Black History Month at the JI: “Nobody ever saw a Negro Mormon” (Reeve)

By February 11, 2013

By Paul Reeve

In May 2012, Susan Saulny, a reporter for the New York Times published a story, “Black Mormons and the Politics of Identity,” an investigation into how black Latter-day Saints grappled with their decision between a Mormon Republican and a black Democrat in the 2012 presidential election. The online version of the story featured a “TimesCast” four minute video which included a fellow reporter from the Times interviewing Saulny about her story. The conversation began with an expression of “surprise” that there were in fact black Mormons for Saulny to interview. The exchange then entertained a bit of speculation over how many black Mormons there are in the United States, with a “very small number,” a “couple of thousand max,” and “500 to 2,000” offered as possibilities. The “TimesCast” did rightly note that the LDS Church does not keep racial statistics on its membership, so that the number of black Mormons is difficult to know.

Even still, a quick Google search may have yielded the fact that a 2009 survey of 571 Mormons conducted by the Pew Research Center, found that African-Americans comprised three percent of U.S. Church membership that year. If that survey percentage held true for the overall US Church membership, then there were around 180,000 black members in the United States in 2009. Even if we cut that number in half to account for variances in the way people self-identify versus official LDS membership reports, 90,000 black Mormons is significantly higher than a “couple of thousand max.” The Pew Center survey also found that one in ten converts to the faith was black. It noted that the percentage of white Mormons in the US was at 86%, an indication that US Mormonism is more racially diverse than mainline Protestant churches (91% white), Jews (95% white), and Orthodox Christians (87% white). Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Muslims were all much more racially diverse.1

As an historian, I immediately situated the “TimesCast” conversation within the chronological evolution of public perception regarding Mormons and race, something I want to trace in broad strokes as my contribution to the Juvenile Instructor’s celebration of Black History Month. At least two black men, Elijah Abel and Q. Walker Lewis, were ordained to the LDS priesthood in the first fifteen years of the Church’s history. Abel received his washing and anointing ordinances in the Kirtland Temple and Abel and Jane Manning James (another black convert), were baptized for deceased relatives in Nauvoo and the Logan temple respectively.

In the Church’s early years, then, the “surprise” for some outsiders was Mormon universalism and the lack of racial restrictions. Mormons allowed blacks to worship with them and that worship sometimes took place in strange ways. The first known African American to join the LDS Church was Black Pete in 1830, the year of the Church’s founding. By February 1831 The New York Albany Journal reported that among the Mormons in Ohio was “a man of color, a chief man, who is sometimes seized with strange vagaries and odd conceits.” In August of the same year, The Sun, a Philadelphia newspaper, announced that “The Mormonites have among them an African . . . who fancies he can fly.”

As one outside observer saw it, Mormon notions of equality may have contributed to their troubled sojourn in Missouri. He noted that Ohio Saints honored “the natural equality of mankind, without excepting the native Indians or the African race.” It was an open attitude that may have gone too far for its time and place. That same observer  suggested that the Mormon stance toward Indians and blacks was at least partially responsible for “the cruel persecution by which they have suffered.” In his mind the Book of Mormon ideal that “all are alike unto God,” including “black and white,” made it unlikely that the Saints would “remain unmolested in the State of Missouri.” In fact, accusations regarding Mormon plans to instigate slave rebellions and the fear of black Mormons arriving in Missouri to prey upon white women were among the charges leveled against the Saints during the Jackson County expulsion.

By the 1880s, however, public perception began to shift in the opposite direction. Some outsiders suggested that Mormons facilitated race mixing even as others questioned if black Mormons existed at all. In 1883, A. M. E. bishop, Henry McNeal Turner, visited Salt Lake City. His report noted racial boundary transgressions inherent in Mormonism. Turner described polygamy on the wane in Utah, but nonetheless congratulated the Mormons because “they are just as willing for their daughters to marry colored men as to marry white men.” “As there are no colored young ladies here all the colored young men marry white Mormon girls,” he noted, “nor are they driven from white society for it.” Polygamy, however, was a different matter. Turner suggested that black Mormons were banned from participating. A “colored Mormon appealed to Brigham Young . . . for permission to take another wife,” he said, but Young rejected the request. Young explained that “the negro race was under a curse” but that Jesus would return “soon” and remove the curse thus making it possible for “the negro Mormons” to “marry as many wives as they desired.” In this telling, interracial monogamy was approved, but black polygamy was not.

