Donnie, Marie and Elijah Abel

Update: This post won a 2011 Brodie Award



Besides being a source of constant amusement (Honey Badger for example), YouTube is also a historian’s dream. There is so much archival video available to study and learn from. (I particularly love the commercials from the 1960s and school PSAs about sex and drugs.)

This particular interview clip with Barbara Walters shows Donnie and Marie floundering around like a Utah Lake carp when asked about the Mormon Church’s racist stance on blacks and the priesthood. This interview was sometime before 1978 as the Church reversed the policy (note it was a change of policy, not doctrine) in June 1978. (The stuff Marie says at the end is a whole other topic to be dealt with on another day.)

Donnie answers that he’s not an authority on the subject and one would be better to ask the General Authorities of the Church for an answer. Very evasive answer indeed. But when the General Authorities had been asked about this issue they never gave a decent answer either. It was and remains an irreconcilable racist doctrine and policy. Beginning in 1847 black men could not hold the priesthood; they were not allowed in the temple, neither were black women. Going to the temple is the pinnacle of Mormon theology because going to the temple is a necessity to get to the Celestial Kingdom after death. For decades black men and women were punished not for their own sins but for their father’s transgression.

This “Negro Doctrine” embarrassed me greatly as a child and young adult. As a believing Mormon I never knew how to answer the legitimate grievances and the pain that this policy inflicted upon people. Thankfully, I served as a missionary in Russia where few people had ever heard of Mormons and pretty much no Russian had ever heard of the Negro Doctrine, so I never had to defend the Church in that way.

Later in life when I learned that Joseph Smith himself had given the Priesthood to a black man named Elijah Abel on March 3, 1836 in Kirtland, Ohio I felt  justified in my anger and embarrassment. Elijah Abel dedicated his life to the Church just as much as any white Mormon man. He served four missions: New York and Canada in the 1830s, Ohio in the 1840s, and the Eastern United States and Canada in the 1880s. He helped settle Salt Lake, and was even a member of the Third Quorum of the Seventy until his death. His sons were ordained to the Priesthood beginning in 1900. I’ve been to Abel’s grave in the Salt Lake City Cemetery where a monument was erected over his grave in 2002 and dedicated by Apostle M. Russell Ballard.

This headstone is engraved with details about Abel’s life and Church service.



This begs the question: God allowed black men to have the Priesthood in the 1830s, changed his mind in 1847 by declaring black men could no longer hold the Priesthood even though Elijah Abel did and continued to serve in the Church until his death, then God changed his mind again in 1978 back to the original way? That is re-goddamned-diculous.

Active, believing Mormons need to understand their history and deal honestly with the implications.

I think it’s horrifying that so many Mormons were able to turn a blind eye to suffering and injustice and write it off by saying, “That’s the way the Lord wants it” and it’s sickening that so many today want to pretend like it never happened. As long as I have a pulse, I’ll make sure the world never forgets.

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  • Steven
    December 8, 2011

    Joseph Smith is awesome. He would be for gay rights. That Donnie and Marie clip was alarming. My family is so matriarchal It seems impossible to hear a woman say something like that. Did Joseph Smith really have sex with women? I’m still not convinced. It’s hard to tell. There’s a photo of a gravestone of two children but no evidence of decedents? I think I’ve reached my limit of what I can understand among Mormons in general. Perhaps I should try The Community of Christ. They seem to have a different perspective. I don’t think I like the idea of a living prophet ruling over millions. But he seems nice in the videos. :) Interesting article. Glad your posting again.

    • Seth Anderson
      December 8, 2011

      I agree that Joseph would have been a supporter of gay rights even though he wasn’t gay. He loved the ladies and he and Emma (his first of many wives) had children. Their son because the president of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, today called the Community of Christ.

  • Tamara
    December 8, 2011

    I’ve always had a problem with this too.
    Though I was a child of the 80’s so by the time I was growing up in the church all men could have the priesthood.
    Having said that I’m in Australia and I think that our Aboriginies (who are black) were never denied the priesthood anyway. Also the Polynesian, Maori, Samoans etc were never denied it. In fact both New Zealand and Samoa had temples before Australia did.
    I never really understood how it was decided who could and couldn’t hold the priesthood, was it just African Americans?

    Another interesting tangent from this is the womens role in the church. I was reading one of Joseph Fielding Smith’s books written in the 50’s and he was talking about women not being aloud to give talks in sacrament. Why? when did this change? (Almost wish it hadn’t, then they wouldn’t ask me to talk) by whose authority did it change??

    I’m a huge Joseph Smith fan too, but i think Brigham Young may have undone all Jospeh’s good work….

    • Seth Anderson
      December 8, 2011

      You bring up some excellent points on the issue of race and one that the Church has never answered- why was the priesthood restricted for just men of African descent? You’re absolutely right about the Aborigines, Samoans, Maori who have a much darker skin color. Apparently they were not “cursed” like the people from Africa. I never made that connection until I was much older but when I did it confirmed even more how much of a racist, embarrassing practice it was.
      I LOVE church books from the 50s!! Love love love them! Manuals, hymnbooks, Books of Mormon, magazines. Anything from that time period is marvelous. I don’t remember when the policy changed that let women speak in Sacrament meeting but I believe it was the late 70s or early 80s when women were finally allowed to pray in Sacrament Meeting (!)
      I too am a huge Joseph Smith fan, but the real Joseph Smith, not the fake one the Church has invented. I like the guy who drank whiskey and beer, who slept with lots of women, who founded a city, who was an architect, an author, a judge, a army general, and a charismatic speaker. I like the days of the Church when people got into fist-fights and where there were family feuds and nepotism and backstabbing banking scandals. Mormon history is so cool. :)

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