A Preacher of Righteousness

March 29, 2006 | 21 comments
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Elijah Abel is one of the more important figures in the history of Mormonism. A Maryland-born slave, he seems to have escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad. He was converted to Mormonism, and in 1836 Joseph Smith conferred the priesthood on him. This was the prove an enormously important precedent in the later abandonment of the priesthood ban in 1978. He also witnessed the constriction of black participation in the Church in 1853, when Brigham Young refused to allow him to receive his own endowment. Generally speaking, Brother Abel has been remembered primarily in connection with the long and tortuous path toward full blessings for black Latter-day Saints. In this sense, he has become a racial icon. However, he was also a Mormon elder. Toward the end of her life, one of the people he converted 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.

It is worth remembering that before Brother Abel was a racial symbol, he was a preacher of righteousness.

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21 Responses to A Preacher of Righteousness

  1. John David Payne on March 29, 2006 at 10:37 am

    Thanks, Nate. I have heard of Elijah Abel in the context of race and the church, but this is the first time I have ever learned about what kind of man he was. I’m glad you shared this with us.

  2. Eric on March 29, 2006 at 11:40 am

    Thank you.

  3. Mike on March 29, 2006 at 12:02 pm

    I grew up in Logan and went to school with some of the descendants of Elijah Abel. They were good people. Each generation married white people (who else was there?) and so by my time they did not look any different than the rest of us. We didn’t even know who Elijah Abel was or anything about his courage when I was in high school. His descendants each generation had been active and even local leaders in the church. I think those of the family who were well-known enough to attract the attention of the media were asked to not “exercise” their Priesthood during the most extreme times of the conflict over the Blacks and the Priesthood. Most quietly served missions and married in the temple and were otherwise full members of the Kingdom; while less than 1 mile up the street, John Lund at the USU Institute of Religion was writing his famous book, The Church and the Negro. Those were the days.

    I recently heard a fascinating angle on Elijah Abel. He was an undertaker in Nauvoo. He was so loyal to the Prophet that Joseph could trust him with his life. We also have some indication of the activities of Orrin Porter Rockwell (and others like him including one of my ancestors). If you assume that Nauvoo had a dark underbelly like all other river towns on the frontier, one of the most important people to have in your pocket in such circumstances is a good undertaker. Someone who knows how to bury these mistakes without attracting any attention, if needed. Problems with disposal of the body get more murders solved than just about anything else. Don’t forget what
    Rockwell supposedly told the first non-LDS governor of the territory of Utah when he tried to arrest him; “You know damned well governor, I never killed no one unless’n they deserved it.” And I believe him.

    Rockwell died from the effects of chronic alcoholism on June 9, 1878 and not from violence as was promised by The Prophet. This was exactly 100 years to the day before the Revelation extending the Priesthood to all races was issued by President Kimball. I think it would be interesting to know what relationship might have existed in Nauvoo between these three complex heroic individuals; Joseph, Porter, and Elijah.

  4. danithew on March 29, 2006 at 12:20 pm

    Wow. First time I ever heard of him. Thank you for sharing the powerful story of this man’s conversion and missionary efforts.

  5. Lamonte on March 29, 2006 at 12:26 pm

    Thanks for educating us (me) about Elijah Abel. I am overwhlemed by the stories of faith of those who have been treated so poorly by those who should have done better. At the same time I am pleased to be part of a society that can rise above its previously held prejudices.

  6. J. Stapley on March 29, 2006 at 1:00 pm

    This is a great post Nate. These are the stories that make us who we are. It is too bad they are often forgotten.

  7. Kurt on March 29, 2006 at 1:14 pm

    Does anyone know the history behind that drawing of Abel? The first time I saw it was on this site, and I have never been able to dig up any history on the source or authenticity of it. The uncropped full picture says “Elijah Abel b 1810″ on the footer edge in hand written script, but nothing else. If anyone can give some background on the picture, it would be much appreciated as there is some of the controversy surrounding how negro, or african, he appeared.

