Review of Elijah Abel: The Life and Times of a Black Priesthood Holder

Published in the summer edition of The Journal of Mormon History, this review offers my analysis of W. Kesler Jackson’s Elijah Abel: The Life and Times of a Black Priesthood Holder.  Parenthetical references deal with material from inside Jackson’s book.  Bracketed references point to sources outside Jackson’s work.

Full Disclosure: For a copy of my book, Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ablesclick here. 

 Review
W. Kesler Jackson’s Elijah Abel: The Life and Times of a Black Priesthood Holder represents the first sustained effort to flesh out the contours of Abels’s complex life. (For example, see below the discussion of ambiguities about the spelling of his name.) Building on the work of Newell Bringhurst and Lester Bush [1] Jackson’s work “aspires to be the first in-depth examination of Elijah Abel as a man.” (2).

In important ways, Jackson delivers.  His narrative is accessible for most general readers. In his first chapter, Jackson speculates that Elijah Ables was a slave and does a commendable effort at recreating the world of a slave in antebellum Maryland. Jackson is particularly adept at calling upon Frederick Douglass—a contemporary and fellow Marylander—to evoke details that characterized the lives of Maryland male slaves. The remainder of the volume is a whirlwind tour of nineteenth-century Mormon America. Jackson clearly establishes that Ables received temple ordinances, was ordained to the Melchizedek priesthood, served missions, and settled in Utah along with thousands of other Saints. Jackson breathes life into a compelling figure from Mormon history and presents the full picture of a man who has too often been a mere ghost summoned during arguments on Mormonism’s race policies.  For this accomplishment, Jackson deserves credit.

His treatment of Ables’s early years calls for critical inquiry. Jackson uncritically works off the assumption that Ables was a slave and draws liberally from Douglas’s autobiography as well as the novels work of Margaret Young and Darius Gray [2].  If indeed Ables was a slave, then his analysis is astute. However, Margaret Young has publicly expressed concern about authors’ free use of her fiction to tell Ables’s story: “I am in a rather awkward position today of seeing…my own conjectures about Elijah Abel touted as facts.”[3] Indeed, Young has noted that she “fictionalized more on Elijah Abel than anyone else.” Unlike Jackson, Young is reticent to embrace the idea of Abel’s slave status: “We do not know whether or not Elijah Abel was a slave.”[4]  Jackson is obviously aware that their work is “fictionalized account of Abel’s…life”; however, he does not offer the requisite qualifications one would expect from a scholarly work quoting a novelized account.

Was he a free black? In 1830, there were over 1,000 free blacks in Washington County compared to approximately 3,000 slaves—a sizable enough number to leave room for doubt.[5]  Jackson allows for it but does not flesh out the possibility nearly as well as the evidence requires. What of Elijah’s parentage? Jackson suggests that Ables’s ability to identify his father—Andrew Abel—by name suggests that his father was not a white slaveowner but an African-American man (14). He acknowledges that he has no corroborating evidence for this supposition; it is only conjecture.

Other slave narratives make it clear that it would not have been at all unusual if Elijah’s mother had told him the name of his father.[6] The former slave, Henry Bibb, learned his white father’s name—James Bibb—from his mother, even though he had “no personal knowledge of him at all.”[7] In Annie Burton’s autobiography, she does not list her father’s name but she gives virtually every other detail about him, such as his birthplace, occupation, and the date of his death.[8] William W. Brown likewise learns his white father’s name—George Higgins—from his mother.[9]  William H. Singleton similarly knew at least the last name of his white father.[10] Knowing one’s father did not make him black any more than not knowing him made him white; White House slave Elizabeth Keckley records that “she did not know much of [her] father, for her was a slave of another man.”[11] Like Ables, had any of these former slaves been asked for their parents’ names, they also would have been able to “outright name [their] father[s].” (14).   If Ables had been a slave, then his knowledge of his last name could simply have been the product of slaveowners intervening in the naming process by giving their slaves their own names.[12]

