Update on the Church in Ghana

A Conversation with Daniel K Judd

Brent R. Nordgren and Daniel K Judd

Daniel K Judd (daniel_judd@byu.edu) was a professor of ancient scripture at BYU when this was published who served as president of the Ghana Accra Mission from 2011 to 2014.

Brent R. Nordgren (brent_nordgren@byu.edu) is production supervisor at BYU’s Religious Studies Center and managing editor of the Review magazine when this was published.

Q: You recently served as the president of the Ghana Accra Mission in Africa. Would you please share with us some inspiring experiences in Ghana?

A: The first Sunday we were in Africa, we attended one of the local wards in Accra. It was beautiful. There were probably two hundred people in attendance, and except for three of us, my wife, myself, and another person whom we didn’t know, all of those attending appeared to be from Africa. After sacrament meeting we met the other visitor. We learned that his name was Tanner Ainge and that he had been a missionary in Ghana some ten years earlier. Tanner told us how much he loved Ghana and that he had returned for a visit. During our conversation Tanner asked an interesting question, something like, “Well, President and Sister Judd, do you have a sense of why the Lord has called you to Africa?” And you know, we didn’t. When you receive the call to be a mission president, you’re not generally told where you will serve until later. We were informed that we would serve in an English-speaking mission and that we would be given our specific assignment at a later date. So we were thinking, “Well, Connecticut would be nice; Colorado Springs or Vancouver, Canada, would be great.” I had had the thought that because of my work as a professor, we might be called to serve in an area that had some connection to an academic institution of some kind or another. So when we opened the call and read “Ghana,” we were stunned. I mean, Africa?

two missionaries

We explained to Tanner Ainge, “We don’t know, but perhaps the Lord has sent us to help make some connections to the academic community in Ghana. We do know that there are many universities and different kinds of schools here, but we don’t know much about them.” I then explained, “Tanner, I love the world of ideas—teaching and research, and I have loved teaching at BYU. Maybe that’s why we’re here. Maybe we will find and baptize people with similar interests.” I then asked him, “Do you know anyone like I’ve just described who you taught when you were here ten years ago who wasn’t baptized?”

He didn’t even blink. He said, “I know exactly who you’re talking about.” I was surprised. He said, “There was a very educated and well-connected fellow that was associated with the Supreme Court of Ghana. He went through the temple open house with us. He loved everything we taught him, but he didn’t join the Church. One time he told us, ‘I love what I’m learning, but I would lose too much if I joined your church. I would lose my political standing and perhaps even my employment. I’m not sure if my wife would support me. So, I’m sorry. I can’t join.’” Tanner explained to us that he had stayed in touch with the man over the years and then suggested we visit with him.

That night I emailed this fellow, not really expecting that he would email back. But the next morning when I arose I had received an email from him. It read, “Dear President Judd, thank you so much for making contact with me. I have thought about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints most every day for ten years. I would love to meet with you. May I come to your office?” So I wrote him back and told him I would be honored to meet with him. So he came to the mission office. He told me much of what Tanner had shared with me earlier, of his experience with the Church, how much he enjoyed the temple open house, and how he loved the young missionaries and what the Church seemed to do for their maturity and so forth. He told me how happy it made him to think back to all the pleasant memories of the times he met with the missionaries.

