The immense and complex continent of Africa covers one-fifth of the world’s land mass and is four times larger than the United States, with twice as many people divided into 2,000 tribes and ethnic groups.
The history of the Church in Africa is unique. Although Latter-day Saint missionaries arrived in Africa in 1853, Africa was isolated by its great distance from the center of the Church. One full century passed from the time the missionaries arrived in South Africa until a general authority visited the Saints there President David O. McKay in 1954. Africa is also the only continent in which nearly all of the vast population waited for up to 125 years before missionaries were sent to teach them, as well as the last continent to receive a temple (Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1985).
In August 1852, just five years after the pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley, Jesse Haven, Leonard L. Smith, and William H. Walker were called to establish the Church in the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of the continent of Africa, which is now part of South Africa. They traveled without purse or scrip and arrived 18 April 1853, seven months after their departure from Salt Lake City.
They immediately began proselyting, but mobs interrupted their meetings and pelted them with rocks and eggs. Ministers urged their congregations not to feed the missionaries or listen to them but to starve them out of Africa. Through their dedicated service and divine intervention, the work eventually began to move forward. Two months after their arrival, the missionaries baptized their first convert. Two years later there were 176 members in six small branches of the Church. Between 1865 and 1904, however, no full-time missionaries were called to Africa, and in 1918 Church membership was only 339, many converts having gathered to Utah. After World War II, when missionary numbers increased, the South Africa government imposed a quota on Latter-day Saint missionaries, allowing only 65 to be in the country at one time (Letter).
The first stake on the continent was organized in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1970, with Louis P. Hefer as president. In 1972 the Book of Mormon was translated into Afrikaans, which accelerated missionary work. That same year the seminary and institute programs were established in southern Africa by E. Dale LeBaron.
In 1978 monumental changes occurred that affected the Church in Africa more than anything since the arrival of the missionaries 125 years earlier. In June the First Presidency and the Twelve received the revelation in the Salt Lake Temple granting all worthy males the priesthood (Official Declaration 2). In August 1978, following negotiations with Church leaders, the South African government revoked its policy limiting the number of foreign missionaries.
The revelation allowing all worthy men to receive the priesthood, coupled with this change in governmental policy, opened the way for “one of the most spectacular events in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: the beginning of missionary work in Black Africa” (Morrison, 3). Unlike any other time in Church history, thousands of Africans primarily from Nigeria and Ghana had been converted to the gospel during the three decades before the 1978 revelation without the aid of missionaries and without receiving baptism. After studying the Book of Mormon and other Church literature, many wrote to Church headquarters requesting information and even baptism. During this period there were more letters coming from these unbaptized Africans than all of the rest of the world combined. Literature was sent, but because the country did not have any priesthood holders, these people were asked to wait for baptism. Undaunted, they formed congregations so they could worship together and share their message with others. Many of the congregations bore the name of the Church, and most were independent from each other. By the mid-1960s, more than 60 congregations existed in Nigeria and Ghana, and more than 16,000 followers were pleading and praying for membership in the Church. Some enterprising converts even established LDS bookstores.
Soon after the 1978 revelation on the priesthood, Rendell and Rachel Mabey and Ted and Janath Cannon were sent to Nigeria and Ghana as the first missionaries to black Africa. Many of the unbaptized pioneer converts, who had waited for up to 14 years, joined the Church with their congregations. These included Joseph B. Johnson, Priscilla Sampson-Davis, Anthony Obinna, David W. Eka, William Paul Daniel, and Moses Mahlangu. Within one year there were 1,700 members in 35 branches. Growth and training local leaders became the greatest challenges for the Church in Africa.
Within ten years the number of missions increased from one in all of Africa to four missions in southern Africa and four in West Africa. In October 1978, less than five months after the revelation on the priesthood, a South Africa area conference was held in Johannesburg, presided over by President Spencer W. Kimball. Although this was the second visit by a Church president to South Africa, it was the first time that more than one general authority had been in South Africa at the same time a total of five were at the conference.
The first temple in Africa was dedicated at Johannesburg 25 August 1985 by President Gordon B. Hinckley, a counselor in the First Presidency. The first president and matron for this temple were Harlan W. and Geraldine Merkley Clark.
On 15 May 1988, after less than ten years of proselyting, the first stake in which all priesthood leaders were black was organized in Aba, Nigeria. Regarding the uniqueness of the occasion, Elder Neal A. Maxwell noted that this was a historic day for the Church “in this dispensation, and in any dispensation” (Church News). In October 1990 the sub- Saharan African nations were organized as the Africa Area.
Historically, Africans have suffered much from famine and disease, and the Church has made considerable efforts to provide relief. In 1985 the First Presidency called upon Church members in Canada and the United States to join in two special fasts and to contribute generously to the fast offering fund to help victims of famine in Africa and other areas. Nearly 11 million dollars were contributed, much of which was used to aid suffering in 17 African countries.
In February 1998 President Gordon B. Hinckley became the first Church president to visit the Saints in black Africa, holding meetings in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, and the cities of Johannesburg, Durban, and Cape Town, South Africa. While in Ghana, President Hinckley announced plans for the Church to build a temple in the capital city, Accra.
By the end of 1998, the Church was registered in 48 sub-Saharan African nations and established in 27. Of the 1,243 full-time missionaries serving in Africa in 1998, 43% (537) were from Africa. In October 1998 the Africa Area was divided into the Africa West Area and the Africa Southeast Area.
Since the revelation in 1978, Church growth in sub-Saharan Africa has been phenomenal. From 1853 to 1978 (125 years), membership had grown to only 7,712 in southern Africa with one stake and one mission. In contrast, from 1978 to 2000 (22 years) membership soared to 136,872 in 30 stakes and 12 missions.
Allen, James B., and Glen M. Leonard. The Story of the Latter-day Saints. 2d ed. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992.
Ferguson, Isaac C. “Freely Given.” Ensign 18 (August 1988): 10-15.
LeBaron, E. Dale, ed. All Are Alike unto God. Orem, Utah: Granite Publishing, 1998. 116-38.
Letter from the South African Government, August 1978. In possession of E. Dale LeBaron.
Mabey, Rendell N., and Gordon T. Allred. Brother to Brother. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1984.
Middleton, John, ed. Encyclopedia of Africa South of the Sahara. 4 vols. New York: Macmillan Library Reference USA, 1997.
Monson, Farrell Ray. “History of the South African Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1853-1970.” Master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1971.
Morrison, Alexander B. The Dawning of a Brighter Day. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1990.
“Nigeria Marks Twin Milestones.” Church News, 21 May 1998, 6.
“Nigeria Stake: An Alliance of Faith, Work.” Church News, 21 May 1988. 6-7.
1999-2000 Church Almanac. Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1998.
Oral histories of early Church converts collected by E. Dale LeBaron. Copies at BYU Library, Provo, Utah; LDS Church Historical Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.
“Red Cross Thanks Church for Hunger-Fund Donation.” Church News, 9 April 1988, 23.
E. DALE LEBARON
From Arnold K. Garr, Donald Q. Cannon, and Richard O. Cowan, eds., Encyclopedia of Latter-day Saint History (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2000), 10-14. Used with the permission of the Deseret Book Company. Copies prohibited by law.