CAPE COAST, Ghana — For 14 years, Joseph William “Billy” Johnson longed to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but couldn’t.
Converted by the Book of Mormon as a 30-year-old in 1964, he lived in West Africa 7,000 miles from Church headquarters, where there were no Mormon missionaries or priesthood holders.
So Johnson wrote letters to successive Church presidents asking for missionaries. He built a large congregation of fellow believers in the town of Cape Coast, Ghana, on the gleaming shores of the Atlantic Ocean. He founded nine other congregations in nearby towns. He registered an unofficial version of the faith with the national government. President David O. McKay wrote back to Johnson, encouraging him to continue and promising that the Church would arrive in Ghana someday despite a restriction announced in 1852 that blacks could not hold the priesthood or receive temple blessings.
“Really, I didn’t understand why the priesthood would be given to other people but we blacks were not allowed,” said John Dan Ewudzie, who joined Johnson’s congregation in 1971. “At times we’d talk about it. We couldn’t understand it.”
By June 1978, the anticipation was excruciating. Johnson’s congregation was not alone. Black Africans had been petitioning for the organization of the Church in their countries since the late 1940s. By the mid-1960s, more than 16,000 people were waiting for the Church in more than 60 congregations in Ghana and Nigeria, according to a devotional given by BYU Church History professor Dale LeBaron.
President McKay called an American named Lamar Williams to open a mission in Nigeria in 1962, but his efforts were thwarted first by visa issues, then by civil war. In June 1966, Williams delivered the names and addresses of 15,000 unbaptized African converts to two apostles on the Church Missionary Committee, including Elder Spencer W. Kimball.
One of those unbaptized converts was young Charlotte Acquah.
On a brilliant April day this spring, Acquah clambered across uneven rocks on the shores of Cape Coast and stared out at the sunlight gleaming on blue Atlantic Ocean waves.
The ocean has reclaimed the sand, so there was no spot for her, Ewudzie and three other Church pioneers in Africa to enjoy as they remembered how they, Johnson and dozens of others came to this place that would become known as ‘Baptism Beach.’ It was here they joined a mass baptismal service the day after missionaries finally arrived in Ghana in 1978.
“The sea has come nearer,” Acquah said. “Then, the sea was far off the beach.”
The beach may be gone, and Johnson, too — he died in 2012 — but many of the pioneers remain and remember receiving the ordinance that finally delivered Church membership, unlocked the gate to temple blessings and led to priesthood ordination for the men.
“I enjoy the Spirit here,” said a beaming Robert Myers, 66, who joined Johnson’s congregation of converts in 1973. “It’s the same spirit we felt at our baptism.”
On this day, a fisherman and his sons worked their nets under vast blue skies at one end of the secluded inlet. On the other side, three men used buckets of water to rinse blood and muck from their illegally operated shore-side slaughterhouse down into the waves crashing on the rocks.
Acquah and her pioneer friends stepped over the thin channel of bloody salt water and began to talk of old friends amid strong Atlantic breezes and squawking seagulls.
Myers was the first to enter the water that day almost 40 years ago, to check the depth.
“He was the guinea pig,” Ewudzie joked.
“I remember exactly where I entered the sea,” Myers said. “Now I can’t enter the sea here. It’s scary now. I raised my hands and waved, ‘Hey, this will work.’ ”
Myers and his wife, Emma, a convert in 1967 at age 9, bring their children and grandchildren to “Baptism Beach.”
“We have our first great-grandchild,” Robert Myers said proudly. “We will bring her here, too.”
“It was too much to wait while we were praying for headquarters to extend the Church to us,” said Acquah, now 60, whose family had been part of Johnson’s flock since 1969.
Johnson lived in a room in Acquah’s parents’ house. She remembered how American emissaries from other churches repeatedly tried to persuade Johnson and the other unbaptized converts to abandon the Latter-day Saints. In the spring of 1978, Johnson prepared what he said was one last letter to President McKay’s successor, President Kimball. He pleaded that the time was right “for our brothers to come,” Ewudzie said.
