I recently purchased Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons. It is an outstanding documentary produced by Margaret Young, BYU faculty member, and Darius Gray, one of the original members of The Genesis Group. Under President Joseph Fielding Smith, this group was supervised in 1971 by junior apostles Gordon B Hinckley, Thomas S Monson, and Boyd K Packer to try to fellowship black LDS church members.
Since I had already seen the movie at the LDS Film Festival, I was really looking forward to the special features on the DVD, and I was not disappointed. Connell O’Donovan, an independent genealogist and Mormon Historian outlines 7 early black church members who held the priesthood prior to 1847–one of them was even a Branch President! I’d like to give a brief outline of some of these early black Mormon pioneers.
I also want to correct some errors from a previous post about the Priesthood ban. In the post, William McCary and Black Pete were said to be the same person. This is inaccurate, and I plan to make a revision to that post to correct the erroneous information.
* Black Pete According to historian Mark Staker, Black Pete was an ex slave living in Kirtland 1830 or 31. Journal accounts say that he was baptizing people in Kirtland during this time period.
* Joseph T Ball was baptized in the summer of 1832 by either Brigham Young or his brother Joseph Young who served a mission to Boston. Ball later went on mission with Wilford Woodruff, in New England, New Jersey. In 1837, Wilford Woodruff records in his journal that Ball was an Elder. Ball is the son of man of Jamaica who came in 1790 (JT Ball Sr) founded society to help colored widows in need. His mom was white. Joseph born in Cambridge. All of his sisters became feminists and abolitionists. The LDS branch Ball was part of contained mostly women converts. He was named Branch President (similar to a Bishop in a larger LDS congregation) in 1844, and is the first black man to preside over Mormon congregation. He performed baptisms for his ancestors. He received patriarchal blessing from William Smith in Nauvoo. He died of tuberculosis in 1856.
Thanks to Connell who corrected me below, I have some new information. Ball was the Boston Branch president from October 1844 to March 1845 – the largest LDS congregation outside of the Nauvoo area. He was ordained a High Priest by William Smith (the first African American HP) and was sent to Nauvoo by Parley P. Pratt in the spring of 1845 to work on the temple and then receive his endowments. Ball did go and work on the temple, but then he and William Smith apostatized around August 1845 and Ball never was endowed because the temple didn’t open until December 1845.<
* Elijah Abel – became the third known black convert to the LDS church, being baptized in 1832. He received the priesthood in 1836, and served 3 missions to Ohio, NY, and Canada. He helped build the Kirtland, Nauvoo, and Salt Lake Temples, received his washing and anointing in the Kirtland Temple, but was denied the endowment by Brigham Young in 1853. He left Nauvoo before the endowment was received to serve a mission. Margaret Young speculates that Elijah would have received the endowment if he was in Nauvoo while Smith was alive. His obituary in the Deseret News shows that he held the office of Seventy in the Melchizedek Priesthood.
* Isaac Van Meter – Wilford Woodruff’s journal says Van Meter “used to be a Mormon elder.” He was probably baptized by Ball or Woodruff in Maine around 1837. Apparently, Van Meter left the LDS church.
* Walker Lewis – joined the LDS church in the summer of 1843. He was probably baptized by Parley P Pratt in the fall of 1843. He was ordained and Elder by William Smith, Joseph’s younger brother. Lewis has a very interesting history. He was the son of slaves, and sued for his own freedom. His case is cited as the case which liberated slaves in 1783 in Massachusetts. Winning the court case resulted is his family being able to purchase property. He voted, was educated, and became upper class of black Massachusetts society. In 1820 he became a barber. In 1826 he helped found Massachusetts General Colored Association which was the first civil rights abolitionist group in the world. In 1823, he because a freemason, and master mason. In 1829 he signed the form declaring independence from the mother lodge in London, making his lodge Black Lodge #1.
