When the LDS Church officially sent representatives to bring the LDS Church to Ghana in December 1978, the gospel was already well-established there. Fourteen years earlier, the man most responsible for the preparation of the Saints in Ghana had been converted to the LDS Church after reading the Book of Mormon and other tracts. Beginning with a pamphlet containing the testimony of church founder Joseph Smith, Joseph William Billy Johnson was immediately touched by what he learned.
“Oh, I wept when I read the testimony, and I felt the Spirit. I became convinced immediately. … So I started reading the books, all the books. I couldn’t stand; I couldn’t sit without sharing.”
Indeed, Johnson’s conversion launched him into a missionary career that didn’t waver in the face of persecution at home and an at-times-frustrating brand of long-distance support from Salt Lake City. Johnson was tireless in spreading the message of the restored church in Ghana, going from street to street, day after day, preaching the gospel. “I was constrained to do it,” he said. “Despite opposition I met on the way—I was highly, really opposed. But still I went on. I couldn't stop it at all.”
Johnson’s compulsion to spread the word came in large part from a calling he felt he received shortly after reading the Book of Mormon. He related that one early morning following his conversion, he “saw the heavens open and angels with trumpets singing songs of praise unto God. 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 whatever you will command me.’”
Together with R.A. F. Mensah and Clement Osekre, Johnson organized a congregation based on the teachings found in a single Book of Mormon and a few Church pamphlets that Mensah had received from a woman in Europe. The men wrote to Church headquarters in Salt Lake asking for missionaries to be sent to Ghana to baptize them and establish the Church there, but because of restrictions that didn’t allow men of African descent to be ordained to the priesthood (making Church organization there impossible), their requests went unfulfilled. They were encouraged by Church President David O. McKay to continue studying the scriptures and to be faithful -- officials at Church headquarters helped by sending magazines and literature to help the fledgling congregations—but for the time being, they were essentially on their own. In time, Johnson moved his proselyting efforts from Accra to Cape Coast and did his best to organize the Church, eventually establishing several branches with hundreds of members.
For years, he led the members in regular fasts, pleading for missionaries from Salt Lake to come and establish the Church among them. “The Lord knew we had no one to help us, so he helped us through revelation, daily revelation,” Johnson said. “[We were] trying to do the little that the Lord taught us to do. We were really depending upon the dictates of the Spirit.” At a time of great trial early in his ministry, Brother Johnson’s deceased brother appeared to him in a dream and said: “Don’t worry…you have chosen the only true church on earth…and I am now investigating your church.” Brother Johnson reported that he was surprised. “I never knew that the Church extended to another world. It was my brother who brought that knowledge to me. He said that if I didn’t believe him, he would sing a song from my church, and he sang Come, Come, Ye Saints. That was the first time I had heard that hymn. He said, ‘Don’t leave the church, my brother. …Please see that I am baptized.’ It was my brother who enlightened me about baptism for the dead and brought it to my knowledge…Most of my relatives appeared to me in dreams [saying] ‘Reverend Johnson, do you know you have a work to do for us? Our great grandsons and daughters will be in your church soon. See that we are baptized.’ I learned these doctrines before the missionaries arrived. Nothing they taught us seemed strange. They simply confirmed what we had heard.”
Come, Come, Ye Saints
The lack of direction and the members’ inability to be baptized was a challenge both for the church and for Johnson, but for fourteen years he pushed through the opposition, believing Ghana’s time would come. In 1978, it did: President Spencer W. Kimball announced a revelation extending the priesthood to all worthy males. Johnson heard the news around midnight at the end of a hard day when he was compelled to tune his radio to BBC before going to bed.
“I jumped and started crying and rejoicing in the Lord with tears that now is the time that the Lord will send missionaries to Ghana and to other parts of Africa to receive the priesthood,” he remembered. “I was so happy indeed.” When missionaries finally arrived a few months later, they were directed to Johnson’s chapel in Cape Coast, Ghana, where they found “a large statue of the Angel Moroni standing on a ball and blowing a trumpet. There were also pictures of the Bible and the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, the Tabernacle Choir, and other Latter-day Saint scenes.”
Many of the members of Johnson’s congregations requested baptism, and on the first day thirty-four people were interviewed for the ordinance. The missionaries spent an afternoon and into the evening hours baptizing new members, with several more arriving at Johnson’s home in tears that night, having walked from a distant village in hopes of being baptized that day. Within a few days, the Cape Coast Branch had been organized with Joseph William Billy Johnson as branch president.
Emmanuel Kissi, a native of Ghana who joined the Church in England in 1979 before returning to his home country to help build the Church there, credited Johnson with the rapid growth of the gospel in Ghana and with the sure foundation the missionaries found when they arrived. “I believe it was because of him that the Church grew faster in that district,” Kissi wrote. “President Johnson, more than anybody else, was active on the missionary front.” A year after the first baptisms in Ghana, missionaries were instructed to keep baptisms to a minimum until the Church could be firmly established in Africa. The counsel, however, proved difficult to follow thanks in large part to Johnson, whom the missionaries dubbed the “St. Paul of Ghana.”
After serving as the Cape Coast branch’s first president, Johnson went on to serve as a district president, a full-time missionary, and as patriarch of the Cape Coast Ghana Stake. After fourteen long years of opposition, mockery, and ongoing cries that he was wasting his time with an American church that would never do anything for his people, Johnson’s faith was ultimately rewarded. “It was a day of jubilation when they came,” he said. “I was so happy that they came and so happy that the Church is not brand new; it’s on its feet in Ghana.”