Other reports only added to the confusion. One account from Salt Lake City published in a Nebraska paper attempted to dispel misperceptions. It refuted the claim that “nobody ever saw a negro Mormon” and suggested that “[a]ny one interested can find a number of colored ‘Saints’ in Salt Lake City.” The story nonetheless clarified that the presence of black Mormons did not automatically signal that Mormons tolerated racial mixing: “Some few cases of miscezination [sic] have occurred in this territory, but public feeling amongst the majority is strongly opposed to such unions.” One 1882 story in the Los Angeles Herald announced that “there are negro Mormons in Utah, and that there have been colored followers of Brigham Young almost from the very foundation of the church.” It correctly reported that Young “made no distinction as to race, color or previous condition of servitude among his proselytes, but he had a prejudice against colored saints taking unto themselves white wives.” It then made an unsubstantiated claim that “more than one colored brother was ‘blood atoned’ for taking unto himself a white woman.” (I am fully aware of Thomas Coleman’s murder, here; the “blood atoned” accusation is unsubstantiated in my estimation). The following year a report from Nebraska said that “A dozen colored Mormons arrived last week at Salt Lake” while a year later a Minnesota paper wrote that three blacks had converted to Mormonism in Tennessee and left for Utah; it described them as “the first colored Mormons” the faith had known.

By the early 20th Century Mormon leaders only added to the muddle. They did their part to forget black Mormon pioneers, especially the priesthood of Elijah Abel and Q. Walker Lewis. Despite that reshaped memory, black Mormons continued to worship with their white counterparts across the course of the twentieth century and some black Saints continued to hold the priesthood. Elijah Abel’s son Enoch and grandson Elijah, Jr., received the Melchizedek priesthood in 1900 and 1935 respectively.

Black Mormons have always been a part of the Mormon story from its founding in 1830 to the present, most of that time without priesthood and full temple privileges, but black Mormons nonetheless. Integrated Sunday worship has been a hallmark of the LDS Church from its early days to 2013. Certainly Mormonism has a troubled racial past, marred by a priesthood and temple bans which evolved across the course of the nineteenth century, but if that is the only story historians tell, then we contribute to the false impression exhibited in the “TimesCast” interchange. For all of Mormonism’s troubled racial history, a ban on black membership and segregated Sunday services are not among them.

The chronological transition from universal priesthood and temples to segregated priesthood and temples and then back again needs to be integrated into the official Mormon narrative. Once that takes place, the lives of black Mormons can then be situated within a broader framework and we can begin to better understand the contributions of black pioneers, in all of their complexities–both before and after 1978, both in the U.S. and internationally–to the story of the Latter-day Saints. For the time being, I am pleased to join the Juvenile Instructor in celebrating Black History Month and in refuting the charge that nobody ever saw a black Mormon.


“A Portrait of Mormons in the U. S.,” (accessed 16 August 2012) .

Article filed under Memory Race


  1. Could you add citations for your numerous newspaper articles quoted within? A good historian always cites.

    Comment by Clark Herlin — February 11, 2013 @ 8:11 am

  2. Clark, I’m sure Paul’s book, when published by Oxford, will contain all the citations. Citing sources on blogs is, especially when a post is taken from a work in progress, not all that common.

    Comment by David G. — February 11, 2013 @ 8:44 am

  3. thanks for pushing back the curtain a little bit on the entire “ban” issue (though i wish there were some sort of a footnote to check up!).
    but like you, i believe until the story is correctly told in, say, an official church publication (IMO, as outlined in these series), the issue will never rest.

