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Early Black Mormons

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

Elijah Abel

* 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.

* William 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?

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25 comments on “Early Black Mormons

  1. This was really interested, MH. My African American sister-in-law just sent me a link to that DVD a couple of days ago. I’d like to see it.

    Wouldn’t it be nice to see an official Church-sponsored DVD of the history of black Mormons? And if we did, do you think the story would match what these researchers have compiled?

    Interesting theory about McCary’s seducing white Mormon women being the catalyst to the priesthood ban. Was there any evidence presented for this theory or was it just an idea that was sort of thrown in?

  2. The only scary thing about the priesthood ban is that some people will realize that the church CAN be wrong. There is this sense among many members that the ban HAD to be inspired. I don’t think it HAD to be inspired, I think it is possible that the church can still be the true church but make mistakes. I don’t think my testimony, which is prayerfully based on the story of Joseph Smith’s first vision hinges on whether every prophecy from every prophet was prophetic or not.

    Unfortunately, sometimes we view the church as “God’s truth” and not “God’s truth as interpreted by fallible humans.” Again, I reiterate that I’ll follow prophetic counsel once I’ve prayed about it and feel good about it, but I’ve never thought the priesthood ban made sense. Plain and simple: There is no basis for it.

    You’re awesome for posting this, I love reading about this stuff, and I don’t want to take the time to go find it all myself! 🙂

  3. Joseph Smith ordained Elijah Abel to the priesthood in 1836 according to at least one documented source. I don’t know who ordained his sons.

    Thanks for this blogpost. I’ll forward it to Connell.

    We’ll be showing the doc at the San Jose Sunstone. Otherwise, it’s not all that expensive. You can purchase it ($20.00 + $5.00 shipping) from our website: http://www.untoldstoryofblackmormons.com

  4. I’m glad you enjoyed my interview portion of the DVD. I haven’t seen it yet but will be getting a copy at the end of the month.

    I did want to point out several erroneous statements made here. First of all, I said in the interview that the seven men I listed “MAY” have held the priesthood. To clarify, Abel, Walker Lewis, Warner “William” McCary, and Ball certainly did. Black Pete and Enoch Lewis, I am 90% certain they did. Van Meter is about 50%.

    I am also concerned that you have included images, yet none of these are actually portrayals of the named men, although the photo of Abel is a strong probability.

    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. Patrick Polk of UCLA is coming out with an amazing biography of McCary, so look for that.

    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, PLUS Enoch Lewis’s 1846 marriage to white LDS woman, Mary Matilda Webster in Boston, and their having a mixed-race child in 1847. Brigham Young threatened to have the Lewis family killed in December 1847 for breaking the “law of God”. At that point, Young formulated the ban.

    Connell

  5. Narrator,

    I don’t have any other details on the priesthood ordinations for Elijah’s son or grandson. I’m hoping Margaret Young stops by and might be able to give some clarification.

    FD,

    Knowing how you feel about race, I really think this is a “must have” for you. I hope shipping is not prohibitive for you. I will tell you that some of the audio and video is “amateurish”, but the message is something for all to see.

    The DVD doesn’t go into as great of detail as I did on my previous post–it deals more with prejudice in and outside the church. It interviews current black members, inter-racial couples, and deals with current experiences of discrimination.

    I will add there is a special feature about Eldred Cleaver, former Black Panther. There is a post over at Mormon Matters about him, though it doesn’t reference the DVD.

    I view Margaret Young, Darius Gray, Darron Smith, Newel Bringhurst, Connel O’Donovan, Armand Mauss, and Greg Prince as the foremost experts on the priesthood ban. If the church did produce a DVD, I expect these people would be consulted. Margaret is a BYU faculty member, and I think the church may not formally endorse her work, but I believe that informally they do.

    Randall,

    The DVD fully supports your idea that we get “God’s truth as interpreted by fallible humans.” I agree with your sentiments completely.

    Connell,

    Thank you for stopping by and correcting some things. I strive for accuracy, and appreciate your input. I was not aware of Enoch Lewis’ marriage to a white woman. I’ll update my post to fix those inaccuracies. I look forward to this upcoming book about William McCary, that sounds interesting. Do you have any more info about the book, like author, publisher, and approximate publication date?

