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  1. I’m not sure it’s a foregone conclusion that the policy had no ties to Joseph Smith.

    Saturday, May 31st, 1879, at the house of President Abraham O. Smoot, Provo City, Utah, Utah County, at 5 O’clock p.m.
    President John Taylor, Elders Brigham Young Jr., Abraham O. Smoot, Zebedee Coltrin and L. John Nuttall met, and the subject of ordaining Negroes to the Priesthood was presented.

    Brother Coltrin: The Spring that we went up in Zion’s Camp in 1834, Brother Joseph sent Brother J. P. Green and me out to gather up means to assist in gathering out the Saints from Jackson County, Missouri. On our return home we got in conversation about the Negro having a right to the Priesthood, and I took up the side that he had no right. Brother Green argued that he had. The subject got so warm between us that he said he would report me to Brother Joseph when we got home for preaching false doctrine, which doctrine that I advocated was that the Negro could not hold the Priesthood. “all right” said I, “I hope you will.” And when we got to Kirtland, we both went to Brother Joseph’s office together to make our returns, and Brother Green was as good as his word and reported to Brother Joseph that I said that the Negro could not hold the Priesthood. Brother Joseph kind of dropped his head and rested it on his hand for a minute, and then said, “Brother Zebedee is right, for the Spirit of the Lord saith the Negro has no right nor cannot hold the Priesthood.” He made no reference to Scripture at all, but such was his decision. I don’t recollect ever having any conversation with him afterwards on this subject, but I have heard him say in public that no person having the least particle of Negro blood can hold the Priesthood. (Journal of L. John Nuttall 1:290-293)

    Abraham Smoot inquired of the Prophet Joseph Smith: “What should be done with the Negroes in the South as I was preaching to them? [Joseph] said I could baptize them by the consent of their masters, BUT NOT TO CONFER THE PRIESTHOOD UPON THEM. (L. John Nuttall Journal, May 31, 1879).”

    Monday, 26 Oct. 1970: Priesthood Answer. Editor, Tribune:

    What then is the reason for the continued racial exclusion?

    The answer is simple. The Prophet Joseph Smith was commanded by God to withdraw the priesthood from Elijah Able [sic], and revoke the ordination. There is no exception. The continued church’s policy over the years is an evident fact that Presidents Young, Taylor, Woodruff and Snow, as well as Heber C. Kimball, William Clayton, and other leaders of the time, all knew of this excluding doctrine and continued to abide by it. Although there is no official Church record as to the revocation, Elijah Able affirmed the fact to father, Thomas A. Shreeve, when both were living in the Salt Lake 10th Ward, during 1872-1877. At the time, Bro. Able told young Thomas, who baptized Able’s grandchildren that the Prophet Joseph “came to him with tears in his eyes one day, and told him [Able] that he had been commanded by the Lord to withdraw the holy priesthood from him.”

    Patriarch Shreeve, testified many times before his death in 1931, of the facts in the case, and of his close relationship with Brother Able. As of this date there are still living three members of the Shreeve family, who know of the facts to which their father testified Elijah Able told him. (Caleb A. Shreeve, Sr., The Salt Lake Tribune, “Forum,” 26 Oct. 1970)

    Zebedee Coltrin also maintained that Elijah had later been dropped from the quorum of Seventies. Abel did, however, receive a patriarchal blessing under the hands of Joseph Smith, Sr., in which it was said:
    “Thy soul be white in eternity, and receive all the power that thou needest to accomplish thy mission.”
    He was also promised that he would be “the welding link between the black and white races, and should hold the initiative authority by which his race should be redeemed.” (Council meeting, Aug. 26, 1908, G.A.Smith Papers)

    In 1924 Joseph F. Smith noted that: “The question arises from time to time in regard to the Negro race and the Priesthood …. It is true that the Negro race is barred from holding the Priesthood, and this has always been the case. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught this doctrine.” (Imp. Era 27:564)

    “President George Q. Cannon remarked that the Prophet taught this doctrine: That the seed of Cain could not receive the Priesthood nor act in any of the offices of the Priesthood until the seed of Abel should come forward and take precedence over Cain’s offspring.” (Way to Perfection, p. 110)

    In this connection President [Joseph F.] Smith referred to Elijah Abel, who was ordained a Seventy by Joseph Young, in the days of the Prophet Joseph, to whom Brother Young issued a Seventies certificate; but this ordination was declared null and void by the Prophet himself. Later Brother Abel appealed to President Young for the privilege of receiving his endowments and to have his wife and children sealed to him, a privilege President Young could not grant. Brother Abel renewed his application to President Taylor with the same result; and still the same appeal was made to President Woodruff afterwards who of course upheld the position taken by Presidents Young and Taylor…. (Council Minutes, August 26, 1908; Bennion (or G. A. Smith) papers.)

