Elijah Abel

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Elijah Abel
Photo of Elijah Abel
Third Quorum of the Seventy
1839 – December 25, 1884 (1884-12-25)
Called byJoseph Smith
March 3, 1836 (1836-03-03) – December 25, 1884 (1884-12-25)
Called byJoseph Smith
Personal details
Born(1808-07-25)July 25, 1808
Frederick, Maryland
DiedDecember 25, 1884(1884-12-25) (aged 76)
Salt Lake City, Utah Territory
Resting placeSalt Lake City Cemetery
40°46′37.92″N 111°51′28.8″W / 40.7772000°N 111.858000°W / 40.7772000; -111.858000

Elijah Abel (July 25, 1808 – December 25, 1884)[1] was one of the earliest African-American members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was the first African-American elder and seventy in the Latter Day Saint movement. Abel was also the first and one of the few black members in the early history of the church to receive the priesthood.[2] In 1849, Brigham Young declared all African-Americans ineligible to hold the priesthood and Abel's claim to priesthood right was also challenged. As a skilled carpenter, Abel often offered his services to the furthering of the work and to the building of LDS temples. He died in 1884, shortly after serving a final mission to Cincinnati, Ohio.

Early life, conversion, and missionary work[edit]

Abel was born in Maryland on July 25 to Delila Williams and Andrew Abel.[3][4] It is unclear what year he was born. Some sources put the year at 1808, others at 1810.[3][5] Abel's mother was a slave from South Carolina, and his family later moved to Canada, possibly by way of the underground railroad.[5] :2 He was baptized into the church in September 1832 by Ezekiel Roberts.[3] Soon after, Abel moved to Kirtland, Ohio to live with the main body of Latter-day Saints.[6]:38

Elijah Abel was ordained an elder of the church March 3, 1836.[5]:2 Six months after his ordination, Abel was made a member of the Seventies Quorum on December 20, 1836.[5]:2 At this time he was also given his patriarchal blessing from Joseph Smith, Sr.[6]:38 The common practice when giving patriarchal blessings was to declare an individual to be a descendant of a specific tribe of Israel. Abel, however, was declared an "orphan", but promised "Thou shalt be made equal to thy brethren, and thy soul be white in eternity and thy robes glittering."[7]:131 Around this time Abel was washed and anointed in the Kirtland temple. Zebedee Coltrin claimed to have washed and anointed him, but Abel stated that Coltrin did not perform this ordinance on him.[4]:63

During the late 1830s, Abel worked as a missionary in New York and Upper Canada.[6]:38 In June 1838, while Abel was serving in St. Lawrence County, New York, he baptized Eunice Kenney.[5]:3 Due to civil unrest in Upper Canada, Abel's missionary travels were often punctuated with similar troubles and persecutions, a circumstance not unfamiliar to Mormon missionaries as many of them faced similar trials at that time.[5]:3

Abel moved from Kirtland to Nauvoo, Illinois in 1839. While living in Nauvoo, Abel continued to perform many duties for the church. One such duty was performing baptisms for the dead, of which Abel is known to have performed at least two: one for a friend "John F. Lancaster" and one for his mother.[5]:4 Another of Abel's duties included acting as a mortician at the request of Joseph Smith.[6]:38 Abel also worked in Nauvoo as a carpenter, and it is clear that while Abel was in Nauvoo he was personally acquainted with Joseph Smith. In 1841, Abel was part of a group of seven men who attempted to rescue Joseph Smith after his arrest in Quincy, Illinois, although by the time they reached Quincy, Smith had been taken back to Nauvoo.[8]

In 1842 Abel moved again, this time to Cincinnati, Ohio. Here he continued to be a carpenter and married Mary Ann Adams.[6]:38 Abel acted as a leader of the church in Cincinnati, and was recognized as such by Joseph Smith, who stated "Go to Cincinnati ... and find an educated negro, who rides in his carriage, and you will see a man who had risen by the power of his own mind to his exalted state of respectability."[7]:133 Not all church leaders were as accepting of Abel, however.

