(This is a sacrament meeting address, given in Allen Texas on August 30, 2015)
I was asked to talk today about the Savior’s admonition to his disciples, recorded in Acts, Chapter 1, Verse 8, to: “be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judæa, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth”
I love this scripture, because it describes how the gospel message is to flow logically and systematically across different geographic regions, tribes and kindred, including the end-state where it ultimately is carried to all of our Heavenly Father’s children across this entire planet.
This has been the Lord’s pattern with His gospel throughout history of the world. Since the fall of Adam, we learn that he and his wife Eve taught the gospel to their children, many of whom embraced it, while others spurned the message. Sadly, time and again, the scriptures record how God’s people eventually reject the gospel message and its messengers, so the Lord withdraws his prophets, power and authority and then, when the time is right, re-establishes His gospel by calling new prophets, such as Abraham, Noah and Moses.
In the meridian of time, the Gospel message and the Lord’s kingdom on earth were organized only among the House of Israel in Judea. However, at the end of the Savior’s mortal ministry, in the scripture we just referenced from Acts, Christ charged His disciples to carry their witness of His message throughout Jerusalem (to the Jews) and Judea (to the other tribes of Israel), to Samaria (a kindred nation to the House of Israel), and finally, not stopping until it went “unto the uttermost part of the earth.”
The 10th and 11th chapters of Acts record how the Lord directed Peter, who was designated as His chief apostle, that the time had come to broaden their audience and carry the gospel message to the Gentiles, a concept that was new and foreign to the Saints of that day.
If we jump ahead 1,800 years, the gospel was once again restored following the Great Apostasy, which came as Christ’s apostles were rejected and killed, the doctrines corrupted and God’s authority withdrawn. In April 1830, the gospel was restored to the earth through the Prophet Joseph Smith and the Lord’s Church was again organized, starting with a grand total of six members in a small New York village.
Four years later, in 1834, Joseph Smith gathered all of the then existing priesthood holders in Kirtland, Ohio, the Church Headquarters at the time, into a 14X14 log house. He asked several of the brethren to bear witness of the scope of the gospel message they had been called to carry forth. After listening to them, Joseph told the group: ‘Brethren, … you know no more concerning the destinies of this Church and kingdom than a babe upon its mother’s lap. You don’t comprehend it. It is only a little handful of Priesthood you see here tonight, but this Church will fill North and South America—it will fill the world. (Wilford Woodruff, in Conference Report, Apr. 1898, p. 57)
This concept was mind-boggling to a group of small-town farmers and merchants. But here we are today, as Elder John Dickson of the Seventy described two years ago in April Conference, “the Church has moved steadily across the world from nation to nation, culture to culture, people to people, on the Lord’s calendar and in His time.” (The Gospel to All the World, Elder John B. Dickson, Conference Report, April 2013)
One of the significant events in the spreading of the gospel to the “uttermost part of the earth” during this dispensation actually occurred in my lifetime. In June 1978, following the established pattern of revealing His will through His senior Apostle, (at the time, President Spencer W. Kimball), the Lord provided a revelation, this time on extending priesthood blessings to all worthy males across the world. This means that in our day, all of God’s children worldwide can partake of all of the blessings of the restored gospel.
So, in 1978, I had just finished serving a two-year mission in northern Brazil, where the vast majority of citizens have African heritage. At the time I served, there were four missions in Brazil and the first Brazilian temple had just been announced. Today, less than forty years following that revelation, there are over 1.3 million members in Brazil, 34 missions, six completed temples and another two in planning or construction. On a more local level, I served several months in Fortaleza, a city of 2.5 million people located on Brazil’s Northeast coast, which had one branch that had been around for 37 years when I was there. On a really good Sunday, we had about twenty members attending. Today, 37 years later, that single Fortaleza branch has grown into sixteen stakes, is the home to two missions and the local saints are awaiting completion of their own temple.
I had a wonderful mission, worked with fabulous people and had great experiences and successes in sharing the gospel, but in hindsight, my time there was kind of like working for NASA’s predecessor a few years before the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957. America’s aeronautical engineers were doing some amazing things in the early 50s, but they did have not anything close the breathtaking excitement and explosive technology leaps that came on the heels of the October 1957 announcement that a rival nation had launched an unmanned, sub-orbital satellite. That launch announcement ushered in the era of space exploration and a moon landing, but the priesthood announcement in June 1978 literally changed the trajectory of God’s kingdom on earth.
So, the seriously cool news for the Clarks is, we have been called to labor in these last days in one of “the nethermost parts of the vineyard.” In the 21st Century, Africa has become Ground Zero for Latter-day Excitement and it is home to some of the Lord’s most amazing children who have been specifically prepared for this latter-day hastening of the Lord’s work.