    In January of 1844, the Prophet Joseph, as mayor of Nauvoo, fined two Negroes “for attempting to marry white women.” (D.H.C. 6:210)

    “History and common observation show that these predictions have been fulfilled to the letter. The descendants of Ham, besides a black skin which has ever been a curse that has followed an apostate of the holy priesthood, as well as a black heart, have been servants to both Shem and Japheth, and the abolitionists are trying to make void the curse of God, but it will require more power than man possesses to counteract the decrees of eternal wisdom.” (1 Apr. 1845, “A Short Chapter on a Long Subject,” Times and Seasons, vol. 6, no. 6, edited by John Taylor [Nauvoo, Hancock County, Illinois: Published by John Taylor, 1 Apr. 1845], p. 857.)

    The other thing I can’t help but notice is that there seems to be little to no debate about when the policy was firmly instituted allegedly by BY. Think of how much debate there was about the origins of polygamy, or say the Adam-God doctrine. Apostles themselves even questioned BY on doctrine about whether Joseph taught it. Why didn’t anybody question BY’s drastic departure from Joseph’s policy? Maybe it wasn’t a departure? I only wish there had been more debate. As Brian Hales has noted, we have to thank our RLDS friends for questioning the origins of polygamy or we’d have much, much less evidence of the practice – debate led to more evidence. We still have a number of independent contemporaries that claimed Joseph instituted this policy, like Abraham Smoot, Zebedee Coltrin, and perhaps even Abel[s] himself if you believe the Thomas Shreeve account. Yet the only evidence people can point to is 1 or 2 EXCEPTIONS (one of who we know was only 1/8 black) to a policy, and ZERO persons claiming Joseph DIDN’T institute the policy (versus the several that say Joseph DID institute it). Only historians are saying that. I find all of this significant.

  2. Excellent questionns, iamse7en.

    Re: Zebedee Coltrin’s testimony-it’s the only testimony on record saying that Elijah was dropped from the quorum. Even Coltrin himself acknowledges that he resisted Joseph’s directive to administer Elijah’s washings and anointings, suggesting that Joseph knew of Elijah’s racial ancestry when he ordered the ordinance to be administered. We also have two priesthood certificates (from 1836 and 1841) attesting that he indeed held it, contrary to Coltrin’s comments (I have digital versions of both certificates). Further, Coltrin makes myriad factual errors in that testimony: Able[s] (or whatever your preferred spelling is) was not a member of the third council of the seventy but of the first. And we have myriad documents attesting to Elijah holding the priesthood in the years leading up to and following Joseph’s death (1843 and 1845 meeting minutes, for example.

    Additionally, it’s really untenable to say that Joseph somehow discovered that Elijah was black. In 1838, a non-Mormon witness who didn’t even know Elijah’s name recognized that Elijah as a “negro.” While Elijah obviously wasn’t terribly dark (take the picture on the cover for instance), he was dark enough that all could tell he had African ancestry. All your “independent” sources come at least 40 years after the fact. The Shreeve source comes nearly 150 years after the fact. Even among the priesthood ban defenders, they couldn’t agree. In the early 20th-century Patriarch Miner declared at the funeral of Eugene Burns (Elijah’s grandson) that Elijah *did* have the priesthood but held it only because of his faithfulness and service to the prophet. Surely, Miner concluded, Elijah was exceptional. So was he exceptional (as Miner said)? Or was he excluded (as Coltrin said)?

    I think there’s a debate to be had over the origins of the policy, if only because it was so unevenly applied. Take the 1852 law outlawing interracial sexuality. We have evidence of interracial unions during this time, so it clearly wasn’t enforced very well. Add to this that in 1861, a Parowan congregation *still* didn’t really know to what degree (or even whether) the priesthood ban should be applied. It was an unevenly-implemented policy from the outset. And Brigham never claimed authority from Joseph Smith.

