News Release

Missionary Companions Shared History Unites Them with Early Church Pioneers in West Africa

Legacy of the first baptisms in Ghana


Elder Martell Johnson, from the Twifo Hemang branch near Takoradi Ghana, and Elder Ezra LaBelle, from the Valley View 5th ward in Salt Lake City, serve together in the Burman Hills Ward in Accra Ghana.  They are both missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, serving in the Accra Ghana Mission.  From all appearances they are just like any other missionary companionship, working with those investigating the Church and providing service to the communities that they are called to labor in.  But Elder Johnson and Elder Labelle have a shared history that has its roots in the emergence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in West Africa.

Elder Johnson’s grandfather, Joseph William ‘Billy’ Johnson, living in Ghana, was introduced to the Church of Jesus Christ and the Book of Mormon in 1964.  He immediately began preaching the gospel and starting congregations of ‘latter day saints’, independent of any other sect of the Church of Jesus Christ.  Within a short period of time, Johnson’s followers in Ghana reached over 500 individuals meeting in 10 separate congregations.  Johnson pleaded with church leaders in Salt Lake to send missionaries. President David O. McKay told him they would not send missionaries yet, but that Johnson should wait patiently for the right time. 

In 1977, four different denominations tried to persuade Johnson to have his congregations become part of their church and offered him money to do so. Johnson declined their offers. The next year, LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball made the announcement that extended the priesthood to all worthy male members of the church regardless of race or color. Johnson was overjoyed when he heard the news and prayed that the time for waiting was over.

President Kimball called missionaries Rendell N. Mabey and Rachel Mabey and sent them to Ghana.  In December of 1978, just a few months after the announcement, Elder Mabey baptized Brother Johnson in the ocean near Cape Coast, Ghana.  He was ordained as a Priest and called as the first Branch President in Ghana.  He later became the first District President.

Elder Rendell N. Mabey is the great grandfather of Elder LaBelle.  The significance of this particular baptism is not lost on Elder LaBelle and Elder Johnson. Although Elder LaBelle never met his great grandfather, and Billy Johnson died when Elder Johnson was very young, both are aware of the significance of this event in 1978.  “Where I am today is because of the faith of my grandfather through many trials and great suffering,” said Elder Johnson.

Both missionaries recognize the significant contribution of their forefathers in the development of the Church in West Africa. 

“We have a great history here, and through us, the gospel work continues to march onwards,” said Elder LaBelle. “Focusing on our history will hopefully provide inspiration to others.”

The Mabey’s served in Ghana and Nigeria until October 1979. Billy Johnson served the Church faithfully until his death in 2012.  The branches that they helped organize together formed the nucleus of the early Church in West Africa.  Currently there are 465,000 members of the Church in West Africa with 141 Stakes and many districts.  There are 21 missions with 3 new missions opening in July.  The Accra Ghana and Aba Nigeria Temples are currently operating and there are 3 temples under construction and 5 other temples announced in West Africa.

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