Would-be Saints: West Africa Before The 1978 Priesthood Revelation

As part of Black History Month, we are posting the text of a great article from the Journal of Mormon History by James B. Allen[ref]James B. Allen, a past president of the Mormon History Association, has been on the faculty of Brigham Young University since 1963, and currently holds the Lemuel H. Redd Chair in Western American History. He is also a former Assistant Church Historian and is the author or co-author of numerous books and articles, among them The Story of the Latter-day Saints, with Glen M. Leonard. He is married to Renee Jones; they have five children and twelve grandchildren. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Mormon History Association annual meeting, 13 May 1989, at Omaha, Nebraska. Sources from the Historical Department Archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter cited as LDS Church Archives) are copyright by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; courtesy of the Church Historical Department; used by permission.[/ref], which can be found here as a pdf.



On 8 June 1978, in a letter to "general and local priesthood officers... throughout the world," the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made its most dramatic announcement of the twentieth century. President Spencer W. Kimball had received a revelation wherein "[the Lord] has confirmed that the long-promised day has come when... all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color" (D&C, Official Declaration—2). The new revelation had immediate and far-reaching effects world-wide, for it reversed a long-standing policy that barred black men from ordination to the priesthood, black men and women from service as full-time missionaries, and both from temple endowments and sealings.[ref]For insight into the history of this practice, see Lester E. Bush, Jr., "Mormonism's Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview." Dialogue 8 (Spring 1973): 11-68; Lester E. Bush, Jr., and Armand L. Mauss, eds., Neither White nor Black Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church (Midvale, Utah: Signature Books, 1984).[/ref] At once blacks were ordained to the priesthood and began appearing in the temples, in the mission field, and in priesthood leadership positions. Missionaries no longer faced painful dilemmas when blacks inquired about the gospel, and they began actively proselyting in black neighborhoods. In South America, many of the tensions once caused by the priesthood policy began to find solutions; and in two black African nations, Nigeria and Ghana, perhaps thousands of citizens who had been praying for years that the Church would officially establish itself among them found their prayers answered before the year was over. On 15 May 1988, less than a decade after the priesthood revelation, the Aba Nigeria Stake was organized with a black convert, David William Eka, as stake president.[ref]Church Almanac 1989-90 (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1990), 254.[/ref]

Parts of the West African story are common knowledge, and the Church's proselyting success since 1978 has received considerable attention in the Church News and elsewhere.[ref]See Newell G. Bringhurst, Saints, Slaves and Blacks-. The Changing Place of Black People within Mormonism (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1981); Bringhurst, "Mormonism in Black Africa: Changing Attitudes and Practices, 1830-1981," Sunstone 6 (May-June 1981): 15-21; E. Dale LeBaron, ed, "All Are Alike Unto God" (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1990); Alexander B. Morrison, The Dawning of a Brighter Day: The Church in Black Africa (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1990);; Rendell N. Mabey and Gordon T. Allred, Brother to Brother-. The Story of the Latter-day Saint Missionaries Who Took the Gospel to Africa (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1984); Armand L. Mauss, "The Fading of Pharaoh's Curse: The Decline and Fall of the Priesthood Ban Against Blacks in the Mormon Church," Dialogue 14 (Autumn 1981): 10-45.[/ref] This paper, however, deals with two aspects that have not, as yet, received the attention they deserve: the preparation of the African people themselves for the establishment of the Church among them, and the story of LaMar Williams's early contacts with and visits to them.


Africa possesses a rich and fascinating heritage; but by the nineteenth century, its history had become also a history of European colonialism. Though colonial powers brought some measure of political stability, as well as the mixed blessings of Christianity, they also dispossessed the people from their lands, scattered many to serve foreign masters, and, through technology, materialism, and Christianity, substantially altered traditional African economies and lifestyles.[ref]For a brief but pithy summary of the African heritage, see William Lye, "From Burundi to Zaire: Taking the Gospel to Africa," The Ensign 10 (March 1980): 10-15.[/ref] The Gold Coast (now Ghana) and Nigeria were both under British rule, as were Sierra Leone and Gambia. World War II, however, marked a turning point; and within fifteen years, nearly all of both French and British West Africa was politically independent,[ref]See Olajide Aluko, "Politics of Decolonization in British West Africa, 1945-1960," in History of West Africa, Vol. 2, edited by J. F. Ade Ajaxi and Michael Crowder, 693-735 (Hong Kong: Longman Group, 1984).[/ref] even though colonialism in economic influence, public services, the armed forces, and even religion remained and is still apparent to some degree.

Religion in Africa was characterized by four traditions: indigenous folk religions, Islam, Christianity, and the new African Christian faiths.[ref]Lye, "From Burundi to Zaire," 15.[/ref] Significantly, many political and economic leaders, urban workers, and leaders of African nationalist movements were educated in Christian missions; and in a curious way, these missions themselves partially contributed to the rise of nationalism. Anti-colonial protests took place not so much among the most devout Christians as among those who were "on the edges:" apostates, near-converts, and those educated in mission schools. They protested against racially degrading myths often perpetuated by missionaries, such as the concept that Africans had no history, no culture, and little virtue. As James S. Coleman has observed, they were also dismayed by the entrance requirements to Christianity that included abandoning "initiation ceremonies (a crucial phase in the African system of education), dancing (a vital part of the aesthetic and recreational life of the African), marriage payment (a bond linking the families of the bride and groom), polygyny (at the core of the entire African family system)," secret societies, ancestor worship, "witch doctoring, semi-nudity, African names, and traditional funeral ceremonies. Renunciation of the old order of things was a prerequisite to acceptance of the new."[ref]James S. Coleman, Nigeria-. Background to Nationalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963), 97.[/ref]

Nationalists portrayed such misrepresentations and policies as part of a deliberate conspiracy between missionaries and the government to make the Africans meek, passive, and subservient.[ref]As James S. Coleman has explained: "The Nigerian had been taught that the European race was superior because it was Christian; hence he was acutely conscious and critical of any un-Christian behavior by a white man. Isolated deviants could be overlooked, but when many members of the white community in Nigeria appeared indifferent to the precepts of Christianity, the Nigerian was not only disenchanted but annoyed at being duped by humbuggery and a holier-than-thou attitude. As one nationalist newspaper editorialized: '... Europeans came to Africa with Christ and the gospel. It appears that on their way back they left both there. The gospel must be taken back to Europe. Europe must be re-educated,... re-civilized. Europe needs African evangelists.' The Nigerian's disaffection was given additional support by Nigerian students returning from Europe or America with reports on the character and behavior of the ordinary white man. His disillusionment tended to make him cynical and critical of all white pretensions." Ibid., 107.[/ref] As evidence of hypocrisy, they pointed to the silence of the missionaries on discrimination against natives, inequality, and exploitation. Actually, many missionaries were not indifferent to these injustices but chafed under instructions not to criticize the government. Some tried to alleviate the problems, but their efforts were too ineffective to convince the nationalists that no conspiracy existed.[ref]Ibid, 109-11.[/ref]

At the same time, some Christian nationalists also began to teach that genuine Christianity could be distinguished from western, white culture. "Now it is dawning upon the African of today that he can have one without the other," said one Nigerian Christian leader. "What is demanded today is Christianity without the system that has been built around it in the West."[ref]In ibid., 108.[/ref] Such sentiments helped give rise to a number of new, independent African Christian movements, clearly reflecting the influence of anti-colonialism on Christianity itself.

Nevertheless, the fact that Christianity was a major religious tradition was essential to the ultimate success of the Latter-day Saints in black Africa. Rendell Mabey, one of the first Church representatives to arrive in 1978, wrote:

At the very least, we decided, the religious atmosphere was a healthy one. Little churches dotted the landscape, and ministers of one kind or another abounded everywhere. Many times since then, in fact, I have felt that we owe a great debt to those religions which established a foothold in many parts of Africa when Christianity was regarded with much suspicion and hostility. Through their efforts a remarkably rich seedbed was prepared for sowing the everlasting gospel. Soil so fertile, in the words of an old-time farmer, it would 'almost jump up and grab the seeds from your hand.'[ref]Mabey and Allred, Brother to Brother, 27.[/ref]

As in Asia a generation earlier, practically all the new converts already worshipped Christ and saw in Mormonism the greater fullness of the gospel they already knew and loved.


On 6 March 1957 Ghana achieved its independence. Nigeria followed on 1 October I960, and by 1965 all the British colonies in West Africa were politically independent. Significantly, it was just at this time that the LDS Church was beginning to take serious interest in Ghana and Nigeria.

The problems of establishing the Church in West Africa, however, can be partly explained by the long struggle to escape from colonialism, including religious colonialism. Mormon requests for visas were repeatedly denied, almost certainly because key government officials were wary of any Western proselyting movement; the 1963 discovery that the Mormon Church would not ordain blacks to the priesthood confirmed their suspicions. Such a policy could only be interpreted as paternalism. Nor would such officials yield to requests from Nigerian citizens that Mormon missionaries be allowed proselyting privileges. For Nigerian groups to look outside Africa for affiliation and guidance also flew in the face of African nationalism.

The challenge, then, was whether white American Mormons could move into West Africa free from the ethnocentric biases Africans saw in other churches. Mormons were hardly immune from the same stereotypes that afflicted other white Americans. Despite sincere efforts by Church leaders to eliminate it, there was still evidence of some racial bias among American Mormons, as revealed unconsciously in using colored to refer to black Africans. Some of the first Mormon missionaries in Africa were uncomfortable with African music,[ref]See the short but excellent discussion of American attitudes toward African music in Michael Hicks, Mormonism and Music A History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 219-22.[/ref] dress, and customs; some were hesitant, even after the revelation, to ordain blacks to the Melchizedek Priesthood without a "training period" in the Aaronic Priesthood. Such biases were simply part of the historical reality; so was their overcoming. Long before the 1978 revelation, West Africa had its visionaries, heroes, and its Saints-who-would-be-Saints.


The fascinating story of the Mormons and West Africa before 1978 includes black Africans who were converted to the gospel but whose faith was tested through years of anguished waiting; white Latter-day Saints from America whose professions brought them to Africa where they learned to love the African people and did what they could to encourage them in their quest; at least one Church employee who corresponded with the blacks, visited them in a semi-official capacity, developed deep love and empathy for them, and longed for the day when he could officially take the gospel to them; and, finally, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, who were forced to make agonizing decisions about whether to establish the Church among a people who, because of the priesthood policy, clearly could not provide their own leaders in their native land.