    That Elijah held the priesthood his life is really no longer a subject for serious debate, given the body of evidence available. The question becomes why and how the Latter-day Saint people made the tragic shift in the years following Joseph’s death.

  3. LOVE IT! Great interview John. Kudos to you and your guest. The ‘trickle up’ arguments are very real. Much like the co-opting of the church by the John Birchers in the 1950s it really does show that democracy (at least of the dark-side) is very possible within the Church. Sadly, trickle-up progressiveness seem much more difficult, but this does give us some hope.

  4. During the interview, John twice refers to William Law, saying (paraphrasing) that such and such a person practiced William Law-like polygamy. Is there some new historical information supporting this characterization of William Law or was that a slip of the tongue.

  5. iamse7en

    You would have us believe that in 1834 it was revealed to Joseph, after being quizzed in a private meeting with a few people, that the blacks should not hold the priesthood.

    And yet, for the remaining 10 years of Joseph’s life he never made this clear to the entire church.

    He never produced a revelation or even made a public declaration to the church about this divine policy, to make sure that it was understood and followed?

    It just slipped his mind for a decade?

    Remarkably absurd.

    Even more unbelievable is the fact that God himself neglected to enforce the priesthood ban when declaring who was called to the work

    NOW behold, a marvelous work is about to come forth among the children of men.
    2 Therefore, O ye that embark in the service of God, see that ye serve him with all your heart, might, mind and strength, that ye may stand blameless before God at the last day.
    3 Therefore, if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work;
    4 For behold the field is white already to harvest; and lo, he that thrusteth in his sickle with his might, the same layeth up in store that he perisheth not, but bringeth salvation to his soul;
    5 And faith, hope, charity and love, with an eye single to the glory of God, qualify him for the work.
    6 Remember faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, charity, humility, diligence.
    7 Ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. Amen.

    I guess what God really meant to say was-

    if ye have desires to serve God [and are not black] ye are called to the work

  6. John,

    You referenced William Law multiple times being a shady character(for instance Part 2: 17:41). I believe you meant John C. Bennett. Just wanted to mention so people don’t get confused. Seems like William Law was a fairly decent character despite his issues with JSJ regarding Nauvoo Expositor.

  7. I thought it not incidental when you mentioned the movies at Temple Square during the first part of this interview. Although I appreciate the superb scholarship and learning marvelous new insights about the remarkable Abels, I would have hoped for a more critical eye towards Joseph’s and Brigham’s role in not progressing the case of doing what would have been right and just, and that especially the “million dollar question” could have been considered.

    From what I got from the interview was basically old wine in a new bottle taken straight from the apologetic playbook. When it came to both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young it seems Stevenson went to great lengths to show how both of these men behaved pragmatically, judiciously, and like the men of their day, as in other words, the old chestnut of “we weren’t better or worse than other churches and organizations of the time. It seems this approach says that the church was forced into social conformity for pragmatic longevity, for harmony among the ranks, and for governmental inclusion of statehood finally. Are we arguing that first and foremost that both Joseph and Brigham were mere leaders, organizers and administrators, not Prophets, seers and revelators?

    It also employs a particular nasty and annoying apologetic that perhaps Stevens wasn’t aware of, and that is casting the onus of denial of priesthood upon the collective Saints instead of the Prophetic mantle. It is we Saints who are not ready for blacks to have the priesthood, it is us that are sinful, depraved and unworthy for such a principle to be instituted among us. Isn’t this like the argument the church has always put upon those who have rejected the doctrine and left? It’s because of the sins and faults of the defector, not the organization one defects or apostatizes from?

    Closely related is the third apologetic stating that like line upon line, the saints weren’t ready at the time to accept black inclusion in the ranks but miraculously in 1978 they were. I mean, really is God Himself such a terrible God, teacher and succoror that he can’t lead his people into an important kind of righteousness on such profound moral questions as these? That an entire group has to suffer a demeaned and subclassed position so that the white and delightsome have time to develop? Because not only was the priesthood denied, but so were temple blessings for black families, including women and children. And all of this analyzed without the backdrop of the racist language in the Books of Mormon and Abraham.

