Early LDS Church showed more racial tolerance than some think

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We’ve all heard stories about slaves escaping to freedom through the Underground Railroad. Obviously this ‘railroad’ to freedom was not literally subterranean but rather a path of underground resistance to the institution of slavery. Organized by free-born blacks, former slaves, abolitionists and American Indians, the Underground Railroad funneled possibly 100,000 slaves into free states, Canada and Mexico.

Among these escapees was a man named Elijah Abel. Born into slavery in Maryland in 1810, Abel escaped a life of slavery through the Underground Railroad and entered Canada. Shortly thereafter, in 1832, Elijah was baptized into the LDS Church by Ezekiel Roberts.

Abel was the first black person to be baptized in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was also the first black man to receive the priesthood, ordained an elder in 1836 under the hands of the prophet Joseph Smith. Abel’s journey was one of pain, suffering, liberation and spiritual redemption.

A few years after receiving the priesthood, Abel was ordained as a seventy-a high position of leadership in the LDS faith. Abel served missions for the LDS Church in Ohio, New York and Canada.

Abel changed the lives and softened the hearts of countless people. Shortly after his second mission, Abel was ordained into the Nauvoo Seventies Quorum, and when Joseph Smith was arrested in Quincy, Ill., in 1841, Abel was among a group of seven elders who set out from Nauvoo to try to rescue him.

Abel’s life debunks the assertion that black people did not hold the priesthood in the LDS Church until the racial ban was lifted in 1978. In fact, two of Elijah’s decendants also held the priesthood.

Some people, including a faction of conservative Southern Baptists, argue that the LDS Church is a racist institution which barred its black members from holding the priesthood until 1978.

Yes, the LDS Church did once have a ban on black members holding the preisthood but not at its inception and certainly not now. Abel’s life stands as a testimony against such racist accusations.

Certainly, there have been prejudiced members and leaders of the LDS Church, as there have been racists in every organization. Certainly, leaders are human before they are leaders. They have prejudices, just like anyone else.

Today, the LDS Church has hundreds of thousands of members who are black, and their faith, spirit and testimonies stand as a beacon of strength in a divisive world.

Strong Americans such as Abel should be a source of strength to all of us, not just members of the LDS Church. His example can help us live more fullfilling lives. Abel devoted his life to the church and remained a faithful member and holder of the priesthood until his death in 1884. He died directly after serving his third mission for the church. Abel is, and will be, an inspiration to millions of LDS Church members, as well as others, for years to come.

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