Contact between the Church and black Africans in Nigeria goes back at least to 1946, when 0. J. Umordak of the Uyo District wrote to the president of the South African Mission asking for literature and missionaries. The president referred the letter to the General Authorities in Salt Lake City, who decided not to reply until they could give it further consideration. A year later Umordok wrote again, but again Church leaders "decided to postpone [an] answer" until the whole matter had been studied more fully.[ref]Bringhurst, "Mormonism in Black Africa," 18. Bringhurst cites the Minutes of the Council of the Twelve, 24 October 1946 and 9 October 1947, in the Adam S. Bennion Papers, Special Collections, Marriott library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah.[/ref] Nothing more happened immediately, but this was only the beginning of a cruel dilemma that would confront Church leaders periodically for the next three decades.

In 1951 David O. McKay became president of the Church, and under his leadership small but significant shifts in policy occurred that may have helped prepare Church members for the dramatic change in policy twenty-seven years later. In 1954 he became the first Church president to visit the South African Mission. The current priesthood policy forbade the ordination of anyone who could not trace his lineage out of Africa; but during his visit, President McKay felt inspired to change the policy, so that any man whose physical appearance did not suggest black ancestry was presumed to be eligible for the priesthood.[ref]See Mauss, "The Fading of the Pharaoh's Curse," 12; Farrell Ray Monson, "History of the South African Mission of the Church ofJesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" (Master's thesis, Brigham Young University, 1971), 42-46.[/ref] It is possible that he longed for an even greater change.

More West Africans, in succeeding years, learned of the LDS faith, and more wrote to Salt Lake City. Some letters apparently went directly to the First Presidency; but at least by 1959, inquiries began to arrive at the Missionary Department. There, they came to the desk of LaMar Stevenson Williams, a man with a life-long dedication to missionary work and an employee of the Missionary Department since 1949, with the duty of preparing audio-visual aids for missionaries, collecting photographs and other materials for stake conferences and missions, and responding to letters of inquiry about the Church. Williams had asked his secretary to "be alert to any letter that might be unusual or from an unusual place," and sometime in 1959 she passed on an inquiry form from the back of the "Joseph Smith Story" tract that had been sent in by the Reverend Honesty John Ekong from the Abak Zone in Nigeria. Ekong had checked all the boxes on the form, which meant that he wanted missionaries, more literature, and the name and address of the closest branch. Williams wasn't even sure where Nigeria was; but after he and his secretary found it on a map, he surmised that Honesty John was black and that they must "tread carefully" in setting up correspondence with him. The literature, nevertheless, was sent, correspondence was begun, and Williams kept Gordon B. Hinckley, head of the Missionary Department, apprised of all he was doing. Before long Honesty John requested baptism.[ref]'A copy of the original inquiry form, signed by Ekong, is in LaMar S. Williams, "African Mission Journal," in Williams's possession. Used and quoted by permission. Unless otherwise noted, most of the material dealing with Williams and his experience is taken from this journal or from LaMar S. Williams and Nyal B. Williams, Oral History, interviewed by Gordon Irving, 1981, typescript, The James Moyle Oral History Program, Historical Department Archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, hereafter cited as LDS Church Archives. Some use is also made of "Notes on Personal Interview with LaMar S. Williams," 6 July 1988, by James B. Allen, in possession of the author.[/ref] Honesty John's wish was not fulfilled, but Williams's literature reached many more Africans, including Dick Obot of Uyo, Nigeria, who shared the message with forty-one churches that he had established, consisting of several thousand members.

The First Presidency, meanwhile, was fully aware of what was happening, and was willing at least to investigate. In I960 they asked Glen G. Fisher, president of the South African Mission, to visit Nigeria as he returned home. Fisher did so and met with several groups that had obtained Church literature, believed it, organized themselves the best they could after the pattern they saw in the literature, and looked to Utah for help. One congregation consisted of 125 members, and the letterhead on the leader's stationary read "The Church of Jesus Christ, the King, of the Latter-day Saints" and, underneath that banner, "Mormons."

When he returned to Salt Lake City, Fisher reported to the First Presidency, who asked some pointed questions. What did the Nigerians say when he told them they could not have the priesthood, President McKay wanted to know. Fisher replied that they did not seem too concerned, though he was not sure they fully understood what that meant. Their greatest concern, he said, was receiving more literature and getting help in building chapels. Their existing meetinghouses were the most "dilapidated" buildings imaginable, and he compared one seaside chapel to an "old sheep shed." President McKay also asked what, in Fisher's judgement, the Church should do with these people. The Church, Fisher responded, had been invited to "superintend" their work; and even though he recognized the limits imposed by the priesthood policy, he felt it possible for someone to go in and take over. Everyone he met could speak English, and he was impressed with their educational achievements and their sincerity in seeking help. His heart went out to them, he said, and he believed that if an organization could be set up, even without the priesthood, the people could "carry on" and do a tremendous amount of good.

Fisher's suggestion of organization without priesthood was unique, but his concern for the spiritual well-being of the Nigerians was strong. Clearly this would be an unusual step, and one that the First Presidency could not take without a great deal of investigation. Also, President J. Reuben Clark added a note of caution when he said that news travels fast and that the Church would be in serious trouble among blacks elsewhere if it did something of that kind in Nigeria.[ref]Glen G. Fisher, "Report [to the First Presidency] of Elder Glen G. Fisher of the South African Mission," 16 September I960, LDS Church Archives.[/ref]

Meanwhile, requests for information continued to arrive at the Missionary Department. A particularly impressive letter, dated 20 December I960, came from Adewole Ogunmokun of Port Harcourt:


I have been instructed by brethren of our Church to get into personal contact through you, to the Authorities of the Mormon Church, with a view to letting you know that we desire to form ourselves into one with you by Faith and Creed.

Sir, the little group on behalf of whom I am writing came into existence as a result of some contact with an American friend who gave to me a copy of the "Reader's Digest" of April 1958 in which an article captioned "The Mormon Church: A Complete Way of Life" was, after reading through the article referred to above, I must confess I became transformed and for a number of days I dreamt dreams of various degrees about the Mormon Church, I have even worshipped in the Great Temple with thousands of other Brethren on more than one occasion, until I became convinced that I was not only dreaming but seen visions of new hope coming to my nation and Africa as a whole through the Mormon church, so about the middle of last year I got a few friends and relations together and after few but not very easy meetings I was able to convince them of the new way of life and hope. I am proud to inform you that now, even without any books other than what was read about the Church in the Magazine and with complete reliance on my dreamed worships with you in the Temple, almost a hundred brethren are now holding regular Services of worship on the house of one of our members. This is our third month together and we are making steady progress in spite of handicaps the greatest of which is lack of proper knowledge in the new way and as such after our evening service on Sunday the 18th the elders delegated me with powers to open up correspondence with you with a view to receiving more information about our Church and at the same time asking for your help, both in prayers and materials (i.e. books or literatures on order of worship etc.), especially now that we are getting ready some new converts for baptism early in the new year.

We need your help, too, in bringing our Church to its feet, in any way you might deem fit to help us develop into a great church. We need directions from you, like the people of old we call on you to come over to Nigeria nay Africa (not Macedonia) and help us, we are sure you will not turn a deaf ear to our appeal YOU MUST NOT....

May He whose Kingdom we are preparing for be with you all.

I remain,

Yours in the Lord

Adewole Ogunmokun[ref]Copy in Williams, "African Mission Journal."[/ref]

Williams began to correspond with Ogunmokun, as well with leaders of perhaps a dozen or more other groups that, independently of each other, were taking upon themselves the name of the Church and baptizing converts. How each of these groups first discovered Mormonism may never be fully documented. Some, no doubt, had received Williams's literature. Others may have seen the Reader's Digest article; Nigerians studying or traveling in Europe or America may have come across literature; still other books and pamphlets may have reached West Africa by other routes. Williams later estimated that the Missionary Department received a thousand letters requesting more information from West Africa during the early 1960s.[ref]Oral History, 41.[/ref] He obtained the overruns of Church magazines; and at the end of each month, his secretary shipped this material not only to Nigeria but also to Ghana and India, where requests were also originating.

The First Presidency, meanwhile, discussed the Nigerian situation frequently during 1961. On 11 May, for example, the Presidency reviewed correspondence from as far back as 1953, and considered LaMar Williams's suggestion, as well as the suggestion of Elder Hugh B. Brown of the Quorum of the Twelve, that the Nigerians be visited with a view toward opening a mission. Interestingly enough, none of the correspondence reviewed at that point had mentioned the priesthood issue; Williams recommended dealing with it, not by letter but during a visit. After much discussion, the Presidency decided not to make any moves at that point, and President Henry D. Moyle was told to caution Williams that anything he said in his continuing correspondence was his own responsibility; he was not to speak officially in behalf of the Church.[ref]Information on this and subsequent First Presidency meetings on this subject is found in the J. Reuben Clark Papers, LDS Church Archives.[/ref]

On 22 June, President McKay expressed his feeling that they had an inescapable obligation to permit the Nigerians to be baptized if they were converted and worthy, though they should understand that they could not perform ordinances or hold the priesthood. During this meeting the First Presidency also seriously considered the possibility of sending the new South African Mission President, O. Layton Alldredge, to get acquainted with the Nigerians, then of sending LaMar Williams to meet him there and, perhaps, to remain as a missionary.

The matter came up again on 30 June, and by that time Hugh B. Brown was a member of the First Presidency.[ref]Due to the serious illness of President Clark, who by this time was not even attending First Presidency meetings, President McKay called an additional counselor; and on 22 June, in a meeting of the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve, President Brown was named as a "Counselor to the First Presidency." On 6 October President Clark died, and the First Presidency was reorganized, with Henry D. Moyle as First Counselor and Hugh B. Brown as Second Counselor. Although the record is not clear, President Brown apparently did not attend the 22 June meeting.[/ref] President Brown was very much aware of the correspondence, and President McKay told him of the plan to send Alldredge and Williams to Nigeria. The situation, however, was problematic, for never before had the Church considered organizing branches in areas where new members could not function in the priesthood. President McKay commented that they were facing a problem even greater than that faced by the Twelve in New Testament times when the question of whether the gentiles should have the gospel shook the Church. The Lord would have to let them know what to do, he said, and when he was ready he would open the door. Until then they would have to tell the people they could go so far and no farther. Clearly President McKay was willing, despite the problems it would cause, to respond favorably to the pleading of these would-be Saints and give them whatever blessings the Church could provide, short of the priesthood.

