By Amy Hoyt

A Brief Introduction to Mormonism in Africa

 

Mormonism arrived on the shores of Sub-Saharan Africa in 1853. That year, missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) began proselytizing among the white European South Africans.[1] Church growth was minimal during the early years, as a language barrier and government restrictions halted missionary work in South Africa from 1865-1903. Starting in 1930 LDS missionaries began working in Zimbabwe and during the twentieth century missionary efforts began to increase in African nations from the late 1970’s, coinciding with the lifting of the 1978 temple and priesthood ban against those of African descent.[2] As the LDS church grew on the continent, an African Area was established in 1990. Today, Africa is one of the fastest growing areas for the LDS church.[3] The LDS church has over 2,300 congregations, thirty-five missions, and four temples in thirty-one of the fifty-four African countries that are recognized by the African Union and the United Nations. Currently, LDS membership in Africa has surpassed 660,000.[4]

The Community of Christ (CoC) also has a presence in Africa with membership steadily increasing, despite the Western decline in its membership.[5] Currently, the CoC has congregations in twelve of the African nations with a collective membership of around 35,000. Unlike the LDS church, the CoC has ordained an indigenous African man, Bunda C. Chibwe, to the highest ecclesiastical body, the Quorum of the Twelve.[6] The CoC missionary model is slightly different than that of the LDS model in that they set up nonprofit foundations and work through partnership and service within specific countries in order to build their membership.[7]


Methods and Themes

 

Mormon Studies scholars working in the African context use a mixed methodological approach, as many religionists do, including historical analysis, oral history and ethnographic work. Unfortunately, the majority of researchers have been American or European, and there are only a few indigenous scholars in Africa who are working in this growing field.[8]

Scholars working in Africa seem to focus on three main themes in their work. First, the priesthood/temple ban is mentioned in almost all work, due to the fact that anyone with African ancestors were banned from participating in temple ordinances, and Africans were not able to obtain the priesthood.[9] This restriction was in effect from the time of Brigham Young until 1978 and its centrality in the literature is understandable as it affected so many people, including those who lived in Africa.[10] Russell Stevenson’s examination of Rebecca Mould and her story of conversion and leadership in Ghana is a good historical examination of the way in which both the temple ban and the American culture bumped up against early Ghanaian conversions and retention within the LDS church.[11] Scholarship on the CoC has been able to avoid this myopic focus since all adult males have been able to hold the priesthood since 1865 and women were allowed to hold the priesthood in the latter part of the twentieth century. A few CoC scholars have pointed out that racism has not been entirely avoided but generally they have been able to move in new directions.[12]

The second predominant theme is that of the imperialistic tendencies of the American church. Scholars working in Mormonism in Africa have noted that Christianity is experiencing massive growth in Sub-Saharan Africa, and although both the LDS and CoC organizations have seen impressive growth in Africa, when compared to the growth of other African Christianities, they lag behind.[13] One explanation for the lack of LDS growth, when compared to other Christian traditions, may be that the American-headquartered church resists local customs being integrated into church worship and practices.[14] The LDS church requires strict adaptation of African members in dress, language and worship services, encouraging a duplicatable experience for members. In other words, the hope is that one can walk into any LDS church in the world and have the familiar hymns, formula and lessons. The CoC have allowed more cultural adaptations in their African congregations, however, both churches have been critiqued for keeping the centrality of America firmly intact.[15]

Philip Jenkins points out that despite the obvious connections between LDS and African beliefs regarding the importance of the extended family and communal connections, the LDS growth rate will remain hindered without allowing for cultural assimilation of local worship styles.[16] Jehu J. Hanciles observes that globalization is changing the face of Christianity, and Mormonism is transitioning to a religion of brown and black members.[17] Despite this transition, Hanciles notes that “the inescapable conclusion is that Mormon voices within North America control the flow of ideas and almost exclusively shape the LDS Church’s narrative.”[18] Finally, Walter van Beek joins these and other scholars in calling for cultural adaptation of local customs in order to grow the LDS membership in Africa. Van Beek’s analysis of “gospel culture” wrapped up in “Deseret culture” reveals the pervasive nature and serious pitfalls of American religious imperialism within Mormonism. Perhaps van Beek’s most astute analysis is that in a religion that preaches and values agency, allowing local customs to inform non-doctrinal practices is a way of honoring agency.[19]

The last major theme is that of missionary and institutional history of LDS members in Africa and their stories of faith. The LDS church has published many articles about missionary work in Africa in the devotional journals such as the Ensign and BYU Quarterly, examining experiences of members and missionaries in Kenya, the Ivory Coast, South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana.[20] Scholars have also published about these same topics in academic journals.[21] The CoC is also in the midst of chronicling their foray into various African nations through their institutional publications,  Saints Herald/ Herald.


