Baptism Beach—An African Symbol of How 1978 Revelation Changed the Church

Contributed By Tad Walch, Deseret News staff writer

  • 1 June 2018

Some members of the Church visit the location where they were baptized in Cape Coast, Ghana, on Monday, April 23, 2018. In the foreground is John Dan Ewudzie. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Cape Coast, Ghana,

For 14 years, Joseph William “Billy” Johnson longed to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but couldn’t.

Converted by the Book of Mormon as a 30-year-old in 1964, he lived in West Africa 7,000 miles from Church headquarters, where there were no Mormon missionaries or priesthood holders.

So Johnson wrote letters to successive Church presidents asking for missionaries. He built a large congregation of fellow believers in the town of Cape Coast, Ghana, on the gleaming shores of the Atlantic Ocean. He founded nine other congregations in nearby towns. He registered an unofficial version of the faith with the national government. President David O. McKay wrote back to Johnson, encouraging him to continue and promising that the Church would arrive in Ghana someday despite a restriction announced in 1852 that blacks could not hold the priesthood or receive temple blessings.

“Really, I didn’t understand why the priesthood would be given to other people but we blacks were not allowed,” said John Dan Ewudzie, who joined Johnson’s congregation in 1971. “At times we’d talk about it. We couldn’t understand it.”

By June 1978, the anticipation was excruciating. Johnson’s congregation was not alone. Black Africans had been petitioning for the organization of the Church in their countries since the late 1940s. By the mid-1960s, more than 16,000 people were waiting for the Church in more than 60 congregations in Ghana and Nigeria, according to a devotional given by BYU Church History professor Dale LeBaron.

President McKay called an American named Lamar Williams to open a mission in Nigeria in 1962, but his efforts were thwarted first by visa issues, then by civil war. In June 1966, Williams delivered the names and addresses of 15,000 unbaptized African converts to two apostles on the Church Missionary Committee, including Elder Spencer W. Kimball.

J. W. Billy Johnson, left, who founded 10 congregations of unbaptized LDS converts in Ghana between 1964-78, stands with other members of the Accra Ghana District Presidency, Emmanuel A. Kissi, Banyan Dadson, and John Sampson-Davis in an undated photo.

Cape Coast, Ghana. Graphic by Aaron Thorup, Deseret News.

Harry Sarpong and his wife, Elizabeth, pose for a photo in Kumasi, Ghana, on Saturday, April 21, 2018.

Samche family at their home in Kumasi, Ghana, on Saturday, April 21, 2018.

“Baptism Beach”

One of those unbaptized converts was young Charlotte Acquah.

On a brilliant April day this spring, Acquah clambered across uneven rocks on the shores of Cape Coast and stared out at the sunlight gleaming on blue Atlantic Ocean waves.

The ocean has reclaimed the sand, so there was no spot for her, Ewudzie, and three other Church pioneers in Africa to enjoy as they remembered how they, Johnson, and dozens of others came to this place that would become known as “Baptism Beach.” It was here they joined a mass baptismal service the day after missionaries finally arrived in Ghana in 1978.

“The sea has come nearer,” Acquah said. “Then, the sea was far off the beach.”

The beach may be gone, and Johnson, too—he died in 2012—but many of the pioneers remain and remember receiving the ordinance that finally delivered Church membership, unlocked the gate to temple blessings, and led to priesthood ordination for the men.

“I enjoy the Spirit here,” said a beaming Robert Myers, 66, who joined Johnson’s congregation of converts in 1973. “It’s the same spirit we felt at our baptism.”

On this day, a fisherman and his sons worked their nets under vast blue skies at one end of the secluded inlet. On the other side, three men used buckets of water to rinse blood and muck from their illegally operated shore-side slaughterhouse down into the waves crashing on the rocks.

Acquah and her pioneer friends stepped over the thin channel of bloody salt water and began to talk of old friends amid strong Atlantic breezes and squawking seagulls.

Myers was the first to enter the water that day almost 40 years ago, to check the depth.

“He was the guinea pig,” Ewudzie joked.

“I remember exactly where I entered the sea,” Myers said. “Now I can’t enter the sea here. It’s scary now. I raised my hands and waved, ‘Hey, this will work.’”

Myers and his wife, Emma, a convert in 1967 at age 9, bring their children and grandchildren to “Baptism Beach.”

“We have our first great-grandchild,” Robert Myers said proudly. “We will bring her here, too.”

