Historian shares stories of faith from black Latter-day Saints around the world

Personally and in his professional life, Clint Christensen has forged permanent connections with Latter-day Saints of African descent.

As a Church historian, he has spent nearly two decades recording the stories of Latter-day Saints around the world — mostly focusing on black members until an assignment change to Asia and the Pacific in 2018.

In his own family, Christensen and his wife have three children: a 15-year-old son of mixed ancestry, including African heritage, whom they adopted from Louisiana; an 11-year-old son adopted from India; and an 8-year-old daughter adopted from Thailand. 

“We’ve had questions in our family as far as how do you raise your children [to be] proud of their heritage and teach them of the great blessings in the different parts of the world their ancestors come from?” Christensen said Thursday, March 12, at a Church History Museum event in Salt Lake City called “My African Journey: Gathering the Stories of Black Latter-day Saints Around the World.”

His experience parenting children of color has informed his research as a historian — as has his time serving a mission in New York City and later earning a master’s degree in Detroit, Michigan, where he and his wife attended a ward with mostly black members.

When he was first hired by the Church History Department in 2001, he decided to focus his efforts on recording the stories of members in the Caribbean, as little of that work had been done. He went on to work with Latter-day Saints of the African diaspora in North America, Latin America and Europe, as well as with members in Africa.

An aerial shot of the Aba Nigeria Temple complex in 2005.
An aerial shot of the Aba Nigeria Temple complex in 2005. Credit: Robert Reeve, Temple Department

At the museum event, he shared stories he has gathered from black Church members in Puerto Rico, England, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Ghana, Nigeria and the United States.

But first, he relayed a question asked of him by a Mexican member of the Church during one of his assignments: “Do you love my people?”

“I’ve thought of that throughout my whole career — that if I’m going to be gathering the histories of members of the Church on behalf of the Lord, then I need to love all people,” Christensen said.

Pre- and post-1978 experiences

Many of the black Saints he has interviewed have shared with him the impact they felt from the 1978 revelation received by President Spencer W. Kimball, which allowed all worthy members to receive temple ordinances and all worthy male members to be ordained to the priesthood, regardless of race or color. 

Black members had not been allowed to hold the priesthood or participate in temple endowments or sealings since at least 1852, when Brigham Young publicly announced the racial restriction.

Rena Williams, who is of Jamaican descent and joined the Church in London, England, in 1971, told Christensen she fell on the floor weeping when she heard about the revelation in 1978. She was overwhelmed with gratitude to know that her then-teenage sons would be allowed to bless the sacrament.

One of those sons, Patrick Williams, told Christensen in a 2012 interview about the burden of others expecting him to explain the history of black people and the priesthood. He does not know all the answers, Williams said. This was before the Church released the gospel topic essay “Race and the Priesthood” in December 2013, Christensen noted, adding that he hopes this essay and similar resources are helpful to members seeking information about the priesthood and temple ban.

Christensen also had the opportunity to interview and become friends with one of the most prominent African Latter-day Saints — Joseph William “Billy” Johnson, who is known as “the father of the Church in Ghana.”

Joseph William "Billy" Johnson, right, one of the first members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Ghana, poses with Church historian Clint Christensen in 2005.
Joseph William “Billy” Johnson, right, one of the first members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Ghana, poses with Church historian Clint Christensen in 2005. Credit: Matt Heiss, Church History Department

In the 1960s, years before the Church was established in his country, Johnson was converted to the restored gospel after reading the Book of Mormon. One morning, he heard a voice that said, “Johnson, Johnson, Johnson. If you will take up my work as I will command you, I will bless you and bless your land.” After that miraculous experience, he dedicated himself to missionary work and built up Latter-day Saint congregations in Ghana before the country had official Church connections or missionaries.

On the night of June 8, 1978, Johnson felt a prompting to tune in to the radio. At midnight, he heard the BBC announce the removal of racial restrictions on priesthood and temple ordinances. That radio, Christensen said, is housed at the Church History Museum today.

Johnson wrote a letter to President Kimball asking for missionaries to come and baptize all the Ghanaians who had been prepared to join the Church, and he was finally baptized in December 1978.

Christensen said his sons were able to meet and receive priesthood blessings from Johnson when he visited Salt Lake City in 2010. His oldest son, Jordan, who does not know his biological father, connected with Johnson through their shared African heritage. Though he passed away in 2012, Johnson has continued to be a spiritual, grandfatherly presence in the Christensens’ lives.

Race in Latin America

During his talk, Christensen emphasized the need for increased “cultural competence” and sensitivity in sharing and understanding members’ stories worldwide. 

Paulo De Oliveira Lima poses with his mother's diaries and photo in his home near Brasília, Brazil, in 2012.
Paulo De Oliveira Lima poses with his mother’s diaries and photo in his home near Brasília, Brazil, in 2012. Credit: Clint Christensen

In particular, those who live in the United States may not be aware that the majority of Africans who were enslaved in past centuries were taken to Latin America, Christensen said. Those Africans’ descendants have been integrated into the various cultures of Latin America differently than have the descendants of people who were enslaved in the United States.

For example, nearly half of all Brazilians claim African ancestry, and at least a third of Puerto Ricans have strong African roots, Christensen said. In many Central and South American countries, he added, former slaves intermarried with indigenous peoples, and their mixed-race descendants make up vibrant communities today.

Because of how common it is for Latin Americans to have multiple ethnicities represented among their ancestors, it was more difficult in these countries to determine who could hold the priesthood under the previous policy of racial restriction, Christensen said.

When he traveled to Brazil in 2012, Christensen asked the area presidency for permission to interview longtime members about the impact of the 1978 revelation. One of those members was Paulo De Oliveira Lima, who remembers meeting President Kimball with his family in 1969 during the prophet’s visit to Brasília, Brazil. In fact, Christensen tracked Lima down after finding a childhood photo of him with President Kimball that was kept by the Church History Department. President Kimball played piano, sang hymns and spent over an hour with the family during his 1969 visit.

A page from the 1969 diary of Kirk K. Nielson with a photo of President Spencer W. Kimball at the piano next to Paulo De Oliveira Lima in Brasília, Brazil.
A page from the 1969 diary of Kirk K. Nielson with a photo of President Spencer W. Kimball at the piano next to Paulo De Oliveira Lima in Brasília, Brazil. Credit: Church History Library

Lima, an Afro-Brazilian artist and musician, has remained active in the Church his whole life, and Christensen interviewed him with his family in 2012. Though Church policy now allows Paulo the blessing of holding the priesthood, the Lima family has still faced discrimination because of their socioeconomic status, he said.

“In Brazil, even though everyone knows and embraces the African heritage, Paulo … felt extreme racism” because of his family’s poverty, Christensen said. Yet he continues in faith despite painful experiences.

After Christensen interviewed him, Lima asked him for a priesthood blessing of healing. He needed an operation to address the deteriorated cartilage in his knees, since he would not be old enough to receive the necessary health insurance for several years. After returning to Salt Lake City, Christensen asked via email how Lima had been feeling since the blessing. He replied that he had danced with his wife on Christmas for the first time in 13 years.

From that experience, Christensen said he learned “the Savior is very aware of all of His children and their circumstances and blesses them accordingly, notwithstanding their afflictions.”

These stories of faithful black Church members are only a small sample of those Christensen has collected in his years of work.

“My African journey has really reshaped my life,” he said at the event. “I’m so grateful for all the opportunities that I … have in being a Church historian and preserving the Lord’s history.”