Jane James haunts me. Not in the way you’re thinking—I don’t see her ghostly specter on cold evenings, or hear her humming a tune in the other room as I’m trying to sleep. What I mean is that she just won’t let me go. Every time I learn something new about her, it seems that I go down a rabbit hole. It takes me days to return, mentally, to whatever I was doing. James, an African American woman who converted to Mormonism in the early 1840s, moved to Nauvoo after her conversion and worked as a servant in Joseph Smith’s home. After Smith’s death, she worked for Brigham Young. She was in one of the first companies to arrive in the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1847, and she remained a faithful Latter-day Saint until her death in 1908. She left a pretty substantial paper trail, including a short autobiography, an interview with the Young Woman’s Journal, appearances in the Woman’s Exponent, and multiple petitions to church leaders for endowments and sealings. (The largest published collection of this material is in Henry J. Wolfinger, “A Test of Faith: Jane Elizabeth James and the Origins of the Utah Black Community,” in Social Accommodation in Utah, ed. Clark S. Knowlton, American West Center Occasional Papers [Salt Lake City: University of Utah, 1975], 126-172. I have a new transcription of James’s autobiography and a reprint of that Young Woman’s Journal interview coming out in the Journal of Africana Religions this spring.)
Most recently, the rabbit-hole experience was catalyzed by Brittany Chapman, who told me she had found a mention of Jane James in Emily Dow Partridge Young’s diary. She sent me the text (which I checked out for myself as well, mostly looking for any other mention of James in the diary). Here’s what Young said:
Jan 27th  Jane James came in to day. she has had considerable trouble since she has been in the valley. Her husband left her for a white woman (a fortune teller) and she has buried several of her children. All have their troubles, whether black or white. (Emily Dow Partridge Young, Diary and Reminiscences, Holograph, p. 11 [MS 22253, LDS CHL])
We had known that Jane’s husband Isaac, also a black convert to Mormonism, had left Jane, in 1869 or ’70. We had even thought we knew where he went: the 1880 census shows a man called Isaac James living in Portland, Oregon (where I grew up). Occupation: janitor. Race: mulatto. Marital Status: divorced. But: a white fortune teller??? We hadn’t known that (potentially salacious) detail. All I wanted to do after receiving this intelligence (thanks, Brittany!) was comb through the Salt Lake newspapers, looking for fortune tellers. I wanted to track this woman down, figure out who Isaac left with, who Jane’s rival was. See what I mean? Rabbit hole. Be careful, or she’ll start haunting you, too.
The fortune teller, for me, was the last straw. I’ve been working on a book about nineteenth-century African American and Native American Mormons’ religious experiences, a book in which Jane James figures but is, and should not be, central. I’ve decided, though, to add another project: Jane James’s biography. Maybe, just maybe, if I write that, she’ll leave me alone. I’m taking suggestions for titles—leave ‘em in the comments.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Jane James’s agency these days (partly because I’m revising my paper from the “Women and the LDS Church” conference in August for publication in a volume edited by the conference organizers, Kate Holbrook and Matt Bowman; but also because it’s a good thing, when writing someone’s biography, to think about what kind of power she had to shape her life). There are two conversations I seem to have regularly when I’m talking about James. The first happens when I discuss her with people who have never heard of her. There are lots of these people, both inside and outside the LDS Church, but this conversation tends to happen with outsiders. One of the first questions they ask me is whether James was a slave. (It’s fascinating to me, incidentally, that the only allusion to James’s race at the monument to her in the Salt Lake Cemetery is the phrase “born free.”) The question is perfectly fair: many of the African Americans who went to Utah in the nineteenth century did so because they were enslaved by white Mormons. The question illustrates what anthropologist Saba Mahmood characterizes as
normative liberal assumptions about human nature. . . such as the belief that all human beings have an innate desire for freedom, that we all somehow seek to assert our autonomy when allowed to do so, that human agency primarily consists of acts that challenge social norms and not those that uphold them, and so on. (Mahmood, Politics of Piety , 5. See also Cathy Brekus’ Tanner Lecture, published in the Journal of Mormon History in 2011.)
This assumption about rational choice, self-interest, and agency leads to the logical conclusion that no right-thinking black person would stay in the LDS Church once its discriminatory racial policies became clear. From this perspective, Jane James could not have been exercising authentic agency because she chose to occupy a subordinate position in the LDS Church rather than leave it.
