Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Rethinking Mormonism's Racial Narrative: Questions for Russell Stevenson



by Scott Hales (bio)

Several books about the little-known, little-understood history of black Latter-day Saints have hit bookstores and e-readers this year, including two revised volumes of Margaret Young and Darius Gray's Standing on the Promises novel series (published by Zarahemla books) and W. Kesler Jackson's Elijah Abel: The Life and Times of a Black Priesthood Holder (published by Cedar Fort).

The latest from this group is Russell Stevenson's Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ables, which is now available for the Kindle. I had the chance recently to ask Russell a few questions about his book. Here's what he had to say:

Scott Hales: For those who don't know, who was Elijah Ables? What makes him an important figure in Church history?

Russell Stevenson: In some ways, this is the question. That he existed at all forces the Mormon people to revisit—and probably overturn—their assumptions about Mormonism's racial narrative.

Elijah Ables was an African-American man born in western Maryland. Census numbers suggest that he was a slave at one point, though we can't be certain of that. As a young man, he left Maryland and made his way to the river city of Cincinnati where he came into contact with Mormonism. He joined the Mormons in September of 1832 and went to Kirtland in 1836 where he was ordained an Elder. Later documentation suggests that he was ordained "under the hand of Joseph the Martyr" (Eunice Kinney, Letter to Wingfield Watson, July 5, 1885). He served a mission to Canada, lived in Nauvoo, served a prolonged mission in Cincinnati where was later ordained to be a Seventy. Ables was one of the highest ranking leaders in the branch. Ables came to Utah in 1853 and stayed committed to the faith for the remainder of his life.

SH: Generally, in Church histories, Elijah Ables is known as Elijah Abel. Why favor this less common variation of his name?

RS: This is perhaps the most commonly-asked question. The short answer is that "Ables" is the earliest documentary evidence of a signature (from a letter to Brigham Young) that can be credibly traced to Elijah's own person. There is later evidence—an invoice—that suggests an "Able" spelling. However, his name was spelled in every conceivable way in the nineteenth-century: Able, Ables, Abel, and Abels.

SH: What does Black Mormon reveal about Elijah Ables that other studies of his life do not? How does your research change what we know about the man and his work?

RS: The few works there have been on Elijah's life have been very "Mo-centric," relying exclusively on Mormon sources and placing him within a Mormon context. But no one has ever been so one-dimensional. My work suggests that Elijah was a socially agile figure--capable of navigating a number of contexts. Whether he lived in the urban black community of East Cincinnati, the runaway slave population of Upper Canada, or the heavily Yankee scene of northern Ohio, Ables had to work with a wide variety of social networks, each with distinctive values and cultural systems. There are government documents and contemporary correspondence illustrating how Elijah Ables helped the Saints escape a rebellion in Upper Canada. Some of the earlier works do not address Elijah's commitment to upholding the institutional church, even when he was clashing with some of its highest leaders.

SH: In your prologue, you state that it "takes a village to exclude a child," suggesting that the Mormon people, as a group, are responsible for the relative absence of Ables from its institutional memory. How would you respond to recent efforts to fill that absence in the Church? I’m thinking, for example, about Ables' cameo in Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration and the filmic and fictional work of people like Margaret Young and Darius Gray.

RS: Grappling with Elijah's legacy has been a difficult experience for the Mormon people. Even during his own life, Elijah had been written out of the narrative—he had gone from being Joseph's good friend (perhaps Joseph saw him as "the good black man") to being "a man named Ab[les]."  By the turn of the twentieth-century, he was still remembered but primarily as the "Uncle Tom" of Mormonism; one patriarch allegedly identified him as the only black man who would make it to heaven. Yet Ables knew—a believer might say he 'prophesied'—that he would yet play a central role in bringing the Mormon people back to their roots. In 1879, he declared that he was "the initiative authority by which [his] race would be redeemed."  When Lester Bush wrote his seminal article on the history of Mormonism's "negro doctrine," he helped to resurrect Elijah's life in the collective memory of the Mormon people. The article found its way into the hands of top Church leaders, including Bruce R. McConkie and Spencer W. Kimball himself. That Elijah knew his place in Mormon history with such certainty is a testament to his commitment to the faith, even when he was being sidelined.

SH: What further work needs to be done on Elijah Ables and other black Mormons? In what ways are we still failing the legacies of these Saints?

RS: Right now, most Saints continue to embrace a dispensationalist perspective—that is, that the priesthood was given to the blacks "in the Lord's due time" and that it had been planned that way in the beginning, occasionally making a comparison to the expansion of missionary work to the non-Jewish population during New Testament times.

But it's not a perspective that the evidence bears out, and that should be received as good news. That Elijah Ables held the priesthood and leadership office is indisputable. Blacks and whites do not represent different gospel dispensations; they were all intended to be a part of the latter-day Zion. And Mormons should be glad about that; it indicates that the priesthood exclusionary ban was not hardwired into Mormon society and that the Mormonism was, at one point, a relatively progressive religion when it came to race relations. However, even Israel spent forty years wandering in the wilderness for building a golden calf. By the end of the nineteenth-century, it had become apparent that the Mormons had erected their own idol of whiteness. The question isn't how did the leaders get it wrong; the question is how the Mormon people could deprive themselves of the blessings of an inclusive Zion.

SH: Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ables is self-published, a practice that is becoming more common—and more respected—these days. What are some of the advantages of self-publishing? Are there still significant downsides?

RS: For me, self-publishing worked because I needed to get the text out in a timely manner, and most local publishers end up taking a year or more to have a copy on the shelves. If one is going to self-publish successfully, it's important that s/he be committed to taking on the burden of advertising and distribution (though CreateSpace has made both somewhat easier). If one is committed to spending the resources necessary to it, then self-publishing can be an immensely rewarding experience.

SH: What are you plans for future projects? Who are the other marginalized Mormon figures whose stories still need telling?

RS: Now that's a question! So much to do. I'm interested in grassroots religiosity: the waters that raise the tide of any religion. Most of us understand Mormon policy as being dictated primarily in a headquarters on North Temple. But to what degree do individual units on the periphery of the Mormon network affect decision-making at the top? Are there vanguard units within Mormon society that help lead the Saints towards a stronger, healthier Zion? There's book begging to be written on it.

***
Born and raised in rural western Wyoming, Russell Stevenson is an independent historian who has been studying the story of the Latter-day Saint people for over two decades. He has taught history and religion at Salt Lake Community College and Brigham Young University. He contributes regularly to Rational Faiths and runs his own blog, www.mormonhistoryguy.com.

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