by Sharon Lindbloom
24 June 2019
The Salt Lake Tribune recently (14 June 2019) published an opinion piece by Jana Riess, author, researcher, and member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Titled, “Commentary: Black Mormon pioneer Jane Manning James — only member ever sealed as a ‘servant’ — finally gets her due,” the article first noted that a feature film about Jane, an early black convert to Mormonism, was released last fall; then Dr. Riess wrote,
“And now — at last! — there is also a full-fledged biography of Jane, which just released from Oxford University Press: Your Sister in the Gospel, by historian Quincy Newell. Newell is associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College in central New York, and the author of Negotiating Lives at Mission San Francisco and the co-editor of the Mormon Studies Review. I [sat] down with Quincy last week at the MHA to discuss the new book.”
During the subsequent interview the women covered several aspects of Jane’s life as a black Mormon in the 1800s, but the most prominent topic was Jane’s unfulfilled desire to go to the temple to receive Mormonism’s essential saving ordinances, especially the sealing ordinance. Dr. Newell explained,
“For Latter-day Saints, the temple in the 19th century becomes the site where rituals are performed that they believe are crucial to their full salvation. So they do baptisms for the dead, rituals called endowments (initiation rituals), and sealings that follow the scriptural injunction that whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven. Mormons take that quite literally and believe that people who are bound together in sealing rituals on earth will be bound in heaven—husbands and wives, parents and children.
“Jane was allowed to do baptisms for her dead relatives in the temple, but because she was black she was not allowed to participate in endowment and sealing rituals. And she and her co-religionists all believed that when she died, she and her family would be separated, and she would not be allowed to achieve the highest degree of exaltation in the afterlife.”
Jane’s is a unique and interesting story. She joined the LDS church in 1843 while living in Connecticut, and relocated to the headquarters of the Mormon church, Nauvoo, Illinois, later that year. Jane went to work as a domestic servant in the Mansion House, the home of Joseph and Emma Smith, where she became a trusted and valued friend of the Smith family. When the main body of Saints moved west after the death of their prophet Joseph, Jane went with them, though Joseph’s widow and family stayed behind.
As the years passed, Jane became increasingly discontented with the bleak eternal future her religion offered her. Unable to receive temple ordinances because of her color, Jane understood that she could not hope for godhood (exaltation) in Mormonism’s best heaven, the Celestial kingdom. As explained in a biography of Jane Elizabeth Manning James that Dr. Newell wrote for the University of Utah,
“By the 1880s, Jane James had started what would become a multi-decade campaign to receive her endowment and be sealed in the temple, privileges that she was denied because she was black. James’s most persistent request was that she be sealed to Joseph Smith as a child pursuant to an offer she said had been made to her by Smith through his wife Emma when James had lived with the Smith family in Nauvoo. James had declined the offer at the time, but she desperately wanted to change her answer now. As James told the story to [church] President John Taylor in 1884, ‘Sister Emma [Smith] came to me & asked me how I would like to be adopted to them as a Child[.] I did not comprehend her & she came again[.] I was so green I did not give her a decided answer & Joseph died & [I] remain as I am[. I]f I could be adopted to him as a child my Soul would be satisfied.’ … James visited church leaders to talk with them in person; she dictated letters to them; and she had friends write letters on her behalf. In her letter to [church] President John Taylor, James made a theological argument: ‘I realize my race & color & cant expect my Endowments as others who are white[.] My race was handed down through the flood & God promised Abraham that in his seed all the nations of the earth should be blest & as this is the fullness of all dispensations is there no blessing for me[?]’”
Jane’s persistence paid off (sort of) and she was granted a temple sealing ordinance. Not allowed to enter the temple herself because of her race, a white woman stood in as her proxy. On May 18, 1894, Jane was finally sealed to Joseph Smith. But she was not sealed to him as a daughter; she was sealed to him as a servant. In her sealing ceremony she was asked (by proxy),
“Do you wish to be attached as a Servitor for eternity to the prophet Josep[h] Smith and in this capacity be connected with his family and be obedient to him in all things in the Lord as a faithful Servitor?”
Upon the affirmative answer, then-LDS apostle Joseph F. Smith, standing in as proxy for the deceased prophet Joseph Smith, was asked,
“Do you wish to receive Jane James as a Servitor to yourself and family[?]”
