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:

1) Elijah Ables’s Seventies License
2) June 25, 1843 Cincinnati Meeting Minutes
3) Zebedee Coltrin’s 1879 Reminiscences
4) Eunice Kenney’s 1885 Reminiscences

In most regards, he captures the essentials of the argument.  However, Reeve leaves out key evidence that provide stronger (though not definitive) support for Joseph Smith playing a direct role in Elijah’s ordination.

Reeve writes that “the record of Abel’s ordination as a Seventy is extant but the record of his ordination as an Elder is not.” However, his Elder’s priesthood certificate is in fact accessible at the LDS Church History Library, and the full-text of that license has been reprinted in my book, For the Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism, 1830-2013The Elder’s priesthood certificate reveals some details of Able[s]’s ordination that Reeve does not include. Reeve notes that the ordination took place on March 3, 1836. The license demonstrates that Joseph Smith personally signed off on the ordination on March 31, 1836, as can be seen in the digital version of the license below; however, the identity of the person performing the ordinance remains a mystery.  The license also states with legalistic offialdom that Able[s] had “been ordained an Elder according to the rules & regulations” of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. [1]

Priesthood Certificate for "Elijah Able"

Priesthood Certificate for “Elijah Able,” March 31, 1836

There is other important documentation attesting to Elijah’s ordination as well, such as John Broeffle’s September 1838 letter, which includes contemporary, non-Mormon confirmation that Elijah was 1) readily identifiable as a “negro” and 2) ordained at least one man, William Riley, to priesthood office. Reeve’s piece was a blog post, after all, so Reeve should not be expected to be exhaustive in laying out all the evidence for Able[s]’s priesthood status. [2]

The timing of the ordination is significant, since in April, Joseph Smith issued an open letter in the Messenger and Advocate publicly endorsing slavery as divinely-sanctioned and warning the white population of the possible consequences of black abolition (he referred to the black population as a “a community of people who might peradventure, overrun our country and violate the most sacred principles of human society, chastity and virtue.”) [3]. His reasons for issuing the letter were at least partly political. Months later, Governor Daniel Dunklin warned W.W. Phelps that “your neighbors accuse your people . . . of being opposed to slavery.” But “whether true or false,” he informed them,”the consequences will be the same . . . unless you can by your conduct and arguments convince them of your innocence.” In the court of racial opinion, the Saints were black until they could prove themselves otherwise. [4]

Does the March 1836 priesthood certificate demonstrate that Joseph Smith ordained Elijah Able[s] to the priesthood? Possibly, but it’s still lacks the certainty we crave. According to Elijah’s photo kept in the George A. Smith Family collection, he was baptized in the Cincinnati area in 1832 by Ezekiel Roberts. It could be that Elijah did not receive priesthood ordination from the time of his 1832 baptism to the date of his March 1836 priesthood certificate. Such a delay would be unusual, but it might speak to hesitance on the part of the Cincinnati membership to ordain a black man to such an office.   However, if Phelps’s 1833 note about the LDS Church having “no special rule” pertaining blacks held true in Cincinnati, we have no reason to believe that the priesthood would have been withheld from him.

Regardless of the precise date, we have evidence both official and anecdotal, Mormon and non-Mormon, attesting to Able[s]’ priesthood status. As Reeve notes, the evidence is “overwhelming,” a documentary trail even more plentiful than the one presented to us in his work. We can say with certain confidence that Elijah Able[s] was black priesthood holder working with Joseph Smith’s express support and confidence.

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[1] Elijah Able Priesthood Certificate, Kirtland Priesthood Certificates, CR 100 471 (DVD), 75, LDS Church History Library.

[2] The variation in the spelling of Elijah’s name would be a pattern that would follow him throughout his life; two spellings, “Ables” and “Able.” Indeed, a Deseret News article about his family spelled the name as both “Abel” and “Able.” See Land deed, June 15, 1837, Hiram Kimball Papers, LDS Church History Library; Elijah Ables, Letter to Brigham Young, March 14, 1854, Brigham Young Office Files, CR 1234 1, Reel 32; Receipt of payment, dated June 18, 1858, Brigham Young Office Files, CR 1234 1, Reel 36; “Local and Other Matters,” Deseret News, October 6, 1869, 1.

[3] Joseph Smith, Letter to Oliver Cowdery, Messenger and Advocate 2, no. 7 (April 1836): 288.

[4] Daniel Dunklin, Letter to W. W. Phelps, July 28, 1836, in “Manuscript History of the Church,” A–1, 748.