The First Presidency even sought advice from friends outside the Church who presumably knew the African people well. Elder N. Eldon Tanner, then an Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve and also President of the West European Mission, was well acquainted with Sir Alfred Savage, former Governor General of Nigeria. At President Brown's suggestion, Elder Tanner was asked to talk with him. If all went well, Tanner would be invited to join Alldredge and Williams in Nigeria. Within three weeks, however, President Brown had a letter from Elder Tanner in which he reported that Savage discouraged the move the Church was contemplating. Perhaps reflecting his own biases, Savage suggested that the Church could not have confidence in the Africans who, he said, would contact any church they happened to read about and would join any organization that would offer them personal benefits. Elder Brown's report on 19 July gave the First Presidency pause. President McKay suggested that perhaps President Tanner, who was also corresponding with leaders of some Nigerian groups, should be asked to investigate further.[ref]J. Reuben Clark papers. At that time, Africa came under the general supervision of the West European Mission.[/ref] Plans to send anyone to Nigeria were canceled.

LaMar Williams was thunderstruck, for he had already written to some of his Nigerian contacts that a Church representative was on the way. "This was a disappointment to me," he later recalled, "and I delayed for about 10 days in writing any letters that would convey this information." The delay was propitious, for in the meantime he received at least three more letters from Adewole Ogunmokun and took these as well as several others from his collection to President Brown, who agreed to take the matter up once more with the First Presidency.

On 16 August President Brown again called to the attention of the First Presidency the appeals from Nigeria. He emphasized that the writers all bore testimony of their faith in the gospel; perhaps he read passages from some of the letters. If so, expressions like the following, written by Ogunmokun on 24 July, must have touched a responsive chord:

I assure you Sir, that you have brought us nearer to God and our Blessed redeemer Jesus Christ more than any other Christian denomination to which we were earlier connected. But now Brother Williams we need you more than ever before... to achieve our much cherished desire, the desire to have a branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints established here in Nigeria, to teach us the true and only way of serving our God as revealed to our revered Prophet Joseph Smith of blessed memory, to help us open our eyes and the eyes of those of our people who have not known Him and His true way... Does our Lord not charge the early Apostles to 'Go into the world and preach the gospel? not only to preach but to baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost? This brother is our claim and I think it is a justified claim too, therefore sir you must help us, you cannot afford to do otherwise, you must not refuse our plea for baptism and the laying on of hands by those in authority for the Gift of the Holy Ghost and further instructions necessary for the preaching of this true Doctrine.

In another letter five days later, Ogunmokun wrote:

My heart will not rest, for it is made up and there is no turning back for me until I achieve my objectives, to be a baptized member of the Church ofJesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and to receive the Gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands by those in Authority... I appeal through you to the Church in General and especially to the President David 0. McKay and the Presidency to help me and my people.

We are waiting patiently and with prayers day and night for your promised letter which no doubt will bear the joyous news of acceptance and other necessary particulars.[ref]These letters are included in Williams, "African Mission Journal." The italicized material was underlined in the original, possibly either by Williams or Brown, as points to emphasize with the First Presidency.[/ref]

This time the First Presidency did not refuse the appeal and decided to send LaMar Williams to meet with the Nigerian people. His instructions stressed caution: He should take no action that would commit the Church. His visit was to be entirely unofficial. Neither Presidents Tanner nor Alldredge would meet him in Nigeria. The purpose of his visit was to ascertain whether the Nigerians were truly converted to the gospel and were sincere. In addition, he was to make two points abundantly clear: the Church had no paid ministry; and if they became members, the Nigerians could not receive the priesthood.[ref]J. Reuben Clark papers.[/ref] Two months later, on Monday, 16 October, the delighted LaMar Williams was on his way by jet to West Africa, accompanied by Marvin Jones, a young missionary en route to South Africa assigned temporarily as Williams's companion. Williams took a camera, a tape recorder, and a flannel board to use in the presentation of his lessons.


Williams's month-long stay in Nigeria turned out to be a dramatic and eye-opening experience, not only for him but also for the hundreds of African people who came to hear him. He was struck with the comparatively primitive conditions in which these prospective Saints lived and with the many customs and perspectives that were so different from anything he knew. But he was more deeply impressed with what he discovered concerning the major question President McKay had sent him to investigate: Were these people sincere?

Williams and Jones arrived in Nigeria's capital city, Lagos, at 7 A.M. on 18 October and immediately tried to contact Adewole Ogunmokun. They discovered that he had been made chief of his town of Ilesha, about a hundred and fifty miles away, but that he was also in the hospital at Ibadan. Unable to reach him, they remained in Lagos for two days then, on Friday, 20 October, flew to Port Harcourt where they were to meet the people Williams had been writing to and where their singular adventure began. Williams's first surprise was that none of the groups with whom he had been corresponding had any connection with each other. Several men met them at the Port Harcourt airport, each convinced that Williams would visit his particular group first. The airport reception broke into rivalry and confusion, but they finally adjourned to a hotel where the leader of one group, who was also a tribal chief, cleared everyone out of the bar. For about an hour, the prospective Saints anxiously contended over whom the representative of the Church should meet with first. Finally Williams took charge, deciding that he would begin with the Reverend Udo-Ete, with whom he had corresponded the most. The chief who had cleared the bar was not happy; but after promising to visit each of the groups before they left, Williams and Jones went with Udo-Ete to his village of Ibesit.

That night the natives came seemingly from everywhere to Udo-Ete's little mud hut. The situation was fraught with irony. The people at the meeting already belonged to a church that they called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but they were there to plead for rebaptism and membership in another Church by the same name. At the same time, the Salt Lake City Church was a missionary-intensive Church, anxious to add to its numbers world wide but not quite ready to accept these people as members. In another irony, Williams had been told that his visit was unofficial, yet he was there at Church expense and all his listeners considered him to be the representative of the Church that they had prayed so long would come. Whatever he said to them about the gospel would be the first direct message any of them had ever heard from a Latter-day Saint authorized to preach the gospel and to administer its ordinances. Officially official or not, anything LaMar Williams did or said carried all the weight of official Mormonism to the Saints-who-would-be-Saints of Nigeria.

Partly because of this, the meeting in Udo-Ete's little hut had all the elements of a great, though quiet, human drama. LaMar Williams, age fifty, and Marvin Jones, age nineteen, were possibly the only two white men within forty miles and no doubt struggling with fatigue, jet lag, and the unfamiliar climate. They were meeting with mostly non-English-speaking blacks—men, women, and children—in a hut in a little village completely surrounded by jungle. The tiny living-room, with a window on either side and a dirt floor, was crowded. "I recall that the doorway was filled with people," Williams said. "In every square foot of window there was a face, the children and the shorter ones down below and the taller ones up above."[ref]Oral History, 7.[/ref] There, by the light of a kerosene lamp, with the aid of a translator and a missionary flannelboard, he preached for nearly two hours to the eager Nigerian throng.

In addition to explaining basic principles, Williams frankly told the people that even though they might have the gospel, they could not have the priesthood. If the Church were to come to Nigeria at all, it would have to send missionaries to preside and to perform the ordinances. Perhaps the anxious Nigerians did not fully understand all the implications of this policy; but to Williams's surprise and satisfaction, the people in this meeting and in all his subsequent meetings did not demur. Udo-Ete, for example, stood up, held both hands out, then, putting his right hand underneath his left arm declared, "I only want to walk under the priesthood."

When Williams finished giving his message, the meeting was still not over, for several blacks stood and bore their testimonies. Moses Imyang, an elderly man, declared that the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints harmonized with the teachings of the New Testament, and that "Since I have become a member of this Church [i.e., Udo-Ete's church], when I pray I feel better spiritually... and I also beg the missionaries to hold us tightly with this type of teachings." Henry Akpan, about age forty and wearing a scarlet coat, told of leaving the Salvation Army, coming into Udo-Ete's church by baptism, and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. "We will accept the teachings of this Church whole-heartedly," he assured the missionary from Salt Lake City. "Do not be afraid of us." Fifty-year old Sister Dimah Noah expressed her pleasure at speaking before the missionary from America. She had compared the teachings of other churches with this one, and only here had she found the truth. "I have nothing to say except praise for my God for bringing salvation unto us." A young boy told of being converted by attending Udo-Ete's church but then being commanded by his father to stop going. When he refused, the father beat him with the Bible, threatened him, and banished him from home. The boy lived in the bush for several weeks until he went to live with his grandmother, twenty miles away.

Other such testimonies were born, and Williams was touched not only by all that was said but also by what the people endured just to come to the meeting. One woman with four little children had walked thirteen miles that morning, stayed all day to see the Utah missionaries, and then would walk home long after dark. Sister Dimah Noah left her two children at home with her non-member husband and rode sixteen miles on a bicycle. Some people came from as far as twenty-five miles away and walked back home that same night—a total of fifty miles on foot just to hear the gospel from the man from Salt Lake City.

That night Williams and Jones slept in a mud hut; and the next morning, Saturday, Williams was up at 4:30 instructing Udo-Ete in such practical matters as the priesthood policy, the fact that there were no paid ministers in the Church, tithing, and the fact that the welfare program could not be extended to Nigeria. The Church would, however, give them guidance on how to establish their own. Udo-Ete readily agreed to all the requirements.[ref]Williams's conversation with the Udo-Ete is instructive, for Udo-Ete's answers seem typical of the responses received from nearly all his contacts during the next three weeks. When asked how he felt about working for no money, Udo-Ete replied: "I am not the right person to teach President McKay. He is to teach me being that he is the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.... A son cannot be bigger than his father, neither a servant bigger than his master. Therefore, I myself being a son in the Latter-day Saints will be willing to follow the teaching of my fathers as they have followed their Heavenly Father's instructions."

Williams then explained that the Church's welfare program could not be extended to Nigeria, but that guidance would be given to help them develop their own, to which Udo-Ete gave a similar reply. The conversation then went on: '"If and when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is organized officially here on Opobo District, Nigeria, will you cease to take a salary and get a job working?' Brother Udo-Ete (answer) 'I do.'

"Brother Williams: "Then would you pay tithing and offerings?'

"Brother Udo-Ete: "Very lovely, I do.'

"Brother Williams: 'Would you instruct your congregation and other preachers also to pay their tithes and offerings?'

"Brother Udo-Ete: 'I do.'

