****This piece was originally published on February 4, 2015 by ordainwomen.org.****
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; [there is neither black, nor brown, nor red, nor yellow, nor white]: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28 (KJV, Edited and enhanced for inclusivity)
. . . and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile. 2 Nephi 26:33
“We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color.” – Maya Angelou
During the month of January 2015, in keeping with the Ordain Women theme of “honoring our past, envisioning our future,” we created and shared several photographic and videographic images and illustrations. Those images and illustrations depicted how it would have looked it in the past when LDS women were authorized to and did administer blessings and how it could look in the future when we are once again authorized to administer blessings and when we receive authority to perform sacred ordinances.[i]
Like many of you, I have been moved deeply by these images and illustrations of the past. I have read the words strong, brave LDS women used when they washed, anointed, and blessed their sisters and their children and have rejoiced in the strength and power of those words. [ii] I have listened to the reading of the words of a blessing and anointing in preparation for childbirth and have felt the spirit of those women as they administered to their sisters.[iii] I have spent many hours reviewing various publications that recount the history of LDS women administering blessings. I have celebrated that history and I have longed for the spiritual authority held and exercised by LDS women in earlier Church days.
However, as an African American woman, the joy I felt in celebrating the history of LDS women administering blessings has been mixed with a tinge of sadness and perhaps even bitterness–feelings that I vacillated between struggling to subdue and struggling to understand. I kept wondering why this history evoked these feelings in me and why I could not join, completely and wholeheartedly, in the celebration of the history of my sisters.
Somewhere around the middle of the month, a thought began to ring through my head like a clarion call and I realized that my mixed feelings, my ambivalence, and my struggles could all be traced to one simple fact: That history did not include any one who looked like me.
As I continued to think and ponder, the full weight of the situation and my feelings descended upon me. I realized that I could not fully and completely honor the past because the past that was being honored not only did not include women who looked like me, but it specifically excluded women who looked like me. I shed tears of sadness and anger as I thought about how our sisters of African descent–sisters who looked like me–were not allowed to participate in the administering of blessings or to attend the Temple, not because of any divine prohibition, not because they lacked faith, not because they were unworthy, but SOLELY because of the color of their skin. As I shed tears for and drew inspiration from their history, I knew that no attempt to honor our past could be complete without honoring these brave women of African descent, who kept the faith and lovingly served the LDS Church even as the Church relegated them to a status less than second-class membership. These are their stories.[i]
Jane Elizabeth Manning James (September 22, 1822 – April 16, 1908)[i]
Jane Elizabeth Manning James was born on September 22, 1822 in Wilton, Connecticut. She converted to the LDS Church when she was about 16 years old. A year or so after she was baptize, she and several members of her family decided to make the journey to Nauvoo, Illinois, to join other Church members. They travelled the first part of their journey, from Connecticut to Buffalo, New York, without incident. However, when they reached Buffalo, they were not allowed to continue their journey via steamboat even though they had already paid their fares and their bags were already on the boat. They then had no choice but to forfeit the money already paid, leave all their belongings on the boat, and travel by foot for a distance of more than 800 miles. Jane’s description of that long journey is both a heartbreaking account of her struggles and a beautiful tribute to her faith.
We walked until our shoes were worn out, and our feet became sore and cracked open and bled until you could see the whole print of our feet with blood on the ground. We stopped and united in prayer to the Lord; we asked God the Eternal Father to heal our feet. Our prayers were answered and our feet were healed forthwith.
When we arrived at Peoria, Illinois, the authorities threatened to put us in jail to get our free papers. We didn’t know at first what he meant, for we had never been slaves, but he concluded to let us go. So we traveled on until we came to a river, and as there was no bridge, we walked right into the stream. When we got to the middle, the water was up to our necks but we got safely across. Then it became so dark we could hardly see our hands before us, but we could see a light in the distance, so we went toward it. We found it was an old Log Cabin. Here we spent the night. The next day we walked for a considerable distance, and stayed that night in a forest out in the open air.
The frost fell on us so heavy, it was like a light fall of snow. We arose early and started on our way walking through that frost with our bare feet, until the sun rose and melted it away. But we went on our way rejoicing, singing hymns, and thanking God for his infinite goodness and mercy to us–in blessing us as he had, protecting us from all harm, answering our prayers, and healing our feet.
