Since today is MLK day, I thought it might be nice to talk about the first Black Mormon leader. In his book on The Historical Setting of Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations, Mark Staker spends a surprising amount of time discussing the first Black Mormon Convert–a former slave known as Black Pete, and notes that he was an early leader in Kirtland.
Black Pete, as he was known, was born in 1775 in western Pennsylvania. (Staker speculates that his last name may have been Carroll, but it is unclear.) Pete’s owner John Kerr stipulated that Pete would be freed 10 years after Kerr’s death, so Pete was freed at the age of 29. Pete continued to work for the Kerrs, as well as the Carrel family. The two families later moved to Ohio (near Kirtland), and Pete moved with them. About 1820, Black Pete associated with Sidney Rigdon and the Reformed Baptist movement.
It is believed that Black Pete’s mother Kino came from the Slave Coast of Africa, which includes the modern day countries of Guinea, Mali, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Liberia, The Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau. Staker says she was probably a Muslim, and probably was brought to America in the 1750s-1760s time frame. Pete was immersed in many of these ecstatic religious experiences of the time.
Slaves in America developed their own kind of religious worship by combining elements of Muslim worship, Christianity, and Native American influences. Slaves often practiced ecstatic religious expressions such as speaking in tongues and dancing, and other expressions, sometimes known as the “slave shout.” Many of these practices became part of the Second Great Awakening in America and were adopted by white communities as well, including Methodist and later Mormon religious services.
In late October 1830, Joseph Smith received a revelation that Oliver Cowdery, Peter Whitmer, Parley Pratt, and Ziba Peterson were to go on a mission. They met Sidney Rigdon in Mentor, Ohio; Rigdon initially was quite unreceptive to the missionaries message. The missionaries continued on to Kirtland, and found that they were much more successful there. One of the first converts in Kirtland was the Morley family, and this led to many other baptisms in Kirtland. Rigdon came to the Morley farm to perform a wedding on November 4, and was a bit more receptive to the missionaries. On November 8, Sidney and his wife Phoebe were baptized, and Sidney abandoned his role as a minister for the Baptist Church.
The missionaries soon headed south to Cincinnati, leaving the early church members with no real leadership. Staker discusses how Black Pete was one of the citizens that filled the vacuum on pages 64-65.
Black Pete had lived on the Whitney property during their communal experiment and may have continued to do so for a time. He became a central figure in the new religious community by early December. The typical pattern for slaves’ conversion to various Christian congregations was through “a radical encounter with spiritual beings” as they sought divine manifestations from the spiritual world.85 It seems probable that Black Pete, as a “revelator” in the new religious community, would have built on the ecstatic religious world he knew well. Because he left no written records, his beliefs and role in the movement can be glimpsed only through the eyes of others as his involvement intensified that winter.
Short lists of those who were ordained and commissioned to preach after their baptism never included Black Pete. However, the men who wrote about their baptisms note they were also ordained and commissioned as part of their conversion process, and many of the early converts were not included in lists of commissioned preachers, leaving Black Pete’s authority to preach and baptize uncertain. As part of Kirtland’s ecstatic religious experiences, a number of the men received “letters” that fell from heaven which were copied onto paper before the original letter disappeared. Black Pete was among those who received one of these letters, his delivered by a black angel. Because the letters were apparently divine commissions to travel the countryside and preaching and baptizing and because Black Pete was among those who went about the country preaching, it is likely he also performed baptisms during January of 1831. Careful studies of the relationship between black members and priesthood ordination confirm that some early black members were ordained to the priesthood well after Black Pete’s conversion.86 Although the beginning date for a priesthood ban on black members is not firmly established, it is clear that during Black Pete’s period of involvement in early Latter-day Saint history, there were no priesthood restrictions on black members. Black Pete may well have acted in his role as Book of Mormon preacher in an authorized capacity. Nevertheless, the newly founded religious movement in Ohio quickly looked to Black Pete for direction; and as this small Church of Christ spread, it seemed to take on a life of its own.
Following his conversion to Mormonism, Staker notes that Pete went with some missionaries (probably Levi Hancock, Edson Fuller, and Heman Bassett) to the shores of Lake Erie in Astabula County. On February 5, 1831, the Ashtabula Journal “identified Black Pete as a leader in this new religion, suggesting that the group of young men recognized him as their chief source of influence.” The footnote references “The Golden Bible or the Book of Mormon,” Ashtabula Journal, 3, no. 10 (February 5, 1831): Levi Hancock in later years became a close friend of black Latter-day Saint Elijah Abel and took special note of blacks in his writings.
In chapter 8, Staker describes many examples of ecstatic religious experiences in the “Mormonite” community in Kirtland. Of course, may members and non-members were uneasy about the practices. Sidney Rigdon and Edward Partridge went to New York to meet Joseph Smith, arriving in January 1831. Joseph quickly sent John Whitmer to preside over the branch. The missionaries returned in March 1831 and the practices were perceived as “unusual.” Whitmer wrote years later that (quoting from page 94) ‘a false spirit misled members and that “the devil blinded the eyes of some good and honest disciples.”‘6 Staker notes that “Whitmer was apparently unable to resolve concerns about enthusiasm”.
Joseph soon left New York and arrived in Kirtland in February. Church members looked to him for direction. Staker notes on page 103,
Black Pete and his associates were forbidden to preach and baptize on the basis of letters from heaven: “It shall not be given to any one to go forth to preach my gospel, or to build up my church, except he be ordained by some one who has authority, and it is known to the church that he has authority and has been regularly ordained by the heads of the church” (D&C 42:11).
It is known that Joseph Smith was aware of Black Pete. On page 105, Staker writes,
Some of these accounts of Morley family meetings subtly expressed discomfort that a black man would be in a familiar relationship with white women. “White women would chase him [Black Pete] about,” recalled Reuben Harmon.10 The interest apparently went both ways as Lovina Williams, Frederick G. Williams’s youngest daughter, became the object of Black Pete’s affections. She turned fourteen a month before the missionaries arrived from New York. According to W. R. Hine, “Black Pete claimed to receive a revelation to marry her.” Hine also recalled that D. P. Hurlbut “before he left the Mormons” likewise “courted Dr. Williams’ beautiful daughter, and told her he had a revelation to marry her; she told him when she received a revelation they would be married. Everybody about Kirtland believed he had left the Mormons because she refused him.”11 Henry Carroll claimed that Black Pete sought a revelation from Joseph Smith after his arrival in Kirtland “and wanted to marry a white woman. Jo Smith said he could get no revelations for him to. Pete claimed he [Black Pete] did.”12 Three years later, Lovina married Burr Riggs, one of Black Pete’s close associates, on November 19, 1834.
Concerning Black Pete, Staker concludes with this on page 188:
Black Pete’s presence in the Mormonite community raised numerous other questions about gifts of the Spirit and discerning the things of God that provided a revelatory response. These revelations continue to provide spiritual insight and answer additional questions within the Latter-day Saint tradition today. After modern revelation had completely transformed the Morley family in Kirtland, Black Pete disappeared from the community sometime between 1831 and 1834. On March 3, 1837 Joseph Smith, Sr., father of the Prophet, ordained a former slave, Elijah Abel, an elder.69 Abel continued to play a role in the community for the rest of the century and was probably its best-known black Latter-day Saint. Other black Latter-day Saints also contributed to the early development of the Restoration. However, it seems that none of them had as much influence on the early development of the movement as Black Pete.
I am amazed at the large role Staker puts on Black Pete. How about you? Were you aware that the first black Mormon was baptized within the first 7 months of the founding of the church? Do you think Staker presents evidence that Pete held the priesthood?