The Mormon people are changing.   Having old stock Mormon ancestry isn’t quite as chic as it once was.   It’s a nice conversation piece or a fun campfire story, but for those Mormons who live in America’s urban centers or abroad, the pioneer drama Just Feels So White.  American.  Rural.   Modern Mormons will not likely churn butter, push handcarts, or even make their own clothes.

But few figures have problematized the White Zion narrative as Elijah Ables has.  Most of his life was unconventional by Mormon standards. After leaving Maryland to make a new life for himself in the slums of Cincinnati, Ables met a local Mormon blacksmith named Ezekiel Roberts.  He joined the faith, went to Kirtland, and received the Melchizedek Priesthood “under the hand of Joseph Smith,” making him the first black priesthood holder of record.  His Elder’s certificate is available for all to see in the Church History Archives.

When Joseph Smith ordained him to the priesthood in 1836, he did so in the face of significant criticism from men such as Zebedee Coltrin and Orson Hyde.  Coltrin thought the idea of administering sacred rituals to the young man to be repulsive; only the sheer force of the Prophet’s will could persuade him to comply. [2] Hyde told Joseph that he feared that empowering blacks would diminish the standing of whites.[3]  Yet by December 1836, Ables was serving faithfully as a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy.[4]

Elijah Ables’ storyline does not fit neatly into standard Mormon narratives. Over fifteen years before the Saints trekked to Utah,

Courtesy Church History Library

Courtesy Church History Library

Ables braved a dangerous journey for slave-holding Maryland to free Cincinnati.  He first heard the gospel message not from a missionary but from a local blacksmith.  While the Saints in Missouri were being expelled for not being American enough, Ables was dodging British mobs in Canada who thought the Saints to be American sympathizers.  Though Ables was always associated with the Mormon community, he generally had to work alone—a black mid-single adult navigating a white, married church.    Whether Ables was living in the slums of Cincinnati or rural Utah, his faith was forged in spite—not because—of the Mormon community in which he lived.[5]

While Ables never entirely disappeared from the narrative—even Kate Carter gave him recognition in her lovely series, Heart Throbs of the West—the generations have diminished his stature. [6] Under Joseph Smith, Ables was still a resident alien in the Mormon community, even if he enjoyed the protection of the Prophet’s patronage. By the turn of the twentieth-century, Ables had come to be seen both by Mormons and non-Mormons alike as the community’s resident Uncle Tom.[7]   Yet his credentials as a priesthood holder and pioneer should have been impeccable.

What was it about coming to the wilderness that prompted the Saints to erect this golden calf of whiteness? In March 1847, Brigham Young said that “we don’t care about the color” and that priesthood worthiness “has nothing to do with blood for of one blood has God made all flesh.”[8]   After a negative encounter with an African-American libertine in Winter Quarters, the white Mormon community soured on Joseph Smith’s prior policy of inclusion.  By 1849, Brigham Young had adopted Biblical arguments to justify excluding blacks from priesthood office. [9]   This is the great irony of the Saints’ struggles with race: in their efforts to separate themselves from a decaying Babylon, they ended up adopting one of its fatal sins.

Ables has never been depicted in Mormon artwork, in spite of his obvious symbolic importance. As a missionary in Canada, he helped the Saints to escape from a looming civil war and gained renown as a rough-hewn preacher.  Though not every person can have their place in history enshrined in Mormon artwork, the symbolically significant figures–however obscure–have often found a niche within the Mormon story. Mormonism’s narrative abounds with and celebrates lesser-known figures who represent various aspects of the Mormon tradition.  Ordinary nineteenth-century Mormons such as John Rowe Moyle have achieved fame in film through undocumented (though not entirely dismissable) family lore.[10]  Clark Kelly Price has turned the account of several men (the youngest being 18) carrying sick Mormon wayfarers across the Sweetwater River into a fixture in Mormonism’s visual culture celebrating adolescence.

That few of these images have garnered wide acclaim within the Latter-day Saint community indicates the discomfort the Mormon people feel at looking its racial heritage in the face.  To their credit, some artists have made commendable efforts to put early Saints of color to canvas.  Elspeth C. Young is in the process of producing a magisterial portrait of Jane Manning James.  Connie O’Reilly and LeRoy Transfield have also done tremendous work in breathing artistic life into the forgotten black sister.  The Church has taken measures to affirm in general terms Ables’ place in early Mormonism.

Yet the popular Mormon narrative has exhibited tremendous resistance to the inclusion of these voices, fearful perhaps of their story’s ramifications for the assumptions they used to define their views of prophetic authority or even racial identity.  Remembering Elijah Ables is a way that we, as 21st-century Latter-day Saints, can follow the directive of Book of Mormon prophets to pay attention to the “voices from the dust” and remember the spirits who speak to us as though they were present, even if they have slipped from our collective memories.    Maurice Halbwachs has argued that societies “erase in [their] memor[ies] everything that might separate individuals or that might distance groups from each other.” [11] Elijah Ables presents a compelling case for the Saints to dress the wounds inflicted by generations of racism. He gives us hope that we can grapple with our racial heritage not only honestly but also, optimistically.

To purchase Russell Stevenson’s biography of Elijah Ables, click here.

 


[1] For more on documentations regarding the spelling of Elijah Ables’ name, see Russell Stevenson,  “Elijah Abel, Elijah Able, Elijah Ables: The Documentary Evidence,” http://mormonhistoryguy.wordpress.com/2013/06/27/elijah-able-and-elijah-ables-two-signatures/, accessed July 22, 2013.

[2] L. John Nuttall Diary, May 31, 1879.

[3] Joseph Smith Journal, January 2, 1843.

[4] First Council of Seventy Roll, December 27, 1836, CHL.

[5] For a discussion of Ables’ time in Canada, see Russell Stevenson, Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ables, chpt. 3.

[6] Kate Carter, The Negro Pioneer (Salt Lake City: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1965), 15.

[7] “No Room for Blacks,” Salt Lake Tribune, November 1, 1903.

[8] Meeting Minutes, March 26, 1847, on Selected Collections of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

[9]  On the origins of Mormonism’s racial policy, see Lester Bush, “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview,” Dialogue (Spring 1973): 66-71.  See also Stevenson, Black Mormon, chpt. 6.

[10] Russell Stevenson, ,”Zion’s Relic: John Rowe Moyle and the Wooden Leg,” unpublished manuscript.

[11] Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, ed., Lewis Coser (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 183.

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Russell Stevenson is an independent researcher who also moonlights as an instructor at Salt Lake Community College. He has been studying Mormon history online and in the archives for nearly twenty years. He learned his first lesson of historical analysis from his father: if you're going to drink water from a river, drink it from the source, not after all the cows have waded in it.

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