Q&A With Paul Reeve on Race in the Church

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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. Paul is the author of Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness. He was our guest a couple of weeks ago, and has agreed to answer some of the questions that came up in the comments to that earlier post.

Bro. Jones: 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.

Yes, “ordained by Joseph Smith” is taken to mean Joseph personally laid his hands on Abel’s head and personally conferred the Melchizedek Priesthood upon him. Your assumption that Joseph supported and was aware of the event but did not personally perform the ordination is what I believe as well.

Rachel: 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?

The book traces a detailed analysis of your questions across four chapters. This is only a short synopsis: The first open articulation of a race based priesthood ban by a Prophet/President of the Church came from Brigham Young on January 23, 1852, to the Utah Territorial Legislature. Young gives his most forceful enunciation of the ban on 5 February 1852, also to the legislature. However, the ban seems to be in operation before that time as evidenced by Captain John W. Gunnison’s book, The Mormons which was published in 1852 and mentions the ban, but could not have learned of it from Young’s speeches that same year. The temple restriction may have also started under Young, but I only found a later recollection given by Joseph F. Smith in 1908 that Elijah Abel appealed to Young for his endowment and to be sealed to his wife and Young said no. I did not find contemporary evidence of that. What does survive are the minutes from two meetings in 1879 when Abel applies to John Taylor (Young dies in 1877) for his endowments and to be sealed to his wife. They allow his priesthood to remain, but deny him temple access. I date the temple restriction to 1879 as a result, but it could have been in operation before then. Was there any pushback? Well, Young’s speeches emerge from a debate with Orson Pratt. Pratt gives a speech to the legislature that challenges Young’s views on the “servant” code that the legislature passes, but he does not mention priesthood. He does argue that curses are not multi-generational. He gives another speech on 4 February 1852, but it is not recorded so we don’t know what he said. But I see Young’s 5 February speech as a forceful rebuttal of Pratt. Does it have to do with the Church siding with the Southern States on Slavery. Not exactly, but it does grow out of the fact that the gospel net has drawn a wide variety of people into the “kingdom” including free blacks, black slaves, slave owners, abolitionists, and anti-abolitionists. Young seems intent on creating a hierarchical order out of the people who have gathered to the Great Basin. He places white above black and free above bound. I see it as an evolution that takes place in fits and starts. The transition away from open male priesthood and universal temples begins in 1847. The priesthood restriction is openly articulated in 1852, starts to solidify in 1879 and includes a temple ban (except for baptism for the dead), grows increasingly firm between 1879 and 1908 and then is firmly cemented in place in 1908.

John Harrison: 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.

To date I am not aware of a record that indicates who ordained Abel as an Elder, but the Seventy’s Record Book A that I cite in the original post does tell us that Zebedee Coltrin ordained Abel a member of the third quorum of Seventy on 20 December 1836 in the “loft of the stone chapel” in Kirtland. Hazen Aldrich, Joseph Young, and Zebedee Coltrin, as three presidents of the seventies, ordained twenty-seven men as members of the third quorum of seventy that day. Aldrich ordained the first ten, Young the next ten, and Coltrin the final seven, with Abel the twenty-first man ordained and the first at the hands of Coltrin. In 1879, Coltrin said that he gave Abel his washing and anointing, but Abel told Joseph F. Smith that Coltrin was wrong. Abel said that someone else washed and anointed him, and that Coltrin ordained him a seventy, a fact borne out by the Seventy’s Record Book A. Your recollection of Joseph Smith, Sr., may be in connection with the fact that he (Joseph Smith, Sr.) gave Abel his patriarchal blessing in which he confirms that “Thou hast been ordained an Elder and annointed to secure thee against the power of the destroyer.”

fbisti: 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?

