In 1970, President Harold B. Lee of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints asked Darius Gray to report on his findings concerning the LDS Church while visiting Africa. Gray figured he would not find any church members there.
He was wrong.
On Saturday morning at the Mormon History Conference in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Gray discussed his experience as well as other backstories of Latter-day Saints who influenced early church history in Africa.
Gray began with Glen G. Fisher, the South Africa Mission president from 1956–1960, who was asked to visit Nigeria on his way home from his mission. Fisher reported “that he met with several groups who had obtained church literature, believed the doctrine, organized themselves as best they could, and looked to church leadership for help.”
Gray then turned to the historic visit of Elder N. Eldon Tanner of the Quorum of the Twelve, who traveled to Nigeria to see if the church could get missionary visas in the country, “the first general authority to set foot on Nigerian soil.”
LaMar Williams was the next man Gray cited. In late 1965, Williams went to Nigeria to see if he could get the church officially registered in the country. Gray noted that interestingly, Williams was soon directed by the First Presidency to leave the country, and two months later, there was a violent military coupe, making it impossible for official church activity for the next 13 years.
As reported by Gray, Catherine Stokes’ backstory tells of her influence in Ghana. She was slated to take a vacation in Yugoslavia, but was surprised by a call from Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve, who requested that she take a detour to attend a meeting in Accra, Ghana. Stokes took the detour and represented the church, meeting with ambassadors and ultimately helping to open doors for the church in that African country.
Gray then went back to his own experience, since it was through his friendship with Williams and his employment at KSL that he became invested in the African Saints. As explained above, he did not think he would find Mormons in his first visit to Africa in 1970, and was surprised to find Mormons at the first airport where he landed. He found more Mormons in Nairobi, and was asked by the branch president to request that they no longer report to the South Africa Mission, where there were tensions due to apartheid. Upon returning, he reported back to President Lee his experiences in Africa and was gratified when the request was honored and the Nairobi Branch was directed to report to the Swiss Mission.
“Sometimes you don’t expect to be a part of the backstory, or an instrument of spreading the gospel,' Gray said.
In conclusion, Gray cited the 19 African missions, including Nigeria, Ghana, and Kenya, as evidence that “sometimes it is the backstory that makes all the difference.”