Davis, who is African American, finally found what he was looking for in the Mormon Church, whose history includes a period of more than 120 years during which black men were essentially barred from the priesthood and few Americans of color were active in the faith.
But since the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began ordaining African American men into the priesthood in 1978, after the church’s then-president said he had a revelation from God, Mormons have reached out to minorities and worked to address the religion’s racially fraught history. A new documentary, “Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons,” is shedding further light on the issue.
The number of blacks embracing the faith is climbing. Ryan Cragun, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tampa, said there were almost 3.2 million Mormons in the United States in 2008. About 94,700, or 3 percent, were black.
“I have been blessed by the missionaries” who knocked on his door about 13 years ago, Davis said in an interview. “What is special about the church is that it is loving. It is family. It is knowledge, sharing the Book of Mormon.”
Since the Latter-day Saints established the Anacostia Ward, or congregation, in 1998, the church has grown to almost 700 people under the leadership of African American men. (Despite its name, the church is on the Suitland side of the D.C.-Maryland border.) The 90 or so Mormon congregations in the Washington region also include a mostly Hispanic church in Hyattsville and a largely West African church in Chevy Chase.
“Many times we hear of diversity in the church, but oftentimes we don’t see it,” said Bryan Powell, an insurance executive and the Anacostia Ward’s first counselor, or assistant pastor. “Here at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we don’t just talk about it. We see it; we live it. We are all together one family, and that is the way the Lord would have it.”
On Super Bowl Sunday, at the visitors center of the Washington Temple of Latter-day Saints just off the Beltway in Kensington, Mormons performed sketches based on letters written long ago by African American Mormons, showing that a few “black pioneers” were in the church around the time of the denomination’s founding in 1830.
‘The black pioneers’
Among them were Jane Manning James, who walked 800 miles to join Mormon founder Joseph Smith in the Midwest and later joined the Mormon migration to Utah, and Elijah Abel, a Maryland man who is believed to be the first African American whom Smith ordained.
“These stories give black members of the church roots,” said Nathleen Jackson-Albright, 64, who compiled the stories. “They went through a heck of a lot, so we should be able to hold on.”