I cried unto the Lord with my voice; with my voice unto the Lord did I make my supplication.

I poured out my complaint before him; I shewed before him my trouble.

When my spirit was overwhelmed within me, then thou knewest my path. In the way wherein I walked have they privily laid a snare for me.

 I looked on my right hand, and beheld, but there was no man that would know me: refuge failed me; no man cared for my soul.

 I cried unto thee, O Lord: I said, Thou art my refuge and my portion in the land of the living.

 Attend unto my cry; for I am brought very low: deliver me from my persecutors; for they are stronger than I.

 Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise thy name: the righteous shall compass me about; for thou shalt deal bountifully with me.

– Psalm 142, 1 – 7

For holy women, the personal is political and spiritual.- Dr. Joycelyn K. Moody, Sentimental Confessions: Spiritual Narratives of Nineteenth-Century African American Women

In the narratives of Julia A. J. Foote, Jarena Lee and Maria Stewart (as well as other religious contemporaries of their time), we can see a formulation of a theology that examined, explained and expressed their experiences as not only black people living in the context of a white supremacist nation but as women seeking to be a discursive might in male-centric 19th century evangelism. Similar figures can be found within Latter-day Saint history, namely Jane Elizabeth Manning James. Though James was no theologian in the academic sense, the conceptualization of who and how God was, was revealed through both her correspondence with Church leaders and her dictated autobiography. Through these exchanges emerged a theology not unlike that of Foote, Lee and Stewart. With the backdrop of 19th century narratives of African-American “holy women” as a guide, we can examine Jane Elizabeth Manning James’s autobiography/interview and letters to Church leaders as more than a fixed set of points in Mormon history. Through James’s lens we are given insight into her physical and spiritual proximity to white supremacy within Christianity in 19th century America.

A distant relative to the Puritan Narrative, 19th century spiritual narratives of African-American women encompassed a theology of suffering and survival. Their words, a hermeneutic of being at the periphery of American consciousness, were not a pronouncement of destruction at the hands of subjugation but rather an attempt to grasp it[1]. Many of these narratives began with the simple declaration: “I was born”. An acknowledgement of the self, while the subject is under sociopolitical constraints, Moody notes, “is radical.”[2] Specifically, it was radical for an African-American woman to assert herself to the importance of the “subject”. As the subject, James clearly felt the urgency to share her conversion story with others. In doing so, though she had no control over the policies that excluded her and other black Saints from essential practices that predicated complete salvation, she claimed authority on her body and her faith. Parts of James that Church leaders had no control over.

Faced with the doubt of the ability to be saved, black autobiographers sought to disrupt contemporary narratives of blacks and their salvation by, as Dr. Henry Louis Gates comments by, “initiating a dialogue.”[3] These dialogues were often prefaced and/or preceded by an introduction by another, often white, narrator. This was used, in part, to dismiss the belief that blacks were inclined to giving fictional accounts of their lives. Once a dialogue had been established, authors did not shy away from appealing to the moral sense of their readership, who for Jane was most decidedly white at the time. Spiritual narratives by African-American women were distinct in their use of sentimentalism, or the outward expression of sadness in speeches and/or literary texts. In turn, this brought attention to their plight through creating a sense of unity.[4] An example of sentimentalism is shown in Julia A.J. Foote’s autobiography A Brand Plucked from the Fire, where she reflects on an event from her childhood.

I still continued to repeat the Lord’s prayer and “Now I lay me,” but not so often as I had done months before. Perhaps I had begun to backslide, for I was a child, surrounded by children, and deprived of the proper kind of teaching. This is my only excuse for not proving as faithful to God as I should have done.

Sentimentalism takes on another form in James’s letters. She refers to biblical stories (the story of Abraham)[5] and uses religious language (Is there no blessing for me?)[6] in petitioning Church leaders to allow her to complete all the saving ordinances, a desire not fulfilled during her lifetime.

Relating back to sentimentalism, one often recurring theme was that of the orphan. This status was brought about through abandonment or the selling of parents through chattel slavery.[7] James is not an orphan under these terms, but in parts of her life, James often “belonged to herself”, in a traditional definition of the word. At a young age she is sent to live with a “family of white people” at the age of six. After the death of her husband Issac James in 1891, she never remarried[8]. Commonly, African-American holy women remained celibate for most of their lives, as a sign of their dedication to God. After the death of her husband James Stewart in 1829, Maria Stewart never remarried and dedicated her life to her impassioned speeches on God, racism and womanhood.

The theme of travel and journey played a critical role these spiritual narratives. As noted by Dr. Sue Houchins in Spiritual Narratives, their use can be broken down into 3 concepts:

  • Travel and journey as a model of the lives of apostles, spreading the Gospel
  • As women and blacks, [these women] professed naïve faith that their stories, texts from which they were discovered a “relation to the divine to one another and to self” were a part of a great true story
  • [These women] inherited “the sense of otherness or the sense of the other” that had risen of the experience of being black and female[9]

The journey from her Connecticut to Illinois plays a pivotal role in James’s life. By facing immeasurable odds, James is sanctified in her trek to reach Zion.

In this brief overview of the spiritual narratives of African-American women who lived in the 19th century, we are able to see commonalities from theology to literary styles. Though James did not preach in the way of her many black religious contemporaries, her pulpit can be found her autobiography and letters. A pronouncement of faith and theology from a Saint at the crossroads of race and gender.

[1] M. Shawn Copeland, “Wading Through Many Sorrow: Toward A Theology of Suffering in Womanist Perspective.” A Troubling in My Soul: Womanist Perspectives on Evil and Suffering. By Emilie Maureen Townes. Mayknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993. N. pag. Print.

[2] Joycelyn Moody, Sentimental Confessions: Spiritual Narratives of Nineteenth-century African American Women. Athens: U of Georgia, 2001. Print.

[3] Henry Louis Gates, Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “racial” Self. New York: Oxford UP, 1987. Print.

[4] Julia A. J. Foote, A Brand Plucked from the Fire. An Autobiographical Sketch. Cleveland, O.: Printed for the Author by W.F. Schneider, 1879. Print.

[5] (Henry Wolfinger, A Test of Faith: Jane Elizabeth James and the Origins of the Utah Black Community) Jane E. James to President John Taylor, December 27, 1884 Also see John Taylor Papers (CHD)

[6] Ibid.

[7] Joycelyn Moody, Ibid.

[8] (Wolfinger, Ibid). Life Sketch of Jane Elizabeth Manning James Also see Wilford Woodruff Papers (CHD)

[9] Sue Houchins, Spiritual Narratives. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. Print.

Janan Graham-Russell is a writer based in Evanston, Illinois. In 2016, she graduated from the Howard University School of Divinity with a Master of Arts in Religious Studies. Her writing focuses on culture, history, religion and theology through Black feminist and womanist lenses. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic as well as Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings (2015) and A Book of Mormons (2015). When she's not writing or doing research, she enjoys dancing to Beyonce, watching films, and spending time with her husband and infant son.

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