Again, after an affirmative answer, the officiator pronounced,
“By the authority given me of the Lord I pronounce you, Jane James, a Servitor to the Prophet Joseph Smith (President Joseph F. Smith acting for and an[d] in his behalf) and to his household for all eternity, through your faithfulness in the new and everlasting covenant, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” (Salt Lake Temple Adoption Record, May 18, 1894, Book A, p. 26, as cited at “This Day in Mormon History”)
So Jane was sealed to Joseph Smith, to be obedient to him and serve him “for all eternity.”
This seems like an unnecessary ordinance to me (and perhaps to church leaders as well, since this was the first and last time a servant-sealing ordinance has ever been conducted in the church). LDS leaders have always explained Mormonism’s afterlife as one of servitude for anyone who (with no distinction of race) fails to complete the temple ordinances (especially temple marriage) that are required for exaltation. Speaking of those who forgo temple marriage, 10th president of the church, Joseph Fielding Smith, taught,
“If they should prove themselves worthy, notwithstanding that great error, to enter into the celestial kingdom, they go in that kingdom as servants. What does that mean? The revelation tells us they go into that kingdom to be servants to those who are worthy of a more highly exalted position—something with greater glory. They are servants to them. They don’t become sons and daughters of God. They are not joint heirs with Jesus Christ. They do not obtain the kingdom, that is, the crown and the glory of the kingdom of God. When they come forth in the resurrection, they have no claim upon each other, or their children upon them, and there will be weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Selections from Answers to Gospel Questions: A Course of Study for the Melchizedek Priesthood Quorum 1972-73, 265)
Jane Manning James’ servant-sealing did not gain her much. And she seemed to understand that, for she continued to petition church leaders for her longed-for adoption sealing over the next ten years.
Jane died in 1908, never having realized what she understood as necessary for the eternity she desired. But in 1978 LDS doctrine changed to allow black people to participate in temple ordinances. Consequently, according to the LDS church, Jane’s ordinances were performed vicariously on her behalf in 1979.
Jane’s experience and her unprecedented sealing raises some concerns. On an ex-Mormon forum, poster LilBner wrote,
“If this sealing ordinance is false, then that means that Prophets and Apostles created a false priesthood ordinance based on false doctrine, performed in the temple by the prophets themselves. It is the exact definition of prophets leading people astray. It doesn’t matter if it happened to only one person, the problem is that it happened. It was done because of the decision of church leaders. How can you trust to follow the prophet if they [messed] up this bad?”
On the other hand, maybe the leaders of the church believed the ordinance was God-sanctioned. In that case, what do believers in Mormonism think Jane’s eternity looks like? She was sealed to Joseph Smith to be his servant for all eternity. According to LDS doctrine, “sealings bind forever” (James E. Faust, “Lord, I Believe; Help Thou Mine Unbelief,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2003, 21). Do Jane’s 1979 temple ordinances somehow supplant her first, forever-binding servant-sealing? The LDS church does allow for the cancellation of certain temple ordinances by the president of the church under certain circumstances, but as far as I’m aware, there has not been a cancellation of Jane’s 1894 servant-sealing.
The doctrine of sealings in Mormonism gets pretty complicated what with divorce, remarriage, and blended families, not to mention the polygamy and polyandry that occurred in the earlier days of the church. It is said within LDS circles that God will figure it all out in the eternities, but it does raise the question regarding the purpose for all this binding together for eternity when nobody seems to know whether any given temple sealing will actually remain in force in Mormonism’s heaven.
This is the way of man-made religion. As each new idea/doctrine/policy is put in place, there opens up a whole new avenue of questions that have no satisfactory answers.
As for me, I love the simplicity of the biblical Gospel:
“The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died for our sins and rose again, eternally triumphant over his enemies, so that there is now no condemnation for those who believe, but only everlasting joy. That’s the gospel.” (desiringGod.org)
Such simple, Good News! No mandatory temple ordinances to keep track of. No confusing and conflicting sealings to puzzle over. No salvation-related restrictions for people with varying skin colors to worry about. No claims of continuing revelation that lead to being “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14).
The biblical Gospel offered a blessing for Jane Manning James. This Gospel (as opposed to the so-called restored gospel of Mormonism) is simple – and utterly amazing. The apostle Paul wrote in the book of Romans,
“…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” (Romans 10:9-13)
Breathtakingly simple, amazing good news.