    This book is a book about a particular man and a particular dynamic of his existence in 19th century America in a church that is famous for its 20th century racial exclusions. It was a great interview and again, I appreciate the scholarship. Thanks.

    1. Rude Dog:

      I appreciate your concerns and your comments.

      I would encourage you to look throughout the Mormon tradition for evidences of this. The idea of collective responsibility/sin is probably one of the least remarkable elements of it. The question really ought not to be: is this apologia? (which, whether you are aware of it or not, is an epithet that closes rather than furthers conversation). It ought to be whether this actually represents Mormon theology, discourse, and doctrine.

      You mention that I claim it’s the problem of the defector. Not at all; perhaps quite the opposite (though defectors such as William Smith said some pretty awful things as well).

      Whether it does in this context is something that I leave for you, the reader, to decide for yourself based on the evidence available. That Joseph Smith navigated political currents is something I discuss at some length. And that Brigham Young employed rather offensive racial rhetoric is clear as well–a point made clear in the interview.

      You mention both the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham. When it comes to African-Americans, the Book of Mormon makes only one comment–that the gospel is for “black and white, bond and free.” With the Book of Abraham, it is true that Saints utilized to justify the priesthood ban. However, any commentary on race in the scripture was implied, not inherent. It talks of Egypt, the Pharoah, and other figures–nowhere does it mention race. One can make a better argument that the Book of Moses says these things, but even then, it’s more complicated than it appears at first glance.

      Perhaps you’ve found that your Mormon communities are unified in goodness and that there are no prevailing sins. If so, I count you as fortunate. I cannot say that I share that experience.

      1. Mr. Stevenson,

        I have to take issue with the following from your answer to Rude Dog: “With the Book of Abraham, it is true that Saints utilized to justify the priesthood ban. However, any commentary on race in the scripture was implied, not inherent. It talks of Egypt, the Pharoah, and other figures–nowhere does it mention race.”

        Abraham 1:21-27 is without a doubt where the priesthood ban for Blacks originates. Verse 24 specifically uses the word “race”, but you say, speaking of the Book of Abraham, “…nowhere does it mention race.” Apparently you and I have very diverse comprehensions of the English language.

        While it is true the verses don’t mention “Black”, “African”, “Black African”, etc., it doesn’t mention any other races either. How many Asians were denied the priesthood in the LDS church based solely on their race? How many Europeans? American Indians? Hispanics? Eastern Indians, based solely on race? None that I know of.

        You may want to consider what John Taylor and Bruce R. McConkie (among other high-ranking general authorities) have said on the matter. They make it quite clear that the curse of Cain was carried forward through the flood of Noah’s time by Ham and Egyptus. McConkie twice references these verses from Abraham to make his case that Blacks carry the curse of Cain which disqualifies them for the priesthood. John Taylor doubles down on the whole notion and states that “…it was necessary that the devil should have a representation upon the earth as well as God…” (JoD, Vol. 22, page 304)

        Then there are the attempts to deflect the true nature of the issue when the LDS church recently re-wrote the heading for Official Declaration 2 and added this little gem, “Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice.” Church records may offer no clear insights, but their scriptures certainly do, “Now, Pharaoh being of that lineage by which he could not have the right of Priesthood, notwithstanding the Pharaohs would fain claim it from Noah, through Ham…” (Abr 1:27)

        Lineage disqualifies Blacks from the priesthood. Pharaoh understood the ban. So much so that he instituted a fake priesthood. A priesthood of his own making (“…to imitate that order…” (Abr 1:26)). If we are to believe that the god of mormonism establishes a lineage that is the representative of the devil and that lineage was to be disqualified for the priesthood, then how is it that Spencer W. Kimball was in a position to go against the god of mormonism and remove the ban?

        I sincerely wish the LDS church and the church’s defenders, could be honest about the origins of this racially errant doctrine and face the issue straight on rather than making boldly false statements about the Book of Abraham such as, “…nowhere does it mention race.”

  8. This podcast was absolutely fascinating! Thank you! Can’t wait to read the book. I Truly appreciate the scholarship and research of this great person elijah abels. Amazing! Thanks again.

