Did Joseph Smith, Jr. Ordain Elijah Abel to the Priesthood?

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.” [1]

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.” [2]

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.” [3]

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. [4]

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.

———————————————
[1] “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.

[2] Eunice Kenney, “My Testimony of the Latter Day Work, [ca. 1885],” typescript, microfilm, MS 4226, CHL.

[3] Council Meeting, 4 June 1879, Lester E. Bush papers, Special Collections, J. Williard Marriott Library, University of Utah.

[4] 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.

Comments

  1. Bro. Jones says:

    Interesting stuff. So are you defining “ordained by Joseph Smith” as “literally had Joseph lay his hands upon Elijah Abel and ordain him to the priesthood”? For what it’s worth, while this interpretation is new to me, I don’t suppose I’d assumed that Joseph was necessarily the man who personally ordained Brother Abel to the priesthood, but rather that Joseph supported and was aware of the event. But this is a valuable, scholarly basis to make that assumption. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for the interesting post. I have a couple of questions. First, when the decision was made to prevent black men from holding the priesthood (and black women from the temple) do you know of any discussion/pushback from others in the church or leadership? Did it have anything to do with the Church siding with the southern states on the issue of slavery? Was this change instituted gradually or all at once?

    Thanks!

  3. Rachel, those are three good questions. Paul’s book hits on all three, and Imma let him answer, but the short answers are (a) yes (b) kinda (c) kinda both.

  4. Bro. Jones says:

    Also Paul, just wanted to thank you for writing this book. I intend to add it to my wishlist and read it when I get some grown-up time to myself in the next several years. [sigh]

  5. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    Great Paul–I have your book–Now I’ll have to read it!

  6. Obviously an apologyst ploy to distance Joseph Smith from Elijah Able. /snark

  7. Do we have any information on who did ordain Elijah Abel to either the office of Elder or Seventy? I had been under the impression that Joseph Smith Sr. (father of the prophet) ordained him to one or the other, but I have no idea why I recall that.

  8. The more I learn about Zebedee Coltrin, the more it seems he did and said a lot of things that were just outside the mainstream. This and the story of a vision of Heavenly Mother are obviously good things, but what else did he throw in?

  9. Paul, this is why I find history research so much fun. More than once, I have discovered that what I thought I knew was all wrong, and having to reevaluate in light of new evidence (or lack thereof). Your book is on my list after about 4 or 5 others, previously purchased.

  10. Just a comment on the title of the book… My initial impression was that this is a book critical of the church’s long-institutionalized racism (trying to stay “white” –and “delightsome?”)

    If one reads the summary on Amazon, “Reeve instead looks at how Protestants racialized Mormons, using physical differences in order to define Mormons as non-White to help justify their expulsion from Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois,” it becomes evident that impression is wrong.

    But, am I the only one that gets such an impression from the title–or is it cleverly designed to elicit just such a reaction and generate more interest?

  11. My research on early Mormonism in outlying areas suggests that the vast majority of priesthood ordination occurred in conferences in these outlying areas (and not in the gathering areas). Men would convert and then go to a local conference run by elders to get ordained. Thus very few of the early elders were ordained by Joseph Smith. Church leaders continually remarked that when they travelled they would run into elders who they never heard of.

  12. Paul Reeve says:

    Thanks all for the great questions and comments. I’ll be answering the questions in a follow-up post. Keep them coming.

  13. “Church leaders continually remarked that when they travelled they would run into elders who they never heard of.”

    Wasn’t this the express purpose of certificates of ordination?

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    Very interesting, Paul. I too had made the same assumption; I’ll need to be more circumspect about that in the future.

  15. Yes, Ben, but those who made the remarks (Oliver Cowdery and Brigham Young at different times) were the types that hoped to get a handle on what was going on and seemed a little disconcerted to run into lots of elders that they hadn’t heard of. I get the sense that running into elders they did not know made them feel that Mormon proselytizing difficult to oversee (which it was).

  16. Thanks for this, Paul. Was the lifting of the ban ever discussed or thought of as “restoration” of the priesthood. Do you think our evolving narative on the ban could some day make space for this perspective? If it isn’t a revelation restoring divine power in the last days then what is it? It saddens me every time I read new “priesthood restoration” lessons from the church that make no mention or even a footnote to OD2!?!

    I’d also like to learn more about how/why the ban was applied to black families and the temple. I need to get your book.

