Note: The following was originally printed in the April 2020 edition of MRM Update. This is sent out 6 times a year to our financial supporters. To request a free subscription to our bimonthly publication Mormonism Researched, please visit here.
Saints: The Standard of Truth, an official history book published in 2018 by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gives a small mention to a mainly obscure church member by the name of Elijah Able (sometimes spelled Abel).
Elijah converted to Mormonism in 1832 and served three missions for the LDS Church. The book states, that while on his mission in Eastern Canada, he had a “troubling dream.” On page 315, we learn that in Able’s dream, he saw “Eunice Franklin, a woman he had baptized in New York, racked with doubts about the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith. Her uncertainty robbed her of sleep. She could not eat. She felt deceived.” According to the narrative:
Elijah set out for New York immediately. He had met Eunice and her husband, Charles, that spring while preaching in their town. The sermon Elijah had preached to them was rough and uneven. As a black man born in poverty, he had found few opportunities for schooling. But like other missionaries, he had been ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood, participated in ordinances in the Kirtland temple, and received the endowment of power. What he lacked in education he made up for in faith and in the power of the Spirit.
The book goes on to say that Eunice “wanted to tell him that the Book of Mormon was a work of fiction and Joseph Smith was a false prophet. But when she saw Elijah at her door, she instead invited him inside.” Able invited Eunice and her husband to hear him preach at a local schoolhouse. She didn’t want to go, but later relented.
According to page 317, Able’s message that day was taken from 1 Peter 4:12, which says, “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you.” The book does not mention specifically what He said in that sermon, though it does say that “Elijah’s voice and the message of the restored gospel opened Eunice’s heart to the Spirit. The certainty she had once felt flooded back. She knew Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and the Book of Mormon was true.”
It is a faith-promoting story to be sure, but Able’s connection with the LDS Church is much more controversial than the feel-good story in Saints. To learn more about Elijah Able, it helps to go to the Historical Gospel Topics essays found on Mormonism’s official website. One of those essays is titled simply “Elijah Able”. The essay explains, “He was born in Maryland sometime between 1808 and 1812 to Andrew and Delilah William Able. Able had one black great-grandparent, apparently on his father’s side.” This fact has been used by some to counter the charge that the church has a racist past. The essay went on to say,
Able grew to adulthood in a racially divided United States. Southern states permitted the enslavement of people with black African ancestry; northern states made slavery illegal, though white northerners typically treated blacks as social inferiors, and interracial marriage was often criminalized. Yet the restored gospel was intended for all, “black and white, bond and free” (2 Nephi 26:33), and in September 1832, a white Church member named Ezekiel Roberts baptized Able in Ohio, a northern state where blacks and whites interacted somewhat more freely.
The aforementioned paragraph is correct when it refers to 19th century racism, but citing 2 Nephi 26:33 tends to give the impression that Mormons during that time period were not affected by this problem. It is true that a person of any race was free to join Smith’s movement, but it is misleading to assume they were viewed as equals by everyone (particularly the leadership) in the church. For example, Brigham Young taught,
Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so (Journal of Discourses 10:110).
On two occasions, third President John Taylor stated that the descendants of Cain (those of African heritage) were allowed to remain after the Flood so the devil would have a representation on earth (Journal of Discourses 22:304 and 23:336). And as the article notes, Able was ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood in 1836, ordained a Seventy, and was “washed and anointed in the Kirtland Temple, and received his patriarchal blessing under the hands of Joseph Smith Sr.” According to the essay:
In 1842, Able moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he worked as a carpenter and was active in the local branch of the Church. In 1847, he married Mary Ann Adams, who was also of mixed race. Together the couple had four children. In 1853, the Able family migrated to Utah. During the next three decades, Able was active in his Salt Lake City ward, worked on the Salt Lake Temple, and served another mission to Ohio.
Though Able seems to have been an exemplary member who served his church faithfully, his loyalty was not rewarded by either Brigham Young or John Taylor, the succeeding presidents of the church:
In 1852, a year before the Ables arrived in Utah, Brigham Young publicly announced a policy of withholding the priesthood from black males. Able retained his priesthood office and standing, but when he applied to President Young for permission to receive his temple endowment and be sealed to Mary Ann, the request was denied. In 1879, a second request from Able was denied by President John Taylor. Able remained faithful until his passing on December 25, 1884.