Cover image via Gospel Media Library.

The Book of Mormon had been published. This was the sign to the world that the Lord had commenced the bringing forth of his kingdom. (3 Nephi 21:1-7) The prophet Daniel had long ago prophesied that one day, God’s kingdom would roll forth, and it was now time for the stone “cut out of the mountain without hands” to roll forth and “break in pieces” all other kingdoms (Daniel 2:44-45). The gospel would now be preached to all the nations of the earth.

How would you feel if you were called on a mission a month after you had joined the Church? 

Parley P. Pratt had only been a member of the Church for about a month when he was called “into the wilderness” to preach the gospel (Doctrine and Covenants 32:2). Orson Pratt, Edward Partridge, and many others had likewise barely been baptized when their mission calls came. Perhaps this timing was all of necessity—in the fall of 1830, no one had been a member of the Church for more than six months.

But there’s also a lesson in this pattern for us today: if you know enough to accept the restored gospel by baptism, you know enough to share it with others. Elder Neil L. Andersen shared his feelings about accepting a mission call:

Nearly 40 years ago as I contemplated the challenge of a mission, I felt very inadequate and unprepared. I remember praying, “Heavenly Father, how can I serve a mission when I know so little?” I believed in the Church, but I felt my spiritual knowledge was very limited. As I prayed, the feeling came: “You don’t know everything, but you know enough!” That reassurance gave me the courage to take the next step into the mission field. (“You Know Enough”)

God has never hesitated to call upon the “unlearned” to preach His gospel (Doctrine and Covenants 35:13). He has repeatedly invited his followers to “open your mouth to declare my gospel” (Doctrine and Covenants 30:5). Whether we have a formal calling as a missionary or not, the Lord expects us to “stand as a witness; at all times, and in all things, and in all places” (Mosiah 18:9) as part of our baptismal covenant. Many of the words to the early missionaries of this dispensation can apply to us as well. 

Mission to the Lamanites

In Section 28, Oliver is also told that he will be called on a mission to the Lamanites, and  in Section 32 we learn that Parley P. Pratt, Ziba Peterson and Peter Whitmer Jr. are also called. This mission would change the entire future of the Church.

Parley P. Pratt was a new, enthused Church member, and as the four made their way west, they stopped in Parley’s old neighborhood in Kirtland, Ohio and in nearby Mentor. There Parley visited his old friend Sidney Rigdon, a Reformed Baptist preacher, who was known for his polished skill as an orator. Sidney was highly respected by the people in the area and, like Alexander Campbell, he was committed to restoring primitive Christianity.

I love the account of this episode in Church history recorded by Karl Ricks Anderson in his book Joseph Smith’s Kirtland.  When Parley presented Sidney with a Book of Mormon, Sidney was not enthusiastic, and said he was occupied with his own congregation and studies, but committed to read it because of his friendship with Parley. “He said he would ‘endeavor to ascertain whether it be a revelation from God or not.’ Sidney’s son, John W. Rigdon, said that when he was informed that Joseph Smith was a young man with ‘hardly a common school education,’ Sidney replied, “If that is all the education he has got, he never wrote this book” 

(Karl Ricks Anderson, Joseph Smith’s Kirtland, Deseret Book, 1989).

Anderson continues, “President A. W. Cowles of Elmira College interviewed Sidney Rigdon in 1868 and recorded that Sidney’s beliefs on this point had not changed: ‘Rigdon expressed the utmost amazement that such a man should write a book which seemed to shed a flood of light on all the old scriptures, open all their profoundest mysteries, and give them perfect consistency and complete system. In his fresh enthusiasm he exclaimed that if God ever gave a revelation, surely this must be divine.’” Writing further, Anderson records, “After prayer and much meditation, Sidney decided to be baptized.”

This decision placed Sidney in a quandary, a dilemma that was described by Joseph Smith in the Prophet’s history (Vol. 1, Chapter 12):

The honors and applause of the world were showered down upon him, his wants were abundantly supplied, and were anticipated. He was respected by the entire community, and his name was a tower of strength. His [counsel] was sought for, respected and esteemed.—But if he should unite with the Church of Christ, his prospects of wealth and affluence would vanish; his family dependent upon him for support, must necessarily share his humiliation and poverty. He was aware that his character and his reputation must suffer in the estimation of the community. 

