Out of Africa

By the time you read this the second Mormon temple in Africa will have been dedicated, in Accra, Ghana. The first was in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1982. It is the 117th Mormon temple across the worldandmarks a solid foothold for the Mormon Church in West Africa. Another is scheduled for Nigeria in this year of 2004. It has been interesting to see how the Mormon Church has handled what might be a delicate situation on a continent the vast majority of whose population would, until 1978, have been persona non grata in Mormonism. Up to that time the attitude and official doctrine regarding people of African descent might be summed up in the words of Bruce R McConkie:

“Though he was a rebel and an associate of Lucifer in pre-existence, and though he was a liar from the beginning whose name was Perdition, Cain managed to attain the privilege of mortal birth… he came out in open rebellion, fought God, worshipped Lucifer, and slew Abel…

“As a result of his rebellion, Cain was cursed with a dark skin; he became the father of the Negroes, and those spirits who were not worthy to receive the priesthood are born through his lineage.” – Mormon Doctrine, Bruce R. McConkie, 1958, p.102.

John Taylor, Mormonism’s third prophet, declared of Negroes:

“And after the flood we are told that the curse that had been pronounced upon Cain was continued through Ham’s wife, as he had married a wife of that seed. And why did it pass through the flood? Because it was necessary that the devil should have a representation upon the earth as well as God.” – Journal of Discourse, vol.22, p.304.

We are, of course, familiar with the many racist and disparaging views held by previous generations of Mormon leaders on this subject. But, after all, that was “just their opinion” and the new, rehabilitated Mormonism grows from strength to strength with nary a glance back into it’s own dark history.

Growth – at any cost

From the time of the establishment of the church, 1830, until 1978 Negroes were denied the priesthood. On June 9, 1978 church leaders announced a remarkable change in doctrine that removed this prohibition. Today blacks of African lineage are given “all the privileges and blessings which the gospel affords.” (Deseret News, June 9, 1978)

The decision to allow Negroes to hold priesthood office has opened up a whole new mission field for the church. Church membership in South Africa between 1935 and 1965 increased by 3,500 members. Between 1965 and 1993 the increase was over 17,000. A growth of 362% in less than thirty years, directly attributable, by the church’s own admission, to the announcement of June 1978.

In 1979, the year following the announcement, President Spencer Kimball re-dedicated the mission to South Africa (there had been Mormon activity in South Africa as early as the 1850’s). 1985 saw the dedication of the Johannesburg Temple. By 1990 Africa was made a separate’ Area’, with headquarters in Johannesburg. In East Africa the first Kenyan to join the church was baptised in 1980. Uganda saw its first baptisms in the late 1980’s and one of the first baptisms for Tanzania took place in 1990.

Overall church growth of over 150% in the last twenty years is in no small part attributable to the influx of Africans, or people of African descent, into the church all over the world. The strengthening of the church by this means has been so effective one wonders why the decision to admit Negroes was not made earlier. There hangs a tale. The history of this aspect of church policy makes one wonder why the decision was made at all if not for the sake of expediency. So what if it cost a key doctrine?

This dubious history notwithstanding, Gordon B Hinckley expressed gratitude “for the brotherhood that exists among us, that neither colour of skin nor land of birth can separate us as thy sons and daughters,” as he dedicated the Accra Ghana Temple on Sunday, 11 January, 2004.

Satan’s Stronghold?

Yet the idea of a connection between the African and Satan still lingers. In a recent issue the unofficial Mormon on-line magazine, Meridian, began publishing a series of exerts from a book, Safe Journey; An African Adventure, by Glen L. Pace, which looks at the Mormon experience in Africa. The first instalment begins thus:

“When the temple is dedicated in Ghana, Sunday, January 11, by President Gordon B. Hinckley it will be, according to Glenn L. Pace, ‘like an atomic bomb has been dropped right in the middle of Satan’s stronghold in West Africa. It will be the most significant thing that as affected West Africa since the atonement and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It will be the beginning of the end of Satan’s hold on these countries.'”