There is also the matter of names. What appears to be Elijah’s handwritten signature adorns the cover of the book. This signature reads: “Elijah Abel.”  One of the book’s editors has admitted that the cover is not his signature at all; it was just a “pretty font.”[13]  But the documentary record is contradictory about how Elijah actually spelled his name. His name appears in signature form on only two known holograph documents—one, a letter from Ables to Brigham Young, and another, a receipt of payment for work performed with the Perpetual Emigrating Fund. Each document renders Elijah’s name differently: the former as “Elijah Ables” and the latter, as “Elijah Able.”  The “E” in each name is written with a different stroke, the second “E” mirroring those of census enumerators and Brigham Young’s official scribe more closely.[14]  However, a reasonable case can be made for either spelling.   Various other printed documents record the name as “Abel” and “Elijah Abels.”[15]  A discussion of this ambiguity would have been informative, even if only in the footnotes.

More importantly, the book’s title makes it clear that Jackson wants to include a full discussion of the times and places that defined his world. Yet Jackson seldom makes an effort to situate Ables’s experiences within their social, cultural, or political contexts. Whenever Elijah entered a new locale, he not only moved into a new home but he also entered a new set of discourses. Ables’s identity was layered: African American, male, priesthood holder, missionary, and pioneer. When Ables served a mission to Upper Canada in 1838, he needed to negotiate these identities in the face of attacks from all sides. The Canada Ables found was racked with civil revolt from the war launched by a pro-American faction within the Canadian government. The revolt created a political environment in which the Mormons were seen as American sympathizers; the British government even tried one Mormon on chages of for treason en absentia.[16]  What does all this mean for Ables? Ables probably felt it necessary to promote an inclusive, global vision of Mormonism to deflect accusations of Americanism. But Jackson leaves out this important context.

Later events in Ables’s life can only make sense with this context in mind. In June 1839, fellow Latter-day Saints in Quincy accused him of saying that there would be “stakes of Zion in all the world” when the official Mormon message–indeed, a virtual test of fellowship–was to gather to Zion without delay [17]. Perhaps more significantly for him, Canada then had a large population of runaway slaves and emancipated blacks who were making a new life north of the border.  Abolitionists heralded this community as being among the best that the black America had to offer.

His colleagues also attacked him for directing the Saints to flee across the St. Lawrence Riverway.  Jackson cites this complaint without comment, making the complaint ultimately less comprehensible.  Ables had (correctly) interpreted the threats the Latter-day Saints faced in this wartime environment and warned the Saints to escape from Canada before the situation became more dangerous. There is a rich corpus of literature and published primary on both the Upper Canada revolt as well as the region’s refugee slave community.[18] These events illuminate the background behind Ables’s later disciplinary hearings in Quincy.[19] Jackson’s discussion of Ables’s Canadian mission makes no mention of these events or contexts.  By Jackson’s rendering, the Canadian mission can be reduced to his admittedly powerful speech in the face of a hostile audience.  Though moving, this episode only hints at the racial, political, diplomatic, and military contexts that this black Mormon missionary was navigating.

Similarly, Jackson’s treatment of Ables’s time in Cincinnati tantalizes his readers with possibilities. Jackson traces Ables’s residence in 1842 to the home of a painter named “John Price.” Charles Cist’s directory indicates that both Ables and Price lived in Cincinnati’s first city ward—walking distance from “Little Africa”: the slums of Cincinnati society teeming with what Cincinnati historian Nikki Taylor has called the “shadow institutions” [20]. Yet by 1850, Ables had relocated to a predominantly middle-class German neighborhood, likely in defiance of directives he presumably received in 1843 to preach to (and most likely live among) his own race. It was further confirmation of Joseph Smith’s assessment that Ables was the sort of man who would seek to make a better life for himself, regardless of his oppressors. Jackson does not leave the narrative entirely starved of context.  He makes a cursory mention of the 1841 race riot, an important backdrop to understanding the danger Ables faced living in a racially integrated neighborhood (Jackson, 76). Yet Jackson could have extracted far more from Elijah’s context, had he fully utilized the documentation available to him.

