Africa, Anxiety for Ancestors, and Mormon Work for the Dead: Considerations after Jenkins’s Tanner Lecture

By June 13, 2008

In the Tanner Lecture at MHA this year, Philip Jenkins noted the substantial growth of Mormonism in Africa and asked the question: Why hasn’t it done better? After noting that the LDS growth rate is about the same as other Christian denominations, and pointing out that certain characteristics of Mormonism really resonate with African culture, he expressed surprise that it is not growing much faster. One of those characteristics he mentioned is the LDS doctrine of vicarious work for the dead, which really resonates with an African sense of connectedness to and anxiety for ancestors.

I heard something yesterday that really seemed to confirm Jenkins’s connection between African culture and Mormon work for the dead. While my wife and I were doing sealings in the Provo Temple, our sealer, a Dutchman and former mission president who served in Africa, shared a story to illustrate what he saw as the importance of the sealing ordinance [1]. He told us about a Zulu man–he described him as being very tall–he met while he was serving in Africa. Despite mission policy that investigators must attend church for at least a month before baptism, this man insisted that he be baptized the following Saturday. He was so insistent that the missionaries sent him to the mission president. After the president explained to the man the mission policy, the man told the president that he (the president) just did not understand. Then the Zulu man related a dream. He had a dream in which he visited the spiritual world. There he saw his mother but his father was not with her–he was very far away. He asked his mother why she was not with his father and she explained that they were not married there and that they could not be together until they had been sealed in an LDS temple. Explaining that his parents had been apart for many years, the man insisted that he had to be baptized that saturday so he could go to the temple and do the work for his parents so they could finally be together. The mission president agreed; he was baptized that Saturday and confirmed the following day. On monday morning, as our sealer related, the president got a call from the temple saying that a tall man was “banging on the door” insisting that he needed to come in so his parents could finally be together. “You need to teach your people about temple recommends,” the temple staff chided him. Several months later he was able to go to the temple and perform the ordinances and later had another dream in which he saw his father and mother together.

So, Jenkins’s thesis seems to be right, in that respect. But what about his question: Why isn’t Mormonism growing faster? Jenkins suggested two main factors: (1)Drumming and dancing are a major part of African culture and have syncretized with most Christian worship in Africa but they have not been incorporated into LDS meetings; and (2) while many Christian churches have appointed indigenous leadership, the LDS churches in Africa are still very often led by white faces. These two factors, Jenkins suggests, probably account for an average growth rate that could potentially be phenomenal.

I caught rumor, a few days after MHA back in Salt Lake, that after Jenkins’s lecture he was approached by someone in the audience who had served in some leadership capacity in the Church in Africa. He informed Jenkins, or so the rumor goes, that the gradual growth rate in Africa is a very intentional move by the Church, in order to build a strong foundation of trained local leaders who will then be prepared for the phenomenal growth they anticipate in the future.

I, of course, did not hear that conversation (and I hope I got the rumor report right) but found it very much in line with what I perceive to be a somewhat recent emphasis on retention–an emphasis symbolized quite well by the past appointments of Elders Oaks and Holland to the Philippines and Chile.

Jenkins’s comments bring up some very interesting considerations for the global expansion of the LDS Church and point to what may be some of our most significant growing pains.

So my question: How might the growth of the LDS Church in Africa be changing the face of Mormonism? And how are the folks “back home” in the Mormon culture region (or elsewhere in Mormondom) responding to it?

[1] Sealings, in LDS worship, refers to vicarious marriage ceremonies that are performed by proxy on behalf of the dead; these ordinances are only performed in LDS temples. Latter-day Saints believe that these ordinances “seal” couples together in an eternal union.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I would be thrilled to see drumming and dancing be added in some reverential form to Sacrament meetings.

    Comment by etigger — June 13, 2008 @ 9:52 pm

  2. At least in East Africa, “drumming and dancing” have not been incorporated in any signficant way in the myriad Christian services, and it doesn’t seem to be an issue with LDS investigators. The measured growth of the Church in Africa is due mostly to the policy of teaching only those who speak the major colonial language of their area (English for most, French in Ivory Coast/Cameroon/Congo/Madagascar, Portugese in Mozambique and Angola)and building from “centers of strength”. The centers of strength policy prohibits active proselytizing farther than 40 minutes walking distance from an existing chapel.

    It has been quite a few years since a “white face” led a branch or district in East Africa.

    Comment by J. Michael — June 13, 2008 @ 10:42 pm

  3. My son-in-law’s father served as an Area Authority Seventy down in South America a few years ago, and he spoke of the growth problems that led to Elder Holland residing down there for a year. One key issue was that the Church was growing so fast that converts with only a year or so under their belts were having to step up into leadership positions (e.g., bishop). The result was that you had entire wards with little “institutional memory” about how the Church runs, which it turn led to some significant divergence from standard Church policies and practices.

    Given that, it doesn’t surprise me that the Church would have a deliberate “slow growth” policy in Africa to avoid those same problems.

    Also, I don’t expect to see drums and dancing in Sacrament meeting anytime soon, even in Africa — but I could be wrong. 🙂 ..bruce..

    Comment by bfwebster — June 13, 2008 @ 10:43 pm

  4. Concerning the post, I heard the same rumor, but probably because I was there when you heard it.

    #2, thanks for that info. Did you serve/are you serving in those areas?

