How the wife of Mormonism’s most-famous black man played a part in the priesthood-temple ban that would last a century

(Tribune file photo) Early Latter-day Saint black convert Elijah Able, sometimes spelled Abel.

Elijah Able may be the most well-known black man in Mormon history as one of only a few who were ordained to the faith’s all-male lay priesthood in the 19th century.

From Able’s ordination as an elder in 1836 until The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ ban on black men and boys in the priesthood was lifted in 1978, the faith-filled African American “stands as a witness,” writes historian W. Paul Reeve at centuryofblackmormons.org “to what Mormonism lost” in the intervening century.

Few know, however, the pivotal role Elijah’s wife, Mary Ann Adams Able, played in the church’s past.

Indeed, it was Elijah’s plea to be “sealed” to Mary Ann in a Latter-day Saint temple — in this case after she died in 1877 — Reeve says, that caused the Utah-based faith to bar its temple doors to black women as well as to black men.

Thus the church’s racial restrictions were handed down for generations, excluding for decades both men and women from its highest forms of involvement and worship.

“Mary Ann stands as a spiritual ancestor of every black LDS woman,” says Alice Faulkner Burch, president of the all-women Relief Society in the Genesis Group for black members, “and a great example to us of strong, confident faith in God to continue forward.”

Historians know far more about Elijah than Mary Ann, but recent research has turned up tantalizing clues about the character and faith of the woman he married.

“We do know she was a strong member of the church because she was baptized three times, not due to a sin-repentance process but because she desired to be,” Burch says. “She believed in God, and she greatly loved her husband.”

The couple married Feb. 16, 1847, in Cincinnati, where Elijah, an ordained Seventy, was living and serving as a missionary (“He was told only to teach among the colored population,” Reeve says) and where Mary Ann moved from her home in Tennessee.

It is unclear how she got to Ohio or where the pair met.

She might have been a Latter-day Saint who found her way to the tiny branch that Elijah attended, or she might have been converted by the missionary himself.

She could have been a former slave, who arrived via the Underground Railroad.

There is no evidence that proves conclusively she was a slave, says Reeve, professor of Mormon studies at the University of Utah and author of the award-winning book “Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness.” Mary Ann knew her last name, but she did not list her parents on surviving baptismal records, which would be unusual.

“If I were to guess, I would think that she was a slave because she doesn’t [list her parents’ names] or her birthdate,” Reeve says, “which are markers of those born into slavery.”

At the time of their wedding, Elijah was 36, but Mary Ann’s age is unclear from the records — somewhere between 15 and 17. No photograph of her has been found.

Ohio marriage laws required that the husband be over 21 and the female over 18, but Mary Ann’s birthdate was “pretty difficult to track down,” Reeve says. Her original baptism record is lost, but the couple were rebaptized upon arriving in Utah in 1853.

“It was a common practice for migrant groups, as an outward sign of commitment, a rebirth in a new location,” the U. researcher says. “Almost an entire migrant group would be rebaptized, which is what happens with Elijah and Mary Ann.”

The Ables eventually had as many as eight children and moved around a lot, according to various Salt Lake City and Ogden ward records, which list him as a tithe payer.

During the 1857 Mormon Reformation, Elijah and Mary Ann were baptized for a third time, in the same year their eldest son, Moroni, received his first baptism.

Twenty years later, Mary Ann died of pneumonia, and, in 1879, Elijah sought temple admission to be sealed to Mary Ann posthumously. (Latter-day Saints believe this ordinance can unite married couples to live as husbands and wives in heaven.)

That request triggered “an investigation into Elijah Able’s priesthood status as well as into temple admission policies more generally,” Reeve writes in his biography of Mary Ann at centuryofblackmormons.org.

Joseph F. Smith, then an apostle and a future church president, interviewed Able and reported that the black Seventy “had incontrovertible evidence to substantiate his priesthood ordinations.”

Smith further noted that Able was of “mixed racial ancestry” and that his wife, Mary Ann, “was also an octoroon [one-eighth black].”

Given that information, then-church President John Taylor refused Able’s sealing request.

“Mary Ann’s mixed racial heritage was thus at the center of the formation of a policy which barred women of black-African descent from temple rituals,” he writes, “a policy which began or was solidified in 1879 under John Taylor and which would last for almost 100 years.”

Nothing indicates that Elijah Able ever wed again or that he had more than one wife.

There are, Reeve says, no known black Latter-day Saint polygamists.

Elijah’s place in Mormonism “wouldn’t be what it is without Mary Ann, and her love and concern for him,” Reeve says. “She was a black Latter-day Saint pioneer in her own right.”