Gospel Pioneers in Africa

Early black converts relate stories of faith and patience in seeking the true Church of Jesus Christ.

Moses Mahlangu, of Soweto, South Africa, patiently but persistently waited sixteen years for baptism. When he speaks of his long wait to join the Church, Brother Mahlangu compares himself to Cornelius, who he says was “very good in waiting to receive the word of God or to be a member of the Church until the angels came and told him what to do.” (See Acts 10:1–7.) Today, at age sixty-three, Moses is a groundskeeper at the Johannesburg South Africa Temple, which he regularly attends. He is also the elders quorum president in the Soweto Branch.

Brother Mahlangu is only one of many Africans who have been blessed by the revelation President Spencer W. Kimball announced in June 1978 granting the priesthood and temple blessings to all worthy males. The revelation was of great eternal significance.

It later became evident that the Lord not only had poured out his Spirit upon the prophet, but for some time had been extending his Spirit to the African people, who had long been waiting for the gospel blessings and ordinances.

I was presiding over the only mission in Africa in 1978 when the First Presidency announced the revelation on the priesthood. Because there were no black male members of the Church in the mission, the revelation did not have a noticeable immediate impact on the Church there. But soon it became evident that the Lord had blessed the people of Africa with his Spirit similar to when he had poured out his Spirit upon people about the time of Joseph Smith’s First Vision. Many were prepared to receive the message of the gospel.

As an observer of many unusual evidences of the Lord’s power in Africa, I felt a great concern that this chapter of Church history needed to be orally recorded—particularly because blacks in Africa, unaccustomed to written history, keep their histories orally. Consequently, during the summer of 1988, the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies at Brigham Young University made it possible for me to return to Africa and spend 101 days interviewing members in ten African countries: Ghana, Nigeria, Zaire, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Ciskei, Transkei, Swaziland, and the Mauritius and Réunion islands off the east coast of Africa.

During this time I gathered more than four hundred oral histories of early black converts. In my interviews with these Saints, I found evidence that the Spirit of the Lord had guided to the Church hundreds who had been seeking for the truth.

Although the Church was established in South Africa in 1853, more than a century passed before work officially began among blacks in Africa. In 1960, Glen G. Fisher returned from South Africa after serving as mission president there. The First Presidency asked him to stop in Nigeria and investigate groups which had organized themselves into church units and had taken the name of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For the next six years, Church leaders made efforts to send missionaries to Nigeria. In fact, President David O. McKay set apart Brother LaMar Williams for this work. Others were also called, but the effort was abandoned in 1966 when visas could not be obtained.

Despite the setbacks in formal missionary work, unbaptized converts in Africa received Church literature and inspired direction through the years until 1978. Often these devoted people went to great lengths to communicate with Church headquarters and its missions. Their faith penetrated the spiritual darkness as they shared their newfound knowledge and conviction generously with neighbors.

One such pioneer I interviewed in Ghana is Joseph W. B. Johnson. Brother Johnson was converted after prayerfully reading the Book of Mormon in 1964. He relates that following his conversion “one early morning, while about to prepare for my daily work, I saw the heavens open and angels with trumpets singing songs of praise unto God. I heard my name mentioned thrice: ‘Johnson, Johnson, Johnson. If you will take up my work as I will command you, I will bless you and bless your land.’ Trembling and in tears, I replied, ‘Lord, with thy help, I will do whatever you will command me.’ From that day onward, I was constrained by the Spirit to go from street to street to deliver the message that we had read from the Book of Mormon.” When the missionaries arrived fourteen years later, there were already many unbaptized congregations that Brother Johnson had organized, calling themselves The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some of these early converts later rejected official membership in the Church, but many accepted it. A foundation had been established upon which later missionary work would build with increasing success.