    Comment by FrancisE. — February 11, 2013 @ 8:48 am

  4. Oops! someone already noted the “footnote” thing…
    should have seen that, sorry!

    Comment by FrancisE. — February 11, 2013 @ 8:50 am

  5. Did Elijah Abel?s son Enoch and grandson Elijah, Jr. also receive their temple blessings before 1978? Or were they only given the Melchizedek priesthood?

    Comment by Tyson E. — February 11, 2013 @ 9:12 am

  6. Wow–the Henry Turner quote is the earliest I’ve heard of marriages between whites and blacks in the Church. Curious to read more of his report.

    Comment by Bro. Jones — February 11, 2013 @ 9:46 am

  7. Fantastic stuff, Paul.

    Comment by Ben P — February 11, 2013 @ 10:45 am

  8. Thanks Paul. Really interesting. Do you have any sense if this issue played out in the international media at all (e.g., Austrailia, Polynesia, Britain, etc.)?

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 11, 2013 @ 11:15 am

  9. #1, Clark, I try to be a good historian, but I’ll fully admit that I’m a bad and reluctant blogger. I love the Juvenile Instructor because historians here footnote blog posts. I elected not to do so simply because my book is under contract and I have an obligation to my publisher. My editor at Oxford kindly gave permission for me to blog, but was also concerned about sharing too much before the book comes out. I assure you and Francis that the book will contain full citations to all references.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 11, 2013 @ 11:27 am

  10. This is great, Paul. Thanks for sharing it here.

    Also, your book can’t come out soon enough. I haven’t been this excited about a book in quite awhile.

    Comment by Christopher — February 11, 2013 @ 11:29 am

  11. Great stuff as usual, Paul. Like Christopher, I’ve been excited for this book for a long while.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — February 11, 2013 @ 11:35 am

  12. #6, Bro. Jones, Enoch Lovejoy Lewis (black) marries Mary Matilda Webster (white) in the Lowell, Mass. Branch in 1846. Connell O?Donovan is the leading expert on Enoch’s father, Q. Walker Lewis. See his ?The Mormon Priesthood Ban and Elder Q. Walker Lewis: ?An Example for his More Whiter Brethren to Follow,?? The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 26 (2006): 48-100.

    As for the Turner quote, I use it as evidence of public perception rather than historical fact. The story he tells about BY would have been hearsay and at least 6 years old, given that Young dies in 1877. The accusation that Mormon polygamy facilitates race mixing is quite old by the time Turner repeats it. In the minds of some outsiders, polygamy is not merely destroying the traditional family, it is destroying the white race.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 11, 2013 @ 11:50 am

  13. #8, J., yes, I have evidence from Australia and Britain (a political cartoon from Australia with aborigines waiting on the dock for the next boat to America after converting to Mormonism, courtesy Ardis) and William Jarmon a one time Saint who leaves and then publishes against the Church, does so from Britain and uses racialization in his rhetoric. There are other British news accounts as well. Unfortunately, I don’t have the space to develop the international story as fully as it deserves. I don’t have evidence from Polynesia, but I have looked for it either.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 11, 2013 @ 11:56 am

  14. #13, should be “haven’t looked for it either.”

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 11, 2013 @ 11:59 am

  15. Interesting. I, too, wonder how this played out abroad.

    Comment by Saskia — February 11, 2013 @ 12:21 pm

  16. #5, Tyson, I wish I knew more about the context for Elijah’s son and grandson’s ordinations. I’m trying to find more, but I don’t know if I will for the book. Margaret might have something. As for the temple, Ardis Parshall tells me that “if New Family Search can be believed, Elijah’s son Enoch didn’t have his work done until 1986 and grandson Elijah in 2002,” but those could be duplicates if someone did not bother to look up original work.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 11, 2013 @ 1:38 pm

  17. Great piece, Paul. I too am eager for the book. Dare I ask–is there a date?

    Comment by JanieceJ — February 11, 2013 @ 1:48 pm

  18. Fascinating. Thanks for this. Where are grandson Elijah’s ancestors now? Are they still in the Church? Also, any idea as to when Oxford will be publishing your book?

