Able, Elijah

Biography

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Elijah Able is the most well-documented black priesthood holder in nineteenth-century LDS history. His life as a black holder of the lay LDS priesthood, in fact, serves as a lens into the shrinking space across the course of the nineteenth century for black Mormons in their chosen faith. Able stands as a witness to what Mormonism lost as it stopped ordaining black men to its priesthood and stopped allowing black women and men into its temples and to serve as missionaries.

Elijah Able (sometimes Abel or Ables) was born in Hancock, Washington County, Maryland in 1810, possibly into slavery, although there is no evidence regarding his status and no contemporary sources about his early life. [1] At some point he made his way to Ohio, likely to Hamilton County, where he encountered Mormon missionary Ezekiel Roberts and heard him preach about the restoration of primitive Christianity. [2] Able accepted baptism at the hands of Roberts and at the age of 22 committed himself to the Mormon cause. His life thereafter became tied to his new faith and perhaps even consumed by it. He threw himself into Mormonism and Mormonism would thereafter be shaped by his presence in ways that were not typical for the average convert.

Able’s baptism in Ohio was the first of at least three such rituals in which he participated. As was sometimes practiced in nineteenth century Mormonism, some Saints were rebaptized after their arrival in Utah in overland migrant companies. It was a way to signify their willingness to start life anew as followers of Christ in their new homes. Able and his wife Mary Ann (whom he married in 1847 [3] ) both received rebaptism in 1853 after they arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in the Appleton M. Harmon overland wagon company. [4] In 1857, the couple again committed themselves to their faith, this time joined by their oldest son Moroni, with yet another baptism. This third baptism for Elijah and Mary Ann was a part of the so-called Mormon Reformation, where Saints across the territory were rebaptized as outward symbols of their dedication to the cause of Zion. [5]

Able demonstrated his commitment to Mormonism in tithes as well, at least if an 1855 census of tithe payers in the Salt Lake City LDS 19th Ward is an indication. The ward that year listed all of those who gave ten percent of their increase to the church and included their occupations. Able was among those listed as tithe payers and the clerk recorded Able’s profession as “carpenter.” [6] It was a job consistent with those he listed in U.S. census records even though he worked at a variety of occupations over the years. [7] He was undertaker at Nauvoo and in Salt Lake City he operated the Farnum House as a “first class Boarding House” on Second South Street. [8] By 1870 however, financial difficulties plagued him. He lost his property in Salt Lake City, a fact that likely accounted for the family’s move to Ogden for a time before returning to Salt Lake. [9] Mary Ann died in 1877, leaving Able a widower. In the 1880 census he rented a room in the Salt Lake 8th ward where he still worked as a carpenter, but was unemployed for six months out of the previous year. [10]

Perhaps even more than other symbols of his loyalty to Mormonsim, Able was a dedicated member of the third quorum of the seventy (a missionary unit in the 19th century, not a general authority quorum as reconstituted in the late 20th century). Able was first ordained an Elder in the LDS lay priesthood in early 1836. Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of Mormonism, signed Able’s ministerial certificate substantiating that fact on 30 March. [11] Later that same year, on 20 December, Zebedee Coltrin ordained Able a member of the third quorum of seventy, a priesthood office he would hold for the remainder of his life. [12]

As an Elder and then Seventy, Able served three proselyting missions for the LDS Church, including one stint to New York and Canada in 1838. [13] He was successful at winning converts too. One of his proselytes, Eunice Kinney, much later recalled his lack of polish, but still remembered that “the Spirit rested upon him and he preached a most powerful sermon. It was such a Gospel sermon as I had never heard before, and I felt in my heart that he was one of God’s chosen ministers.” [14]

LDS leaders were fully cognizant of Able’s racial status and still counted him among the priesthood brethren of the church. He is consistently listed in U.S. Census records as either quadroon or mulatto, an indication that he likely had a lighter completion than some African-Americans, but that nonetheless he was legally black according to prevalent racial standards in operation in the United States. More crucially, LDS leaders recognized and understood him to be “colored” and a faithful priesthood holder. This fact was in clear evidence during a Cincinnati LDS branch conference in 1843, when Able resided in that city. After Able spoke at the branch conference, visiting Apostle, Elder John E. Page, commented that “he respects a coloured Bro, as such, but wisdom forbids that we should introduce [him] before the public.” Elder Orson Pratt “sustained” Page’s stance. Able responded that “he had no disposition to force himself upon an equality with white people.” At the conclusion of the conference Able was “advised to visit the coloured population” in his preaching efforts. Clearly LDS leaders understood him to be black and recognized his status as a priesthood holder, even as they recommended he concentrate his missionary efforts among black people. [15]

