero of the restoration. Many know of her story as the most prominent Mormon pioneer of Black African descent. Her life is tragic and I can barely talk about the sensitive issues without choking up.

She participated in the Relief Society and some of the meetings minutes where she participated were reprinted in the Woman’s Exponent. The following is a selection of these minutes:

The sisters sang “The Spirit of God like a fire is burning,” &c. After which Sister Gibson spoke a few encouraging words and bore her testimony. Sister Jane James, said many encouraging things but felt that she could not express her feelings. Said she hoped light would yet reach her people and prayed that her son, might be faithful and go to them, as the Prophet Joseph had predicted. She then spoke in tongues, Sister Paul giving the interpretation. (1)

Sister Jane James, knew her Father in Heaven loved her and blessed her beyond measure. Concluded by speaking in tongues. Interpretation given by President Z. D. H. Young. (2)

Sister Jane James bore a faithful testimony, then spoke in tongues. – Interpretation given by Sister Phelps. (3)

Sister Jane James bore her testimony; felt there was nothing else to live for than this kingdom of God, and knew that the Spirit of the Lord was here. She felt to rejoice that she had the privilege of seeing the prophet Joseph. (4)

Sister James felt to bear her testimony and rejoice that she had beheld the Prophet and Patriarch Joseph and Hyrum Smith, and wished she could go into the Temple; but she felt to wait in patience on her Heavenly Father. Prayed to be faithful unto the end and alluded to the time she embraced the Gospel, and how she rejoiced even until today in the same. (5)

Sister Jane James bore a faithful testimony and said she had been terribly afflicted in her head, and she took her consecrated oil and anointed herself and she was healed. Felt that that was faith, and praised the Lord for her blessings. (6)

Sister Jane James felt she could not keep away from these meetings if she tried. Spoke of her children and the anxiety she felt for them; felt to bless Sister Horne for the teachings she had given to her. (7)

Sister Jane James bore her testimony. She was thankful that she was in this kingdom and desired to be faithful. “I desire to do the will of my Father who is in heaven. I know this work is true, it is all we have worth living for but the Spirit of God.” Concluded by speaking in tongues; interpretation given by Sister Zina D. H. Young. (8)


  1. Lydia D. Alder, “Ladies’ Semi-Monthly Meeting,” Woman’s Exponent 22 (December 1, 1893): 66.
  2. L. D. Alder, “Ladies’ Semi-Monthly Meeting,” Woman’s Exponent 23 (January 1, 1894): 226.
  3. L. D. Alder, “Ladies’ Semi-Monthly Meeting,” Woman’s Exponent 22 (June 1, 1894): 141.
  4. A. T. Hyde, “Ladies’ Semi-Monthly Meeting,” Woman’s Exponent 25 (September 1, 1896): 34.
  5. Lydia D. Alder, Minutes of Ladies’ Semi-Monthly Meeting, October 31, 1896, reprinted in Various, “Ladies’ Semi-Monthly Meeting,” Woman’s Exponent 25 (December 15, 1896): 78.
  6. Zina Hyde, Minutes of Ladies’ Semi-Monthly Meeting, November 14, 1896, reprinted in Various, “Ladies’ Semi-Monthly Meeting,” Woman’s Exponent 25 (December 15, 1896): 79. Emphasis in original.
  7. Zina H. Bull, “Ladies’ Semi-Monthly Meeting,” Woman’s Exponent 25 (May 1, 1897): 138.
  8. L. D. Alder, “Ladies’ Semi-Monthly Meeting,” Woman’s Exponent 26 (June 1, 1897): 155.


  1. What a treat! I have never seen this account before. Several things strike me: Jane’s natural disposition to anoint herself with oil (I wonder if she was even allowed to receive priesthood blessings…); the account of her speaking in tongues; her concern for her children (by 1896 [the year of Plessy V. Ferguson], only two of Jane’s nine children were still living), and the big shocker–that her “race” is never identified. Every other place I’ve seen it, Jane is identified as “Black Jane” or as “the colored woman.” This excerpt is unusual indeed, though clearly the audience knew Jane. In fact, she had some stature, having been close to Joseph Smith. Unless the reader understands the dynamics of the time, however, the line about her wanting to go to the temple might be casually read. It was certainly not a casual desire for her, however, but one of the vital aims of her late-in-life years.
    Thanks, Jonathan!

  2. Margaret, I had several similar feelings. The self-administering isn’t that anomalous. There are accounts of both men and women self administering. I don’t think that we could extrapolate from that incident about the priesthood’s willingness to administer to her or not. I do think the fact that it was hers is great, though.

  3. What a fascinating post. As Margaret pointed out, it really is amazing that race was not an issue at all for the recorders. Sister James was just that – a sister.
    It also reveals some interesting practices of the early church – self-anointing and speaking in tongues.
    I’d love to learn more about Sister James and early African-American members like Elijah Abel. Is there one source where their stories have been collected? If not, there’s a book to be written.

  4. Exceptionally well done, Jonathan.

    Is this the result of the access provided by the BYU digital archives?