I confess, I did a double take, read it again, and marvelled at this audacious rewriting of history. It is as though nothing of any significance pertaining to the Christian faith had happened there for two thousand years.
Telling how it was Africans, having read Mormon literature that had come their way, who had written to the church asking for ‘holy books’ he writes:

“Slowly, without the authority of the Church and without knowledge of each other, congregations spontaneously arose as people were touched by the message. They built small meetinghouses (sic); they patterned their doctrine and teachings after the Church, some even named themselves The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Without priesthood authority and direction, these churches had omissions and errors. In some there were hallelujahs, drum beats and the passing of collection plates. Yet what was clear as Elder Pace reiterates in his book the message of the gospel is universal. In Africa, it found an exuberant, innately spiritual people, hungry for the message.”

Hallelujahs? Drumbeats? The passing of collection plates? You can almost taste the contempt for these things in the writer’s words. I wonder what this man thought “Hallelujahs” signified? I wonder if he thought what the collections were for, and where this custom came from? I wonder if he even understood that Africa has a rich Christian history and a strong Christian presence in the world today? The following potted history of African Christianity, for which we are grateful to Christian network links for Africa, gives just a glimpse of that continent’s Christian heritage:

Christianity in Africa

“Christianity came to Africa in the 1st century AD. Tradition records that it was St Mark who planted the church in Alexandria about AD 65. Even before that, however, the New Testament records that Jesus and His family were refugees in Egypt, and so it would have been in Africa that He learnt to walk and talk.

“The first Christians in Egypt were mostly Jews and Greeks who were living there, but by the end of the second century large numbers of native Egyptians were joining the church, and the scriptures were translated into three local languages. In the 3rd century the Christians suffered several persecutions from the Roman rulers, and in Egypt some fled as refugees to the deserts. When the persecutions died down, they stayed to pray, and the first monastic communities were formed. Monasticism spread to other parts of the church as well, and so this was one of the African contributions to global Christianity.

“In the 4th century there were several theological controversies in Africa, and one of the most significant was that between Arius and Athanasius. Their dispute forced Christians to define certain articles of the Christian faith more closely, and the Symbol of Faith or Nicene Creed was the result. The statement of faith that (with some variations) is accepted by most Christians around the world has its roots in African theology. Christianity in Africa therefore goes back a long way!

“There were also Christian communities in north-western Africa, in the area today called the Maghreb, which includes Tunisia and northern Algeria. The church there was part of the Western Church, centred on Rome, though it, too, produced some influential theologians, such as Cyprian and Augustine.

“The African church enjoyed a respite from persecution for 300 years, from the 4th to the 6th centuries, but in the 7th century Arabs invaded Africa, and conquered most of North Africa. The Arabs were Muslim, and so Christians became second-class citizens except in Ethiopia, which managed to retain its independence. Christianity began to spread southward from Ethiopia in the 12th and 13th centuries, but only slowly, because of Arab naval supremacy in the Indian Ocean.

“The Arab naval supremacy was broken by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and they established some Christian missions along parts of the east and west coasts of Africa. In the 17th century the Portuguese lost their naval supremacy to the Dutch, who established a trading outpost in Southern Africa. Other European nations became interested in Africa for purposes of trade, and much of the trade was in human beings, who were forced to emigrate to the Americas as slaves.

“In the 19th century many missionaries from Europe and America came to Africa and started churches in various parts of the continent south of the Sahara. The Christian faith spread slowly at first, but then more rapidly. In the 20th century most mission was through African initiative, and done by members of African independent churches, but also by members of international denominations. Now, at the end of the 20th century, Africa is probably the most Christian continent. There are more Anglicans in Nigeria, for example, than in Britain and the USA.

“There are more than 7000 Christian denominations in South Africa alone, ranging in size from a couple of dozen to several million. There are many more in other parts of the continent. Most of these are not on line, and there are many things in African Christianity that the wired world can’t even begin to imagine. Nevertheless, we hope these links will give something of the varied flavours on Christianity on this continent.” – Steve Hayes – Webmaster: Christian network links for Africa

We would add that Uganda is experiencing success in dealing with the AIDS epidemic as no other African nation, in no small part because of its Christian nature which makes for progressive and enlightened thinking that other nations are slower to embrace.

