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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.)
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.”