Able received his patriarchal blessing at the hands of Joseph Smith Sr. The blessing noted that Able was “ordained an Elder” and that he was “anointed” to be secured “against the power of the destroyer.” [16] Able also received his initial temple rituals—the washing and anointing ceremonies—in the Kirtland temple and participated in baptisms for the dead at Nauvoo. [17]

It was not until his arrival in the Great Basin, one year after Brigham Young openly announced a racial priesthood restriction in two speeches to the territorial legislature, that Able would begin to witness a contraction of his abilities to participate fully in all of the rituals of his chosen faith. A belated remembrance suggests that he applied to Brigham Young to receive the rest of his temple ordinances and to be sealed to Mary Ann, his wife. If so, a written record of that appeal does not survive, but his appeal to Brigham Young’s successor, John Taylor, in 1879 does. Despite the fact that Apostle Joseph F. Smith personally inspected Able’s priesthood certificates and interviewed him about his previous experience in the Kirtland Temple, Taylor denied Able his remaining temple rituals. He nonetheless allowed his priesthood to stand. Taylor in essence defined Able as an anomaly, a mistake that the founding prophet of Mormonism made but one that Brigham Young corrected, rather than to see Brigham Young’s restriction of priesthood as the real mistake. [18]

Ironically, it was just a few months earlier, at a meeting of the various quorums of the seventies, with members from thirty-three quorums in attendance that Able was called on to speak. The clerk who kept minutes at that meeting gets us as close to Able’s actual feelings regarding his faith as anything that survives in the written record:

“Bro Elijah Abel gave an outline of his history and experience during a period of forty years. Of his being in Kirtland. 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. Spoke of his being appointed by the Prophet to the calling of an Undertaker in Nauvoo. Of his opportunities and conversations with the Patriarch Father Joseph Smith while watching at his bedside during his last sickness. He related one of the themes on which he dwelt at that time and predicted that the saints would go into the wilderness. Br Abel related many other items of interest.” [19]

Despite the fact that LDS leaders denied his appeal for temple admission shortly after giving this talk, Able persevered. In October 1883, at the age of 73, he accepted a call to serve a third mission for the church. He again traveled to Ohio where he worked to spread the Mormon gospel message. A news account published in Indiana in December 1883 noted that

“Elijah Able, who resides in Northern Utah Territory, spent several hours here Saturday. He resided in this county, near Vallonia, 71 years ago, when there were but few white people in our county. He is 93 years old, but looks 20 years younger.” [20]

Able, was in fact twenty years younger than the newspaper reported, but he nonetheless wore himself out in his missionary service. He returned to Utah in December 1884 and died on Christmas day, within two weeks of his arrival home. The Salt Lake Herald and Deseret News both published articles announcing his death and noted that he died “of old age and debility, consequent upon exposure while laboring in the ministry in Ohio.” Both newspapers also confirmed his status as a priesthood holder, even citing the dates of his ordination certificates. His funeral was held December 27 at 10 a.m. in the LDS Thirteenth Ward building. His body was laid to rest in the Salt Lake City Cemetery. The Herald and Deseret News both noted that “he died in full faith of the gospel.” [21]

By W. Paul Reeve

Primary Sources

A Record of all the Quorums of Seventies in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. CR 3 51, Box 3, Folder 2. Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

“Able,” Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah), 31 December 1884, 16.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Record of Members Collection. Salt Lake Stake, 19th Ward. CR 375 8, box 4709, folder 1, image 76, 85, 90; Millcreek Ward. CR 375 8, box 4200, folder 1, image 64, 68. Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

“Died,” The Salt Lake Herald (Salt Lake City, Utah), 27 December 1884, 5.

Historian’s Office Minutes and Reports (local units), 1840-1886. Ohio, 1843-1844. CR 100 589, box 1, folder 11, images 3-7. Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

“History of Joseph Smith,” Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah), 04 April 1855, 1.

Jackson County Banner (Brownstown, Indiana), 13 December 1883, 5.

Kinney, Eunice. Letter to Wingfield Watson. September 1891. L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

Kirtland elders’ certificates, 1836-1838. CR 100 401, folder 1, image 83. Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

“Marshal’s Sale,” Deseret Evening News (Salt Lake City, Utah), 5 November 1870, 3.

Nauvoo Baptisms for the Dead, Book A. Microfilm. Family History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Nuttall, L. John. Diary. Vol. 1 (Dec. 1876 – Mar. 1884). Typescript. L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

Ohio. County Marriages, 1789-2013. Hamilton County. Elijah Able to Mary Ann Adams.

Salt Lake City. Directory, 1869.