    Comment by Jared T — June 14, 2008 @ 12:47 am

  5. J. Michael: Thanks for your observations: very interesting and much more substantive than any rumor mongering I can do from here in Utah. How long have you been in Africa? Your observations could really throw a wrench in Jenkins’s thesis, or at least greatly qualify it. I wonder if he observed other parts of Africa; perhaps West Africa? I got the impression that he had spent some time in LDS meetings there.

    bfw: I had the same thoughts; I imagine the policy is probably based on lessons learned elsewhere in the world.

    Comment by stan — June 14, 2008 @ 1:08 am

  6. If I let myself have a gospel hobby, it would be related to temple work and the numinous experiences I have had while researching family history, both for my family and the families of some of those I’ve come across in my professional work (confession: I don’t consider the research and writing complete until the temple work has been done — I don’t often talk about it, but all the people you have ever seen me blog about have been taken to the temple, too, if their families hadn’t already done it). So naturally I responded very well to this part of Jenkins’s talk — that was the best Tanner lecture I have ever heard, not just for this but in its entirety. Stan’s illustration about the Zulu convert connects the Tanner lecture to my personal experience in a way that Jenkins’s himself couldn’t do.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 14, 2008 @ 7:52 am

  7. Well put, Ardis.

    Comment by Randy B. — June 14, 2008 @ 8:04 am

  8. Ardis, your doing the temple work for the people you study is simply awesome. I love that.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — June 14, 2008 @ 8:26 am

  9. I don’t know much about the rumor Stan mentioned one way or the other. I would just note that rapid growth is not always good growth. Sometimes it turns out being very shallow and faddish.

    The Zulu man beating on the temple doors is a good example actually. Zeal without knowledge. Or even necessarily commitment.

    Comment by Seth R. — June 14, 2008 @ 10:18 am

  10. On the other hand, if a good drum accompaniment is the only thing holding us back, why not just buy some drums and get moving?

    Comment by Seth R. — June 14, 2008 @ 10:19 am

  11. My impression during Dr. Jenkins talk (and I agree that it was amazing) was that he was describing something very similar to Christianity in Early America. Enthusiasm, Revivalism and a wild-west style doctrinal innovation. And my thought was, that everything that is appealing to the African seekers are Mormonism’s response to that early American context. I imagined that if they had a Kirtland of their own, the Church would explode with growth. It is just that Kirtland had its own problems, mass apostasy among others. The question then becomes for me: is it possible to begin as a fully formed Church without the Kirtland era growing pains? I guess the Mormon presence in Africa answers that to a certain extent.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 14, 2008 @ 11:33 am

  12. Stan –

    I presided in East Africa for three years, but have been home for almost a year now. The policies I mentioned seemed unfair to me initially, but I soon saw the wisdom and strongly supported them. I have no first-hand experience in West Africa.

    Comment by J. Michael — June 14, 2008 @ 7:08 pm

  13. Ardis: Thanks for sharing your hobbies: very inspiring.

    Seth R: I don’t know that I’d necessarily cite the Zulu man as an example of zeal without knowledge or commitment–without knowledge of a few procedural policies, sure, but I’d say he understands and feels quite deeply the importance of temple work, and that with an urgent literality that I think is much less prevalent among most westerners.

    But I can see your point generally speaking, and it is just as pertinent here in the U.S. Of the people I baptized on my mission here in the states–in classic missionary-guide style, I don’t recall the number but lets see, there were the Jones and the Smiths and…–only a few have stayed actively involved. Retention is a major issue everywhere.

    J. Stapley: Great parallel. The Zulu man’s dream also seems to fit nicely in the early visionary culture, which, of course, has not completely died out but has modified over time here in the States–many people still talk of feeling someone’s presence as they do their work in the temple.

    J. Michael: Thanks again for your observations. Nothing can quite compare to on-the-ground experience.

    Comment by stan — June 15, 2008 @ 2:18 pm

  14. Sorry for coming late to the discussion, Stan. I read it when you posted it, but didn’t get around to commenting until now.

    J. Michael’s contribution to the discussion is encouraging to me. I wonder, though, whether we’re only looking at the issue superficially if we examine it in a white American/black African paradigm. Because of the many (and often competing) tribal affiliations in Africa, it would interesting to examine whether certain tribes are more represented in church leadership/membership. Class also probably factors into this discussion.

    As a hypothetical, are those who come from more Westernized tribes more likely to be bishops or branch presidents or relief society presidents? Because this Westernization is often related to class status, what does this say? And, in the end, class, wealth, and Westernization may very well be nothing but subcategories of “blackness,” which puts us right back where we started at the beginning of the discussion.

    Comment by Christopher — June 16, 2008 @ 11:55 am

  15. One more thought: Though most likely not intentional, I wonder if the church’s rumored intentionally-slowed growth rate might serve as a means of separating it from other Christians in Africa? Jenkins mentioned that religion in Africa (at least missionary religions) are generally categorized into a simple Christian vs. Muslim dichotomy. This intentional growth rate could serve as a means of establishing some boundary markers to differentiate Mormonism from the other Christian denominations also experience rapid growth in Africa.

    Comment by Christopher — June 16, 2008 @ 11:58 am

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