Jackson misses a precious opportunity to highlight the singular position Elijah Ables held within the local Mormon context as well. When Ables arrived in Cincinnati in 1842, the branch roiled with dissent. While Ables would eventually serve as a guardian for Church orthodoxy, he simultaneously managed to be a center point in a colorful network of Mormon adherents and dissidents in the years following Joseph Smith’s death. Two of Elijah’s former mission associates from upstate New York and Canada, Zenas Gurley and James Blakeslee, became prominent members in James Strang’s church and, later, high-ranking leaders of the RLDS Church. Forty years after Ables baptized Eunice Kinney, then a pregnant young mother, Kinney “wish[ed] that he could read some [Strangite] tracts and the claims of James.” She believed that Ables “would receive the whole truth” [21] When Joseph Smith’s brother, William, joined the Strangites, he quickly became disaffected and formed a new sect based in Newport, Kentucky—just across the river from Cincinnati. When its few members learned he was practicing polygamy, Smith fled to Cincinnati to live with his apostle, Henry Nisonger, then living with Ables. By 1850, both were living as refugees at Elijah’s home [22]. How did Elijah manage to be a defender of the Church Brigham Young was holding together with considerable success while maintaining the respect of so many dissenters?  Had Ables joined William Smith?  Had Nisonger defected and joined Ables in Cincinnati? This question is exactly the kind that could answer the enigma of how Elijah Ables was so effective at negotiating his varied identities. Unfortunately, Jackson leaves these important issues out of the Cincinnati narrative.

Jackson’s treatment of Ables in Utah also suffers from a lack of context. Jackson gives sufficient treatment to Brigham Young’s racially-charged rhetoric treatment but does little more.  Jackson leaves out any mention of Utah’s embrace of slavery or public discourse in both Mormon and non-Mormon newspapers.  Ables certainly would have bee troubled by it; indeed, in 1861, one Saint with a similar racial make-up to Ables frantically wrote Brigham Young begging for a statement on “how fair [sic] would any legal seed…mix with the Canaanite & then clame [sic] an heirship to the priesthood.”[23]  Jackson, however, restricts his discussion of Utah to the very limited documentation available on Ables’s daily life.

Jackson’s use of Mormon documentation is generally admirable. He takes care to use a wide array of published documentation detailing the public aspects of Elijah’s life. Yet he explores well-trodden territory and neglects the rich documentation readily available in the LDS Church History Library. Most disappointing to me, Jackson does not include Elijah Ables’s letter to Brigham Young describing his 1853 travels west from Keokuk to Salt Lake City.[24] Jackson also fails to utilize key documents that could highlight the political environment during the Canadian revolt: a letter by John Broeffle letter, William Burton’s autobiography, and a large collection of government documents accessible in published volumes [25]. Jackson does not follow up on several key citations, such as Eunice Kinney’s July 5, 1885 letter (127fn 43). Eunice Kinney’s 1885 letter where she provides rich and emotionally compelling reflections not included in her 1891 letter [26]. Jackson’s repeated citations of B.H. Roberts’s History of the Church and Joseph Fielding Smith’s Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith present smaller issues but still call for more precision in the citations (122-126, 128).  The resources now available through the Joseph Smith Papers Project generally allow for it, and it is unfortunate that these resources were not utilized. By neglecting these sources, Jackson leaves readers craving more.

Of far greater import are Jackson’s perspectives regarding racism generally. In a “Personal Note” at the conclusion of the volume, Jackson attempts to differentiate racism against individuals from racism against groups. Jackson defines the first kind as “a belief that an individual is inferior on account of individual’s ‘race.’” According to Jackson, “anyone who has spent any time in the Church” knows that the Mormon people are innocent of “racism against individuals.” To make this far-reaching argument, he (1) restricts all “official” Mormon doctrine to the LDS Church’s “official canon”—a term he suggests refers only the four standard scriptural volumes used by Latter-day Saints; (2) cites 2 Nephi 26:33 (“he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free”) to illustrate Mormonism’s lack of racism, (3) implicitly dismisses virtually every racist comment by Church leaders as non-canonical without elaboration, and (4) concludes that “Mormons are not racist under this definition” (emphasis Jackson’s).

Jackson does leave open the possibility that the LDS church was racist, provided that racism be defined as a “belief that a group of people ought to be treated differently, at least policy-wise, based on that group’s ‘race.’” If this definition is applied, then “the LDS Church—at least for a period—certainly did uphold a racist policy” (105–6).