He was well acquainted with 6 of the 12 apostles who had served missions in Massachusetts, including Wilford Woodruff, Brigham Young, Orson Hyde, Orson Pratt , Parley Pratt, and William Smith. Woodruff wrote in his journal that “He was an example for his more whiter brethren to follow.” Lowell Branch where he lived was saved because of his service. It is known that he traveled to Salt Lake City in Oct 1851.
* Enoch Lovejoy Lewis was his son and ordained an elder as well. Enoch Lewis’ 1846 marriage to a white LDS woman, Mary Matilda Webster in Boston, and their having a mixed-race child in 1847, was a contributing factor to the Priesthood ban. See Connell’s comments below.
* Warner McCary was ordained an Elder by Apostle Orson Hyde in October 1846. He was known as the “black prophet.” William was later excommunicated in 1847 for seducing a number of Mormon, white women into unauthorized polygamy.
Warner “William” McCary was NOT half-Native American, although he claimed to be Choctaw. His mother was an African American slave and his father was her white master, a carpenter born in Pennsylvania. McCary made up his Native American heritage and traveled around the country putting on shows as an “Indian”, claiming to be the lost son of Moshullah Tubbee, a great Choctaw chief. It was a scam to make money.
The catalyst for the priesthood and temple ban was a culmination of McCary’s marriage in 1846 to the daughter of Nauvoo stake president, Daniel Stanton, and then his sexual “sealings” to several other LDS women at Winter Quarters and other LDS camps in 1847.
Here is a list of other notable exceptions to the Priesthood ban.
* Enoch Abel, Elijah’s son received the priesthood, and is ordained an elder on Nov 27, 1900.
* Elijah Abel, Enoch Abel’s son, received the priesthood, and is ordained a priest in 1934. In 1935, he is ordained an Elder.
* I understand that Greg Prince’s biography on David O McKay lists some other exceptions to the priesthood ban. Darius Gray says that there have always been black priesthood holders in the church since the founding of the church.
Other notable early black saints include the following people.
* Jane Manning James joined the church in Buffalo, NY in the 1830’s, and then walked the entire distance from there to Nauvoo. She received poor reception by Nauvoo saints (“with much rebuff”), but Joseph Smith was very welcoming and hospitable. He offered to adopt her as a child into the Smith household. She declined because she didn’t understand the implications. Margaret Young speculates that if she had accepted, it is likely that she would have received temple ordinances as part of the Smith family. Brigham Young and other church leaders declined to let her receive temple ordinances, but she was sealed posthumously to Joseph as a servant. Her temple work was completed shortly after the revelation in 1978.
* Green Flake was a slave, and was baptized in 1844 in the Mississippi River by John Brown. (James Madison Flake was owner Green’s owner, and was given Green as a wedding present by James’ father. Green was age 10 at the time.) Brigham Young released Green from slavery in 1854. Green was the person to whom Brigham was speaking when Brigham said his famous quote, “This is the Place”. The actual quote was, “This is the right place. Move on.”
* Slaves Oscar Crosby and Hark Lay were in this wagon party as well.
* Samuel Chambers was born a slave who joined the LDS church in Mississippi. Freed after the Civil War, his wife and family traveled to Utah County in 1870, and he was an active member.
* Lynn Hope – from Magnolia, Alabama. Born in 1890’s. He investigated the LDS church prior to his service in World War 1. During the war, he served in France. He took Book of Mormon to France, read it, and got baptized upon his return. An armed KKK gang threatened him, because they did not want him to join “a white church.” He bore testimony to this KKK gang, and was an active church member.
* Biddy Smith Mason – was a slave born in Georgia. Her master, Robert Smith, converted to the LDS church, and moved to Utah, and then California. Since California was a free state, she sued and was granted her freedom before Smith could transfer her to the slave state of Texas. She went on to become a nurse and midwife in Los Angeles and was able to purchase land. She went on to become a founding member of First African Methodist Episcopal Church, which is Los Angeles’ first and oldest black church.
I find these stories interesting, and feel it is a shame that most Mormons have never heard of these wonderful pioneers. While the church has a bad reputation for the priesthood ban, would it be a good idea to highlight some of these early black pioneers?