Black in Mormonism: How the Priesthood-Temple Ban Became Fully Entrenched Policy in the Church (Part 3)

Todd Noall

Todd Noall

Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Kevin Prince

Here’s the interesting aftermath of John Taylor interviewing Zebedee Coltrin. So five days later—remember how Joseph F. Smith had been tasked with investigating the legitimacy of Elijah Able’s priesthood ordination at the same time?

In a meeting held five days after President Taylor interviewed Smoot and Coltrin, he met with the Twelve to discuss this issue of Blacks in Mormonism and to relay what he had learned. And according to the minutes of the meeting, I’m just going to quote directly from the minutes here because this is good. This is as close as you get to the moment, it says this: “Brother Joseph F. Smith said he thought Brother Coltrin’s memory was incorrect as to Brother Able being dropped from the Quorum of Seventies to which he belonged, as Brother Able has in his possession his certificate as a Seventy given to him in 1841 and signed by Elder Joseph Young and A. P. Rockwood and a still later certificate given in this city.” Salt Lake. “Brother Able’s account of the persons who washed and anointed him in the Kirtland Temple also disagreed with the statement of Brother Coltrin.” I’m still quoting, “Whilst he stated that Brother Coltrin ordained him a Seventy, but Brother Able also states that the prophet Joseph told him that he was entitled to the priesthood.” So, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, which evidence should we weigh more heavily here? On the one hand you have Zebedee Coltrin’s over a 40-plus-year-old memory recollecting that Elijah Able was dropped from the Quorum of the Seventy after Joseph learned about his lineage.

And on the other hand, we have Elijah Able personally showing Joseph F. Smith his original Seventy certificate from 1841, and then even a more recently documented one given him in Salt Lake City, which totally contradicts Zebedee Coltrin’s story. And then we also have Zebedee’s 40-plus-year-old memory that Joseph Smith said that blacks have no right to the priesthood. And yet we also now have Elijah Able himself saying, “Joseph told me that I’m entitled to the priesthood.” And then he actually has documentation in his patriarchal blessing from that time, where Joseph Smith, Sr. laid hands on his head, and it says this: “Thou hast been ordained an elder. I mean—Joseph F. Smith’s right here, right?

All the historical documented evidence that we have contradicts Zebedee Coltrin’s memory on this one. And so it’s unfortunate that Zebedee Coltrin’s memory is going to play a role in having some weight in the causing people to believe that Joseph Smith starts this priesthood ban.

Now, the whole reason we’re dwelling on this 1879 episode here is because it’s the next key moment in our history leading toward the hardening in place of the restriction Brigham Young first articulated back in 1852. President Taylor’s decision here will have consequences.

So let’s review all the factors he’s weighing together and against each other as he decides on this case of Elijah Able’s request for temple ordinances within the Mormon priesthood ban.

So first are the testimonies that President Taylor personally heard as he interviewed Zebedee Coltrin and Abraham Smoot in Provo about what they recall Joseph Smith saying some 40 years earlier about black ordinations generally and Coltrin’s claim about Elijah Able specifically, where he remembered Joseph dropping him from the Seventies Quorum when he learned of his African ancestry.

In contrast, President Taylor had just heard Apostle Joseph F. Smith testify after his own personal and careful investigation that Elijah Able’s, priesthood ordination and membership in the Seventies Quorum was never questioned by Joseph Smith or any of his file leaders. Ever. Joseph F. Smith was fully convinced by all measures that Elijah’s priesthood ordination was sanctioned and legitimate.

In fact, he’s so convinced after talking with Elijah and reviewing his priesthood certificates personally that he rather bluntly stated that Zebedee Coltrin’s memory about Joseph Smith dropping Elijah from his priesthood quorum is faulty and incorrect. And then the other factor sort of swirling opaquely in the background is, of course, Brigham Young’s teachings on race over the past 25 years, right?

Now, exactly to what extent President Taylor was influenced by Brigham Young’s precedent of priesthood exclusion and discriminatory theology that fueled it is unclear. But it’s difficult to imagine that his immediate predecessor didn’t have a significant influence on him, right?