I responded by telling him that the story he was sharing with me reminded me of a scripture in the Doctrine and Covenants. I said, “Let me read you a verse or two. Now I don’t want to be offensive, but I think these verses help explain why you have continued to think about the Church and perhaps why the two of us are having this conversation today. The Lord’s words to Joseph Smith begin in section 58, verse 9: ‘Yea, a supper of the house of the Lord, well prepared, unto which all nations shall be invited.’” I explained the verse to him and told him that the Lord is comparing the Restoration of his gospel to a wonderful meal or feast, to which all of the nations of the world are invited. As he listened, I could sense very quickly that he was a very intelligent and spiritually sensitive man. In the verses, the Lord continues by specifically describing who is going to be invited: “First, the rich and the learned, the wise and the noble; and after that cometh the day of my power; then shall the poor, the lame, and the blind, and the deaf, come in unto the marriage of the Lamb, and partake of the supper of the Lord, prepared for the great day to come” (verses 10–11). I then explained, “I know I’ve only been in Africa for a short while, but what I have observed is that the missionaries are doing a wonderful job baptizing—for the most part—the poor, the lame, and the less educated. Now, we know that everyone needs the gospel of Jesus Christ, rich and poor alike; please don’t misunderstand me. I love that we’re teaching and baptizing the poor, but we need to follow the Lord’s instructions here and spend more time teaching and baptizing “the rich, and the learned, the wise, and the noble.” I then explained to him that he was the very kind of person the Lord was describing in these verses. I then said, “I hope in these next few months and years that Sister Judd and I are here in Ghana we can get to know you well and have a great friendship. I know you have had reservations in the past, but I’d love to see you reconsider and become a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

He turned his head and looked away. I was worried that I had offended him. I said, “Oh, I just did something that I didn’t want to do. I’ve offended you.” He said, “Oh, President Judd, no, you haven’t offended me. I know what you are saying is true—I’ve had a dream.” He then described a beautiful dream he had had a few years before where he saw himself being baptized. He had even seen the church building where he would be baptized and some of the people who would take part.

My immediate thought about his dream was, “This is too good to be true.” In the three years that I served in Ghana, I learned that the Ghanaian people are dreamers of dreams. Each time I would hear of such a dream, I would think of the prophesy in the book of Joel: “Your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions. . . .” It’s Joel all over again. It includes young men, old men, and young women and older women too. They see visions and dreams. Every missionary who serves in Ghana soon learns that having an inspired dream is more of the rule than the exception for the people they teach.

Being trained as a psychologist, I was first quite skeptical of many of the dreams I would hear described, but I changed my mind when I began to see that these dreams were often prophetic. It was rare for someone to join the Church in Ghana who had not experienced a dream. When we first arrived in Accra, Sister Judd and I met with all of the stake presidents in Accra and their wives. The testimonies they all shared had two major things in common: (1) they had each had a prophetic dream that was a part of their conversion, and (2) the Book of Mormon had been central to their conversion.

After sharing his dream with me, this wonderful man asked if he could meet with me on a regular basis. He also said, “I know I must become a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but I have some questions that you’ll have to help me with: the revelation on the priesthood in 1978 was a major event that I need to know more about. I want to understand. I believe that God speaks through prophets and that God’s ways aren’t man’s ways, but help me understand that. Can you?”

I said, “I don’t know all the answers, but I think I can help you. I can tell you what I know. I would love to do that.”

He asked many questions in the days that followed, but it didn’t take long for him to become a member of the Church. In fact, he lived in the area where my assistants had been assigned to work when they weren’t away on other assignments, so they were his missionaries; it couldn’t have been a coincidence. Sister Judd and I were blessed to meet with him on several occasions as well. His wife hasn’t joined the Church yet, but most of his children have. He has also been instrumental in starting a new branch of the Church in the village where he was raised as a child.

The story gets better. So a year went by, and the Church’s legal department was having difficulty with some legal/political issues that could have had serious implications for the continued growth and well-being of the Church in Ghana. Long story short, the Church attorney called me and said, “President Judd, I understand that your missionaries baptized a politician not long ago.” I explained that we had baptized such a man and that he was soon to be going through the temple to receive his endowment. After the attorney explained some of the details of the problem, I said, “I don’t know if he can help, but why don’t you call him?” So the attorney called my friend and asked for his help. The attorney then called me back the next day and said, “President Judd, thank you. The good brother to whom you referred me solved the problem we we discussed in fifteen minutes.”

