Editor’s Note: Quotes and excerpts in this article are largely from Alexander B. Morrison’s book The Dawning of a Brighter Day: The Church in Black Africa. For Meridian’s coverage of Ghana and its temple dedication, go to www.ldsmag.com/ghana .
It is tempting to think there must be a quality of light in the air or the water that inclines the people of West Africa toward believing in God with such a heartfelt yearning. Perhaps it is just a hunger that has arisen out of centuries of every kind of oppression from civil war, corruption, slavery and poverty to famine and AIDS. Their history has been tragic, the picture of misery, etched in tones of unmuted pain. For much of the world, Africa has been the forgotten continent, but not to God.
What once was called the Gold Coast of Africa — that curve that juts out from the continent like the top of an ice cream cone — is indeed gold. It is full of a golden quality of light in the souls of believers, and investigators who are more than gold.
On August 7, when the Aba Nigeria Temple, is dedicated, it will be the third temple in Africa (along with Johannesburg, South Africa and Accra, Ghana), and the second in West Africa. More significant, it is built in a land, like Ghana, where people spontaneously wanted to be Latter-day Saints and formed their own congregations long before the missionaries arrived.
Not here, as in so many other lands, did missionaries have to cajole and knock sometimes fruitlessly to find people to teach the truth. The Church was grown spontaneously and taken root by the sacrifice of many home-grown missionaries. In its origins, missionaries didn’t go to West Africa seeking converts. Instead, it was the Africans who clamored for the gospel.
According to Alexander Morrison, “Most of those who wrote knew little about the Church, but, impelled by the Spirit, they knew somehow that they needed to know more. Missionary pamphlets and tracts, which found their way into Africa by various means, were read and reread. Many who read them were touched by the Spirit and recognized that they had come across a great treasure, a pearl of great price. Others heard of the Church by word of mouth, from a brother, cousin, or friend who had studied in the United States or elsewhere. They too pondered, prayed, and believed.
“Slowly, spontaneously, a miracle began to unfold. Independent of one another and without knowledge of the others’ actions, several groups of humble African truth seekers in Nigeria began to organize themselves into churches. They built small meetinghouses and patterned their meetings, doctrine, organization, and even names after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as best they knew it. Since they lacked priesthood authority for what they were doing, there inevitably were errors and omissions in their actions, and they were Latter-day Saints in name only.”
For two decades before the revelation on the priesthood was received, letters poured into Church headquarters from Africans asking for “holy books.”
During the 1960s. more letters were received from Nigeria and Ghana than the rest of the world combined. Missionary pamphlets, tracts, a few copies of the Book of Mormon had found their way to Africa and had been passed from friend to friend, read and reread, cherished as a precious conduit of the Spirit.
“Please come for us,” the Nigerians said. They plied Church headquarters with pleading letters, hoping to be baptized and organized as part of the kingdom.
Elder Morrison said, “The Church was not unaware of what was happening in Nigeria and elsewhere in West Africa. On more than one occasion representatives were sent to appraise the situation and report to the First Presidency.”
In 1960, Glen G. Fisher was returning from serving as president of the South African Mission, when he stopped by Nigeria to investigate matters there.
Arriving in Lagos, his first obstacle was simply locating the people who had been writing the Church with such heartfelt pleas. The postmaster directed him to three churches where he might find the man he sought, and at the first in the shade of the verandah, President Fisher found four men in deep discussion. When he told them he was a Mormon missionary, they reached and took both of his hands. “Never have I received a more sincere and enthusiastic welcome,” he said. “They led me to a chair and for three hours we sat and discussed the teachings of the Church.”
“A visit to their churches convinced me that members of the congregation were living in extreme poverty,” wrote President Fisher. In one church particularly I noted there were no seats, no musical instruments, and no pulpit. The leader of the group carried his supplies in a wooden box which he used as a pulpit. Supplies consisted of a few Bibles, some missionary pamphlets, the Articles of Faith by James E. Talmage, and A Marvelous Work and a Wonder by LeGrand Richards. This same literature I found in all of the churches I visited. There was also a copy of the Book of Mormon in one of the churches. From this literature a church organization had been effected, patterned after the Mormon church.
“I discovered that for a number of years past they had been preparing their congregation for baptism into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Their president told me that they had two congregations with a total membership of over a thousand people, and with some pride he declared that not a single one either smoked or used alcoholic beverages. The members also paid tithing and they had been able to accumulate sufficient funds to erect two small chapels. (Letter from Glen G. Fisher to S. C. Brewerton, M. D., dated July 16, 1984; copy in possession of Alexander Morrison)
Nigeria’s First Members
Nigeria’s first converts were Anthony and Fidelia Obinna. In the Igbo tongue, Obinna means “one who is dear to his father,” and so it was true of Anthony. According to Elder Morrison, “His father, Ugochukwu (“gift of God”) Obinna, was a farmer, trader, and local judge, as well as an idol worshipper and polygamist. Each year Anthony’s parents promised their gods gifts of goats, sheep, and chickens, as well as fruits and vegetables, to protect their lives and those of their families. Ugochukwu was a peacemaker, a lover of truth who hated falsehoods and evil, and was influential in his community.
“It was not easy to get an education when Anthony was a boy. At that time Nigerians were afraid of white men and wanted nothing to do with them. They disliked anyone who wanted their children to go to school, preferring instead that their children remain at home to engage in subsistence agriculture. Only children who were considered as unhelpful members of the family were allowed to go to school.
“In 1937 an English visitor spoke to Anthony’s father; frustrated because he couldn’t understand the foreigner, Ugochukwu decided Anthony should go to school. Off the youth went, first to local schools and later to schools in Jos, a town in northern Nigeria.
God had a work for Anthony to do.
He tells his story in his own words:
“In November 1965, I was visited in a dream by a tall person carrying a walking stick in his right hand. He asked whether I had read about Christian and Christiana from A Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. I told him that I had forgotten it, and he told me to read it again. After a few months the same personage appeared to me again and took me to a most beautiful building and showed me everything in it. That personage appeared to me three times.
“During the Nigerian civil war, when we were confined to the house, I picked up an old copy of the Reader’s Digest for September 1958. I opened it at page 34 and saw a picture of the same beautiful building I had been shown around in my dream, and immediately I recognized it. The heading was “The March of the Mormons.” I had never before heard the word Mormons. I started to read the story because of the picture of the building I had seen in my dream. I discovered that it was all about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“From the time I finished reading the story, I had no rest of mind any longer. My whole attention was focused on my new discovery. I rushed out immediately to tell my brothers, who were all amazed and astonished to hear the story. (“Voice from Nigeria,” Ensign, December 1980, p. 30.)
Elder Morrison recounts, “Because of the civil war, Anthony was unable to write to Church headquarters for more information at that time. When the blockade ended in 1971, he was able to get a letter through, and in response he received pamphlets, tracts, and a copy of the Book of Mormon. Though he was told the Church could not at that time be organized in Nigeria, Anthony continued to read and pray, asking God to open the door for him and his family.
“He soon encountered persecutions, name calling, and abuse, but was conditioned by his conviction: ‘I knew I had discovered the truth, and men’s threats could not move me and my group.’
Extending the Priesthood
These African believers who were stirred by the Spirit had to stand fast in their beliefs for another day. That day came June 9, 1978, when President Spencer W. Kimball announced that a revelation had been received to extend the priesthood to all worthy males.
Later, Jude Inmpey of the Aba area of Nigeria recounted a dream. “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.'”
Edwin and Janath Cannon and Rendell and Rachel Mabey were assigned to Nigeria and Ghana as special representatives of the International Mission in November 1978. During the year they labored, food was sometimes hard to come by, but not converts to the Church. When the missionaries arrived, the people lined up in white, with shining tears of joy, for baptism. At the same time, Ghana’s William Billy Johnson, remembers Elder Cannon losing so much weight his pants became loose, and he walked sometimes with a funny gait to hitch them up.
There was much to do and much to correct. Practices not in accordance with Church standards, including use of collection plates, and dancing, drumming and Pentecostal hallelujahs in church meetings had to be stopped. But the people were eager, humble and teachable and quickly moved to practices more acceptable to the Lord.
Finally the great day came. On November 21, 1978, 19 people, including the Obinnas by Elders Mabey, Cannon and A. Bruce Knudsen were baptized and a branch was organized with Anthony as President and Fidelia as Relief Society President.
The new branch presidency wrote an ecstatic letter to the First Presidency:
Dear Brethren, The entire members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in this part of Nigeria have the pleasure to thank you and the Latter-day Saints throughout the world for opening the door for the Gospel to come to our people in its fullness.
We are happy for the many hours in the Upper Room 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 and by revelation has confirmed the long promised day, and has granted the holy priesthood to us, with the power to exercise its divine authority and enjoy every blessings of the temple .
There is no doubt that the Church here will grow and become a mighty centre for the Saints and bring progress enough to the people of Nigeria as it is doing all over the world.
Growing the Gospel in Nigeria
Their letter was prophetic. The Church has grown like a grassfire in Nigeria with more than 68,000 members today. Many are well educated, some struggle to make their livelihood.
Many were baptized in Nigeria, some have found the Church in their work abroad and have come home, looking for the gospel.
Elder Morrison recounts one moving story, “In Nigeria, as elsewhere in developing countries, mission presidents are constantly on the alert for individuals who have been baptized elsewhere and have moved to remote locations far away from organized units of the Church. When these “lost lambs” eventually are located, they often know little about the Church, having forgotten much of what once was dear to them.
“Sad to say, a few perhaps do not really want to be found. Having lost their grip on the iron rod, they fall away into the dark abyss of sin and rebellion. Not infrequently, however, a noble soul is found — one who is anxious to enjoy the sweet fruits of fellowship with the Saints and who welcomes our emissaries with open heart and open arms. The following story is about one such noble soul.
“In late 1987, Robert E. Sackley, then president of the Nigeria Lagos Mission, felt that the time had come to move the Church north and west from its center of strength in the eastern states of Imo and Cross River. One of the cities he decided to open was Enugu, the former British capital of eastern Nigeria. He felt certain that among the inhabitants of that lovely place were the elect of God, waiting to be taught the gospel.
“About forty miles north of Enugu is the city of Nsukka, where the home campus of the University of Nigeria is located. President Sackley had heard that a professor at the university had been affiliated with the Church in America. He even had the man’s name: Dr. Ike Ikeme, a Nigerian who had received a doctorate in food science in 1981 at Purdue University in Indiana.
One of the great shepherds of the Church, President Sackley resolved to try to locate Professor Ikeme.
He had a strange feeling about the man, a feeling that impelled him and Sister Sackley to make the 140-mile journey from Aba to try to find him. When they arrived at the university, President Sackley was able to verify quickly that there was indeed a Professor Ikeme in the Department of Food Science.
“Unfortunately, he was told, the man was on vacation and was not on campus that day. As he stood in the office, trying to find someone who knew where Dr. Ikeme could be located, a man there spoke up: “I know Dr. Ikeme. He lives very close to my home. He is at his home today. Follow me and I’ll take you to him.”
“The Sackleys drove up to Dr. Ikeme’s house and knocked at the door. It was opened by a man who glanced first at the car with the Church logo on the side and then at President Sackley. When President Sackley said, “I’m looking for Dr. Ikeme,” the man replied with a smile, ‘I am Dr. Ikeme and you are the mission president. Welcome. I have been waiting six years for you.’
“He then introduced his wife and three small children to President and Sister Sackley. Delighted to have found his man, President Sackley said,’ “Dr. Ikeme, are you a member of the Church?’ In response the professor took him to a back room where clothes hung on an indoor clothesline. Now all was clear to President Sackley. ‘Dr. Ikeme, I see that you are an endowed member of the Church.’ Brother Ikeme replied, ‘A very committed endowed member of the Church.’ One of the elect of God had been found.
“For six years Ike Ikeme had faithfully lived in obedience to all of the covenants he had made in the holy temple, not knowing if he would ever again have the opportunity to fellowship with the Saints in mortality. During that time he maintained contact with the missionaries who had taught him in America.
“One of them, a woman in Salt Lake City, Utah, wrote to him regularly, advising him that he should never lose faith, for the day would come when he could reestablish contact with the Church. Thus sustained, Ike worked and prayed and endured. He told his wife, “I have waited in the Lord’s time. You know the Lord’s time is the best time.”
First Stake in Nigeria
In 1988, Elder Maxwell formed the first stake in Aba, Nigeria and spoke of that earlier day when the priesthood had been extended to all worthy males. “I wept with joy that day. The handkerchief I wiped my tears with I took home and told my wife not to wash it. I put it in my book of remembrance, still bearing the marks of my tears of joy. On this Sunday, I have a second handkerchief that has wiped tears of joy. I will take it home and place it in my book of remembrance next to the other handkerchief.”
When the new Aba Nigeria stake president David Eka was sealed to his wive Ekaete in the London Temple. They were amazed, when they came into the sealing room, to encounter many friends there to witness that glorious event. Elder Morrison said, “As they knelt at the sacred altar, with Elder Neal A. Maxwell conducting the sealing ceremony, in my mind’s eye I saw not only a beautiful young couple but a whole people, rising up in truth and righteousness to accept the fullness of the gospel of Christ. I saw them coming, now in a trickle, but soon in a flood, to receive the supernal blessings of the temple. And I saw the birth of a continent into the kingdom of God.”
Who are these people, these glorious people who have such believing spirits in a sometimes brutal land that has inclined some others to the darkest kinds of depredation? The Church is experiencing not only rapid, but solid, firmly-planted growth in Africa, and the gospel is the hope for the continent. Africa is like England when the missionaries first arrived in 1837 — white and ready to harvest. It is a plentiful, abundant harvest, a joyful gathering in of the sheaves.
This weekend when the Aba, Nigeria Temple is dedicated, it will be coming to a people for whom a very long wait is over.