By 1978, men and women of faith all around West Africa had been waiting patiently for years for the opportunity to be baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Anthony Obinna and his extended family and friends formed a small congregation in their village near Owerri, Nigeria, and studied the Book of Mormon. Joseph William Billy Johnson, Rebecca Mould, and R. A. F. Mensah founded similar congregations of unbaptized Latter-day Saints in Ghana. Some of these individuals and groups had petitioned Church leaders for missionaries for over a decade.
Then on June 8, 1978, President Spencer W. Kimball announced that “all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color” (Official Declaration 2) and that all worthy Latter-day Saint men and women could participate in temple ordinances.
This dramatic announcement lifted a restriction that had long been in place and opened the way for Church growth and local leadership in most of Africa. Church leaders moved quickly to ensure that the blessings of this revelation were extended widely to members in West Africa and other parts of the world.
Within weeks of the June 8 announcement, Edwin Q. Cannon and Merrill J. Bateman went on a fact-finding trip to help Church leaders decide how to proceed. The result of that July trip was the call of two pairs of missionaries to West Africa in September of 1978: Rendell and Rachel Mabey and Edwin and Janath Cannon. The Mabeys and Cannons arrived in Nigeria in November, carrying with them a handheld video camera. With that camera, they captured some very significant events in modern Church history.
Finding Anthony Obinna
Anthony Obinna’s letters to Church leaders contained some of the most passionate pleas for a Church presence in West Africa. But the return address on his letters consisted only of the name of a small village near Owerri, Nigeria. On November 18, 1978, the Cannons and Mabeys set out to locate the village.
The First Branches in Nigeria
On November 21, Anthony Obinna and 18 other men and women were baptized, and the first branch of the Church in Nigeria was organized in Aboh Mbaise. After this branch was established, the Cannons and Mabeys visited other locales in Nigeria where groups of people were awaiting baptism.
One of the most iconic photographs in modern Mormon history was taken on March 4, 1979. It is a photo of more than 60 baptismal candidates from the Nigerian village of Ikot Eyo lined up waiting for baptism in a nearby stream. Most who have seen the photo don’t know that the Mabeys also captured that historic scene on video.
The Morning Breaks in Ghana
In addition to organizing branches in Nigeria, the Mabeys and Cannons visited Ghana and helped baptize those who had been waiting for many years for the Church to be established there. The first baptisms in Ghana occurred on December 9, 1978, at what has become known as “Baptism Beach” near Cape Coast.
The Mabeys and Cannons served in Ghana and Nigeria until October 1979. The branches they helped organize formed the nucleus of the early Church in those countries, where today temples have been constructed and the Church has a vibrant presence.
We sometimes hear the story of Wilford Woodruff baptizing hundreds of Methodists who had been spiritually prepared for his arrival in England. What would it have been like to be there? Wouldn’t it be amazing to have photographs or video footage of those events? These priceless videos taken by the Mabeys and Cannons in 1978 and 1979 capture on film a modern scene similar to Elder Woodruff’s experience. They are a treasure in the Church’s historical collections and give us a fleeting glimpse at the founding moments and early experiences of the pioneers in West Africa.