Anderson writes, “Realizing that baptism, with the subsequent loss of employment and of the home and property provided by his congregation, would greatly affect his family, Sidney asked his wife, Phebe, “My dear, you have once followed me into poverty, are you again willing to do the same?” Phebe’s devotion to the Lord and to her husband were clear in her answer: “I have weighed the matter, I have contemplated on the circumstances in which we may be placed; I have counted the cost, and I am perfectly satisfied to follow you; it is my desire to do the will of God, come life or come death.” (Karl Ricks Anderson, Ibid.)

What a profound statement by this relatively unknown woman in early Church history!

Parley P. Pratt recorded:

At length Mr. Rigdon and many others became convinced that they had not authority to minister in the ordinances of God; and that they had not been legally baptized and ordained. They, therefore, came forward and were baptized by us, and received the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, and prayer in the name of Jesus Christ. The news of our coming was soon noised abroad, and the news of the discovery of the Book of Mormon and the marvelous events connected with it. The interest and excitement now became general in Kirtland, and in all the region round about. The people thronged us night and day, insomuch that we had no time for rest and retirement. Meetings were convened in different neighborhoods, and multitudes came together soliciting our attendance; while thousands flocked about us daily; some to be taught, some for curiosity, some to obey the gospel, and some to dispute or resist it. In two or three weeks from our arrival in the neighborhood with the news, we had baptized one hundred and twenty-seven souls, and this number soon increased to one thousand. The disciples were filled with joy and gladness; while rage and lying was abundantly manifested by gainsayers; faith was strong, joy was great, and persecution heavy. (Pratt, Autobiography, pp. 35-36.)

Divine Design

Now remember, this was just a stop for the four missionaries on their way to their mission to the Lamanites, but the Lord knows who is ready for the gospel and where that spiritual fire will burn. Later in Church history, we will see that Wilford Woodruff had similar experiences where entire congregations of seekers were converted in England.

These stories are not limited to earlier centuries. I heard a similar story from my art teacher, Harold Petersen, who served a 30-month mission in Norway in the early 1950’s.  When he served in Bergen, one of his companions shared the conversion story of the saints who were the backbone of the branch there. Some missionaries had come in contact with a small gathering of people who met in their homes for church and believed that the Bible should be taken literally. When they discovered which church the missionaries represented, they invited them to a home meeting with eight other people in hopes they could convert the missionaries to their beliefs. During the meeting, the elders learned that the group did not believe in the spirit. They believed that when someone died, they were buried, and that was the end of them until the resurrection, when only a limited number would be raised to glory. One of the missionaries asked, “Now, who was the first fruits of the resurrection?” They answered that it was Christ. The elder continued to ask questions. “When Christ took Peter, James, and John to the Mount of Transfiguration, they met with Elijah and Moses. These two prophets lived hundreds of years before Christ’s time, and yet he talked to them there. How could he talk to them if there is no such thing as a spirit?” They could not explain it. The missionaries came back and taught them other lessons, and in time, the entire membership of that study group was baptized and became faithful members of the Church. (Personal interview with Harold Peterson, March 20, 2021, used with permission.)

On our mission to Long Beach, California two years ago, Elder Diaz shared an experience about people who were prepared by the Lord. On one occasion, he and his companion were giving service to a woman whose car had broken down in front of the food bank.  As they talked to her, they learned that she loved to study the Bible and met with other seekers in her home on Sundays.  She believed that Elijah will come again, and she was looking for his return. She and her group of friends were looking for living prophets. Elder Diaz told her about our living prophet, and invited her to watch General Conference with her the following Sunday. When I heard this, I thought it sounded like the stories of the early missionaries in Church history.

When Oliver Cowdery, Peter Whitmer Jr., Parley P. Pratt, and Ziba Peterson set out to preach to the American Indians west of Missouri, they believed they were fulfilling Book of Mormon prophecies about the Lamanites receiving the gospel in the latter days (see, for example, 1 Nephi 13:34–41Enos 1:11–18). And yet by the end of their mission, they had not baptized a single American Indian, although many believed and so testified.

