What does Mormonism look like when reconstructed from texts in a non-American cultural context? The self-styled Mormon Churches that developed in West Africa during the 1960s and 1970s (prior to the lifting of the priesthood and temple ban on individuals with Black African ancestry) provide a fascinating glimpse into this question that Laurie Maffly-Kipp explored at the 26th annual Arrington Mormon History Lecture in her lecture “A Marvelous Work: Reading Mormonism in West Africa.” I didn’t get off work in time to get up to Logan, Utah and attend in person, but they did offer a live-stream of the event, which I was able to listen to, and thought I would share a summary of what was shared during the lecture.
Prior to lifting the ban in 1978, the Church had very little established in Africa in the way of missions or congregations. Through exposure to the Church via Western education, a 1958 article in the Reader’s Digest called “The Mormon Church: A Complete Way of Life,” and dreams, West Africans began to develop an interest in Mormonism and sought out literature about the Church. Missionary pamphlets, James E. Talmage’s Articles of Faith, LeGrand Richards’s A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, and a Church magazine known as The Improvement Era were the most studied Mormon literature in the area, and once some individuals had read these sources, they began to preach and form congregations that were styled as Mormonism or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Ghana and Nigeria. It is estimated that over 10,000 people were part of these grassroots African churches that developed without extensive contact with the official church in Utah. This, in turn, caused some anxiety for Church leaders back in Utah, who seem to have seen these self-styled Mormon Churches as rogue elements and interpreted communication with them through the lens of U.S. race relations of the era. But Maffly-Kipp was primarily interested in exploring the lived faith of West African Mormons during the lecture.
Laurie Maffly-Kipp discussed the experiences of several different individuals, like Anthony Obinna, R.A.F. Mensah, William Johnson, Rebecca Mould, and others. For example, Obinna was an ethnic Igbo in Nigeria who was educated in the British schools available in the area. During the 1960s, he had a series of dreams in which a tall man in white shorts visited him, first telling Obinna to re-read John Bunyan’s religious classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress and later showing him a beautiful building. When Obinna came across the Reader’s Digest article on Mormonism, he saw an image of a temple that matched the beautiful building of his dream and began to search for literature and instructions from the Church, sending requests to Church headquarters in Utah via letter. He wasn’t alone in taking this approach—LaMar Williams of the Missionary Department received upwards of 1,000 letters prior to 1978 from West Africa requesting literature and resources.
Still, even with sending Latter-day Saint literature over to West Africa, there were several cultural fissures that made it difficult to translate Mormonism into a new context. During the lecture, Maffly-Kipp discussed some of the major divides between North American culture and West African culture that affected the development of Mormonism in Africa:
- Language—While English is the official language of Nigeria and Ghana (as a direct result of British imperialism), it is not generally the first language of people living in West Africa. Instead, tribal languages of the separate ethnic groups that live in the boundaries of these countries tend to be the first languages of people. This created a situation where Mormon literature was studied by educated individuals and then passed on by word of mouth to their communities. It also made it so that Mormonism was more easily accessible through modern writings rather than through the Book of Mormon or other Latter-day Saint scriptures. Given that the language of the Book of Mormon is difficult for many native English speakers, it proved extremely difficult for individuals who only had a rudimentary understanding of English to study. This meant that it often required a double translation to communicate the text of scriptures—from King James-ish English to modern English to the local language. That is why Talmage, Richards and Reader’s Digest proved more common as access points than the scriptures—it was easier to read about the scriptural texts than to read the scriptural texts themselves.
- Education—The education system in these West African countries was also shaped by British imperialism, with an emphasis on humanities and British classical literature. It wasn’t warmly regarded by many of the Africans and not everyone had an official education. Virtually anyone with enough education to read and understand could preach. Frequently, if the Book of Mormon was recalled by converts, it was because the stories of the Book of Mormon were passed on by the literate members.
- Religion—Charismatic Christianity, like that of the Pentecostals, was predominant in many areas. The culture was intensely saturated with Biblical literacy, which led to many converts to accept Mormonism and the Book of Mormon (for those who studied the Book of Mormon) because they believed they measured up to the Bible. After converting, the charismatic practices of these religions were carried over, such as dancing during meetings, singing, speaking in tongues, and extended prayers. Other areas were predominantly Muslim, which made acceptance of the Word of Wisdom easier for many West African converts but affected how they approached religion as well.