Isn’t that amazing? To see that the Lord had raised up this man to solve this weighty problem at this particular time. This is the kind of story that can be repeated over and over again. Ghana is a sacred land whose people have a special destiny. I felt like I was on sacred ground almost everyday meeting with people like the brother whose story I have shared. The people of Ghana are intelligent, sensitive, and most important—they are men and women of deep faith who have a sense of their prophetic mission.

Q: You mentioned the 1978 revelation on the priesthood. Rendell and Rachel Mabey were one of two missionary couples called after that revelation in 1978 to open the missionary work in Africa. They came to my mission in Scotland for a short vacation. They told us how, when they arrived in Africa, unbaptized congregations of people were already meeting.

A: Yes, missionaries were sent to Africa because these groups were sending letters to the First Presidency asking for materials and for missionaries to be sent.

Q: So there were several congregations that were meeting in Africa, and there were a lot of similarities to LDS meetings, but there were a lot of things wrong too. When the Mabeys asked one such group, “So what do you call yourselves?” The answer was, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Inc.” And when they asked why the “Inc.” they were told how that’s what was printed on the back of the pamphlets the locals received.

A: What several of the Ghanaian people did, at least some of those who would later became leaders in the Church, was to leave Ghana to obtain a graduate education, and while they were away they would learn about the Church and be baptized. Several of these individuals, after receiving their degrees in medicine, business, or engineering, etc., would then return to Ghana and tell their family and friends about the restored gospel. Even before they returned to Ghana, they would share missionary pamphlets, and copies of the Book of Mormon with their family and friends. In fact, some will say that the first missionary to Ghana was the Book of Mormon. The people would read it and gain a testimony, but there was no one to whom they could go to be baptized. As you mentioned, there were several congregations started in both Ghana and Nigeria, but they knew they did not have the necessary authority to proceed.

Q: I am curious how the mission has changed since then. What was it like when you served more recently?

A: When we first arrived in July 2011, there were two missions: Ghana Accra and Ghana Cape Coast. By the time we left three years later, there were four missions—Ghana Accra, Ghana Accra West, Ghana Cape Coast, and Ghana Kumasi. The fact that our mission divided twice during the time we were there illustrates the growth the Church is experiencing in Ghana and throughout all of West Africa.

Q: So it’s still growing?

A: Oh yes! It could even grow faster if all we were after was numerical growth, but what we are working for is “real growth” people who are genuinely converted to the Savior and to his kingdom.

Watching the Lord work, in preparing a nation and a people was one of the great blessings of my life. Here’s an example of how such growth happens (this would happen a couple times a month): I would get a phone call from an individual asking for permission to start a branch of the Church in an area where the Church was not yet established. This person would tell me their name and explain their situation. For example, he would say, “I’ve been working outside of Ghana the last few years, but I’ve returned to Ghana to accept a new job and to raise my family. I’m a returned missionary, and so is my wife, and we’ve moved to a location in Ghana where the Church hasn’t been established. May we have permission to begin a group?” I would respond by explaining, “Well, let’s visit. Let me come to your city, and let’s sit down and see what the potential is and what can be done.” And so Sister Judd and I (or one of my able counselors) would travel to this remote location and spend the afternoon with them. During the next several weeks and months that followed, we would begin a group, assign missionaries to join them, and soon a branch would be created. One thing I learned early on in my mission is that the Lord is way ahead of us in this work.

Q: You said that you could be growing quicker, but you’re being careful. How careful do you have to be?

A: That’s a good question. Here are some parameters: The missionaries would sit down with a man whom they had met and ask, “Tell us about your wife. May we meet with both of you together?” He would say, “No, she belongs to another Church. She’s not interested.” The missionaries would say, “Well, we must have her permission before you can become a member of our Church.” He would say, “What? You must have my wife’s permission? I’m a man.” We would then explain that the policy was the same for both husbands and wives—one spouse must have the consent of the other before they could be baptized. Our goal was to unify families, not divide them.