In course of time, we arrived at La Harpe, Illinois–-about thirty miles from Nauvoo. At La Harpe, we came to a place where there was a very sick child. We administered to it, and the child was healed. I found after [that] the elders had before this given it up, as they did not think it could live.
We had now arrived to our destined haven of rest: the beautiful Nauvoo! Here we went through all kinds of hardship, trial and rebuff, but we at last got to Brother Orson Spencer’s. He directed us to the Prophet Joseph Smith’s mansion. When we found it, Sister Emma was standing in the door, and she kindly said, “Come in, come in!”
Jane and her family members then set about building lives for themselves in Nauvoo. When all of Jane’s family members we able to find homes and work except her, she became somewhat discouraged. However, Joseph and Emma Smith offered to let her live with and work for them. Jane’s description of her life with the Smith family reflects that she had a very close relationship with them. The description recounts how Lucy Mack Smith (Joseph’s mother) allowed Jane to handle a “bundle” containing the Urim and Thummin and how Emma asked Jane if she would like to be adopted into the Smith family, a proposal which Jane did not accept at the time.
While living in Nauvoo, Jane met Isaac James, who had relocated from New Jersey. Jane and Isaac were married a few months after the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. They then joined other Church members on the long trek to Utah. There, Jane and Isaac acquired land and livestock and worked hard to raise and provide for their children. In 1869, however, Isaac made the decision to leave Utah and his family.
Jane remained a faithful, tithe paying member of the Church. In her desire to receive all of the blessings in store for her, including the blessings as exaltation, she repeatedly petitioned the First Presidency and other Church leaders to be endowed and sealed. However, her petitions were not granted.
In 1884 she sent a letter to President John Taylor, and asserted that as a child of Abraham, she should be eligible for exaltation. Jane concluded her letter with the plaintive plea: “Is there no blessing for me?” Despite her plea, her petition was still not granted.
Since her husband was no longer with her, Jane then requested that she and her children be sealed to Walker Lewis, an African American who had been ordained to the priesthood during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. In 1890, she submitted a petition to Apostle Joseph F. Smith in which she wrote:
Dear Brother – – Please excuse me taking the Liberty of Writing to you – but be a Brother by answering my questions – There by satisfying my mind – – First, as Brother James [her husband Isaac] has Left me 21 years – And a Coloured Brother, Brother Lewis wished me to be sealed to Him, He has been dead 35 or 36 years – can i be sealed to him – parley P Pratt or dained Him an Elder. When or how[?] can i ever be sealed to Him.
That petition was not granted.
In 1894, Jane submitted yet another petition to be endowed and sealed. In that petition, she relied upon Emma’s offer to adopt her and asked to be sealed to Joseph Smith, Jr., and his family. President Wilford Woodruff met with her personally to discuss this petition, but it was still not granted. President Woodruff wrote in his journal on October 16, 1894: “Black Jane wanted to know if I would let her have her endowments in the temple [.] This I could not do as it was against the law of God as Cain killed Abel all the seed of Cain would have to wait for redemption until [sic] all the seed that Abel would have had that may come through other men can be redeemed.” (Emphasis added).
In an effort to pacify Jane, the First Presidency “decided she might be adopted into the family of Joseph Smith as a servant, which was done, a special ceremony having been prepared for the purpose.” The ceremony took place on May 18, 1894 at the Salt Lake Temple. Joseph F. Smith acted as proxy for Joseph Smith, and Bathsheba W. Smith acting as proxy for Jane because, as a woman of African descent, Jane was not permitted to enter the temple. In the ceremony, Jane was “attached as a Servitor [servant] for eternity to the prophet Joseph Smith and . . . his family” and “instructed to be obedient to him in all things in the Lord as a faithful Servitor.”
Understandably, Jane, who had been born as a free person, was not satisfied with being sealed to the Smith family as a servant. So, in August 1895, a little more than a year later, she again petitioned to be sealed to the Smiths through the ordinance of adoption. However, she was again denied.
