By Alasdair Ekpenyong
As contemporary gay and lesbian Mormons come to terms with their sexuality and perhaps choose to pursue same-gender relationships, they at times find themselves cut off from the sacrament and other priesthood ordinances that had previously been the central pillars of their spirituality. This article explores the possibilities for a reconstructed spirituality, using the example of Jane Manning James, a woman who managed to create a healthy space for herself in the Mormon community even without having access to the temple.
Some might view the race-based inequalities of Mormonism past or the sexual-orientation inequalities of Mormonism present as signs of oppression, where the racial or sexual minorities of Mormonism are the complacent witnesses to their own suffering. I prefer to see these people as heroes, however, rather than as victims.
Jane James, for one, was admirable in the way that she was able to continue her own personal spiritual growth in the LDS Church without letting frustrating social prejudices obstruct her will or determination. She demonstrates the beauty of enduring to the end—enduring even when conditions of life are not as ideal as one would prefer or hope for. Mormons of all stripes, including GLBT Mormons, stand to benefit a great deal from following after her example: following an inner vision of a Mormonism that is inclusive and progressing on with bright faith that this vision of Mormonism is true.
We remember Jane today as the first black Mormon woman pioneer to arrive and live in the state of Utah. Though she lived in an era when church policy did not permit her to receive the priesthood, participate in temple ordinances, or serve in formal leadership positions, Jane made a name for herself regardless and she won the hearts of many within her community.
By the time she died, the Utah Mormon community regarded “black Jane” with so much respect that the prophet of the Church (Joseph F. Smith at the time) himself came to speak at her funeral. Through her creativeness, sincerity, and patient determination, Jane carved a path that other disenfranchised Mormon minorities might try to follow in the attempt to participate happily within their wards and stakes.
Can an authentic Mormonism really exist for an individual who does not have access to the temple, the sacrament, other priesthood ordinances? It can: it has been before, and it will continue to be done. Though Jane James was not, to the best of my knowledge, denied access to the bread and water of the sacrament, she was forbidden to enter the temple, and as her fellow Saints enjoyed the chance to approach God through baptisms for the dead, endowments, sealings, and other temple rites, Jane had to learn to draw close to the Savior in other ways.
She was successful—very successful—and contemporary gay and lesbian Mormons can be as well. It would perhaps be ideal to experience the presence of God within the temple, but Heavenly Father’s love reaches into even the most surprising of geographies, and it is possible to find Him, as Jane did, even without the temple if necessary.
By the end of Jane’s life, she defined her Mormon identity not in terms of temple worship but in terms of her own personal daily walk with God. When she bore her final testimony in the days leading up to her passing, Jane scarcely mentioned the temple or any other ordinance as an indicator of faithful gospel life. Rather, she referred to broader ethical and spiritual principles such as honesty, charity, and moderation, as the key indicators of Sainthood. She explained, in this widely-circulated quote:
“I want to say right here, that my faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ, as taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is as strong today, nay, it is if possible stronger than it was the day I was first baptized. I pay my tithes and offerings, keep the word of wisdom, I go to bed early and rise early, I try in my feeble way to set a good example to all.”
(carried forward in the 1979 Ensign article ‘Jane Manning James: Black Saint, 1847 Pioneer‘)
It should be noted that an individual’s status as gay, lesbian, etc. does not necessarily dictate a path of abstaining from temple worship. Some gay and lesbian Mormons decide for themselves that the temple must remain a critical part of their Mormon spirituality, and they choose to limit themselves with respect to sexuality so that they can meet this felt spiritual need. A larger number of GLBT Mormons, of course, decide that celibacy and/ or mixed-orientation marriage are not ideal.
Jane Manning James’ example demonstrates the fact that Mormonism is not an all-or-nothing affair. Jane redefined Mormonism for herself according to her needs and won the respect of her community while doing so. We may do the same—the possibility is not beyond our reach.
Alasdair’s writing has appeared in such forums as the BYU Student Review and the interfaith blog State of Formation. He hails from Baltimore, Maryland, and lives in Provo and studies at BYU.