Elijah Ables, a black Mormon priesthood holder in the 19th century

(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here). Elijah Ables is no stranger to Mormon history, although he’s virtually unknown to anyone who relies exclusively on LDS correlation. Ables was a black man who was ordained to the LDS priesthood in the 1830s, and remained a faithful Mormon for the next half-century. In the spring 2013 Journal of Mormon History, there’s a very interesting account of his life and times by Russell W. Stevenson, who teaches at Salt Lake Community College. 

In “‘A Negro Preacher:’ The Life and Times of Elijah Ables,” Stevenson writes of the persistent loyalty of Ables to the Mormon Church despite repeated offenses derived from the widespread racism of that era. As Ables, and the young church, aged, the racism directed at the mixed-blood faithful Latter-day Saint priesthood holder increased. Eventually, the elderly Ables was told that his ordination to the priesthood decades earlier by Joseph Smith was a mistake. Nevertheless, the priesthood was never taken from Ables, and he died, in good standing, after falling ill while on a church mission.

Ables was baptized into the LDS Church in 1832 by Ezekiel Edwards near Cincinnati, Ohio. He was likely a free man at the time. He later received his washing and anointing ordinances from fellow member Zebedee Coltrin. Reflecting the racism that followed Ables’ unique status, Coltrin later repudiated his act. Sullivan quotes him as saying “… while I had my hands upon his head, I never had such unpleasant feelings in my life.”

Nevertheless, the end of 1836, Ables was listed as a member of the LDS Melchizedek Priesthood group the Seventy. He received a patriarchal blessing from Joseph Smith Sr. The timing of Ables’ involvement with the Mormons is interesting. It was near the time the young church was expelled from Missouri, largely due to concerns from pro-slavery forces there that the church was anti-slavery. In fact, Joseph Smith followed a position that was consistent among many anti-slavery advocates of that era. He favored moving blacks from America to other areas where they could live in freedom. Two areas frequently mentioned as migration points were Liberia (in Africa) and Upper Canada (or the Ontario area). This relates to Ables’ life because he was soon called to be a missionary to Upper Canada.  Ables was a natural choice for Smith. Living in the Ontario area at the time were an estimated 10,000 fugitive slaves, writes Sullivan. He further supposes, likely correctly, that Smith wanted his black missionary to look at the possibilities of setting up a black LDS congregation.

Whatever Ables’ abilities to be a bridge between races for the Mormon Church, he faced a lifetime battle trying to maintain acceptance in a church with attitudes on race that were slowly hardening against blacks. This may have been due initially to the conflicts in Missouri. In 1839, LDS apostle Parley P. Pratt wrote, cites Sullivan, “that ‘one dozen free negroes or mulattoes never have belonged to our society in any part of the world, from its first organization to this date.

Obviously, Ables’ — and others — participation in the early LDS Church proved Pratt’s claims wrong. But the intemperate remarks underscore how difficult typical 19th century racism made it for early Mormon leaders to have the collective Gospel-oriented society they were preaching. Smith’s solution was to move blacks to their own collective societies. That was likely the reason for Smith calling Ables to another mission, to Cincinnati, where there was a large population of free black workers.

As Sullivan notes in his article, Smith’s appointment of Ables shows he must have had great trust in the black elder. The Cincinnati branch of the church was unstable, and prone to apostasy. Outside the church there were race riots between free blacks and white settlers. The area was to be Ables’ home for nearly a decade, long past Joseph Smith’s murder in 1844. During that time, Ables was a stabilizing force there, remaining a faithful member of the Mormon Church as governed by Brigham Young but staying on good terms with members of varying branches, including followers of Sidney Rigdon, James Strangeite, David Whitmer, William Smith, and the formation of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Eventually, Ables, his wife, and family decided to migrate to Utah. Unfortunately, as mentioned, racial attitudes had hardened under Brigham Young’s leadership. As Sullivan notes, Young allegedly, incredibly opined that the curse of Cain remained because Cain had once been a mighty captain in the pre-existence. After he killed Abel, Cain’s followers in the pre-existence still respected him enough to take on the curse and come to the earth with black skin. This curse of dark skin, Young allegedly claimed, would last until all of Captain Abel’s spirits could come to the earth.

This kind of bizarre suppositions by Young led him to also say this in 1852 (as Sullivan notes from Wilford Woodruff’s journal), “If a man has one drop of Cain in him {he} cannot receive the Priesthood.” (He further stated that if a Caucasian) “mingles his seed with the seed of Cane the ownly way he could get rid of it or have salvation would be to come forward & have his head cut off & spill his blood upon the ground,” (The penalty for interracial marriage “would also take the life of the children,” Woodruff records Young as saying.