- One other note that Maffly-Kipp made was that African peoples in Western Africa also didn’t view exclusivity in religion in the same way as most westerners do. Joining a new church didn’t necessarily mean that they leave their previous religion behind. For example, she shared that when she talked to people in Nigeria or Ghana, if she asked them what their religion was, they would generally say whatever they were raised with as the predominant religion of their village (i.e., Presbyterian), regardless of whatever religion they were practicing at the time. She talked briefly about how R.A.F. Mensah (one of the early individuals who began preaching and forming Mormon congregations in Nigeria) was raised in a region dominated by a charismatic Islam, then converted to Methodism, then a few other Christian religions before embracing Mormonism, but he never abandoned any churches he joined. This sort of serial affiliation was not uncommon among early West African Mormons.
- Poverty—Most of Nigeria and Ghana lived in extreme poverty and struggled to meet their basic material needs. Partly because of these conditions, they don’t differentiate between “material” and “authentic” faith—it’s all wrapped together in their culture. After all, the Bible speaks of the Lord blessing people with abundance, and when people are looking for hope and greener pastures, that includes prospects in both the afterlife and in material realities. They generally pay their pastors so that the pastors can make a living, but then the pastor will redistribute money to those most in need as well. So, when joining a church, a major consideration in their culture is what religion will be most able help them in material ways. In the questions and answers session at the end, she noted that even today, concerns resulting from poverty shape Latter-day saints’ religious experience in West Africa. For example, she explained that many of those who attend Latter-day Saint seminaries are there partly because the Church’s buildings are one of the few places where they can access reliable internet and take affordable correspondence courses (through BYU-Idaho). She also described a ward that was deeply concerned by the change from a three-hour block to a two-hour block because they used part of that time to learn English and were concerned about losing that opportunity.
- Political alliances—Global politics of the Cold War era made it so that third-world countries generally had to ally themselves with a superpower to gain the support they needed to experience continued success. This had some carry-over to the religions of people in Nigeria and Ghana, with local churches seeking affiliation with larger faith communities. It was with this in mind that many of the people who had set up Mormon congregations in West Africa wrote to Church headquarters in Utah, seeking support and guidance (as well as why some wrote to the RLDS church (now Community of Christ) too). It was also why some preachers were known to display images from the Improvement Era on the walls of their homes—it demonstrated a form of connection to the American church that provided cultural capitol and social power in their communities through the affiliation it suggested.
Once the Church lifted the priesthood and temple ban and began sending missionaries out to West Africa in the late 1970s, there was a reckoning for these home-grown African Mormon congregations. In many cases, the Utah Church wanted to standardize to American cultural standards, which meant removing dancing, drumming, and clapping from worship services. Polygamy was a common practice in West Africa, which caused its own cultural issues since the Church no longer views that as an acceptable marital arrangement. Ultimately, many African saints felt that they were faced with giving up their traditions to join an official congregation or move on to other faiths.
One area of particular concern was the role of women in Church leadership. Maffly-Kipp commented at one point that she reviewed the books that they most frequently read to learn about Mormonism (Articles of Faith and A Marvelous Work and a Wonder) to see if they ever explicitly stated that women could not hold the priesthood and said she couldn’t find it. It was, perhaps, implicit to native English speakers from western cultures, but not necessarily to someone from outside of that group. Hence, many charismatic leaders who founded self-styled Mormon congregations in Africa were women. Perhaps most famously, Rebecca Mould was known as the Prophetess Rebecca in Ghana and set up a large Mormon congregation. She was even elected to the National Council of 12 Apostles that was part of the leadership structure that the grassroots Mormon churches in Ghana developed. When the Church officially came to Ghana, she was one of the first people to be baptized. Yet, the fact that she was a woman leading the local church (and who owned the local church building) led to some very delicate negotiations when the Church worked to strip women leaders of authority. Church leaders pushed to have her called Sister Mould rather than Prophetess, pushed her to donate the building to the Church, and worked to curtail her authority and limit it to roles in the local Relief Society. Eventually she left the Church to function as an independent leader and took a significant number of her followers with her. Yet, she claimed that “the Lord knows I’m a Mormon” and that she was still a Mormon at heart even after parting ways with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
It was an interesting lecture and a fascinating glimpse of translating Mormonism into a different context without the Church’s direct oversight. In their interactions with the Church, it also highlights the problems that hidden assumptions can cause, since the Africans and Americans didn’t understand each other or the other side’s motives throughout the 1960s and 1970s. They generally publish the full texts of the lectures later on, but thought I’d share this summary and open things up to discussion here in the interim.
 One thing to note is that she openly embraced using the term Mormonism, stating that she did so because that is the term used by the West Africans of the era and the term used in early 20th century Latter-day Saint literature (such as James E. Talmage’s The Vitality of Mormonism). She also used it because it involved a discussion of a broader group under the Mormon umbrella than just the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.