Was Elijah Able[s] Ordained by Joseph Smith? A Response to W. Paul Reeve

Yesterday, W. Paul Reeve, author of Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (Oxford University Press, 2014) posted a short piece on By Common Consent about the ordination of Elijah Able[s], the first documented African-American man to hold the priesthood in Mormon history. In the piece, he makes a short simple argument: “Did Joseph Smith, Jr. Ordained Elijah Abel to the Priesthood?”  The “short answer,” Reeve responds, is “No, I do not believe that he did.”  Reeve writes of his research into the ordination of Elijah Able(s): “as I dug into the sources I grew increasingly uneasy with that assertion and the evidence upon which it is based. In the book I don’t walk the reader through my behind the scenes reasoning and only the most careful reader will notice that I only claim that Joseph Smith, Jr. “sanctioned” Able[s]’s priesthood. What I offer below is a glimpse into my reasoning behind the decision to characterize it that way.”

He presents four pieces of evidence that address the origins of Elijah’s ordination: Continue reading

Why We Can Condemn the Priesthood Restriction While Keeping Our Recommends

Today, the always-thoughtful Jana Riess posted a short piece criticizing commentators who continue to defend the priesthood restriction on peoples of African descent.  These critics suppose that by critiquing comments that even ancient Book of Mormon prophets such as Nephi and Jacob critiqued, we must be seeking to undermine the authority of the Church, its standing, its very existence.

That Riess warns against idol worship of prophets is all the more salient. We talk of cars, and money, and glamor, and looks as the pressing idols of the day. We have also grandfathered in social media into the pantheon of false gods. But the greatest idols are those that can present themselves as so ordinary, so matter-of-factual, that we almost feel silly calling them idols at all.  Spencer W. Kimball condemned the military-industrial complex: “We commit vast resources to the fabrication of gods of stone and steel—ships, planes, missiles, fortifications—and depend on them for protection and deliverance.”

And what was the idol of choice for the Saints of the late-nineteenth-century? They had been seeking it for three generations: not independence, as important as it was. Not industry, even if the railroad had come to town. It was more pervasive than that–the simple quality of whiteness. In 1893, George Q. Cannon heralded from the rooftops that “the purity of the Caucasian race is more likely to be preserved in our Territory than in many other portions of the United States…Our people are not of mongrel breeds.” (George Q. Cannon, An Ex-Editor’s Sunday Talk,” Deseret News, February 25, 1893, 14, as quoted in Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ables, 2013, 49).

Can we please move beyond this? For generations, the Saints lived as a mountain sect of white folks all trying very hard to be white. Almost from the beginning, the Saints have found themselves in the crosshairs of America’s racial weaponry. In 1834, they were considered to be “black Mormons” by the national press.  In 2012, Mitt Romney seemed just a little too white to be presidential material. So it’s understandable that the Mormon community would have a raw nerve as pertaining to race.

But telling ourselves that “race doesn’t have anything to do with it” doesn’t make it go away.  Telling black people to “get over it” doesn’t eliminate not only 300 years of family history but their daily lived experience. The Mormon community deeply (and rightly) values its heritage, and we memorialize it in every conceivable way. But when we tell people of African descent to forget the lessons of their past–a past in which white folks have often not been the good guys–we reveal that we are not using our history as a gospel lesson but as a method of establishing a cultural hegemony.

Only a couple months ago, I was having a conversation with an older gentleman about the struggles a mutual friend of ours had with racial discrimination a generation ago. His response, as he put his hand on my shoulder: “well, I don’t blame him. They were the scum of the earth in his neighborhood.” In my introduction to Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ables, I spoke of the Saints’s need to understand our capacity to create an atmosphere of exclusivity, of how it takes a village to exclude a child. And when we indulge in it, we like our exclusivity to come with a smile and a pat on the back, all while we silently draw lines between who We are and who They are.  The fact that only six months ago, an African-American historian could ask me with a straight face: “How could black people join a faith that is so foundationally racist?” tells us that the Saints have an image problem.sustaining-leaders-in-conference

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I find a powerful cosmology–one that binds families, communities, and
souls together. It motivates people to serve, to give, to connect themselves to others in a Westernized world that devalues connectivity, that highlights non-commitment, and convinces us that at day’s end, is is only our own journey that matters.
But that cosmology will not work when we also bind ourselves not to people but to bad ideas, bad doctrines, and bad policies.
Dealing with controversy does not mean undermining LDS President Thomas S. Monson or his apostles. It does not mean that we suddenly want to go running down the aisle at General Conference declaring our opposition. Nor does it mean that we’ve taken up the hobby of speaking ill of those who lead the Church. This is not about scholarship, documents, liberalism,  conservatism, property rights, religious rights, or politics at all.