  5. Steve Evans says:

    Mark, knowing J. I imagine this was all done old-skool.

  6. Mark and Steve, alas, I can’t claim to have read all issues of WE. Mark was right that this is the fruits of BYU’s digitization effort.

    andrew, you might check out Margaret Young and Darius Grey’s triology on the African American Mormon experience. They did a podcast for John Dehlin that was good as well. Here is a decent chronology.

  7. Andrew–yes, there are books written about Jane and others. Here’s a link. Note that two of the books are going out of print. I have it on good authority that the authors are eager to have all of the books go out of print so that they can re-write the trilogy, given what they know NOW as compared to what they knew THEN. And Sister James features prominently in an upcoming documentary, where her great great grandson tells her story and we even get to see a re-enactment of a significant event in her life:

    http://www.untoldstoryofblackmormons.com .

    I do have to point out one thing, though, Andrew: Jane James did live with significant restrictions. Had this been written by someone who didn’t know her, I can guarantee that her race would have been mentioned. (It was always mentioned in the journals of Patty Sessions and Eliza Lyman, who knew that their readers might not know the person they were referring to. In the minutes of a RS meeting, however, no such identification would have been necessary.)

  8. My best to Sister Jane Manning James.

    But, I have to tell you I am a little wary of transforming this experience into doctrine.

    Should people anoint themselves with oil?

    What I see in my minds eye, is Sister James giving her testimony, then switching over to some unknown words, then just to move the group along, a couple of the sisters saying something like, “ahhh… what she means is …”

    Perhaps I am too skeptical, and I may be completely wrong, but that’s the way I see it.


  9. I may be completely wrong…

    Actually, there isn’t really any uncertainty. 19th and early 20th century Mormon healing praxis was rather diverse. Self anointings were not all that rare and speaking in tongues was common. If you want to take a swipe at Jane, then you have to take a swipe at the body of Saints. E.g.:

    I could hardly move it next day, but by that time I knew just what to do. There was some consecrated oil in the house, but my green inexperience had made me think that it would be improper to use it on myself, there being no other elder present. But suffering had opened my eyes, and my faith was strong, for I felt that the pain had no business there. That night I carefully washed off the liniment, applied the holy oil, and rebuked the pain in the name of Jesus. The effect was instantaneous. I turned my arm over–the pain was gone; and I have never felt a vestige of it since. (Orson F. Whitney, Conference Report, April 1925, p. 21)

    There is no need of believing in these things unless we have them. I was a child playing on the floor in a Relief Society meeting (my mother was president of the Thirteenth ward Relief Society for thirty long years and only resigned because of her hearing having failed) when Eliza R. Snow blessed by the gift of tongues each of the presidents that happened to be in that meeting, and Zina D. Young gave the interpretation. After doing this she turned to the child (myself) playing upon the floor, and gave me a blessing, and Zina D. Young gave the interpretation. (President Heber J. Grant, Conference Report, April 1935, First Day, p. 12)

  10. “Should people anoint themselves with oil?” Not now, but it was quite common back then.

    “Perhaps I am too skeptical, and I may be completely wrong, but that’s the way I see it.” Either there is a legitimate gift of tongues or there isn’t. I have experienced it, so I believe there is. Therefore, I am less skeptical of this type of record.

  11. In an important sense tongues and similar gifts were the proof of the original “endowment of power” that took place at Kirtland. If you read what the early LDS were writing at the time, they needed the miraculous signs of early Christianity to attend their preaching as proof that the church was restored (Rigdon was the main engine for this view, but the majority of influential LDS believed it, judging from their public statements). Early anti-Mormons were the ones who voiced explanations like that of #8. The LDS clung to tongues as the most readily available of Paul’s charismatic gifts to the believer.

    In general terms, one wonders whether the mystical language of the modern endowment has replaced the glossolalia of the original “endowment.”

  12. J–isn’t Jane one of the fascinating postscripts of the Law of Adoption? As I recall, Jane’s endless importuning for the right to be sealed to Joseph Smith and endowed in the temple finally resulted in her being allowed to be adopted eternally as a domestic servant to Smith in the afterlife. Fascinating to see how adaptable some of the rites could be (though of course rather insulting to Jane from our current perspective). However convoluted, it’s wonderful to have such a fine Saint sealed directly to Joseph Smith.

    There was a fine paper on JMJ presented at AAR in 2006 by Quincy Newell (a young religion scholar at University of Wyoming), talking about how modern Saints have used JMJ as a trope for working through our problems with race. I hope she has gotten around to publishing it.

  13. #8
    People anoint themselves with a wide of variety of silly placebos creams, magnets, and washes and ingest a wider variety of nutraceutical garbage. I’m not persuaded that some olive oil prayed over and gently applied to an ailing limb is all that odd or inappropriate when judged contextually.

    I’d rather have someone rub consecrated oil on an aching joint than drink Xango juice or similar nostrum. The former is more honestly religious, more likely to work, does not contribute to modern philistinism, and is cheaper to boot. [Tirade completed.]