So, was the mission to the Lamanites a failure? Far from it.  The Lord works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform. Each of the domino pieces in this scenario was carefully orchestrated by the Lord, including Parley’s friendship with Sidney, and the proximity of Mendon to the route taken to preach to the Lamanites. I imagine that Abinadi thought that his words had fallen on deaf ears, and that his mission was a failure. Little did he know what a fire he had kindled in the heart of Alma. He was doing what the Lord had commanded him to do, and it had cost him his life. When we focus on the things of God and heed the promptings we receive from the Holy Ghost, we can expect blessings in great measure. 

“You may never know how much you are succeeding.”

My friend, Melissa Cannon Evans shared with me a story from her mother’s journal. Her parents, Ted and Janath Cannon were mission presidents in Switzerland.  President Cannon always wanted to assure disheartened missionaries the “you may never know how much you are succeeding.”

He would then tell about the Swiss farmer, Johann Kunz, who saw two young men in suits being chased away from a neighbor’s place by a dog, dropping some tracts as they ran. Curious, Kunz picked up the tracts and read them, and was converted by them, and later he joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints described in the tracts and suffered some persecution. His son, also named Johann, emigrated to Utah and was sent to Idaho by Brigham Young to make cheese. There he founded the town of Bern, named for the capital of his homeland.  He had a large posterity of Latter-day Saints, many of them successful missionaries. “And it all started,” the president would conclude impressively, “because those two young men being chased by a dog were out doing their duty, however unsuccessful their efforts might have seemed at the time.”

The missionary story that most fascinates me is the story about how the Church became so strong in Ghana and Nigeria. It begins with the story of two sister missionaries in England who thought they had been unsuccessful in their labors with one of the investigators, Lillian Clark. She was never baptized, and the two sister missionaries may have felt that their efforts with Lillian had failed. However, she had received six missionary lessons from Sisters Karen Nelson and Loretta Johnson, and they had given her the accompanying mission tracts. Here is where the details become fuzzy. In 1962, Lillian sent some tracts to a friend named Dr. R.A. F. Mensah in Ghana—why or how was a mystery.

The story the conversion of Dr. R.A. F. Mensah, the man responsible for the nearly all the groups in Ghana, is fascinating. He had first heard of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through his correspondence with this Lillian Clark in England. The tracts converted Mensah and his friend Clement Osekre, and they began to preach the gospel to others. They converted strong leaders like J.W.B. Johnson, Rebecca Mould, and Mathew Koomson, who soon organized their own groups in other towns and continued to spread the good news of the restored church in spite of persecution. Osekre named his little schoolroom for children “Mormon House.” Although Mensah and Osekre lacked the leadership ability to maintain organized church groups, they were important links in a chain of remarkable circumstances.

In 1978, Ted and Janath Cannon were called to serve a mission in Ghana and Nigeria with another couple, Rendell and Rachel Mabey. The two senior couples were the first official missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in West Africa, and what they found when they got there was astonishing.

For example, they had heard of a congregation organized and led by a man named Joseph Billy Johnson. He based the doctrine of his church on copies of the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and Talmage’s Articles of Faith, as well as a few Mormon tracts that had been given to him. Although he had never had the missionary discussions nor been officially baptized, he had been a tireless missionary for over ten years, converting many to his beliefs, and had founded a church in Cape Coast.

Without a lot to go on, the Cannons and Mabeys were able to find Brother Johnson’s meeting house, which was located in an old shed. Imagine their surprise when they went inside and discovered a life-sized reproduction of the Angel Moroni sculpture complete with his trumpet. Johnson had a copy of the old blue paperback Book of Mormon, the one with a picture of the Angel Moroni on the front. A sculptor had used that picture as the model for the statue. The Cannons and Mabeys noted other familiar things in the room, including a painting of Joseph Smith in the Sacred Grove, a picture of the Tabernacle Choir, and a blackboard listing the Sunday hymns, including “Come, Come Ye Saints.”  Johnson had a full congregation just waiting for the missionaries. In addition, a sign on the front of the building read “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Cape Coast.”

