Able, Mary Ann Adams

Biography

Mary Ann Adams Able

Mary Ann Adams was among the early converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of black-African descent. In 1847, she married Elijah Able (sometimes Abel(s) or Ables), the most well-known black priesthood holder in Mormon history and her life thereafter was somewhat overshadowed by her husband’s notoriety. Even still, Mary Ann was a black Latter-day Saint pioneer in her own right who was baptized three times as an outward sign of her devotion to the Mormon cause.

Little is known about Mary Ann’s early life. Surviving records consistently indicate that she was born in Tennessee, possibly into slavery but no known evidence confirms that. One LDS record specified her birth location as Williamson County, while her death record said she was born at Nashville in Davidson County. Williamson County was created out of a portion of Davidson County in 1799, a fact that may account for the confusion. Her birth date is also inconsistent among surviving documents. She was likely born on 24 December 1829 or 1830.[1] At some point Mary Ann made her way from Tennessee to Cincinnati, Ohio where as a teenager she met Elijah Able, an ordained seventy in the LDS lay priesthood.[2]

There is no indication as to how the two met or the nature of their courtship. What is clear is that Mary Ann married Elijah Able on 16 February 1847, in Hamilton County, Ohio, when she was between fifteen and seventeen years old and he was thirty-six.[3] The couple had as many as eight children together. Their first three children, Moroni, Enoch, and Anna or Annie, were born in Ohio and the rest, Delilah, Elijah II, Mary L., Magee, and Ilona were born in Utah.[4]

Mary Ann’s original baptismal record does not survive, but she likely converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sometime around her marriage to Elijah in 1847, but certainly before the family’s migration to Utah in 1853. After Mary Ann and Elijah arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in the Appleton M. Harmon Company, William Hawk rebaptized them in the Salt Lake Nineteenth Ward, a customary practice in the nineteenth century. The ritual was listed in LDS records as a rebaptism rather than a first baptism, an indication that Mary Ann had been baptized in Cincinnati sometime before the family’s migration to Utah.[5] In 1857, during the Mormon Reformation, Elihu Hiatt baptized Mary Ann for the third time. Her husband, Elijah, was rebaptized at the same time and their son Moroni received his first baptism that year.[6]

Like her husband, Mary Ann’s racial heritage is consistently described as racially mixed. In the 1850 census she is enumerated as quadroon while all other census records describe her as mulatto.[7] In 1879, two years after Mary Ann died, her husband Elijah applied for temple admission in order to be sealed to Mary Ann posthumously. That application prompted an investigation into Elijah Able’s priesthood status as well as into temple admission policies more generally. Joseph F. Smith, then an LDS apostle, interviewed Able and reported to John Taylor, then president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that Able had incontrovertible evidence to substantiate his priesthood ordinations. As for race, Smith noted that Able was of mixed racial ancestry and that his wife Mary Ann “was also an octoroon.” Despite Able’s insistence that the prophet Joseph Smith had told him that “he was entitled to the priesthood and all the blessings,” John Taylor refused Able the blessing of being sealed to Mary Ann.[8] Mary Ann’s mixed racial heritage was thus at the center of the formation of a policy which barred women of black-African descent from temple rituals—a policy which began or was solidified in 1879 under John Taylor and which would last for almost one hundred years before being lifted in June 1978.[9]

The Able family struggled financially after their arrival in the Salt Lake valley. LDS membership records, combined with census reports, indicate that they moved frequently. They lived in the Salt Lake Nineteenth Ward, Mill Creek, the Twelfth Ward, the Tenth Ward, Ogden, and then the Salt Lake Thirteenth Ward.[10] The family operated the “Farnham House” in the late 1850s as a “first class boarding house” which offered meals and lodging.[11] Mary Ann no doubt contributed to this venture along with the work of raising a large family and managing a busy household. The 1870 census is the only enumeration which lists an occupation for Mary Ann—it describes her as “keeping house,” no doubt an understated description of her life’s work.[12]

 Mary Ann passed away from pneumonia in the Thirteenth Ward in 1877. Her obituary described her as the “wife of Elijah Able” and said she was forty-six years old at the time of her death. It noted that her funeral would be held at her daughter’s residence three doors east of the Thirteenth Ward Assembly Room.[13] She was buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery.