Williams then explained the priesthood issue, basing his explanation on Abraham 1:20-27 in the Pearl of Great Price, to which Udo-Ete replied: "I do understand quite well that if my congregation is accepted into this Church that I will not hold the Priesthood or any rank of Priesthood.... Since that I do not want to come above the constitution of this Church." Williams, "African Mission Journal," 20 October 1961.[/ref]

Reverend Udo-Ete and his wife and child. He was leader of a congregation of self-organized Saints in Ibesit, Nigeria, 1961. Courtesy of LaMar S. Williams

The first Sunday service was held the next day, at 10 A.M., in Udo-Ete's little mud hut chapel with dirt floors and a palm-leaf roof. With 110 people in attendance, including the two missionaries, the room was overflowing. Everyone had walked to the meeting. Sixteen had arisen at 4 A.M. and walked twenty-five miles to reach the meeting. A young widow, Lucy Udo, walked fourteen miles carrying a long wooden bench on her head, for she knew there would be no seat in the chapel for her and her four children unless she brought it herself. Most had no lunch, except for some bread for their little children, and nearly all of them were prepared to stay the whole day if necessary. Williams could hardly forget his charge from President McKay to determine whether the Nigerian Saints were truly converted and sincere. "As I discovered these things about these people," he reported later, "what had happened to these people and the sacrifices they were willing to make, I decided that they were sincere, or they wouldn't do this I came back with recordings and pictures of hundreds of people who were sincere."[ref]Oral History, 10.[/ref] Williams, who felt he was being treated something like a General Authority would be treated among the Mormons, began to teach the Nigerians how to hold LDS meetings. He also preached to them about the Godhead, the apostasy and restoration, and the Book of Mormon. The meeting went on until noon, when Williams told Udo-Ete that it was time to have a song, pray, and close, for Mormon meetings were two hours long. The Nigerian leader spoke quietly to someone else for a moment in his native language, then turned back to Williams and said, "We don't want to close the meeting. We have people here who want to bear their testimony." Williams was taken aback: the meeting was packed, the temperature was high, everyone was hot, on either side of him was a row of children about two years of age who had sat there for the whole two hours without making a whimper (though some were asleep), many of the congregation had not eaten all day, yet everyone wanted to go on. "If they're willing, I am," he thought; and for the next three hours, he listened to devout Nigerian Saints bear testimony to the truthfulness of the gospel and to the divinity of the Church that, as yet, they could not have among them. A large elderly man, with graying hair, barefoot, wearing a white shirt and, around his waist, a rose-colored cloth, stood in the middle of the congregation: "I am sixty-five years of age, and I am sick. I've walked sixteen miles to be here this morning. I want you to know that I'm sincere, or I wouldn't have done this. I haven't seen President McKay and I haven't seen God, but I have seen you, and I'm going to hold you personally accountable to go back to President McKay and tell him that we are sincere."

As he continued to meet with Udo-Ete, Williams became acutely aware of how hard this man was working to do things correctly and how deeply he would be hurt if the Church were not established among them. Early Sunday morning, for example, Udo-Ete showed him the records he was keeping, especially those on wayward members. They were detailed, well arranged, and well used. "He is well acquainted with his Church members and their characters," Williams wrote. "He is very strict and under no circumstances will he tolerate unfaithfulness." But he also feared that if the Church were not established, he could be disgraced. "He is unafraid of criticism," Williams noted, "but fears being humiliated. He does not want to be laughed at. He has promised so much, been so confident, that the Church will be established that he is worried about the shame that will come to him if he is refused." Such a worry was understandable.

Williams also became more keenly aware of Udo-Ete's poverty, and the fact that being a paid minister meant practically nothing financially. He had so little money that even though his pants and blue shirt were "completely worn out," he could not afford new clothes. More urgently, his wife and baby still lived with her father, who refused to let them live with Udo-Ete because he still owed money on the substantial dowry that, according to custom, he must pay. She was allowed to visit her husband while Williams was there, after Williams voluntarily paid an installment on the dowry himself in order to help them out.

The first formal LDS meeting in Nigeria, December 1961, in the meeting house of the LDS congregation in Ibesit. The man on the aisle is the speaker who declared LaMar Williams personally responsible to tell President McKay of their sincerity. Courtesy of LaMar S. Williams

Williams also investigated the question of worthiness and soon discovered that the Nigerian Saints already understood and lived the Word of Wisdom and that personal chastity was high among them.

From 22 October to 12 November, LaMar Williams and Marvin Jones traveled throughout much of southeastern Nigeria, often driving through the bush or jungle in dilapidated taxis or private autos. Williams preached regularly, gave flannelboard lessons, and did all he could to become acquainted with local customs and with possibilities for the Church, while Jones faithfully helped out wherever he could and frequently bore his testimony. They formed close attachments to their newfound friends, calling them brothers and sisters and accepting them as such in every sense except actual membership in the Church.

At Port Harcourt, on 26 and 27 October, they met with a small group in the home of a Brother Nwokoro where, after giving the same lessons he had given in Ibiset, Williams noted, "The Question of the Priesthood is not nearly as troublesome as I had previously thought that it would be." In Aba they became acquainted with Charles Agu who, they soon discovered, was a chief who had joined one of the LDS churches and who promised them that when they returned the next time the little chapel where they met "would be much larger and finer for us to hold meetings in." Agu later told of explaining the apostasy and restoration to another chief, "I suppose very well," Williams noted, "because he has now heard us give it 4 times with a flannelboard." At the village of Uyo, some sixty miles from Aba, they finally met Honesty John Ekong, who lived in a mud hut and had his walls decorated with clippings from the Improvement Era and pictures of the General Authorities. On 16 October Ekong had traveled over a hundred miles to meet the two missionaries at the Port Harcourt airport but had missed them.

On 1 November they went on a sixty-mile search for Adewole Ogunmokun whose "fine letters," Williams remembered, "were mostly responsible for our visit here in Nigeria." They set out by taxi from Aba with Charles Agu, who knew where Ogunmokun was working, crossed a lake in a native dugout, then caught a produce truck that finally deposited them at the door-step of Michael Okafor, Adewole's boss. Unfortunately Ogunmokun was not available, but Okafor introduced them to his own two wives and eight children, told them that he had learned much about the Church from Adewole, and wanted to become a member. He knew polygamy was a barrier but said "he would make adjustments necessary to comply." Williams responded that he would take the matter up with Church authorities and let him know later whether there was any way to become a member. Okafor argued, of course, that he was acting in good faith when he married his second wife, for he did not know of the Church at the time. "He seems very proud of both wives and his 8 children," Williams wrote, "all of whom are 8 years and younger."

Michael Okafor's dilemma brought Williams face to face with the issue that, next to the priesthood problem, could cause the greatest frustration for missionaries trying to preach the gospel in Nigeria. It was not against the law for a man to have more than one wife and, even though the other Christian churches prohibited the practice, it was not uncommon among Nigerians who could afford it. Williams did not intend to investigate or confront the issue, but he found it confronting him on at least three occasions. He carefully avoided pronouncing any policy when polygamists asked about Church membership, but he was also distressed when some men declared that, if necessary, they would give up their plural wives in order to be baptized.

Williams continued to travel, hold meetings, and preach the gospel. He also became acquainted with local officials and with customs concerning church property. At Uyo, on 3 November, the town council offered the Church land on which to build schools and meetinghouses; and in other places, the Nigerian Saints made it clear that whatever buildings they had would be available to the Church once it was established there.

On 12 November, Williams conducted the first Sunday School at Port Harcourt, and the following day he and his companion flew to Lagos where they called at the American embassy and on various Nigerian church officials. Finally, on 15 November, Elder Jones, who "had had all the jungle he could stand,"[ref]Williams, Oral History, 11.[/ref] took a plane for South Africa and Williams was on his way home.

So ended LaMar Williams's fact-finding trip to Nigeria, during which he visited nearly all the groups he had been corresponding with. His experiences, some of them seemingly miraculous in nature, only added to his conviction that he was truly on the Lord's errand. He found people willing to donate land to the Church for chapels, attempted to identify places where missionaries might live, and, most importantly, became convinced that the people he met were converted, sincere, and worthy to receive the gospel. "All these people are poor but worthy of baptism," he noted in his journal on 29 October. The only question was how and under what conditions.

Most members of the Nigerian Latter-day Saint congregations were poor and lived close to nature. Few could speak English, and most were not educated. The leaders, on the other hand, were better educated, and all could speak, read, and write English. "I kind of felt," Williams later recalled, "like it was a situation similar to establishing the Church in the islands of the sea in the early days of Church history I thought that here was a beginning, among sincere people who were willing to learn, who needed the gospel, who had been deprived of the gospel for 6,000 years, from the time that Cain killed Abel. It certainly had to begin sometime, somewhere, and from all appearances this was the time when things ought to begin to happen."[ref]Ibid., 17. The reference to Cain reflects the traditional Mormon teaching before 1978 that blacks were descendants of Cain and deprived of the priesthood for that reason. Since 1978, this tradition has little currency.[/ref]


Williams left Africa a passionate partisan for missionary work in Nigeria; and soon after his return to Utah, he presented an hour-long report to the First Presidency and other Church leaders that included slides and taped excerpts from some of the testimonies he had heard.[ref]Neither his journal nor his oral history gives the exact date, but he briefly describes the meeting in his oral history.[/ref] Apparently his presentation was effective, for about three months later, on 26 February 1962, President McKay called him into his office and told him that the gospel would be taken to Nigeria and that the auxiliary organizations of the Church would be established there among the existing groups. To Williams's joy, President McKay asked if he would be willing to help establish a mission. Two days later the matter was on the agenda of a meeting of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, and on 3 March President McKay officially informed Williams that he and his wife, Nyal B. Williams, were to go to Nigeria where he would be presiding elder of a new mission district. He would report to N. Eldon Tanner, president of the West European Mission. Two more married couples, without children, would accompany them. On 9 April Williams was authorized to write the news to the Nigerians and send Sunday School manuals and other Church literature.

It was remarkable that Church leaders were actively preparing to open a mission in Nigeria at a time when the Church's racial policy was the focus of widespread criticism in America, even though no public announcement was made then. Church leaders no doubt felt that publicizing the establishment of the Church among African blacks, without giving them the priesthood, could only intensify pressure for the Church to change its policy. During the 9 April conversation, President McKay told Williams that he could not go to Nigeria until after the October General Conference because of political problems the Church was having over its racial policies in anticipation of the forthcoming election.[ref]Williams, "African Mission Journal," 9 April 1962.[/ref]

Williams, then, had the summer to prepare, and to select the other couples who would presumably make up the first missionary corps to West Africa. He made plans to leave Salt Lake City on 27 November, visit in London with Elder Tanner, who became an apostle in October, then go on to Nigeria and organize the Church.