  17. In the church’s explanation of the priesthood ban in the “Race and the Priesthood” essay on LDS.org it seems that the church describes the ban as a big mistake originated with Brigham Young and largely due to the societal norms of his day being much more accepting and even encouraging of racism, bigotry and racial segregation. I know that the church does not believe that prophets are infallible, they readily admit that they are not perfect or all-knowing, but they do teach that the prophet will never “lead the church astray”. I would love it if you could go through a short synopsis of the church’s official doctrine concerning the “infallibility” of the prophet and exactly how “wrong” the prophet is allowed to be and still be considered a prophet. Is it accepted that anything spoken from the general conference pulpit hard-line doctrine or is it accepted by the church that there can be discussion/debate about what is taught by the general authorities? I think it is a topic that many people both inside and outside the church do not have a full understanding of. I think that because of this misunderstanding many people in the church will stifle any discussion that they perceive as being “out of line” with the teachings of the prophet because they, consciously or unconsciously, believe him to be infallible. Your thoughts.

  18. I understand Elijah Abel’s son and grandson were ordained to the priesthood in the early 20th century despite the priesthood ban. Has your research uncovered explanations, context, or controversy surrounding their ordinations (or ordinations of other blacks post-Brigham Young and pre-1978)?

  19. it's a series of tubes says:

    Is it accepted that anything spoken from the general conference pulpit [is] hard-line doctrine

    No, that’s not taught or accepted.

  20. I second Brody’s comment/question. I have heard that prophet speaking/doctrine equivalence several times in church commentary and lessons. It may be incorrect but I am definitely not the only one who has been taught it in a formal setting.

  21. This is great stuff, Paul. Thanks for doing it.

  22. Mary Ann says:

    For the general conference as doctrine question, the church actually teaches both angles. “The Words of the Prophets Delivered through the Spirit during General Conference are Latter-day Scripture” according to the Teachings of the Living Prophets Manual (Chapter 6), and it has many quotes to support that view. The Doctrine and Covenants Manual also repeats and supports that view (in commentary on Section 68), but provides an additional caveat with this quote from Harold B. Lee: “It is not to be thought that every word spoken by the General Authorities is inspired, or that they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost in everything they read and write. Now you keep that in mind. I don’t care what his position is, if he writes something or speaks something that goes beyond anything that you can find in the standard church works, unless that one be the prophet, seer, and revelator—please note that one exception—you may immediately say, ‘Well, that is his own idea.’ And if he says something that contradicts what is found in the standard church works (I think that is why we call them ‘standard’—it is the standard measure of all that men teach), you may know by that same token that it is false, regardless of the position of the man who says it.” In both manuals, they stress the quote by President J. Reuben Clark, “We can tell when the speakers are ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost’ only when we, ourselves, are ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost.’ In a way, this completely shifts the responsibility from them to us to determine when they so speak.”

    So basically it’s up to each member to determine when a leader is declaring doctrine…unless later leaders say that it really was (or was) not doctrine regardless of what lay members thought at the time. ;)

  23. I am always amused at LDS obsession with Joseph Smith’s exceptionalism. What he did or didn’t do always matters more than what any other prophet did. Still, I am tempted to put this essay in the “it ain’t so because not enough evidence” shelf. Just like the “there is no evidence, documentation, recording or video that Joseph Smith had sex with his polygamous wives so he must not have had sex with them,” lol.

  24. Ok. I know I need to read the book but the last few comments raised another topic I would like to hear Paul’s thoughts on. White Guilt. How do you think the Church, which expresses overwhelmingly white culture, might use white guilt to recover from institutional racism?

    Or quoting from the Church essay “Race and the Priesthood” to ask this question another way, how might the Church best move forward from the past “era of great racial division” and “the theories advanced in the past” which “echoed the widespread ideas about racial inferiority” and led the Church to somehow bar black men or women from full fellowship and saving ordinances, which “Church leaders today unequivocally condemn… past and present, in any form” but have yet to apologize for or admit the Church’s institutional role and benefit from such racism?

    And by White Guilt I mean the shame white people feel as they learn they have long ago been assigned as beneficiary to a system of ungodly abuses which continue to empower people of their skin tone by disempowering people of darker skin tone.

  25. I don’t have “deep family legacies” in the LDS church, and I only have had family members who were deeply opposed to the ban, if they were members at all during the ban.

    Are there bridges of understanding that ypu think should be created between with people whose families accepted, (potentially taught) racism?

    What would you say to those of us who find the thought that *anyone* thought that racist views were doctrine is simply incomprehensible? How would you suggest that we approach people who see it as a noble inheritance from their ancestors?

  26. Juliathepoet, I’m not sure very many would view the priesthood ban as a “noble inheritance” from ancestors. I have some lines that trace membership in the church to the 1830s, which means I must reconcile myself with the view that many of them likely viewed the ban as doctrine. I know one of my Mormon pioneer ancestors came from southern stock and owned a slave at the time of his conversion — I doubt he or his children would have had issues with the ban. While I do not excuse their views, I do understand that I should view them within their cultural context. One of the themes from stories told around the dinner table growing up was that it was okay to have differing opinions from church leaders, but to still respect the authority they held and follow their lead on issues of doctrinal importance. Knowing that the ban was justified by many as revealed doctrine, I can understand why many of my relatives would not have felt it appropriate to publicly state their discomfort (just as I understand why my relatives defended the “doctrine” of polygamy on their missions in the 19th century even though I personally find the practice distasteful).

