For years the letters have come to Church headquarters in Salt Lake City—simple, eloquent requests for “holy books,” for information about the Church.
The postmarks? Nigeria and Ghana, in western Africa. And the authors of those letters? Humble, truth-seeking Christian Africans who have known little about the Church, except that they need to know more. As literature was sent to groups and individuals in towns and villages, these black Africans prayed for the day the gospel would be given to them from the mouths of missionaries.
That day finally came in November 1978 when two couples, Elder and Sister Rendell N. Mabey, and Elder and Sister Edwin Q. Cannon, Jr., were sent as special representatives of the International Mission to Nigeria and Ghana. Since then, more than 1,700 converts have been baptized.
Sister Rachel Mabey, Elder Mabey’s wife, says simply, “The Lord has prepared the people. They are an earnest spiritual people.” The Mabeys and Cannons do not credit the conversion rate to their proselyting. They see the hand of the Lord clearly in the lives of the converts.
The story goes back at least eighteen years.
It was then that what Elder Cannon calls “an extraordinary phenomenon” began occurring in Western Africa. Africans learned of the Church from other Africans who had studied in the United States. They came across some missionary pamphlets. No one now knows how those pamphlets got to Africa in the 1950s—but the effect was remarkable. Many who read them recognized the truth. Then—independent of each other and without knowledge of the other’s actions—several groups of blacks in both Nigeria and Ghana started their own religious organizations, patterned after the Church. However, visa problems prevented representatives being sent to officially establish the Church.
The groups built small meeting-houses and met regularly. They copied organization, doctrines, songs, and titles after the Church, as much as they were able to discern from the literature they received. Occasionally they had contact with members of the Church visiting Africa.
The Africans even proselyted. One man, after a stirring spiritual experience, “was constrained by [the] Spirit to go from street to street … to deliver the message which we had read from the Book of Mormon and from the pamphlets.” Despite some “persecutions” and sometimes being labeled as an “anti-Christ organization,” the “missionaries” were undaunted.
“We persisted with the word and won forty people that day even to the admiration of the Muslims around,” one man reports. The “missionaries” and their forty converts gathered to learn the doctrines of the Church. Later they “won 47 more members.”
Such experiences were not uncommon among the independent groups who, without authority, organized themselves in the name of the Church. Groups in Nigeria and Ghana—again, without knowledge of each other’s activities—registered in their respective countries under the name The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Leaders of the Church in Salt Lake City became aware of the devotion of these Africans. Letters such as this came frequently:
“Please I have been told much about how this great restored church was founded by Our Great Prophet Joseph Smith and still I am being more anxious to know more about it through the reading of books about it. I have heard of the book of Mormon, which was some good news revealed and given to Joseph Smith on the Mount Comurah. I will be very happy if copy of the Book of Mormon is sent to me in order to read more about the words which the Lord gave. …
“Actually I wish to become a pure Mormon and so I want to know more about Mormon for … the little that our elders and pastors have told us here in Ghana have made me get the insight of the seeing of a light somewhere.
“I always become happy when songs and hymns like “Come! Come! Ye Saints” and “Come, O thou King of Kings” and some songs of Zion are sung in the church services. Actually I wish I am with you there to share these happy things that you enjoy in Christ.” That letter was written by Emmanuel Bondah, then in “sixth form” in school.
Another wrote: “We here are the true sons of God, but colour makes no difference in the service of Our Heavenly Father and Christ. The Spirit of God calls us to abide by this church and there is nothing to keep us out.”
The author of that letter, Anthony Obinna, was later to become the first black western African baptized and called as branch president. But before this happened, difficulties with visas had to be resolved. And the Biafra war made the situation more complex.
In August 1978, Elder Cannon and Merrill Bateman of the Brigham Young University faculty were sent by the Church on a factfinding tour of the groups in Nigeria and Ghana. They came back with recommendations that the Church move ahead. Within months Elder Cannon and his wife, Janath, were called with the Mabeys as special representatives to western Africa.
The couples immediately sought out those who already knew about the Church. They were received enthusiastically and warmly both by those who knew about the Church and by those who didn’t. The couples were able to communicate openly about the gospel, and often in English.
“One of the greatest factors in the success of the Church there is the use of the English language,” Sister Cannon says. “And the people want the literature. They’re hungry for tracts and reading material. For years Catholic and Protestant missionaries from England have sponsored missions, and hospitals, and schools in Ghana and Nigeria, which is why many of the native people there are Christians and are literate in English.
“We appreciate the tradition of respect for Christian missionaries,” Sister Cannon adds.
Elder Mabey tells how he greeted the Africans who investigated the Church: “We would bring them greetings from President Kimball and tell them we had nothing to bring them except salvation and life eternal. We weren’t making any promises of worldly goods.