Meeting in Cincinnati, 1843[edit]

In June 1843, a regional conference occurred in Cincinnati where the apostles John E. Page, Orson Pratt, and Heber C. Kimball presided as part of a "Traveling High Council."[4]:77 During the conference questions regarding Abel and his membership were addressed.[9] Apostle John E. Page stated that while "he respected a coloured Brother, wisdom forbid that we should introduce (him) before the public".[4]:77 Pratt and Kimball supported Page's statements, and the leaders resolved to restrict Abel's activities as a member of the church. At the conclusion of the conference, Abel was called to serve a second mission locally and was instructed to visit and teach only the "coloured population".[4]:77 The meeting also met to address some of Abel's potentially threatening actions, but no disciplinary action was taken. Up until 1843, Abel suffered no discrimination in the church. The results of the conference, however, became a turning point to Abel and other colored, faithful members of the church. For the first time, race was used as a criterion for limiting church activities. The leaders of the conference, however, made no statement that would suggest the resolution of the meeting to be based on revelation or as some doctrinal order, but rather as an act of prudence to address the dynamic racial climate of the time.[4]:77

The few black people in the early church had the full fellowship in the church, including holding priesthood leadership positions. In 1844 in Boston, Joseph T. Ball was the first man of African descent to be a branch president.[4]:100 Then in 1849, Brigham Young, the prophet of the church at the time, issued a church-wide ban on blacks being able to have the priesthood. Young would then make the earliest known statement declaring a black priesthood ban, stating, "The Lord has given them blackness, so as to give the children of Abel an opportunity to cult[ivate] his place with his des[endants] in the eternal worlds."[10][4]:88 This decision may have been brought about by the actions of William McCary, an African American convert to the church who believed he was a prophet and claimed on various occasions to be Jesus and Adam, father of the human race.[9] McCary was also known to perform sealings in his own house and was later excommunicated in 1847.[9]

Abel himself also enjoyed opportunities for involvement in the church after this declaration. He served as a 70 in Cincinnati from 1842–1853[11] and another shortly before his death, in his former home of Cincinnati (1884).[12] In addition, as the church moved out West, Mormons were exposed to a larger population of blacks and anti-black political attitudes continued to increase.[9] Other influential black members include Black Pete, a member who came to Ohio and later became notorious for claiming to be a revelator. He was later disfellowshipped by Joseph Smith because of his false teachings.[9] One Q. Walker Lewis from Lowell, Massachusetts also found himself a item of scrutiny during this period. Lewis was ordained an elder by William Smith, Joseph Smith Jr.'s younger brother. By 1847, his authority was challenged despite his being well-respected in the church community.[4]:99

Later years[edit]

In 1853, Abel and his family migrated in the Appleton Harmon pioneer company to Utah Territory, the new headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.[13] Abel continued to work as a carpenter while in Utah as part of the LDS public works program, one of his main projects being the Salt Lake Temple. In addition to his carpentry, the Abels managed the Farnham Hotel.[14] By 1860, two more children were born to Elijah and Mary Ann.[13] Very little is known about the personal lives of the Abel family. They moved to Ogden, Utah for a short time before returning to Salt Lake City.[5]:6 Although it is unclear how many children Elijah and Mary Ann had, they had at least one daughter named Delilah, after Abel's mother.[4]

In Utah, Abel remained a member of the seventy and continued to be active in church activities. He was re-baptized in 1857 as part of the "Mormon Reformation".[6]:39 Abel's wife Mary Ann died in 1878.[5]:8 In 1884 Abel served a final mission to Ohio and Canada, during which he became ill. His poor health caused him to return to Utah in December 1884. He died two weeks after his return, on Christmas Day, 1884.[5]:8 Elijah Abel was buried at the Salt Lake City Cemetery.[15]

Denial of temple ordinances[edit]

Although Abel remained a faithful member of the church his entire life, he was not exempt from discrimination that existed in his church and state. His membership, participation, and leadership in the church was frequently questioned and challenged. After moving to Utah, Abel asked Brigham Young for permission to be sealed to his wife and children, which was denied.[6]:39 Abel requested a sealing again five years later, this time to President John Taylor.[6]:39 His request was again denied, and he was also not allowed to enter the temple to be endowed.[6][4]:100

1879 meeting on Joseph Smith's statements about blacks and the priesthood[edit]

