There are some people who make their mark on history, and then they seem to fade off into the sunset without anyone ever getting to know much, if anything, about them or the contributions that they made. One such person in Latter-day Saint history is Brother Elijah Abel. If the question were asked, even of people who have been Church members all of their lives, “Who was Elijah Abel?”, it is a great probability that a majority of people would have no idea as to who he was or the significant role that he played in the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
From Slavery to Baptism to Building Temples to Marriage
Elijah Abel was the first African-American Elder and Seventy during this dispensation. He was born on 25 July 1810 in Washington County, Maryland to Andrew and Delilah Abel. It is likely that his family were slaves. There is some historical evidence that he used the Underground Railroad to escape slavery into Canada.
He eventually found his way to the first settlement of the Latter-day Saints in Kirtland, Ohio, where he was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in September 1832 by Ezekiel Roberts. He also became a personal friend of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
Elijah was skilled carpenter, and in 1841 he and others formed a partnership called "The House Carpenters of the Town of Nauvoo." He was blessed during his lifetime to assist in the construction of temples in Kirtland, Nauvoo, and Salt Lake City.
In 1842, in Cincinnati Ohio, Elijah married Mary Ann Adams and they had eight children.
Priesthood Ordination and Patriarchal Blessing
Elijah Abel was one of the few Black members in the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to receive the Priesthood. He was the first Black member to be ordained an Elder. He was ordained on 3 March 1836 in Kirtland, Ohio by Zebedee Coltrin.
At the time of his ordination, he was given a Patriarchal Blessing by Church Patriarch Joseph Smith, Sr. The following is the text of Elijah Abel’s Patriarchal Blessing, pronounced by Joseph Smith, Sr., circa 1836:
- Brother Able, in the name of Jesus Christ I lay my hands upon thy head to bless thee and thou shalt be blessed even forever. I seal upon thee a father’s blessing, because thou art an orphan, for thy father, hath never done his duty toward thee, but the Lord hast had his eye upon thee, and brought thee through straits and thou hast come to be rec[k]oned with the saints of the most High. Thou hast been ordained an Elder and anointed to secure thee against the power of the destroyer. Thou shalt see his power in laying waste the nations, & the wicked slaying the wicked, while blood shall run down the streets like water, and thy heart shall weep over their calamities. Angels shall visit thee and thou shalt receive comfort. They shall call thee blessed and deliver thee from thine enemies. They shall break thy bands and keep thee from afflictions. Thy name is written in the Lamb’s book of life.
- Thou shalt travel in the East and visit foreign countries, speak in all various tongues, and thou shalt be able to teach different languages. Thou shall see visions of this world and other worlds and comprehend the laws of all kingdoms, and confound the wisdom of this generation. Thy life shall be preserved to a good old age. Thou must seek first the kingdom of heaven and all blessings shall be added thereunto. Thou shalt be made equal to thy brethren and thy soul be white in eternity and thy robes glittering: thou shalt receive these blessings because of the covenants of thy fathers. Thou shalt save thousands, do much good, and receive all the power that thou needest to accomplish thy mission. These and all the blessings which thou canst desire in righteousness, I seal upon thee, in the name of Jesus, Amen.
- (W.A. Cowdery Assist. Recorder [emphasis added])
First Black Seventy and Missionary
Elijah was also the first Black Seventy. He was ordained a member of the Third Quorum of the Seventy on 20 December 1836 in Kirtland, Ohio by Zebedee Coltrin and became a "duly licensed minister of the Gospel" for missionary work in Ohio. His ordination was certified in Nauvoo, Illinois. In 1839, he was made a member of a Nauvoo Seventies Quorum. While living in Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo home, he was given “the calling of an undertaker” by the Prophet. In 1902 President Joseph F. Smith recalled a seventies meeting held in Utah on March 4, 1879:
- Bro Elijah Able [sic] gave an outline of his history and experiences during a period of forty years. Of his being in Kirtland. Of his appointment an[d] ordination as a Seventy, and a member of the 3rd Quorum. He related some of the saying[s] of the prophet Joseph who told him that those who were called to the Melchisadec [sic] Priesthood and had magnified that calling would be sealed up unto eternal life.
Elijah was also the first Black missionary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Listed as a “minister of the gospel” in an 1837 edition of Messenger and Advocate, he served missions to Canada and New York in 1838, and another mission to Ohio shortly before his death.
- His Canadian mission provoked concerns at a seventies conference in Quincy, Illinois, where Jedediah M. Grant “communicated to the council a short history of the conduct of Elder Elijah Abel, and some of his teachings etc. such as … that in addition to threatening to knock down Elder Christopher Merkley on their passage up Lake Ontario, he publicly declared that the Elders in Kirtland made nothing of knocking down one another.
In 1841, when Smith was arrested in Quincy, Illinois, Abel was among a group of seven elders who set out from Nauvoo to try and rescue him, although by the time they reached Quincy, Smith had been taken back to Nauvoo.
In 1843, Abel’s desire to engage in missionary work in Cincinnati, Ohio, presented special difficulties for a traveling high council comprised of Apostles John E. Page, Orson Pratt, Heber C. Kimball, and Lorenzo Snow. Despite their respect for “a coloured Bro.,” the brethren felt “wisdom forbids that we should introduce [him] before the public … [but] Bro Abels [sic] was advised to visit the coloured population.
