Elijah Abel(s), First African-American to be ordained an Elder and member of the Quorum of the Seventy of LDS/Mormon Church
Backstory and Context
Not a whole lot is known about the birth and
formative years of Elijah Abel. It is commonly believed that he was born a
slave, to Andrew and Delilah Abel, July 25, 1808 (some sources have it in
1810), his parents also likely to be enslaved as well. Most sources state that
he was born in Frederick Maryland, while some others have his place of birth in
neighboring Washington County, Maryland. The creator of this entry is going
with the majority until a firm conclusion to this mystery can be had. There
is some evidence that he may have escaped into Upper Canada using the
Underground Railroad. However, some sources have Elijah Abel as being born a
freeman that moved to Canada for various reasons, one being a fear that be
would become enslaved, despite being born free. There is no evidence showing the exact location where he was born nor any reference to the home or what it looked like as can be found today.
Not known was how Elijah Able heard about the newly restored Church of Christ (later The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), but it is likely he heard about it via the preaching of missionaries sent to Upper Canada in the late 1820s, early 1830s. Nonetheless, Elijah left Canada and moved to Kirtland, Ohio in 1832, which has become the new headquarters of the young church. In September of the same year, he was baptized by Ezekiel Roberts and later married Mary Ann Adams, another African-American also recently baptized into the church. On March 3, 1836 he was ordained to the office of Elder, which has him being the first African-American to hold the Melchizedek, or Higher Priesthood, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There is a debate as to who ordained him: Either he was called and ordained by the Prophet Joseph Smith Jr. himself or he was called by Smith and ordained by Zebedee Coltrin. In either 1838 or 1839, he was called as a member of the Third Quorum of the Seventy, which was not at the time considered a calling of being a General Authority, but a quorum with the emphasis on missionary work.
The debate as to whether he was born a slave or not stems from the church practice at the time of Abel's baptism (1832), to obey and follow the law where ever the church was established and where ever its missionaries were sent. This adherence to the law while in South became contentious, since Southerners saw the LDS church as an abolitionist church and laws at the time in the South forbade baptisms of slaves by outside churches. So, the church "compromised" that it would not baptize without the master's consent as well not ordain a slave to the priesthood, to alleviate fears of hidden abolitionist-insurrection plans by the church in the South and in Missouri. If Abel was indeed a slave, he would have needed his master's consent, yet he was technically a fugitive slave. And if a runaway slave, the case is that since it had been a number of years and no evidence of his master seeking him out, he was free by the fact he was in the northwest of American and had lived in Canada for a time and thus free to be baptized If he was born free, then no problem. No matter the circumstance, he was baptized, ordained into the priesthood and sent out as a missionary.
While in Kirtland he helped build the Kirtland Temple, the first LDS/Mormon Temple constructed, with his skill as a carpenter. He gained this skill while either living in Frederick or while in Canada. From 1836 to 1842, he served missions in Ohio, New York and Canada. It is at the year of 1842, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio to help establish the church there by preaching to his fellow African-Americans and met Mary Adams and married her in 1847. The same man who baptized him, Ezekiel Roberts, officiated the marriage. Between 1839 and 1842, he lived in Nauvoo, Illinois when the church moved there upon being forced to leave both Kirtland and Missouri (the latter by physical force following the Extermination Order given by Governor Lilliburn Boggs and the multiple raids on Mormon settlements and one massacre) and built Nauvoo from the ground up. While in Nauvoo, Abel served as carpenter again for the Nauvoo Temple and as a mortician (at the urging of Joseph Smith). As false charges followed Smith into Nauvoo and sometimes he was betrayed and sent to jail, Abel served in at least one rescue mission to get the Prophet out while illegally incarcerated by mobs. When Joseph Smith and Hyrum Smith were murdered in jail, June 27, 1844, Abel was reported to be the undertaker for the bodies.
The Abel family stayed in Cincinnati in the home, incidentally enough, of members to a break-off church that formed following the death of Joseph Smith, they were referred to as the Williamite Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. "Williamite" referring to William Smith, an oft-times estranged brother of Joseph Smith that believed he was the rightful succesor to his brother as prophet. It is apparent that the Abels were active will the origninal during this time still. In 1852 they joined the Appleton Harmon Pioneer Company to the Salt Lake Valley to be with the church at its new and permanent headquarters. Abel was aware that offically under Brigham Young that blacks and other minorities were to be denied the priesthood by accordance of revelation of God until it was appointed the ban to be lifted. Despite this, he chose to stick with the church and likewise his ordination as Elder and a a member of the Seventy was not taken from him. The boys born into the family were even ordained as priests and holding the Lesser Priesthood, normally referred to as the Aaronic Priesthood. One some would be ordained an Elder in 1900 and a grandson as well in 1935 (for reasons unknown while the ban was in place) After arriving in the valley, he once again helped as a carpenter for the Salt Lake Temple and he and his wife managed the Farnham Hotel in the Salt Lake City area.
Although he was denied to receive his endowments in 1853, he still stayed and worked with the church. By proxy, sometime in the 1930s, Abel received his endowment and other saving ordinances. He served his last mission with the church in early 1884 to Canada, but returned being very ill. He died Christmas Day the same year. He is buried in the Salt Lake Cemetery. In 2002, the deteriorating headstone was removed and Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Twelve Apostles dedicated a monument placed in its stead.