“Jane Elizabeth Manning James,” Church History Topics
“Jane Elizabeth Manning James”
Jane Elizabeth Manning (circa 1822–1908) was one of at least five children born to a free African American couple in Connecticut at a time when most black people in the United States were slaves. 1 As a young adult, she joined the New Canaan Congregational Church in 1841, but 18 months later, in the winter of 1842–43, she and several family members were baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Jane and others in her family soon desired to join the Saints in Nauvoo, so they traveled from Connecticut to New York, planning to travel on both steamboats and canal boats. However, they were denied boat passage because of their race, so they had to walk the remaining 800 miles. In Peoria, Illinois, local authorities questioned the Mannings as potential fugitive slaves and demanded paperwork to prove their free status. Racism was an obstacle Jane would confront the rest of her life.
Once in Nauvoo, Jane quickly developed a friendship with Joseph and Emma Smith. She lived with them and worked in their household. At one point, Emma invited Jane to be adopted as a child into the Smith family by a priesthood sealing. 2 Jane declined, misunderstanding the unfamiliar, new practice, but she firmly believed in Joseph’s prophetic role. “I did know the Prophet Joseph,” she later testified. “He was the finest man I ever saw on earth. … I was certain he was a prophet because I knew it.” 3
Through conversations with Joseph and with his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, Jane learned more about the Book of Mormon and its translation and gained an understanding of and a respect for temple ordinances.
Jane married Isaac James, a free black convert from New Jersey. They, along with Jane’s son Sylvester, left Nauvoo in 1846 to head west with the Saints. In June of that year, Jane and Isaac’s son Silas was born. The next year the family crossed the plains, arriving in the Salt Lake Valley in the fall of 1847. Isaac and Jane had six additional children, only two of whom outlived Jane. As with other early settlers to the Salt Lake Valley, Jane and Isaac worked hard to provide for their family. Isaac worked as a laborer and an occasional coachman for Brigham Young, and Jane spun cloth, made clothing, and did laundry, as she had done in Nauvoo.
Marital tension led Isaac and Jane to divorce in 1870. Jane later had a brief, two-year marriage to a former slave, Frank Perkins, but soon resumed life as a single parent and grandparent. Financial need and the deaths of three children caused Jane to return to work. She made and sold soap, while two of her sons hired out as laborers. In 1890, after 20 years of being away, Isaac returned to Salt Lake City, renewed his Church membership, and formed an amicable relationship with Jane. When he died one year later, the funeral service was held in her home.
Throughout the difficulties of her life, Jane remained committed to her faith in gospel teachings and valued her membership in the Church. She donated to temple construction and participated in the Relief Society and the Young Ladies’ Retrenchment Society. 4 Jane richly experienced the gifts of the Spirit, including visions, dreams, healing by faith, and speaking in tongues. “My faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” she wrote later in her life, “is as strong today, nay, it is if possible stronger than it was the day I was first baptized.” 5
Between 1884 and 1904, Jane periodically contacted Church leaders—John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, Zina D. H. Young, and Joseph F. Smith—and sought permission to receive her temple endowment and to be sealed. 6 At that time, black Latter-day Saint men and women were not allowed to participate in most temple ordinances. In 1888, stake president Angus M. Cannon authorized Jane to perform baptisms for her deceased kindred. 7 Church leaders eventually allowed her to be sealed by proxy into the Joseph Smith family as a servant in 1894, a unique occurrence. Although she did not receive the temple endowment or family sealings during her lifetime, these ordinances were performed in her behalf in 1979. 8
She died April 16, 1908, at the age of 85, always a faithful Latter-day Saint. The Deseret News reported, “Few persons were more noted for faith and faithfulness than was Jane Manning James, and though of the humble earth she numbered friends and acquaintances by the hundreds.” 9