Elder Cannon and Elder Mabey immediately got busy interviewing the members of Brother Johnson’s church, and eighty-nine people were baptized on December 9, 1978 in the ocean just east of Cape Coast. The next day, the first branch of the Church was organized in Cape Coast with Joseph Billy Johnson as Branch President. Two days later thirty-six more people were baptized, and then 125 two days after that, and before long a second branch was organized. By the time the Cannons and Mabeys left Africa, they had baptized 1,725 people and organized thirty-five branches and five districts in Ghana and Nigeria.

As amazing as this story is, I was even more surprised when I learned that it  is not well known in Africa among the young people of the Church.  One day when I was talking to two elders in the Long Beach Mission who came from Ghana and Nigeria, I made reference to Joseph Billy Johnson and the story of the huge lines of white-clad people who sought baptism, and neither elder had heard the story before.

The story has an ironic twist to it. When Ted Cannon was baptizing all those people in Cape Coast, the very first members of the Church in Ghana, he would not have known that Captain Cannon had twice traded slaves at Cape Coast Castle. While he knew his great-great-grandfather was the captain of a slave ship, Ted didn’t know anything about where he had gone on his voyages. There were many places in Africa where slave ships stopped to trade. Even when Ted died in 2005, the extraordinary twist in his family history story had not yet come to light. A relative discovered these facts only a few years ago after years of research, making the unbelievable connection between a slave trader and a missionary separated by four generations and 185 years.

Incredibly, the old shack where Joseph Billy Johnson held his meetings and prayed for the Church to send missionaries was mere blocks inland from the slave castle, and a Church meetinghouse lies just a few more blocks beyond the shack. The proximity of those three significant places to each other is mind-boggling.

It seems no coincidence that these buildings are so close together—just another piece of divine intervention. After all, what are the chances that a British slave ship captain and his American great-great-grandson would walk the same streets in Ghana but for such diametrically opposed purposes—one to imprison the body and break the spirit, and the other to bring the restored gospel to heal and bless? If I saw it in a movie, I would think it impossible, and yet there it all is, right there on the map. More details of the story can be found here.

Open Your Mouths

In Doctrine and Covenants 33:8-10, missionaries are told three times to “open your mouths and they shall be filled . . . yea, open your mouths and spare not, and ye shall be laden with sheaves upon your backs, for lo, I am with you. Yea, open your mouths…”

In our age of texting and posting on social media, this challenge is extremely difficult for young missionaries. In the Long Beach Mission, the challenge to these young elders and sisters to approach a stranger and begin a conversation was quite daunting. More than a few of these missionaries expressed the anxiety they felt as they tried to stretch themselves and interact with people they didn’t know, trying to gather Zion.

This commandment challenges many missionaries. One Sunday, a recently returned sister missionary spoke in our sacrament meeting. Not surprisingly, she emphasized the importance of members in missionary work. One reason she loved her mission was because she had a front row seat watching people change their lives. “No show can beat that!  YOU members can feel that too!  She surprised us by saying, “You should not be praying for the missionaries to find the seekers of truth. It is our job as members to do the finding.”  She quoted Doctrine and Covenants 33 – “Open your mouths!”  “Open your mouths and ye shall be laden with sheaves upon your backs…”  She told us not to be afraid, but trust in the Lord and just OPEN YOUR MOUTH!  She told about her trainer who made her an OYM charm.  Every time she opened her mouth to an investigator, she got to put a paper in a jar and on P-day she got to draw a paper out of the jar and do whatever the paper said. She loved Taco Bell and her trainer hated it.  She wrote “Go to Taco Bell” on every paper.  It really helped her to open her mouth!

I loved going to Zone Conferences where the Mission President would invigorate the elders and sisters and give them a new vision of their calling as missionaries. I remember one particular conference where he asked the missionaries if they ever wondered where to go about 3:30 in the afternoon.  He had them read two scriptures from Doctrine and Covenants 31:11 “…it shall be given you by the Comforter what you shall do and whither you shall go.”  Then, Doctrine and Covenants 52:4 :“inasmuch as they are faithful unto me, it shall be made known unto them what they shall do.”  He asked them what the word SHALL means.  Does it mean WILL or does it mean CAN.  He said that it means ABSOLUTELY!  Again, what does this mean?  It WILL HAPPEN!  What are we learning here?  If we have faith, it WILL happen.  We will know what to do and where to go at 3:30 in the afternoon.

