When the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially sent representatives to bring the Church to Ghana in December 1978, the gospel was already well-established there.
Fourteen years earlier, the man most responsible for the preparation of the Saints in Ghana had been converted to the Church of Jesus Christ after reading the Book of Mormon and other tracts. Beginning with a pamphlet containing the testimony of church founder Joseph Smith, Joseph William Billy Johnson was immediately touched by what he learned.
“Oh, I wept when I read the testimony, and I felt the Spirit,” Johnson said. “I became convinced immediately. … So I started reading the books, all the books. I couldn’t stand; I couldn’t sit without sharing.”1
Indeed, Johnson’s conversion launched him into a missionary career that didn’t waver in the face of persecution at home and an at-times-frustrating brand of long-distance support from Salt Lake City. Together with R.A.F. Mensah and Clement Osekre, Johnson organized a congregation based on the teachings found in a single Book of Mormon and a few pamphlets that Mensah had received from a woman in Europe. Mensah organized a school teaching both secular subjects and religion, again using the Book of Mormon as text.2 Johnson especially was tireless in spreading the message of the restored church in Ghana, going from street to street, day after day, preaching the gospel.
“I was constrained to do it,” he said. “Despite opposition I met on the way -- I was highly, really opposed. But still I went on. I couldn't stop it at all.”3
Johnson’s compulsion to spread the word came in large part from a calling he felt he received shortly after reading the Book of Mormon. He related that one early morning following his conversion, he “saw the heavens open and angels with trumpets singing songs of praise unto God.”
“I heard my name mentioned thrice: ‘Johnson, Johnson, Johnson. If you will take up my work as I will command you, I will bless you and bless your land.’ Trembling and in tears, I replied, ‘Lord, with thy help, I will do whatever you will command me.’”4
The men wrote to Church headquarters in Salt Lake asking for missionaries to be sent to Ghana to baptize them and establish the Church there, but because of restrictions that didn’t allow men of African descent to be ordained to the priesthood (making Church organization there impossible at that time), their requests went unfulfilled. They were encouraged by Church President David O. McKay to continue studying the scriptures and to be faithful -- officials at Church headquarters helped by sending magazines and literature to help the fledgling congregations -- but for the time being, they were essentially on their own.5
Having maintained steady correspondence with Salt Lake, the men learned in 1969 that a member of the Church, Lynn Hilton, would soon be in Ghana on business. Johnson and his associates tracked Hilton down, asked him if he indeed held the “Holy Melchizedek Priesthood,” and took him to the building where they held meetings.6
“It was a mud architecture building, only one story high,” Hilton remembered. “And there was a sign over the door that said, ‘Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Accra, Ghana Branch.’ … They took us inside and there were rough lumber benches. A dirt floor as I recall.”7
There, the men showed Hilton their one, well-used copy of the Book of Mormon.
“You could tell that literally thousands of people had gone through that book and licked their fingers,” Hilton said. “All the corners were rounded and dark colored and so dog-eared that the pages fanned out. … The cover of the book was actually standing.”8
The men explained that each person was allowed just a few minutes with the book, then it was passed on to the next person to read; the book, they said, was being “used and read around the clock and week after week.”9
With a priesthood holder finally in their midst, the men asked Hilton if he would baptize them. Instead, Hilton offered them priesthood blessings and left with a promise to send them multiple copies of the Book of Mormon for their congregations to use.10
In time, Johnson moved his proselyting efforts from Accra to Cape Coast and did his best to organize the Church, eventually establishing several branches with hundreds of members in Ghana. For years, he led the members in regular fasts, pleading for missionaries from Salt Lake to come and establish the Church among them.
“The Lord knew we had no one to help us, so he helped us through revelation, daily revelation,” he said. “[We were] trying to do the little that the Lord taught us to do. We were really depending upon the dictates of the Spirit.”11
The lack of direction and the members’ inability to be baptized was a challenge both for the church and for Johnson, but for fourteen years he pushed through the opposition, believing Ghana’s time would come.
In 1978, it did: President Spencer W. Kimball announced a revelation extending the priesthood to all worthy males. Johnson heard the news around midnight at the end of a hard day when he was compelled to tune his radio to BBC before going to bed.
“I jumped and started crying and rejoicing in the Lord with tears that now is the time that the Lord will send missionaries to Ghana and to other parts of Africa to receive the priesthood,” he remembered. “I was so happy indeed.”
When missionaries finally arrived a few months later, they were directed to Johnson’s chapel in Cape Coast, Ghana, where they found “a large statue of the Angel Moroni standing on a ball and blowing a trumpet. There were also pictures of the Bible and the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, the Tabernacle Choir, and other Latter-day Saint scenes.”12
Many of the members of Johnson’s congregations requested baptism, and on the first day thirty-four people were interviewed for the ordinance. The missionaries spent an afternoon and into the evening hours baptizing new members, with several more arriving at Johnson’s home in tears that night, having walked from a distant village in hopes of being baptized that day.13
Within a few days, the Cape Coast Branch had been organized with Joseph William Billy Johnson as branch president.
Emmanuel Kissi, a native of Ghana who joined the Church in England in 1979 before returning to his home country to help build the Church there, credited Johnson with the rapid growth of the gospel in Ghana and with the sure foundation the missionaries found when they arrived.
“I believe it was because of him that the Church grew faster in that district,” Kissi wrote. “President Johnson, more than anybody else, was active on the missionary front.”14
A year after the first baptisms in Ghana, missionaries were instructed to keep baptisms to a minimum until the Church could be firmly established in Africa. The counsel, however, proved difficult to follow thanks in large part to Johnson, whom the missionaries dubbed the “St. Paul of Ghana.”15
“The Missionary Department back home could not realize how well prepared these people were,” missionaries Reed and Naomi Clegg later reported.16
After serving as the Cape Coast branch’s first president, Johnson went on to serve as a district president, a full-time missionary, and as patriarch of the Cape Coast Ghana Stake.17
After fourteen long years of opposition, mockery, and ongoing cries that he was wasting his time with an American church that would never do anything for his people, Johnson’s faith was ultimately rewarded.
“It was a day of jubilation when they came,” he said. “I was so happy that they came and so happy that the Church is not brand new; it’s on its feet in Ghana.”18