  8. Edje on March 29, 2006 at 1:37 pm

    Thanks. Great post.

  9. a random John on March 29, 2006 at 2:24 pm

    Odd that we never hear of him or his life through official church channels. A search on lds.org turns up only one hit, a breif paragraph mentioning a dedication of a monument to him. I’d love to hear a conference talk about this man.

  10. manaen on March 29, 2006 at 4:23 pm

    Nate, Thanks for posting this.

    I realized recently that we’ve come full-circle in the Church. I frequently visit the Southwest LA (Watts) branch on the NW corner of San Pedro & 107th in LA. The first time was from curiosity to see the local Church unit for the neighborhood in which my grandparents lived for 20+ years in mid last century. The members’ friendship draws me back — the black LDS made the white visitor feel so welcome that he keeps returning.

    I like this site for insight into African-American LDS issues. It includes histories, news, and testimonies. The stories of SW LA Branch’s current President and his wife, are included. A 1/2004 entry in the “News” section includes a reprt and photo of members marching in the Martin Luther King, Jr parade, with identifying banner.

    This site also includes more of the letter in your original posting. Elder Abel had the courage and inspiration for retention as well as conversion. The next part of the letter reads:

    All these things were fulfilled in due time.

    But soon after I was baptized I became severely tempted by the power of darkness, and the glorious light that had reflected upon my understanding a short time before had now become darkness, and how great was that darkness! Now, in my view The Book of Mormon was a romance and Joseph was a false prophet and the Elder the baptized me was one of the devil’s ministers transformed into a minister of righteousness. And I soon found myself in overwhelming doubts, fears and despair; no language could express the keen anguish that I and word. For one week I could neither eat or sleep. I thought that if I could only see the Elder I would say many hard things to him.

    One Sunday morning very unexpectedly into my great surprise Elder Abel came. As soon as either the house, my feelings that I had somewhat changed. After a little conversation, I made an effort to express the feelings and trials that I had had since I was baptized, but I was spellbound. I could not utter the words that I had previously imagined. He only said, “Sister, you have not been tempted as long as the Savior was after he was baptized. He was tempted one way and you in another.”

    He then said to my husband, “I wish would circulate an appointment for preaching at three o’clock in the afternoon at the schoolhouse.” It was done as he requested. At first I thought I would not go, but when the appointed time came I said to my husband, “I will go and see the coming out of it.”

    His text was “Think it not strange, brethren, concerning the fiery trials which are to try you as though some strange thing had happened unto you.” I thought the text very appropriate.

    While he was preaching, a great and marvelous change came over me. All the doubts and fears and unbelief and the powerful darkness that had so distressed me fled before the light of God’s truth like the dew before the Sun. The Holy Spirit can upon me and I was in a glorious vision. It was then and there made known to me by the power of God the Joseph Smith was a true Prophet of God, and The Book of Mormon was a sacred record of divine origin, and Elijah Abel was a servant of the most high God. I’ve never had a doubt of these things from that day to this, and when I think of that glorious event it fills my heart with joy and gratitude to my Heavenly Father for such an expression of his goodness.

    After the meeting, Brother Abel explain the cause of his coming so unexpectedly. He was on a mission in Canada and God gave him a vision of my situation and commanded him to come and rebuke the power that was destroying me. He obeyed the command and God’s blessing was realized.

    The rest of her letter includes Elder Abel’s confrontation with persecutors, his counsel for this family to move to a more hospitable area, and their compliance.

  11. manaen on March 29, 2006 at 4:34 pm

    10
    Wow, I really goofed up the links! Try these:
    * site’s homepage
    * Allens’ stories
    * Parade report (scroll dosn to 1/2004)
    * rest of letter

    Also, check the Testimonies section

  12. StealthBomber on March 29, 2006 at 4:52 pm

    Nate,

    Thanks for the post. For what it’s worth, http://www.blacklds.org is a great website for African-American saints (and the ‘testimonies’ section is jaw-droppingly inspiring to all).