The second conversation typically occurs with people who know the historical record: they know that James was visibly black, they know she was free, and they know that she was excluded from the temple ceremonies she desperately wanted to perform. They know she left a paper trail documenting a campaign to get permission to receive her endowments and be sealed, a campaign that lasted two decades or more. The problem here is the same as in the last conversation: why would James stay in a church that excluded her? Here, my interlocutor explains James’s decision to remain in the LDS Church as discrimination became more entrenched over the course of the nineteenth century by suggesting that “other churches at the time were just as discriminatory.” Some of you may be familiar with a variant of this conversation that revolves around the priesthood restriction that prohibited black men from being ordained in the LDS Church. You may have found, like I have, that pointing out that a few black men were ordained during Joseph Smith’s lifetime does not actually resolve the question, since one must still account for the black men who remained in the church once the priesthood restriction was put in place.
The suggestion that the LDS Church was just like other churches sends us into a conversation about comparative discrimination: were the Presbyterians worse or better than the Mormons? Where did the Methodists rank? Which denominations ordained black preachers? Which churches segregated congregations? The idea here is that James’s decisions to become and to remain LDS were the most emancipatory, empowering decisions available to her at the time. In other words, they are a manifestation of James’s agency. Put optimistically, this perspective sees the LDS Church as the best in a set of imperfect options. Put more pessimistically, this approach implies that James was stuck: she joined the church when the possibilities for racial equality were wide open, she became more entrenched in the church as (unbeknownst to her) the church became less egalitarian, and by the time the discriminatory policies became clear, James was too invested leave.
But the result of characterizing James’s agency in this way is to gloss over the very real discrimination that she faced within the LDS Church and the strength it took to deal with that discrimination on an ongoing basis. Moreover, the argument is counter-factual: James had other choices—black churches—that almost certainly would have provided a less discriminatory environment. There were at least two black Protestant churches in late-nineteenth-century Salt Lake City to which James could have defected, if she had wanted to. James’s husband and most of her children left the LDS Church. The existence of these alternatives, and the evidence that people with whom James was close exercised the option of leaving the LDS Church, require that we account for Jane James’s steadfast Mormonism in a different way.
I don’t think that James felt stuck in the LDS Church. Her words don’t convey that impression. It’s clear that her history with the church, and particularly the time she spent with Joseph Smith and his family, was important to her. That history formed a protective hedge around James’s religious life, one that she carefully tended by remembering and recounting her experiences. I think she found religious power in the LDS Church: she experienced and performed healings, she spoke in tongues, she saw visions. James appears over thirty times in the minutes of Retrenchment Society meetings, printed in the Woman’s Exponent, bearing testimony, praying, and otherwise participating actively in that organization. Focusing on her exclusion from the temple distracts us from what James found in Mormonism and obscures the reasons she stayed in the Church.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying we should dismiss the temple restrictions that James faced as insignificant. She expended a lot of energy trying to overcome them, and it is important to account for the ways this exclusion shaped James’s experience of the LDS faith. But in addition to accounting for this exclusion, we must also acknowledge James’s robust religious practice, acknowledged and even encouraged by the white Latter-day Saints surrounding James. At that Women and the LDS Church conference in August, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich pointed us to the work of Phyllis Mack, who has written extensively on early Quaker women. Mack wrote,
To dismiss [the religious woman’s] gestures of surrender and self-denial as a rhetoric of self-abnegation, as false consciousness, or as a covert expression of resistance to the dominant male order is not only an over-simplification of her psychology; it is an avoidance of our responsibility [as historians] not merely to search for examples of female strategies of self-assertion under patriarchy but to look steadily at women’s own ideas about ethics, autonomy, and spirituality. (Mack, “Religion, Feminism, and the Problem of Agency: Reflections on Eighteenth-Century Quakerism,” Signs 29, no. 1 , 156.)
Our politics today make it so tempting to dismiss the early LDS Church as racist, and to write off Jane James and other early black Mormons as dupes and victims. Or they tempt us to excuse the LDS Church, explaining that the racist attitudes and policies we find were a product of their era, no different than any other institution at the time. But as Mack makes clear, we’ll never make sense this history unless we “look steadily” at these black Mormons and try to understand them on their own terms.