Why Mormonism, U.S.-born faiths are growing in Ghana
Strict teachings, missionary zeal, community spirit turn Africans into Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists and Latter-day Saints.
By Peggy Fletcher Stack
| The Salt Lake Tribune
and PHOTOS by MIchael STACK
First Published May 30 2014 03:55 pm • Last Updated Jun 02 2014 10:16 am
Accra, Ghana • Evidence of Christianity’s hold on this West African nation is everywhere — from Jesus Furniture Works and Rock of Ages Hair Salon to With God All Things Are Possible Fashion Designs and slogans such as “trust and obey” or “God never fails” painted on taxi windows.
It’s on the towering cross over Christ the King Catholic Church and in the sounds of religious exuberance blaring into the streets nearly every morning and evening. Believers pour into storefront sanctuaries to worship with New Heaven Prosperity Ministry, Power of Faith Worldwide and even the Ghana Police Church.
Thrown into this eclectic mix are three American-born versions of the ancient faith — Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventism — each claiming to strip away centuries of tradition to practice a purer, more Bible-based brand of Christianity.
All three faiths emerged in the 19th century at a time of religious upheaval and fervent millennial anticipation in the eastern U.S. — each preaching a coming apocalypse and the return of Jesus in the flesh. All three exist outside the boundaries of historic Christianity, though Adventists, with their paid clergy and Protestant-like organization, come closest to it.
They have found ways and means to explain Christ’s delayed return, and developed tools for surviving into and beyond the 21st century — and in settings far from where they began. All have zealous missionary efforts, attracting followers to distinctive brands of Christian worship, beliefs and practices. They baptize by immersion and eschew alcohol and tobacco.
Of course, each insists its own version is the “one and only true church.”
Meanwhile,other Christians and observers can see that these three denominations quietly are growing in number, visibility and influence across Africa — and particularly in Ghana.
These days, you can see neatly dressed Witnesses going house to house, clutching their Bibles on the red dirt roads of Accra. Then there are pairs of young Mormon missionaries — one of whom is often American — in white shirts and dark pants, sweltering on street corners in front of giant posters proclaiming “Families Are Forever.” And how about all those well-mannered Adventists, consistently filling their pews on Saturday, while others work or play?
The country not only abides these newcomers, in recent years, it also has welcomed them.
“Every Christian has tactics for winning souls for their church,” says Kingsley Darko, an elder with the Ghana-based Church of Pentecost who now lives in Utah.
Witnesses and Mormons, for example, “have time to go out and reach people,” Darko says. “I like it.”
He doesn’t share the Adventists’ view of the Sabbath or shunning meat, but he believes that church’s emphasis on learning and health has made a positive contribution to the nation.
“Sometimes we have lots of arguments,” Darko says, “and then we laugh and disperse.”
Everybody, he says, “thinks there is good in other faiths.”
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Faith-drenched demographic • Ghana, though economically depressed, is a relatively stable country on the continent, with strong protections for religious freedom in its constitution and no objection to proselytism.
More than 70 percent of Ghanaians are Christians, according to the 2010 census. The largest group, as elsewhere, hails from the Pentecostal or charismatic movement, with 28 percent of the country’s 25 million people. Next come mainline Protestants, including Anglicans, at 18.4 percent, followed by Catholics with 13 percent. Muslims make up about 17 percent of the population.
Of the three American-born faiths, the Adventists arrived first — 126 years ago — and boast the biggest membership at nearly 400,000 and 1,243 congregations. They have built 916 schools, 13 hospitals and 12 clinics throughout the country.
Jehovah’s Witnesses came in 1924 and have more than 100,000 members — three times that many attend their annual conventions in Ghana — with more than 1,000 congregations. The church could use an additional hundred “kingdom halls,” or meetinghouses, because it baptizes an average of 114 people a week, Ghanaian Witnesses say.
Mormons began evangelizing in earnest in 1978 after the Utah-based faith ended its centurylong ban on men of African descent in the church’s all-male priesthood (though scores of Ghanaians had read LDS materials and thought they were already members before that).
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reports more than 57,000 Ghanaians on its rolls, but the number attending is less than 50 percent of that, according to LDS officials there. (…)
Witnessing to neighbors • William Brown brought his faith’s biblical teachings to Ghana in the early part of the 20th century.
Within a few decades, kingdom halls sprang up in towns and villages throughout the country. Each one has the same rectangular layout, with a stage or speaker’s podium at the front, chairs lined up in rows on both sides of a center aisle, and classrooms and a library behind. Each hall is built primarily by those who will use it.
By 1952, the group’s materials — written in the United States, printed in England and shipped to Africa — began to be translated into Ghana’s tribal languages. Today, the Bible and all the U.S.-produced copies of The Watchtower and Awake! are available in six tribal languages in addition to English.
his is essential for Witnesses’ weekly worship, which includes two hours of Bible study, scripture discussion and preaching lessons.
At the Wireless Road Kingdom Hall in Accra, about 150 men and women — along with a few well-behaved children — file into the early Sunday service in English. They greet one another as “brother” and “sister.”
Before the proceedings begin, congregants pick up “declaration cards” on the front table, which have spaces to list how many hours of witnessing they gave that month.
The elder in charge that day then offers a prayer addressed to “Jehovah Father.”
The congregation sings a hymn, including these words: “We love Jehovah with heart, mind and soul. But since we are sinful, we need self-control.”
Dan Charway, the speaker, reads a story from The Watchtower about a plane that crashed when it lost its way.
“Everyone needs a compass,” Charway says. “Our conscience is our compass. But conscience has been lost in the modern world; we want to do our own thing.”
Many people in the world “are dressing in a shabby or immodest way,” he says. “And the world’s entertainment gratifies sexual promiscuity. … People are used to these worldly conditions but Jehovah does not change.” Heads are down. Even children sit quietly as fans whir overhead. People in pews follow along in their Bibles, while drumming and singing from a nearby evangelical church waft in through the windows.
“Brothers, we must align our thoughts and actions with Jehovah,” Charway says with little emotion. “A good conscience affects everything.”
At the end of the speech, the attendees applaud.
They sing again and begin the next phase: a question-and-answer exercise from The Watchtower.
That is how all Witness services go, says Francis Kwabala, a tour guide at the faith’s Ghana headquarters, Bethel House, in Nungua, about a half hour away from Accra.
The campus includes a reception area, kingdom hall, offices and dorms, where more than 300 full-time workers help in the dining room, laundry, auto maintenance and printing facilities. They are considered volunteers, who receive housing, food and a small living allowance.
It fits with the time commitment that the church requires: To be considered a full member, a Witness must blanket neighborhoods for a certain number of hours a week. Those who give 70 hours or more are called “pioneers.”
It’s not a chore, says William Jyssi, an administrator at the University of Cape Coast near Elmina, a few hours from Accra. “Every Witness is elated to go out to preach. Some go street contacting as early as 6 a.m. We see preaching as a lifesaving work for those we approach. It is a very, very important assignment.”
Witness beliefs are straightforward, he says. They come from the Bible.
No politics. No rituals. No liturgy. No holidays. No Trinity. The Lord’s Supper only once at the annual convention. Miracles only in Jesus’ time. No paid clergy. No blood transfusions, based on biblical statements about avoiding blood.
Just moral living and the command to spread the Good News.