Early Black Mormons: Joseph Ball

When I was first researching the early Luce converts to Mormonism, I wanted to focus on primary sources rather than just repeating the same stories. I already knew the Luces were converted to Mormonism by Wilford Woodruff during his 1838 mission to Maine.

And that’s almost true. Actually, when Wilford Woodruff arrived at Vinalhaven, Maine on 13 January 1838, His mission companion Joseph Ball had already baptized six converts on the North Island: Malatire (sic) and Ruth Luce, their son and daughter-in-law Stephen and Nancy Luce, and their daughter and son-in-law Susan and Nathaniel Thomas.

Several years later, at Nauvoo in 1841, Woodruff wrote about the drowning of Stephen and Nancy’s two young sons—Samuel W. Luce and James F.C. Luce—saying he had baptized the couple himself. Regardless, the Luces seem to have credited their conversion to Wilford Woodruff. They even named a baby after him later that year.

Fun stuff, but that’s not the best part of the story. Several years ago I came across a source that said Ball was black. Really? That seems strange. Until 1978 the Church refused to give the priesthood to blacks. I heard different explanations over the years but the most common was that blacks sat on the fence during the war in heaven in the Pre-existence, so they were allowed to come to earth with human bodies but they were marked by the color of their skin.

With just a little research I discovered the ban on blacks in the priesthood dated from 1849. In other words, it was the teaching of Brigham Young, not of Joseph Smith.

Ball was ordained an elder sometime before January 1838 and the mission with Wilford Woodruff to the Fox Islands. Does that mean the early church allowed blacks to hold the priesthood? The answer isn’t clear.

Ball seems to have joined the Church in 1832. He was probably baptized in Boston by Orson Hyde and Samuel Smith. He might have been privileged to hold his priesthood because of his friendship with William Smith, who was the Prophet’s brother.

But it’s not clear his Mormon contemporaries thought Ball was black. Ball’s father was born in Jamaica. In 1796 he was a member of the African Society of Boston. The 1810 census shows the Ball family as non-white. The 1820 census shows them as “Free Colored Persons”. Then voilà, in 1830 Ball was white. And he was white thereafter. None of his Mormon contemporaries seem to have ever commented on his race, nor is there any evidence they regarded him as black.

I like this story. It pushes our boundaries. In his own lifetime Ball was black, then white. Later generations found out about his background, so retrofitted him to the role of a black man who held the priesthood against what had become the normative rule. For some, he could be pressed into service as an example of the difficulty of policing race in the Church. And now, now we discard all that and just notice the problems of defining race by something like the “one-drop rule“.

So, we have this little bit of history piled on top of the conversion to Mormonism. I like that a lot.

In 2015 I started a project at Geni.com for Early Black Mormons. Just the breath of a beginning. It hasn’t gone very far but I’m hopeful that there is gathering interest in this kind of research.

More Information

  • Geni.com users, Early Black Mormons (updated July 26, 2018), visited Aug. 31, 2019.
  • Jeffrey D. Mahas, Joseph T. Ball, in Century of Black Mormons at University of Utah J. Willard Marriott Library, visited Aug. 31, 2019.
  • Mica McGriggs, Darius Gray, and Christopher C. Smith, Episode 13: Early Black Mormons (Aug. 30, 2019), at SunstoneMagazine.com, visited Aug. 31, 2019.
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