Last week I talked about how much of Mormon history happened because of the great work of teenagers. Today I want to tell you about one of my favorite teenagers from Mormon history. Mormon is a nickname for people who belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She is a very famous Black Mormon.
Jane Elizabeth Manning didn’t have an easy start in life. She was an African American when slavery was still legal. She had never been a slave, but she was sent away from home to work for a wealthy white family when she was only six years old. She lived in the home of her employer and the adult daughter in the home raised her—as a servant, not a daughter. Can you imagine being sent to live away from home and to work full-time when you’re so little?
When Jane was fourteen years old, she wanted to join a church. She chose the Presbyterian Church, but somehow felt it still wasn’t quite what she was looking for. One day, about a year and a half later, she heard that some Mormon missionaries were going to be preaching in the area. She mentioned it to her pastor, who ordered her not to go hear them, but she went anyway. As soon as she heard the things they taught, she knew it was exactly what she’d been searching for and she asked if she could be baptized. After her baptism, she went to work and helped many members of her family to join the church as well. Even though she was only a teenager, she was already showing that she had great leadership skills.
Today, Mormons stay wherever they lived before they were baptized. They live all over the world. But then, when the church was new, it was different. There weren’t that many Mormons and it was hard to communicate with them if they were spread all over the world. Since the church was new, everyone needed a lot of education to really understand what their church taught. It was easier to keep them all in one place. When people joined the church, they usually moved to wherever the church was in those days. Since Joseph Smith officially opposed slavery, black Mormons were welcome to live among the Mormons.
Jane had helped bring eight other members of her family to join the Mormon Church. There weren’t many Black Mormons then—they might have been the only ones in their area, since they were the only ones who traveled to the Mormons in their group. They started out in a racially mixed group, but when they reached the ferry, the company wanted the black Mormons to pay up front instead of at the other end as the rest did. Apparently, they expected to have money for the ferry at the other end of the trip—perhaps Mormons there paid it—and so they didn’t have the money to go on. Although the white Mormons were allowed on the ferry, the black Mormons were forced to walk the rest of the way. It was an eight hundred mile journey. Without question, that was a difficult trip, although, since Jane would later join the trek to Utah, it was probably good practice.
They had not come prepared to walk so far. They didn’t have enough supplies or the right clothing. Still, they never thought to turn back. They were determined to get to the Mormons. It was Jane, still a teenager, who led the group, even though many of the people in the group—including her mother—were adults. Since she began the trip about a year after her baptism, I’m guessing she was about sixteen when she led eight other people on a long journey.
It was October and very cold. Their feet starting bleeding so badly they could make a complete footprint in the snow that was covered in blood. They stopped and prayed until the feet healed. They didn’t have warm enough clothing and they were often very hungry. Instead of complaining about the conditions or the way they had been treated, they sang hymns as they walked.
They ran into a very scary and dangerous situation in Peoria, Illinois. When the officials saw a group of black people in ragged clothing traveling on foot together, they decided the people were runaway slaves. They demanded to see their freedom papers, proof that they had been freed from slavery by their masters. However, none of them had ever been slaves, so they didn’t have those papers. They tried to explain they were black Mormons traveling to Nauvoo, but it took a long time before anyone believed them and they were allowed to go.
Now they were scared. Every day they worried that they would be arrested again, maybe even made slaves, but they kept right on going, singing and praying. Finally they reached Nauvoo, the Mormon city. The little group of black Mormons was exhausted and hungry. The first person they saw told them to go right to Joseph Smith’s house. When they got to the house, his wife Emma was at the doorway. She saw them coming and asked them to come into the house. Joseph Smith was home and quickly added chairs to his dinner table and made sure they were fed their first good meal in a very long time. He moved his own chair to sit by Jane, because he had learned she was their leader. He asked her to tell him the story of how the group arrived there and what had happened to them.
Joseph and Emma invited the group to stay as guests in their home until they’d found jobs and homes of their own. It only took a week for everyone to find a job and a home—except for Jane. There seemed to be no jobs available for this teenager with so much courage and leadership. When she realized she was the only one left without a home or job, she began to cry. Joseph found her crying and reassured her she wouldn’t be put out on the street. Then he and his wife offered her a job with them. Emma asked her what she could do and she listed all her homemaking skills. (Remember she had been a household servant since she was six. It was her career.) She offered to start right away, but Emma insisted she rest and start in the morning. Since Jane liked doing laundry, that was what she was assigned to do first. In later years, when she found herself having to support herself and her children, she would take in laundry to earn money.
Jane continued to live with Joseph Smith and his family. When Joseph was murdered, the black Mormon woman moved into the home of Brigham Young and worked for him. Her brother would end up working for both Mormon prophets as well. When the Mormons went to Utah, Jane traveled in a lead group with Brigham Young’s household and would be one of the first people in the state. Her child would be the first Black Mormon born there.
Jane Elizabeth Manning was an amazing woman. She was always giving to help with special church projects, and when her friend had no food, Jane insisted on giving the woman half of her own, even though she herself had very little to feed her family. She became such an important person that she and her brother were given reserved seats at the front and center of the tabernacle for all important meetings. When she died, the prophet himself spoke at her funeral.
But it all started because Jane Elizabeth Manning was a teenager with courage, faith, and leadership skills. She stayed active in her church all her life and said at the end of it that her testimony was as strong as it had been when she was baptized. She was proud to be black, to be Mormon, and to be a black Mormon…a Mormon who has become a treasured part of Mormon history.