Another situation has to do with the baptizing of children. Our missionaries were asked to obtain permission from both the mother and father before a child could be baptized. Several churches, and I think even some missionaries in years past, haven’t been that careful, but we were.

Our numbers of Muslim converts also increased during the time we were in Ghana. My first counselor in the mission presidency, Mahmud Labinjo, is a convert from Islam. A finer man couldn’t be found.

Teaching and baptizing our Muslim brothers and sisters is a sensitive issue—one that we took very seriously. Our missionaries were required to obtain my permission before teaching anyone of the Muslim faith—out of respect for them, their families, and their faith. Again, we were there to bless families, not divide them—even if doing so would bring us more members.

Another example of the caution we exercised in monitoring the growth of the Church in Ghana has to do with the Church’s policy regarding those who are living in polygamous families. Polygamy is legal in Ghana and is still practiced by many. Like the policy regarding the teaching and baptizing of our Muslim friends, missionaries were required to obtain the mission president’s permission before teaching those who had ever had been a part of a polygamous family. First Presidency approval was even required in some cases. Husbands and wives who were currently living in a polygamous relationship couldn’t be baptized and the same was true for children living in the home.

Q: So it’s not just personal reasons of why you needed to be careful, but also political reasons.

A: Political reasons are a factor, but familial and eternal reason and revelation have a higher priority. I have always appreciated what President Packer regularly taught priesthood leaders about the relationship between following the handbook and seeking revelation: “But notwithstanding those things which are written, it always has been given to the elders of my church . . . to conduct all meetings [and make all decisions] as they are directed by the Holy Spirit” (D&C 46:2). Following the direction of those with priesthood keys and discerning revelation are both vital in making such decisions.

All of the policies I have briefly mentioned are for the protection and blessing of the people. Before making any decision regarding who could be taught and baptized, or who couldn’t, mission presidents attempt to discern the Lord’s will—for the individual, the family, and the Church where they preside. Handbooks are vital, but revelation is the real key.

We want the Church to grow as it should, and it’s growing rapidly in the way the Lord and his servants would have it grow. There were times in Ghana where I felt like I was just barely hanging on—the work was moving so rapidly. Have you ever been trying to get into a moving vehicle while it is accelerating? That is what it is like being a mission president in Ghana.

Q: The Mabeys explained how, as missionaries, they were converting congregations rather than just person by person.

A: That was true in their day, but we approached the conversion process “one by one.” I remember being approached by the leaders of a large orphanage who wanted to be baptized along with all of the children in their care. We explained to them that we would need to teach the children one by one, getting to know them individually and attempting to find their parents or family if guardianship hadn’t been established. They declined. Again, it’s personal conversion to the Savior we are hoping for, not large numbers.

In our mission we didn’t baptize congregations like others before us, but congregations were created quickly. There were little groups that would start with a nucleus of six or ten, and they would grow and become branch’s rapidly. It was typical for a group to start with six to ten people and be eighty to one hundred in a year’s time. It was all so miraculous. The members of these new groups and branches were full of enthusiasm and light, and they were often lead by a returned missionary or someone who had been a pioneer in the Church. The group leader or branch president would be a loving mentor, and his wife would be as strong as he was. It was joy to watch and to be a part. We are starting to see a new generation of returned missionaries who are becoming the leaders of the Church in Ghana. The training and experience they gained as missionaries is going to take the Church forward in ways we can’t even imagine.

