W. Paul Reeve is Associate Professor of History and Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Utah where he teaches Utah history, Mormon history, and the history of the US West. Oxford University Press recently published his book Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness.
In addition to this guest post, Paul has graciously agreed to answer any particularly interesting questions you may have regarding his book and his research on race in the Church. Please leave questions in the comments below, and they will be answered in a subsequent post.
The short answer is no, I do not believe that he did. I know that my answer runs against the grain of what has grown into a popular understanding regarding Elijah Abel(s) and his priesthood ordination. In some circles it has become an almost assumed fact that Joseph Smith ordained Abel, a black man, to the office of Elder in the Melchizedek Priesthood. When I began research for my book, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness, I assumed the same thing. In fact, I made that claim in early chapter drafts for the book. However, as I dug into the sources I grew increasingly uneasy with that assertion and the evidence upon which it is based. In the book I don’t walk the reader through my behind the scenes reasoning and only the most careful reader will notice that I only claim that Joseph Smith, Jr. “sanctioned” Abel’s priesthood. What I offer below is a glimpse into my reasoning behind the decision to characterize it that way.
Not to worry, there is plenty of evidence—overwhelming evidence—that Elijah Abel, a black man, was ordained on Elder on 3 March 1836 and that Zebedee Coltrin then ordained him a Seventy, a member of the third quorum (a missionary quorum, not a general authority quorum as now constituted) on 20 December that same year. The record of Abel’s ordination as a Seventy is extant but the record of his ordination as an Elder is not. It is also clear that early Church leaders recognized Abel as black. In 1843, at a Church conference in Cincinnati, Apostles John E. Page and Orson Pratt both referred to him as “coloured” and advised him to missionize among “the coloured population.” Elijah Abel was a black priesthood holder in the early decades of Mormonism and remained so throughout his life. His obituary, published in the Deseret News in 1884 confirmed that fact and noted that he died “in full faith of the Gospel.” 
So, if there are no surviving records of Abel’s ordination as an Elder, where does the claim that Joseph Smith, Jr. ordained him to that office originate? The single source, to date, comes from Eunice Kenney, a woman who converted to Mormonism when she heard Abel preach in 1838. Sometime around 1885 Kenney wrote a brief remembrance of her life within the Mormon movement. By that point she was a member of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. She fondly recalled hearing Abel preach “a most powerful sermon” and remembered her initial encounter with him this way: “In the spring of 1838 I heard the first gospel serman [sic] by a Latterday [sic] Saint. His name was Elijah Abel. He was ordained by Joseph the martyr.” 
Kenney was matter-of-fact in her declaration of Abel’s ordination. Certainly her recollection of Abel’s sermon and her first contact with Mormonism indicates that it was an event that burned brightly in her memory. Yet, for me as an historian, Kenney’s recollection also raises certain questions. It was written almost fifty years removed from the events it describes. What were the circumstances for Kenney knowing about Abel’s ordination in the first place? Was it something that came up in conversation with Abel and if so how and why? If not, how, when, where, and from whom did she learn this information? Why include such a declaration in a remembrance likely written a year after Abel died? Most importantly, upon what evidence does Kenney’s recollection rest?
Because I could not satisfy myself with solid answers to those questions, I chose to favor sources closer to Abel himself, sources that claimed that Joseph Smith, Jr. sanctioned Abel’s priesthood, but do not claim that he ordained Abel to the priesthood. Both of those sources come from 1879 when Abel applied for his endowments and to be sealed to his wife. The investigation that ensued prompted Joseph F. Smith, then an apostle, to interview Abel and learn from him first hand. Unfortunately the report of that interview is filtered through Joseph F. Smith and therefore is one person removed from Abel himself. It is nonetheless more verifiably close to Abel than Kenney’s c. 1885 remembrance. As Joseph F. Smith reported, Abel asserted that “the Prophet Joseph told him he was entitled to the priesthood.” Abel showed Smith his certificate as a Seventy given to him in 1841 and a renewal certificate reconfirming his standing as a Seventy after his arrival in the Great Basin. If he had proof of Joseph Smith ordaining him to the priesthood, it seems likely he would have produced it. If Joseph Smith ordained him to the priesthood, it seems likely he would have said so. At least as Joseph F. Smith reported it, Abel only claimed that the “Prophet Joseph told him he was entitled to the priesthood.” 
That same year, Abel spoke at a “general meeting of the Presidents and members of the Seventies” at the Council House in Salt Lake City. Seventy-one members from thirty-three quorums were present. Abel’s talk was only captured in paraphrased form in one brief paragraph in the minutes of that meeting. Abel spoke about his forty years’ experience as a Latter-day Saint. The minutes, in part, state that Abel spoke “Of his appointment an[d] ordination as a Seventy, and a member of the 3rd Quorum. He related some of the sayings of the prophet Joseph who told him that those who were called to the Melshizadec [sic] Priesthood and had magnified that calling would be sealed up unto eternal life.” It was another opportunity for Abel to assert an ordination at the hands of Joseph Smith, Jr., if that was indeed the case. Yet Abel did not make that claim—or at least such a claim was not recorded in the minutes of the meeting, something that likely would have captured the clerk’s attention had Abel done so. 
While I don’t believe that Joseph Smith, Jr. ordained Abel to the priesthood, I do believe that Smith was aware of that ordination and sanctioned it more than once. The sources closest to Abel bear that out. That fact appears to have been good enough for Elijah Abel and that fact was good enough for me.
 “Deaths,” Deseret News, 31 December 1884; Seventies Record Book A, CR3/51, CHL; Minutes of a Conference of Elders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, held in Cincinati [sic] 25 June 1843, CHL.
 Eunice Kenney, “My Testimony of the Latter Day Work, [ca. 1885],” typescript, microfilm, MS 4226, CHL.
 Council Meeting, 4 June 1879, Lester E. Bush papers, Special Collections, J. Williard Marriott Library, University of Utah.
 A Record of all the Quorums of Seventies in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, CR3/51, box 3, folder 2, 5 March 1879, CHL.