The congregation fasted and prayed before sending the letter. “One lady told the congregation she’d had a dream,” Ewudzie said. “She saw the letter in the clouds. There had been no dream like that with previous letters. We believed this time would be different.”
At about the same time, Johnson had an impression that the time for change had arrived. On June 6, the congregation began a three-day fast, unaware that President Kimball had received the still-unannounced revelation five days earlier.
“We were fasting for the missionaries to come,” Emma Myers said. “I wanted the Church.”
Johnson couldn’t sleep late on the night of June 8. At midnight, he turned on the radio and tuned into a BBC report. The first story said President Kimball had announced the revelation that day extending the priesthood to all worthy male members.
Johnson burst into tears. His long wait was coming to an end.
‘We were marveling’
The following night, members of Johnson’s congregation gathered at Acquah’s house to break the fast. The sun was setting and the air was cool, Acquah said.
“The Lord has answered our prayers,” Johnson told them.
“We were in tears of joy,” Ewudzie said. “In fact, we were marveling. Many of us wept, even Brother Johnson himself.”
Brigham Young first sent missionaries to Africa to proselyte among white South Africans in 1853. That was one year after slavery was legalized in Utah and President Young announced a policy restricting men of black African descent from priesthood ordination, according to the Church’s official Race and the Priesthood Gospel Topics essay. At the time, Young prophesied that blacks one day would receive priesthood and temple blessings.
For 126 years, some blacks continued to join the Church despite the restriction. But the conversions, baptized and unbaptized, of blacks in Ghana, Nigeria and Brazil moved Church leaders to pray for guidance, according to the essay.
On June 1, 1978, President Kimball, his counselors in the First Presidency and the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles met in the upper room of the Salt Lake Temple and received the revelation on the priesthood.
“He has heard our prayers,” the First Presidency announced on June 9, “and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come.”
After the revelation, the First Presidency assigned two missionary couples to Africa. Ted and Janath Cannon and Rendell and Rachel Mabey visited Nigeria in November 1978, then arrived in Cape Coast, Ghana, on Dec. 8. They interviewed dozens of Johnson’s congregation for baptism that day.
On Dec. 9, a procession of people in white clothing, including Acquah, Ewudzie and Robert and Emma Myers, marched from their meetinghouse in an old cocoa bean storage building through the dirt roads of Cape Coast and down the winding rut of a path on the hill to the beach. It was a bright, sunny day with blue skies.
“We formed a line and they baptized us one by one,” Emma Myers said. “I was one of the first ones.”
Johnson was baptized second, after Raphael Abraham Frank Mensah of the capital city of Accra. Mensah had introduced Johnson to the gospel and assigned him to launch the Cape Coast congregation. The next day, the missionaries ordained Johnson, Ewudzie, Myers and other men to the priesthood and organized the Cape Coast Branch with Johnson as the branch president.
Two days later, the Cannons and Mabeys traveled up the coast to Takoradi, Ghana, where another 124 Ghanaians accepted baptism in the Atlantic.
Within a year, the Church had 1,723 members in 35 branches in west Africa, according to LeBaron, who said the revelation opened floodgates to new members.
Today the Church has 578,000 members in Africa, more than in all of Europe, and leaders anticipate the formation of the 100th stake in west Africa in coming months.
Johnson’s native Nigeria has 163,000 members. Ghana, where he later served as a district president and stake patriarch, is home to 78,000. Brazil, which had 51,000 Latter-day Saints at the end of 1977, today has and LDS population of 1.3 million.
“From Cape Coast, look how the Church started,” Acquah said. “Nobody cared about our building and the people worshiping in that building.”
“In the Book of Mormon,” Ewudzie said, “Alma talked about planting a seed and when you water it in good faith, how it grows. I see the Church in Ghana as a good seed watered in faith. My joy is how the Church is growing in Ghana. It makes me humble. When the Lord said, ‘out of small things come great things,’ that is my happiness.”