On 21 November, LaMar Williams was set apart by President McKay as the first missionary "to the nation of Nigeria where you have been called by the inspiration of the Lord and the pleading of many citizens of that country to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ." The blessing continued movingly: "This is a new appointment, a new assignment, not only to you individually but to the entire Church, going to a people not entitled to hold the priesthood but entitled to other blessings of the Church, including eternal life in the Celestial Kingdom. We bless you that you may have sympathy for the people in this work and recognize their citizenship in the kingdom of God."[ref]"A Blessing on the head of Elder LaMar Stevenson Williams setting him apart as a missionary to the Nigerian Mission to labor under the direction of President Nathan Eldon Tanner of the West European Mission, President McKay being voice, assisted by Presidents Henry D. Moyle and Hugh B. Brown," 21 November 1962, typescript, in possession of LaMar S. Williams; used by permission. See also "African Mission Journal," 19 December 1962.[/ref] He was to establish the Church, conduct missionary work, and organize all the auxiliaries. The new members were to supervise the auxiliaries themselves, thus giving them as much experience in Church organization and leadership as possible in pre-priesthood circumstances. Nothing quite like this had ever happened before, and the uncertainties that lay ahead made this indeed a bold, unique, and challenging venture.

Williams failed to receive his visa in time for his November departure but shipped sacrament cups, trays, the scriptures, other literature, and other necessary items to Nigeria. Elder Tanner spent the last two weeks of December in Nigeria, where he talked with government officials and came away assured that the visas would be approved by the end of January. He also met, and was impressed with the sincerity of, at least four Nigerian Latter-day Saint leaders very familiar to Williams: Charles Agu, Honesty John Ekong, Udo-Ete, and Dick Obot.[ref]"African Mission Journal," 3, 9 January 1963.[/ref]

On 11 January, Williams met again with President McKay and with Elder Mark E. Petersen, who had replaced Elder Tanner as president of the West European Mission. Everyone was still optimistic, and plans for the mission were discussed in detail. At that point, Williams learned of the new Church-wide policy of marking the membership card of each "colored" Church member with a "C."[ref]Ibid., 11 January 1963.[/ref] While the reasons were not clarified, it may be that the policy anticipated a rapid increase in black membership and the perceived need to avoid embarrassment in making priesthood calls.

Williams's instructions seem well suited to the circumstances but also, in a sense, incredible, for they seemingly anticipated simply taking over numerous preexisting congregations, something that may not have happened in the Church since Wilford Woodruff's 1840 mass baptisms in Herefordshire, England. The area would be divided into districts, each presided over by an elder (presumably a missionary), who would be called a district president. The existing Nigerian group leaders would be designated "District Group Leaders and Branch Group Leaders or Branch Leaders." They would be set apart by the laying on of hands, but in such a way that it would not be construed as a priesthood ordination. The sacrament would be administered by the elders, and selected male members would "be permitted to pass it to the congregation as though they were Deacons." Williams was not to baptize "large numbers" immediately but was rather to follow a program of careful instruction and baptize only those who demonstrated "a willingness to be substantial and faithful members of the Church." Given the circumstances, the instructions seem reasonable.[ref]Ibid., 11 January 1963.[/ref]

After the meeting, President McKay and Elders Tanner and Petersen met with George Scott of the Deseret News and approved a public announcement of the mission to Nigeria. That evening it appeared as a short news article in the paper.[ref]"Church to Open Missionary Work in Nigeria," Deseret News, 11 January 1963.[/ref] On 20 January LaMar and Nyal Williams were honored with a missionary "farewell" in the sacrament meeting of the Salt Lake City Twenty-eighth Ward. Ironically, the farewell was seven years premature.

Before he left the First Presidency's office on 21 November, Williams asked what to do about people who were living in polygamy but wanted to come into the Church. He may have been astonished at the answer for President McKay, in the loving manner that was his hallmark, "told me to baptize them and admit them to the Church. They could keep the wives and families that they had at the time of baptism, but they were not to engage further in this practice."[ref]"African Mission Journal," 19 December 1962.[/ref] It is impossible to speculate on what might have happened had the Church actually been able to establish itself in Nigeria then; sixteen years later, when this objective finally was achieved, people living in plural marriage were specifically excluded from baptism.

After the public announcement, the number of couples called to accompany the Williamses was increased from two to four.[ref]These couples were Urban Gail and Florence Bench of Salt Lake City, Forrest O. and Ethel Goodrich of Vernal, Walter E. and Nellie Atwood of Fresno, California, and Grant and Amie Graff of Salt Lake City.[/ref] However, the visas still did not come, and soon Williams began to take a more active part in trying to obtain them. In California, however, unhappy events were taking place that would effectively block his efforts.

Sometime early in 1963, Ambrose Chukwu. a Nigerian student attending college in San Louis Obisbo, visited the LDS Institute of Religion and was invited to attend a Sunday service. During a conversation after the service, he was dismayed to learn about the priesthood policy and angered by the explanation provided in a copy of John J. Stewart's Mormonism and the Negro. It seemed to prove that Mormonism was a "religion of race hate and race superiority and discrimination." The book was unofficial, but in a long and angry letter to the Nigerian Outlook Chukwu described it as "one of the most important books of their religion." The Outlook published his letter, along with excerpts from the book; and in an introduction entitled "Evil Saints," the editor claimed that the Mormons "believe as a cardinal [tenet] of their faith that the Negro race is not equal to any other race in the eyes of God Our correspondent has gone into great pains to expose this organisation because he fears it may come to Nigeria thoroughly disguised... These so-called Latter Day Saints must be recognized for what they are-godless Herrenvolkism-and must not be allowed into the country."[ref]Nigerian Outlook, 5 March 1963. Photocopy in the possession of the author and also in Williams, "African Mission Journal."[/ref] Other Nigerian students also wrote letters to university presidents and government officials throughout Nigeria. The negative effect of this publicity on the pending visa requests was immediate. By 27 March 1963, Williams recorded in his journal his decision to try for a twenty-eight-day tourist visa "in order to get over there in an attempt to clear up this misunderstanding."

On 20 April LaMar Williams flew to San Louis Obisbo to talk with the Nigerian students. He felt he helped improve relationships, but he could not change their attitude toward Church policy.[ref]"African Mission Journal," 23 April 1963.[/ref]

On 28 May 1963, LaMar Williams met with President McKay and N. Eldon Tanner, recently ordained an apostle. At that point, they decided to try a different approach to the problem of visas. Elder Tanner was assigned to write to the leaders of the Nigerian LDS groups, acknowledge them as such, and advise them "that when they were able to obtain government permission for the church to enter their country representatives would be sent to assist them with their church program."[ref]Ibid., 28 May 1963.[/ref]

Nigerian Saints were quick to respond. A paid advertisement, entitled "What You Ought to Know about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," appeared in the Nigerian Outlook on 16 June 1963. "For the purpose of satisfying several public inquiries about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints which is about to be established in Nigeria," it read, "the following information is hereby released." It listed, with great accuracy, several basic tenets of the Church with regard to Christ, the apostasy, the restoration through Joseph Smith, modern revelation, baptism, and Christian living, and noted that as soon as visas were available the Church was ready to send representatives to assist in Church activities, including educational and health programs. It was signed by Charles Agu and Dick Obot, "Recognized as Leaders of the Church."

Ironically, their activity may actually have added credence to the rumor, rampant in the United States, that the Church was about to change its priesthood policy. It was clear to the public that priesthood restrictions could cause difficulties not only in Nigeria but elsewhere, as the Church became more and more international in scope. In addition, the tense civil rights situation in the United States soon brought from Church leaders powerfully positive statements to the effect that it supported full civil rights for all people everywhere. On 7 June 1963 the New York Times carried an article announcing that the Church was reconsidering its priesthood policy and quoting Hugh B. Brown, second counselor in the First Presidency. "We are in the midst of a survey looking toward the possibility of admitting Negroes," said President Brown, though he also reminded the Times of the importance of revelation in such a process. "Believing as we do in divine revelation through the President of the church, we all await his decision." He also acknowledged that "the whole problem of the Negro is being considered... in the light of racial relations everywhere," but added, "We don't want to go too fast in this matter. We want to be fair." Whether developments in Nigeria had anything to do with the discussions going on among the members of the First Presidency is not clear, but the Times also noted: "Earlier this year a plan was announced to send a mission to Nigeria, but the mission has not yet left Salt Lake City."[ref]New York Times, Eastern edition, 7 June 1963. Hugh B. Brown made a strong pro-civil rights statement at October General Conference, reported in Improvement Era, December 1963. See also Edwin Brown Firmage, "Hugh B. Brown in His Final Years: The Joys and Trials of an Aging Apostle," Sunstone 11 (November 1987): 7-11, for a brief discussion of President Brown's effort to have the policy changed.[/ref]

The missionary couples assigned to work with LaMar and Nyal Williams were eventually assigned to other missions; but Williams continued his frustrating effort to obtain a short-term visa that at least would allow him spend a few weeks in Nigeria.[ref]Late in September, 1963, for example, Murdock Travel Agency helped him prepare a tentative itinerary and he applied for a twenty-eight-day visa hoping that he could obtain approval to visit "members of the church" in Nigeria. "I am working on the theory that if their government officials see an itinerary and are assured that I have a round trip ticket they may approve entrance which would give me an opportunity to meet with their officials and discuss this matter in person. There is also the possibility that while there an extension of the visa may be given." Williams, "African Mission Journal," 27 September 1963.[/ref] On 9 October, encouragingly, he received a telegram from Utah's Senator Wallace F. Bennett telling him that "applications for visas for missionaries have been approved and mailed October 8, from Lagos, Nigeria. This is good news." The visas never arrived.

In the meantime, Williams received a reasoned, fervent letter from Charles Agu assuring him that the charge that Mormons were segregationists had not affected the faith of those desiring baptism. It did, however, affect government policy, and Agu suggested "that some good, clean Negro person be given the priesthood to satisfy their government so that our work may go forward."[ref]As paraphrased by Williams in his "African Mission Journal," 31 October 1963.[/ref] Agu made an impassioned plea for the Church not to give up its efforts:

We are the people who are going to benefit, both spiritually and materially, from your activities in Nigeria. It is very easy for you to call off the whole arrangement as not worth all the trouble, but you will remember that this is a question of people and their salvation. It is a matter of life and death with us. Life—not only in this, but in the world to come. I think this should be more important to the church than the confusion of color It appears logical to me to believe, that God will accept the white who live a righteous clean life, just as He will accept the black who are righteous and live cleanly, and vice versa... Let us embrace the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of Christ, and by living the accepted standards of Christ, relagate all other passions to the background.