William Fiifi Imbrah stands outside the former Brigham Young Educational Institute in Cape Coast, Ghana, on Monday, April 23, 2018. The school was started for children in the 1970s by Joseph William Billy Johnson, a convert to the Book of Mormon in Ghana in 1964. Johnson's congregation joined the Church en masse in 1978 after the revelation extending the priesthood to all worthy males. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

BBC report

“It was too much to wait while we were praying for headquarters to extend the Church to us,” said Acquah, now 60, whose family had been part of Johnson’s flock since 1969.

Johnson lived in a room in Acquah’s parents’ house. She remembered how American emissaries from other churches repeatedly tried to persuade Johnson and the other unbaptized converts to abandon the Latter-day Saints. In the spring of 1978, Johnson prepared what he said was one last letter to President McKay’s successor, President Kimball. He pleaded that the time was right “for our brothers to come,” Ewudzie said.

The congregation fasted and prayed before sending the letter. “One lady told the congregation she’d had a dream,” Ewudzie said. “She saw the letter in the clouds. There had been no dream like that with previous letters. We believed this time would be different.”

At about the same time, Johnson had an impression that the time for change had arrived. On June 6, the congregation began a three-day fast, unaware that President Kimball had received the still-unannounced revelation five days earlier.

“We were fasting for the missionaries to come,” Emma Myers said. “I wanted the Church.”

Johnson couldn’t sleep late on the night of June 8. At midnight, he turned on the radio and tuned into a BBC report. The first story said President Kimball had announced the revelation that day extending the priesthood to all worthy male members.

Johnson burst into tears. His long wait was coming to an end.

Daniel Kwesi Salia, left, Kweku Prah Ghartey and Joseph Kwame Dadzie pose for a photo in Cape Coast, Ghana, on Monday, April 23, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

“We were marveling”

The following night, members of Johnson’s congregation gathered at Acquah’s house to break the fast. The sun was setting and the air was cool, Acquah said.

“The Lord has answered our prayers,” Johnson told them.

“We were in tears of joy,” Ewudzie said. “In fact, we were marveling. Many of us wept, even Brother Johnson himself.”

Brigham Young first sent missionaries to Africa to proselyte among white South Africans in 1853. That was one year after slavery was legalized in Utah and President Young announced a policy restricting men of black African descent from priesthood ordination, according to the Church’s official “Race and the Priesthood” Gospel Topics essay. At the time, Young prophesied that blacks one day would receive priesthood and temple blessings.

For 126 years, some blacks continued to join the Church despite the restriction. But the conversions, baptized and unbaptized, of blacks in Ghana, Nigeria, and Brazil moved Church leaders to pray for guidance, according to the essay.

On June 1, 1978, President Kimball, his counselors in the First Presidency, and the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles met in the upper room of the Salt Lake Temple and received the revelation on the priesthood.

“He has heard our prayers,” the First Presidency announced on June 9, “and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come.”

Opening floodgates

After the revelation, the First Presidency assigned two missionary couples to Africa. Ted and Janath Cannon and Rendell and Rachel Mabey visited Nigeria in November 1978, then arrived in Cape Coast, Ghana, on December 8. They interviewed dozens of Johnson’s congregation for baptism that day.

On December 9, a procession of people in white clothing, including Acquah, Ewudzie, and Robert and Emma Myers, marched from their meetinghouse in an old cocoa bean storage building through the dirt roads of Cape Coast and down the winding rut of a path on the hill to the beach. It was a bright, sunny day with blue skies.

“We formed a line and they baptized us one by one,” Emma Myers said. “I was one of the first ones.”

Johnson was baptized second, after Raphael Abraham Frank Mensah of the capital city of Accra. Mensah had introduced Johnson to the gospel and assigned him to launch the Cape Coast congregation. The next day, the missionaries ordained Johnson, Ewudzie, Myers, and other men to the priesthood and organized the Cape Coast Branch with Johnson as the branch president.

Robert and Emma Myers, members of the Church, visit the location where they were baptized in Cape Coast, Ghana, on Monday, April 23, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Two days later, the Cannons and Mabeys traveled up the coast to Takoradi, Ghana, where another 124 Ghanaians accepted baptism in the Atlantic.

Within a year, the Church had 1,723 members in 35 branches in west Africa, according to LeBaron, who said the revelation opened floodgates to new members.

Today the Church has 578,000 members in Africa, more than in all of Europe, and leaders anticipate the formation of the 100th stake in west Africa in coming months.