Resources

 

Archival sources held by both the LDS and the CoC organizations are rich resources for scholars of Mormon Studies. The LDS Church History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah has a large collection of oral histories that have been carefully documented by D. Dmitri Hurlbut in a bibliography that is alphabetized by African country and includes “the oral histories of converts, missionaries, and Latter–day Saints whose careers took them to Africa for other reasons, such as foreign service officers at the U.S. Department of State.”[22] In addition to the oral histories at the LDS Church History Library, there are over 800 oral histories archived at the L. Tom Perry Special Collections held at Brigham Young University Library.[23] Special Collections at the Libraries of the Claremont Colleges also houses collections containing oral histories from South African LDS women, as well as oral histories from Latter-day Saint men and women from Madagascar.[24] Soon oral histories of LDS women in Botswana and LDS women and men in Nigeria will be added to their online collections. These oral histories were conducted between 2015-2020 by researchers working on academic papers and/or Claremont Global Mormon Studies research grants.

The CoC Library Archive has twentieth century reports on Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, South Africa, Zambia, and Zaire/Democratic Republic of the Congo in their publications Saints Herald/Herald magazines with copies stored in the Joseph Smith Historical Society in Nauvoo.[25] These are ripe for academic analysis and comparison between the LDS and CoC expansion projects into Africa.

Individual scholars continue to collect oral histories, including those working with Claremont Mormon Studies, the LDS church, and independent scholars working to document history on the ground through lived religious experiences. As research into Mormonism in Africa is still in its infancy, these will inevitably help give scholars and interested parties information on the most pertinent research questions and pressing needs within the field.

Geographically, most work has been done examining the countries of Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Botswana, Kenya and Rwanda.[26] There is ample opportunity to extend research beyond these specific African countries, and beyond the LDS-heavy emphasis within Mormon studies.[27]

Some of the most pressing issues for those studying Mormonism in Africa will be an examination of how American racism and sexism has stalled conversions, as well as reasons that growth lags behind when compared to the explosion of Christianity. Examining issues of violence, peace and conflict, systemic poverty and postcolonial interactions may also bare fruitful explanations for what converts within Mormonism need from their church leaders. Regardless of the direction scholars take the newer sub-field of Mormonism in Africa, it will certainly fuel academic conversations for years to come.


Amy Hoyt is a scholar of religion and studies Mormonism in North America and Africa. She is the co-editor of The Routledge Handbook of Mormonism and Gender, 2020.


Endnotes

[1] Newell G. Bringhurst states that missionaries arrived in 1852, although the official LDS church website lists the origin of missionary work in South Africa as 1853. “Facts and Statistics,” Newsroom, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, accessed July 17, 2020, https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/facts-and-statistics/country/south-africa. Newell G. Bringhurst, “Mormonism in Black Africa: Changing Attitudes and Practices 1830–1981,” Sunstone 6, no.3 (May/June1981), 16–17.

[2] David G. Stewart, Jr. and Matthew Martinich, Reaching the Nations: International LDS Church Grown Almanac, Vol. 2 (Henderson, NV: Cumorah Foundation, 2013), 274-276, https://cumorah.com/reachingthenations2.pdf, accessed June 20, 2020.

[3] Samuel M. Otterstrom and Brandon S. Plewe, “The Future of the Church, 2010-2040,” in Mapping Mormonism: An Atlas of Latter-day Saint History, edited by Brandon Plewe, S. Kent Brown, Donald Q. Cannon, and Richard H. Jackson (Provo, Utah: BYU Press, 2012), 203.

[4] “Facts and Statistics,” Newsroom, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, accessed June 30, 2020, https://www.mormonnewsroom.org/facts-and-statistics/country# The number of countries that the LDS church is officially operating is fluctuates in Africa, due to political unrest and changing leadership among some African nations.

[5] Chrystal Vanel, “Community of Christ: An American Progressive Christianity, with Mormonism as an Option,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 50, no. 3 (Fall 2017): 89-114, 196.