In 1902, Jane again petitioned to be sealed to the Smith family as an adopted family member and not a servant. The minutes of a 1902 meeting of the Council of the Twelve report that “Aunt Jane was not satisfied with this [sealing], and as a mark of her dissatisfaction she applied again after this for sealing blessings, but of course in vain.” That petition was again denied.
Jane’s final petition was made on August 31, 1903, to President Joseph F. Smith. There is no record of the response, if any, to that petition.
No one ever questioned Jane’s faith or her worthiness. Nonetheless, all of her petitions were either denied or left unanswered solely because she was of African descent.
Mary Ann Adams Abel (December 24, 1829 – November 27, 1877)[i]
Very little is known about Mary Ann. On February 16, 1847, she married Elijah Abel, who she met when he relocated in Cincinnati after serving a mission in New York.
Elijah was the first African American to be ordained as an Elder and a Seventy. Elijah, who was a skilled carpenter, worked on the Kirtland and Nauvoo Temples. After Mary Ann and Elijah relocated to Salt Lake, they managed the Farnham Hotel and Elijah used his carpentry skills to help build the Salt Lake Temple.
In 1853, Elijah sought to receive his own endowments. Although no account specifically states that Elijah’s request included Mary Ann, one would presume that it did. Despite the faithfulness of Mary Ann and Elijah and despite the fact that Elijah had helped to build three temples, the request was denied by Brigham Young, solely because of their skin color.
Amanda Leggroan Chambers (January 1, 1844 – March 2, 1925)[i]
Amanda was born a slave in Noxubee County, Mississippi. Although little is known about her early history, she married Samuel Chambers on May 4, 1858; she was his second wife. Samuel had joined the LDS Church as a convert when he was 13 years old, and later had a son, Peter, from his first marriage. Amanda and Samuel remained steadfast in their faith, even though they and their immediate and extended family members were the only LDS members in the area.
After Samuel and Amanda were freed from slavery in 1865, they began saving money so that they could make the journey west to Utah to join other members of the LDS Church. They began their journey in 1870 and arrived in Salt Lake on April 27th of that year. Amanda and Samuel were active members of the LDS church and faithfully paid their tithes; in fact they were reportedly the largest tithe payers in their ward for a long time. Amanda and Samuel also contributed faithfully to the temple fund even though Samuel could not receive the priesthood and neither Amanda nor Samuel was able to enter the temple or partake of any of its blessings. While we can take some comfort in knowing that the ordinance work for Amanda and Samuel was done on April 13, 1984, we must acknowledge the ugly truth that Amanda, a faithful LDS woman, was denied the blessings of that work for almost sixty (60) years.
I have shed many tears and drawn much inspiration from the histories of Jane and Mary Ann and Amanda. I have also shed tears for and drawn inspiration from other African American women, whose faith was just as strong as theirs, but whose stories have not been recorded and who must rely on us to make sure that their names and their stories are discovered and remembered. I promised myself that I would work diligently on this task.
With the names and histories of these faithful African American women running through my head, every fiber of my being compelled me to become integrally and intimately involved in making sure that no blessings of our faith are ever again denied to anyone because of the color of her or his skin. While neither I, as an individual, or Ordain Women, as a group, could do anything to change the historical pictures and accounts, we could make our newly created images of the past reflective of the unifying and uplifting truths expressed in Galatians 3:28 that “[w]e are all one in Christ Jesus” and in 2 Nephi 26:33 that “all are alike unto God.”
With those goals in mind, I eagerly stepped forward to participate in making those newly created images. As I was doing so, I felt transported across time and space and connected with all of my sisters of African descent whose blessings were denied or delayed. I experienced an awe-inspiring vision of what could have been in the past and what can be in the future. I can testify that I have communed with the Spirit and have received personal confirmation that my vision is in keeping with divine will.
There is much work to be done to make amends for the wrongs of our past. However, when I envision our future as LDS women, I envision a future where we recognize and implement and live the basic truth in Maya Angelou’s words that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color.” I know that any effort to bring about gender equality in the LDS Church that does not include every women of every race, color, national origin, or culture will not achieve true equality. Instead it would only be another indignity and another insult to Jane Elizabeth Manning James, Mary Ann Adams Abel, Amanda Leggroan Chambers, and other women of African descent who were denied opportunities to partake of and participate in the blessings and rituals and ordinances of the Church we love.
