Viewing mementos of a remarkable era

In 1965, a Nigerian named Anthony Obinna had a remarkable dream in which a "personage" appeared to him three times and took him to a beautiful building. Later, he came across an old copy of the Reader's Digest containing and article titled "The March of the Mormons." Illustrating the article was a drawing of the Salt Lake Temple, which he recognized as the building he had seen in his dream.

He wrote to Church headquarters in Salt Lake City requesting further information which he then used to teach his family and neighbors. In 1978, when the availability of visas and easing of international tensions permitted the Church to send representatives, Brother Obinna became the first Nigerian to be baptized in that country.The dramatic story of Brother Obinna and others is spotlighted in a new exhibit that opened May 15 at the Museum of Church History and Art.

Titled "A People Prepared: Latter-day Saints in West Africa," the exhibit focuses on how the peoples of West Africa were prepared for and accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ. Presented in the exhibit is a remarkable story of mass conversions, a miracle approaching the magnitude of some 19th Century accounts of Church missionaries converting hundreds at a time.

"Between 1959 and 1978," reads one of the exhibit panels, "many West Africans sought information about the LDS Church. These early converts met together in worship services and tried to live the gospel without benefit of priesthood ordinances or leadership. At the same time, Latter-day Saints living in West Africa cultivated relationships which eventually helped the Church's quest for official recognition."

Meanwhile, independent of any formal missionaries and largely unknown to each other, entire congregations with testimonies of the Book of Mormon were organized in both Nigeria and Ghana in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the exhibit points out.

Thus the stage was set to bring the gospel formally to West Africa in September 1978, 3 1/2 months after the revelation was announced extending the priesthood to all worthy male Church members without regard for race or color. (See Official Declaration - 2 in the Doctrine and Covenants.)

Edwin Q. and Janath Cannon and Rendell N. and Rachel Mabey were called at that time under the direction of President Spencer W. Kimball as missionaries to West Africa.

The first officially recognized baptisms in West Africa were performed Nov. 21, 1978. "Within the next year, and with only three missionary couples, over 1,700 baptisms would be performed in West Africa," according to a photo caption in the exhibit.

The Cannons were among invited guests at an evening reception May 14 to open the exhibit. Brother Cannon pointed himself out in a large print of a photograph shot by Sister Cannon. The dramatic photo shows Brother Cannon baptizing in a river, with a line of converts stretching into the water, awaiting their turns to be baptized.

Sister Cannon said she recorded in her journal that 67 people were baptized that day; 115 were baptized the day before.

"But those were the first of those groups, so they were the people who had been taught, the ones who had been waiting," she noted. "The groups of people who came in subsequently were not as large."

Brother Cannon pointed out a cement sculpture - a common West African art form - of the Angel Moroni. The statue was one of the items in the Cape Coast area of Ghana, where William Billy Joseph Johnson established a congregation prior to the coming of official missionaries of the Church. Today, Brother Johnson is a patriarch in the Cape Coast Ghana Stake.

"It's obviously a copy of the Angel Moroni that was on the cover of the paper-back copies of the Book of Mormon given out over the world for so many years about that time," Brother Cannon said. "That was right in the center of the chapel as we went in, and they had the Book of Mormon and the Bible on the front of the pulpit."

He said that when they first encountered the chapel, it had a drawing of

Joseph Smith in one corner, with a representation of lightning bolts, an apparent effort to portray his prophetic mantle.

Pointing to a photo of the chapel interior, he said: "On the blackboard they had the hymns from the previous Sunday written in chalk, Come, Come, Ye Saints' andCome, O Thou King of Kings.' On the simple wooden benches they had some mimeographed copies of the words of some LDS hymns. None of the people had been officially baptized at that time."

Exhibit curator Marjorie Conder pointed out a photo shot by a missionary of an LDS classroom in Nigeria, with a list of "early Mormon pioneers" displayed.

"You can see they have American pioneers with Brigham Young and Nigerian pioneers in their own branch," she said. "They are correctly perceiving themselves as pioneers." Regarding West African Church members, she noted: "They are very interested in Church history. The reason is that they see their own lives replicating early Church history in the 1820s, '30s and '40s, in the dreams and the visions they had prior to the Church coming; in their forming congregations before the Church came among them; in the congregations that were preparing themselves to become Latter-day Saints; in their own early conversion experiences; and even in the persecutions they suffered in their early experiences as Latter-day Saints."

Today West Africa has four stakes, seven missions and 25 districts. West African countries with Church units are Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Liberia and, most recently, Cameroon.

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