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Blacks in Mormonism: What were Joseph Smith’s Views Relative to Black Africans?
In the historical context of January 1836, a significant figure emerged in the early days of Blacks in Mormonism — a mixed-race man of African descent. Notably, he was ordained as an elder in the priesthood, a fact that often goes unnoticed in discussions about Joseph Smith’s time. Contrary to common misconceptions, there was no apparent policy barring individuals of black African ancestry from participating in the Church. This man of mixed heritage, was ordained and even praised by Joseph Smith for his moral character and dedication to righteousness. This article delves into the life of Elijah Ables, his ordination, and the evolving attitudes of Joseph Smith toward race and equality within the Church during that era. Through examining historical records, this article seeks to shed light on the nuanced perspective Joseph Smith held in a time of changing attitudes toward race and slavery, ultimately setting the stage for understanding the complexities of later policies related to race within the Church.
In January of 1836, we get our very first mixed-race man of African descent. His name is Elijah Ables.
What’s amazing is he’s ordained an elder in the priesthood, and some people are not aware of Elijah Ables or aware that in Joseph Smith’s time there were blacks ordained to the priesthood. Yet up to this point in the history, it’s clear that there is no such thing as any policy that would in any way bar anyone of black African descent from church participation, and we see that very clearly in Elijah Ables. Again, I say he’s a mixed-race man. I think he was one-eighth black, right? He’s a “octoroon,” some would call him.
He’s ordained to the priesthood. Joseph Smith lauds Elijah for his, he says, “His good moral character and his zeal for the cause of righteousness.” And that’s on Elijah Ables’s priesthood certificate in March 1836. Then fast forward to December of that year, and Elijah Ables is washed and anointed in the Kirtland Temple, and then later in Nauvoo he’s going to be ordained into the Seventies quorum. And this is going to happen under the hands of Zebedee Coltrin.
Now, recalling that event some 43 years later, Zebedee Coltrin said, “that he had never experienced such unpleasant feelings in his life as when he ordained this black man,” he said. “He recalled resisting Joseph Smith’s directive to ordain him, and he said that he complied only because he had been, ‘commanded by the prophet to do so.’ But he swore to himself that he would, “never again anoint another person who had negro blood in him.’” Now. Ooh. This is insightful because we can see both Zebedee’s strong resistance to the idea of black equality in the church, as well as Joseph Smith’s even stronger insistence that Elijah Ables have equal priesthood privileges with white church members.
Elijah Ables is a really interesting character, and I highly recommend Russell Stevenson’s biography on him. Ah, it’s so good. You’ve got to get to know the life of Elijah Ables. But he’s our first documented member of the church with black ancestry who is ordained to the priesthood. And a key figure and someone we need to know a little bit more about, right? The fact that he’s a Seventy, and a Seventy back then isn’t the same as it is today. He wasn’t considered a general authority. It was more of a missionary position. But he, in a lot of ways, is a great representative of black people in the early church and the role that they played. And sometimes we pretend like they just weren’t there, but they were there. They were prominently there.
The next stop along the way would be April 1836. And this is probably similar to what we just said about Section 134, but Joseph Smith, in the church’s newspaper, defends slave holding, and again, this is more of an acknowledgement of the realistic situation that they live in to basically try to assure slave holders that they’re not trying to tip over the apple cart, but they do think they have an obligation to share the gospel with all people.
And the backstory for that one, right, is that from the years of 1834 to 1836, missionaries have been going down to the south, down to Tennessee and Kentucky in particular. And have brought into the church several members who hold slaves.
Now we have slave holding church members. They’re baptized. They’ve received the gift of the Holy Ghost. But meanwhile, Joseph writes in the newspaper, he says, “I am aware that many elders in the north complain against their brethren of the same faith who reside in the south and are ready to withdraw the hand of fellowship because they will not renounce the principle of slavery and raise their voice against everything of the kind.” Ooh. So here we have church members in the north and south who are united in the faith but diametrically opposed to one another on the issue of slavery. So Joseph calls this “a tender point of controversy, which should call for the candid reflection of all men.” So what’s he supposed to do, right?
What’s a church leader to say now that you’ve got this internal strife about the issue of slavery?
Yeah. And it’s them, like we said, negotiating this incredibly explosive, volatile issue. They’ve dealt with losing what they see as the space for the literal city of Zion because of racial attitudes. They also are worried about what’s going to happen in these areas where missionaries are being really successful in the South, where they’re garnering a number of converts. They’re also aware that there’s still a fair number of church members in Missouri who are refugees from Jackson County and trying to resettle in Caldwell County, a little bit north of Jackson County, but that are still basically right in the crosshairs of these groups that think the Saints have radical attitudes when it comes to race.
