Melissa Leilani Larson
Jane Manning James was a pioneer in every sense of the word. As a young, freeborn Black woman, she strove to center her life on Christ. She wasn’t satisfied with the Spirit she felt in Sunday services until she heard Latter-day Saint missionaries preaching in her hometown of Wilton, Connecticut. Jane was so moved by what she learned that she was baptized within the week. Her whole family, buoyed up by Jane’s joy and testimony, also joined the Church, following the missionaries to Nauvoo in 1843.
Upon arriving in Nauvoo, the Mannings befriended Joseph and Emma Smith and Jane became a permanent fixture working and living in the Smith family hotel. It was there that Jane met her future husband, Isaac James, and established a close friendship with Emma Smith. Emma invited Jane to be sealed as a child to her and Joseph, but the sealing power was a very new concept, and Jane confessed to not completely understanding it. She told Emma no.
Jane and Isaac were among the first Saints to trek west. Jane gave birth to a son along the trail in Iowa. At Winter Quarters, she didn’t hesitate to give half her store of flour—two precious pounds—to her friend, Eliza Partridge Lyman. Jane and Isaac arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in September 1847, where Jane would remain the rest of her life, unswerving in both her faith and support of the Relief Society.
Yet to many modern Saints, Jane’s story is unfamiliar. Her voice hasn’t been lost, thanks to the diligence of Black Latter-day Saints who recognize and relate to Jane’s steadfastness. But Jane’s is a name and story all Latter-day Saints should know and cherish. Her faith is a beacon to everyone with a desire to know Jesus Christ.
Years after leaving the Nauvoo temple behind, Jane watched another rise in Salt Lake City. She was able to enter it and be baptized for her “kindred dead,” but because of her race, she was not allowed to receive her endowment or be sealed to her husband and children.
Jane now realized the importance of what Emma had offered her back in Nauvoo. She wrote humble, straightforward letters to her leaders asking to complete her temple ordinances: “Is there no blessing for me?”
Jane very likely had personal interactions with every Church president who served during her lifetime, including Joseph F. Smith, who called her “Aunt Jane” when he spoke at her funeral. She sat in the front row of the Tabernacle every Sunday and paid a full tithe. And yet her continual requests to be endowed and sealed were denied.
Fifty years after Emma and Joseph offered to adopt Jane as a child for eternity, Jane continued to petition Church leaders to honor that promise. That year, in 1894, Wilford Woodruff approved a proxy ceremony that “attached” Jane to the Smiths as a servant. But Jane was not satisfied; this “attachment” did not fulfill Emma’s offer or ensure Jane’s eternal salvation. She continued her appeals until her death in 1908.
Jane’s temple work would remain unfinished until 1979, the year after the priesthood and temple ban against Black Saints was lifted.
In writing the screenplay for JANE AND EMMA, I’ve had the opportunity not only to listen to Jane’s voice but to study and amplify it. I want her story to become as familiar and dear to other Saints as it is to me. What we have tried to do with this film is present Jane as completely as possible—as real, thinking, breathing person with wants, hopes, and flaws. Through the power of drama, we have the chance not only to hear about Jane’s faith but to see her put it into practice.
When I’m faced with difficult days, it’s easy to think— “I don’t need to go church today, it’s too hard,” or “I’m too tired.” But now I often think of Jane—of what she was asked to do, and how willingly she did it, even when she knew what she deserved and what she was denied. Jane had every reason in the world to leave the Church, but she stayed. She knew where God wanted her to be, and she held His expectations above everyone else’s.
“I try in my feeble way to set a good example for all,” Jane said.
Hers is a voice we all need to hear and echo.
Melissa Leilani Larson wrote the screenplay for the upcoming film JANE AND EMMA, as well as 2015’s FREETOWN (Utah Film Award Best Picture, Ghana Movie Award, Best Screenplay). The winner of 3 Association for Mormon Letters Drama Awards, her plays include SWEETHEART COME, THE EDIBLE COMPLEX, PILOT PROGRAM, LITTLE HAPPY SECRETS, and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. She was recently commissioned by UVU to adapt Kelly Barnhill’s THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON for the stage. Mel earned her MFA from the Iowa Playwrights Workshop.