Johnson’s native Nigeria has 163,000 members. Ghana, where he later served as a district president and stake patriarch, is home to 78,000. Brazil, which had 51,000 Latter-day Saints at the end of 1977, today has an LDS population of 1.3 million.

“From Cape Coast, look how the Church started,” Acquah said. “Nobody cared about our building and the people worshiping in that building.”

“In the Book of Mormon,” Ewudzie said, “Alma talked about planting a seed and when you water it in good faith, how it grows. I see the Church in Ghana as a good seed watered in faith. My joy is how the Church is growing in Ghana. It makes me humble. When the Lord said, ‘out of small things come great things,’ that is my happiness.”

Some members of the Church visit the location where they were baptized in Cape Coast, Ghana, on Monday, April 23, 2018. Included in the group are John Dan Ewudzie, Charlotte Acquah, Robert Myers, Emma Myers, and William Fiifi Imbrah. They were some of the first in Africa to be baptized into the Church. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

A fishing boat is paddled out to sea in Cape Coast, Ghana, on Monday, April 23, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Some members of the Church visit the location where they were baptized in Cape Coast, Ghana, on Monday, April 23, 2018. They are John Dan Ewudzie, Charlotte Acquah, Robert Myers, Emma Myers, and William Fiifi Imbrah. They were some of the first in Africa to be baptized into the Church. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

J.W. Billy Johnson

John Dan Ewudzie poses for a photo in Cape Coast, Ghana, on Sunday, April 22, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

The Cocoa House was a former meetinghouse for a large congregation of people who accepted the LDS faith in Cape Coast, Ghana, in the 1960s and 70s but had no way to join the Church until the Church sent missionaries after the 1978 revelation extending the priesthood to all worthy males. It is shown on Monday, April 23, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Emma Myers holds medallion as she visits the place where she was baptized in Cape Coast, Ghana, on Monday, April 23, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

The former Brigham Young Educational Institute in Cape Coast, Ghana, is photographed on Monday, April 23, 2018. The school was started for children in the 1970s by Joseph William Billy Johnson, a convert to the Book of Mormon in Ghana in 1964. Johnson's congregation joined the church en masse in 1978 after the revelation extending the priesthood to all worthy males. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Charlotte Acquah, her husband William, daughter Wilhelmina E. B. Acquah, granddaughter Justine M. Dzitse and grandson Howard S. Dzitse read together at the Acquah home in Cape Coast, Ghana, on Sunday, April 22, 2018. Wilhelmina Acquah is an aunt to the grandchildren. The daughter and grandchildren are visiting the the Acquah home this evening. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Charlotte Acquah, her husband, William, and visiting grandchildren Justine M. Dzitse and Howard S. Dzitse are photographed at their home in Cape Coast, Ghana, on Sunday, April 22, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Richard Teye-Topeye poses for a photo in Cape Coast, Ghana, on Sunday, April 22, 2018.. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.



Wilhelmina E. B. Acquah reads with her niece Justine M. Dzitse and nephew Howard S. Dzitse in Cape Coast, Ghana, on Sunday, April 22, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Charlotte Acquah, her husband, William, daughter Wilhelmina E. B. Acquah, granddaughter Justine M. Dzitse, and grandson Howard S. Dzitse read together at the Acquah home in Cape Coast, Ghana, on Sunday, April 22, 2018. Wilhelmina Acquah is an aunt to the grandchildren. The daughter and grandchildren are visiting the the Acquah home this evening. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

John Dan Ewudzie poses for a photo as some members of the Church visit the location where they were baptized in Cape Coast, Ghana, on Monday, April 23, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Charlotte Acquah poses for a photo as some members of the Church visit the location where they were baptized in Cape Coast, Ghana, on Monday, April 23, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Robert Myers poses for a photo as some members of the Church visit the location where they were baptized in Cape Coast, Ghana, on Monday, April 23, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Emma Myers poses for a photo as some members of the Church visit the location where they were baptized in Cape Coast, Ghana, on Monday, April 23, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

