Monday, March 6, 2017

Elijah Ables: Black Mormon priesthood holder in the 19th century

Elijah Ables is no stranger to Mormon history, although he’s virtually unknown. 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. Stevenson later published the book, "Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ables." 

In "A Negro Preacher: The Worlds 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, Coltin later repudiated his act. Stevenson quotes him as saying “... while I had my hands upon his head, I never had such unpleasant feelings in my life.”

Still, by 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 the 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 were assured 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 that time were an estimated 10,000 fugitives from slavery, writes Stevenson. He further supposes, likely correctly, that Smith wanted his black missionary to look at the possibility of setting up a black LDS congregation.

Whatever Ables’ ability 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 Stevenson, “that one dozen free negroes or mulattoes never have belonged to our society in any part of the world, from the first organization to this date.”

Obviously, Ables — and others — participation in the early LDS Church prove 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. This was likely a key reason for Smith calling Ables to another mission, to Cincinnati, where there was a large population of free black workers.

As Stevenson notes in his article, Smith’s appointment of Ables shows he must have had great trust in the elder. The Concinnati branch of the church was unstable, and prone to apostasy. Outside the church there were race riots between free blacks and white settlers.  This 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 church member under Brigham Young but staying on good terms with members of divergent branches, including followers of Sidney Rigdon, James Strang, David Whitmer, William Smith and those who formed 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 hardened under Brigham Young’s leadership. As Stevenson notes, Young allegedly 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 the curse and come to the earth with black skin. This curse of dark skin, Young allegedly claimed, wuld last until all of Captain Abel’s spirits could come to the earth.

This kind of suppositions by Young led him to say in 1852, as Stevenson 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 (sic) the ownly (sic) 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 this rhetoric, appropriately regarded as horrendous, there is no evidence that Ables was physically harmed in Utah. He worked as a arpenter and hotel manager in Salt Lake City, and spent a few years in Ogden. His family performed minstrel shows for LDS wards in Utah, writes Stevenson.

His attempts to receive temple endowments for himself, his wife, and his children were rebuffed by Young. In 1853, Young framed his racism with an expectation that the “curse of Cain’ would be removed one day by the order of God, and, as Stevenson quotes him, ”all the races will 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 Stevenson 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 member took it in stoically, remaining an active member of his Seventies quorum, notes Stevenson. Soon after leaving for another mission to Cincinnati, Ables took ill, returned to Salt Lake City, and died on Christmas Day 1884. He was likely born between 1808 and 1810.

As late as 1908, Stevenson writes, Mormon president Joseph F. Smith was claiming that church founder Joseph Smith had declared the late Ables' priesthood "null and void." Yet in the same 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.

-- Doug Gibson

This post was originally published in StandardBlogs.

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