Another early African convert and pioneer is Anthony Obinna in Nigeria. He related the following story that occurred in the late 1960s: “One night I was sleeping and a tall man came to me [in a dream], took me to one of the most beautiful buildings, and showed me all the rooms.” In 1970 he read an article in an old 1958 Reader’s Digest titled “The March of the Mormons,” which included a picture of the Salt Lake Temple. “It was exactly the same building I had seen in my dream,” he said. Brother Obinna wrote to the Church for LDS literature.

In 1978, when the Obinna family learned of the revelation on the priesthood, they wrote to the First Presidency: “We are happy for the many hours in the upper rooms of the temple you spent supplicating the Lord to bring us into the fold. We thank our Heavenly Father for hearing your prayers and ours. … We thank you for extending the priesthood, … to prepare us to receive every blessing of the gospel.” When the missionaries arrived in Nigeria, they found many people prepared for the gospel as a result of Brother Obinna’s teaching and leadership. The first LDS chapel built in Nigeria is near the Obinnas’ home in Aboh Mbaise, of the Imo State.

Adjei Kwame was also prepared for the gospel and guided into the Church. He took a teaching position in Gweru, Zimbabwe, where he began to experience spiritual yearnings. “I had been searching for the true church,” he said. “I kept having dreams about a church building. When I went through Kwe Kwe, Zimbabwe, I saw it and wanted to go in to find out what kept coming into my dreams all the time.” When he went into the church building one Sunday, he felt that it was the true church and that he should join. “I felt that I was actually with some people that I knew a long time ago who had been good friends.”

When he first came to church, members of the Kwe Kwe Branch were bearing their testimonies. Brother Kwame went to the pulpit. He told the congregation that he believed in God and wanted to be a member of the Church. He later met with Sister Hamstead, the wife of the mission president. “What actually descended upon the two of us I cannot explain. I became aware that I was weeping. I can’t explain the feeling. I was released of all burdens. I felt that I had gone to a place where I visited often, but now I was at home.”

One of the first converts to the Church in Ghana was Dr. Emmanuel Abu Kissi. For most of his life he had struggled to find spiritual fulfillment. “I had read the Bible several times and expected something more than what the churches were doing. I felt that the churches were empty, although Christianity wasn’t. I made up my mind that there must be something more than what they were teaching us, but I hadn’t found it yet.” After completing medical school, Dr. Kissi continued to study the Bible, desiring to find a church that would satisfy his idea of what one should be like.

He went to England on a medical scholarship. During his second year there, his wife struggled with health problems for many months. She had to quit her nursing job at the hospital and remain at home. He was surprised when his wife called one day to say that she was ready to return to work. She explained that two young men had come to the door and introduced themselves as missionaries preaching the word of God. During the ensuing discussion, Sister Kissi had asked them to give her a blessing. “They came and anointed her,” Dr. Kissi explained. “She said that in the presence of the anointing she felt something like an electrical movement in her, from the top down to the bottom. And when they finished, she was cured instantly.”

Dr. Kissi read the Book of Mormon, Jesus the Christ, and A Marvelous Work and a Wonder. He strongly identified with the Prophet Joseph Smith’s testimony. “I realized that Joseph Smith had had the same problem that I had. The First Vision was very good for me. I put myself in his place and found myself enjoying every bit of his experience. It wasn’t difficult for me to understand him.”

The Kissis returned to Ghana after their baptisms and founded the Deseret Hospital in Accra. Dr. Kissi served as a counselor in the mission presidency in Ghana.

While gathering histories of early converts to the Church, I also collected accounts of service and sacrifice of more recent converts. In 1979, Priscilla Sampson-Davis and her children joined the Church in Ghana. As a result of her faith and encouragement, her oldest son gave up a lifelong dream and forfeited a four-year scholarship to an Anglican seminary in order to be baptized. Twenty months later, he was one of the first full-time missionaries to serve from West Africa.