  13. J. Stapley on March 29, 2006 at 8:07 pm

    Kurt, that picture seems to be an “enhancment” of a picture in the collection of Gary B. Peterson. Here is a link to the image in that collection. Gary is a Utah historian and has written for the Utah History Encyclopedia, other Utah state histories, and some books.

  14. Kurt on March 30, 2006 at 6:46 am

    OK, I dug up the same info on google, and have found what it probably his current snail mail address. I will send him a letter and will report back if I hear back from him.

  15. Bookslinger on March 30, 2006 at 10:37 am

    That drawing of Elijah Abel is also in “A Book of Mormons” by Richard S. Van Wagoner and Steven C. Walker.

  16. Hellmut Lotz on March 30, 2006 at 10:41 am

    Whose interests would be served or damaged if Elijah Abel were included in the curriculum?

  17. Kurt on March 30, 2006 at 11:48 am

    Bookslinger,

    If you have a copy of that book, does it give any history or background on the picture? It is out of print and not on signatures online web library. I found some on abebooks.com though.

    Hellmut,

    There is a lot of stuff that isn’t in the curriculum, for no other reason that is simply wont fit. There is too much stuff to pack it all into the curriculum, and SS/GD teachers have plenty of freedom to teach whatever they like. There are lots of people who never get mentioned, and Elijah Abel is only one of them. In a curriculum that cycles through one major sciptural text per year, it simply isnt possible to jam it all in. And its not like anyone is trying to cover anything up about him, so please dont try to interject something political into it when there isnt anything there. The purpose of the SS/GD curriculum is to help church members learn about and draw closer to the Lord, not become scholars in LDS Church history.

  18. Hellmut Lotz on March 30, 2006 at 7:11 pm

    Obviously, a lot of people would have been uplifted if they had known more about Elijah Abel, Kurt. The problem is, of course, that serious engagement of his case would embarrass Brigham Young. Therefore, Elijah has to remain a hero at the margins.

  19. MaryAA on March 30, 2006 at 8:29 pm

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned the excellent series of books, Standing on the Promises, by Margaret Blair Yound and Darius Gray. These books are historical novels about Elijah Abel, Jane Manning James and their descendents. They are published by Deseret Book even if you can imagine that. They are excellent books and include tons of footnotes to check original sources the authors used to dramatize the characters.

  20. Kurt on April 12, 2006 at 10:58 am

    Hellmut, that is just plain nonsense. Elijah is just one of hundreds, probably thousands, of prominent early Church members who doesnt get the attention they deserve. It has nothing whatseover with BY, and any alleged embarrasment you would cast on him.

    Everyone else who might be interested, yesterday I got a hand written letter back from Gary B. Peterson concerning the Elijah Abel picture as follows:

    6 April 2006
    Dear Kurt,

    Find your note most curious – only time(s) I’ve known (sure didn’t this one) TV or KUED used images from my collectionds it’s been without permission or credit let alone recompense. What is this site anyway?

    The image of Abel is probably in a “Blacks in Utah History” slide show I did 25-30 years ago. I probably have a negative, print and slide of it. I probably have my source somewhere in files. It’s possible that was from an obscure, private collection but much more likely came from one of the major UT public collections.

    I am currently in the third of a three year project giving people access to incidents of divine providence on the Lewis & CLark Trail and restoring deity to rightful place in the story. Between this and another very large project I have little “spare” time.

    Unfortunately it would require research to attempt to answer your questions. It is good that you are documenting your project. Much success.

    Sincerely, Gary

  21. Kurt on May 2, 2006 at 7:22 am

    Since the above correspondence, a photograph has turned up that is considered likely to be that of Elijah Abel by the people at Church Archives and was used by Ed Kimball in his book about his father, SWK. John Dehlin is hosting it at his site:

    http://www.mormonstories.org/top10toughissues/elijahabel.jpg