It just means being honest, being candid, and being kind. It means caring enough about those who have different experiences to learn a little about them. That’s something we all can do, whether we live in the suburbs of Utah county, Chicago’s South Side, or rural North Carolina.

Russell Stevenson is the author of Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ables and For the Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism, 1830-2013


Podcast #15: Of One Heart and One Mind Fireside

On March 8, Russell Stevenson, along with Blacks in the Scriptures and Northstar, sponsored a special event devoted to discussing how the LGBT/SSA/transgender and African-American communities have endeavored to uphold their faith in the face of systemic marginalization.  Participants included Nick Gregory, an active transgender Latter-day Saint, Rod Olson, an active gay Mormon living in Los Angeles, and Marvin Perkins, an African-American Latter-day Saint man and producer of Blacks in the Scriptures. You will also hear stunning musical performances from Catherine Papworth, Rashida Jordan, and Cherie Call.


Podcast #14: Transcending Death: Dr. Samuel M. Brown on Mormon Death Theology

In this podcast, I sit down with Dr. Samuel M. Brown, a medical doctor at the Intermountain Medical Center and a brilliant historian of death theology in Mormonism, focusing particularly on his book, In Heaven as it is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death. We discuss the distinctive contributions Mormonism made to Christianity’s understanding of death and Mormonism’s conceptualization of the Saints as a bonded “enduring community” whose friendship and ties could overcome death. Whether you’re cleaning the kitchen, taking an evening run, working the shop, or making the commute, stop by and listen to the Dr. Brown talk about how Mormonism grapples with the Terrible Questions that haunt us all.


Podcast #13: An Interview with J.B. Haws

For generations, Mormons have navigated the tumultuous waters of public opinion. Whether defending themselves against charges of racism or making charming advertisements about the importance of family, Mormons have sought to be conscious about how the outside world sees them. Russell Stevenson sits down with Dr. J.B. Haws, an assistant professor of religion at Brigham Young University, to discuss his award-winning book, The Mormon Image in the American Mind: 50 Years of Public Opinion. They discuss the civil rights movement in Utah, the blowback from Mormon opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, and Mormon efforts to dodge attacks even as they hoped to disseminate a message of Jesus Christ for all who would listen. Haws’ story gives us the Mormon need for flexibility, negotiation, and principle in an age when the public eye is always watching. Stay tuned!


Reviewing Meet the Mormons

tumblr_ncvpg5YAuH1tggrpfo1_1280Meet the Mormons, a documentary/informercial produced by the LDS Church about six remarkable Mormons across the globe, shows Mormonism at its coolest.  Would I see it over Guardians of the Galaxy? Tough sell, that. But I attended, if only out of filial loyalty.

The profiles range from a humanitarian in Nepal to a kickboxer in Costa Rica. Occasionally funny and genuinely touching, I found myself moved and inspired to see my faith community in new, more vibrant ways. But if you’re expecting an intellectually stimulating and innovative discussion of Mormon theology from Mormonism’s leading thinkers, then you’ve really picked the wrong Mormon documentary. Theological/historical types are sure to grumble a bit after watching it. There’s not talk about deification, the afterlife, the premortal life, Kolob, the Nephites, polygamy, Bruce R. McConkie, ecclesiastical structures, prophetic (in)fallibility, the pioneers, Joseph Smith, seerstones, translation, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, blood atonement, Freemasonry, etc.

But is that what they’re going for? When you “meet a Mormon,” is that the topic of conversation you will have?  (If you’re talking to me, it probably will be, as my dissertation is on Mormonism in Nigeria, making the priesthood restriction almost part of my casual dinner conversation. It’s great party fodder).  Perhaps it is. But as numerous public relations studies have shown, people still don’t know what Mormonism is about.  They don’t know what Mormons do, why they do it, or what they care about. And if nothing else, a great documentary is crafted to make you want to care about what makes a person wake up in the morning.   Unless you’re an avid student or a history freak (I strive to the be former and certainly am the latter), theology doesn’t exactly set will with your dinner conversation. They want to know what your values are, what matters to you, and why it should matter to them.  A colleague of mine, also a Latter-day Saint, was considering a graduate program in European history, and when the director of graduate studies learned that she had served a Mormon mission, he asked her not about Kolob but about how she could teach people to have a relationship with God.  Basic stuff.

