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Does Mormonism Have Racist Theology? (Part 5 of 5)

As we conclude our discussion of black Mormon pioneer Jane Manning James, we will talk about this question: what role does race play in LDS Theology?  Many black church members have been told they will be white in the resurrection.  Is our theology an example of white supremacy?  Dr. Quincy Newell will answer these questions.

Quincy:  [Jane] was well respected in the community, in part because of her relationship to Joseph Smith. She was one of the last people alive, who had known him in person, and so she was sought out for her memories of the Prophet. And Joseph F. Smith spoke at her funeral. She was she was celebrated and lauded as an upstanding member of the community, well-respected and to be missed. But, at the same time, one account of the funeral said that Joseph F. Smith talked about how she would receive all of her wishes in heaven, and that she would have a white and glorified body. And that’s not an exact quote, but he did say she would be white.

And, there’s a really interesting aspect to imagining that scene. If you think about Joseph F. Smith standing in front of a congregation that includes a lot of black faces, and talking about how Jane, this respected black woman in the community is going to be white in heaven, that’s all kinds of problematic.

GT:  And I know a lot of people are going to have a hard time with that. Because they’re like, “Well, that’s not racist.”

Quincy:  No, but that’s racist.

GT:  Oh, I know it is. I know I’m going to get comments on that. But anyway, even as late as 1978, I remember President Kimball, who we all laud for this wonderful [revelation], talked about Indians who would become a white and delightsome people. And I know he said that with the best of intentions. And it’s hard, I think, especially for really Orthodox people to say that’s a racist statement. But it’s a racist statement. And so it’s hard because I know a lot of black people, Indians, whatever nationality, have had to deal with this. I hate to call it white supremacy.

Quincy:  It’s white supremacy.

GT:  But that’s what it is.

Quincy:  Yeah, it is.

GT:  And so what can we say to people to get them to understand that that really is racist theology?

Quincy:  Not being an LDS theologian, that is a challenging question for me to answer. So I think there are Mormon theologians who are far more able to address this question than I. But I guess I would start with the idea that the Bible says we are all made in God’s image. I was raised as a Protestant. And so, I think of God as beyond gender, beyond race, not having either one of those characteristics. I know for Mormons, that’s different. But I think that you have to start with the question of, why is the default image of God, an old white guy? Right?

Check out our conversation….

When we say that black people will become white in heaven, is that a form of racist theology?

Don’t miss out other conversations with Dr. Quincy Newell!

316: Jane’s Pioneer Travels to Utah

315:  Jane’s One-Of-A Kind Sealing to Joseph Smith

314: 19th Century Sexual Politics

313: Was Jane a Slave?

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Jane’s One-of-a-Kind Sealing to Joseph Smith (Part 3 of 5)

Early black Mormon pioneer Jane Manning James walked 800 miles to Nauvoo.

Quincy:  Her trunk got lost, at least that’s what Charles Wandell says. In the Nauvoo Neighbor, the local paper, there is an ad that appears for several weeks running. The title is “Lost.”  It describes the trunk and offers a small reward for its return. But Jane is essentially left without anything but the clothes on her back, which she finds to be a truly sorry state of affairs, in part, because I think she used her possessions as a way of asserting her respectability.  She describes the clothing in the trunk as beautiful clothes, mostly new. She’s left without all of them. All she has are the shoes that have worn out, the stockings that have ripped and torn, the dress that she was wearing, and very little else. So she relies on the kindness of strangers. She needs to get a job. She needs to get some new clothing, all that kind of stuff.

GT:  I know in the movie, Emma and Jane, there’s a really interesting scene where Jane comes to meet the Prophet Joseph and Emma. I know she’s pretty embarrassed. But she’s like, “I don’t have any clothes.” And Joseph says, “Let’s go get her some clothes, Emma.” Can you tell about that story?

Dr. Quincy Newell tells us more about that story, and tells us that Jane was a great friend of Joseph and Emma Smith.  In fact, it appears Emma may have asked Emma to be sealed to her as a family member.  In our next conversation, we will discuss this proposal, and Jane’s attempts to be sealed to the prophet Joseph Smith’s family.

Quincy:  [Jane] starts telling anyone who will listen that Emma came to her and said that Joseph Smith had told her, Emma, to offer to Jane the opportunity to be adopted as a child. Jane, at the time said, “No thanks.” But starting in 1880, she starts petitioning church leaders to say, “You know, I’d really like to change my mind about that. Could I please be adopted to Joseph Smith, as a child as he offered to do back in Nauvoo? Would that be okay? When can that be accomplished?”