    As for the photos, are you saying that Joseph T Ball and William McCary are inaccurate, or is it possible that the images could be accurate, and are just unable to be authenticated?

  6. Thanks for this post, MH – and it’s wonderful to see the additional information from Margaret and Connell.

    Fwiw, I think one of the problems we have understanding and dealing with the ban is that we live in a world that tends to want black-and-white, “extreme” answers. Either something is totally “wrong” or totally “right”. I see the ban as fundamentally not what God wanted in His heart (so “wrong” in that moral sense), but I also see it as fundamentally unavoidable and inevitable (so not “wrong” in that practical sense).

    I don’t believe in judging people by a standard they simply can’t meet, so, while I am saddened deeply by the ban, I don’t condemn the early members and leaders for it. Unfortunately, it is what it was – and I believe our challenge is to openly and frankly repudiate the former justifications and work to eradicate them, so they disappear from our congregations forever. It is our responsibility to lovingly but forcefully respond if we hear such statements now.

  7. Those are absolutely not images of McCary or Ball. Darrick Evenson just pulled them from various sites regardless of whom they truly depicted. There is only one known depiction of McCary, in Indian “drag”, but it’s so tiny nondescript that it’s pretty useless.

    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.

    Newell G. Bringhurst is planning a new book on Black Mormons, which is slated to have Patrick Polk’s FASCINATING biography of McCary, as well as my biographies of Joseph Ball and Thomas Coleman (a Black Mormon whom I believe was brutally, ceremonially murdered – i.e. “blood atoned” – in 1866 by Salt Lake LDS police chief Andrew Burt and two or three of his underlings in the police department). I do not know when it will be forthcoming, although my two papers are finished and ready for publication.

    As a Gay ex-Mormon and non-believer, I seriously doubt if the LDS Church would ever consult me about the priesthood/temple ban. Which is too bad…I have a lot to contribute to the dialogue on this important issue.

    Connell

  8. Connell,

    Thank you so much for this information–I really appreciate it. I’ve updated some of the information above, and highlighted your contributions in purple (since I know some people skip the comments.) I’m sure you’re probably right that you won’t be consulted by the LDS church, but I think you bring some extremely valuable information here, and greatly welcome any other information you have.

    I removed the photos above that were dubious, and thank you for your work. I’d love to see those papers you’ve written, and would love to do a future post on them, if it’s ok with you. This is a major interest of mine, and I would gladly respect any confidentiality you may need, such as not to do any post until they have been officially published. My email address is mormon heretic at gmail dot com.

  9. Thanks for posting this!

    I knew that Elijah Abel’s son and grandson were both given the priesthood. Do you know who gave them the priesthood and how it was authorized?

  10. Here’s an interesting link to a timeline Clay Whipkey has started. He has some interesting details.

    http://www.xtimeline.com/timeline/Chronology-Pertaining-to-Blacks-and-the-LDS-Priesthood

  11. Warner McCary, was not born in PA, he was born in Natchez, MS, to a slave woman named Franky, and owned by James McCary. Franky and two of her children were freed by James McCary. Kitty and Robert were the children of McCary. Warner was not freed in the will, and designated as a slave for life to serve his brother and sister. Warner was deemed too dark, so McCary did not claim him. It is not known who his father was, but his appearance was that of a mixed-race African-American. He ran away from Natchez, when he was old enough, and created several identities, clearly he got away with many of them.

  12. Lynn,

    That’s very interesting information. So you’re saying Warner and William are the same person? Do you have a reference to support this information?

  13. “She received poor reception by Nauvoo saints (“with much rebuff”), but Joseph Smith was very welcoming and hospitable”

    Where can I learn more about this? I’m very familiar with early black Mormon history (or at least I thought I was, lol) This is the first I’ve heard that Jane received a poor welcome in Nauvoo. Do you have any sources to recommend? Thank you.

  14. I did another post on the Priesthood Ban previous to this which quotes several historians. John Dehlin’s interview with Margaret Young was where I got the “with much rebuff” quote. If you want to listen to the actual interview with Margaret Young and Darius Gray, you can listen to it here. I’m guessing the “rebuff” quote is about 1/4 of the way into the over 1 hour interview.

