Provo publisher revisits 'Standing on the Promises' trilogy

2013-02-23T00:15:00Z 2013-02-23T11:22:03Z Provo publisher revisits 'Standing on the Promises' trilogyCody Clark - Daily Herald Daily Herald
February 23, 2013 12:15 am  • 

It happens all the time with movies: Someone, usually the director, decides that the version of a film seen in theaters didn't tell the story as well as it should have. The filmmakers reconvene and create a new, usually longer version of the original film, which is then released on DVD (and occasionally in theaters).

It's far less common for novelists to release a special "extended edition" of their original work. For the duo of Margaret Blair Young and Darius Gray, however, the story they told about black Mormon pioneers across the three volumes of the "Standing on the Promises" series has grown since the initial publication of "One More River to Cross" (in 2000), "Bound for Canaan" (2002) and "The Last Mile of the Way" (2003).

Initially published by Deseret Book, the "Standing on the Promises" books have been out of print for a number of years (though they are still available from Deseret Book in e-book form). When the authors decided to publish new editions of the books, revised and expanded according to the latest available research, they turned to Provo-based Zarahemla Books, which released the new edition of "One More River to Cross" in December.

Zarahemla owner and operator Chris Bigelow said that the "Standing on the Promises" publication rights (e-book rights excepted) reverted to Young and Gray a couple of years ago, and that the authors contacted a handful of LDS publishers about the possibility of reissuing the trilogy. "In the end they chose Zarahemla," Bigelow said, "because we offered more favorable financial terms than other publishers."

Young said she's not particularly concerned about whether the books sell a lot of copies. In a sense, the authors have already been down that road. "The second book didn't sell nearly as well as the first one had, and with the third one we had to generate our own publicity," she said. "There were people years later who said, 'When are you going to do the third book?' And we said, 'It's already done.' "

With the new editions, Young just wants readers to know as many details as possible about the history of early black members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "I didn't suspect that Harper Collins would want to publish us," she said. "For me, the most important thing is just to get the information out there."

New information

The books are historical fiction novels that weave together the life stories of several prominent figures, including Jane Manning James, Elijah Abel and co-author Gray himself (at the end of the third book). Young said that the books' narrative is based on the best research the authors could do. In some cases, she said, there's just more that's known about the history of black Latter-day Saints in 2013 than there was in the late 1990s.

One early Mormon elder, Q. Walker Lewis by name, has a much bigger presence in the new edition of "One More River to Cross" than in the 2000 version. "We mentioned him when we did the original manuscript," Young said, "but we didn't say much about him, because we didn't know much about him."

Since that time, other students of Mormon history have researched and written extensively about early black Latter-day Saints. Young said that the research of historian Connell O'Donovan, for example, provided invaluable information about Q. Walker Lewis, who attracted the admiration, in at least one recorded instance, of early LDS leader Brigham Young.

Among other details now known about Lewis, Young said, are his profession (barber), the year that he joined the church (1843), and the name of the man (William Smith, brother of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith) who ordained him to the LDS priesthood. Apart from being a Mormon elder in the 1840s, Lewis was unique in other ways, Young said: "He was a member of the first black abolitionist society in Boston.

"To have a group of black men working as an abolitionist society was an extremely rare thing."

It's the kind of story that would be interesting whether or not Lewis had been a Latter-day Saint. Which is one of the things Gray values about the trilogy. Gray was not available to be interviewed by the Daily Herald on account of illness, but said in a 2008 interview with Mormon Artist magazine that the stories of historical black Mormons are universal.

"You don't have to be LDS to appreciate their stories, you don't have to be black to appreciate their stories," Gray said.

Exploring a difficult history

Another reason to reissue the "Standing on the Promises" books -- the final two volumes will be available from Zarahemla later this year -- is to continue to educate people both inside and outside the LDS Church about the sometimes rocky history of blacks and Mormons. As Bigelow put it, "With Mormonism's difficult past racial history, I think it's extremely important to share these stories of early black Mormon pioneers."

Sometime in the latter half of the 19th century, church officials began a practice of withholding the LDS priesthood from black members that continued until 1978. LDS Church officials have publicly stated that the origins of the priesthood ban are unknown, though many attribute it to statements made by Brigham Young and other early LDS leaders.

Black Latter-day Saints remained something of a rarity in the early decades of the 20th century, but the "Standing on the Promises" books bring many of their stories to light. Young said that she's always been touched by the history of Len and Mary Hope, black Latter-day Saints who lived in Cincinnati.

The Hopes remained faithful members of the church throughout their lives, despite being asked by their bishop -- under pressure from white Latter-day Saints -- to not attend meetings with their Cincinnati congregation. "Their response was, 'Can we still pay tithing?'" Young said. "The missionaries would go to their home so they could take the sacrament. They would serve homemade ice cream and barbecue."

Young said that the authors also have been able to correct errors that have come to light in the decade that has passed since the books were first published. "We want these books to be available in the future, and we want them to be accurate," she said.

One inconsistency that Young and Gray knew about when "One More River to Cross" first went to press has also been addressed. In 2000, the authors had no photograph available of Jane Manning James, a major figure in the book, and perhaps the most famous black Mormon of the pioneer era. Deseret Book used a stock historical image on the book's cover instead.

Later on, descendants of James contacted the authors to share a photo from James's later years that has since been widely circulated -- and is now on the cover of the Zarahemla edition of "One More River to Cross."

"It's a gorgeous picture," Young said. One more detail to enrich the authors' revisitation of a timeless story.

-- Cody Clark is the Daily Herald film critic and all-purpose Life & Style writer.
Read more from Cody Clark here.

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