When the first Latter-day Saint missionaries arrived in Nigeria in 1978, there was very little need for proselytizing. For more than 30 years, Nigerians who had encountered the Church in one way or another had been writing to Church leaders in Salt Lake City, requesting literature and missionaries. When those missionaries came, they found multiple congregations eager to be baptized virtually the day they arrived.
Anthony Obinna had been writing Church headquarters for several years by the time Rendell and Rachel Mabey and Edwin and Janath Cannon sought him out a week after their arrival in Nigeria in November 1978. The two senior missionary couples set off in a cab from Port Harcourt with only a general idea of their destination. Like many in Nigeria, Obinna lived in a numberless house on a nameless street, but the missionaries knew his village, county, and state from the letters he had written. After a three-hour ride, including several stops to ask for help, they turned down a road lined with banana and palm trees that ended at a small church.
“Near the roof in blue letters were painted the words, ‘Nigerian Latter-Day Saints,’” Rendell Mabey later wrote. He found one set of doors labeled “LDS” and another labeled “Missionary Home.” “It was a curious experience encountering the name of our own church,” wrote Mabey, “where no missionary had ever before set foot.”
The missionaries found the area filled with people, but not Obinna. Upon learning who their visitors were, Obinna’s son went in search of his father while the missionaries explored the church.
The Mabeys admired the small chapel with its neat blue door and shutters and then explored the classroom, which doubled as an office in the other half of the building. In the classroom, the program for the next day’s services were already carefully written up on a blackboard. A copy of the Doctrine and Covenants and several copies of the Book of Mormon were available for student use, and shelves were stacked with old issues of the Ensign and Church News.
It took a couple of hours for Obinna—who had built up this place over 13 years of waiting—to arrive and finally shake hands with someone prepared to bring him The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in full.
An Astonishing Discovery
More than a decade earlier, Obinna had a dream in which a man appeared to him and took him to a beautiful building he had never seen before. Obinna was taken inside and shown everything there. Later, the same dream came again.
Then, a few years later, during the Nigerian Civil War, Obinna was confined to his home for safety. He picked up an old copy of the Reader’s Digest and was stunned to see the very building from his dream as the centerpiece of an article about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I had never before heard the word Mormons,” Obinna wrote. “From the time I finished reading the story, I had no rest of mind any longer. My whole attention was focused on my new discovery. I rushed out immediately to tell my brothers, who were all amazed and astonished to hear the story.”
It would be another year before the political situation in Nigeria allowed Obinna to get a letter out to the headquarters of the Church, so it wasn’t until 1971 that Obinna wrote Salt Lake City for instructions. He received several pamphlets and a Book of Mormon but was told the Church was not organized in Nigeria and that, at that time, there were not yet plans to do so.
“I was totally disappointed,” Obinna recalled, “but the Holy Spirit moved me to continue writing. Many a time in dreams I saw some of the missionaries of the Church discussing matters about the Church.”
He continued to write, and while his patience was sometimes tried, he didn’t give up on the testimony that had been kindled inside him.
“We are not disencouraged anyhow but shall continue to pursue the practice of our faith which we have found to be true,” he wrote in 1976 in response to another letter urging Obinna to do the best he could on his own for the time being. “We are very optimistic that Our Lord Jesus Christ will make it possible in future for the Church to take more direct action. We are well aware that our faith is being tried. We are doing everything we can to establish the truth among so many of Our Heavenly Father’s children in this part of the world.”
Indeed, Obinna taught the gospel to his family and had amassed a congregation of 71 members by the time the Mabeys and Cannons arrived five months after President Spencer W. Kimball announced the revelation removing the priesthood restriction that had long been an impediment to missionary work in West Africa.
When Anthony Obinna arrived to greet the missionaries on that November day in 1978, his demeanor was serious, even thoughtful.
Elder Mabey was struck by how “solemn, gentle, and dignified” Obinna was as he entered the small church, “as though an overt display of enthusiasm at such a moment might be almost sacrilegious. Our eyes, however, were moist. We all felt movingly the richness of God’s Spirit.”
“It has been a long, difficult wait, but that doesn’t matter now. You have come at last,” said Obinna.
Yet even Obinna’s patience had its limits. Mabey told him there were other congregations the missionaries needed to visit and estimated that it would be six weeks before they could return to perform baptisms. But Obinna’s waiting was done.
“’No, please,’ he said quietly,” Mabey later wrote. “‘I know that there are many others, but we have been waiting for thirteen years.’ His eyes were filled with longing. ‘Please, if it is humanly possible—go ahead with the baptisms now!’ For a few seconds we merely sat there looking into each other’s eyes. ‘Are most of your people ready?’ I asked at last. Anthony nodded emphatically. ‘Yes—absolutely yes! They know, as I do, that the gospel has been restored, but we must have guidance and direction. Let us baptize those strongest in the faith now and teach the others further.’ The Spirit was very strong, the man’s goodness and testimony clearly evident. ‘In that case,’ I said, ‘we will conduct the baptism as soon as possible.’”
The men decided on a date just three days away, and on Tuesday, November 21, 1978, nineteen Nigerians were baptized in the Ekeonumiri River. Anthony Obinna was the first.
A branch was soon organized for the new converts, with Anthony Obinna as its president, his brothers Francis and Raymond as his counselors, and his wife, Fidelia, as Relief Society president.
After many years of waiting and hoping, Obinna and his brothers penned a different sort of letter to Salt Lake City soon after being baptized.
“The entire members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in this part of Nigeria have the pleasure to thank you and the Latter Day Saints throughout the world for opening the door for the Gospel to come to our people in its fullness,” they wrote. “We are happy for the many hours in the Upper Room of the Temple you spent supplicating the Lord to bring us into the fold. We thank our Heavenly Father for hearing your prayers and ours and by revelation has confirmed the long promised day, and has granted the holy priesthood to us, with the power to exercise its divine authority and enjoy every blessings of the temple. ... There is no doubt that the Church here will grow and become a mighty centre for the Saints and bring progress enough to the people of Nigeria as it is doing all over the world.”
Obinna served faithfully in the Church for many years, and in 1989 he was sealed to Fidelia in the temple during a visit to Logan, Utah, where their son was living. Obinna died in 1995, leaving a legacy that was not limited to the dozens of family members to whom he had brought the gospel.
“The seed of the gospel which you sowed will grow into a giant tree,” he wrote to Rendell Mabey when his time in Nigeria was nearing its end. “The Church in Nigeria will surprise the world in its growth. The number of baptisms, confirmations, and ordinations you performed in this country show only a beginning.”