Basketball led Church’s first African-American General Authority to Christianity

Elder Peter M. Johnson and his wife Sister Stephanie Lyn Johnson pose for photos at the Church office building in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 8, 2019. Elder Johnson was called be a General Authority Seventy. Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Elder Peter M. Johnson became the first African-American General Authority in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ 189-year history on Saturday. MATTHEW T REIER
Elder Peter M. Johnson, new General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, right, talks prior to the189th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Sunday, April 7, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News, Deseret News

Prior to receiving a PhD in accounting from Arizona State University, Peter M. Johnson was employed by a major international accounting firm and in academics before accepting a tenure-track faculty position at the University of Alabama in 2011.

The Johnson family immediately felt “the wonderful hospitality” of the southern United States, but after a year they were still unsure whether they had made the right decision to move to Alabama.

They were trying to find their place when a university from the western states called with an attractive job offer. The Johnsons turned to the Lord in prayer. “We needed to stay” in Alabama, said Elder Johnson, sustained during the April 2019 general conference as a General Authority Seventy.

When the family committed to the South with all their heart, everything changed.

“It was like the sun came out,” he said. “It was a difficult transition in the beginning, then all of a sudden, it was home.”

During his time at the University of Alabama, Elder Johnson became a tenured associate professor, and was appointed director of diversity and inclusion initiatives for the Culverhouse College of Business and president of the diversity section of the American Accounting Association, while teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in accounting, and conducting academic research in financial reporting and firm valuation. In 2013, Elder Johnson was called as a stake president; he lived 45 minutes from the stake center in a stake that covered 15,000 square miles. At the time of his call as a General Authority Seventy, Elder Johnson was serving as an Area Seventy in the North America Southeast Area.

Elder Peter M. Johnson, new General Authority Seventy, right, talks prior to the 189th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Sunday, April 7, 2019.
Elder Peter M. Johnson, new General Authority Seventy, right, talks prior to the 189th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Sunday, April 7, 2019. | Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News, Deseret News

Peter M. Johnson was born November 1966 in Jamaica, Queens, New York City. He is the fourth of five children born to McKinley Johnson and Geneva Paris Long. McKinley Johnson affiliated with the Baptist church; Geneva with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Elder Johnson remains grateful that a belief in God was established and encouraged in their home.

At a young age, while living amidst the rich and diverse culture of New York City, Elder Johnson joined the Nation of Islam and became Muslim. That association provided needed guidance and support and prepared him, later, to embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ.

When he was 11 years old, Elder Johnson’s parents divorced, and his mother moved to Hawaii. At the age of 15, he joined her there.

It was in Hawaii that Elder Johnson discovered sports — especially basketball — and started down a road that would lead to a university education and membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Accepting a basketball scholarship to Brigham Young University-Hawaii, “I didn’t know anything about the Church,” he said. He was required to take a religion class and thought a New Testament class would be the best fit.

Before he was ready to learn about the gospel of Jesus Christ, “I had to be converted to Christianity,” he said.

The missionaries began stopping by his dorm room. He read the scriptures and loved what he learned about the Prophet Joseph Smith.

After enrolling in a Book of Mormon class during the next semester, Elder Johnson’s trusted institute teacher invited him to his office. “One of two things are going to happen,” he was told. “You will join the Church right away or it will take you awhile before you join the Church.”

Then the teacher shared a line from Ether 12:6: “Dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.”

More than a year later — having transferred to Dixie State College in St. George, Utah — Elder Johnson “fasted and prayed and received an answer.” He “felt a peace” and knew it came from God.

But still he did not commit to baptism. He returned to Hawaii, where one day he opened his scriptures to John 14:15, and read, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.”

“I knelt down and told Heavenly Father that I loved Him.”

Later, on the way to the gym, he saw — and flagged down — two missionaries on bikes.

He was baptized on August 16, 1986. A year later, on Aug. 26, 1987, he entered the mission field after accepting a call to serve in the Alabama Birmingham Mission.

After two years of service, the opportunity to play basketball took Elder Johnson to Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. It was there, while playing collegiate basketball, that Elder Johnson met and made a deal with another collegiate basketball player, Stephanie Lyn Chadwick. She was to treat Elder Johnson to dinner if his team won its upcoming game and he scored more than 10 points. If he lost, he would foot the bill.

SUU did not win the game, and Elder Johnson wasn’t in the best mood on the evening of the couple’s first date on Dec. 5, 1989. So they sat and talked. Six months later, they married in the Salt Lake Temple. They are the parents of four children.

“Stephanie has the ability to love people instantaneously and she is a great listener. People are drawn to Stephanie immediately because of her love for them,” Elder Johnson said of his wife.

Days after being sustained as a General Authority, Elder Johnson spoke of the Lord’s guiding hand in his life and the life of his family. As the Church’s first African American General Authority, he is seen by some as a symbol of the growing and diverse membership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Elder Johnson says he is grateful for the opportunity to serve the Lord in whatever capacity he is asked.

“Regardless of nationality or culture, or where I am from, my purpose is to become all that the Lord would have me to become as I strive to serve Him with all my heart, mind and strength, and to represent the Lord to His people. The Savior loves us all. We are sons and daughters of God.”

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