In the wake of the Supreme Court rulings which, for all intents and purposes, ensure that gay unions will be a part of America’s marriage culture, I am less interested in the politics and more interested in the souls of those who have had to teach themselves to stay in a faith where their friends uphold a dangerous system of subtle persecution—the kind that keeps them just close enough to be destructive.
Whatever the ultimate consequences of the rulings, the Zion experiment continues onward. The Saints will still be striving to love our brothers, our leaders, and our families. Fatherhood will still be fatherhood and motherhood, still motherhood—defining those terms as you will. Gay marriage or no gay marriage, the Saints will still have the commission to love their neighbor, gay and straight, white and black, male and female.
The annals of popular Mormon history are filled with conformists: the hard-working Brother Peterson who settled town X in the wilderness of Utah. Moving as those stories are, the alienated find little comfort in them. They don’t look like Brother Peterson, don’t talk like him, and certainly don’t like the same things he did. If the Mormon community is to retain its alienated membership, the Saints need new heroes who don’t always look and like some from LDS Motion Picture Studios’ central casting.
The first black Mormon priesthood holder, Elijah Ables, seldom had a Mormon community to call home. Born in antebellum Maryland, Ables would never have a friendly faith community at any time in his life. Leading members of the Church’s hierarchy looked at him askance. Zebedee Coltrin could barely touch him without feeling repulsed. Brigham Young tried to support Joseph Smith’s vision for an inclusive Zion but stumbled when he thought a little bit too much about the particulars of interracial sexual relationships. Orson Hyde constantly questioned Joseph Smith’s judgment. Didn’t black people pose a threat to the social order, he asked Joseph, likely with a panicked look in his eyes. Joseph responded that Orson needed to talk to Elijah Ables a little bit more; men like him were far better equipped for governance than any politician in Washington.
As an outsider, Ables constantly needed to prove himself, to “act white,” in a futile effort to win the affections of Church leaders. He rode carriages, served missions, and even tried to wrestle with the guys on occasion. He received suspicious glances and high-level disciplinary action as his reward. As his white patron, Joseph Smith fended off the attacks of Ables’ critics During the succession crisis, he allied himself with the Twelve and aggressively sought to purge the Church of dissenters. When three women dared to criticize Church leaders, he acted swiftly: immediate excommunication. Everyone knew he was committed, but nobody gave him credit for it.
I’m leery of drawing too close of a comparison between the gay experience and the black experience in America. But they do share some important themes:
1) Faithfulness and authenticity come with a price. Ables had to give up part of himself in order to continue his membership in the Mormon community. As Josh Weed has said of the “gay Mormon” lifestyle: “No matter what you decide, you have to sacrifice something.” It’s tempting to dismiss such comments with a wave of the hand (“We all have it tough, kid. So stop complaining.”).
2) Being a minority means carrying a burden. Ables thought himself to be “the initiative authority” for bringing together the black and white races. Ables’ survival in the white Mormon community required the ability to play by other people’s rules.
3) Boxes are only for moving things. Don’t put people in them. In the early 1870s, Ables played as a part of a minstrel show; whether or not he was paid for his work (he probably wasn’t, as it was done primarily for church units) is irrelevant. Following Elijah Ables’ death, talk circulated in Utah that Ables was not the norm but a strange anomaly who had somehow “Uncle Tom’d” his way into the kingdom of God. The Saints didn’t dare say that Ables never held the priesthood; even his critics begrudgingly acknowledged that he did. So instead of trying to deny Ables’ status, they whitewashed it. Ables’ survival in the white Mormon community required the ability to play by other people’s rules
The Mormon people are changing, and in good ways. Whatever its cheesiness, the “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign at least communicates that Saints are beginning to see themselves in a new light. Mormons have dreamed of a unified Zion community since the beginning. It’s time that we embrace it.
Purchase a biography about Elijah Ables here