    Comment by jg — February 11, 2013 @ 2:28 pm

  19. #18, jg, One of Abel’s descendents turned up at a Genesis Group meeting in the resent past. He had just discovered Abel as an ancestor. I think Margaret Blair Young was planning to write about that story at some point.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 11, 2013 @ 3:07 pm

  20. I’ve invited the descendant to tell his own story, and I hope he does. I sent him the link to this blog.
    I was in DC last week, showing _Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons_ to the Department of Education. The person who invited Darius Gray and me was unaware of any Black Mormons in DC, though there is a flourishing ward in Anacostia. But the awareness of Black Latter-day Saints is low. We showed our doc as AMERICAN history, not LDS history. We have consistently found that African American audiences are more interested in what we have to say than Mormon audiences.
    Elijah Abel’s descendants left the Church, so no temple work was done for Enoch or Elijah the younger. Many representatives attended the Elijah Abel monument dedication, in which M. Russell Ballard acknowledged that Elijah Abel was a Black priesthood holder. The descendant Paul references joined the Church independently and THEN learned about his ancestor. He has wonderful pictures of himself and his family at the monument. Hoping he adds his own words.
    And Paul is one of our very best historians. I am proud to have been whatever I’ve been–a maternal mentor?
    Also, I’m assuming Turner is referring to Q. Walker Lewis proposing to Jane James, which we have in Jane’s letters. Does he document? Assuming so. Darius still has Turner’s book which was supposed to be for BOTH of us:)

    Comment by Margaret Blair Young — February 11, 2013 @ 4:06 pm

  21. Paul,

    Do we know how Mormons dealt with mixed African and Indian populations in the 19th century? I know that Brazil presented quite a quandary for the church in the 20th century, but I was wondering how the church dealt with the issue in the 19th century. I vaguely remember there being at least one Mormon convert who claimed to be of Indian ancestry who also had some African ancestry, but this isn’t my subfield, so I don’t remember the details and was wondering if there were other instances.

    Comment by Amanda HK — February 11, 2013 @ 4:22 pm

  22. #20, Margaret, Thanks for the comment. I like “maternal mentor.” Is there not a possibility that Enoch and/or Elijah the younger went to the temple before leaving the church? And the Turner to which we refer is not John Turner (who wrote the new bio of BY), but AME bishop Henry McNeal Turner who visited SLC in 1883 and then reported that monogamous race mixing was permitted in SL, but not black polygamy.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 11, 2013 @ 5:37 pm

  23. #21, Amanda, you seem to be referring to the William McCary case at Winter Quarters. McCary claimed to be of mixed ancestry, but was a runaway slave from Mississippi who claimed a variety of identities and aliases for himself. McCary had a protracted interview with BY and the majority of the 12 at Winter Quarters in the spring of 1847, but by that summer he was gone, after his sexualized sealings to white women became public. Other than that incident I’m not aware of mixed Indian/black ancestry being an issue to which LDS leaders felt compelled to respond. My assumption would be, based upon their strong stance against black/white marriages that the “curse of Cain” would pollute Lamanite/Israelite blood the same as it would when mixing with whites. In fact, BY does point out, in the fall of 1847, that the Pottawatomie tribe would not take McCary because of its proscription against mixing with blacks. The Cherokee and Choctaw also had laws against members of their nations marrying blacks.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 11, 2013 @ 5:48 pm

  24. Paul, sorry about the Turner mix-up. Comes with age. I think we’d have the temple records if the Able descendants had received their endowments. If I’m remembering correctly (remember, I’m in process of moving my focus to a film set in Africa), neither Enoch or Elijah the younger was ordained an elder. I think one was ordained a priest, and I don’t recall what office the other had. I could be wrong. I’ll send this to Darius, who would know.

    Comment by Margaret Blair Young — February 11, 2013 @ 6:24 pm

  25. Margaret, Both were ordained Elders, Enoch in 1900 and Elijah in 1935. Elijah was ordained a Priest in 1934.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 11, 2013 @ 6:40 pm

  26. Then I’m was right when I said I could be wrong!

    Comment by Margaret Blair Young — February 11, 2013 @ 8:56 pm

  27. Bro. Jones, as noted by Paul, Elder Walker Lewis’s son md. a white woman in 1846 and in my upcoming biography of black Elder Warner “William” McCary (to appear in Bringhurst’s second volume on “The Persistence of Polygamy”) I deal with his founding of a polygamous schism in 1847 in which he was sealed to many white Mormon women. Principally these two cases are what I believe led Brigham Young to start the priesthood and temple ban in December 1847. Interracial marriages continued throughout Mormon history from the 1840s.