William Fiifi Imbrah poses for a photo as some members of the Church visit the location where they were baptized in Cape Coast, Ghana, on Monday, April 23, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Esther Samche, left, says a prayer before the family studies scriptures together at their home in Kumasi, Ghana, on Saturday, April 21, 2018. Other family members pictured are Simmons, left, and Dora. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Stake President Samuel Appiah of the Bantama Stake poses for a photo in Kumasi, Ghana, on Saturday, April 21, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Kumasi, Ghana, on Saturday, April 21, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Boateng Acheampong, left, Rexford Ferguson, Anthony Koomson, and Richard Samche talk at the Bantama stake center in Kumasi, Ghana, on Saturday, April 21, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Roderick Anatsui, left, greets Chris Cooke and Michael Ossei-Gerning at the front desk of the Hyde Park Chapel Building in London on Wednesday, April 11, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Roderick Anatsui works at the front desk of the Hyde Park Chapel Building in London on Wednesday, April 11, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Boateng Acheampong shows his tie with a symbol that means “accept God” in Kumasi, Ghana, on Saturday, April 21, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Stake President Samuel Appiah of the Bantama Stake is interviewed in Kumasi, Ghana, on Saturday, April 21, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Dora, left, Simmons, Esther, and Richard Samche wash dishes outside their home in Kumasi, Ghana, on Saturday, April 21, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Harry Sarpong and his wife Elizabeth wave as they leave following an interview in Kumasi, Ghana, on Saturday, April 21, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Chris Cooke, facing camera, hugs Elder Alan T. Phillips, Area Seventy, at the Hyde Park Chapel Building in London on Wednesday, April 11, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Paul Omo-Bamawo and his daughter Uchay prepare a meal at their home in London on Wednesday, April 11, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.



Yomi Lawal talks with his daughter Tiwalolu in London on Wednesday, April 11, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Sandy Ogunbote holds his granddaughters Tiwalolu Lawal, left, and Ayomide Lawal at his home in London on Wednesday, April 11, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Bolanle Lawal hugs her husband Yomi at her parents' home in London on Wednesday, April 11, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Rexford Ferguson poses for a photo in Kumasi, Ghana, on Saturday, April 21, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Sam Opoku-Appiah poses for a photo in Kumasi, Ghana, on Saturday, April 21, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Samuel Antwi poses for a photo in Kumasi, Ghana, on Saturday, April 21, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Harry Sarpong and his wife Elizabeth are interviewed in Kumasi, Ghana, on Saturday, April 21, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Boateng Acheampong is interviewed in Kumasi, Ghana, on Saturday, April 21, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Rexford Ferguson is interviewed and poses for a photo in Kumasi, Ghana, on Saturday, April 21, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Stake President Samuel Appiah of the Bantama Stake poses for a photo in Kumasi, Ghana, on Saturday, April 21, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Sam Opoku-Appiah poses for a photo in Kumasi, Ghana, on Saturday, April 21, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.



Simmons, left, Dora, Martin, Esther, Richard, and Anyamesem Samche sing together before studying scriptures as a family at their home in Kumasi, Ghana, on Saturday, April 21, 2018.Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Members of the Richard and Anyamesem Samche family sing together before studying scriptures at their home in Kumasi, Ghana, on Saturday, April 21, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Roderick Anatsui is interviewed in London on Thursday, April 12, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Roderick Anatsui works at the Hyde Park Visitors Center in London on Thursday, April 12, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Paul Omo-Bamawo is interviewed at his home in London on Wednesday, April 11, 2018, prior to the visit of President Russell M. Nelson. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Anthony C. Henry, left, and Gloria M. Henry talk with Paul Omo-Bamawo at the Hyde Park Chapel in London on Thursday, April 12, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Paul Omo-Bamawo cooks chicken for his family at his home in London on Wednesday, April 11, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Paul and Ebele Omo-Bamawo and their children Uchay, second from right, and Osaro right, pose for a photo outside their home in London on Wednesday, April 11, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Bolanle Lawal brushes her daughter Ayomide's hair with her husband Yomi Lawal watching at right in London on Wednesday, April 11, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

The Ogunbote and Lawal families gather for evening prayer at the Ogunbote home in London on Wednesday, April 11, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Christiana Ogunbote, left, and Bolanle Lawal find some food for Bolanle's children in London on Wednesday, April 11, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Photos are on display at the Sandy and Folasade Ogunbote home in London on Wednesday, April 11, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Richard Samche does dishes outside his home in Kumasi, Ghana, on Saturday, April 21, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Esther, left, and Dora Samche carry clean dishes to be stored in their home in Kumasi, Ghana, on Saturday, April 21, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Mary Nsia, left, buys bananas from Anyamesem Samche at the family fruit stand in Kumasi, Ghana, on Saturday, April 21, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.