Steadfast African Pioneer
1999 By Dale LeBaron, as found on LDS.org
“As a young man, I started searching for spiritual peace,” says Joseph Johnson of his early religious searching in Ghana. “It was my prayer that the Lord should show me which church to join.” 1 Then in 1964 he met a man who had literature from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “I read the testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and I believed that testimony. I believed it was a great message for the whole world. So I read the Book of Mormon and found it to be true—the true word of God.”
Then one morning about 5:30 A.M., Joseph Johnson had a sacred experience. “While about to prepare for my daily work,” he says, “I heard my name mentioned thrice: ‘Johnson, Johnson, Johnson. If you will take up my work as I will command you, I will bless you and bless your land.’ Trembling and in tears, I replied, ‘Lord, with thy help I will do whatsoever you will command me.’ From that day onward, I was constrained by that Spirit to go from street to street and door to door. … I did exactly as the Lord commanded me. I couldn’t help it, I had to share the message.”
Even though he was not baptized until 1978, Brother Johnson started gathering people. “The Lord knew we had no missionaries around to help us, so He directed us by the Spirit,” says Brother Johnson, who continued proselyting and teaching the gospel in an untiring and zealous manner, though he had not yet been baptized and held no priesthood authority.
During this time, Brother Johnson experienced opposition from those who didn’t believe that the Book of Mormon or any other book could be equal to the Bible. Some shouted accusations that Johnson was anti-Christ, and others distributed literature attacking the Church. A local newspaper even printed pictures of the Presidents of the Church and wrote degrading statements about each one.
But as opposition increased, so did Brother Johnson’s determination to teach the gospel message. People began to listen and believe. His faith increased, and he felt the Lord blessing him in his work. One day, after some members of a crowd to whom he was preaching “hooted” at him, about 40 people came forward and said they wanted to listen to the message. Their names were recorded and a meeting place was arranged.
By April 1964, Joseph Johnson had formally organized a church patterned after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah. He wrote to President David O. McKay and received additional literature and letters encouraging him to study the gospel and to help the people until, as President McKay wrote, “in the Lord’s own due time, missionaries would be sent.”
Brother Johnson organized congregations, selected and trained leaders, and continued a vigorous proselyting program. Of his missionary labors, he said: “I used to walk 50 miles a day and wasn’t bothered about it. Whenever I walked, I reflected on the early missionaries, and I gained strength because it seemed as if I was following in the footsteps of the pioneers. Their example inspired me—the way some died in the snow and the way they toiled to bring the truth. They were great people.”
With the growth came struggles. Once, while facing a serious problem, Brother Johnson fasted for three days. He then knelt and prayed for help. That night he dreamed he saw the Prophet Joseph Smith and President Brigham Young. They assured him that missionaries would come soon and that he should keep studying the scriptures.
As a result of this manifestation, Brother Johnson developed a great love and appreciation for those two early prophets. He even chose to name his son Brigham—likely the only young man at that time in all of Ghana with that name.
By 1968 Joseph Johnson had built up four congregations, so he quit his job and took up “a full-time missionary work.” He farmed to support his family and lived off his retirement pension and donations from his followers. But the struggles proved to be too difficult for his wife, and she left him and the children. The divorce caused him great anguish. While struggling with his pain, he saw in a dream his only brother, who had died seven years before.
“My brother asked me why I was weeping,” Brother Johnson says of the experience. “I said, ‘My wife has left me.’ My brother said: ‘Don’t worry. You have chosen the right thing, the true church.’ He said he would sing a song from my Church, and he sang ‘Come, Come, Ye Saints.’ 2 That was the first time I had heard that hymn. He said: ‘Don’t leave the Church, my brother. Don’t leave the Church! Please see that I am baptized.’
“It was my brother who enlightened me about baptism for the dead and brought it to my knowledge. At times I still weep because I imagine thousands of people behind the veil who are expecting baptism. I learned these doctrines before the missionaries arrived, so when they taught us it didn’t seem strange. The missionaries simply confirmed what we knew.”
Maintaining the Faith
Regarding the many miracles and manifestations he received, Brother Johnson said, “The reason we had these revelations was that there were many challenges, and anytime the Lord realized that we were struggling He showed us something to strengthen our faith.”
Although Brother Johnson received great strength from the Spirit, like most leaders he faced loneliness and discouragement. At one particularly difficult time, a tempting offer came to him from some Americans who belonged to another church. They went to Brother Johnson’s home and asked him to join with them and bring his congregations.
In exchange, they agreed to give him a trip to America and $10,000 to purchase equipment and supplies. He had always wanted to go to America, but his poverty had made it impossible.