Life in the Salt Lake Valley
In 1853 Elijah and his family migrated in the Appleton Harmon pioneer company to Utah Territory. After arriving in the Salt Lake Valley with his family, he worked at many trades, including managing the Salt Lake Farnham Hotel. He also performed minstrel shows with his family while living in Ogden.
Although Abel spent his life serving in the LDS Church, he had one desire which was denied him in this life.
- Abel had received washings and anointings in the Kirtland Temple in 1836, before the complete endowment ceremonies had been established. Though he acted as proxy in baptisms for the dead in Nauvoo and Salt Lake City, Brigham Young denied his request to be sealed to his wife and family [8 children]: that was a ‘privilege’ he ‘could not grant,’ a decision later reaffirmed by President John Taylor (Richard S. Van Wagoner and Stephen C. Walker, 4).
Toward the end of her life, one of the people Elijah converted, Eunice Kinney, offered this description of his teaching:
- In the spring of 1838 I heard the first Gospel sermon by a Latter-day Saint.His name was Elijah Abel; he was ordained by Joseph, the martyred prophet. I was then living in the town of Madrid, Lawrence County, New York. We had never heard of the latter-day Saints until Elder Abel came into the place. I, with my husband, went and heard him preach. Abel was a man without education; it was difficult for him to read his text but when he commenced to preach, the Spirit rested upon him and he preached a most powerful sermon. It was such a Gospel sermon as I had never heard before, and I felt in my heart that he was one of God’s chosen ministers, and I verily thought that all those who ever were under the sound of his voice were impressed with the same views. But I soon learned by mistake; when the sermon was ended he gave liberty to anyone that wished to express their feelings either for or against the subject that have been set before him. My husband rose and opposed that bitterly and said many hard things.
- After the meeting was closed, the Elder came to my husband putting his hand on his shoulder, says, “Brother where do you live?” My husband told him. He then said to my husband, “tomorrow I will come and see you and have a little chat.” He came as he said and he and my husband were soon in conversation. Abel set forth the claims of Joseph Smith to the prophetic office, showing the necessity of the everlasting gospel being restored to prepare a people for the coming of the Son of Man. So the time was drawing near for His coming but He would not come till God had a people prepared to receive him, with all the gifts and blessings that adorned his Church anciently.
- My husband opposed him, said that he was under no obligation to receive his message without seeing some sign or miracle performed. Abel then said, ” is it a sign that you require for to make you belief?” He said “yes.”
- Abel says, “you shall have what you asked, but it will make your heart ache. A curse from God will follow you from this time forward. You will be cursed in your going out and coming in and everything that you put your hand to do will be cursed, and sore affliction will follow you until you repent and humble yourself before God.”
- Well, I have only to say that all was fulfilled to the very letter. The last affliction that came our little boy of three years was taken with the croup. The doctor said that he was in the last stage of the disease and [there] was no hope in his case. My husband then gave up, said that it was enough, burst into a flood of tears, acknowledging his faults saying that he knew that he had been under the influence of evil spirit. He then humbled himself under the mighty hand of God, praying God to forgive him and restore our child, in all things as it should be made known to him.
- Suffice it to say that the child about well, and when Elder Abel came again we both went down into the water and was buried with Christ in baptism. When confirmed, great blessings were predicted upon our heads. My husband was to preach the gospel was to become mighty in causing many to believe and obey it. He was also to have the gift of tongues and the interpretation, also the gift of prophecy and the gift of healing the sick. All these things were fulfilled in due time.
In Utah, Elijah remained a Seventy. He died on Christmas Day, 25 December 1884, at the age of seventy-four, only two weeks after his return from a proselyting mission in Ohio, where he had become ill through exposure. He is buried in the Salt Lake Cemetery. His obituary which appeared in the Deseret News makes specific note of his Priesthood, as it had become controversial:
- Died, Elijah Abel…of old age and debility, consequent upon exposure while laboring in the ministry in Ohio… He joined the Church and was ordained an Elder as appears by certificate dated March 3rd, 1836. He was subsequently ordained a Seventy, as appears by certificate dated April 4, 1841. He labored successfully in Canada and also performed a mission in the United States, from which he returned about two weeks ago. He died in full faith of the Gospel.
At least two of Abel's descendants — his son Enoch and Enoch's son Elijah — were ordained to the Priesthood: Enoch was ordained an Elder on 27 November 1900, and Elijah was ordained an Elder on 29 September 1935.
In 2002, a monument was erected in Salt Lake City over Elijah Abel's grave site to memorialize him, his wife and his descendants. The monument was dedicated by LDS Church Apostle M. Russell Ballard.
- Minutes of the Seventies Journal, Hazen Aldrich, entry for 20 December 1836. LDS Church Archives as cited by Alma Allred in, "The Traditions of Their Fathers, Myth versus Reality in LDS Scriptural Writings" in Newell G. Bringhurst and Darron T. Smith (eds.) (2006). Black and Mormon (Urbana: University of Illinois Press)
- History of the Church, 4:365.
- Newell G. Bringhurst, "The 'Missouri Thesis' Revisisted: Early Mormonism, Slavery, and the Status of Black People" in Newell G. Bringhurst and Darron T. Smith (eds.) (2006). Black and Mormon (Urbana: University of Illinois Press) pp. 13–33 at p. 30.
- Lynn Arave, "Monument in S.L. erected in honor of black pioneer", Deseret Morning News, 2002-09-29, p. B3.