[6] Bunda C. Chibwe, “The Community of Christ in Africa: My Experience and Observations,” Restoration Studies 11 (2010): 57. Chibwe is from Zambia.

[7] Ibid.; Steven L Shields, “Community of Christ’s Evolving Approach to Mission.” Journal of Mormon History 39, no. 2 (2013): 139-64. Shields focuses more heavily on Korea, Japan, and India in this piece, but he does touch briefly on Africa.

[8] For indigenous scholars working in the subfield of Mormon studies in Africa, see Amaechi Henry Okafor and Agwu Peter Afontejeh, “The Evolving Identity of the Mormon African Woman: Homelands or Borderlands?,” International Journal of Integrative Humanities 11, no. 12 (September 2019): 148-160. African scholars face steep challenges in obtaining higher education degrees at universities in Europe, Canada or America, and unfortunately there is a deep colonial divide that remains between higher educational institutions in the global south and the global north. Scholars working in the field are attempting to connect with indigenous African scholars and help break down those imperialistic traces in higher education but the challenges are real and therefore indigenous African scholars and western scholars are not always able to connect with one another. With the advent of the subfield of global Mormon studies, these barriers should begin to break down.

[9] Armand L. Mauss, “Mormonism and the Negro: Faith, Folklore and Civil Rights” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 2 No. 4 (1967): 19–40.

[10] Russell W. Stevenson, For the Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism, 1830–2013 (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford, 2014), chaps. 2, 9–10.

[11] James B. Allen lays the groundwork for the story of conversions in Western Africa despite a lack of official LDS recognition as having “valid” congregations. James B. Allen, “Would-Be Saints: West Africa before the 1978 Priesthood Revelation,” Journal of Mormon History 17, no. 1 (Winter 1991): 205–47. Russell W. Stevenson, “‘We Have Prophetesses’: Mormonism in Ghana, 1964–79.” Journal of Mormon History 41, no. 3 (2015): 221–257. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/jmormhist.41.3.221, accessed 3 July 2020.

[12] William D. Russell, “A Priestly Role for a Prophetic Church,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 12, no. 2 (Summer 1979): 37–49.

[13] Phillip Jenkins, “Letting Go: Understanding Mormon Growth in Africa,” Journal of Mormon History 35, no. 2 (Spring 2009): 1-25.

[14] Ibid; Jorgensen, 4–20; Wilfried Decoo, “Expanding Research for the Expanding International Church,” in Directions for Mormon Studies in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Patrick Q. Mason (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2016), 99-131; Walter E. A. van Beek, “Church Unity and the Challenge of Cultural Diversity: A View from across the Sahara,” in Directions for Mormon Studies in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Patrick Q. Mason (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2016), 72-98; Joanna Brooks, “Decolonizing Mormonism: An Introduction,” in Decolonizing Mormonism: Approaching a Postcolonial Zion, eds. Gina Colvin and Joanna Brooks (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2018), 1-23; Walter E. A. van Beek, “Mormon Europeans or European Mormons? An Afro-European Look at Religious Colonization,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 38, no. 4 (2005): 3–36.

[15] Chibwe, “The Community of Christ in Africa,” 57. Jehu J. Hanciles “’Would That All God’s People Were Prophets’: Mormonism and the New Shape of Global Christianity,” Journal of Mormon History 41, no. 2 (2015): 35-68; Vanel, “Community of Christ,” 111;

[16] Jenkins, “Letting Go,” 1-25.

[17] For a good example of examining how the African context has shaped LDS policy, see D. Dmitri Hurlbut, “The LDS Church and the Problem of Race: Mormonism in Nigeria, 1946–1978,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 51, no. 1 (2018): 1-16.

[18] Hanciles, “’Would That All God’s People,” 35-68.

[19] Van Beek, “Church Unity,” 96.

[20] Jeffrey G. Cannon, Richard E. Turley, Jr. “A Faithful Band: Moses Mahlangu and the First Soweto Saints,” BYU Studies Quarterly 55, no. 1 (2016): 8-38 is one example of many articles that appear in the BYU Studies Quarterly, Ensign or other LDS-owned publications narrating the devotional experiences of missionaries and members in Africa.