No, the book title is not designed to elicit this reaction. I situate it within a broader “whiteness” historiography, and the title is in fact a riff of Matthew Frye Jacobsen’s book title, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Harvard University Press, 1998). Whiteness scholars have largely focused on immigrants and labor to teach us that not all immigrant groups were necessarily accepted as white but over time they Americanized and earned whiteness. Outsiders racialized them and said that they were less than white and therefore unfit for and incapable of the blessings of democracy. I argue that Protestant white America did the same thing to the Mormons, an inside religious group. In fact Protestant white America went so far as to argue that Mormon polygamy gave rise to a “new race.” Mormons thus sought to claim whiteness for themselves, in part through creating distance from blackness (their own black converts). The book offers a new paradigm through which to view the evolution of a priesthood and temple restriction over time, with Mormon whiteness as a contested variable, not an assumed fact.

Rulon Brown: Was the lifting of the ban ever discussed or thought of as “restoration” of the priesthood. Do you think our evolving narrative on the ban could someday 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.

I’m not exactly sure what you mean by “restoration” of the priesthood? If you mean that black men had the priesthood in the early decades of the Church and then it was “restored” to them in 1978, then the answer is no, LDS leader did not talk about it that way. By the mid-20th century LDS leaders were convinced that the ban had always been in place, God put it there, and they could do nothing about it. It would take a revelation to get rid of it (which in fact it did). If you mean did the leaders see the lifting of the ban as a part of the ongoing restoration of the priesthood (May 15, 1829 and then June 1978), I don’t think they saw it that way either. Kimball talked about it as a fulfillment of the promises made by past LDS leaders that at some future time the priesthood would be given to blacks. The way I lay it out in the book, I see it as a transition from open male priesthood to segregated male priesthood and then back to open male priesthood (or a restoration of what black men had in the beginning decades of the Church—a return to universal male priesthood). See my answer to Rachel above for a brief explanation on the temple restriction.

Brody: 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.

I don’t know that the Church has an “official doctrine” on infallibility of prophets. As you note the church does not teach that prophets are infallible. At the same time, some leaders have said that the prophet will never lead the church astray. I don’t know that there has been a historical study of the idea that a prophet will not lead the church astray, but my impression is that the idea comes from assurances Wilford Woodruff gave members following the mixed reaction he received when he issued the 1890 Manifesto bringing about the beginning of an end to polygamy. I think that taken in context Woodruff was defending the Manifesto as a revelation and telling the Saints that God would not give him a revelation that would lead the Church astray. From there it was repeated out of a revelation context to the point that it is repeated today as a blanket statement such as “God will not allow the prophet to lead the Church astray.” That statement reads as if God will revoke a prophet’s agency, a fundamental violation of the plan of salvation. When a prophet becomes a prophet he does not lose his agency, and as such he is capable of exercising it poorly, even to make mistakes. I don’t think God will give a prophet a revelation that will lead the Church astray. I also don’t think God revokes a prophet’s agency when he becomes a prophet which means a prophet can make mistakes. As far as the priesthood restriction goes, I don’t believe that God instigated it, but He did allow it to happen. President Benson called it the “Samuel Principle”: Sometimes within reason God gives his children what they want and then lets them suffer the consequences. The children of Israel wanted a King, so God let them have a king and then let them suffer the consequences. The same principle applies to the lost 116 manuscript pages of the BofM, the Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Banking Company, and I think to the priesthood ban. God gave Brigham Young what he wanted and then let us suffer the consequences, something we are still grappling with in 2015.

Raymond: 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)?

Yes, Abel’s son and grandson were ordained, but I found no evidence or context or explanation. The ordinations took place in Logan but I don’t know the circumstances surrounding them. The ward record only recorded the ordinances without explanation or context. As for the second part of your question, if you consider the “one drop” policy, put in place in 1907 as the standard, then based upon what we now know about DNA and the interrelated nature of the entire human family, I’m positive that there were many more people ordained before 1978 with more than “one drop” of African ancestry. A friend of mine had his DNA tested and he had somewhere around a 25% African profile traceable to a specific slave region in Africa. He was ordained in 1976. There are likely hundreds, if not thousands, of similar profiles before 1978. I suspect that there hasn’t been a period in the Church without some level of African priesthood holders—if the one drop policy is the standard.

