Are Mormons Having a Public Conversation Everyone Else Should be Having?

Racism, Polygamy, Violence…the upcoming film “Jane & Emma” has No Sacred Cows…and It’s About Time

I’m not a Mormon.

With that out of the way…be honest…

What comes to mind when you think about Mormons? White shirt, black tie, name tag, a knock on the door? Mega-families, no beer, no coffee…no fun? How about polygamy and racism?

It’s ok, don’t be embarrassed, they know.

All the more reason that a new, stereotype-smashing, no-sacred-cows film from Excel Entertainment (an independent, LDS-owned film company) might surprise you.

“Jane & Emma” is bold, honest, even shocking.

Jane & Emma Movie Poster

It’s exactly the kind of film Americans — faithful, sorta-faithful, and not-even-in-the-neighborhood-of-faithful alike — should go see when it hits theaters this October. By putting this piece out there, Mormons are demonstrating a willingness to have an open, uncomfortable conversation that some churches in America’s Christian community have been meticulously avoiding.

Jane & Emma Official Trailer
“…it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

According to Lifeway Research, things have gotten better since Dr. King’s time, but not better enough. 93 percent of pastors — including 80 percent who strongly agree — say every church should strive to achieve racial diversity. Encouraging, yes, but 81 percent of Protestant pastors say their congregation is predominantly made up of one racial or ethnic group.

Translation, we have a long way to go.

In the 1840s, Jane Manning — a free-born African-American woman — moved to Nauvoo, Illinois to become one of the first black Mormons. She quickly befriended Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, and his wife Emma, so much so that eventually she became part of the family. And when I say part of the family, I mean part of the family.

Jane Manning

Mormons believe in something they call “sealing”, based on an idea that a family can be together eternally as a unit, and Joseph and Emma Smith become so fond of Jane Manning that they asked her to be eternally sealed into their family. But, in 1844, Joseph Smith was assassinated by a mob. After his death, the new leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints instituted a policy which barred black members from temple rites. Although Joseph and Emma had invited Jane to be sealed into their family prior to the new racial policy, LDS leaders refused to honor their offer.

Portrait of Joseph Smith

For some, this simply stemmed from racist ideology. For others, there were also pressures rooted in racism — pressures from elements in American society — which also must be considered.

Joseph Smith Portrayed in Jane & Emma

When Mormonism first emerged, one of its signature policies was a sort of “come one, come all…” approach, they’d take all God’s children without reservations. Native Americans, blacks, immigrants…it didn’t matter. They were baptizing all comers into their new faith.

There were lots of folks who had issues with Mormons, ranging from dislike to active outright violence. On the low end of the American public’s opinion, they were often reviled. So much so, Mormons eventually had to hit the road and run to the Utah Territory. In an 1838 extermination order (yes, this actually happened) Missouri Governor Boggs pronounced “…the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary…”, an order which resulted in the deaths of at least 60 Mormons as well as the rapes of dozens of Mormon women and girls.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Over the course of his life, Mormon Founder Joseph Smith developed some progressive attitudes toward race for his time, as evidenced by his and his family’s interactions with Jane Manning, and other black members of their faith. Some postulate the his successor, Brigham Young took a less progressive position because he wanted to try to “mainstream Mormonism. Whatever his reasons, it didn’t really work, and a shameful era of racist policy was ushered in that lasted 136 years.

“For 136 years, the Mormon Church excluded African-Americans from many of its most cherished religious rites and rituals. Yet, Mormon founder Joseph Smith and his wife Emma took the opposite approach, embracing racial diversity in the early days of the church, at a time when slavery was still an established practice in America.” — Arthur VanWagenen, CEO of Excel Entertainment

African-Americans were essentially sealed out of most of the important rights and privileges of LDS church. And then in 1978, in what was called the Revelation on Priesthood, the leaders of the Mormon Church reversed course, changing this policy, and ending an era that many would like to forget. But the funny thing is, they don’t want you to forget, and on the 40th anniversary of the end of this policy, they went to far as to make movie about it.

Jane Manning with Joseph Smith’s other wives in Jane & Emma

“By exploring the friendship between Emma Smith, a white woman, and Jane Manning, a black woman, this film provides a template for how modern Mormons can address and overcome the difficult racial history of the church,” Arthur VanWagenen, CEO of Excel Entertainment, observed.

In other words, let’s deal with this thing…head on.

“As we were developing the story of Jane and Emma, we knew that the pain and prejudices Jane faced back in 1844 were no different than pain and prejudices that are faced today,” Chantelle Squires, the Director and Producer of the film told us. “We labored intensely on the script to make this film accessible to a wide audience because we really feel that as a community we need to be honest with ourselves about this issue and our part in it. Otherwise we will be having the same exact conversations another 150 years from now.”

Dealing with this uncomfortable conversation is the only way we can get past it. Only when we confront its stark, awful reality can we begin to heal as religious communities, as non-religious communities, as a nation.

“This is an opportunity,” VanWagenen continued, “to learn what we can do better as Americans when confronting ills in our own society today.”

In a 2017 interview I did with rapper and activist Propaganda for my Dove Channel show (20:36 in), one in which he made headlines by encouraging Christians to confront past wrongdoing, and then take a pro-active step to “make some friends who don’t look like you.”

On so many important national, moral issues — including the issues of slavery and segregation — America’s faith community has so often lead the fight for social justice. Let’s remember that Dr. King was the REVEREND Dr. King. He was a pastor, and faith was the animating force behind his movement. “God is not interested merely in the freedom of black men, and brown men, and yellow men,” King said. “God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race.”

Let’s go back to that Lifeway survey. “About two-thirds of pastors (63 percent) say they speak about racial reconciliation in sermons or large group messages at least a few times in a year. 39 percent talk about it several times a year. 9 percent discuss racial reconciliation several times a month, while 14 percent do so about once a month.”

Another fascinating find:… “ most Protestant pastors (57 percent) spent time socializing with neighbors of other ethnicities. More than 7 in 10 (72 percent) had a meal in the previous month with someone of another ethnicity.”

The faith community can and should take the reigns of moral leadership again. We should be out front, shouting from the rooftops, working to build bridges. As the old Sunday school song goes…

Jesus loves the little children
All the children of the world
Red and yellow, black and white
They are precious in His sight
Jesus loves the little children of the world

That’s why this film, and the conversation around it, are so vitally important.

Chantelle Squires had this thought exactly in mind: “It’s a lot harder to brush aside the conversation about racial injustice when you have connected to and love someone who is dealing with it. That’s one of the reasons why we were so passionate about making this film and why we worked so hard to make it accessible to a wide audience. Jane is a remarkable woman and her story is one that so desperately needs to be told.”

Go ahead, get comfortable with awkward. Take a friend to see “Jane & Emma” on October 12th. Then, go have a conversation, and build a that bridge, one relationship at a time.

Tamu Smith and Zandra Vranes of Sistas in Zion

Zandra Vranes, of Sistas in Zion put it best, “In having a friendship that stood against the societal norms of the 1840s Jane and Emma did something that we struggle to do in 2018. That’s why I believe their story needs to be told, I hope that the unprecedented actions of two seemingly ordinary women will inspire us to do something extraordinary in the world.”

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