[21] Booker T. Alston, “Mormon Impressions: Locating Mormon Footprints on the South African Religious Landscape,” Journal for the Study of Religion 25, no. 1 (2012): 51–80. Available at JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24798120, accessed July 10, 2020; Andrew  Clark, “The Fading Curse of Cain : Mormonism in South Africa,” Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought 27 (Winter 1994): 41-56. Available at  https://dialoguejournal.com/?page_id=41&in=108, accessed July 10, 2020.

[22] D. Dmitri Hurlbut, “Materials for the Study of Postcolonial Africa in the LDS Church History Library: Oral Histories,” Working Papers in African Studies 272 (2018): 1-18.

[23] D. Dmitri Hurlbut, “Research Note: Materials for the Study of Postcolonial sub-Saharan African,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 52, no. 2 (2019): 308. He writes, “LDS archives currently hold around 190 South African oral histories, 160 Ghanaian oral histories, 130 Nigerian oral histories, and 90 Congolese oral histories. The LDS archives, however, also possess more than 70 Ugandan oral histories, 60 Kenyan oral histories, and 40 Zimbabwean oral histories, … more than 10 Botswanan oral histories, 10 Ivorian oral histories, 10 Malawian oral histories, 10 Namibian oral histories, 10 Swazi oral histories, 10 Tanzanian oral histories, and 10 Zambian oral histories…The number of African oral histories in LDS archives will likely continue to grow as the church expands across the continent.”

[24] Claremont Mormon Women Oral History Collection, Special Collections, The Claremont Colleges Library, Claremont, California. Nine oral histories from South Africa are currently available in printed volumes and online through Claremont Colleges Digital Library. http://ccdl.libraries.claremont.edu/cdm/search/collection/cms/searchterm/Claremont%20Mormon%20Women%20Oral%20History%20Collection!south%20africa/field/event!subjec/mode/exact!all/conn/and!and/order/nosort/ad/asc. Twenty oral histories from Madagascar are available online through the Claremont Colleges Digital Library.  Claremont Global Mormon Oral History Collection, Claremont Colleges Digital Library, Claremont Mormon Studies Collection.

http://ccdl.libraries.claremont.edu/cdm/search/collection/cms/searchterm/Global%20Mormon%20Oral%20History%20Project%20-%20Madagascar/field/event/mode/exact/ Another 15 from South African women and another 15 from Nigerian LDS men and women are being collected or processed and will be appearing online shortly through the Claremont Colleges Digital Library. There are also 40 interviews collected by a team in Botswana in 2016 in the collection, “Gender, Narrative, and Religious Practice in Southern Africa Oral History Collection.” These will also be available soon through the Claremont Colleges Digital Library.

[25] “The August 1978 Saints Herald is a special issue on the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Africa. On April 2001, the magazine changed its name to the Herald. The twenty-first century has added reports from more African countries including the Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone, and Togo. Partnering with the LDS Church’s Church History Library, The Saints Herald has been digitized from 1860 to 1994 and can be found on the Church History Library’s website, https://catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org/record/1effb3dd-9c95-4ef1-be8f-770c848e38c2?view=browse (“Herald”, Call Number: M291.5 S157) and a full collection of the magazine is available at the Community of Christ Library-Archives in Independence, Missouri.” Personal correspondence with Katherine R. Pollock, a student at the University of Missouri. Email dated July 10, 2020.

[26] Russell Stevenson, “The Celestial City: “Mormonism” and American Identity in Post-Independence Nigeria,” African Studies Review, 63, no. 2 (2020): 304-330. Caroline Kline examines peace for South African women in her forthcoming chapter, Caroline Kline “Finding Peace, Claiming Place: Black South African Women Navigating the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” in Handbook of Global Mormonism: Prospects and Concerns for an International Religion in the Twenty-first Century, eds. Gordon Shepherd, Gary Shepherd, and Ryan Cragun (New York: Palgrave McMillan, forthcoming 2021). Amy Hoyt and Deidre Green have co-led a group of researchers and have collected oral histories from LDS women in South Africa and Rwanda between 2015-2017 and will be contributing to this body of literature.

[27] There are several scholars examining gender dynamics within African nations, including Kline, “Finding Peace,”; Stevenson, “‘We Have Prophetesses,’” 254-55; Laurie Maffley-Kipp, “Gender and Culture in a Global Church,” in Routledge Handbook of Mormonism and Gender, eds. Amy Hoyt and Taylor G. Petrey, (New York: Routledge, 2020).