    Margaret and Darius teamed up to write a series of historical fiction novels called “Standing on the Promises.” I haven’t read them, but I’m sure they’re good. The DVD I mentioned in this post is fantastic; as I said most of the info in this post is found in the Special Features of the DVD. It’s well worth the money. Margaret Young used to write at By Common Consent, but I don’t believe she is actively writing there any more.

  15. Thanks for the very interesting article, and do appreciate reading it very much. I am keenly aware of the “Early History of Blacks in the Church,” and have been since I first stepped my foot on the campus of Brigham Young University in 1981 as a student. I am an African-American, and have been a member since September 17, 1977. I have to say that my interests had never died down, because I am continuing to learn more about the good history of African-Americans in the Church during the the 19th Century. However, one must not ignore the fact that there are some unpleasant aspects that should be noted by all, regardless of its ugliness of racism and bigotry of the past. They will have to be dealt with thoughtfully, and rationally as well. I have not had a chance to view the DVD, however, I am acquainted the subject, and have communicated with the producers on the phone and through my email messages, with my sincerest appreciation and support for their outstanding contribution in this splendid production. Finally, I would like to encourage each of you to try to help our young Saints, especially young African-American youth Converts in the Church, because the question of Race, will arouse their curiosities and concerns. So one must be prepared to answer their questions honestly, and try to have the facts on hand. We should not leave it to the Missionaries to answer their question, but a thoughtful and well inform member should be promptly approached after a period of time, when the new African-American member Convert is settled into the Church. In other words, we must allow the Jello to be harden well. I am sorry for rambling on, however, I thought that it is important that I express them at this point. I am continuing to learn more, and am excited when I receive new valuable informations on the “History of Early African-American Saints. I enjoy reading your article, and it has been a great treat, indeed. Thanks, and have a great day.

    Chester Lee Hawkins

  16. Chester, thanks for your kind comments. There is much we all can do to eliminate bigotry and racism. I hope I can be a part of the solution to eliminate this ugly problem.

  17. Terrific material. I have some fascinating stories about Elder Marion ‘Duff’ Hanks and his feelings toward Blacks (Negroes, back in our days) holding the priesthood. I have a question I hope you or some of your bloggers can answer: Was Joseph T. Ball married? And if he was married, what was his wife’s name? And if you don’t have the answer, do you happen to know any genealogical gurus who might have the answer(s)?
    Thank you… Keep up the good work.
    TM

  18. Thomas, thanks for stopping by. I’d love to hear more about Hanks. If you have anything to share, I’d love to see what you’ve got. You can email me at mormon heretic at gmail dot com.

    I’ve done a bit of research on Joseph T. Ball, and learned quite a bit since this post. Apparently he was quite good friends with Joseph’s brother, William Smith. I haven’t uncovered any information Ball was married. According to my research, William introduced polygamy into the branch Ball led, and encouraged Ball to participate. Both men left for Nauvoo in 1845 to work on the temple, and Ball was promised that he would get his endowments. However, Smith was excommunicated in Oct 1845 over polygamy. The records are not clear what happened to Ball, but he probably left Nauvoo with Smith at that time and both affiliated with the Strangite Church for a time. (Smith would get excommunicated from the Strangites as well, though Ball was still listed as a member in 1848.) Information about Ball is scant at this point.

  19. Where did all this information come from? Or how is it legitimized?

  20. This is great stuff! It’s apparent that church leaders make mistakes all the time; however, the principles of the gospel are true. This articles brings a lot of things to light for us to read, study, and think about.

  21. […] ban for black members of the church is a pet topic of mine.  I have previously discussed Early Black Mormons who held the priesthood, as well as a long 10,000 word article discussing events leading to the […]

  22. […] after the 1978 revelation:  Joseph Freeman.  (I’ve documented about 6 black men who were ordained in the 1830s and 1840s, as well as a few others who avoided the restriction despite the ban.)   The book was a nice, […]

  23. […] after the 1978 revelation:  Joseph Freeman.  (I’ve documented about 6 black men who were ordained in the 1830s and 1840s, as well as a few others who avoided the restriction despite the ban.)   The book was a nice, […]

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