By Sharon Lindbloom
The following was originally printed in the May-June 2012 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.
Sweeping the past under the rug as something immaterial to the LDS Church today is a strategy that is leaving many people dissatisfied−Mormons included. In an effort to rescue their church from the charge of racism, Mormons like to bring up the earliest black Mormon priesthood-holder, Elijah Abel.
Elijah Abel received his ordination as Elder on March 3, 1836. Later he was ordained a member of the Third Quorum of the Seventy. Elijah remained a faithful Mormon all of his life. He was a good friend to the Prophet Joseph Smith, freely gave of his carpentry skills to the building of three LDS temples, and served missions to Canada, New York, and, late in his life, to Ohio.
Around 1836 Joseph Smith’s father (Joseph Smith, Sr.) gave Elijah Abel a Patriarchal Blessing that included:
“Brother Able, in the name of Jesus Christ I lay my hands upon thy head to bless thee and thou shalt be blessed even forever. I seal upon thee a father’s blessing, because thou art an orphan, for thy father, hath never done his duty toward thee, but the Lord hast had his eye upon thee, and brought thee through straits and thou hast come to be rec[k]oned with the saints of the most High. Thou hast been ordained an Elder and anointed to secure thee against the power of the destroyer…Thy name is written in the Lamb’s book of life. . .Thou shalt be made equal to thy brethren and thy soul be white in eternity and thy robes glittering: thou shalt receive these blessings because of the covenants of thy fathers. Thou shalt save thousands, do much good, and receive all the power that thou needest to accomplish thy mission. These and all the blessings which thou canst desire in righteousness, I seal upon thee, in the name of Jesus, Amen.”
But trying to save the Mormon Church from the charge of racism by using the example of Elijah Abel is fraught with problems. For example, because of his race, Elijah Abel was never granted one blessing that he most deeply desired. According to A Book of Mormons:
“Abel had received washings and anointings in the Kirtland Temple in 1836, before the complete endowment ceremonies had been established. Though he acted as proxy in baptisms for the dead in Nauvoo and Salt Lake City, Brigham Young denied his request to be sealed to his wife and family [8 children]: that was a ‘privilege’ he ‘could not grant,’ a decision later reaffirmed by President John Taylor” (Richard S. Van Wagoner and Stephen C. Walker, 4).
Elijah Abel moved from Nauvoo, Illinois to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1842. The following June a “Traveling High Council” consisting of three Mormon apostles (John Page, Orson Pratt and Heber Kimball) presided over a conference in which the activities of Elijah were examined. The Council concluded,
“To conform with the established ‘duty of the 12…to ordain and send men to their native country Bro Abels [sic] was advised to visit the coloured population. The advice was sanctioned by the conference. Instructions were then given him concerning his mission’” (Newell G. Bringhurst, “Elijah Abel and the Changing Status of Blacks Within Mormonism,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Summer 1979, 23).
As race relations in the Mormon Church continued to deteriorate, the fact of Elijah Abel’s General Authority and priesthood status became increasingly troublesome for Church leadership. In 1879, Mormon leaders gathered to “reapprove that the Priesthood was not for the Negro and that Elijah Abel was not to exercise any Priesthood rights” (William Berrett, “The Church and the Negroid People,” 8).
Third LDS President John Taylor questioned Zebedee Coltrin regarding Elijah Abel’s ordination. Coltrin stated:
“Brother Abel was ordained a seventy because he had labored on the Temple, (it must have been the 2nd Quorum) and when the Prophet Joseph learned of his lineage he was dropped from the Quorum, and another was put in his place. I was one of the first Seven Presidents of the Quorum of the Seventy at the time he was dropped… In the washing and annointing of Brother Abel at Kirtland, I annointed him and while I had my hands upon his head, I never had such unpleasant feelings in my life. And I said, ‘I never would again annoint another person who had Negro blood in him unless I was commanded by the Prophet to do so’” (ibid., 10-11).
Moving ahead into the twentieth century, LDS Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith even attempted to deny that Elijah Abel had ever been a priesthood holder. Responding to a private inquiry, Smith claimed that Church historian Andrew Jensen had it wrong when he put Elijah’s ordination to the priesthood in the Latter-day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia. Smith suggested that there were two men named Elijah Abel; the historian had confused the “names and the work done by one man named Abel … with the name of the Negro who joined the Church in an early day” (Joseph Fielding Smith to Mrs. Floren S. Preece, 18 Jan. 1955, S. George Ellsworth Papers, Utah State University, Logan).
In 1961, eleventh LDS President Harold B. Lee attempted to clarify the Elijah Abel controversy. He said,
“Some are heralding the fact that there was one of colored blood, Elijah Abel, who was ordained a Seventy in the early days. They go to the Church chronology and find the date of this ordination, and hold that up as saying that we departed from what was started way back, but they forget that also in Church history is another interesting observation. President Joseph F. Smith is quoted in a statement under the date of August 26, 1908, when he referred to Elijah Abel who was ordained a Seventy in the days of the Prophet and to whom was issued a Seventy’s certificate. This ordination, when found out, was declared null and void by the Prophet himself and so likewise by the next three presidents who succeeded the Prophet Joseph. Somehow because of a little lapse, or a little failure to do research properly, some people reach a conclusion that they had wanted to reach and to make it appear as though something had been done way back from which we had departed and which now ought to be set in order” (“Doing the Right Things for the Right Reasons,” April 19, 1961, BYU Speeches of the Year, 1961, 7).
Apparently picking up on Lee’s speech, Joseph Fielding Smith reversed his previous denial of Elijah having ever held the priesthood. He wrote:
“According to the doctrine of the church, the Negro, because of some condition of unfaithfulness in the spirit—or pre-existence, was not valiant and hence was not denied the mortal probation, but was denied the blessing of the Priesthood. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints he has the privilege of baptism, confirmation and membership along with everyone else, as far as this life is concerned… It is true that elders of the church laid hands on a Negro and blessed him ‘apparently’ with the Priesthood, but they could not give that which the Lord had denied. It is true that Elijah Abel was so ‘ordained.’ This was however before the matter had been submitted to the Prophet Joseph Smith. … It was afterwards that the Prophet Joseph Smith declared that the Negro was not to be ordained.” (Letter from Joseph Fielding Smith to Joseph H. Henderson, April 10, 1963)
Before the 1978 “revelation” that granted full membership rights to black people, Mormon leaders were, in the words of Newell Bringhurst, “trying to bury the ghost of Elijah Abel once and for all” (Dialogue, 31). Today, many Mormons continue to dig him up in an ill-conceived and futile effort to remove the historic racism that was prevalent in the LDS Church until just 34 years ago.