Big News in Newly Published Details About Elijah Able

Over at Ardis Parshall’s valuable blog, Keepapitchinin, there is an important new guest post by W. Paul Reeve: “Newly Discovered Document Provides Dramatic Details about Elijah Able and the Priesthood,” January 18, 2019. Reeve is the author of the highly acclaimed book, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). In his post, we learn that the diligent folks at the Joseph Smith Papers project have recently uploaded a document that finally shows who ordained Elijah Able to the Priesthood. Able, of course, was a black man in the early Latter-day Saint community. Details of his ordination have long been murky, but now we know much more about who performed the ordination:

It was a man by the name of Ambrose Palmer, on 25 January 1836, an earlier date than previously surmised. Palmer is described in the Joseph Smith papers biographies
as a “farmer, tavern keeper, surveyor, glass worker, manufacturer,
[and] justice of the peace.” He was born in Winchester Connecticut, 15
September 1784, but had moved to Trumbull County, Ohio by 1807. He was a
veteran of the War of 1812 and a Mason. In 1818 voters in Norton,
Medina County, Ohio elected him Justice of the Peace. He converted to
the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in April 1833 in New
Portage, Ohio, where he became presiding Elder by 1834. It was likely in
that capacity that he ordained Able an Elder in January 1836. Palmer
moved to Missouri by September of that year and died at Far West, likely
in 1838….

But why is it important? Does the fact that we now know who ordained
Elijah Able to the priesthood, and that it was not Joseph Smith, in any
way diminish the fact that Able WAS ordained to the priesthood? Not in
the least. It strengthens it in my estimation. It offers additional
evidence of the universal nature of the early gospel message, so much so
that presiding Elders such as Ambrose Palmer, fifty-five miles away
from the central hierarchy at Kirtland, did not discriminate in
distributing priesthood power. Moreover, Joseph Smith, Jr., and Joseph
Smith, Sr., did not discriminate either in certifying and licensing, and
officially sanctioning that priesthood power through their signatures
and blessings and personal communications. People at the center and on
the periphery of the Latter-day Saint movement did not erect racial
barriers to membership, priesthood ordination, or temple rituals, a fact
captured in this new document in the hand writing of Joseph F. Smith.

Sadly, Joseph F. Smith seemed to forget what he once affirmed about Brother Able. In one of the clearest examples of the fallibility of modern leaders, over a couple of decades he would go from affirming that Joseph Smith had approved of the ordination to saying it was a mistake and that Joseph had declared it null and void. Painful.

In the midst of much praise for this find, W. Paul Reeve made a gracious comment on this discovery:

I need to make a point of clarification. I did not personally find this
new document. The Joseph Smith Papers team recently—and with no
fanfare—updated the bio of Elijah Able at the Joseph Smith papers site.
The update included these new words: “Ordained an elder by Ambrose
Palmer, 25 Jan. 1836.” Intrigued, I looked at the footnote which
contained a link to a digital scan of the new document.
There it was, publicly available for the world to see. The JSP team
sometimes does this from what I can gather—make electronic updates to
their sources and say nothing about them, even when they are a big deal,
like this new source seems to be. The footnote that the JSP team
created reads “Joseph F. Smith, Notes on Elijah Able, undated [likely
ca. 1879], CHL.” I learned that the Joseph Smith Papers team verified it
was Joseph F. Smith’s handwriting and had concluded that it likely
originated in 1879, as seems obvious when one is aware of the records of
the Taylor investigation that year into Able’s priesthood. I also
noticed that the LDS Church History Department had updated its bio of Able
on its Saints history topics site. I followed their lead and updated
the bio of Able at Century of Black Mormons. Ardis then agreed to host a
blog post about the new document here at Keepapitchinin. I do not
deserve credit for finding it. The Joseph Smith Papers and Church
History Department really are doing what they can to make sources
available, sometimes surprisingly so, such as when something like this
shows up unannounced.

While there are still many questions about the former restrictions on the Priesthood, a few more questions can now be answered about an important early member, Elijah Able. We can all be grateful that we have a little more information to work with. Thank you, Paul, Ardis, and the group of dedicated people at the Joseph Smith Papers.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

2 thoughts on “Big News in Newly Published Details About Elijah Able

  1. Just FYI, you might want to check out the latest issue of Dialogue (Vol. 51 No. 3), which has several articles on race and the Church.

    — OK

  2. As much as I have problems with Mr. Lindsey, I have to give credit to him.

    Mormanity is one of three Mormon blogs that allow all comments to stay up for all to see.

    Blog owners and blog site administrators who delete comments because the comment goes against their beliefs, whether religious or political, are very, very, thin skinned and show how narrow minded and closed minded they truly are.

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