Thirteen Nigerian Saints, meanwhile, signed a petition to the Church asking that it try to satisfy their government's requirement and, at the same time, reaffirming their unshakable faith:

Rather than be dismayed with the refusal of the government to grant you visas, we have today met in our leader's house to pledge our unflinching support in continuing our activities in the church, even more than before, in hope that whether it takes us a whole lifetime to achieve our objective, our unborn generation will live to glorify and bless us for our devotion and thirst after righteousness. We trust the people of Utah and the church hierarchy not to let our hopes be destroyed, for where will we go after tasting of life and love which the church teaches?[ref]Charles Agu in a later letter told how he continually agonized over the problem and yet had found happiness in the Church. "I have involved myself in the affairs of this church so much that every day that my dreams of the mission being established in Nigeria fails to come true, is to say the least agonizing. The point is that in my position as leader of the church every day members look to me for the great news of your arrival. Sometimes I am at a loss to know what to tell them.

"For myself, I have found happiness from the short association I have had with this church; even if the mission does not come after all, I cannot say that I have not been blessed in many ways from the little exercises I have been carrying out all these months in the church.

"But there are others who will not get up this my humble state of mind until you have established the mission and they will just fall back into darkness and filth if we fail. It is mainly for these people that my position as leader is concerned I am so anxious about what I am going to do with myself and the members if the mission does not come after all. Many of us will only continue to live in a vacuum, and I will look like a deceiver to some of the members who cannot understand our difficulties." Ibid., 6 December 1963.[/ref]


On 10 January 1964, Williams finally received word that a short-term visa had been approved. On 4 February he left, accompanied by Ralph Walker, first counselor in the Calgary Stake presidency who, because he was a Canadian, did not need a visa. Arriving in Lagos the next afternoon, they spent nine days visiting some of the Nigerian Saints and, often accompanied by Charles Agu and Dick Obot, visiting government officials in an effort to obtain permission for the Church to send missionaries to the country. It appeared hopeless, however, as the premier of Eastern Nigeria refused to receive them and the secretary to the Minister of Internal Affairs of the federal government in Lagos informed Williams that his office would grant no visa without the permission of the premier of the region the person wished to visit. It seemed like a political run-around, and the quest ended with nothing accomplished.

So far as the Church was concerned, they found more people wanting to join, received more generous offers of donations of land for building schools and churches, and on Sunday, 9 February, attended five different meetings of self-styled LDS congregations.

Despite this failure, Williams kept his hopes alive and continued to correspond with the Nigerian Saints. Dick Obot headed a "Latter Day Saint" group, originally established as early as 1953, that by this time seemed to be the major group toward which others were migrating. On 17 April 1964, for example, Etim Peter, leader of the Apostolic Seventh Day Mission, and some of his associates attended a general conference presided over by Obot for the purpose of uniting the two congregations. "Brethren," he told the joint meeting, "I was introduced by brother Obot to [LaMar S. Williams], after brother Williams had spoken to me I was moved and I saw the truth, thereby on my return I spoke to brother A. D. Obot that we should change our Church from Sabbath to Sunday also accept the doctrine of his Church... therefore we came to this Conference and to surrender ourselves and Churches to your Conference." Obot then reminded Peter and his group that that no one could hold the priesthood, that there would be no salaried ministers, and that all must "repent and be baptized by one holding the authority." "Do you agree with all this?" he asked, to which Etim Peter replied "Yes we do, when brother Williams spoke to me at Aba I also declared it to my Members and all did agree and that is why we have Officially joined you."[ref]Minutes of "The General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Nigeria, West Africa," copy in Williams, "African Mission Journal."[/ref] As a result, some seventeen new congregations came into the Nigerian Latter-day Saint fold.

On 29 September 1964 the trustees of Obot's group were able officially to incorporate the "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints" in Nigeria. This, of course, provided no legal basis for the Utah church in Nigeria; but they seemed to assume that by becoming legally incorporated, the Nigerian church might be more effective at helping procure missionary visas. By October 1964, Obot's organization consisted of seventy-five congregations with nearly ten thousand baptized adult members and six thousand children.[ref]Minutes of "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints 12 Districts Conference, From Friday 23rd to Sunday 25th October, 1964 Held at Okukuk Asang, Central Branch-Uyo," copy in Williams, "African Mission Journal." Interestingly, the official seal stamped on the first page of these minutes indicates that the church was established in 1953. Around the edge of the seal is the name of the church, and inside is the inscription "Christ the Head." These minutes contain a report on the incorporation of this church; a copy of the certification of incorporation is in Edwin Q. Cannon, Collected Papers, IDS Church Archives; hereafter cited as Cannon Collection.[/ref]

In America, meanwhile, LaMar Williams responded to another need of the Nigerian Saints by helping establish a scholarship fund to bring Nigerian students to Brigham Young University. It was a cooperative venture, as the Nigerian Saints provided some funds, the students themselves provided $600 (though some had to borrow it), and Williams and other Americans sponsored them and provided funds to help them meet living and other expenses. By January 1965 Williams and his associates, including Clifford Gledhill and Eugene England, had raised approximately $ 1400, and four people had agreed to sponsor four Nigerian students.

In addition to helping promising young people receive an education, Williams also hoped this move might help in the quest for visas. Dick Obot, he noted, "has indicated in his correspondence that our visas will be issued by the Nigerian Government when they are confident that these students are accepted at Brigham Young University. In other words the Government Officials over there want to be assured that there is no feeling of white supremacy or feeling of race superiority on our part."[ref]"African Mission Journal," 20 January 1965.[/ref]

No favorable response was forthcoming from the goverment; but two young men and a young woman arrived in February, March, and May, 1965. Before long, each joined the Church. Two were baptized at a particularly impressive service in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, on 1 May: Oscar Udo by Williams and Eti Ekpenyoung by David Galbraith. Speakers at the service were Spencer J. Palmer of Brigham Young University and Ruffin Bridgeforth, a leader among the LDS blacks in Salt Lake City. Eventually these new members returned to their homeland and provided important assistance to the Church.

In early summer of 1964, the resourceful Williams organized the International Commerce Association to export American-made goods to Nigeria. He hoped that its representatives could legitimately enter Nigeria on business visas and then begin their Church activity. "I certainly hope and pray that this proves successful," he wrote.[ref]Ibid., 5 May and 17 June 1964.[/ref] In August, he finally received a second vistor's visa and, on 25 August, had a long conversation with President McKay and N. Eldon Tanner, who, two years earlier, had become second counselor in the First Presidency. Hopeful that the anticipated Church organization could be set up, the Presidency gave him final instructions, some of which differed slightly from those received over two years earlier. For example, the unordained blacks would not be permitted to pass the sacrament to the congregation. In the broadening of another policy, however, Williams was told to report directly to the First Presidency, rather than to the West European Mission president.[ref]Ibid., 25 August 1965. For all practical purposes, the mission was being administratively identified as the Nigerian Mission rather than as a district of the West European Mission and Williams was often termed the Nigerian Mission president.[/ref]


On 18 October 1965, Williams, again accompanied by a missionary from Canada, Bryce R. Wright, set out on his third visit to Nigeria. During the next three weeks, they met with government officials about the possibility of getting their visas changed, looked for permanent living quarters, met with the Nigerian Saints in various communities, helped set a few Nigerian church affairs in order, and preached the gospel to strangers. On 6 November they found reason for optimism when Williams's visa was extended for ninety days and they met with the government official who was to prepare the forms for getting the Church officially registered. At 11:25 A.M., however, Williams was handed a baffling telegram from the First Presidency: "Discontinue negotiations in Nigeria and return home immediately," it read. "Have Elder Wright report to British Mission Headquarters, London, for immediate reassignment."[ref]Ibid, 6 November 1965.[/ref] Stunned and confused, Williams was on a plane for London at 2:30 that afternoon.

Williams arrived in Salt Lake City at 10:30 the following night; on the morning of 10 November he met for over an hour with the First Presidency. During his short absence, two new counselors—Joseph Fielding Smith and Thorpe B. Isaacson—had been added to the First Presidency. Presidents McKay, Brown, and Tanner, with whom Williams had worked closely, remained "almost silent," while Isaacson acted as spokesman. "I was not really informed as to why I'd been called back home," Williams later recalled. "... I wasn't quite able to discover it." President Isaacson's main explanation seemed to be that the Church was "just asking for a lot of problems"; and by the end of the meeting, it was clear that the Nigerian program would be discontinued entirely.[ref]Williams, Oral History, 20; "African Mission Journal," 10 November 1965.[/ref] For the next thirteen years, Church leaders maintained an official hands-off policy.


Williams was devastated, unable to answer the Nigerian Saints' natural question, "Why did I just pull out without even any explanation?" The records are silent on the reasons behind this reversal of the First Presidency's decision; but Williams was reconciled to the seeming negation of all his efforts in January 1966, only two months later, when a violent military coup became the opening blow of the Biafran War, a bloody civil conflict in which few lives were safe. When the war broke out, Williams "felt that the Lord had something to do with getting me out of Nigeria. It wasn't the time for the Church to be established." This impression was confirmed when he was flying from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City on the same plane as President Harold B. Lee, who assured him, " 'LaMar, it is just a matter of time in establishing the Church [in Nigeria].' And he was right. The time was not right."[ref]Williams, Oral History, 20-21.[/ref]

Nigeria had gained its independence with relatively little violence, but tensions still smoldered from colonial days. Nigeria was a federal state, divided into independent eastern, western, and northern provinces; but the young army officers leading the January coup espoused a controversial "One Nigeria" policy that would strengthen the power of the central state at the expense of the regional governments. In July a bloody counter-coup took place, and soon the violence spread to the streets of several northern towns leaving thousands dead in only a few days. In late May 1967 Lieutenant-Colonel Odemegu Ojukwu, the former military governor, declared the eastern region to be the independent state of Biafra. The renewed carnage ended in January 1970, after the loss of thousands of lives and the capitulation of Ojukwu. This did not end political strife; but the next coup, in July 1975, was a peaceful one that returned the government to civilian rule.[ref]See Richard Rathbone, "Independent West Africa," in History of West Africa, Vol. 2, in Ajaxi and Crowder, 787-96.[/ref] In September 1978 a ban on political parties, in force since 1966, finally ended. By the time the Church finally was ready to go into Nigeria with the priesthood, therefore, the peaceful rise of several new parties suggested an era of more political stability.