Jackson’s attempt to distinguish racism-against-groups and racism-against-individuals presents myriad difficulties. First, what is the substantive difference between dogmas of racial inferiority and institutional policies that prevent certain racial groups from participating fully in the Mormon faith community?  Could it not be easily argued that doctrines taught and embraced by generations of Mormon leaders produced and sustained discriminatory policies? Further, Jackson avoids the obvious point: how did this the institutional polices affect individuals? From the perspective of the disenfranchised—which is exactly what Jackson’s book claims to be—group-based discriminatory policies had individual consequences.  When John Taylor told Elijah that he could not receive temple blessings, Elijah did not see this as decision directed towards a group.  This decision undermined a core part of his spiritual identity—to be a “welding link” between the races. When Jane Manning James begged to be sealed to Joseph Smith as a daughter—and instead, was sealed as a servant—this dismantled the filial bond she had forged with the frontier prophet.

Indeed, an even larger question remains: in Jackson’s mind, what is racism? There is a large corpus of interdisciplinary literature on racism’s definition, ranging from the older work of Winthrop Jordan to Carlos Hoyt’s recent article—all of which engage in a serious effort to define racism [27]. Jordan admits that the term “race” is a “dicey” one (105) and, indeed, it groans under the weight of scholarly debate. But since Jackson insists that the Mormon hierarchy has not been guilty of racism-against-individuals, it becomes crucial that he give readers a workable definition of this practice he claims Mormons are not participating in.  Otherwise, Jackson is using vague terms to describe vague ideas.

On the question of canonicity, Jackson is quite right to urge care in determining what makes up “official” Mormon doctrine. Indeed, Jackson’s argument touches on an important debate within Mormon theological circles: how are core Mormon teachigs to be parsed from tertiary, non-binding ideas or opinions? More than a few luminaries in Mormon scholarly circles have addressed this issue: Blake Ostler, Stephen Robinson, Robert Millet, and Nathan Oman being among their numbers [28]. Jackson makes a passing reference to Mormonism’s “official canon” but does not provide parameters for defining it.  Readers are thus left craving answers to the pressing questions he raises.

Is the “official canon” confined to the standard works? First Presidency proclamations? If this definition of “official canon” can be used to distance the Mormon people from past racist philosophies, then what other statements can be dismissed as well?   Could defiant local leaders have ordained black men to the priesthood in spite of the presumably nonbinding comments made by Brigham Young, John Taylor, or myriad others?  If so, Jackson’s efforts to distance Mormon leaders from racist thought also opens up a line of inquiry that weakens and perhaps undermines the very foundations of Mormon claims to prophetic authority and continuing revelation.

Jackson gives us a brisk and accessible narrative, the kind that will inevitably be a great boon for Saints who want to begin to understand Elijah’s small part in the Mormon movement. Jackson acknowledges that his work presents an “incomplete” portrait (8).  Indeed, the richness of Elijah’s personality, experiences, and social networks are rich enough to merit far deeper scrutiny. Jackson has made an important first statement in the new discourse on Elijah Ables, and for that, readers should unhesitatingly give him their thanks.



[1] For the foundational works on these topics, see Newell Bringhurst, “Elijah Abel and the Changing Status of Blacks Within Mormonism,” Dialogue 12 (Summer 1979): 23-36; Lester Bush, “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine,” Dialogue, 8 (Spring 1973): 11-68

[2]Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Written by Himself, 2nd ed.  (New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2003); Margaret Blair Young and Darius Gray, One More River to Cross (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2000).

[3] “News,” Sunstone (March 2003): 79

[4] Margaret Young, Email to reviewer, February 19, 2013

[5] See J. Thomas Scharf, History of Western Maryland, 1554-1555.  For a discussion of Maryland’s free black population in Baltimore, see Christopher Phillips, Freedom’s Port: The African-American Community of Baltimore, 1790-1860 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997).

[6] Wilma King, Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 111

[7] Henry Bibb, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave (New York: Self-published, 1849), 14

[8] Annie L. Burton, “Memories of Childhood’s Slavery Days,” in Women’s Slave Narratives (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2006), 7

[9] William W. Brown, Narrative of William W. Brown: An American Slave (London: Charles Gilpin, 1850), 13.