Despite these ideas, appropriately regarded as horrendous today, there is no indication that Ables was harmed in Utah. He worked as a carpenter and hotel manager in Salt Lake City, and spent a few years in Ogden. His family performed minstrel shows to LDS wards in Utah, writes Sullivan.

His attempts to receive temple endowments for himself, his wife, and his children, were rebuffed by Brigham Young in 1853. Young, for his part, framed his racism with an expectation that the “curse of Cain” would be removed one day by the order of God, and, as Sullivan quotes him, “all the races will be redeemed and possess all the blessings which we now have.”

After Young’s death, Ables, now a widower, again petitioned the new church president, John Taylor, for temple endowment privileges. Again he was denied. As Sullivan writes, “Taylor and the Twelve decided that Joseph Smith had erred in ordaining Ables to the priesthood. … nevertheless, (he was) allowed to remain.”

It was a final insult to Ables’ reasonable request after a lifetime of service to his church, but the longtime church member took it stoically, remaining an active member of his Seventies quorum, notes Sullivan. Soon after leaving for another mission to Cincinnati, Ables took ill, returned to Salt Lake City, and died on Christmas Day, 1884. He was born likely between 1808 and 1810.

As late as 1908, Sullivan writes, Mormon president Joseph F. Smith was insisting that church founder Joseph Smith had declared the late Ables’ priesthood “null and void.” Yet, in the same guilty contradictions that Ables dealt with all his life,  Joseph F. Smith also declared that Ables had been a “staunch member of the church.” In 2002, a gravestone for Ables was placed in the Salt Lake City Cemetery. His church accomplishments, including his priesthood status, are summarized.

 

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28 Responses to Elijah Ables, a black Mormon priesthood holder in the 19th century

  1. Tom says:

    Great stuff Doug, thanks.

  2. Warren says:

    Thank you Doug for highlighting this article. It is still much needed in a church where so many otherwise educated people’s understanding of the Gospel is a century or more behind. They won’t hear it this coming weekend.

  3. Ron Hellings says:

    Unfortunately, this little article is wrong from the first sentence onward. You see, contrary to what is stated, Elijah Ables IS a complete stranger to Mormon History. There is an Elijah Abel, whose history in the church is fascinating, and very unlike what your author has portrayed. But I wouldn’t trust much from a guy who can’t even get the name right.

    • Doug Gibson says:

      Snark noted, Mr. Hellings. The article in JOMH I referred to uses the name Elijah Ables, and so I have respected that.

      • Michael Trujillo says:

        Doug, perhaps knowing that the man’s name appears as Abel, Ables, and Abels in different references, you might have mentioned as much in your first paragraph.

        Just a thought so that readers would know that you’re familiar with the iterations and chose the one used by the book’s author. And, too, to aid those of us who’ve never heard of the guy and are looking him up.

    • Dennis B. says:

      Yeah, if you can’t even write the author’s name right…. I mean, I’m assuming this “Sullivan” character that you keep referring to is supposed to be “Stevenson.”

  4. Bob Becker says:

    Interesting article. But a query: what exactly does it mean to “rely exclusively on LDS correlation”? Does the word “correlation” have some particular LDS connotation to it?

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  6. Jeffrey Needle says:

    I agree with the poster about the spelling of Elijah Abel’s name. No credibility if you can’t get a simple thing like the man’s name right. A little like a Sacrament meeting speaker I heard on BYU-TV the other day, referring to the book of “Revelations” in his talk. It really isn’t that hard. It’s “Revelation” — no “s” at the end. If you can’t get something THAT simple right, then perhaps we ought to look at the rest of your message.

    Sigh.

    • Bob Becker says:

      Re: varient spellings of 19th century names. Americans in the 19th century were spellers of great independence, and this not infrequently extended to the spelling of their names. Not at all unusual to find people spelling the names of their own relatives in different ways, or even one person spelling his own name differently over the course of his life. I know next to nothing about the doocrinal history Doug examines in these essays and so won’t presume to comment on them. But I do know this: if your main argument against his conclusions is that he choose a different variant spelling of an early 19th century name than you prefer….if that’s all you’ve got, then you don’t have much.

      • Doug Gibson says:

        Note 1, from the article: “A Negro Preacher”: The Worlds of Elijah Ables:

        1The spelling of Elijah Ables’s name is unclear from the historical record. In his own writings, he spells his name both as “Ables” and “Able.” Elijah Ables, Letter to Brigham Young, March 14, 1854, Brigham Young Office Files CR 1234 1, Reel 32; Receipt of payment, June 28, 1858, Brigham Young Office Files, Reel 36, respectively. Similarly, a news article, “Local and Other Matters,” Deseret News, October 6, 1869, 1, spelled it as both “Ables” and Able.” He likely dropped the “s” in the second rendering; therefore, I have chosen to use “Ables.”