As an academic resource, it enjoys limited utility. In my own work, I might use a clip or two as an intro-warm up to give a presentation on the history of  Mormon public relations or perhaps to frontline a presentation on the history of Mormon racial identity–but never more than a few minutes of it. It offers no discussion of change over time, origins, or Mormonism’s Big Ideas.  The only historian used in the film was Andrei Cherry, the author of a popular history of the Candy Bombers during the Berlin airlift.  I would never use it as a teaching tool in any academic classroom. But when I was chatting with the director, Blair Treu (as savvy as they come, by the way) about the making of this film, it was clear to me that he was not making a film to appease the Mo-intelligentsia.  The vast majority of the population don’t have Kolob on their minds.  When people still think of Mormons as just screwballs in the Intermountain West (a charge to which I would have pled guilty last year), then the solution isn’t to inundate them with historical scholarship. And Treu knows that as well as anybody.   Those who cry foul at the film’s lack of theology are like people at a fine restaurant complaining about why the cheeseball and crackers aren’t more filling.

The Hollywood Reporter declares that the film’s message is that “Mormons are people, too, and really nice ones at that.” But a caricature such as this in fact ignores such a wealth of backstory of race, class, and gender in the Mormon community.   Every story is intended to tackle stereotypes of various kind. A kickboxing mother? Not exactly what comes to mind when you say “Mormon wife.”   An African-American bishop? While it doesn’t give anything on the history of that (inexplicably, I would add), to go ignore the significance of this story is to be willfully ignorant.  Likewise, while Gail Halverson, the famous “candy bomber” of the Berlin airlift, carves out a fabulous narrative, his Mormonism doesn’t really appear in the story.

Love the production or hate it, everything done reveals how Church wants itself presented to the world. Their triumphs are many and varied: whether they’re showing us how they overcame personal obstacles in their youth or building infrastructure in rural Nepal, these individuals have the street cred to force us to revisit some of the holdover insularity we’ve inherited from nineteenth-century Mormonism. I know countless, remarkable LDS humanitarians, athletes, and mothers whose stories are as compelling as anyone’s on the film. But what if they’re not representative?  Neither were Peter nor Paul, and we have large texts detailing their travels.

Would I attend it if I weren’t part of tribe Mormon? Certainly not.  I wouldn’t lay down ten dollars for documentaries of any kind when I can find them in plentitude on Netflix or elsewhere.  Did I come away proud of what Mormons could be? Certainly.   Richard Bushman has told the Saints that warming people up to Mormonism is a “matter of familiarity.” Will this do the trick? I don’t know that it will, but it will have accomplished its purpose if only by giving some alone time with our collective self to have a heart-to-heart about what it means to be a Mormon in a 21st-century global community.

Podcast #12: Women of Faith–An Interview with Church Historian Brittany Chapman

In this timely interview, Russell Stevenson discusses the newest volume of the Deseret Book-published series, Women of Faith.  As an edited volume of short biographies about LDS women from the nineteenth-century, this book provides readers a fast-paced tour what Mormon women experienced, whether in territorial Utah or New Zealand.  Brittany Chapman discusses how Mormon women viewed love, priesthood, and faith in a time when they could not be taken for granted.


Podcast #11: Joseph Smith and Polygamy: An Interview with Brian Hales

In this important episode, Russell Stevenson sits down with historian Brian Hales, author of the three-volume series, Joseph Smith and Polygamy We talk about the concept of “dynastic marriage,” sexuality in Joseph Smith’s plural marriages, and the Women Who Told Joseph Smith “No.” Hales offers his own feelings and concerns about polygamy and helps Saints navigate their way through the confusing–and ambiguous–documentary trail. Listen in!


Guest Post: A Review of Alex Beam’s Treatment of Polygamy by Brian Hales


For my interview with Alex Beam, click here.

On June 5, 2014, I downloaded the Kindle version of Alex Beam’s American Crucifixion and reviewed Chapter 5, “Polygamy and Its Discontents.” I immediately identified a few weaknesses of the chapter including the predominant use of secondary sources, quoting of problematic evidences apparently without checking their reliability, ignoring of historical data that contradicts his position, promotion of narrow and often extreme interpretations of available documents, and going beyond the evidence in constructing conclusions. Continue reading

Podcast #10: An Interview with Alex Beam, Author of American Crucifixion

In this special Mormon History Guy/Rational Faiths joint podcast, Russell Stevenson interviews Alex Beam, the non-Latter-day Saint author of American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church. We discuss polygamy, Joseph Smith’s strength of character, and distinctions between traditional Mormon narratives about Joseph Smith and Alex Beam’s interpretation. Come listen in!