President Paterson read Doctrine and Covenants 33:6 where God says He will gather His elect from the four quarters of the earth.  (Elder Christofferson says the sickle used in this gathering is the Book of Mormon.) Doctrine and Covenants 33:7-9: “open your mouths and they shall be filled.”  Doctrine and Covenants 100:5-7:“it shall be given you in the very hour, yea, in the very moment, what ye shall say.”  This was starting to be redundant!!!  The Lord keeps saying the same thing over and over.  The missionaries have to do a few things –open their mouths, have a spirit of meekness, do it in the name of Christ.  He said, “You don’t need to WORRY so much about what you will say!  You just have to trust that God will fill your mouths with the right things to say.  Then (v.8), the Holy Ghost will bear testimony of the truth of what you say.”  He then said, “Maybe these verses aren’t given so much to teach us what to do, but to learn how He works.  Maybe He is willing to help us more than we know. “

Next, he told a story of meeting a lady and striking up a conversation with her. It struck him that she would make a great Relief Society sister, so he told her about Relief Society. It turned out that she needed friends and she thought it sounded like a great  idea.  She asked him where and when they met.  He told the elders and sisters, “You can expect God to put things in your mind. You won’t even know it is revelation.  That is how things work in the Kingdom of God.”

He asked us, “What if I just acted upon the thoughts that came into my mind because I expect revelation?” (D&C 8:2-3) He quoted Preach My Gospel, page 88.  “As you study the scriptures and treasure up in your mind the doctrine in these lessons, the Spirit will give you in the very hour what you should say and do to help others receive a witness of the truthfulness of the teachings.” He told them, “God will help you as you try to recognize the Spirit.  That’s how things work in the kingdom of God.”  He made the point that sometimes we don’t even know we are receiving revelation.  He assigned them to read Chapter 4 of Preach My Gospel, “How Do I Recognize and Understand the Spirit?” It starts out:  Joseph Smith said, “Salvation cannot come without revelation; it is in vain for anyone to minister without it.”  Later it says, “The gospel will have a familiar ‘ring’ to them, referring to teaching people the plan of salvation.”  He ended by telling them to “have fun” learning how to discern the spirit of revelation.  We were all inspired.

Concluding Thoughts

President and Sister Nelson have invited all of us to be part of the great work of gathering Israel. This address was directed to the youth worldwide, but it can apply to every one of us.

Now, we would like to talk with you about the greatest challenge, the greatest cause, and the greatest work on earth. And we want to invite you to be part of it!

These surely are the latter days, and the Lord is hastening His work to gather Israel. That gathering is the most important thing taking place on earth today. Nothing else compares in magnitude, nothing else compares in importance, nothing else compares in majesty. And if you choose to, if you want to, you can be a big part of it. You can be a big part of something big, something grand, something majestic!

When we speak of the gathering, we are simply saying this fundamental truth: every one of our Heavenly Father’s children, on both sides of the veil, deserves to hear the message of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. They decide for themselves if they want to know more.

The Lord told the Prophet Joseph Smith that now, meaning our day, is the eleventh hour and the last time that He will call laborers into His vineyard for the express purpose of gathering the elect from the four quarters of the earth.

My question tonight to every one of you . . . is this: Would you like to be a big part of the greatest challenge, the greatest cause, and the greatest work on earth today? Would you like to help gather Israel during these precious latter days? Would you, who are the elect, be willing to help find the elect who have not heard the message of the restored gospel? Would you like to be among those “swift messengers” of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke?

Just think of the excitement and urgency of it all: every prophet commencing with Adam has seen our day. And every prophet has talked about our day, when Israel would be gathered and the world would be prepared for the Second Coming of the Savior. Think of it! Of all the people who have ever lived on planet earth, we are the ones who get to participate in this final, great gathering event. How exciting is that!