    I think one of the sides you will find in the “inheritance” view is that there is trepidation in flat out accusing our ancestors of being racist bigots. Just like with polygamy, they endured persecution by enforcing a view that we no longer espouse, so suggesting that they were on the wrong side (even if we openly admit the viewpoint was wrong) feels like we are turning our backs on them. It’s a bit of a catch-22, if we revere the sacrifices of our ancestors (“Faith of our Fathers” and all that), then we can be seen as implicitly supporting the viewpoints they defended (which we don’t want to do). But if we emphasize how wrong the viewpoints are, then we are suggesting their sacrifices were meaningless. There is also concern about the future – what viewpoints do we have now that will be seen as backwards and bigoted by our children and grandchildren? We recognize that we are attempting to do the best we can with the knowledge that’s been revealed, and if we want to be viewed mercifully in the future, it feels like we should view those in the past with mercy as well.

    I have female ancestors who bucked societal pressure and stood on soapboxes to loudly argue for the women’s right to vote. I take pride in that. I also have ancestors who disagreed with a decision the First Presidency made at the turn of the century and were very public about it — they felt polygamy should not have been stopped. That is a bucking of societal pressure that I’m not so proud of. Life is complicated, and it’s not always easy to tell what’s going to be the right side of history.

  27. Thank you Mary Ann for your thoughtful response. I have slave owners as ancestors, and I do understand that putting history in the proper perspective is important and valuable.
    I have only lived in Utah once, and for less than a year, so most of my lived experience and interactions with Mormons who have pioneer ancestors has been with people who grew up in Utah. Some adjusted to the more liberal culture of the area in Oregon that I lived, others did everything possible to get back to Utah as soon as they could find a job. In both those who stayed a short time and those who settled in, most were justifiably more excited by lessons about pioneers, and often sharing personal experiences of their ancestors became the whole lesson. Especially when the person who is teaching the lesson tries to bring in their ancestors, and uses it as a way to teach incorrect doctrine, it is very hard for me to find ways to bridge the divide. (Specifically when the ancestor was an Apostle or Prophet, and they read out of their family history or the diaries of the famous ancestor.”)

    I have ended up butting heads a number of times with missionaries and ward/stake members over the years. (I don’t live in Oregon anymore, but it seems to be an issue in almost every place I have lived.) I am really wondering how a person sitting in a class can confront false doctrine,within the context of that class, and still be sensitive to the reality that they are also members of the church, and the incorrect doctrine is something that they hold closely as important.

    I know that immediately after the revelation, many wards and stakes made accepting the revelation a condition of being called to teach. (My grandmother taught Sunday School for 4-5 years after because her stake president knew she had almost left the church over the ban, so she was not likely to continue to teach it in class.) I don’t see any rejection of darker skinned youth and men who join the church, but I have been told by several members, (life long and converts) how much hurt they feel when fence sitting or other disavowed doctrine is brought into lessons in the words of revered ancestors who did refused to the blessings of the temple to blacks/”negros.”

    I am wondering if there is a way to make sure old doctrines, if brought up, can be refuted in no uncertain terms, while still being sensitive to the history of the family that the teacher/commenter/speaker that is bringing the specific doctrine up. I don’t think that throwing chalk erasers at class members, (as my grandmother did from 78-80 if a class member saiduring certain words or started bringing in an idea that didn’t give respect for everyone, regardless of color) but I would like to not derail the conversation, walk out of the class and/or spend hours with those who are shocked to find out that less than 40 years ago, this is what the church taught, and not everyone has let go of the “folk doctrine.”

    So, I would love to hear about specific situations and how they were handled, that Brother Reeve may have found in his research.

  28. Chester Lee Hawkins says:

    I find this post to very interesting, as well as challenging. A great deal of research included, gives me more to dwell on in the future. I should say I have read Russell Stevenson writings on this subject matter, there is not too much to differ, but its the way each writer approach the facts per se. I wrote a research paper for an upper level English class at Brigham Young University in 1985 on “Elijah Abel,” it is located in the L. Tom Perry Collection Department of HBLL. I was clear in my mind that Joseph Smith, Jr. did not ordain Elijah Abel into the Priesthood. As I recall fom my numerous research efforts, Elijah Abel made a remark that Joseph Smith, Jr. did not ordain him. I am an African American member of the LDS church (almost 38 years). By the way, I wrote another research paper on “Elijah Abel” for a History class at BYU in 1987. Again, thanks for the great post.