Elijah Abel was an early African American member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon Church. He is notable for being one of the few black individuals ordained to the priesthood before the church implemented a policy that restricted black men of African descent from receiving the priesthood.
Elijah Abel held the Priesthood as an Elder by Joseph Smith’s Approval
Elijah Abel’s ordination to the priesthood occurred during the time of Joseph Smith, the founder of the church. There is evidence to prove that Joseph Smith approved of Abel’s ordination. Elijah Abel was ordained to the office of an elder in the Melchizedek Priesthood in March 1836 in Kirtland, Ohio. This ordination indicates that Joseph Smith recognized Abel’s right to hold the Melchizedek Priesthood, as the office of Elder was part of the higher priesthood hierarchy.
However, after Joseph Smith’s death in 1844, Brigham Young became the leader of the church. Under Brigham Young’s leadership, the LDS Church began to implement a policy in the mid-1850s that prohibited or denied black men (and later narrowed it to blacks of African descent) from receiving the priesthood. This policy was based on doctrine as announced by Brigham Young and later the church changed it to a policy and then finally lifted the priesthood ban.
Church leaders however issued multiple statements in order to tie the priesthood ban to founder Joseph Smith. The fact that Joseph approved a small handful of black members receiving the priesthood proves these church leaders are either not telling the truth or uninformed of their own church history. The First Presidency issued a statement in 1949 and again the First Presidency issued another statement in 1969 both erroneously claiming that the priesthood ban started with Joseph Smith.
Church Attempts to Destroy Evidence
Today the church claims this is simply because Able’s priesthood status was “largely forgotten” and that it was rediscovered by historians.
In the early twentieth century, Able’s status as a black priesthood holder was largely forgotten. Historians later rediscovered the story of Able’s ordination, his faith in the restored gospel, and his service as an early missionary.Church History Topics: Elijah Able, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
However, we must ask if this was simply forgotten, or if it was erased. Wikipedia shares with references that church leaders made real effort to nullify his priesthood and even suggested that there were multiple Elijah Abel’s – one white and one black – to dismiss his status as an error.
After Abel’s death, LDS Church president Joseph F. Smith on multiple occasions declared Abel’s ordination to the priesthood as “null and void by [Joseph Smith] himself because of his blackness”, suggesting based on Coltrin’s previous testimony that Joseph Smith before his death had indeed repented of his initial decision that Abel receive the priesthood. Scarcely a few years had passed since Joseph F. Smith had himself been the one to ordain Abel and to set him apart to serve his final church mission. Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith, who later became president of the church, went so far as to suggest that there had been two Elijah Abels – one white and one black.Elijah Abel, Disputes over priesthood, Posthumous commentary on Abel’s priesthood, Wikipedia
Establishing that Elijah Abel held the priesthood via Joseph Smith, shows that the priesthood ban did not originate with Joseph Smith. It shows that Brigham Young started it. Today this is more commonly known, but just a few decades ago even top church leaders either thought Joseph started it or wanted members to believe Joseph started it. Byron Marchant was instrumental in ensuring that church leaders acknowledged this fact. He was excommunicated in 1977 for refusing to sustain the leadership who has made the 1969 statement since it was factually false. He paid the price, but shortly afterward, among other mounting pressures, the church finally allowed blacks to hold the priesthood again by changing the policy and denying the doctrine.
Who Was Elijah Able
Elijah Able was born in Maryland and is believed to have used the underground railway to escape slavery by traveling to Canada. His parents were Delilah and Andrew Able. Elijah was baptized in September 1832 by Ezekiel Roberts. He was married to Mary Ann Adams.
In March 1836 he was ordained an Elder in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. From the evidence we have we believe he was ordained by Joseph Smith. In December of the same year he is ordained a Seventy and becomes a “duly licensed minister of the Gospel” for missionary work in Ohio. He also serves missions in New York and Canada. The ordination was performed by Zebedee Coltrin.
In 1839 Elijah Abel is made a member of the Nauvoo Seventies Quorum. At the request of Joseph Smith, he works as a mortician in Nauvoo. In 1843 he served another mission for the Church.http://www.blacklatterdaysaints.org/abel
Abel was the first black person to be baptized in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was also the first black man to receive the priesthood, ordained an elder in 1836 under the hands of the prophet Joseph Smith. Abel’s journey was one of pain, suffering, liberation and spiritual redemption. A few years after receiving the priesthood, Abel was ordained as a seventy-a high position of leadership in the LDS faith. Abel served missions for the LDS Church in Ohio, New York and Canada.
Abel changed the lives and softened the hearts of countless people. Shortly after his second mission, Abel was ordained into the Nauvoo Seventies Quorum, and when Joseph Smith was arrested in Quincy, Ill., in 1841, Abel was among a group of seven elders who set out from Nauvoo to try to rescue him.Blacks and the Priesthood: Elijah Abel
To whom it may concern
This certifies that Elijah Able has been received into the church of the Latter Day Saints, organized on the sixth of April, in the year of our Lord, one thousand, eight hundred & thirty, & has been ordained an Elder according to the rules & regulations of said church, & is duly authorized to preach the gospel agreeable to the authority of that Office. From the satisfactory evidence which we have of his good moral character, & his zeal for the cause of righteousness, & diligent desire to persuade men to forsake evil & embrace truth, we confidently recommend him to all candid & upright people as a worthy member of society. We, therefore, in the name, & by the authority of this church, grant unto this, our worthy brother in the Lord, this letter of commendation as a proof of our fellowship & esteem: Praying for his success & prosperity in our Redeemer’s Cause. Given by the direction of a conference of the Elders of said church. Assembled in Kirtland, Geauga County, Ohio, the third day of March, in the year of our Lord, one thousand, either hundred, and thirty-six.
Joseph Smith Jr, Chairman.License for Elijah Able, 31 March 1836, p. 61, The Joseph Smith Papers
F. G. Williams, Clerk
Kirtland, Ohio, March 31, 1836.
Here is a full image of the certificate as found in the Joseph Smith Papers project:
Record of certificates issued by conferences of elders in Kirtland, Ohio, to ordained members of Church authorized and recommended to preach gospel. This church record presumably contains copies of printed or handwritten certificates issued to those individuals. Entries appear in volume roughly in chronological order. Title page is inscribed “Record of Certificates of Membership and Ordinations of the First Members and Elders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Dating from March 21st 1836 to June 18th 1838 Kirtland Geauga Co. Ohio.” Name of church actually used in all certificates in volume is “Church of the Latter-day Saints.” Initial entries in volume are certificates issued to Joseph Smith Jr., Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, F.G. Williams, and Joseph Smith Sr. (21 March 1836); Peter Whitmer Jr. and Joshua S. Holman (28 March 1836); and members of Quorum of the Twelve (30 March 1836). Typed name index accompanies volume and indicates that besides one certificate issued in 1837, four issued in 1838, and one undated certificate, all others were issued in 1836. Almost all certificates were issued to men identified as ordained elders, with half dozen each issued to deacons and teachers and about twenty more to priests. In certificates issued in 1836, Joseph Smith Jr. is identified as chairman and F.G. Williams as clerk. Pages are numbered 1 through 300, but some numbers were skipped. Pages 1 through 192 contain entries, as do pages 255, 264, and 265. Unnumbered page at front of volume is inscribed “This Record was obtained by Anson Call in 1870, while on a visit to Kirtland Geauga Co. Ohio and by him deposited in the Historian’s Office June __ 1871. Jos. F. Smith.”Kirtland elders’ certificates, 1836-1838
- Elijah Abel: The Life and Times of a Black Priesthood Holder