Jane Manning James, a Black Mormon Convert, Walks 800 Miles Barefoot To Nauvoo
Jane tells Joseph Smith about prejudice, trials and miracles as she lead her family from Connecticut to Illinois.
Jane Elizabeth Manning James, the daughter of Isaac and Eliza Manning, was born a free black woman in Wilton, Connecticut, sometime between 1810 and 1825. She and her family worked as servants, but not slaves, for a wealthy Connecticut farmer. Having previously attended a Presbyterian Church, she accepted the restored gospel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was baptized a member after being taught by LDS Church missionary, Charles Wandell and his companion. Other members of her family joined as well.
Jane decided to join with a larger group of recent converts who were departing from Connecticut to join with the main body of the church in Nauvoo, Illinois. She was joined by eight other members of her family: her son, Sylvester; her mother, Eliza; her brothers, Isaac and Peter; her sisters, Angeline and Sarah; Sarah’s husband, Anthony Stebbings; and her sister-in-law, Lucinda Manning.
The caravan of new LDS Church members traveled from Wilton, Connecticut, to Buffalo, New York to catch a boat to Nauvoo. However, Jane and her family found themselves separated from the larger group of Mormons they were traveling with when boat authorities refused to let them board the vessel because they were black. Undaunted and undeterred, Jane led her family and began walking the eight hundred miles to Nauvoo, Illinois.
Jane said, "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 and our prayers were answered and our feet were healed forthwith."
When Jane and her group reached Peoria, Illinois, about 125 miles away from Nauvoo, Jane and her family were detained by local police, who demanded to see the Jane and her family’s "free papers", proving that they were not runaway slaves otherwise they would be thrown in jail. At length, Jane was finally able to convince the authorities that she and her family had never been slaves and therefore didn’t require papers. Frightened but determined, they were then allowed to continue on their way.
Later down the road their trip was deterred again by a deep, cold river. They looked down both sides but didn’t see a bridge or crossing. Jane and her family forded the river by walking through it. The cold streaming water came up to their necks. They wet, cold, frightened and hungry, the family continued battling the elements on their walk to Nauvoo. Sometimes they were able to take shelter in a cabin, otherwise they slept outside in the snow. Jane recounted later how faith was what sustained them on their arduous journey. She said, "We went on our way rejoicing, singing hymns, and thanking God for his infinite goodness and mercy to us, in blessing us … protecting us ... and healing our feet."
As they approached La Harpe, Illinois, their faith was exercised and rewarded as they prayed for a sick baby and it was healed. It was a thrilling experience and gave them the energy and drive to finish the last leg of the journey to Nauvoo.
Considering the reception Jane Manning and her group received in Buffalo and Peoria, they were likely unsure and uneasy about how they would be received in Nauvoo. After arriving to the city, they met Orson Spencer who was kind to them and directed them straight to the home of the prophet, Joseph Smith.
As Jane and her followers neared Joseph’s home, they saw a tall, dark-haired woman standing in the doorway. The woman, Emma Smith, welcomed them with a smiling, "Come in, come in" and took the travel-worn group into her home and to the room where Joseph, John Bernhisel and others were talking. Joseph greeted them warmly and placed extra chairs around the room for his new guests, and for Emma, John Bernhisel, and other members of the household. After a round of introductions, Joseph Smith took the chair next to Jane.
Joseph said to Jane, "You have been the head of this little band, haven’t you?"
"Yes, sir," answered Jane.
"God bless you! Now I would like you to relate your experience in your travels." The Prophet sat back to listen.
Joseph Smith and the others listened attentively as Jane finished her story of walking barefoot 800 miles and all the trials and blessings they experienced. Joseph then turned to John Bernhisel and remarked “What do you think of that, Doctor?" he said, slapping John’s knee. "Isn’t that faith?"
"Well, I rather think it is," John replied. "If it had ... been me I fear I should have backed out and returned to my home."
Joseph Smith turned again to Jane and her family, a group that had been rejected, harassed detained and harangued and said, "God bless you. You are among friends; now you will be protected."
Within two weeks of arriving in Nauvoo, every member of her family had secured employment and a home. Jane was given a job in Joseph Smith’s household and lived with him and Emma until Joseph’s martyrdom the following year. Of Joseph Smith, she said he was "the finest man I ever saw on earth. ... He was a fine, big, noble, beautiful man! … When he was killed, I liked to a died myself."
"Biography of Jane Elizabeth Manning James"
"Jane Manning James: Black Saint, 1847 Pioneer", Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Ensign August 1979