So, let us honor and celebrate our past. However, let us also openly and honestly acknowledge the mistakes, the hurts, and all the unpleasant truths about that past. Let us repent of and make amends for all of our sins, whether they were of omission or commission. Let us covenant together that we will not make those same mistakes or commit those same sins again. In so doing, we will be able not only to envision but to walk boldly into a future where LDS women reclaim the spiritual authority and power exercised by our sisters in the past, where the daughters of Jane and Mary Ann and Amanda stand on equal footing with the daughters of Eliza and Zina and Patty, and where they ALL have achieved equality in faith with their brothers.
Honoring our past,
Envisioning our future.
With all of the images and illustrations, Ordain Women has acted in compliance with current church policy and no actual ordinances took place in the making of these images and illustrations.
Eliza Snow said “[a]ny and all sisters who honor their holy endowments, not only have the right, but should feel it a duty whenever called upon to administer to our sisters in these ordinances [of healing the sick], which God has graciously committed to His daughters as well as to His sons; and we testify that when administered and received in faith and humility they are accompanied with all mighty power. Inasmuch as God our Father has revealed these sacred ordinances and committed them to His Saints, it is not only our privilege but our imperative duty to apply them for the relief of human suffering.”-Woman’s Exponent, 13 (15 September 1884): 61.
Zina D. H. Young said, ‘’[i]t is the privilege of the sisters, who are faithful in the discharge of their duties, and have received their endowments and blessings in the house of the Lord, to administer to their sisters, and to the little ones, in time of sickness, in meekness and humility, ever being careful to ask in the name of Jesus, and to give God the glory.”-Woman’s Exponent, 17 (15 Aug. 1889): 172.
Patty Bartlett Sessions, who was called by Brigham Young to serve as midwife and who practiced her profession until she was 85 years old, wrote “I felt as though I must lay hands on her. I never felt so before without being called on to do it. She said, ‘Well, do it.’ I knew that I had been ordained to lay hands on the sick and set apart to do that. She had been washed clean and I anointed, gave her some oil to take, and then laid hands on her. I told her she would get well if she would believe and not doubt it.”–Rugh, Susan (1978), “Patty Bartlett Sessions: More than a Midwife”, in Vicky Burgess-Olson, Sister Saints, Brigham Young University Press, pp. 303–322, ISBN 0-8425-1235-7
This transcript was preserved by Oakley Idaho Second Ward Relief Society Minute Book in 1909:
We anoint your back, your spinal column that you might be strong and healthy that no disease fasten upon it, no accident [befall] you, your kidneys that they might be active and healthy and [perform] their proper functions, your bladder that it might be strong and protected from accident, your Hips that your system might relax and give way for the birth of your child . . . . your breasts that your milk may come freely and you need not be afflicted with sore nipples as many are, your heart that it may be comforted. . . . [your baby that it may be] perfect in every joint and limb and muscle, that it might be beautiful to look upon . . . [and] happy and that when [its] full time shall have come that the child shall present right for birth and that the afterbirth shall come at its proper time . . . [that] you need not flow to excess . . .
We anoint . . ., your thighs that they might be healthy and strong that you might be exempt from cramps and from the bursting of veins . . . That you might stand upon the earth [and] go in and out of the Temples of God.
. . . We unitedly lay our hands upon you to seal this washing and anointing wherewith you have been washed and anointed for your safe delivery, for the salvation of you and your child and we ask God to let his special blessings rest upon you, that you might sleep sweet at night, that your dreams might be pleasant and that the good spirit might guard and protect you from every evil influence, spirit, and power that you may go your full time and that every blessing that we have asked God to confer upon you and your offspring may be [literally] fulfilled that all fear and dread may be taken from you and that you might trust in God. All these blessings we unitedly seal upon you in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen. (Emphasis added).
–See, Linda King Newell. “A Gift Given: A Gift Taken: Washing, Anointing and Blessing the Sick Among Mormon Women.” Sunstone Vol. 22 (1999): 30-43.