Rulon Brown: How do you think the Church, which expresses overwhelmingly white culture, might use white guilt to recover from institutional racism?

I’m hoping that the book can be a starting point. I don’t pretend that the institutional church will somehow imbibe it, but I do hope that adding whiteness as a contested variable to the story of Mormonism and race can bring new understanding and help us move forward.

Juliethepoet: Are there bridges of understanding that you think should be created between white people whose families accepted, (potentially taught) racism?

When people understand that in the 19th century white Mormons themselves were racialized and that race can be viewed as a dynamic tension between what outsiders ascribe and what insiders aspire to, then we can arrive at a new level of understanding. I’ve experienced this with several people of the older generation who have read the book. Members of my own congregation have told me that they have felt a weight lifted with this new understanding. My own mother, who grew up supporting the ban out of duty to Church leaders and what she was taught, is now 84. She and her friends of similar age have read it. My mom kept saying to me, “don’t blame me for believing those things, ‘they’ (meaning church leaders) taught it to us.” I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the reception thus far among an older generation, but I readily admit the sampling size is very small and these are people I know, so they are predisposed to trust my research. There will be resistance in some corners; there always will be, but the book offers a new paradigm that might help overcome some of that resistance. The other thing that might help is the Race and the Priesthood essay on the Gospel Topics page at LDS.org. It was approved by the First Presidency and Quorum of Twelve and can and should be used (not as a club, hopefully) to correct old ideas and teachings when we hear them taught. Any and all racism, past and present, inside and outside the church, has now been condemned by this generation of LDS leaders. There is no need to defend Brigham Young’s teachings on race when our current leaders have condemned them.

Chester Lee Hawkins: 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 from 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.

Thank you for sharing this information with us and thank you for your kind remarks. I never did find evidence as strong as Abel saying that Joseph Smith did not ordain him, but as I outlined in the original post, Abel had at least two opportunities to claim that Joseph Smith did ordain him and instead Abel only suggested that Joseph Smith sanctioned his priesthood. If readers have not done so, they should also explore Russell Stevenson’s post here to understand another piece of evidence that Stevenson presents.

It seems that it has become almost commonplace to read that Joseph Smith himself ordained black men to the priesthood, or a black man to the priesthood. As Chester Lee Hawkins suggests, we should at least understand the evidence upon which that claim is made. Stevenson is right to point to the Kirtland document. I read that document differently than Stevenson, however. I read it as a “letter of communication as a proof of our fellowship & esteem,”–like a record of membership in good standing or a ministerial certificate that gave him status as a missionary–which is the way the document describes itself. It is not the same type of document that is available for Abel’s ordination as a Seventy at the hands of Zebedee Coltrin. The Seventy’s ordination record was created the day the ordination took place and it lists the person who ordained Abel a Seventy. The Kirtland document does not state who ordained Abel an Elder. It includes JS’s signature as “Chairman” and F. G. Williams as “Clerk.” The two signatures are additional indications that this functioned as a certificate of Abel’s standing and status as a Mormon and was signed by the “Chairman” of Mormonism to indicate its official nature to a person outside of Mormonism who it might be presented to in a preaching capacity. I don’t see JS’s signature on the document as evidence of ordination at the hands of Joseph Smith, but I do see it as further evidence that Smith was favorably aware of Abel’s priesthood, the point of the original post at BCC.


  1. Thanks again to Paul for being a good sport and helping us navigate through some of these murky waters. It’s my belief that a more thorough understanding of our history is essential to having a testimony in the modern church.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Great responses, Paul. Regarding the temple ban, I’m convinced that a temple ban was required with or before a ban on the ecclesiastical priesthood. BY’s justification for the restriction hinge on a temple restriction.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Thank you, Paul.

  4. J., what’s your thought on why a temple ban be required before a priesthood ban? Is it mostly as a reaction to miscegenation persecution?

