Jane

I’m fairly involved in the broad field of Mormon Studies. My own particular niche in Mormon Studies is as a scripturist; more common is for folks to focus on Mormon history. I follow history studies as best I can (such as by reading the journals and attending the conferences), but I don’t consider myself an actual historian the way so many of my friends are. I’m more a consumer of history than a producer of it, and I admire and envy my many friends who are full fledged history nerds.This circumstance means that on the one hand I have known about Jane Manning James for a long time, and sort of had a grasp on the outlines of her story. But on the other hand I haven’t felt as though I had a detailed grasp of it. But from June 7th through today, June 21st, I have learned much more about Jane than I previously could claim. This is a consequence of the following circumstances (most grounded in the recently concluded MHA Conference):

1. Friday evening of the conference they showed a screening of the newish Jane and Emma movie. I had not had a chance to see it before, so this was my first viewing. I quite enjoyed it.

2. Saturday afternoon I attended an Author Meets Critics session on Quincy Newell’s new book, Your Sister in the Gospel, moderated by Margaret Blair Young with panelists Ronald Coleman, Stephanie Griswold, and Kate Holbrook, with responses by Quincy herself.

3. After that I attended a panel discussion on the movie moderated by Blair Hodges with Chantelle Squires (Director), Melissa Leilani Larson (Screenwriter), Danor Gerald (Actor), and Arthur Van Wagonen (Executive Producer).

4. I just today finished reading Quincy’s book.

And so in a very short space of time I’ve learned pretty much everything that we know about Jane, and it’s been an enlightening experience. Let me jot down a few thoughts:

I heard about the movie, and was really rooting for it to make it out to Chicago. We don’t always get Mormon films out here, but occasionally we do. Most recently I walked up to the AMC River East Theater in Chicago for a showing of “Once I Was a Beehive.” It was an afternoon matinee, and I don’t quite recall, but if I wasn’t the only person in the theater there weren’t more than two or three others. Unfortunately the movie never made it out this way, which is why I was very happy for the opportunity to see the movie at the conference.

Blair did an outstanding job leading the panel of movie participants. He’s always so well prepared and organized. And it was interesting to learn about thier experiences making the movie.

One thing I found interesting is that a lot of people have complained about historical details being not quite right. The big thing some folks have a problem with is the device of focusing on one night when Jane and Emma stay up with the body of the recently murdered Joseph, which of course didn’t historically happen that way. There were other things I noticed (such as the sermon in the grove being given in an actual church) and others that I didn’t happen to notice myself (such as Joseph’s death happening in the wrong season of the year. None of these things bothered me the way they seemed to bother some viewers; this was after all a drama, not a documentary, and shooting on a budget historical verisimilitude isn’t always affordable or possible. So those things were not a distraction to me. More important I thought was the sense of the relationship between Jane and Emma (and to a lesser extent, Joseph).

The movie didn’t do nearly so well as the producers had hoped it would. There was some dark humor concerning the fact that the Church decided to encourage a social media fast just as the film was coming out, and these days one cannot market a movie like this effectively without social media. That circumstance was a real blow to the project, and it is still under water financially. I had the impression there are still some possible revenue streams in play, but at this point it would be quite a victory for the film to break even.

In the Author Meets Critics session I was at a disadvantage because I hadn’t read the book yet. (In fact, attending the session made me realize I wanted to read the book. After the session I went straight to Benchmark to get one. They were out, but I bought a copy for them to ship to me, which was just as well, as I was flying with precious little room for books.)  Anyway, one of the critics talked about the “perhaps” problem, meaning that word is used an awful lot in the book, and now having finised reading it I noticed that as well. I thought Quincy gave a cogent answer, though. The problem is that the sources we have are limited, and there is precious little that we can be certain about, so when she lays out possibilities she has to signal that these are possibilities only, which I thought was a fair approach. We all wish the record of her life was better documented, but we should at least be glad for what we have, which is way more than we have for most African American Mormons from the 19th century.

The book is not terribly long (just over 200 pages, which includes notes and other end matter, so it makes for a fairly quick read. One thing I appreciated was some detail about the family’s trip to Nauvoo. I of course have known about the 800 miles of walking, but I had no clue what that looked like on a map. There are a couple of different possible routes that Quincy details, and I found the map very helpful to be able to visualize that epic journey better in my mind’s eye. I really wish we had more details about the journey itself; I see it as one of the truly epic events in Church history.

I of courese knew going into it about her repeated petitions for temple blessings, which were denied (except for the sealing to the Smith family as a servant, which no one was happy with, and so that ceremony was never repeated). I was familiar with this, but I thought Quincy did a good job of going over the scriptural foundation for what they did on that occasion, which made it make more sense to me than it had previously.

I cherished the snippets from the minutes of the Relief and Retrenchment Society minutes showing Jane’s active involvment in those organizations. She seems to have been well accepted and valued there, and sometimes spoke in tongues with others interpreting. It’s a true shame that the acceptance she found among the sisters could not extend to the temple blessings she so desperately desired.

I think maybe I had it in my head that we’ve known of Jane’s story all along, but that isn’t correct. After her death, she was slowly forgotten. It was only mid-century when she was discovered again, and since that rediscovery she has continued to grow in prominence in our conception of our history and in our contemporary culture. To illustrate the latter point, near the end of the book Quincy includes a photo of Matt Page’s votive candles for Jane, Joseph and Emma.

I recommend the book. It’s (unavoidably and unfortunately) a pretty quick read, but it’s very interesting and it brings Jane to life as well as we are able with the limited historical record.

What are your thoughts about Jane?

 

Comments

  1. I read years ago that Emma Smith had asked Jane if she wished to be sealed to her and Joseph as their daughter. Jane turned it down because the doctrine was new and she did not understand it. Was that mentioned by anyone?
    It does make one wonder how Black people might have been treated in the Church if Joseph Smith had had a Black daughter sealed to him.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Yes, TJ, that is correct, and this is portrayed in the movie and discussed in the book. Jane always lamented that she did not take them up on the offer, but she had no context at the time for what the offer really meant.

  3. Royce Van Tassell says:

    Perhaps my favorite piece of Jane trivia is that her “portrait” is in the But MARRIAGE WAITING room of the Payson Temple, a rich irony indeed. But that they have one of her portraits there at all is a large part of why that temple is one of my favorites.

  4. I appreciate your recognition that “Jane and Emma” is artistic representation, not documentary. It works very well in that way (unlike films that try to present semi-legend as history, and end up failing at both).

    Trying to remember when I first heard about Jane. I do recall my shock at having Jane’s face pointed out to me in that photo of the 1897 Pioneer gathering on Temple Square — that made her whole story real to me.

  5. Several years ago, my mom was asked to help suggest new artwork for the RS room. It had been decided that the room was to be outfitted in Elspeth Young’s artwork. She asked me to send suggestions. I saw that Young had painted Jane Manning James, and told my mom that she should fight to get a print of that in the building. My parents were in the Winter Quarters ward at the time, and that church building is located in a predominantly-Black part of town, so a Black pioneer woman’s portrait was a perfect fit. We got a print of it, and I grin like an idiot every time I walk into that room and see her.

    Prints of the Payson temple portrait of Jane are available here: https://www.alyoung.com/art/work-jane_elizabeth_manning.html

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks Ardis.

    And Jessa, Jane spent time at Winter Quarters so that is very appropriate!