So those are the factors. Now, what does President Taylor conclude after considering all the evidence in Elijah Able’s case? Well, the minor positive outcome was that President Taylor allowed Elijah Able’s priesthood ordination to stand. I guess that’s the consolation prize here.

But the immediate negative outcome was that Elijah’s request for temple ordinances was denied. The exact reasoning behind this decision is recorded in the minutes of this meeting, which I will now quote from, it says that “President Taylor wondered if Able’s priesthood ordination was not, ‘probably like many other things done in the early days of the church that were done without proper knowledge,’ but ‘as the Lord gave further light and revelation, things were done with greater order.’ So you see President Taylor mulling this over and trying to find a justification for Joseph Smith allowing Elijah’s ordination over and against Brigham Young’s teachings of the last quarter century, right?

Maybe it was a rookie mistake on Joseph’s part, done “in the early days of the church,” before the Lord had given further light and before things were done with “greater order,” right? And notice that in John Taylor’s mind, he seems to think the greater order was the racial restriction for black Mormons.

So the meeting minutes state that he concluded that Elijah’s ordination, which “had been done through lack of knowledge that was not altogether correct in detail,” would be allowed to remain because it had been done “before the word of the Lord was fully understood.” So there you go. Elijah could retain his ordination, but there would be no temple ordinances because they wouldn’t want to repeat the same error Joseph Smith made through lack of knowledge, as they saw it, now, would they? Man. Isn’t this just an interesting and unfortunate line of reasoning? I say that because President Taylor’s conclusion could have easily gone the opposite way, given the same evidence, couldn’t it have?

Like, he could have concluded from Elijah Able’s situation that the “greater order” was the original order of black inclusion Joseph Smith had set in place and that the aberration from that greater order was what Brigham Young had begun in 1852. President Taylor could have concluded, in other words, what Elder McConkie concluded shortly after the 1978 revelation, when he said that Brigham Young was actually operating, “with a limited understanding” and under less light in restricting black participation in the church, rather than more understanding and more light.

Unfortunately that was not his conclusion, and with the precedent of the last 25 years of Brigham Young’s teachings on the issue looming in the background, we can perhaps see why it didn’t go that way.

So mark down President John Taylor’s conclusions at this 1879 meeting as the next step toward a hardening in place of the priesthood and temple restriction because he took Elijah Able’s priesthood ordination not as evidence of the greater order of full Black African inclusion established in Joseph Smith’s day, but as an exceptional mistake committed in the early days of the church before the word of the Lord was fully understood on this matter. Unfortunate indeed.

It’s easy from our perspective to say they were wrong. From their perspective, they’re putting together this story and trying to do what’s right, and they probably went in the wrong direction, but again, there’s no Ill intent here. It’s not a gut reaction, either, to basically say, “Well, he’s black. He can’t hold the priesthood.” They perform an investigation, which again indicates no policy and also indicates them sincerely trying to get to the bottom of things and come up with the most equitable solution they can. We might not like the outcome, but we can respect the method.

And I think that investigation also shows that this wasn’t very common. There’s not very many black men in the church at the time, A, and there’s especially not very many black men in the church asking for temple ordinances. This is so rare. 

Elijah Ables is this anomaly, right, this ordained black mormons who now wants temple ordinances. This is not, like, a frequent issue that they have to keep turning down people, right? This is, like, almost a one-off where he doesn’t know what to do. And so, yeah, we’ve got to understand the culture of that time and the population of the church at the time, and the mix of black and whites in Utah at the time, and there’s several layers of factors here that just need to be considered.

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By Todd Noall, Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Mr. Kevin Prince, Source Expert

Kevin Prince is a religious scholar and host of the Gospel Learning Youtube channel. His channel has garnered over 41,000 subscribers and accumulated over 4.5 million views. Mr. Prince also created the Gospel Learning App, a reliable platform where individuals seeking truth can access trustworthy answers to religious questions from top educators worldwide.

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