 No one knows how these African American women would have felt about the ordination of women, and I do not include their stories to suggest or imply that they would have supported the ordination of women. Instead, I include their stories because they have been inspirational and instructional to me, as an African American woman and a convert, as I have endeavored to find my place in the Church.
[i] The information concerning Jane Elizabeth Manning James can be found in the following sources:
-“Death Certificate.” State of Utah. April 17, 1908; Jane Elizabeth Manning James. (2014, September 3). Retrieved February 3, 2015 from http://axaem.archives.utah.gov/cgi-bin/indexesresults.cgi?RUNWHAT=IDX20842-IMAGE&KEYPATH=IDX208420016664
-In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 13:56, February 3, 2015, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Jane_Elizabeth_Manning_James&oldid=623991185, referencing Excerpts from the Weekly Council Meetings of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, Dealing with the Rights of Negroes in the Church, 1849-1940″. George Albert Smith Papers (University of Utah) and Salt Lake Temple Adoption Record: Book A. May 18, 1894. p. 26.
Smith, Becky Cardon (2005-04-15). “Remembering Jane Manning James”. Meridian Magazine. Retrieved February 3, 2015, from http://web.archive.org/web/20100206222448/http:/meridianmagazine.com/people/050415jane.html.
-O’Donovan, Connell (2006). “The Mormon Priesthood Ban & Elder Q. Walker Lewis: ‘An example for his more whiter brethren to follow’”. John Whitmer Historical Association Journal. (Online reprint with author updates) quoting letter from Jane Elizabeth Manning James to Joseph Fielding Smith, February 7, 1890, LDS Church Archives, transcript in his possession. Retrieved February 3, 2015, from http://people.ucsc.edu/~odonovan/elder_walker_lewis.html
-Mueller, Max (Winter–Spring 2011). “Playing Jane: The history of a pioneer black Mormon woman is alive today”. Harvard Divinity School Bulletin 39 (1 & 2) quoting letter from Jane to President John Taylor. Retrieved February 3, 2015 from http://bulletin.hds.harvard.edu/articles/winterspring2011/playing-jane
-James, Jane E. Manning. Transcribed by Elizabeth J. D. Roundy. “My Life Story”. Wilford Woodruff Papers (Salt Lake City, Utah: Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).
–Newell, Linda King; Avery, Valeen Tippetts (August 1979). “Jane Manning James: Black Saint, 1847 Pioneer”. Ensign (Salt Lake City, Utah: LDS Church). Retrieved on February 3, 2015, from https://www.lds.org/ensign/1979/08/jane-manning-james-black-saint-1847-pioneer?lang=eng
-Young, Margaret Blair. “Jane Manning James: An Independent Mind”. http://www.patheos.com/Mormon/Jane-James-Margaret-Blair-Young-09-10-2012?offset=0&max=1
[i] The information concerning Mary Ann Adams Abel can be found in the following sources:
-Jackson, W. Kesler, Elijah Abel: The Life and Times of a Black Priesthood Holder. (Springville, Utah: CFI, 2013) 72-73.
-Elijah Abel. (2015, January 20). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 15:55, February 3, 2015, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Elijah_Abel&oldid=643428946
-“Elijah Abel”. http://www.blacklds.org/abel
-“Elijah Abel: Black Mormon Pioneer”. June 8, 2011. 49 Hallelujah Holla Backs! http://sistasinzion.com/2011/06/elijah-abel-black-mormon-pioneer.html
-“Elijah Abel”. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=9332072
[i] The information on Amanda Leggroan Chambers can be found in the following sources:
-William G. Hartley, “Samuel D. Chambers,” The New Era 4 (June 1974)
-“Samuel and Amanda Chambers: Lesser-Known Pioneers”. http://www.patheos.com/Mormon/Samuel-Amanda-Chambers-Margaret-Blair-Young-10-15-2012?offset=1&max=1
-“Samuel Davidson Chambers”. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=27442128
-“Tell Me the Stories”. June 8, 2011. 28 Hallelujah Holla Backs! http://sistasinzion.com/2011/07/invisable-pioneers.html
-“Samuel and Amanda Chambers.” http://www.blacklds.org/chambers