It was Sunday morning, and the church was filled with more than 200 men, women and children, praying, singing and testifying.
“I have been searching for a faith all of my life,” Melvin Davis, 60, of Southeast declared from the pulpit. The grocery clerk’s story, genial and direct, bared a quest for a spiritual home that long had come up short.
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.
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.”
Albright joined the church in 1972, when she lived in Arlington County and worked for the Navy. It would be six years before African American men could be ordained in the church. When missionaries came to her door, she had grilled them on the racial practices at Brigham Young University that led some colleges to refuse to compete with its athletic teams.
But Albright said she has never suffered discrimination in the church. “Now there is nothing to hold you back,” she said.
Doris Lett, also a black Mormon, traveled with Albright from California to sing in the production.
“It has been a long time coming, but people are learning about the black pioneers,” Lett said. “No one knew that we had an elder ordained by Joseph Smith. Our real mission is to educate people.”
Most of the African Americans in the production came from the Anacostia congregation. Many, including Powell, were converted with the help of missionaries.
The first time they knocked on his door, nothing came of it. “I was Pentecostal. I wasn’t interested,” he said.
Then Powell started dating a Mormon from Chile who worked in the Salt Lake City office of the company he worked for. The woman later joined him in Washington. Missionaries stopped by again and, like Albright, he quizzed them about the church’s treatment of African Americans and other issues. Powell ended up embracing Mormonism (and marrying his girlfriend).
“The whole basis of Mormon membership comes down to whether one believes that Joseph Smith Jr. was a prophet of God and did Jesus Christ, in a sacred grove of trees. . . reveal certain things to him,” Powell said. After he “prayed sincerely,” he came to believe the stories were true.
Almost 200 years after the Mormon Church was formed, its history of relations with African Americans is still subject to debate.
Cragun, a former Mormon who said he lost faith in the church, said the revelation that paved the way for the ordination of black men was likely inspired more by demographic realities around the world than by the voice of God.
He called the Book of Mormon racist, citing passages such as 1st Nephi 12:23: “And it came to pass that I beheld . . . a dark and loathsome and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abomination.”
Armand L. Mauss, professor emeritus of sociology and religious studies at Washington State University, offered a different view.
“Early Mormon leaders shared the folklore and opinions about black people that were common in the U.S.,” said Mauss, who has written extensively about African American Mormons. He noted that Smith, the founding Mormon prophet, accorded a small number of black men membership in the church. It was Brigham Young, his successor, who excluded them from the priesthood.
“Clearly, the Mormon leaders regard the racist past in Mormonism to be embarrassing, as, indeed, it is for Americans in general, and they are exerting special efforts to make up for it,” Mauss said.
Powell said he has reconciled the church’s past with its more diverse present.
“There is no future when we live in the past,” he said. “This church is about rescuing people no matter who they are, from mainland China to Southeast Washington.”