Many of you are familiar with the story documented by Greg Prince in his biography of David O. McKay where blacks in Nigeria discovered the Book of Mormon and asked for missionaries in the 1960s. Nigeria wasn’t the only place; Dr. Emmanuel Abu Kissi has documented a similar history in Ghana in his book Walking in the Sand.
The roots of missionary work began when Dr Raphael Abraham Frank Mensah was introduced to the Book of Mormon in 1962 by a woman who had received a copy of the book in England. She gave the book to Mensah, though she did not join the church herself. Mensah sent a letter to President David O. McKay. Of course in 1962, the church had a ban on blacks to participate in priesthood and was unsure how to proceed. Mensah did his best to spread the word, and was often disappointed with the responses he got from Salt Lake City.
One of his most influential converts was Joseph William Billy Johnson, a charismatic leader who joined Mensah’s movement in 1964. Johnson was a better leader, creating a bit of jealousy with Mensah, but the two reconciled and established some 6 congregations in Ghana, despite not having a single LDS missionary in the country and facing intense persecution from other Christians in the area, some of whom even offered them money to convert to other Christian denominations. (Mensah was afflicted with a neuromuscular defect which limited his capacity to lead. I believe Mensah died in the 1990s.) Of course these other churches made the LDS group aware of racial restrictions, but the group had such a firm belief in the Book of Mormon that they were not persuaded by the information, and even visited with RLDS missionaries in Monrovia, Liberia who “simply invited him to keep his distance and remain in his own church headquartered in Salt Lake City.” (page 22)
In 1969, the group registered the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Ghana, making Johnson and Mensah trustees so they could get property to hold church meetings. I am truly amazed that they would do this despite knowing about the racial ban for some 15 years! The author described how Johnson found out the ban had been lifted on page 28.
On the night of 9 July 1978 [I wonder if he meant June], J. W. B. Johnson had difficulty sleeping, so he stayed up listening to the radio. At midnight he heard on the news carried from Britain by the overseas service of the British Broadcasting Corporation that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was now going to give the priesthood to Negroes. He “sat there and cried,” said he. He could hardly believe what had been said. Now all his sacrifices were worthwhile, and his dreams would come true. He had been invited by Dr. Mensah to help build the Church in 1964. Since then, Johnson had laboured diligently for fourteen years. The reward was more than silver and gold. Said he in his letter to President Spencer W. Kimball:
We therefore solemnly declare in the name of Jesus Christ that God has prepared the groups in Ghana for you; for we have nowhere else to go, but look forward to your sending to us missionaries to help us understand the Church better; for it is our burning desire to live by the faith of the Church in order to attain its standards.
Following the removal of the ban, Pres Kimball sent Edwin Cannon and Merrill Bateman on a fact-finding trip to Ghana and Nigeria. The book claims that Nigerians had more protestant worship than the Ghanians. Two missionary couples were sent to Ghana, and told that too much growth could cause its own problems and that they were to proceed slowly. Still the number of converts that first month of official missionary work is astonishing. Billy Johnson was baptized, ordained a priest, and set apart as branch president. He served there just two months before he was ordained an elder and named district president over the now 10 branches he had mentored previously.
Just after the ban was lifted, Dr. Emmanual Abu Kissi (the author) was baptized into the LDS Church in 1979 while attending medical school in England. Upon his return to Ghana, he was surprised to discover so many Mormons! His leadership skills were a huge benefit to the native people there. Kissi quickly became a branch president, district president, and in 1989 became acting mission president when the government of Ghana banned Mormon worship services and expelled all foreign missionaries from Ghana.
The Freeze, as it is known in Ghana, lasted from June 1989 to Nov 1990. Mormon buildings were desecrated, the church farm was confiscated and chickens were sold by the government who claimed LDS missionaries were actually CIA spies. They also propagated anti-Mormon stereotypes and cited the racial ban as another reason to ban Mormons. (To be fair, the government simultaneously banned Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as 2 other lesser known Christian denominations.) While the Christians were at first happy the Mormons were expelled, they soon complained when the government required their churches to be registered as well.
Kissi has gone on to serve as a Stake Patriarch and Area Authority Seventy over Ghana after the Freeze was lifted. His son died during the Freeze in a car crash, and his brother was jailed for holding church meetings during the Freeze.
I hadn’t realized that the ban was still a problem in Africa, or that church leaders were jailed simply for worshiping more than a decade after the 1978 revelation. My mind is boggled that so many people joined a church (1) despite the ban, and (2) despite no missionary presence in the country for more than a decade. Truly these people don’t have ordinary testimonies. Of course the Accra, Ghana Temple was dedicated in 1998.
What are your thoughts? How do you explain these amazing testimonies of people who couldn’t join the church for more than 15 years?