Satan’s stronghold Mr Pace? We beg to differ and invite you to consider the possibility that Mormonism, once again, is riding on the back of a rich and proud Christian heritage. When the Accra temple held it’s open house Mormonism Researched Ministry of San Diego, California were there, helping local Christians present a positive witness and encouraging and teaching them in their Christian faith.

Quoting Operation World, Bill McKeever reports that 64% of Ghanaians regard themselves as Christians, although very few are connected with any established church. “The fact that many of these professing Christians are not grounded in the Word makes them prime targets for the Mormon missionaries. Churches are in abundance, but many of these are led by pastors with very little biblical education”, he reported in a recent MRM newsletter. Bill worked in Ghana with Luke Wilson of the Institute for Religious Research, teaching and training at the Maranatha Bible College in Accra.

In a recent Annual Convention we were privileged to hear testimony from Sharif, a pastor in Ghana and a convert from Islam, who is anxious to start an effective outreach to Mormons and other groups who are recruiting his fellow Ghanaians in alarming numbers. We will, of course, be putting him in touch with MRM and others working in his country, but he wishes very much to have the help of Reachout, and we are as keen to help him. If anyone wants to contribute financially to Sharif’s work, and /or find out more about him, please get in touch with Reachout. We will be glad to send any money on to him, as well as to pass on any information we can to those who ask.

So Many Voices

Ask any Mormon why their church exists and they will tell you that, in 1820, Joseph Smith “confused by the strife among different denominations” sought to answer the questions, “Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them is right, which is it, and how shall I know?” (Joseph Smith – History 1:8-10) Seeking truth, he “retired to the woods to pray”. The answer he received was an effective call to “restore” the true Christian faith and put an end to the “tumult of opinions”. Hence, Mormonism.

This picture of a hopelessly divided Christendom has lent a lot of weight down the years to the Mormon argument that, “the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy any confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.” (JSH 1:12) The Mormon appeal to “Moroni’s promise” at the back of the Book of Mormon, in which the reader is encouraged to “ask God the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye will ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost” (Moroni 10:4), – this appeal is meant to convey the idea that the same process can be gone through by any sincere seeker and all the argument can be cut through and the truth arrived at.

A recent correspondent used the idea to assert that,

“all arguments, all conversations about the Bible WILL NEVER CEASE, FOR THERE IS ROOM FOR THAT VERY DISCUSSION. Meaning the Bible gives room for argument and interpretation.”

He goes on to ask:

“Why are there more Christian denominations upon the earth than ever before? Because they all interpret the Bible differently.”

But we could ask the same of Mormonism. Why are there so many Mormon denominations? There are literally hundreds of groups, all claiming to be the true Mormon Church. And they have all popped up in less than 200 years. I have before me a list of 219 Mormon sects and I am sure it is already out of date as the figure grows and grows. Surely that beats Christianity into a cocked hat for dividing over issues in a short time! Saying they are all apostate except one is just begging the question. This raises a very good secondary question. While there are many Christian denominations, and all have their “interpretations” (which are mostly on secondary issues I may add) – while there are many of these denominations, most seem perfectly able to co-operate across denominations to spread the gospel and be Christ to a dying world. Why is this not true about Mormon denominations?

You would expect, wouldn’t you, that the Salt Lake sect would have more in common with the Reorganised Church of Jesus Christ of LDS (now the Community of Christ) than with Evangelicals, or Baptists, or Catholics. And yet, the Salt Lake Mormons happily co-operate with these Christian denominations, while denouncing all other Mormon groups as apostate. Isn’t it odd that there is co-operation with “abominable and corrupt” Christendom (JSH 1:19), but none with other Mormon groups?

Of course, the answer lies with the nature of the church, i.e. it is people, and people are sinful and spoil things. This does not make Christianity apostate, simply real as Christ works in sinners saved by grace to make a church and bride for Himself. This is not, then, an excuse for saying that the Bible is open to interpretation. You have the book open in front of you. You must ask yourself, what does it say? What is it saying to me? (2 Timothy 3:16)

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