“I would have loved to see America,” remembers Brother Johnson. “I went to my room and knelt down late at night and said: ‘Lord, is this a blessing that you want to give me? Should I accept it?’” As the answer came to him, he knew that he should stay true to the Church and that missionaries would come soon.
As Brother Johnson eagerly sought contact with the Church or with Church members, he learned of a branch of Latter-day Saints in Liberia—two countries and 800 miles away. He made the long and arduous journey to meet them. Upon arrival, he discovered that they were members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. One of the members said: “Johnson, you are lost. Why do you follow this church?” Brother Johnson asked to have an opportunity to preach to these people in their chapel on Sunday, and they agreed. “While I was preaching,” he says, “the leader’s wife stood and said: ‘We have all gone astray. Let’s go back to where we came from. This man belongs to where we came from.’ It was very surprising; we had 35 converts from that group in 11 days.”
Over years of dedicated service, Brother Johnson, along with other faithful converts, had built up 10 congregations with about 1,000 followers. “Whenever I read the history of the Church I could tell from the faces of the members that they wanted me to tell them more and more about the pioneers,” he says. “I told them we should emulate their shining examples. Anytime I spoke about the pioneers and their trials, we felt the spirit in the Church. I would see tears falling from their eyes, especially when we sang ‘Come, Come, Ye Saints.’”
Missionaries Come to Ghana
Toward the end of the wait for the Church to come to Ghana, Brother Johnson and his people developed a love for another hymn: “Come, O Thou King of Kings.” 3 As the people sang, “We’ve waited long for thee,” they sang it weeping and hoping for the missionaries to come to Ghana.
Several months before the 1978 revelation that the priesthood and temple blessings would be available to all worthy brethren, Brother Johnson saw in a dream some Caucasian men entering his chapel. They said, “We are your brothers, and we have come to baptize you.” Some of his followers also had similar dreams, giving hope that the missionaries would soon come. “Each time the Lord addressed us in dreams,” Brother Johnson noted, “He addressed us as Latter-day Saints, even though we had not yet become members.”
Late one night in June 1978, deeply discouraged and tired, Brother Johnson returned home. Some of his followers were tired of waiting, and they wanted to go back to their old churches to be with their families and friends. Brother Johnson felt a great need for spiritual and emotional strength. A strong impression came to him to listen to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) shortwave station, which he had not listened to for several years. He worked with his old short-wave radio for over an hour before he could tune in to the BBC.
It was midnight, and the news was being broadcast. He recalled: “I heard the message of President Spencer W. Kimball that all worthy males in all the world could receive the priesthood. I burst into tears of joy because I knew the priesthood would come to Africa, and if we did the right things, we would all receive the priesthood.”
The arrival of the missionaries to Ghana in late 1978 brought indescribable joy to Brother Johnson and his followers. He said: “We were so happy to receive the missionaries. When they sat face-to-face with us, many members remembered the revelations they had had, and some of them bore their testimonies. I was one of those who bore my testimony in tears, because I realized the Lord had fulfilled His promise. It all came to pass.”
Among the first to be baptized in Ghana, Brother Johnson helped many members of his congregations understand the need to be baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Ato Ampiah, who now serves as stake clerk in the Cape Coast Ghana Stake, was typical of those in his congregation who saw Brother Johnson as a humble follower of Christ and listened to him during this time of transition.
“I had been baptized in the ocean in 1976 by Brother Johnson,” says Brother Ampiah. “At first I refused to be baptized again, but on Christmas Eve in 1979, Brother Johnson spoke to me. He said, ‘Ato, I baptized you, but I did not have the proper authority. I have allowed myself to be baptized under the proper priesthood authority, and I hope you will do the same.’ This struck me in my heart, and I prepared myself for baptism.” 4
Brother Johnson was the first in Ghana to serve as a branch president and later as a district president. In April 1991, Elders Boyd K. Packer and James E. Faust of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles created the first two stakes in Ghana—one in Accra and one in Cape Coast. Today there are five.
Joseph William Billy Johnson—tireless, faithful, obedient, and believing African pioneer—helped prepare the way for the gospel to come to Ghana. Today, as patriarch in the Cape Coast Ghana Stake, he continues to serve faithfully.
Dale LeBaron is a professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.
- All quotes, except as otherwise cited, are from an interview with Joseph William Billy Johnson by E. Dale LeBaron in Cape Coast, Ghana, on 23 May 1988. Transcript in author’s possession.
- Hymns, no. 30.
- Hymns, no. 59.
- Interview with Ato Ampiah by Don L. Searle on 21 July 1995 in Ghana.