At one time almost every new religion made its way to Harlem. During World War I through World War II, African American illiterate sharecroppers and landless workers flooded into the community with high hopes of war-related jobs and the free air of the northern city. They brought religions from the South and West, other urban areas and the Caribbean. Into the mix Harlem residents threw a slew of their own innovative religious options. Harlem became a “Burned-over District” with constant revivals and spiritual ferment.
During World War I, Marcus Garvey started the mass movement called the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) which he described as “fundamentally a religious institution.” It provided the style for the later Black Muslims and the inspiration for Rastafarianism. The Black Muslims were preceded also by various groups with Islamic elements in their faiths. In the 1920s Father Divine offered himself as God, accompanied by John the Revelator who spread the divine message around the country. Daddy Grace came along with his United House of Prayer for all People and chased Divine, some say, out of Harlem. Their kind of religion inspired Arthur Fauset to write his Black Gods of the Metropolis. Outlasting both Divine and Grace, Mother Horn preached the Pentecostal message that sparked James Baldwin’s classic novel Go Tell It on The Mountain.
The Mormons did not become part of this Burned-over District until after it had waned. But surely the upstate Burned-over Mormons belonged in the northern Manhattan District also.
In that year, the Mormons started meeting in Harlem at a back dining room at Sylvia's Restaurant. Polly Ann Dickey told Mormon historians that “At Sylvia’s…it was not always easy to feel the Spirit at the beginning. I think we lost a lot of members…” One lady could not get used to holding church in a place that she had partied and seen one person die. They had meetings there for about a year.
Then, the small group got their own house, a former Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall at 58 West 129thStreet. Despite a leaky ceiling and broken air conditioning and heating, attendance jumped from about 30 people to 50 people. By 1999 the church was performing sixty baptisms in a year. Space became very cramped. The young kids had to hold Sunday school in the bathroom.
By spring 2001 the church purchased its present location on 128th Street. The church was building quite a few new structures to accommodate its growth in the city. The highlight was the conversion of its Seventy-First Street site to an official Temple in 2004 with a cornerstone containing a list of all members in the city and a local history of religions (New York Glory: religions in the city which was edited by our publisher Tony Carnes and Anna Karpathakis).
Recognizing that their acceptance into the uptown African American religious culture could be a challenge, the LDS Church initiated efforts such as building a community garden and sponsoring the Harlem Hellfighters football team in 2004. At the time, the Hellfighters were the first high school football team in Harlem in more than 62 years (though it sadly has now ceased operations).
The congregation prepared to build their own church building on the “marquee” corner of West 128th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard. The construction was delayed by local objections. The area was right in the center of Harlem life.
Indeed, the block represents a sort of tree ring history of religion in Harlem. From his headquarters just off the boulevard (then called only Lenox Avenue) Marcus Garvey marshaled his followers into parades singing from their “Universal Ethiopian Anthem,”
"Advance, advance to victory,
Let Africa be free;
Advance to meet the foe
With the might
Of the red, the black, and the green.”
Then, in the 1950s Malcolm X established his mosque within sight of the block of the Mormon church.
Today, it is the Mormons with three congregations, called “wards,” in one church building: Harlem First Ward; English and Spanish Family Ward; and Young and Singles Ward. The Saints have also established churches in many other African American neighborhoods around the city. By 2004 a Mormon history estimated that 20% of NYC Mormons were African Americans. In the city the church also has two sign-language congregations as well as several conducted in Spanish, Korean, Russian and Chinese.
It was not easy for poorer African Americans to become part of Mormon culture. The church requires a lot of consistent commitment, recalled one counselor to Mormon historians. Every member has duties that take up a lot of time that is not available if one is working two jobs and caring for children.
Today, about twenty-five percent of the Harlem First Ward (congregation) is African American. In our interviews most of the African Americans in the Harlem church became Mormons in 1990 or later.
The modern multistory building in Harlem has a feeling of formality. It is decorated plainly in a brick red color with outlines of beige and sheer walls and minimal adornments. Beige curtains cover the glass windows from the inside. At the top of the building, a white steeple is the only exterior indication that this is a house of God.
On Sunday, groups of people stream toward the church's doors. Women are dressed in colorful blouses, knee-length skirts, and comfortable pumps, while men garb neatly ironed button-down white shirts with blazers and dark slacks. Siblings hold each other’s hands as they enter, and they too are conservatively dressed for the occasion. With the Holy Bible and the Book of Mormons stacked in their arms, they come ready to worship.
Harlem is changing and people wonder if its special African American heritage will be lost. Big retail businesses, like H&M and Old Navy, line the main strip of 125th Street. In residential areas, hedge funders are renovating abandoned brownstones into their homes. A different demographic of intellectuals has moved in: younger, educated, and racially diverse with a more global than local orientation. In response galleries, museums, and historic centers like Studio Museum, Harlem Arts Alliance, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture are promoting an African American identity within the new framework of present-day Harlem.
The Mormons are trying to make their contributions through preaching against negative stereotypes of African Americans, committing funds to run a spectacular church at the center of Harlem, and affirming African American history through genealogical research. The church also move African Americans quickly into leadership positions. One such African American is Polly Dicky, the subject of our next article.
With additional reporting by Tony Carnes.
Scott Tiffany, editor. 2004. City Saints. Mormons in the New York metropolis. New York: Navuoo Books.