Guest Post: Professor Bott, Elijah Abel, and a Plea from the Past

By March 1, 2012

Paul Reeve is an associate professor in history at the University of Utah.  He is the author of the award winning Making Space on the Western Frontier: Mormons, Miners, and Southern Paiutes (2007), co-editor with Ardis Parshall of Mormonism: A Historical Encyclopedia  (2010), and co-editor with Michael Van Wagenen of Between Pulpit and Pew: The Supernatural World in Mormon History and Folklore (2011). He is the co-editor with Jared T. of H-Mormon, an H-Net group set to launch in the next few weeks. His current book, Religion of a Different Color explores the racialization of Mormons and is under contract with Oxford University Press. Please join us in giving Paul a warm welcome!

There have already been a number of excellent responses to Professor Bott’s racist remarks to the Washington Post.  I write not in an effort to dog pile on Professor Bott, but in the hope of honoring what I believe was the intent of an unknown writer of an important document in Mormon racial history, Elijah Abel’s obituary (Deseret News, vol. 33, no. 50 (31 December 1884), 800).  Certainly the Juvenile Instructor crowd will be familiar with Elijah Abel as one of at least two black men ordained to the lay Mormon priesthood in the first two decades of Mormonism.  The LDS Newsroom’s two responses yesterday to the Bott controversy both indicate that the Newsroom does not know the origins of the race based priesthood ban in Mormonism. There are aspects of the development of that ban that are knowable, however.  I see Abel’s appeal in 1879 for temple blessings as one important event in solidifying a racial policy.  There are others.  I resist drawing a firm line in the sand at a specific given year, simply because history is rarely so clear.  Rather I see a doctrine and policies developing over the course of the 19th century in fits and starts and in response to various people and events.  I offer the following excerpt from my forthcoming book, Religion of a Different Color (Oxford University Press), as a lens into one moment in that development:

Elijah Abel, as a black priesthood holder, marked an important transition taking place within Mormonism in real and personal ways.  Abel and his descendants were the exceptions that proved the rule, a rule that hardened in response to Abel himself.  LDS Church President Joseph F. Smith in 1908 recalled that Abel appealed to Brigham Young “for the privilege of receiving his [temple] endowments and to have his wife and children sealed to him, a privilege President Young could not grant.”  If Smith’s memory is accurate, that appeal does not survive in Young’s correspondence, but may have taken place in person, thereby leaving no paper trail.  In 1879, two years following Young’s death, a request to Young’s successor, John Taylor, does enter the historical record.   By that date Abel was the only known black priesthood holder in Mormonism and he desired to receive his full temple blessings.  In Kirtland, Ohio he received his washing and anointing, a temple ceremony designed to ritually wash the initiate clean from the sins and cares of the world.  It was the only part of the temple ritual introduced in the 1830s and Abel participated.  Abel was not at Nauvoo when the Saints received their “endowments” and he was not “sealed” to his wife and children, both ordinances which Joseph Smith, Jr., presented in the 1840s.  In 1879, Abel desired those higher ordinances for himself, especially because Mormon leaders taught that temple rituals were necessary for exaltation in the highest level of heaven.

Abel’s request, however, prompted an investigation into the status of blacks in Mormonism and marks an important moment in the ongoing development of Mormonism’s temple and priesthood bans.  It is an internal inquest that in itself demonstrates the lack of a firm and universally understood policy as late as 1879.  If a priesthood ban was unambiguously in place, why did Abel still hold the priesthood?  If a race based temple ban was standard, why the need for a top level inquest carried out under the direction of the Church’s top official, John Taylor, then leading Mormonism as President of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles?  While it is true that LDS officials were not actively ordaining black men to the priesthood, it is also true that in spite of Young’s forceful statements on the curses of Cain and Ham, even the highest officers in Mormonism were unsure on how to proceed in the case of Elijah Abel’s desire to participate in the crowning rituals available to Mormons and to realize his faith’s most sublime blessings.