  14. MikeInWeHo says:

    When did the LDS stop practicing glossolalia?

  15. Sam, that is an interesting point about the endowment…it reminds me of Joseph’s occasional formalizations of Adamic and his insistence on giving the saints a way to get answers from God. Joseph is a bit complicated when it comes to tongue-speaking and perhaps this is a good way to view his interaction with it.

    You are also right in #12 about her interesting adoption. This is one of those things that is to hard for me to talk about in person. I’ll look forward to that Newell paper. I also agree with your assessment of the nutraceutical industry.

    MikeinWeHo, the last public (e.g., sacrament meeting) accounts that I have seen are in the 1930’s, though by that time it wasn’t common like it had previously been.

  16. Sam–I’ve met Quincy, who is wonderful. Darius and I took her to the Jane James monument and had a great time. I think the observation she makes about Mormons using Jane to bridge the racial difficulties of our past is fascinating. I think she’s right.

    Jane was briefly portrayed in _Legacy_ (though she wouldn’t actually have been in Nauvoo during the time depicted) singing in a choir. Of course, she gets much fuller treatment in the new Joseph Smith movie. Interestingly, because she has been spoken of so much, people assume that she has a large Mormon posterity. Somebody asked me if they could interview one of Jane’s descendants to get their testimony. I conveyed the message to one of her great great grandsons, who thought it laughable. His response was something like, “Do they think we’re still Mormon? Have they heard of something called equality?”

    And do note that though Jane was sealed as a servant to JS (Bathsheba Smith acting as proxy), Jane herself continued to petition for her endowment. Her petitions were duly noted, usually with words like, “Jane James, not being content…”

    Few people know the whole story of Jane James, and whenever there’s new information, such as what Jonathan has supplied here, it’s very exciting.

  17. Mike, it’s a complex history because of some tensions with the Rigdonite Baptists who formed the nucleus of the Kirtland church. They were full-on charismatic revivalists, and Smith and others felt they had gone too far, urging more restraint and even recommending xenoglossia over glossolalia (the current stance and the historic stance among more respectable Protestants), but by 1836, pressure had been mounting for charismata (there are fascinating reports by Phelps and others ca 1834-5 talking about the fact that they were waiting to receive the fuller gifts, which at the time were limited to much-disputed healings and (perhaps) resurrections and scattered glossolalia. By 1836, tongues had returned as evidence of the endowment of charismata. Incredibly widespread tongue-speaking seems to have been mostly the first two decades of the church, after which it settled into a more familiar expression of spiritual and communal experience, then slowly fizzled out as the LDS entered the twentieth century. Particular figures, “Mother” Whitney, and Zina Huntington, were well-known conservators of the art/gift. By the latter period it’s my (unsubstantiated) impression that most of it came in the form of singing unintelligible but beautiful hymns (imagine a spiritual version of scat singing).

    It’s worth noting that by then the Holiness sects of evangelicalism had begun to appropriate glossolalia in earnest, and I wonder whether disambiguation from Pentecostals of Azusa Street fame may have had some influence, beyond just the Americanization/accommodation detailed by Tom Alexander.

    Stapes: agreed, the use of ancient or “pure” language integrates well into a notion of endowment as incorporating ecstatic language.

    Perhaps for modern LDS a version of glossolalia could be brushes with the ineffable glory of God, those moments of great spiritual awareness that tax and overload human language. Even in hymn singing today we have those moments when music touches us beyond the lyrics themselves.

    Margaret: thanks for the notes on Jane. I believe that her place in heaven is vastly more secure than mine and hope that the wounds inflicted by so many of us can be healed, both in her and in us.

  18. fyi:
    xenoglossia: miraculously speaking a known foreign language
    glossolalia: miraculously speaking an unknown language or unintelligible syllables
    charismata: “spiritual gifts” (the greek plural of charisma, “grace”)

  19. Sam, your analysis is spot-on, I think. The only place where I would disagree is on the persistence of singing. There were certain individuals (e.g., Elizabeth Whitney) that were prolific singer-glossolaliacs. The vast majority of late nineteenth and twentieth century accounts with which I am familiar, however, are not musical in nature.

  20. J, I think the question has to do with what is meant by “spoke in tongues” when you see it in the accounts. I think there’s a continuum from speaking to singing these melodious syllables, and it would be hard to choose where to draw the line. That said, my distinction is based on such a line, and I will confess I don’t follow the Utah period closely. We should do a better account of glossolalia. The current two familiar papers are pretty dated now, and I don’t find them all that insightful (still part of the “omigosh, the twentieth century is different from the nineteenth-century” phase of Mormon studies).

  21. Let’s add it to the queue!

  22. Queue ED

  23. So would you’ll say that the church moved away from a good practice (non-missionary tongues, glossolalia) and should consider reversing this trend? Or, would you say the church has stripped away some excessive of it early member’s prior religious experiences, and the flavor of LDS worship is closer to where is should be?

  24. David, I don’t think we have to say one or the other.

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