        • Michael Trujillo says:

          As I said earlier, you might have anticipated that and added one sentence stating which iteration you were using, instead of having to explain yourself after the blog goes up.

          Just a thought.

        • Eric says:

          All true, but his own grave marker (a photo of which appears at the end of the article) says “Abel.” I acknowledge and agree that spelling was not as formalized 150 years ago, but I thought it a somewhat odd editorial decision to fail to explain, then stick with, (and then defend) an unconventional spelling.

          However, and not to be snarky or flippant, I don’t think James Strang ever went by “Strangeite.” (Or at least, Google came up empty.) Interesting article, though. Thank you.

  7. ScottH says:

    Fascinating and valuable. It is good when Mormons embrace their history rather than trying to hide its less savory elements. We have nothing to fear from the truth.

    But it is also important to note that history will always be a challenging area when it comes to seeking truth. Active participants experienced events differently. While time can add perspective lacked at the time under study, no historian will ever have a full grasp of the facts. All historians also necessarily choose what to emphasize. Being human, they are unable to achieve complete objectivity.

    Still, history can be valuable in understanding who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.

    One Mormon historian envisioned at least three versions of Mormon history: 1) the Primary children’s version where the Mormons are always the good guys and others are always the bad guys; 2) the anti-Mormon version where the Mormons are always the bad guys; and 3) an informed history where people of various persuasions acted very humanly, sometimes with the best of intentions, as they tried to make the best of their lives while trying to making sense of the world around them.

    A clear eyed view of Mormon history, such as described in type 3 above, can bolster, rather than destroy faith.

  8. Neal Cassidy says:

    I am schocked to learn that Mormon history has a practice of approving membership or behavior and then renouncing the same behavior. Its almost like changing beliefs or practices to fit current trends or to accomodate a changing belief to gain further acceptance in the mainstream. Surely this is a rare instance and not a widespread practice.

  9. Steve Eccles says:

    Very interesting article. I enjoy your column!

  10. Wayne Dequer says:

    ;-)

  11. Wayne Dequer says:

    A usual I appreciate your thoughtful posts about LDS history: especially this important aspect. I especially appreciated your comment: “It was near the time the young church was expelled from Missouri, largely due to concerns from pro-slavery forces there that the church was anti-slavery.” While there were additional reasons, I have long concluded that this was indeed the principle reason.

    I also enjoyed the dust-up over 19th century speeling! ;-)

  12. Brian says:

    I am curious. I understand that Ables son and grandson were both ordained the priesthood even under the ban. How did this happen if his ordination was a mistake? Why were they “exempt” from the ban?

    • Surely says:

      Actually, all of Able’s active male descendants received the priesthood and many served missions. Able’s wife was white and by the time of his great grandchildren “everyone passed.” Of course, not all of his descendants knew of their African ancestry. Church leaders who knew, asked the family members not to say anything. Most of the descendants lived in northern Utah.

      • Wayne Dequer says:

        Reply to Surely:
        Interesting information given views on inter-racial marriages. It is also interesting that “church leaders who knew” asked the family to say nothing. Is this an indication that not all church leaders had the same view of priesthood ordination?

  13. Jeff Schrade says:

    Interesting… but a painful history lesson. Thanks for sharing.

    When I was a student at BYU in the 80′s, I decided to write a paper on the history of the priesthood as it relates to those whose ancestors came from Africa. I thought I would find a clear-cut prophetic history to report, but instead the record was just as sad and confused as you’ve reported. As I wrote my paper, I was left with the impression that Brigham Young was inspired in many things, called of God, an amazing, tremendous leader, a man whose strength was used by heaven to settle the west and ensure the safety of thousands of people. But being a man of his time, I think he carried in him the teachings he’d grown up with and was unable to see past.

    That said, I remember attending a ward in Manti a few months after Spencer W. Kimball announced that all worthy male members could now hold the priesthood. A missionary who had just returned from Canada bore his testimony that day and shared with the congregation the experiences and successes they’d had in the Afro-Canadian community shortly after the revelation was announced. Hearing him made me appreciate all-the-more the inspiration and guidance President Kimball gave to the church during his time in office.

    As ScottH noted above, a mature understanding of history let’s us know that in days past, “people of various persuasions acted very humanly, sometimes with the best of intentions, as they tried to make the best of their lives while trying to making sense of the world around them.”

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  15. Russell Stevenson says:

    From the author of the article:

    I would encourage those who criticize my decision to choose the “unconventional” spelling of Ables’s name to actually read the article and look at the documentary evidence. According to a letter written by Elijah himself, the name is rendered with a clearly visible “s” at the end (this image is available in the article itself). The “Able” spelling is also defensible, as evidenced by a receipt of payment with his name in 1858.

    There are two branches of the family tree: the Able side and the Ables side. One of the Elijah’s descendants goes by the name of Boyd Ables.

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