While there were no attempts to take away Abel's priesthood authority, that authority was questioned by church leaders. In 1879, a meeting was held at Abraham Smoot's house to discuss the conflicting versions of Joseph Smith's views on blacks and the priesthood in response to Abel's petition to be sealed to his dying wife.[4]:96[16] John Taylor, John Muttall, Abraham O. Smoot, Zebedee Coltrin and were in attendance.[16] According to L. John Nuttall, who detailed the meeting in his journal, Coltrain and Smoot made statements about what Joseph Smith said about Blacks and the priesthood. John Taylor recounted a story and asked Coltrin if the account was accurate. In this story, Coltrin remarked that black people should not have the priesthood and Smith responded to him with the account of the Apostle Peter's vision in Acts 10, in which he was commanded by God to teach the Gentiles despite being a Jew himself, implying that blacks should have the priesthood.[4]:97 However, Coltrin denied that this conversation ever took place. It is unclear where Taylor originally heard the story.[4]:97 Smoot stated that he, Thomas B. Marsh, Warren Parish, and W. W. Patten had asked Joseph Smith in 1836 and 1838 if Blacks could have the priesthood and Joseph Smith said they could be baptized with their master's consent but not have the priesthood. According to Nuttall, Coltrin and Smoot wrote down and signed their accounts at the meeting.[4]:98 Scholars of Mormon history describe the statements as "apocryphal" and "an artifact [...] recorded forty-five years after the fact."[4]:98 In his biography of Abel, W. Kesler Jackson states that these two accounts contradict each other and other historical records.[4]:108

Some sources state that Abel was ordained by Joseph Smith,[4][17] while other records indicate that he was ordained to the priesthood by Zebedee Coltrin.[18] He was ordained some time before March 3, 1836.[4]:55 Despite the incongruity of the sources, Abel's ordination to the Seventy was performed by Coltrin. Coltrin claimed that Abel had been ordained to the Seventy in exchange for his work on the Nauvoo Temple, but that later Joseph Smith had removed Abel from the Quorum because of "his lineage."[6]:39[16] Coltrin reported that he had this conversation with Joseph Smith in 1834, but he did not ordain Abel as a seventy until 1836.[16] Joseph F. Smith also contradicted Coltrin, citing two certificates that listed Abel as a seventy.[6]:39 The meeting of 1879 reaffirmed the LDS church's policy of excluding blacks from receiving the priesthood. The meeting did not change the fact that Abel held the Melchizedek priesthood.[16]

1879 meeting with the Seventy[edit]

Two months after the meeting to discuss Joseph Smith's statements on blacks and the priesthood, a Seventies meeting was held to discuss the same topic. Elijah Abel, as a Seventy, was present. Abel personally defended his priesthood, outlining its history. Abel said that Joseph Smith had told him that "those who were called to the Melchisadec [sic] Priesthood and [...] magnified that calling would be sealed up unto eternal life."[4]:99 With this quote, Abel was defending his right to be sealed to his family in the temple.[4]:99 John Taylor concluded that Joseph Smith gave Abel the priesthood despite his race because he was an eighth black or because he helped with the early church, and decided that Abel's priesthood would be "allowed to remain."[4]:99

Posthumous commentary on Abel's priesthood[edit]

In 1904, Church President Joseph F. Smith declared Abel's ordination to the priesthood as "declared null and void by the [Joseph Smith] himself because of his blackness".[7] This statement was inaccurate, since Abel had served in the Third Quorum of the Seventy until 1883, and Joseph F. Smith had been the one to ordain Abel to serve a mission in 1884.[6]:24 LDS Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith went so far as to suggest that there had been two Elijah Abels—one white and one black.[6]:39


Though Abel died in 1884, his life and in particular his ordination to the priesthood were a topic of conversation and debate long after his death. When questions concerning Blacks receiving the priesthood or temple blessings arose, the story of Elijah Abel was often told.[5]:8

Abel's son and grandson, Enoch and Elijah, were ordained to the priesthood: Enoch was ordained an elder on November 27, 1900; and Elijah was ordained an elder on September 29, 1935.[19]

