“Elijah Able,” Church History Topics
Elijah Able (sometimes spelled Abel or Ables) was an early African-American member of the Church and the best-known of the few black men who were ordained to the priesthood during Joseph Smith’s lifetime.
Little is known about Able’s early life. He was born in Maryland sometime between 1808 and 1812 to Andrew and Delilah William Able. Able had one black great-grandparent, apparently on his father’s side.1
Able grew to adulthood in a racially divided United States. Southern states permitted the enslavement of people with black African ancestry; northern states made slavery illegal, though white northerners typically treated blacks as social inferiors, and interracial marriage was often criminalized. Yet the restored gospel was intended for all, “black and white, bond and free” (2 Nephi 26:33), and in September 1832, a white Church member named Ezekiel Roberts baptized Able in Ohio, a northern state where blacks and whites interacted somewhat more freely.
After Able moved to Church headquarters in Kirtland, the basic details of his history appear much like those of other adult male members. In 1836, he was ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood by Ambrose Palmer, washed and anointed in the Kirtland Temple, received his patriarchal blessing under the hands of Joseph Smith Sr., and was ordained a Seventy by Zebedee Coltrin. In 1838, Able embarked on a mission to New York and Canada. Afterwards, he joined the main body of the Saints in Nauvoo, Illinois.
In 1842, Able moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he worked as a carpenter and was active in the local branch of the Church. In 1847, he married Mary Ann Adams, who was also of mixed race.2 Together the couple had four children.3 In 1853, the Able family migrated to Utah. During the next three decades, Able was active in his Salt Lake City ward, worked on the Salt Lake Temple, and served another mission to Ohio.
In 1852, a year before the Ables arrived in Utah, Brigham Young publicly announced a policy of withholding the priesthood from black males. Able retained his priesthood office and standing, but when he applied to President Young for permission to receive his temple endowment and be sealed to Mary Ann, the request was denied. In 1879, a second request from Able was denied by President John Taylor.4 Able remained faithful until his passing on December 25, 1884.
In the early twentieth century, Able’s status as a black priesthood holder was largely forgotten. Mormon historians later rediscovered the story of Able’s ordination, his faith in the restored gospel, and his service as an early missionary.