In addition to that, there’s a general perception, too, that Latter-day Saints are abolitionists, that they want to end slavery and accept blacks in Mormonism. And the Saints themselves don’t support slavery, but we talked about in our first episode how “abolitionists” meant something different back then. It was someone who radically advocated for the end of slavery, even sometimes with violence is the way that they would do it. And it would totally, like, upset the social order, right? It didn’t seem like the way, it seemed too radical, too fanatical to just end slavery, right? And then free all these blacks and make them socially equal. Like, “Then what are going to do? Then what’s going to happen?” So if such rumors are true, that Latter-day Saints are abolitionists, think about how dangerous that would be for the Saints who are still living in Missouri, and think about how significantly that would hinder missionary work that’s currently succeeding down in the South.
And the last factor is there’s a guy named John W. Alvord, who’s not a member of the church, but he lectures on abolitionism, and he sets up an abolitionist society in Kirtland, where, functionally, the headquarters of the church is located at this time. So everybody is looking at Joseph Smith to announce what the church’s position is when it comes to slavery and abolitionism, and that’s the context where he makes this April 1836 statement. He writes in the church newspaper what he calls his “views and sentiments” on the situation. These are Joseph Smith’s views and sentiments. And in that article he actually defends southern church members who want to continue practicing slavery to the members in the north by quoting the all-too-often-quoted Ham story in the Bible, the one we talked about last time, where his son Canaan, Ham’s son Canaan, was cursed to be the first slave.
It was Joseph’s view and sentiment at that time, he says, and nowhere does he suggest that this is based on any revelation. He just says, “it’s my view and sentiment that Northern Church members should not condemn Southern Church members for slave holding, since it appears that slavery is justified in the Bible, ever since Noah cursed Ham’s son Canaan to be a servant of servants.” After referencing the curse of Ham story and seeming to tacitly accept the unexamined cultural narrative of his day, that this story somehow justified black African slavery, Joseph then cautions northern church members from “crying out against the south,” he says, “in consequence of their holding the sons of Ham in servitude.” This is interesting.
So does Joseph actually believe the Ham story? Does he believe that Ham’s son Canaan was cursed to be a servant of servants and that black Africans come from Canaan? I think the answer is we don’t know. We don’t know if Joseph actually believed that. Maybe he did, and maybe he didn’t, but what we do know is that Joseph knew that most of Protestant America in his day believed that Ham connection, right? And so Joseph’s going to use that fact in this instance to try to help the saints in the north from condemning saints in the south as evil or as deserving of disfellowshipment, but be the truth of Joseph’s internal beliefs as they may, what we can say for sure is that his tacit acceptance of the Ham justification for slavery here never actually influences Joseph’s policy of black inclusion in the church at all.
Joseph will never exclude participation in the priesthood or in temple worship based on black African ancestry. He just never will. And so this is super interesting that he’s using a biblical belief of many in his day to try to defend southern church members from northern calls for disfellowshipment, but that never affects church policy whatsoever.
There is a shift that happens shortly after this, and it might have to do with the fact that in 1838 a second round of persecutions breaks out in Missouri. This is where Hawn’s Mill, Far West, Liberty Jail, all those things happen. And once and for all, an extermination order is issued, and church members leave Missouri. And it feels like, after that point in time, I think it’s fair to say that they are less right in the middle of things. And Joseph Smith in Nauvoo is able to more freely express his views without worry that the members of the church in Missouri are going to be in danger.
Because starting in October of 1840, the First Presidency publishes about the Nauvoo temple that’s going to be built there. And they write how the saints expected to receive in Nauvoo, this is the quote from it, “persons of all languages and of every tongue and of every color, who shall with us worship the Lord of hosts in his holy temple.” That seems to indicate that at least the view in 1840 was that there would be no temple restriction. That everybody would be allowed to come to the temple regardless of their race or nationality and worship alongside people of other races and nationalities.
And that’s an interesting connection, that after the Saints are completely, totally, fully expelled from Missouri, Joseph’s not going to try to be as careful. He’s not going to try to please both sides. He’s not going to try to find a middle road as much, right? He’s tried that for several years. That hasn’t worked in reducing persecution against the church.
And so, yeah, Nauvoo Joseph’s going to be a little more free, or at least he’s going to perceive himself as more free to express himself and his views on slavery, at least his public declarations on slavery, are going to change significantly. And now we have this temple. As the Nauvoo temple is going to start to rise, we have this statement of full inclusion. Every color can come and worship in God’s holy temple. And it does show, I think, in general, that now that they’re out of the fire in Missouri, they’re worrying less about pleasing the locals—that they’re expressing what they really feel.
