The Black Saints of Nigeria
Friday, Jun. 18, 1965
Pending a new revelation, possible at any time, Mormons are committed to a certain degree of built-in segregation: Negroes cannot be admitted to the church’s priesthood. For this reason, Mormon missionaries have never tried very hard to make converts in black Africa. Yet Mormons also believe that Negroes may be admitted to the priesthood in heaven. This apparently is good enough for 7,000 Ibibio, Ibo and Efik tribesmen in eastern Nigeria, who have gone ahead to organize their own branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Nigeria’s saints owe their knowledge of Mormonism to an itinerant team of Church of Christ missionaries who visited the town of Uyo in 1953 and left behind, among other books and tracts, a copy of Joseph Smith’s Own Story. Fascinated by the dramatic life of the Mormon prophet, Anie Dick Obot of Uyo decided to form a branch of the church in Nigeria, and wrote for more information to Mormon headquarters in Salt Lake City. Mormon leaders sent back books explaining their laws and doctrines, and in 1959 dispatched to Africa Elder Lamar Williams, who was much impressed by the Nigerians’ zeal and orthodoxy. Since then, the Nigerian Saints, governed by Obot and a council of 75 elders, have established branches in six cities.
Church chiefs are somewhat at a loss on how to deal with their new African converts, especially since the Nigerian government will not give resident visas to any missionaries from the U.S. “This is quite a unique situation,” admits Hugh D. Brown, Mormon first counselor. One problem now is that in the absence of supervision from Utah the Nigerian Saints appear to be deviating somewhat from strict adherence to revelation. Some Nigerian Mormons practice polygamy—forbidden in the U.S. church since 1890—and the converts already seem to have established their own black hierarchy, priests and all. “I don’t have to wait for revelation to know that I am the natural head in Nigeria,” snaps Obot, who is accepted by his elders as their bishop. “Nigerian priests will run their own branch. This is their creation, and they are in their own country.”