  5. J. Stapley says:

    I think that there were a lot of factors at play with regards to its initiation, which Paul outlines nicely. What I meant to say was that BY’s explanation of the ban, which is documented as early as 1849, is in terms of the temple cosmology.

  6. Ahhh, OK yes, I agree — BY set it up as a lineage/cosmological problem, and as such a temple ban was a necessary consequence.

  7. Paul Reeve says:

    J., you make a good point. The temple restriction would need to be a part of the priesthood restriction in order to function as a barrier to inclusion in the chain of being/belonging. I wish that BY explicitly made the connection or that records survived of Abel’s appeal to BY for temple blessings.

  8. Great stuff, Paul.

    Go read the book, everyone else.

  9. Paul, great answers, and I look forward to reading your book,

    I recall President Benson and his “Samuel Principle,” which seemed to make some sense, until I realized that it wasn’t the white members of the church that were necessarily suffering the consequences as it was those black members of the church who suffered the restrictions, or the thousands of potential converts of African lineage who were never taught and thus never had a chance at joining the church prior to 1978. The wrong people were suffering the consequences, in my view.

  10. Book is great, read it folks.

  11. Paul Reeve says:

    Kevinf, I, of course, think you are correct, but it really hit me as I did research for the book how the consequences were also significant for white Saints who felt (and for some continue to feel) divinely justified in their superiority and privilege. The consequence for white Saints feels pernicious to me, especially as the racial justifications came to be entrenched in the collective Mormon psyche and soul.

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    BTW, in case anyone missed it, you can read my review of the book here:


  13. Paul – Thanks so much for fielding these questions and your informed candor.

    Your view of the ban being “a transition from open male priesthood to segregated male priesthood and then back to open male priesthood” does square with the facts. Maybe I am making the mistake of trying to force fit facts with a lifetime’s worth of “priesthood restoration” narrative given to me by The Church. This all raises deeply troubling concerns about the doctrinal consistency/clarity/intent of The Church and our cosmology.

    At a recent private party with Mormon friends, one frustrated lifelong member said ‘If they [FP and Q12] do give women the priesthood then I don’t have to go to church any more. I don’t have to take their advice anymore to have my relationship with God. Folks in the church can just trust that God is going sort out my salvation and “do what is right” during the Millennium, just like He will do for the millions of black families and women denied priesthood blessings while the Brethren did their thing.’

    I sincerely hope your book is read by the Brethren.

  14. BHodges says:

    Paul’s book is outstanding. If you want to hear him chat for a while about it, here’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast’s two-part episode:



  15. Chester Lee Hawkins says:

    Paul, a good friend loaned me a copy of recent book, yesterday after taking me home. I am presently reading it, and looking through your note. I would like o make a point, and thatit I viewed your title, and especially your itroduction to be of “Cultural Histry.” I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the questions asked, and your answers to them. By the way, I am presently compiling a massive bibliograhy on “History of Blacks Americans and the LDS Church, 1830-2015.” I have been working on this project for 5 years, and hopes to be finish by the end of fall. Your note amazes me, because of the style you had undertaken. Paul, thanks for being a true brother of the people of color, because yor fascinating writing and personality. (Smile). Better go, again, thanks for your humaity. Chester Lee Hawkins

  16. Bro. Jones says:

    Thanks for responding to my earlier comment, Paul!

  17. Paul, thanks for this Q&A.

    If only to ensure that no one misunderstands my position, like Paul, I do not find the evidence to be conclusive that Joseph Smith ordained Elijah Able[s]. The evidence we have pointing to such an ordination is from Eunice Kinney. Though I am moderately inclined to accept that Joseph Smith did the ordination, it is not based on the 1836 document but on Elijah’s relationship with Kinney and his struggles to persuade other leaders such as Orson Hyde and Zebedee Coltrin to embrace men such as Ables.

    My post only addressed the claim that: “The record of Abel’s ordination as a Seventy is extant but the record of his ordination as an Elder is not.” It did not seek to stake out a position in regards to Joseph Smith’s role in the ordination.

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