Yesterday's front page of the Salt Lake Tribune (July 21, 2014) featured an article on "Black Mormon Pioneers." It included several photos with descriptions of each:
This is yet another example of why I have an invincible antipathy for the media. Whenever they publish something I'm already acquainted with, they get it wrong. Above, The Tribune explains that Elijah Abel was the first black baptized into the LDS Church. Back in 1969, Lester Bush wrote a book review on Stephen Taggart's Mormonism's Negro Policy, noting that Taggart got it wrong when he claimed that Elijah Abel was the first black Mormon convert. He correctly pointed out that in February of 1831, a man known variously as Black Pete and Black Tom was a member in Kirtland, Ohio. (Dialogue Vol. 4, No. 4, p. 87.)Even more irritating is the next description of Jane Manning as one of Joseph Smith's slaves(!) (highlighted in yellow by me.) Honestly, anyone with passing familiarity with LDS history knows that (1) Joseph Smith never, ever held slaves, and (2) Illinois--was a free state--nobody in Nauvoo had slaves. If anyone reads the article and gets to page A4, they learn she was a "freeborn black woman;" but the misinformation from the front page is what most people will see and remember. The article does, however trip over other facts such as claiming that Joseph Smith ordained Elijah Abel to the priesthood. That comes up again and again on the web; but good heavens, a little research beyond Wikipedia is warranted. Elijah Abel was ordained an elder by Zebedee Coltrin and later, a member of the Seventy--also by Coltrin. The Wikipedia entry on Abel had that correct a few years ago, but people keep changing it to say that Joseph Smith ordained Abel. People keep changing it to "Joseph Smith" because they really, really want Joseph to have performed the ordinance; but the reference clearly shows Coltrin as the one who performed the ordinance. I changed it back just now; but I bet it won't last.
There once was a time, albeit brief, when a “Negro problem” did not exist for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. During those early months in New York and Ohio no mention was even made of Church attitudes towards blacks. The gospel was for “all nations, kindreds, tongues and peoples,”1 and no exceptions were made. A Negro, “Black Pete,” was among the first converts in Ohio, and his story was prominently reported in the local press.2 W. W. Phelps opened a mission to Missouri in July 1831 and preached to “all the families of the earth,” specifically mentioning Negroes among his first audience.3 The following year another black, Elijah Abel, was baptized in Maryland.4
This initial period was ultimately brought to an end by the influx of Mormons into the Missouri mission in late 1831 and early 1832. Not long before the arrival of the Mormon vanguard, the “deformed and haggard visage” of abolitionism was manifest in Missouri; elsewhere Nat Turner graphically reinforced the southern phobia of slave insurrection.
At this time the Mormons were mostly emigrants from northern and eastern states, and were not slaveholders. In less than a year a rumor was afoot that they were “tampering” with the slaves. Not insensitive to this charge, the Mormons agreed to investigate and “bring to justice any person who might … violate the law of the land by stirring up the blacks to an insurrection, or in any degree dissuade them from being perfectly obedient to their masters.”5 Their investigations proved negative as only one specific accusation was uncovered, and the elder accused had returned to the East; however the rumors continued unabated.6