In 2002, a monument was erected in Salt Lake City over Abel's grave site to memorialize him, his wife and his descendants. The monument was dedicated by LDS Church Apostle M. Russell Ballard.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Grave Marker of Elijah Abel. [front] File:ElijahAbelGraveFront.jpg
  2. ^ Page 46 of The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith Bowman, Matthew (2012). Random House. ISBN 978-0-679-64491-0
  3. ^ a b c Reasons; Patrick (15 July 1971). "They Had a Dream: Elijah Abel". The Troy Record. Troy, New York. p. 18. Retrieved July 6, 2016.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v Jackson, W. Kesler (2013). Elijah Abel: The Life and Times of a Black Priesthood Holder. Springville, Utah: Cedar Fort, Incorporated. ISBN 1-4621-0356-1.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Hawkins, Chester L. (4 December 1985). Report on Elijah Abel and His Priesthood. L. Tom Perry Special Collections; Harold B. Lee Library: Unpublished. |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Embry, Jessie L. (1994). Black Saints in a White Church: Contemporary African American Mormons. Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books. p. 23. ISBN 1-56085-044-2.
  7. ^ a b c Bringhurst, Newell G. (1981). Saints, Slaves, and Blacks: The Changing Place of Black People Within Mormonism. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. p. 149. ISBN 0-313-22752-7.
  8. ^ History of the Church, 4:365.
  9. ^ a b c d e Bringhurst, Newell G. (1984). "Chapter 4: Elijah Abel and the Changing Status of Blacks Within Mormonism". In Bush Jr., Lester E.; Mauss, Armand L. Neither white nor black: Mormon scholars confront the race issue in a universal church. Midvale, Utah: Signature Books. ISBN 0-941214-22-2. Retrieved 18 May 2017.
  10. ^ Meeting Minutes, February 13, 1849, in Selected Collections from the Archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
  11. ^ Meeting Minutes, Cincinnati, June 25, 1843.
  12. ^ "Deaths," Deseret News, December 25, 1884.
  13. ^ a b Coleman, Ronald Gerald (1980). A History of Blacks in Utah: 1825–1910. Harold B. Lee Library; Provo, Utah: Unpublished. p. 59.
  14. ^ "Elijah Abel". www.blacklds.org. Retrieved July 11, 2016.
  15. ^ "Cemeteries and Burials Database: Burial Information: ABLE, ELIJAH". Salt Lake City, Utah: Utah Division of State History. Retrieved 2014-04-08.
  16. ^ a b c d e Givens, Terryl L. (1 October 2015). "Mormons and Race". The Oxford Handbook of Mormonism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  17. ^ "Gospel Topics: Race and the Priesthood", LDS.org, LDS Church, archived from the original on 2014-12-09
  18. ^ Minutes of the Seventies Journal, Hazen Aldrich, entry for 20 December 1836. LDS Church Archives as cited by Alma Allred in, "The Traditions of Their Fathers, Myth versus Reality in LDS Scriptural Writings" in Newell G. Bringhurst and Darron T. Smith (eds.) (2006), Black and Mormon (Urbana: University of Illinois Press)
  19. ^ Newell G. Bringhurst, "The 'Missouri Thesis' Revisisted: Early Mormonism, Slavery, and the Status of Black People" in Newell G. Bringhurst and Darron T. Smith (eds.) (2006). Black and Mormon (Urbana: University of Illinois Press) pp. 13–33 at p. 30.
  20. ^ Lynn Arave (September 30, 2002). "Monument in S.L. erected in honor of black pioneer". Deseret Morning News. p. B3. Retrieved 2009-06-30.


Further reading[edit]

  • Jackson, William Kesler (2013), Elijah Abel: The Life and Times of a Black Priesthood Holder, Springville, Utah: CFI (Cedar Fort, Inc.), ISBN 978-1-4621-1151-0, LCCN 2012044964, OCLC 808415486
  • Stevenson, Russell (2014), Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ables (self-published), CreateSpace, ISBN 978-1-5008-4313-7
  • Stevenson, Russel W. 2013. A Negro Preacher: The Worlds of Elijah Ables. Journal of Mormon History Vol. 39, No. 2, pp. 165–254.

External links[edit]