February is #BlackHistoryMonth and we’re starting off with Russell Stevenson, a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University in African-American studies. He has written a biography of Elijah Ables, (Black Mormons: The Story of Elijah Ables) and we’re going to learn more about the first documented black man to hold the priesthood. First a note: Elijah has several spellings for his last name: Abel, Able, Ables. Russell thinks Ables is most accurate, although it seems that most refer to him as Abel. I’m going with Russell’s spelling for this interview (Ables.) In our first interview, we discussed Ables’ early life. I asked if Elijah Ables was born a slave.
Russell: We do not have a lot of hard data on Elijah’s upbringing. We know something about where he’s from. We know that he was born in western Maryland. There are a number of potential counties according to different documents where he could have been born in some say Frederick, others say Washington, others say Hancock. We know that he was born at some point between 1808-1812.
As far as his religious upbringing, we know basically nothing about that. We don’t even know with certainty that he was a slave. Statistically speaking that part of Maryland, the free African-American versus the slave African-American ratio, it broke in favor of slaves. Statistically speaking he was probably a slave at some point, but beyond that speculation we don’t know with certainty.
Really the first hard documentation we have of Elijah’s life comes through a photograph that we have, George A. Smith family photograph collection and it identifies his baptism year as being 1832. Thanks to that photo, we have some sense of how old he was, which is again, somewhere between 20-24 years old, but the documentation is pretty limited.
Was he light enough to pass for white? What was his occupation? Russell answers these questions! In part 2, we talked about Ables’ Canadian mission. Did you know that he had to escape from a mob?
Russell: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that at approximately the same time, Elijah is being chased by a tar and feather mob. He runs to the home of Sarah Beckstead. Who is it that ends up defending Elijah’s life? It isn’t the man of the house, but it is Sarah Beckstead, who comes out with a rifle in hand and opens fire on the mob and they quickly disperse.
GT: Oh wow.
Russell: Sarah Beckstead saved Elijah’s life that night.
GT: Wow, that’s crazy. I’m trying to remember, but I believe that there was a charge of murder against Elijah Ables. Is that right?
Russell: Yes, yes that is correct. There were rumors being spread that he had committed several murders in fact. It’s likely that played a role in his persecution as well.
Here’s a couple of other noteworthy moments from Able’s Canadian mission.
Russell: We know that he played a role in ordaining another man to the priesthood, William McIntire. That is again clear from very good contemporary evidence.
GT: So this is a black man ordaining a white man to the priesthood?
GT: Wow, that’s pretty cool.
Russell: Yes. We know that Elijah had success in converting a woman by the name of Eunice Kinney. Eunice Kinney was a woman living in Madrid, New York and she said as she heard Elijah speak, even though he didn’t have the same ability to read and to engage written texts as others did, she felt the spirit so powerfully when he preached. She wanted badly to affiliate with the saints and to become acquainted with the saints, based on his testimony alone.
In part 3, we learned that following Elijah Ables’ Canadian mission, he returned for a short time to Nauvoo where he helped Joseph Smith escape from a mob from Missouri. Then he went to Ohio and encountered more Trouble in Cincinnati! Russell discusses some of the race riots and other difficulties Elijah Ables encountered in Ohio.
Russell: In about 1842, or it might have even been the fall of 1841, there had been a massive race riot break out in Cincinnati between local white workers and the African-American community. It was quite violent. Many prominent abolitionists found themselves under fire. Their homes, their offices, their businesses were all targeted for mob attack, and it’s reasonable to suppose that Rees E. Price would have found under attack as well.
So the fact that Elijah could navigate these white spaces, it tells you he had the skill to be in both worlds. And yet, in spite of this ability, in spite of this comfortability with white spaces, we know that in 1843, I speculate due to some of these heightened tensions that had developed due to this race riot, that locally, three apostles: Heber C. Kimball, Lorenzo Snow, and Orson Pratt, they banned Elijah from preaching to people not of African ancestry.
GT: Ok, so approximately what year was that?
Russell: Not approximately, it was 1843.
GT: 1843, so he had some restrictions placed on him.
Russell: Yes. I can’t emphasize enough, though, it was not a priesthood restriction. They had the opportunity. If they wanted to take the priesthood from Elijah at that time, they could have. That was the perfect opportunity to do so. They did not. In the minutes that tell us about this episode, he is explicitly identified as a Seventy and there is no comment made about him losing priesthood, and two years later, there is a newspaper article again referring to Elijah’s workings in that branch where he is also referred to as a Seventy.
Russell also talks about speculation Elijah may have helped with the Underground Railroad to free blacks from slavery!
Russell: Now did that lead to some sort of collaboration in helping with the Underground Railroad? That’s a very interesting speculation. It also goes beyond the evidence. Trust me, I would love to know that Elijah played an active role in assisting with the Underground Railroad. We just don’t know that.
It should be noted that Elijah lived in several hubs of the Underground Railroad, but of course anyone who assisted would likely have hidden any association with the Underground Railroad. I should also note that Russell’s other book (published by Greg Kofford Books) For the Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism, 1830-2013 won the Best Book Award from the Mormon History Association in 2015.
Were you aware of these parts of Elijah’s life? What are your thoughts regarding Elijah’s faithfulness despite the harsh racial times?