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"At the heart of a well-known controversy is the memory of a man that most people will never know."
Elijah Abel was, the first documented black man to receive the priesthood, just a few years after the Church had been founded in upstate New York by the Prophet Joseph Smith. His history throughout the years has been almost erased and his story made silent by many in the Church.
In the book Elijah Abel: The Life and Times of a Black Priesthood Holder, we learn that Elijah's life started in slavery, to a new American religion, and then through many mission travels that helped him build relationships with people like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Elijah was deeply devoted to the Church and the restored Gospel. But why has his story been so hushed until now?
Toward the end of Abel’s life (specifically in 1879), a “movement,” as one scholar has characterized it, had developed in the Church to link black priesthood denial to the Prophet Joseph Smith, led perhaps most prominently by Zebedee Coltrin and Abraham Smoot. The former claimed that the Prophet had dropped Abel from his priesthood quorum “and another was put in his place” as soon as he had learned of Abel’s black heritage. One of Abel’s defenders during this period was LDS Apostle Joseph F. Smith, who maintained that “Coltrin’s memory was incorrect” and that Abel’s priesthood had been confirmed in 1841 and again later, in Utah, by certificate (Smith would defend Abel’s priesthood at least two more times, in 1895 and 1902). The Church’s third President, John Taylor, reasoned that Abel may have “been ordained before the word of the Lord was fully understood,” an argument later adopted by others.
Toward the close of the nineteenth century, Taylor’s successor, Wilford Woodruff, again considered the Abel question—but Apostle George Q. Cannon argued that, as far as he understood, Joseph Smith had taught that blacks were the seed of Cain and were ineligible to hold the priesthood “until the seed of Abel should come forward and take precedence over Cain’s offspring”—and that any white who “mingled his seed” with Cain should be killed to “prevent any of the seed of Cain coming in possession of the Priesthood.” (The Church has discontinued this teaching and belief.) Cannon would repeat these views several years later (attributing them this time to Brigham Young, which seems more accurate) when the question again arose during the presidency of Lorenzo Snow. Coltrin’s and Cannon’s views, at least as they pertained to black priesthood denial, stood—and Abel’s memory, along with that of several other black priesthood holders from the early days of theChurch, was further buried.
By 1908, a quarter century after Abel’s death, even Joseph F. Smith—then the President of the Church—had reversed his opinion, stating that Abel’s ordination had been declared “null and void by the Prophet [Joseph] himself” upon discovery of Abel’s blackness. Smith further stated that, “with reference to the [Negro] question,” he “did not know that we could do anything more . . . than refer to the rulings of Presidents Young, Taylor, Woodruff and other Presidencies.”
Despite all documented evidence, Abel’s place as a priesthood holder and a close friend of the Prophet Joseph had been abruptly erased, and indeed, by the mid-twentieth century, Elijah Abel’s priesthood had been all but dismissed.
To learn more about the incredible life of Elijah Abel, check out the book Elijah Abel: The Life and Times of a Black Priesthood Holder, currently on sale here: