Sunday, June 5, 2011

LDS in Nigeria 1: 1960-1980

From News of the Church,  Feb1980, "A Miracle Precedes the Messengers," Janet Brigham.

African Christians in Ghana (green) and Nigeria (orange) had been writing to the church since at least 1960, asking for more information, for "holy books," and for any opportunity to learn more about the Church. While I was in Nigeria, my hosts noted that the two most popular types of book that you can find everywhere and anywhere are religion and self-help (aka get rich). Visa problems kept the Church from sending representatives until August, and then Nov 1978. Within 14 months, there were 1700 converts.
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).
The first missionary couples found a people who had been heavily prepared in many ways to receive the gospel:
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.
Among the many letters sent to Church headquarters asking for more light and knowledge was this on
"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.... [Elder Mabey said] “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.”
In a number of cases, these groups had organized themselves and told the state they were the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. By the time the missionaries arrived and actually baptized them, the buildings were over-filled.
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!’” ...
Once, following little more than a hunch, the representatives took a taxicab to a village nineteen miles from the Nigerian town of Owerri [southeast, near the current temple], 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. ...

 -- Derrill