’ A ccording to Mormon belief,” histoXA.rian Rodman Paul wrote in “The Mormons: From Persecution to Power” (June, 1977), the skin color of black people “means that they bear a lifelong curse as the descendants of one of the sons of Adam and Eve, Cain, who in a fit of jealousy slew his brother Abel. For this bloody deed, Cain and his descendants were cursed with black skins—the ‘mark of Cain.’ Someday, Mormon theory runs, the curse will be lifted, but until that time participation in the priesthood is forbidden to blacks. … For modern Mormon liberals, the church’s flat prohibition—and the blunt implication of racial inferiority—has become a heavy cross.”
One year later, on June 11,1978, that cross suddenly was lifted: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints rescinded its ban on the ordination of black priests and welcomed Joseph Freeman, Jr., of Salt Lake City into the Mormon priesthood. Most accounts of this action, therefore, celebrated Freeman as the first black Mormon priest, but Professor Newell G. Bringhurst of Indiana University writes to remind us that in the early years of the Church there were no restrictions on blacks and that a handful were in fact ordained.
According to Professor Bringhurst, the most famous Mormon black priesthood holder was Elijah Abel, who joined the Church at Kirtland, Ohio, in 1832, became an Elder in the Mormon priesthood in 1836, and by the end of that year was ordained to the higher priesthood office of “Seventy.” As a Mormon “minister of the Gospel,” Abel served as a Church missionary in upstate New York and Canada in the latter 1830’s.
His priesthood did not run smoothly for very long, Bringhurst continues. In St. Lawrence County, New York, Abel once was accused of murdering a woman and her five children. He successfully refuted the charge, but later in Canada he fell to bickering with fellow missionaries on points of Church doctrine. In 1842 he moved to Cincinnati, where high Church officials decreed that he confine his preaching activities “to the coloured population.” Finally, in 1849, the Church issued its universal ban on the ordination of blacks to the priesthood, and prohibited Abel and other black priests from participating in certain temple ordinances open to other priesthood holders and considered necessary for Mormon salvation.
That did not stop Abel. In 1853 he emigrated to Utah, continued to practice what was left of his priesthood, contributed money and his own labor to the construction of Salt Lake City’s massive temple, and died in 1884 “in full faith in the Gospel.”