It was in the investigation that ensued that the construction of false memories began a slow process of replacing verifiable evidence.  Two Mormons, Zebedee Coltrin and Abraham Smoot claimed to recall Joseph Smith, Jr., teaching that black men could not hold the priesthood.  Smoot’s recollections were intertwined with his efforts as a missionary in the South and the general Church policy against converting slaves without their master’s permission.  Coltrin’s memory was simply wrong.  He said Smith instituted a ban in 1834 and suggested that Abel’s ordination was a mistake and that he was dropped from his priesthood position as a Seventy when “the Prophet Joseph learned of his lineage.”  Abel was consistently counted as “mulatto” in the federal census, a designation that according to the law in most states, and according to social practice within and without Mormonism, equaled black.  His identity was never in doubt.  Coltrin himself ordained Abel a Seventy in 1836, two years after he claimed Smith implemented a ban.  In further refutation of Cotrin’s claims, Joseph F. Smith, then an Apostle, reported that Abel produced a certificate as to his status as a Seventy dated 1841 and another certificate given to him after his arrival in the Great Basin in 1853, again affirming his priesthood.  Abel himself told Smith that it was Coltrin who ordained him a Seventy and asserted that “the Prophet Joseph told him he was entitled to the priesthood.”

With such incontrovertible evidence, LDS leaders allowed Abel’s priesthood to stand.  He was not, however, allowed to receive his temple blessings.  He became the living exception to the priesthood ban even as he was used to formulate a temple prohibition.  Following Taylor’s high level investigation, Abel served a third mission for the Church, wore himself out in the service of his God, returned to Salt Lake City physically spent, and died within two weeks.  His obituary, published in the Deseret News was more a substantiation of his status as a faithful priesthood holder than it was a typical eulogy.  It noted that he was “ordained an Elder as appears by certificate dated March 3rd, 1836” and that he was “subsequently ordained a Seventy, as appears by certificate dated April 4, 1841.”  That latter certificate was actually a renewal of his status as a Seventy, an office initially bestowed in December 1836, less than a year after he was ordained an Elder, and reconfirmed twice thereafter.  Following his death, Abel’s obituary served as a third witness to his status as a black priesthood holder in Mormonism, a celebration of his race and his priesthood rank in the face of a shrinking space for black Mormons within their chosen faith.  Abel’s obituary reads as if its unknown writer were speaking to the ages, challenging not only those of Abel’s day, but future Mormons to dare to refute his priesthood and his devotion to Mormonism.  The obituary writer seems desperately self-aware of the transition then taking place within the faith, hoping beyond hope that the very pages of the newspaper that carried news of Abel’s death to Mormon homes throughout the Great Basin might create a wall, a bulwark against the pressing racism that was then threatening to erase everything that Abel represented.

Sadly, it was a barrier too thin to hold back the crush of a nation bent upon reestablishing white supremacy in the wake of black liberty and a faith too tightly wedded to those same ideas.  The challenge of Abel’s obituary went unheeded.  In 1908, Joseph F. Smith, by then Church President, the same man who defended Abel’s priesthood in 1879 when he cited Abel’s ordination certificates as empirical evidence substantiating the validity of that priesthood, inexplicably reversed himself and falsely reported to Mormon leaders that Abel’s priesthood at some point had been declared  “null and void by the Prophet himself.”  It was a move that placed a final brick in the wall of a race based priesthood policy and dishonored Abel’s commitment to the gospel in the process.  Abel’s obituary noted that he passed of “old age and debility, consequent upon exposure while laboring in the ministry in Ohio” and concluded that “He died in full faith of the Gospel.”  In Joseph F. Smith’s moment of historical forgetfulness, however, race trumped righteousness and rendered Abel’s blackness an insurmountable obstacle, a condition that “full faith” could not overcome.

Professor Bott’s recent comments to the Washington Post again dishonor Abel’s legacy.  If even one black Mormon was eligible for the priesthood before 1978, then all blacks were.  In Elijah Abel all of the hokey rationalizations and false justifications for a race based temple and priesthood ban fall by the wayside.  If even one black Mormon was eligible for the priesthood before 1978, then all blacks were.  Abel was not in need of white paternalism in 1883 when he served a third mission for Mormonism at the age of 75 and he certainly does not deserve it in 2012.  I recommend Elijah Abel’s obituary to Mormons everywhere as a bulwark against an historical forgetfulness that continues to threaten to erase everything that Abel represented.  He was black and Mormon and filled with the Priesthood of almighty God, all facts that John Taylor’s investigation could not refute.  Let us today honor what I believe is an entreaty across time and space, a plea from the unknown writer of Abel’s obituary to Mormons everywhere to never forget his priesthood, his race, and his devotion to Mormonism.

Article filed under Race Reflective Posts



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