There’s another key figure that comes into play here. Alongside Elijah Abel, another black elder of the church, Q. Walker Lewis, who comes onto the scene during the Nauvoo period, and again demonstrates that during this time there doesn’t seem to be any kind of priesthood restriction when it comes to black people.
- Walker Lewis is actually ordained by William Smith, Joseph Smith’s brother, and there’s no controversy about it whatsoever. So this further reiterates that there’s really no priesthood policy when it comes to priesthood or the temple during Joseph Smith’s time as president of the church. And that’s 1842 when Walker Lewis is ordained.
So now we’re marching through. We’re in Nauvoo now. We’ve been in Nauvoo now for about two years. And we get another black elder, our second for sure, well-documented black elder. Then in December of that year, 1842, I think this is really interesting, a very telling conversation occurs between Joseph Smith and Elder Orson Hyde of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Hyde, I’d say he was rather typical of the age in terms of his views of black inferiority. And he’s also attuned to the very real challenges that might occur in a church where some members in the south own slaves and other members up north find the practice deplorable. And so he asked Joseph, and this is in Joseph Smith’s history, he recorded this conversation. Elder Hyde asked Joseph, “What advice would you give to a man who came into the church having a hundred slaves?” Someone joins the church, they own a hundred slaves. What would you say, Joseph? And Joseph answers, “I have always advised such to bring their slaves into a free country and set them free, educate them, and give them equal rights.” That’s awesome.
So Joseph’s instant response to both slave owners and blacks in Mormonism is, “Welcome to the church. Why don’t you come up to a place where you can set your slaves free, educate them, give them equal rights?” And there’s a second conversation, also recorded with Orson Hyde, this is a few days later that just gets to the heart of what does Joseph Smith think about racial superiority or inferiority. Orson Hyde brings the subject again with Joseph as to the situation of black people in America, and Joseph Smith says, “Change their situation with the whites, and they would be like them. They have souls and are subjects of salvation.” And then he adds, “Had I anything to do with the negro, I would confine them by strict law to their own species or kind and put them on national equalization.” So he’s saying he thinks that they’re the same and that they should have equal rights, but he’s also a creature of his time, where he’s not necessarily in favor of strict integration, but I don’t think anybody was during this time.
During this time, just an acknowledgement that they’re the same as a white person is radical thought when it comes to race relations. It seems like here Joseph is giving his view on the great conundrum of the day, right? Which was, “If the slaves are all freed, and they’re granted equal social status with the whites, what’s to stop them from intermarrying with the whites?” Joseph knew that advocating for racial intermarriage in his day would be going a stretch too far for most people. So his suggestion is to make them equal with the whites but then to create strict laws forbidding racial intermarriage. And so that’s his views in the beginning of 1843 on that one. And we get one more stop in kind of our documentary review of Joseph Smith’s views on race. And that is his platform when he runs for president. He runs for President of the United States in 1844. There’s a number of remarkable firsts. I recommend Spencer McBride’s book on Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign.
It appears the reason he’s running is because he doesn’t find satisfaction with the candidates in either party, which is a totally radical feeling for us. But his platform, and again, this is as public as you can get, it’s a statement to the entire country, Joseph Smith is the first candidate for president to really advocate ending slavery.
He publishes a pamphlet called “General Smith’s Views of the Power and Policy of Government,” in which—this is a quote directly from it: “The Declaration of Independence ‘holds these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal: … they are endowed by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ but at the same time, some two or three millions of people are held as slaves for life, because the spirit in them is covered with a darker skin.” Just like he says, just because they have darker skin.
Then he presents a plan to end slavery. He said, “Pray Congress to pay every [slave holding] man a reasonable price for his slaves out of the surplus revenue arising from the sale of public lands, and from … deduction of pay from the members of Congress.” So his plan is to purchase the slaves by selling public lands, which the United States has in abundance. But also, and I don’t know how well this would’ve gone over with the ruling class, but take away pay from members of Congress and use that to basically end this sin that has been affecting America.
I think at that time, if I remember right, Congress members were paid $8 a day, and he said “Let’s reduce it to $2 a day.” That’s a significant deduction. And, I mean, a question some people would raise, “Is this a realistic plan?” It’s difficult to say. I mean, this is all Monday morning quarterbacking, right? Where we’re after the fact and the Civil War happened, but he was at least suggesting a peaceful solution to the slave issue. And there were places like the West Indies where they did peacefully end slavery. They didn’t resolve all the issues with civil rights and equality of the races, but they ended the practice of slavery without bloodshed, and I think it’s noteworthy that Joseph Smith is at least proposing, “Let’s do something about this before it turns into a civil war. And see if we can end the problem without actual bloodshed.”