    Paul, I was intrigued by Henry Turner’s 1883 claim that “all the colored young men marry white Mormon girls”. So I did some quick checking with the 1880 Census. By 1880, there were 29 married couples in Utah where the husband was either “Black” or “Mulatto”. But only seven of these couples were interracial – seven black or mulatto men had married white women. And one of these couples lived in Panguitch, so Turner was unlikely to have known about them. Of course, by three years later, a few more interracial marriages may have occurred.

    Of those marriages, I’m finding it difficult to find out which white wives were Mormons. The only one I know of is Thomas Tanner, who married Susannah Hathaway. Susannah had been sealed at 14 to a man nearly 40 years her senior but she soon left him, then married Tanner, a black whitewasher in Salt Lake.

    Thus in 1880 at least, only 20% of the married men of African descent in Salt Lake City had married white women. So Turner’s claim of “all” is extremely inaccurate.

    Comment by Connell O'Donovan — February 12, 2013 @ 1:28 am

  28. No Negro Mormons? Come visit my Phiadelphia ward.

    Comment by kramer — February 12, 2013 @ 5:09 am

  29. Paul,
    Did you look at the issue of miscegination in Utah law? For instance, “An Act in Relation to Service” (1852) criminalized any white person having sexual relations with “any of the African race.”

    Comment by Christopher Rich — February 12, 2013 @ 8:15 am

  30. Thanks for this Paul.

    I went back to that TimesCast, and after the reporters got over snickering about the idea that there might be any black Mormons, Ms. Saulny finally landed on “experts seem to say” there are from “500 to 2000 max.”

    She’s been a reporter for the Times for over 10 years, and she’s obviously learned her craft well. A quick visit to a few congregations in New York–Brooklyn’s Midwood First Ward could, on a good day, have supplied nearly a quarter of the low end of her estimate–would have shown her how wrong her guess was. And the other (unnamed) reporter even mentioned that the church has congregations in “downtown St. Louis, Hyde Park in Chicago, and Harlem,” but that wasn’t enough to shake her from her conclusion, based on what the “experts” had told her.

    Which raises a question about the “public perception regarding Mormons and race.” Has there ever been a time when that perception was in fact based on reality?

    Comment by Mark B. — February 12, 2013 @ 4:01 pm

  31. #27 Connell, Thanks for the census run down. Great stuff. It is impossible to know how Turner formed his impressions and how many, if any, of those couples he encountered. As you note, it would be helpful to know how many of those 7 actually involved Mormons. In any case, Turner seems unaware of BY’s forceful statements against race mixing and instead describes an open attitude toward race mixing.
    I’m looking forward to your McCary article. I’m skeptical that McCary held the priesthood, so I’ll be interested in what you’ve found.

    #29, Christopher, yes I deal with that in one of my chapters and draw upon your great article to do so. After the Servant Code in 1852, Utah is rather late in passing its anti-miscegenation law in 1888 which prohibits marriage between whites and blacks and whites and “Mongolians”.

    #30, Mark, Thanks. Good question. The bulk of my research is 19th century. I’m struck by how wide the divide was between what Mormons said on the inside and what outsiders perceived and accused Mormons of practicing. The two groups consistently talked past each other. It was a profound disconnect. I don’t know the 20th century story as well. I speculate that if ever there was a convergence it may have been in the early 20th century as Mormons begin to pass as white. Both Mormons and outsiders by then forgot the 19th century black pioneers and assumed that Mormonism was white from the beginning and would always be white. It was a perception that helped Mormons to fit in rather than stand out, especially as separate but equal dominated racial attitudes and white Americans reasserted racial supremacy.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 12, 2013 @ 11:31 pm


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