The civil war had wreaked havoc with the various congregations of African Latter-day Saints. Some people drifted away, sometimes reaffiliating with other churches. Some had been killed. According to Williams, at least one leader of one of the largest groups was shot and killed. Another, Honesty John Ekong, simply disappeared; Williams was never able to find him again.[ref]Oral History, 21.[/ref] Lacking their English-speaking leaders, many of the non-English-speaking members also drifted. Some Nigerians joined the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which had maintained missionaries, at least part-time, in Nigeria since 1954.[ref]Edwin Q. Cannon, "Report of Visit to Ghana and Nigeria," 1-3, Cannon Collection.[/ref] According to Williams, the war broke up so many groups that "all we could do later was go back and kind of bring the pieces back together again."[ref]Oral History, 22.[/ref]

Other Nigerians survived both the war and the withdrawal of direct Church contact, and continued in their faithful quest for affiliation. Some groups remained intact. Sampson Upkong, riding his bicycle all over the Cross River State, maintained contact with some twenty small groups, kept them together, and kept in touch with Williams. Members of these groups were among the first baptized converts after the first official representatives of the International Mission arrived in 1978.[ref]Ibid.[/ref]

Some new names appeared on Williams's list of correspondents. On 13 March 1972, for example, Sunday Frank Idoh and others wrote a collective letter to the Missionary Department expressing their belief in the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith's vision and asking that a branch of the Church be established among them.[ref]S. F. Idoh, et. al., to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Missionary Department, 13 March 1972, in Cannon Collection.[/ref] In 1972 Williams was contacted by G. S. Assam, a leader in the Christian Assembly of God, and began to send him literature. Assam soon added his voice to those who were calling for the Church to come. A letter of 30 June 1978 shows not only how well acquainted he was with the Church and its history, but also his impatience with the lack of progress. He cites Joseph Smith's vision in the Kirtland Temple on 21 January 1836, in which he saw "the Twelve Apostles of the Lamb, who are now upon the earth,... standing in a circle, much fatigued, with their clothes tattered and their feet swollen, with their eyes cast downward, and Jesus standing in their midst, and they did not behold them. The Savior looked upon them and wept." Assam asked rhetorically, "Why did he weep? He wept because Nigeria is left out." He also listed all the temples the Church had erected to that point, and wondered why Nigeria was not on the list.[ref]G. S. Assam to Rev. LaMar Williams, 30 June 1978, Cannon Collection. Williams, at this time, was president of the Louisiana Shreveport Mission. The vision is recorded in Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Period I, edited by B. H. Roberts, 2d ed. rev., 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1948): 2:321.[/ref]

Williams, while still working in the Missionary Department, continued to correspond with those whom he could keep track of, send literature, and encourage young Nigerians to come to BYU. He had been puzzled whether to do this, for his understanding in 1965 was that he was released from any further assignment with respect to Nigeria. On 24 June 1966, a letter from the First Presidency gave him "an honorable release... as a missionary... in the nation of Nigeria." It expressed appreciation for his "faithful and devoted service under this assignment in an attempt to carry the gospel message to the natives of Nigeria," then explained, "Conditions have arisen which would seem to make necessary a termination of your assigned duties as they pertain to the Negro people... In the future any proselyting among these people by correspondence or otherwise should be carried forward under the direction of the Missionary Executive Committee."[ref]David O. McKay, Hugh B. Brown, N. Eldon Tanner, and Joseph Fielding Smith to Elder LaMar S. Williams, 24 June 1966. Original in possession of LaMar S. Williams. Used by permission.[/ref] Elder Spencer W. Kimball, however, was chairman of the Missionary Executive Committee, and when Williams asked him what to do, Elder Kimball simply said, "Keep in touch with them." In a kind of historical irony, therefore, in the years after his visits ended Williams kept writing, as well as sending the overruns of Church magazines to Nigeria, Ghana, and India—just as he had done in the years before his visits began. It was important, he felt, "to keep the activity going in those three countries at a time when the Church was really not doing anything."[ref]Oral History, 34-35.[/ref] In 1974, Williams was called to head the Louisiana Shreveport Mission; and when he returned in 1977, he retired from full-time employment.


In the meantime, as Nigerians Saints strove for missionaries and the establishment of the Church in their country, seeds of interest were planted in the nearby state of Ghana. Sometime in 1962, two sister missionaries in England, Karen Nelson of Salt Lake City and Loretta Johnson of Richmond, California, gave a missionary tract, "The Joseph Smith Story," to Lilian Emily Clark of Cornwall. Through Clark the tract found its way into the hands of a Ghanian religious leader she was acquainted with, Dr. A. F. Mensah. Almost immediately converted, Mensah persuaded several others to join him in organizing a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a suburb of Accra.[ref]Spencer J. Palmer, "Mormons in West Africa: New Terrain for the Sesquicentennial Church," Annual Religion Faculty Lecture, Brigham Young University, 27 September 1979, 3-4.[/ref] Like their contemporaries in Nigeria, Mensah and others also began to correspond with LaMar Williams, and Williams began to ship them Church books and literature.[ref]Williams, Oral History, 3-5.[/ref] Eventually Mensah had a huge following; at one time ten thousand people reportedly attended one of his conferences. He even founded a school and named it after Brigham Young.

In February 1964 Mensah paid a visit to J. W. B. Johnson, another religious leader, and opened a discussion on the Bible and the Book of Mormon.[ref]The following story is based on J. W. B. Johnson to the First Presidency of the Church, 9 September 1978, in the Cannon Collection.[/ref] He asked that the two of them pray together; and as they did so, Johnson later reported, the Spirit of God came upon them and revealed to them that Johnson should read the literature of the Church and join Mensah in preaching the restored gospel in Ghana. Mensah gave him copies of the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, the Doctrine and Covenants, Talmage's Articles of Faith, and some pamphlets, including Joseph Smith's testimony. Johnson began with the Joseph Smith story; and after about a month of reading he suddenly began to receive personal revelations. One morning in mid-March about 5:30, he fell into a trance, saw the heavens open and angels with trumpets singing songs of praise to God. He joined in the singing, then heard a voice saying to him, "Johnson, Johnson, Johnson... If you will take up your work as I will command you, I will bless you and your land." Trembling and in tears, he replied that he would do whatever he could; and from then on he became a colorful, tireless missionary for the Church, going wherever the Spirit directed. He and his followers were even persecuted, with people "hooting" at them and ridiculing them. But they persisted and, during one particularly difficult day, won forty people to the faith, "even," Johnson reported, "to the admiration of the Muslims around." Eventually Johnson and his followers formed several congregations, and they were helped and encouraged by a number of Saints from Utah who were there on temporary professional assignments.

Johnson also had another remarkable vision in which, he said, Joseph Smith revealed himself to him and told him to stand firm in the face of all their difficulties and that very soon the brothers in America would embrace their small Ghanian group. In a modern version of the Ezekiel's two sticks prophecy, Joseph Smith showed him two tape recorders, one white and one black, joined them together, and then began talking to him about the Church.

Johnson reported all this, and more, in a letter to the First Presidency of the Church dated 9 September 1978—shortly before the missionaries officially arrived. "We therefore solemnly declare in the name of Jesus Christ," he said in closing, "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 this Church in order to attain its standards."

On 26 July 1969 the Mensah group legally incorporated The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Ghana;[ref]Certificate of incorporation in the Cannon Collection.[/ref] and Mensah, Johnson, and others continued through the 1970s to propagate the gospel as they knew it and to plead with the Church for missionaries and an official Church organization in their country. The "hands off policy that sent LaMar Williams home from Nigeria in 1965 also applied to Ghana, however; and except for some correspondence with Williams and the Missionary Department, the Church made no official response.[ref]In 1971-74, for example, Edwin O. Cannon was president of the Swiss Mission, which at that time had jurisdiction over various international areas not incorporated into other stakes or missions. During that time he received a file of correspondence with Ghanaians and Nigerians from the First Presidency, but he was instructed not to correspond with the blacks in either place. Cannon, "Report of Visit", 1-3.[/ref] Sometime in 1969, however, Johnson broke with Mensah, who he felt was not staying close enough to LDS Church doctrines, and set up his own group in the Cape Coast area. By 1978 he had six congregations in Cape Coast and one in Kumasi. Other groups also broke from Mensah.[ref]Ibid., 8.[/ref]


Though there was no official contact with the West Africans after 1965, at various times during these interim years certain Church members made unofficial, or, perhaps, semi-official, contact with these unofficial Latter-day Saint groups. Between 1966 and 1969, for example, Virginia Cutler of Brigham Young University was a visiting professor at the University of Ghana; before she left Utah, LaMar Williams asked her to get acquainted with Dr. Mensah and his group and teach them all she could. She gladly did so and, in the process, encouraged them, wrote to Williams about them, and helped arrange for sending Church magazines and other literature to them.[ref]Ibid., 3; Williams, Oral History, 40-41.[/ref]

M. Neff Smart, a professor of communications at the University of Utah and a visiting Ford Foundation professor in Nigeria in the early 1970s, made contact with one of the Nigerian Latter-day Saint groups in Lagos, began attending their meetings, and was invited to teach a Sunday School class. The first time he taught, the opening song was "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." They sang it. he said, "as it never was sung in my ward in Utah, with an earnestness and fervor that brought tears." Smart also met with, and taught, blacks who were interested in the Church in Ghana.[ref]M. Neff Smart, "The Challenge of Africa," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 12 (Summer 1979): 54.[/ref]

Between 1969 and 1977, Merrill J. Bateman, a BYU business professor, made several visits to Ghana, making unofficial contact with the Mensah and Johnson groups. Such contacts prepared him well for his official fact-finding tour in 1978. M. Lynn Hilton, who had worked in the Missionary Department while attending the University of Utah and had helped Williams send materials to Africa, was in Ghana on business from 1969-71. He, too, visited some of the groups, became acquainted with Mensah, and provided leaders of the Latter-day Saints with personal triple combination. Mensah, at least, received a leather-bound copy. Hilton also sent them a hundred copies of the Book of Mormon.[ref]Williams, Oral History, 40-41; Cannon, "Report of Visit," 3-4.[/ref]

At the same time, the handful of white American LDS professors, businessmen, and others who were in Ghana or Nigeria for extended periods were officially assigned to "groups" or branches under the direction of, first, the Swiss Mission and then the International Mission. Homer Austin, for example, who was in Nigeria in 1971-72, was set apart by General Authorities in Salt Lake City as group leader for Nigeria and told to work under the direction of President Edwin Q. Cannon of the Swiss Mission. Shortly after arriving in Ghana, he contacted some of the black groups but later was instructed to avoid further contact.[ref]Cannon, "Report of Visit," 1-3.[/ref] Likely, it was the implied official nature of the contact that the General Authorities objected to.