We baptized between 180 and 200 people every month. That’s about what we were comfortable with. You have to have strong leadership and allow there to be assimilation of the new converts. As a young missionary in San Diego, California, I saw more baptisms in a month than I saw in Ghana, but it was difficult to stay close to the people and to prepare them for the temple. In Ghana, the missionaries would baptize an individual or a family, and then stay right with them. The elders and sisters were not finished when the baptism and confirmation were completed. The missionaries were instructed to help prepare their new converts to enter the temple to do baptisms for the dead as soon as possible, and then to help the people work towards their endowment and sealing. With permission, the missionaries were allowed to go to the temple with their new converts, which the missionaries were thrilled to do. They just kept teaching them. The home teachers would become involved, and it worked the way it is supposed to, much of the time. I had been a part of the rapid growth in San Diego when I was a young missionary, and I understood why we did it that way, but I felt better about the growth that we were experiencing in Africa. My experiences as a young missionary in San Diego prepared me in many ways for my mission in Ghana.

Q: As you consider the early missionary work of the late 1970s and the large numbers that were being baptized so quickly, how would you characterize most of those early baptisms; are most of them still active, or was there significant falling away because of the rapidness of the conversions?

A: Here’s another story that will partially answer your question, and I’ll try and finish the other part of your question as well. In 1989, the Ghanaian government made the decision that the LDS missionaries were CIA operatives. Furthermore, there were some in the government that believed the Church was a racist organization. They had read anti-Mormon publications, and there were other political factors as well, that led to what is called “the Freeze.” Soldiers locked the churches, disbanded the congregations, and sent all the Western missionaries home. One of the questions my friend, the man we discussed at the beginning of this interview, wanted me to help him answer was the question: “How am I going to explain to my friends that I’m becoming a member of the Church that we the Ghanaian government once attempted to get out of the country?”

It took some time to work through the relevant issues, but the Freeze only lasted for eighteen months. We did, however, lose some wonderful Church members during this difficult period. At that time, members could meet in their homes but not in the chapels. I personally believe that experience was a pruning. Some of the people who left the Church during the Freeze were ambitious and didn’t like the negative publicity the Church was getting, and they left. Others left for other reasons. With the Freeze, the strong became stronger and the weak became weaker. The Freeze pruned us back, but I believe it was necessary. As a mission president, I was ecclesiastically responsible for the districts that included many of the people that had left during the Freeze, people who were educated, but perhaps not so wise—like I mentioned before. So I went to many of them and invited them to return to the Church. Some did return, but it became clear to me why the Lord allowed the Freeze to occur, because it really was a pruning back. So my interpretation of why the Lord allowed the Freeze to occur is that while it was tragic for some of the people to become disaffected and to fall away, it was also a blessing because it allowed the Church to grow in meaningful ways. While there are certainly differences, I also think there are some similarities to what’s happening in the Church today. We’re losing some great people, and it’s sad, but this present-day pruning will allow lives to be blessed and for the Church to grow in ways that it wouldn’t otherwise.

Q: I like your word “pruning,” because that’s exactly what pruning does. Is there anything about your mission to Ghana that would be of great interest to our readers?

A: Ghana is a Christian nation. Everywhere you go, from the back of taxicabs to the names of shops along the highway, to the clothes they wear, Jesus Christ is everywhere. Ghana is unapologetically a Christian nation. Islam is growing rapidly in Ghana as well, but it’s amazing to watch the harmony between Christianity and Islam. While there are exceptions, most religions support one another. I think there is something we can learn from them about religious freedom and toleration.

Secondly, our missionaries came to us from twenty-four different nations from throughout the world. Half of our missionaries were from Western nations, and half were from Africa. And I can’t think of any time during my three-year tenure where we had racial or cultural strife of any kind. We learned to love one another. While there were a lot of reasons for the love and affection we felt for one another, and the success we experienced, I give the majority of the credit to the Book of Mormon and its power to bring us to Christ. Our constant use of the Book of Mormon in our ministry allowed revelation to flow. Studying and utilizing the Book of Mormon in most all that we did allowed us to experience the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the direction and sanctifying influence of the Holy Ghost. Speaking for both Sister Judd and myself, even though it was the most difficult calling we have ever had, serving in Ghana has been one of the greatest blessings we have ever experienced.