GT:  This was not a legal adoption, but a religious adoption. Is that correct?

Quincy:  That’s how Jane frames it. So at the time that Jane says the offer was being made, parent-child sealing, which is sort of how she frames it in the 1880s, was not really a thing. It was at least theoretically a thing. But it was not a thing that had been practiced. So nobody is really doing this. By the 1880s, lots of people are doing it.  Lots and lots of white people are petitioning to be adopted as Joseph Smith’s children.  They never laid eyes on Joseph Smith. He was dead long before they became converts to the church. Their requests are being granted right and left. I think probably thousands of people were adopted. He’s got a huge family. So Jane is basically asking for what lots of other people are getting as sort of a matter of course.

GT:Oh, really? It just a widespread thing by then.

Quincy:  It’s a very widespread thing. So she’s just asking for something that everybody else is getting. But church leaders find this a really difficult request to grant in her case.

GT:  I can imagine.

Quincy:  I think it’s because they have a lot of trouble imagining giving Joseph Smith a black daughter in eternity. But she just keeps kind of poking them. So she writes letters to them. She has friends write letters to them. She goes to visit the church presidents in their homes. She talks about this at every opportunity. It’s in her autobiography. It’s in every account of her life. She sort of states this over and over again. She seems to make the argument that she should be allowed to have a sealing to Joseph Smith, as a child. She should be allowed to receive her endowments because she has been a virtuous Mormon woman, and because Joseph Smith would let her do this. So why won’t the church leaders at the time, let her do that?

Her repeated requests resulted in the most unusual sealing ceremony ever granted. Check out our conversation….

Dr. Quincy Newell gives more details on the most unusual sealing ceremony ever.
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19th Century Sexual Politics (Part 2 of 5)

It was tough being a slave in antebellum 19th century America.  Female slaves had the added concern of being raped by their slaveholders.  There has been speculation that even though Jane Manning James was born free, she may have been raped resulting in a pregnancy.  I asked Dr. Quincy Newell if that was true.

Quincy:  Black women were subject to sexual violence by white men on a fairly regular basis in the antebellum United States.  It’s a known fact. On the other hand, I don’t want to simply assume that because Jane was black, she was raped.  It’s really easy for us to sort of take a black woman and just assume that her life circumstances fall into line with the statistics that we know about it and sort of the worst statistics that we know about, in terms of the lives of black women during that time period. So, in that sense, I’m reluctant to say for sure. I think our best bet is,  yeah, she was probably raped.

GT  Was it a minister?

Quincy:  I don’t think so. Well, I don’t think that we have enough evidence to say this is really the answer there. The theory that it was a minister comes from a comment that Jane’s brother, Isaac, made to Elizabeth Roundy, sometime between 1902 and 1908.  Elizabeth Roundy is the person to whom Jane dictated her autobiography. She was asked by a church leader to inquire after the circumstances of Sylvester’s parentage, because somebody was wondering. And so Elizabeth Roundy doesn’t actually ask Jane, as far as I can tell.  Instead, she goes and talks to Jane’s brother.  I think that’s because Jane just sort of shut that line of inquiry down. Jane’s brother says it was a white minister, but he couldn’t remember if it was Methodist, or Presbyterian. So this is the brother of a woman who might have been raped, talking about the circumstances of that 60 years after the fact. So the fact that Sylvester’s conception is still a topic of discussion at that point, is really striking to me. Because it suggests a certain kind of obsession with black women’s sexuality, which I think is really interesting, and worth noticing. But also, I don’t trust Isaac to know what’s going on 60 years after the fact.  Given Jane’s silence about Sylvester’s conception, I’m not sure that she ever would have told her brother.

I was quite surprised how complicated it was for black women, slave or free, to navigate sexual politics of the time.   Was it possible Jane entered a sexual relationship willingly?

Quincy:  Well, I think there are good reasons that Jane might have had to choose a sexual union with a man, but still maybe not want to talk about it all that much.  I use the comparison with a woman named Harriet Jacobs, who wrote a book called, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” She was enslaved in North Carolina, I believe, and she believed that her master was intending to rape her eventually. So as a way to sort of defend herself against that, she actually deliberately took another white man as a lover and eventually had two children with him. So there’s a kind of strategic move there, a use of limited options, in order to avoid what seems like the worst option, and it’s possible that Jane felt similarly threatened and used a similar kind of strategy.

Check out our conversation….

Jane Manning James was silent concerning the circumstances of the birth of her firstborn, Sylvester.