One Sunday after sacrament meeting, Sister Sampson-Davis saw a vision. It was as if she were at sacrament meeting again, and a person in white apparel stood in front of the stand, beckoning to her. “I came and stood by him. He asked me to turn around and look at the faces of the people to see if they were all enjoying the service. I saw that some of them had bowed their heads. He asked me why some of those people were not joining in the singing. I said, ‘Because they didn’t go to school and they can’t read English. They can’t sing, and that is the reason they bow their heads.’

“Then he said, ‘Wouldn’t you like to help your sisters and brothers who can’t read and who can’t join you in singing praises to Heavenly Father?’”

Even though she couldn’t write the language well, she replied, “I will try.”

The vision ended, and she immediately began to translate “Redeemer of Israel” into Akan (Fante), the language of 85 percent of the Ghanaian people. Sister Sampson-Davis also translated missionary pamphlets and filmstrips, Gospel Principles, Stories of the Book of Mormon, and the Book of Mormon. She is now translating the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. She bears testimony that the Holy Ghost has been her teacher and guide in these important projects.

Another recent convert, Celestine Onuka, joined the Church in Nigeria. After studying many religions and the scriptures, he was disturbed by many churches’ teachings that did not agree with the Bible. Upon receiving a Book of Mormon, Brother Onuka read it, felt its truthfulness, and asked to be baptized. About this same time, he found another copy of the Book of Mormon, one that his father had read and marked before his death when Brother Onuka was seven years old. He also found correspondence from Church headquarters that showed his father’s plans to join the Church and go to school in Utah. Brother Onuka was the second Nigerian to serve a full-time mission, during which he participated in more than seven hundred baptisms.

Members are eager and open in sharing their newfound faith with others. Dr. Clement Nwafor, for example, was introduced to the gospel by the father of one of his patients. Dr. Nwafor is the chief medical officer for more than one million Nigerians and is a prominent and popular citizen in the Aba, Nigeria, area. When a member took his daughter to Dr. Nwafor for a medical examination, he told Dr. Nwafor that despite his titles and positions, he still lacked one thing: “serving the Lord who has brought you into this universe.” Not long after that bold declaration, Dr. Nwafor accepted the gospel. “I felt like a new person,” he said. “I felt like somebody who was born again.” Less than six months after Dr. Nwafor’s baptism, he was set apart as a high councilor when Elder Neal A. Maxwell organized the first West Africa stake in Aba, Nigeria, on 15 May 1988.

As in the early days of the Church following the restoration, the Church in Africa has grown rapidly as converts have shared the gospel with their families and friends. Ten years after the revelation on the priesthood, mission presidents reported approximately seventeen thousand black Saints in Africa. The Lord truly has invited “all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God.” (2 Ne. 26:33.)

It is evident that the Lord loves the people of Africa and desires to bless these patient people. The Church is having a great impact on the lives of these Africans, and they in turn are having, and will continue to have, great impact upon the Church. This is illustrated through a dream related to me by Jude Inmpey of the Aba area of Nigeria. He dreamed he was at a major social event where an organ was being played, but the sound from the organ was painful. Upon investigation, he found that the organist was playing only on the white keys. The interpretation came to him sometime later at a Church gathering: “The Church has for many years played the white keys on the keyboard,” he said, “and now they’re playing both the white and the black, and the music is much sweeter.”

[photos] Photography by E. Dale LeBaron

[photos] Left: African Aaronic Priesthood holders with sacrament trays and water. Above: A beach on Mauritius.

[photo] Dale LeBaron (left), Joseph Johnson

[photos] Priscilla Sampson-Davis; Moses Mahlangu; Celestine Onuka

[photos] Backdrop: The Johannesburg temple. Top inset: Choir of children at Church meetings in Takoradi, Ghana. Bottom inset: An LDS chapel in Nigeria.

[photo] Adjei Kwame

[photo] Emmanuel Kissi

[photo] Anthony and Fidelia Obinna of Aboh Mbaise, Nigeria.

[photo] Clement Nwafor

[photo] Jude Inmpey

E. Dale LeBaron, an assistant professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU, is president of the Brigham Young University Second Stake.