The story of the establishment and growth of the Church in Africa in modern times is a dramatic illustration of the fulfillment of the allegory of the tame and wild olive trees given in Jacob 5 of the Book of Mormon, a speaker in the Pioneers in Every Land Lecture Series affirmed April 9.
Matthew K. Heiss was the presenter at the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in Salt Lake City in the most recent installment of the lecture series sponsored monthly by the Church History Library. He is an area manager in the Global Support and Acquisitions Division of the Church History Department.
In his speech, titled “ ‘The Nethermost Part of My Vineyard’: Learning Lessons of Faith from the History of the Church in Africa,” Brother Heiss quoted from the allegory in Jacob, noting that it symbolically tells of the Lord’s work in preserving His covenant people, the House of Israel.
“I believe we are witnessing this as the Church continues to grow and spread across Africa, the nethermost part of the Lord’s vineyard,” he remarked.
“Africa has been called ‘the Dark Continent,’ ” he said, displaying a projected image of a newspaper from 19th century Great Britain. “This may be rooted in racism or in our ignorance of the place. And yet, despite all this darkness, there is amazing light resulting from the establishment of the Church and from Church members who are striving to make and keep sacred covenants with the Lord.” Brother Heiss shared stories about the Lord’s dealings with His children in Africa and about “the powerful influence of the gospel in giving hope and healing lives.”
He focused on God’s love for His children manifest by His preparing them for the gospel, and overcoming worldly traditions, particularly as pertaining to the treatment of women.
“Based upon what I have learned about the Church in Africa prior to the 1978 revelation on the priesthood, I most certainly honor the early missionaries to Africa, as well as the white South Africans who have joined the Church and who have kept the light of the gospel burning in Africa,” he said. “Many of these good Church members have been and are now the nursing fathers and nursing mothers helping the next generation of African converts establish the Church and live the gospel,” he added, alluding to 2 Nephi 10:9.
Focusing on his first point, which he called “Patterns of Preparation,” Brother Heiss referred to published stories of how the Church got started in Ghana and Nigeria. He recalled that Joseph William “Billy” Johnson, who was living in Ghana, came across a copy of the Book of Mormon, read it, was converted and spent 14 years preaching Mormonism to the best of his ability and organizing small branches. When Church missionaries finally arrived in Ghana, he was the second person to be baptized.
In rural eastern Nigeria, Anthony Obinna had dreams and visions that led him to write Church headquarters and request information years before the revelation on the priesthood. He too preached Mormonism to the best of his ability and organized congregations, ultimately receiving Church missionaries and being baptized.
The experiences of those two men fit the “pattern of preparation,” Brother Heiss said. “We often recount the great missionary success that was experienced by the likes of Wilford Woodruff and Brigham Young in England in the 19th century. The same thing happened in West Africa in 1978-1979.”
He told how the Church got started in Mozambique, following the same pattern.
“In 1992, right after the cease-fire [in a civil war], Church leaders traveled to Mozambique and found that there were small groups of people worshiping as Latter-day Saints. In one remote village, they had built their own meetinghouse.”
That all stemmed from the experience of Chico Mapenda who at age 13 left his hometown of Beira, Mozambique, for the German Democratic Republic, where he finished his basic education and received technical training as a welder. In 1989, he saw a sign advertising a video presentation about the Book of Mormon. Attending the presentation, he was taught by Church missionaries and given a copy of the book in Portuguese. In an interview, he said he was confused at first but ultimately felt the power of God telling him the book was true.
That was the year the Berlin Wall fell; in 1990, he was baptized.
Back home in Mozambique, he introduced his brother, Gimo, to the Church. Together they organized congregations and began serving as traveling ministers for these unbaptized “Latter-day Saints.”
In coming years, the Church organized an LDS group and authorized the first baptisms of converts, of which Gimo was one.
“Today, after only 15 years, since the first missionaries arrived, there are approximately 7,000 Latter-day Saints in Mozambique,” Brother Heiss said. “The country has its own mission and, just two months ago, the first stake in Mozambique was organized.”
He remarked, “Maybe there is a lesson in this for all of us: Sometimes some of the strange situations and seemingly impossible events in our lives turn out to be great blessings, if we have the eyes of faith to see.”
Brother Heiss said a challenge for the Church in Africa — as in all locations to one degree or another — is to overcome worldly traditions that are not compatible with gospel standards.
In Africa, he said, commonly the women’s lot in life is to do all the hard work and maintain the family, while the man stands back. “And this is sometimes reinforced by the tradition of bride price or the dowry, known commonly in many places in Africa as the lobolo [or lobola].”
He displayed quotes, several of them from “The Family: a Proclamation to the World,” showing how facets of LDS doctrine “provide liberation to women and take them and their husbands and sons out of the world and into the light of the Lord.”