It goes on to say, “Break off the shackles of the poor black man … hire him to labor, like other human beings.” And “Then, create confidence! Restore freedom! Break down slavery! … and be in love, fellowship and peace with all the world.” And so this platform is published just a couple months before Joseph Smith’s death. It’s probably the best document to represent his thinking on slavery, on racial equality, his fully developed thoughts where he ends his life at. He’s advocating the end of slavery and saying that black people need to be treated like they’re human beings, like they’re of equal status. I love that in this statement, we actually—we’re seeing a significant public shift from Joseph’s 1836 article to the church.
In ‘36 he defended southern church members’ slave holding rights, rebuffing northern members’ call for their disfellowshipment. But here in 1844, boy, he is all in on emancipation, right? He is unequivocally calling for a total end of slavery in America. But not by war and bloodshed—this is a genius plan—by purchasing the freedom of every slave in the nation. With fair compensation to all slaveholders. Like, who can argue with that? This is so good. This is visionary stuff. I love this. And he’s basically foreseeing down the road what we’re going to have to deal with, which is Civil War. Bloodshed.
How many lives could have been spared if Joseph Smith’s views would’ve been adopted and implemented? No Civil War. Isn’t it still the most bloody? Most people died in the Civil War than have ever died in any other of the wars that America’s been involved in, right? Every death was an American. If you add together all the [American] deaths in every one of America’s wars, it still doesn’t equal the total from the Civil War itself.
And so Joseph Smith is advocating a plan that would’ve avoided that bloodshed. And some would argue the real tragedy of the Civil War wasn’t just the war, it was what happened after the war, where the seething resentment between the north and the south causes whites in the south, when they regained political control, to basically end any promise of equality. I mean, we’re still dealing with this today.
Joseph Smith’s system could have created, if it had worked, a system where those resentments that the war generated, that the bloodshed caused, wouldn’t have happened because nobody would’ve died, either. So I don’t know if it would’ve worked or not, but at least he was trying to fix the problem that he saw would eventually result in the “bloodshed and death of many souls,” to quote his own prophecy.
Let’s summarize these key points that we’ve talked about here as we try to land the plane today.
What were Joseph Smith’s views relative to black Africans? He believed blacks were equal with whites in the eyes of God. He never endorsed interracial marriage between blacks and whites, but he believed that we were equal. Joseph’s public views on blacks and slavery were not static, we can say.
In 1836, he defends slave holding rights of Southern Church members, but then eight years later, in 1844, his presidential campaign, he advocates for the emancipation of all slaves in this country and to grant them all civil rights.
As far as the policies the church had regarding blacks during Joseph Smith’s tenure as church president, as far as we can tell, there was no policy regarding blacks. You’ve got, first of all, examples of people like Elijah Abel and Q. Walker Lewis, who were ordained to the priesthood. You have open statements where they’re going to include people regardless of race in temple worship, and it doesn’t seem like during Joseph Smith’s tenure as president of the church, there was any policy that excluded or limited black participation in any way in the church. And there’s no shred of any historical evidence of that happening.
So that leads us to our next major question. How do we go from where Joseph Smith is to a priesthood and temple ban by the 1850s that remains around until the 1970s against blacks in Mormonism? What’s the change that happens there?
If Joseph never instituted any sort of priesthood or temple ban, how did that ban get put in place? Join us next time as we explore that question. Thank you for listening to this episode of Church History Matters. In our next episode we continue this series by exploring what we can learn from the historical record about the origins of the priesthood and temple ban on church members with black African ancestry. While we know it began under the presidency of Brigham Young and was first publicly articulated by him in 1852, there are a lot of complexities going on in the background that we’ll need to carefully consider. Today’s episode was produced by Scott Woodward and edited by Nick Galieti and Scott Woodward with show notes and transcript by Gabe Davis. Church History Matters is a podcast of Scripture Central, a nonprofit which exists to help build enduring faith in Jesus Christ by making Latter-day Saint scripture and church history accessible, comprehensible, and defensible to people everywhere. For more resources to enhance your gospel study, go to scripturecentral.org, where everything is available for free because of the generous donations of people like you. Thank you so much for being a part of this with us.
By Dr. Scott Woodward, Source Expert
Dr. Scott Woodward has dedicated his professional career to educating within the Church Education System for almost twenty years. Currently, he serves as an esteemed faculty member in the BYU Idaho Religion department. He also holds the role of a managing director and content producer at Doctrine and Covenants Central, an affiliate of Book of Mormon Central. He shares his knowledge his Youtube channel titled “D&C Stories with Scott Woodward“. Dr. Woodward earned his PhD in Instructional Psychology and Technology from Brigham Young University.
Fact Checked by Mr. Kevin Prince, Source Expert
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