When Mormon History Fails You

It’s time to ask the tough question: is Mormon history even helpful to the Ordain Women movement?

Like Joanna Brooks has said, this cause isn’t one that burns deeply within my soul.  If President Monson told us tomorrow that women could be ordained to be “Elders” or “High Priestesses,” I would cheer along with everyone else. If it means that women would get their share of anti-porno talks and dating chastisements, I’m all about lovingly retiring the pedestal–and then burning it in the quiet of the night. I can think of “binders full of women” right now who would run my Elders’  Quorum meeting more competently than I ever could. In that sense, I can confidently say that I’m in support of the Ordain Women movement. Continue reading

Let Not God Speak with Us: The Tragedy of Mormon Racism

The story of white Mormon racism gives me heartburn.  It makes me sad, tragically so. And tragedies are only possible when there’s something–something big–to lose. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel observed, though “few are guilty…all are responsible.” Deflection and projection will not do.  To paraphrase the haunting language of poet Jeremy Loveday, “the culture of violence [though I would say, “racism”] touches us all. And by dismissing perpetrators as monsters, it allows us not to analyze our own actions.”  It is the simple and sincere question asked of Jesus: “What lack [we] yet?”  Jesus did not coddle the inquirer but directed him to give up the things he valued the most in order to follow him.  The young man walked away glumly; he never had considered the kind of sacrifice that Jesus’ kingdom required. Continue reading

Podcast #2: Race and the Priesthood

In this podcast, Kate Kelly Harline takes on the role of interviewer and discusses Russell Stevenson (author of Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ables and author of the forthcoming, For the Cause of Righteousness: A Documentary History of Blacks and Mormonism,  1830-2013). We discuss the meaning and ramifications of the LDS Church’s new statement on “Race and the Priesthood.”  Obviously, we present this perspective from the perspective of historical analysis.  Towards the end of my recent interview on RadioWest, one of my co-hosts specifically distanced himself from that perspective, and I respect his right to do so.  However, as the statement was an historical statement, we have little choice but to employ historical methods in assessing it–even if it does not fit neatly into talking points or agendas. We trace the origins, course, and trajectory of the Saints’ relationship with the black community and racial exclusion. Tune in for the conversation at the Mormon History Guy podcast.

A Cacophony of Events: Heroes, Villains, and Official Declaration #2

Margaret Young’s latest piece on Official Declaration #2 gives us a taste of the sheer complexity that (ought to) undergird any conversation on race in Mormonism. I have earlier noted that Young had ascribed change in Mormonism to the relationship activists had with church leadership.  Yesterday, she (quite rightly) responded by pointing out that for every voice on the inside of the Church hierarchy (and there were plenty), there were two voices for change on the outside. Continue reading

The Long Night of Whiteness

For my book, Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ables, click here

Official Declaration #2 is often cast–in its most generous light–as the Church’s efforts to usher in a new era of racial pluralism and globalization.  President Kimball had long dreamed of “when all the world will be converted,” and this was merely the next step.  It speaks to what I call the dispensational interpretation of Official Declaration #2.  Because Peter received a vision to “take the gospel to the Gentiles,” we assume that Official Declaration #2 was merely another incarnation of that. The interpretation has become almost axiomatic.  Continue reading

The Priesthood Ban and Homosexuality: A Comparison with Limits

Disclaimer

This should in no way serve as an argument against recognition of gay marriage.

The comparison between the priesthood ban excluding the blacks and the Church’s opposition to gay marriage is practically begging to be made (see also here and here)–especially if you want the Mormon leadership to change their tune on gay marriage: “If the Church could change on this, then why not?

Why not, indeed?

Continue reading

Elijah Abel, Elijah Able, Elijah Ables: The Documentary Evidence

Elijah Abel/Ables is such a fascinating figure.  Thanks to the research that can be found in my book on him, we learn that we have probably been spelling his name wrong all this time.

Most renderings suggest that Elijah’s name was  spelled “Elijah Abel.” Indeed, W. Kesler Jackson’s recent biography of him makes it appear that he has found the signature of Elijah Abel; however, as one of his editors told me, the “signature” was “just a pretty font.”  The only instances we have of people spelling his name “Elijah Abel” are when white people are doing the recording.

According to two early manuscript sources, Elijah spelled his name alternatively as “Elijah Ables” and “Elijah Able.”  In 1854, a letter from “Elijah Ables” came to the office of Brigham Young.  The letter specifically indicates that this letter belonged to someone in the Appleton M. Harmon company, making it a positive ID for the first black Elder.  Four years later, Elijah signed a receipt of payment as “Elijah Able.”

So before people get bent out of shape over an authorial decision, it would be well to look at the manuscript evidence first.   As with many nineteenth-century Americans, he was not at all committed to one spelling.   The 1860 and 1870 censuse reports render it as Able and Ables, respectively. Additionally, newspapers spelled the Able/Ables name as “Able,” “Ables,” “Abel,”  and even “Abels,” sometimes within the same paragraph.

We misspellers are in good company.

1) Elijah Ables, Letter to Brigham Young, March 14, 1854

Elijah Abale Signature 1

2) Elijah Able, Receipt of Payment, June 1, 1858Elijah Able Signature 2 (larger)