Seventies Record Book A, CR 3 51, Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

“The Farnham House Re-Opened.” Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah). 4 May 1859, 8.

United States, 1850 Census, Ohio, Cincinnati, Hamilton.

United States, 1860 Census, Utah Territory, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City, 13th Ward.

United States, 1870 Census, Utah Territory, Weber County, Ogden.

United States, 1880 Census, Utah Territory, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City 8th Ward.

Utah. Salt Lake County Death Records, 1849-1949. Elijah Able.

Secondary Sources

Bringhurst, Newell G. “Elijah Abel and the Changing Status of Blacks within Mormonism,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 12 (Summer 1979), 23-36.

Bringhurst, Newell G. Saints, Slaves, & Blacks: The Changing Place of Black People within Mormonism. 2nd Edition. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2018.

Early Mormon Missionaries. Database. Elijah Able. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Jackson, W. Kesler. Elijah Abel: the Life and Times of a Black Priesthood Holder. Springville, Utah: CFI, 2013.

Jenson, Andrew. Latter-day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia, 4 vols. Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1941.

Marquardt, H. Michael. Ed. Early Patriarchal Blessings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City: Smith-Pettit Foundation, 2007.

Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel. Database. Elijah Able. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Reeve, W. Paul. Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Stevenson, Russell W. “‘A Negro Preacher’: The Worlds of Elijah Ables.” Journal of Mormon History 39 (Spring 2013).

Stevenson, Russell W. BlackMormon: the Story of Elijah Ables. Afton, Wyoming: PrintStar, 2013.

Stevenson, Russell W. For the Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism, 1830-2013 . Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2014.


[1] Able lists the town of Hancock, in Washington County, Maryland, as his place of birth when he was baptized a Latter-day Saint for the third time. He was living in the Millcreek Ward at the time, and the rebaptism took place during the Mormon Reformation of 1857 when Saints recommitted themselves through baptism to the Mormon cause. See Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Millcreek Ward. CR 375 8, box 4200, folder 1, image 68, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[2] Andrew Jenson, Latter-day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia, 4 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1941), 3:577; Russell W. Stevenson, “‘A Negro Preacher’: The Worlds of Elijah Ables,” Journal of Mormon History 39 (Spring 2013), 171.

[3] Ohio, County Marriages, 1789-2013, Hamilton County, Elijah Able to Mary Ann Adams.

[4] Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel, database, Elijah Able, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Salt Lake Stake, 19th Ward. CR 375 8, box 4709, folder 1, image 76, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[5] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Millcreek Ward. CR 375 8, box 4200, folder 1, image 64, 68, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[6] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, 19th Ward. CR 375 8, box 4709, folder 1, image 90, (see also image 85 for a ward census of occupations) Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[7] United States, 1850 Census, Ohio, Cincinnati, Hamilton; United States, 1860 Census, Utah Territory, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City, 13th Ward; United States, 1870 Census, Utah Territory, Weber County, Ogden; United States, 1880 Census, Utah Territory, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City 8th Ward; see also Salt Lake City Directory, 1869.

[8] “The Farnham House Re-Opened,” Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah), 4 May 1859, 8.

[9] “Marshal’s Sale,” Deseret Evening News (Salt Lake City, Utah), 5 November 1870, 3.

[10] United States, 1880 Census, Utah Territory, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City 8th Ward.

[11] Kirtland elders’ certificates, 1836-1838, CR 100 401, folder 1, image 83, Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[12] Seventies Record Book A, CR 3 51, Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[13] Early Mormon Missionaries, database, Elijah Able. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

[14] Eunice Kinney, letter to Wingfield Watson, September 1891, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

[15] Historian’s Office Minutes and Reports (local units), 1840-1886, Ohio, 1843-1844, CR 100 589, box 1, folder 11, images 3-7, Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[16] H. Michael Marquardt, ed., Early Patriarchal Blessings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Smith-Pettit Foundation, 2007), 99.

[17] L. John Nuttall, diary, vol. 1 (Dec. 1876 – Mar. 1884), typescript, 290-293, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah; Nauvoo Baptisms for the Dead, Book A, 1, 5, 100, microfilm, Family History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[18] L. John Nuttall, diary, vol. 1 (Dec. 1876 – Mar. 1884), typescript, 290-293.

[19] A Record of all the Quorums of Seventies in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, CR 3 51, Box 3, Folder 2, Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[20] Jackson County Banner (Brownstown, Indiana), 13 December 1883, 5.

[21] “Died,” The Salt Lake Herald (Salt Lake City, Utah), 27 December 1884, 5; “Able,” Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah), 31 December 1884, 16; Utah, Salt Lake County Death Records, 1849-1949, Elijah Able.

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