"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
May 13, 2014
What Mormon Missionaries Going To Africa May Want to Know
by Imo Eshiet

I do not know exactly when Christianity was introduced to Africa. Going by geography and history, I assume it may have been early in the development of that religion. Geographically, Africa especially towards the horn is not that far apart from Palestine.

Ancient traders, travelers and seafarers possibly exchanged ideas. Even before Christianity, there were possible contacts between the Jews and Africans. Apart from their living in captivity in Egypt for hundreds of years, there are claims that the mythical Queen Sheba who visited Solomon with her fabled charms and wealth was Ethiopian.

I have heard stories that the man who the Roman soldiers grabbed to help the Savior bear his cross was African.

What is more certain is that the man in the New Testament who said to Missionary Philip, “See, here is water, what doth hinder me to be baptized?” was African. Since a the narrative is recorded in Acts of the Apostle this “man of Ethiopia” was of “great authority” being in charge of all the treasure the Ethiopian queens, possibility is that the convert, barring apostasy, may have taken his new religion home and possibly shared it with family, friends, and acquaintances.

I have known and lived among fellow Africans who trace their ancestry to the Middle East, specifically, Israel. The Efiks south of Southern Nigeria with whom I lived for thirty years are one such African people who insist on their connection with the Jews. Their neighboring Ibos in the southeast of the country are just as adamant in their assertion about their Jewish connection.

The especial grit of this tribe and its ability to turn dirt into money, as some people point out, is one proof of their Jewish ancestry. In Ghana as in Congo, there are many too who stake such claims. The folks in Congo even point to traditions and customs that are particular retentions traceable to ancient migrations from Israel

I hardly can tell if these claims are folk beliefs that have found their way into oral history or if indeed they are truly historical. What is, however, certain is that African ties to Christianity go back centuries into the dim past.

Expedition parties launched by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, the British, and the Portuguese purportedly had Christian motives. The economic incentives apart, the explorers were to carry the Gospel of light among the so-called pagan savages.

Among many African intellectuals today, many believe that European colonial conquests succeeded mostly through the use of the Bible and the sword. Since the Europeans were already exploring the African coasts before Columbus made it to the Americas in 1492, it is probably safe to assume that they had introduced Christianity here long before it got to the New World.

So what Mormon missionaries need to know especially is that in large swaths of the continent the Bible is regarded as the only scripture revealed by God to man. This is how early European missionaries introduced the Holy Book to Africans and as folks say, in this continent traditions run deep.

In other words, the Bible as incorrectly translated as it was then is what most Africans still uphold as sacrosanct even now.

Even among the most educated among my people, there are many who assume the 66 books in the Bible is one continuous book. Thus when introduced to the Book of Mormon, the first argument is often: “Thou shall not add or subtract from this book.” This injunction, which appears early in the Old Testament and in Revelation, is often thought of as divine law against further revelations from God.

In my conversion, the missionaries explained that they knew I had some light but all they desired to do was to add light to light. So they cited Ezekiel 37:19 about joining the sticks of Ephraim to Judah. Being that I was interested in greater illumination, I was persuaded for I reckoned that the more witnesses to truth the greater there was the chance of verifying it.

Traditional African societies are run by elders. These are men and women wizened by age. This carries over into the various churches. So when teenagers from the Church appear with Elder printed on their tags, more often than not eyes roll.

Some explanation that “elder” is an office in the Church and that the Lord has in times past and present called the young to represent him, might help here. There are the examples of Samuel in the Old Testament and Joseph Smith in this dispensation of the gospel to use as examples.

Prejudice against the Book of Mormon in Africa is unfortunately firmly entrenched. While some people are receptive, yet many think of it as a cultist book. The word cult in Africa carries over with suggestions of a new religion, but secret combinations. Some mischief makers often corrupt Mormon to mean Marmon.

Wise missionaries can easily correct this misperception by stressing that Mormon was actually a preacher of righteousness and therefore worthy of respect. Also it can be pointed out that the Book of Mormon is indeed an inspired scripture and another testament of the Savior.

In the Book of Mormon, as Charles D. Tate points out, there are 476 references to the Lord’s name and like the New Testament one of its major concerns is to invite people unto Christ to be perfected in him.

In rural Africa, missionaries just like other visitors are often warmly welcome, but they have to deal with the issue of plural marriage among several other folk traditions. Plural marriage goes deep into the fiber of many societies for such marriages are contracted to build bridges among otherwise hostile tribes, for prestige and economic workforce.

To suddenly renounce this can easily precipitate serious communal conflicts.

Those who practice it but are willing to convert to the Church often face the dilemma community tensions arising from the wives he would have to divorce. Whatever decision such a person makes, the result is often disruptive and he might possibly face sanctions that may put the Church in a bad light before the people.

Also the true nature of God and the Godhead continue to elude many. It comes up frequently in missionary discussions. I was shocked when missionaries who contacted me proved that God has a body and was actually seen by Moses and seventy other elders he prepared for that purpose.

In a continent so grimly stricken by poverty, the idea of tithes that actually provide a window out of abjection is often contested hotly. Where paid at all, many struggle with honesty. This along with a generally unwholesome political atmosphere may present challenges.

However, missionaries may help turn the situation around by showing how The Book of Mormon teaches what Charles Tate describes as the “Principles of religious tolerance, popular sovereignty, accountability of leaders, and the rule of law.” I am witness that those who accept the Book of Mormon and live by its principles receive unqualified blessings in their lives.

There are so many common grounds between traditional Africa and Mormonism. Such resonances as beliefs in strong family traditions, the spirit world and life after death provide opportunities to break ice.

African traditional religion has long been structured on a priesthood hierarchy. Teaching correct principles and the power and authority inherent in the restored gospel can help promote a deeper understanding of what the priesthood of God and how it works to enable people find joy and happiness in this life and hereafter.

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About Imo Eshiet

Imo Ben Eshiet was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Raised in his village, Uruk Enung, and at several cities in his country including Nsukka, Enugu, Umuahia, Eket and Calabar, Eshiet is a detribalized Nigerian. Although he was extensively exposed to Western education right from childhood in his country where he obtained a PhD in English and Literary Studies from the University of Calabar, he is well nurtured in African history, politics, culture and traditions.

Imo is currently a teacher in the high priests group in the Summit Ward of the Greensboro North Carolina Stake.

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