“We said we realized the world was full of all colors of people, all kinds of backgrounds, and we didn’t think of ourselves as white men among them. We said that we’re all children of God who are loved by our Heavenly Father.”
Those who had already known some about the Church were humble and willing in giving up their crosses and collection plates as they learned the practices and doctrines of the Church more fully. They sacrificed both time and money.
In many places where the representatives baptized, members provided meetinghouses already built by the Africans. Elder Mabey describes in an early report the building in Sekondi, Ghana:
“A meeting house consisting of plaster walls, tin roof and cement floor, … an old piano, some wooden benches, and various Church pictures will be retained. Of interest on one end of the outside of the meeting house is a weathered sign, ‘The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Founded in 1830.’” The sign and building have since been attractively repainted.
In the Ikot Eyo village of Nigeria, the Church held a meeting in a building with a sign “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Inc.” That building holds about 250 people. The day the branch was organized, 218 attended the sacrament meeting. “The meetinghouse was built and is owned by the people who have now been confirmed members,” Elder Mabey says.
Some such buildings were outgrown months ago. Some bulging congregations meet outdoors, outside their meetinghouses.
The Mabeys and the Cannons did not have time to meet with all the congregations that have been meeting in the name of the Church. In one case, they met with the “mother” church but could not meet with the fifteen “branches” of that congregation. Such work has been left to subsequent representatives.
Sister Cannon explains how, in good faith, these people tried to adopt the Church before the representatives came:
“What these congregations did was use the name of the Church. Most of them knew something about Church doctrine, but they didn’t know Church practices. So they just transferred the traditional Protestant pentecostal type of service to what they were doing in the Church.
“They had collection plates, a lot of pentecostal hallelujahs, singing, dancing, and drums. It was, of course, very satisfying to them. And for us to just go in and say, ‘You can’t do this,’ wasn’t enough. We had to tell them what they can do and what Church services are like. And that takes time. They not only have to learn new things, they have to unlearn a lot of old things.”
Though many such practices are not common in Church services, Elder Cannon explains, “Many of them are not against the doctrines of the Church. For instance, one practice they have is that as you’re speaking to them and you say something they particularly agree with, they’ll come right out with ‘Amen!’”
The chapel the representatives found in Cape Coast, Ghana, included a life-size statue of the Angel Moroni, “obviously copied by some local sculptor from the illustration of Moroni as it appears on the front cover of the paperback Book of Mormon, with the trump to his lips and standing on a ball,” Elder Cannon says. A black-bound Bible and a paperback Book of Mormon were painted on the pulpit. Also displayed were paintings of Joseph Smith and a picture of the Tabernacle Choir.
Once, following little more than a hunch, the representatives took a taxicab to a village nineteen miles from the Nigerian town of Owerri, in search of a man whom they had heard was interested in the Church. Following directions from a native, they drove directly to “a little building with a sign across the front: ‘L.D.S. Nigerian Mission.’” Elder Cannon says, “We knew we had arrived.” The founders of that “mission” were later baptized into the Church.
Those who have joined the Church leave behind the imitation of the Church which they earlier established. Former “pastors” and “apostles” are now in district and branch presidencies; several women once titled “prophetesses” are now Relief Society presidents.
These new African Saints are not a Westernized people, although many speak English and wear Western clothing. Most of them live much more simply than those in Western cultures do, but the people take pride in their cleanliness, grooming, and hospitality.
Although modern freeways are being built in Africa, other roads are often “miserable.” Distances are long, and driving is often difficult and hazardous. Sometimes finding gasoline is a problem.
Poor communications also slow down church work. Telephone service is often unavailable or inadequate. Cables are unreliable. Letters may take weeks to get from one state to another.
Such conditions are challenges, but the representatives and members try not to let them become hindrances. And the friendliness of the people in Ghana and Nigeria compensates for other difficulties. The couples reported to President Spencer W. Kimball: “We have never been anywhere in the world where it is so easy to engage a stranger in gospel discussion—opportunities [are] at every hand. One need not go from door-to-door—just have your tracts ready. Even busy people walking on the street will stop and talk. Workmen on construction jobs carry the tracts in hand for long periods of time. If you go by an hour or so later, it isn’t unusual to see them reading” (see Ensign, May 1979, p. 106).
Church leaders from Salt Lake City have visited the new members in Nigeria and Ghana. Elder James E. Faust visited in February 1979, and Presiding Bishop Victor L. Brown visited in April 1979 to determine the temporal needs of the new members. John Cox, regional representative from England, visited Ghana.
Although the western African Saints are halfway around the world from Church headquarters and have only begun to participate in such Church programs as Relief Society, their faith is strong. For them, faith is based on years of hope, which is now being fulfilled.