While the Church has only been organized in the seven nations in West Africa for just over thirty years, it has grown from absolutely no presence to more than a quarter of a million Church members, operating temples in Ghana and Nigeria and one announced for Cote d’Ioivre (Ivory Coast) this April, and nearly 900 congregations. More than 80 of those congregations were created this year alone. For you numbers guys, that is an increase of more than ten percent within eight months. That is serious recent growth.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland commented that in West Africa, “If you were to walk out onto a street corner and say, that ‘I want to talk to you about the gospel of Jesus Christ’, you would have four hundred people gathered before you finished the sentence.” http://www.mormonnewsroom.com.gh/article/emerging-with-faith-in-africa
Elder John Dickson, who served for four years as the West Africa Area President said that: As a people, West Africans believe in God, have absolutely no shame in declaring and sharing their belief with others, and have tremendous leadership capacity. They are coming into the Church by the hundreds, and every week or so a couple of wards or branches are created somewhere in the Africa West Area with, in nearly every case, all-African priesthood and auxiliary leadership.
Think for a moment about the logistics of staffing and organizing eighty new wards and branches in eight months, across an area of the world that is two-and-a-half times larger than Texas, but has only three-fourths of the members in Texas. This means that, despite the fact that:
- nearly all of the members, the missionaries, and the Church leaders in West Africa are first-generation converts, and
- despite the challenges of rampant poverty, minimal infrastructure development, very recent widespread civil wars and infectious disease epidemics,
- the Saints in West Africa are creating, on average, ten new wards or branches every month, and each of those units need to hit the ground running with a full complement of priesthood leaders, auxiliary presidencies and teachers, along with finance and membership clerks, each of whom has to be identified and called by inspiration, trained and up and ready to go.
Elder Holland noted that one of the logistical challenges that West African wards sometimes face is finding the time in sacrament meetings to confirm all of the new members who were baptized the previous week.
From a personal perspective, there are nine Area Authority Seventies who oversee the work of the church in West Africa that Michelle and I will be coordinating with.
- All nine of these brethren are African natives (I am going to have to learn to recognize each of them and pronounce names like Elder J. K. Chukwuemeka Igwe, Elder Adeyinka Ojediran, and Elder Aniefiok Udo Inyon).
- By profession, these nine brethren are attorneys, CEOs or executives of large companies, professionals and university lecturers.
- All nine of them are first generation Church members.
- They have all served previously as bishops and stake presidents.
- And, with one minor exception, they are all younger than me.
But despite all of these challenges, the gospel goes forth wonderfully and the work flourishes, because this is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we are in the final days preparing for his Second Coming, and this is the day that He has reserved for some of the most amazing people on the face of this planet.
I have never personally been to Africa, but let me share a few quotes from a couple of our Church leaders who have spent time working among these Saints. The whisperings of the spirit that I feel when I read these words gives me “the reason for the hope” that I feel in the opportunity to serve with and to learn from these wonderful Saints.
Speaking of the African Saints, Elder Holland noted that: “Their purity is a powerful, central image in my heart. In the West we have always associated happiness with acquisition, but in Africa they’ve separated that in their minds and in their hearts. I think they would like to have enough to eat, clothing to wear, and education for their children. They’d like a higher standard of living, and the gospel will help bring that to many people. But they seem to be able to separate in their mind that ‘things’ don’t have anything to do with being happy. Simplicity is an element of their pure faith that we would do well to copy, remember, and teach. In so many ways, they are not of this world, and it’s a great compliment to them.”
Because the Church has been in this area for only three decades, Elder Holland said, “Africa is one of those special places where you get to see the glory of the Lord, the wonder and the miracle of the Restoration, quite literally unfold before your eyes.”
He said it is impressive, “to see how much the gospel means to them, to see what they have done with it, how they cherish it, to see their faithfulness in tithing and in service, in going to the temple … and then to see them raising their children in the Church and sending their sons and daughters on missions. It is wonderful evidence of their faithfulness.”
As an example, he said, “While there was a raging civil war in Cote d’Ivoire [Ivory Coast] the Latter-day Saints … just kept coming to the temple. It’s a great tribute to them. I stand in awe.”
Speaking of both Sierra Leone and Liberia, he added, “Because they’ve had such a bloody, war-torn, brutal recent past, that’s one of the reasons the gospel is taking hold so dramatically. They’ve seen what life ought not to be, and now with the missionaries and the members testifying, they’ve seen what it can be. Heaven has been able to turn it into a blessing, and they’re lifting themselves out of political disarray and civil strife.”
Elder John Dickson, the former West Africa Area President, said that, “It has been said of Africans that they have very little of that which matters least and a great deal of that which matters most. They have little interest in enormous homes and the finest cars but great interest in knowing their Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, and in having eternal families. As a natural result of their faith, the Lord is lifting them in meaningful ways.
Elder Dickson concluded that: “Knowing them as we do, we are not surprised that they would be such an important part of the expansion of the Church of Jesus Christ in the last days. Given that Daniel, the Old Testament prophet, envisioned the kingdom of God in the last days “roll[ing] forth unto the ends of the earth, as [a] stone which is cut out of the mountain without hands [would] roll forth, until it [had] filled the whole earth” (D&C 65:2), it is very fitting that our wonderful African brothers and sisters would be an important part of the fulfillment of that prophecy and that the revelations making it so would follow the Lord’s established patterns.”
In short, Michelle and I are deeply honored for the privilege we have of being asked to serve among some of our Heavenly Father’s most precious children in West Africa. While we look forward to returning to family and loved ones eighteen months from now, for now we are anxious to go and serve, and to learn and grow.