Elijah Abel, one of the few black members to receive the priesthood in the early days of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was characterized as a true, pure and spiritual man at the dedication of a monument in his honor.
"He had a deep spirituality about him," Elder M. Russell Ballard of the church's Quorum of the Twelve said at Saturday's ceremony at the Salt Lake City Cemetery.
"It's a wonderful thing you've done here today," Elder Ballard said of the new monument, located off Grand Avenue and just east of Center Street. "The church is pleased."
The monument was funded by private donations and organized by the Missouri Mormon Frontier Foundation and the Genesis group, an LDS Church-sponsored organization for black members. About 200 people attended Saturday's ceremony.
Abel was reportedly at Joseph Smith Sr.'s bedside when he died in 1840 at Nauvoo. That especially hit home for Elder Ballard, whose mother was a Smith descendant.
Elder Ballard, who offered the dedicatory prayer for the new monument, talked about the church's controversial past policy on black members and the priesthood. Joseph Smith Jr. ordained Abel to the priesthood in 1836. Abel came to Utah as a pioneer in 1852 and died in 1884. However, black members were not allowed to hold the priesthood from 1852 to 1978, when President Spencer W. Kimball received a revelation allowing their ordinations again.
"We don't know all the reasons why the Lord does what he does. . . . It's difficult to know why all things happen," Elder Ballard said. "I'm perfectly content to believe the Lord is in control."
Darius Gray, president of the Genesis Group, said Abel and other early pioneers walked the same trails and "ultimately, were buried in the same ground together. . . . We are indeed brothers and sisters."
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William J. Curtis, co-founder and secretary of the Missouri Mormon Frontier Foundation and a Methodist, saw Abel's crumbling grave last year and was determined to lead the effort for a new monument there, outlining Abel's "Slavery to Sainthood" progress.
Randon W. Wilson, chairman of the This is the Place Foundation, said his heritage park, across from Hogle Zoo, has plans to further recognize African-American contributions in Utah.
Susan Easton Black, professor of church history at Brigham Young University, briefly discussed other prominent blacks in early church history and the heritage they created.