Other American Latter-day Saints who went to West Africa for various reasons during these years also visited the black Saints in Nigeria and Ghana, including Spencer J. Palmer of the Brigham Young University religion faculty, Dr. Ralph Richards of the medical school at the University of Utah, and Marvin Jensen, manager for boxing champion Gene Fullmer. Many such visits were made specifically at the request of LaMar Williams who, though he was officially released from his assignment as a missionary, could hardly release himself from the love and responsibility he felt for the Nigerians. "Every time I'd hear of someone going there," he recalled, "I'd try to get them involved and let them know what we were trying to do to open the doors to get into Nigeria."[ref]Oral History, 40-41.[/ref]

Perhaps the nearest thing to an official contact came in 1975. Lorry Rytting, a visiting Fulbright professor at the University of Nigeria in 1974-75, was also president of the Nigeria Area Branch of the recently created International Mission. William G. Bangerter, president of that mission, instructed Rytting to send him a report on the black Nigerian groups, so Rytting made a conscientious effort to locate them. Like others before him, he felt their sincerity, humility, and love; he was deeply impressed as he heard them bearing testimony that Spencer W. Kimball was a prophet and learned that they had memorized the Articles of Faith, abstained from alcohol, and looked to Salt Lake City as their "mother church." Some had been waiting for more than ten years, he observed, and they could not understand why their letters had gone unanswered.

Rytting visited several congregations and his experiences were heart-warming. He was the first visitor from Salt Lake City some of the Nigerian Saints had seen, and he was especially touched when the choir in one congregation presented two songs its members had laboriously learned in English, just for him, from pamphlet-sized reprints from the Songs of Zion: "We are Sowing, Daily Sowing," and "Come, Come Ye Saints." "Our hearts responded to their pleas that we tell their story to the Church leaders when we returned," he said of his family's reaction; and because of their experience, his sons expressed their desires to be called as missionaries to Nigeria.[ref]Lorry E. Rytting to William G. Bangerter, 4 August 1975, Cannon Collection. Also in the Cannon Collection is a copy of the "Welcome Address" presented to Rytting and his wife when they visited the leadership conferences of the "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Nigeria," held at Aba on 14 June 1975. Presenting such formal addresses was an important custom among the Nigerians. In this one, the members of the group expressed great joy at having Rytting there, for, they said, they had been looking forward to the day when they would have a messenger from the "Home Office" who could give them more enlightenment, help them, hear their complaints, and relate his experiences to the General Authorities in Salt Lake City. The address briefly reviewed bits of the history of the movement in Nigeria, recalled the members' "utter disappointment and displeasure" when LaMar Williams was called home in 1965, and then, though recognizing that he was not sent officially to hear them, gave him a list of grievances and burdens. First, they said, after the war many "overseas churches" hastened to rehabilitate their Nigerian branches; but in their case, even after their leaders wrote to Salt Lake City, no word was received. Next they asked that the Nigerian Mission be given official recognition, the lack of which had retarded their growth. They also pointed to the need to reconstruct chapels, to obtain vans and other materials necessary for evangelism, to obtain books, records, and tapes, and to receive aid for a seminary sponsored by their church as well as the proposed Joseph Smith Memorial College at Likosi. They also wanted missionaries.[/ref]


In 1971, Edwin Q. Cannon became president of the Swiss Mission and in that capacity had responsibility for Church activity in all the areas not included in reguiariy organized stakes and missions. That year he received the correspondence file regarding Nigeria and Ghana, but he was instructed by the First Presidency not to correspond with the Africans at that time. Church leaders did not disapprove of the unofficial contacts; but for the time being, they wanted to avoid "official" contacts that might imply that missionary work was about to begin.[ref]Edwin Q. Cannon, telephone interview 12 December 1990; notes in the possession of the author.[/ref] After his release from the Swiss Mission in 1974, Cannon became a counselor in the recently created International Mission, and the West African files went with him. Later he served as secretary to the International Mission. Thus, for seven years, Edwin Cannon was actively aware of what was happening in Nigeria and Ghana and was well prepared for his important role in finally establishing the Church in those nations. In 1978, President Spencer W. Kimball's long-awaited revelation on priesthood was announced to the world. The wording of the official announcement made it clear that President Kimball and others had long been concerned and had been actively seeking the Lord's direction and confirmation on a decision they knew eventually must be made:

Aware of the promises made by the prophets and presidents of the Church who have preceded us that at some time, in God's eternal plan, all of our brethren who are worthy may receive the priesthood, and witnessing the faithfulness of those from whom the priesthood has been withheld [this must have spoken volumes to the Nigerians and Ghanians who read it], we have pleaded long and earnestly in behalf of these, our faithful brethren, spending many hours in the Upper Room of the Temple supplicating the Lord for divine guidance.

He has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the church may receive the holy priesthood. (D&C Official Declaration-2)

The time of waiting was nearly over for the black Africans in Nigeria and Ghana, and the story of what happened as a new day dawned for them is as fascinating and heart-warming as what went on before. It can be told here, however, only in briefest outline.

In August Edwin Q. Cannon and Merrill Bateman were sent by the First Presidency on a short fact-finding trip to West Africa, armed with many names gathered from the correspondence files and from Lorry Rytting's report. In both Nigeria and Ghana, they found some blacks who were already baptized members of the Church-some former BYU students, and others who had been converted and baptized in America or elsewhere.[ref]Some may have been baptized by certain unofficial visitors; Williams, for example, indicated that M. Lynn Hilton baptized some people when he was in Nigeria. Williams, Oral History, 40-41. Unless otherwise noted, the information on this fact-finding trip is taken from Cannon, "Report of Visit."[/ref] For the most part, however, they met with blacks who had been anxiously waiting, many of them for years, for the time when the Church would be organized in their nations. There were approximately two thousand such people in Nigeria, they estimated, and a thousand in Ghana.

Among the people they met in Ghana were A. F. Mensah in Accra and J. W. B. Johnson in Cape Coast. Mensah, they noted, had lost the leadership of his group but, Cannon wrote, "It was heartwarming yet saddening" to sit with Mensah and Clement Osekre and hear of their high hopes for the Church and yet of their feeling that some of their people had rejected the gospel. He characterized them, however, as "valiant men" who still had hope and faith.[ref]Edwin Q. Cannon, handwritten note dated October 1978, Cannon Collection.[/ref] J. W. B. Johnson, on the other hand, was still the leader of seven congregations totaling somewhere between five hundred and a thousand members. In his little chapel at Cape Coast, the visitors found in the middle of the room a large statue of the angel Moroni, standing on a ball and blowing a trumpet. Attached to the pulpit was a picture of the Bible and the Book of Mormon and the room was decorated with pictures of Joseph Smith, the Tabernacle Choir, and other LDS scenes. They left with little doubt that Johnson and his group were ready for baptism, and later Johnson became the first district leader in Ghana.

One of the people Cannon and Bateman were especially anxious to meet in Nigeria was Ime Eduok, who had been baptized, with his wife Shade, while attending Woodbury College in California. In addition, in 1975 Lorry Rytting had appointed him to coordinate several groups in the Calabar-Etinan area. Knowing that the letters they had written had not yet arrived, the two LDS emissaries went into a hotel and Cannon asked the desk clerk, "Do you know any of these names?" then read the list he had. A man who had just come in to buy a newspaper came up and said, "I know Ime Eduok. I'm his boss!" The result was that they met Eduok who then spent the next three days driving them throughout the Cross River State and helped them make contact with everyone they needed to find. It was not long before Eduok became the first LDS district president in Nigeria.[ref]Cannon, "Report of Visit," 32; Cannon, telephone interview, 12 December 1990.[/ref]

On 19 September, in a letter to President William G. Bangerter, Anthony Obinna, a Nigerian who had long been pressing for missionaries to come, expressed well the continuing frustrations of his people. He had missed seeing Edwin Cannon and Merrill Bateman, though he had traveled long distances trying to find them, and expressed dismay that he had not heard officially from any Church leaders. "Should I believe that the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not for Nigerians?" he asked. LaMar Williams, Obinna said, had done all he could, but "since he left for the Gulf States, everything appears to be as dead as a dodo." Two days later he wrote to the Quorum of the Twelve: "Nigeria has an open door for religious denominations. What could hinder this church from having foot hold here? Did Christ not say—'Go ye and teach all nations?' 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."[ref]Cannon Collection.[/ref] Even as Obinna wrote, however, plans for establishing the Church in Nigeria and Ghana were being implemented. In November, Edwin and Janath Cannon and Rendell and Rachel Mabey arrived as representatives of the International Mission in West Africa.[ref]The Church still hesitated to use the designation missionary, and it was not used until the official opening of the West African Mission in 1980.[/ref] On 21 November the first baptisms were performed, with Anthony Obinna first of the nineteen who became members of the Church that day.

On 1 December 1978, Anthony, Francis, and Raymond Obinna wrote a letter of appreciation to President Spencer W. Kimball. It read, in part:

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 granted the holy priesthood to us, with the power to exercise its divine authority and enjoy every blessing 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.[ref]Anthony U. Obinna, Francis I. Obinna, and Raymond I. Obinna to President Spencer W. Kimball, 1 December 1978, Cannon Collection.[/ref]

By the time the Cannons and the Mabeys returned to Utah in 1979, over seventeen hundred Nigerians and five hundred Ghanians were on the rolls of the Church. Sadly, missing from the rosters of the new Latter-day Saints were such familiar names as O. J. Umordak, Honesty John Ekong, Dick Obot, and Adewole Ogunmokun, whose letter of December I960 was a major catalyst in igniting President McKay's early interest. What happened to them is not known.

On 1 April 1980, the West African Mission was formally created, with Bryan Espenschied as its first president. Events had come full circle, for among the other full-time missionaries called that year were LaMar and Nyal Williams.


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  • JoEllen Cook
    commented 2020-03-10 00:37:34 -0700
    Heavenly Father, thank you so much for bringing Nigerians into the fold.
  • JoEllen Cook
    followed this page 2020-03-10 00:37:30 -0700

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