[10] William Henry Singleton, Recollections of My Slavery Days, (Peekskill, NY: Highland Democrat, 1922), 1

[11] Elizabeth Keckley, Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (New York: G.W. Carleton and Company, 1868), 22

[12] Wilma King, Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 7-8

[13] Editor at Cedar Fort, Correspondence with author, March 4, 2013

[14] For two variant spellings from the manuscript sources available, see Elijah Ables, Letter to Brigham Young, March 14, 1854, Brigham Young Office Files, CR 1234 1, Reel 32; Receipt of payment, June 28, 1858, BrighamYoung Office Files, Reel 36

[15] See Russell Stevenson, “ ‘A Negro Preacher’: The Worlds of Elijah Ables,” Journal of Mormon History

[16] W.H. Haggerman to Provincial Secretary, October 22, 1838, published in R. Cuthbertson Muir, The Early Political and Military History of Burford (Montreal: La Cie D’Impremarie Commerciale, 1913), 147

[17] Seventy’s Minutes, June 1, 1839, quoted in Bringhurst, “Elijah Abel and the Changing Status of Blacks Within Mormonism,” Dialogue 12 (Summer 1979): 24

[18] First-hand accounts of runaway slaves to Canada are available in Benjamin Drew, ed., The Refugee (Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1856). On the refugee slave experience in Canada more broadly, see Robin Winks, The Blacks in Canada: A History (Toronto: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000), 114-177.  For work on the Upper Canadian revolt, see John Charles Dent, The Story of the Upper Canadian Rebellion (Toronto: C. Flackett Robinson, 1885); While old, an excellent work on the American relationship with Upper Canadian rebellion is Orin Tiffany, The Relations of the United States to the Canadian Rebellion of 1837–1838 (Buffalo, N.Y.: Buffalo Historical Society, 1905).  A more recent work is William Kilbourn, The Firebrand: William Lyon Mackenzie and the Rebellion in Upper Canada (New York: Irwin Publishing, 1977).

[19] For more on Elijah Ables in Upper Canada, see Russell Stevenson, “’A Negro Preacher’: The Worlds of Elijah Ables,” Journal of Mormon History, vol. 39, vol. 2 (Spring 2013): 191-203.

[20] Nikki Taylor, Frontiers of Freedom: Cincinnati’s Black Community, 1802-1868 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2005), 186.  See also The Cincinnati Directory for the Year 1842, ed. Charles Cist (Cincinnati: Morgan and Company, 1842), 13

[21] See Eunice Kinney, Letter to Wingfield Watson, July 5, 1885, MS 3102, Brigham Young Universtiy

[22] See “United States Census, 1850,” index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/MXQC-PTN : accessed 07 Mar 2013), Elija Able, 1850.  See also “A Prophetic Family Agreement,” Covington Daily Union, June 5, 1850, 2

[23] N.B. Johnson to Brigham Young, January 1, 1861, BY Office Files, Reel 38

[24] See Elijah Ables, Letter to Brigham Young, March 14, 1854, Reel 32, Church History Library

[25] See William Burton Autobiography, MS 1508 1; John Broeffle, Letter to Catherine Beckstead, September 19, 1838, MS 2463.  For examples of the government documents available, see Senate Documents, 25th Congress, 3d Session (Washington, D.C.: Blair and Rives, 1838)

[26] See Eunice Kinney, Letter to Wingfield Watson, July 5, 1885, MS 3102, Brigham Young University

[27] Winthrop Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812, 2nd ed. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012); Carlos Hoyt, “The Pedagogy of the Meaning of Racism: Reconciling a Discordant Discourse,” Social Work, vol. 57, no. 3 (July 2012): 225-234

[28] Blake Ostler, “The Challenges of (Non-Existent?) Mormon Theology,” http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/The-Challenges-of-Non-existent-Mormon-Theology.html, accessed March 6, 2013; Nathan Oman, “Jurisprudence and the Problem of Mormon Doctrine,” Journal of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology, vol. 2, no. 2 (Fall 2006): 1-19; Robert Millet, “What is Our Doctrine?” in By Study and By Faith: Selections from the Religious Educator, ed. Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Kent P. Jackson (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Religious Studies Center, 2009), 69-89; Stephen Robinson, Are Mormons Christians? (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991), chpt. 2

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