Editor's note: Mauli Junior Bonner works in both the music and film industry. He writes for or develops some of the biggest names in Pop music, including Ariana Grande, Camila Cabello, Stevie Wonder and others.
Elijah Abel. Only with great reverence will I utter his name. Elijah was one of the first Black priesthood holders in the early Church. He was ordained in 1836, and his ordination was approved by Joseph Smith himself. As a Black man, he received his patriarchal blessing from Joseph Smith Senior and served a mission.
When I learned this, I thought, How did I not know? How was this not taught to me? This beautiful story of this unique Black member could have carried me through difficult times facing racism as a young boy in church. I’m grateful that his history is emerging now, and how it will help reveal how progressive our Church was in the 1800s under Joseph Smith in regard to race relations.
Elijah’s life and the lives of other early Black Saints offer all of us powerful examples of unwavering faith in the Savior. These are examples I am deeply grateful for and believe more Saints need to know about in the days ahead. Here are a few reasons why.
Rooted in Faith in the Savior
Elijah and other Black pioneers and members of the Church had a unique and intense desire to seal their families together.
As African Americans in America, they had experienced their families being torn apart for generations. I can only imagine what this gospel must have meant with its promise to reunite their families after this life. Elijah, like other Black members, tithed and donated towards the building of the Salt Lake Temple, only to be denied access to seal his family together. How does one overcome such racism? How does one’s faith endure such inequality? Somehow Elijah did.
I believe that Elijah’s experience of being denied sealing to his family by Church leadership forced Elijah to draw closer to Christ and His teachings even more devoutly. His faith and trust had to be rooted in the Savior and the promises of God the Father. I don’t know that we would know his name if his testimony was tethered to the behaviors of his peers and leaders. After being denied the opportunity to seal his family together, Elijah requested to serve yet another mission on behalf of his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Elijah has exemplified where our testimony must lie to sustain our faith.
Overwhelmed with a Sense of Belonging
There are so many great people and leaders that I’ve looked up to throughout my life, many of whom don’t look like me. But a few short years ago, I learned that the early Church was established by the efforts of both Black and white members and that some of Joseph Smith’s family’s most trusted friends were Black members. I have since been overwhelmed with a sense of belonging. I have been inspired, humbled, and changed.
For example, I didn’t know growing up that there were Black Latter-day Saint pioneers. For years and years, I’ve always viewed the pioneer trek as something that only white Americans did; I appreciated it only as an aspect of Church history that highlighted stories about my white brothers and sisters that I could celebrate and learn from.
But a few short years ago, I learned there were also Black pioneers. And not just pioneers who endured a treacherous trek, but Black pioneers who suffered enslavement simultaneously. How did I miss this? How did I not know about their incredible stories of strength and endurance?
Because Black history in the Church is not something that is typically taught and readily available, I’ve made a conscious effort to add more Black pioneer heroes to the list of people that I look up to in the Church and in the country. Each time I do, my sense of belonging and my faith grow.
I now have Green Flake, a 19-year-old enslaved young man who drove the very first wagon on the pioneer trek. He helped blaze a trail for tens of thousands of faithful Saints to follow. What an example of leadership without status or calling, sacrifice without praise or recognition!
The more I learned about Green Flake the more I began to wonder: Do the Saints know about him? And when they do learn about him, will he become one of their heroes? Or will his color prevent them from wanting to know his story and drawing strength from his journey and painful offering?
In 2021, I made a film called His Name is Green Flake that follows the lives of free and enslaved Black pioneers. I then spent the following two years doing screenings of the film for hundreds of Latter-day Saint wards. Following the screenings, we would hold a Q&A about the history of faithful Black Saints from the 1800s. I have come to find our Church members are just like me—we can connect to leaders in the past that do not look like us. Someone’s color does not prevent them from being an example to us all.
I’m now working on a docuseries following Elijah Abel’s life and the history of the priesthood as a pertains to those of African descent. I look forward to sharing that story with my fellow Saints so that they too can continue to grow in faith and belonging.
Examples of True Discipleship
No matter what shade of brown Christ is, He is the Savior of us all. He has led those who came before us through the toughest of times, and He does the same for us today.
Some people ask me why I stay in the Church. I automatically think, how could I ever leave? How can I walk away from Christ when He has never walked away from me? It’s my belief in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and my commitment to follow Jesus Christ that I can never negotiate, regardless of the thoughts and behaviors of those outside and within my same belief system.
Though I have faced my fair share of racism within the Church, I have not had to face anything close to what the early Black members had to endure. I look to them for strength as they stand strong as an example of immovable faith. Elijah and many others like him have shown me that no matter the circumstance, no matter the policy, and no matter the discrimination, my faith will not be compromised.
I’ve loved learning about early Church members who share both my African blood and faith in the restored gospel. It makes me wonder, Is this what white people have felt like when they look at leadership who looks like them, pioneers who look like them, and culture that represents their people?
I’m grateful to assist in expanding the view of what our Church culture and history of Saints looks like. I’m also grateful to have heroes like Elijah and many others who have shown what true discipleship looks like.
Learn Elijah Abel’s story, Green Flake’s story, Jane Elizabeth Manning James’s story, and many other early Black members’ stories—and make them your heroes. Whether or not we are aware of the work and sacrifices that they have made on our behalf, the road that we walk on has been paved by their blood sweat, tears, and faith.