Quincy Newell is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Hamilton College. This interview is based on her new book, Your Sister in the Gospel: The Life of Jane Manning James, a Nineteenth-Century Black Mormon (Oxford University Press, 2019).
JF: What led you to write Your Sister in the Gospel?
QN: The most immediate spur was a conversation with a staff person at the LDS Church History Library. She knew I was working on nineteenth-century African American and Native American Mormons, and she told me that she had recently run across a mention of Jane James in the diary of one of Brigham Young’s wives. The diarist recorded that Jane James had stopped by and that told her that Isaac James (Jane’s husband, another African American Mormon) had left Jane for a white fortune teller. My jaw dropped—all I wanted to do for the next three days was scour the Salt Lake newspapers to see if I could figure out who that fortune teller was! That was the rabbit hole that finally convinced me I should write Jane James’s biography: I kept trying to write about African American and Native American Mormons more broadly, and I kept getting sucked into Jane James’s story. I joke that I made a deal with her: I would write her biography, if she would leave me alone. We’ll see if she keeps her end of the bargain!
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Your Sister in the Gospel?
QN: Your Sister is a biography and might best be classified as narrative history, so there is not an overt argument in the text. The implicit argument, though, is that racial identity, gender identity, and religious identity all shape one another in powerful and often underappreciated ways, so we have to keep all of these aspects of identity (and more) in mind in order to understand the past.
JF: Why do we need to read Your Sister in the Gospel?
QN: First of all, Jane James is a fascinating historical figure in her own right. So you need to read it because her life is just so interesting. My hope is that it is a relatively easy read—I wrote it for a broad audience with the aspiration of producing a book that might interest general readers, not just my academic colleagues.
But aside from having a good story, the book helps deepen our understanding of American history in four ways. First, it illustrates some of the less-frequently-trod paths open to African American men and women in the nineteenth century. Jane James lived in places that didn’t have large African American populations—rural Connecticut, western Illinois, Utah. And she joined religions that we also don’t typically associate with African Americans—Congregationalism and then Mormonism. Second, it helps us think in a more nuanced way about American religious history: James’s story gives us a totally different perspective on the development of Mormonism than the standard narrative, which takes the white male subject as normative. I sometimes explain James as “the Forrest Gump of nineteenth-century Mormonism” because she knew all the important people and was in the background for many of the most important moments. Because she was black, though, her experience of those events gives us a new angle of vision on them. Third, James’s life broadens our sense of nineteenth-century American women’s lives. James’s entire life was shaped by her identity as a woman and the struggle to conform to the gender norms of her community. Her experience demonstrates how those norms constrained her opportunities and made her vulnerable to attack, even as they offered some kinds of support and community not available to men. And finally, James’s story improves our understanding of the history of the nineteenth-century American West by increasing our knowledge of African Americans’ lives in the region. Grappling with James’s presence in Utah also helps us acknowledge the ways race shaped western societies: her experience demonstrates that even when those societies were overwhelmingly white, they still wrestled with the construction and meaning of whiteness and other racial identities.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
QN: I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the early religious history of Oregon, and I think it was that experience that really gave me the religious history bug. I vividly remember sitting in the Oregon Historical Society reading room, plodding through 1830s Methodist meeting minutes. I couldn’t believe that the OHS would let me touch these—they were over a hundred and fifty years old!—but I was also incredibly bored. The minutes were handwritten, sometimes barely legible, often badly spelled, and just plain tedious. But then I got to the bottom of one page and found a doodle: an elaborately drawn hand, in a frilly cuff, pointing to the next page. I realized that the poor guy taking the minutes was just as bored as I was reading them—and something about that connection, that shared boredom across the centuries, got me hooked on archival research.
JF: What is your next project?
QN: I’m getting back to the project from which Your Sister distracted me: an examination of the religious lives and experiences of nineteenth-century African American and Native American Mormons. W. Paul Reeve has shown quite convincingly in his Religion of a Different Color that the LDS Church was “struggling for whiteness” in the nineteenth century; I want to understand what it was like to be a Latter-day Saint of color during that time period.
JF: Thanks, Quincy!