  9. I am always surprised to hear the argument that the Church leadership was, essentially, just giving in to pressure from the bigoted saints (or God was) who were not ready for those black people to be on equal footing. I am surprised because somehow the leaders thought the saints were ready to be told that multiple wives and even polyandry were God’s higher laws (even with coerced teenage brides and even with wives of men on missions being married to others while they were gone serving). Apparently plural wives and polyandry were so important that God insisted on them despite the impact it would have on the Saints, but giving blacks the Priesthood was simply not important enough. Wow.

  10. Mr. Stevenson,

    I have to take issue with the following from your answer to Rude Dog: “With the Book of Abraham, it is true that Saints utilized to justify the priesthood ban. However, any commentary on race in the scripture was implied, not inherent. It talks of Egypt, the Pharoah, and other figures–nowhere does it mention race.”

    Abraham 1:21-27 is without a doubt where the priesthood ban for Blacks originates. Verse 24 specifically uses the word “race”, but you say, speaking of the Book of Abraham, “…nowhere does it mention race.” Apparently you and I have very diverse comprehensions of the English language.

    While it is true the verses don’t mention “Black”, “African”, “Black African”, etc., it doesn’t mention any other races either. How many Asians were denied the priesthood in the LDS church based solely on their race? How many Europeans? American Indians? Hispanics? Eastern Indians, based solely on race? None that I know of.

    You may want to consider what John Taylor and Bruce R. McConkie (among other high-ranking general authorities) have said on the matter. They make it quite clear that the curse of Cain was carried forward through the flood of Noah’s time by Ham and Egyptus. McConkie twice references these verses from Abraham to make his case that Blacks carry the curse of Cain which disqualifies them for the priesthood. John Taylor doubles down on the whole notion and states that “…it was necessary that the devil should have a representation upon the earth as well as God…” (JoD, Vol. 22, page 304)

    Then there are the attempts to deflect the true nature of the issue when the LDS church recently re-wrote the heading for Official Declaration 2 and added this little gem, “Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice.” Church records may offer no clear insights, but their scriptures certainly do, “Now, Pharaoh being of that lineage by which he could not have the right of Priesthood, notwithstanding the Pharaohs would fain claim it from Noah, through Ham…” (Abr 1:27)

    Lineage disqualifies Blacks from the priesthood. Pharaoh understood the ban. So much so that he instituted a fake priesthood. A priesthood of his own making (“…to imitate that order…” (Abr 1:26)). If we are to believe that the god of mormonism establishes a lineage that is the representative of the devil and that lineage was to be disqualified for the priesthood, then how is it that Spencer W. Kimball was in a position to go against the god of mormonism and remove the ban?

    I sincerely wish the LDS church and the church’s defenders, could be honest about the origins of this racially errant doctrine and face the issue straight on rather than making boldly false statements about the Book of Abraham such as, “…nowhere does it mention race.”

    1. They Call Me Israel:

      As you admit, “it is true the verses don’t mention “Black”, “African”, “Black African”, etc., it doesn’t mention any other races either.” That church leaders from John Taylor onward have applied the text in that way is beyond dispute.

      So at the core of your comments regarding the Book of Abraham, there’s not much I can disagree with you on.

  11. May I share with you a simple back row trick often used in the 1960’s when this topic came up for discussion? I used to know it by chapter and verse but that is not crucial since I am not trying to actually convince anyone.

    1. The Egyptian pharaohs were black, of the lineage of Ham, at least partially.
    2. Joseph who was sold into Egypt married an Egyptian woman. His sons, Ephraim and Manassah, would be partakers in the curse of Cain through their mother’s lineage and thus not eligible for the Priesthood. (Only the Levites held it then).
    3. Joseph Smith claimed that he was a direct descendent of Ephraim. Therefore he would not be eligible to hold the Priesthood under the not-one-drop-of-blood standard which was later replaced by the white-for-4 generations standard. His ordination under the hands of Peter, James and John needs to be revoked on the same grounds as the case of Elijah Able.
    4. Anyone in this room who does not trace their Priesthood line of authority back eventually through Joseph Smith?

    Conclusion: All of us deserve to have our Priesthood revoked.

    The whole ban buckles in many directions under close examination. Only the most theological gymnastic and extreme literalists and zealots ever bought into a serious justification of the ban beyond the common ignorant emotional reaction that black folk was poor and considered uncouth.

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