By W. Paul Reeve

Primary Sources

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; Mill Creek Ward. CR 375 8, box 4200, folder 1, image 64. Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

“Died.” Deseret Evening News (Salt Lake City, Utah). 28 November 1877, 2.

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

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.

“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.

Utah. Death Registers, 1847-1966. Bureau of Vital Statistics. Salt Lake City, Utah. Mary Ann Able.

Secondary Source

Able, Mary Ann Adams. BillionGraves.com.

Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel. Database. Mary Ann 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. Black Mormon: 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] One rebaptism record listed Mary Ann’s birthdate as 26 December 1816 which is too early to be consistent with other documents. Calculating her birth year according to her age listed in various censuses suggests that she was born in 1830 according to the 1850 census or she was born in 1831 according to the 1860 and 1870 censuses. Her death record gives a birth date of 24 December 1829 which is the date most frequently cited. The rebaptism record seems inaccurate and therefore we have listed her birthdate here as 24 December 1829, with 1830 and 1831 as possibilities. For the record of rebaptism see 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. For the census records see: 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. For the death record see Utah, Death Registers, 1847-1966, Bureau of Vital Statistics, Salt Lake City, Utah, Mary Ann Able.

[2] Ambrose Palmer ordained Elijah Able an elder on 25 January 1836 and Zebedee Coltrin ordained him a member of the Third Quorum of the Seventy on 20 December 1836. See Joseph F. Smith, Notes on Elijah Able, undated [likely ca. 1879], Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah; Seventies Record Book A, CR 3 51, Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

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

[4] The list of children are taken from the 1850, 1860, and 1870 census records. The 1870 census lists a Rosa and Ella with the family who were both born in Ohio. Ella was born in 1854 after the family moved to Utah and Rosa does not appear with the family in previous census records. They are likely not Elijah and Mary Ann’s children, but their relationship to the family and how they came to live with Elijah and Mary Ann is not clear. See 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.

[5] Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel, database, Mary Ann 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.

[6] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Mill Creek Ward, CR 375 8, box 4200, folder 1, image 64, 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.

[8] Joseph F. Smith, Notes on Elijah Able, undated [likely ca. 1879], Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah; L. John Nuttall, Diary. Vol. 1 (Dec. 1876 – Mar. 1884), typescript, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

[9] For a more detailed account of events see W. Paul Reeve, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), chapter 7.

[10] The family left scant traces behind to indicate their movements. Elijah and Mary Ann were rebaptized in the Nineteenth Ward and then the Mill Creek Ward. The Farnum House was located in the Twelfth Ward. They spent most of the 1860s living in the Tenth Ward. Salt Lake Tax records consistently record Elijah Able there and ward records include two of Mary Ann and Elijah’s daughters being blessed in the Tenth Ward. Elijah paid fast offerings there too. Unfortunately, the ward record ends in the mid-1860s, about the time that the older Able children would have turned eight and been eligible for baptism. The census record lists them in Ogden in 1870, although it is not clear which LDS ward they lived in there and no membership record for the Able family has been found in the various Ogden congregations. The family then returned to Salt Lake City sometime in the 1870s where Mary Ann died in 1877. Ward records rarely mention Mary Ann. The last mention of her found to date is in the Salt Lake Tenth Ward when Margaret Sophrona was blessed in 1865; Mary Ann is listed as her mother. For that record see Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Salt Lake Tenth Ward, CR 375 8, box 6918, folder 1, image 124, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah

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

[12] United States, 1870 Census, Utah Territory, Weber County, Ogden.

[13] “Died,” Deseret Evening News (Salt Lake City, Utah), 28 November 1877, 2.

Documents

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