Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Conversion of Ebenezer Bentsil Elegba

Early on a Monday morning in April, 1967 on a busy street corner overlooking the Rhine and Neckar rivers in the city of Mannheim, Germany, Ebenezer Bentsil Elegba approached our missionary street display of the Book of Mormon and the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. He began asking questions.

I was occupied talking to two young men, so he spoke my companion, Elder Bruce Smith in broken German. Elder Smith had been in the country for nearly a full week. He was having difficulty understanding and speaking German to our black, well dressed visitor. When I got a moment, I suggested to Elder Smith that he might try English, since I guessed that the man was either from the United States or Africa where English is widely spoken. My companion’s knowledge of English seemed to fail him at that moment.

I greeted the five-foot-tall black man by shaking his hand and introducing myself and my companion. He told us his name, which I soon forgot, and asked if we had any materials in English. He seemed to be very curious and sincere, and spoke English impeccably. I told him we had an English copy of the Book of Mormon back at our apartment and gave him directions to get there if he would like to come pay us a visit later on that evening.

It was a long day and I forgot about the incident until about 10:30 pm when our land lady knocked on our door. With a frightened look on her face she gestured to the front door of the apartment house, suggesting that we might have a visitor.

I opened the door and there in the darkness stood the man we had encountered earlier in the day. We invited him in, retrieved a copy of the Book of Mormon in English, and a pamphlet of the Joseph Smith Story. While standing there with him in our pajamas, we handed him the materials and challenged him to read them, and to pray about their truthfulness. We assured him that the Lord would manifest the truth of them to him if he was sincere.

He accepted the challenge and on the spot dropped to his knees and began to pray for a testimony. When he arose he asked, “Now what should I do?” We encouraged him to go and study the materials, and then return for further instruction.

Three or four weeks later he returned with a thoroughly studied Book of Mormon and requested baptism. I had the privilege of baptizing him on Friday, the 9th of June 1967 in the baptismal fount at our chapel in Mannheim, Germany.

Ebenezer at his baptism June 9, 1967

Ebenezer Bentsil Elegba was one of 40 grandsons of King Elegba, one of the last chiefs of the Fanti Tribe in West Africa. He was born August 21, 1932 at the village of Ajumako in the Central Region of Ghana. There he grew up, then moved to the nearby city of Abura Dunkwa, capital of the Abura-Asebu-Kwamankese district. He was appointed to the office of chief for the city, and would later be elected king of his district in 1977. His official title was Nana Bentsil I. His extended family ran the government of Ghana, but had limited financial means of support to do so. They owned several hotels which was their principal means of income to run the government.

The British disruption of tribal governments of the Fanti and other tribes in West Africa had set the region in chaos in the late 1800’s. Members of the seven major tribes were all mixed together and were struggling to get food to sustain their lives. Their languages, religions and culture were severely threatened. In an effort to restore order chiefs were installed in villages, and kings in provinces following World War II, and all were required to speak English, and belong to a Christian religion.

By 1967 the countries of Ghana and Nigeria were composed of approximately one third Methodists, a third Catholics or Baptists, and a third Muslims. Most spoke English, but retained usage of their own tribal languages.

Ebenezer accepted a special assignment as a member of the council of chiefs to be ambassador for his country to Germany, and was sent there to try to obtain financial backing to reopen the diamond mines that had been closed by the British during World War II.

His first task after arriving in Germany was to learn German, and something about the German Government in order to determine how best to go about his task. He enrolled in a college course there but was drawn to religious courses as well. He had been educated in Methodist and Catholic parochial schools in Ghana as a young man, and viewed his mission to Germany in spiritual as well as temporal terms.

We began teaching him the discussions, and I contacted the mission president for direction. He told us to continue teaching him and to keep him informed on how things went.

In the course of teaching Ebenezer we learned that he had been appointed to an elite Bible Commission whose assignment was to translate the Bible into the seven major languages of West Africa. He had received first place in a nationwide scripture mastery contest when he was 13. By the time he was 17 he had read the Bible through completely three times. Both the Methodist and Catholic clergy wanted him to study to become a minister or priest. He declined the Catholic offer for reasons I will give hereafter, and also the Methodist offer because he felt the ministers were drunken and corrupt. He longed to teach the scriptures however, and sometimes traveled to various schools to teach the Gospel. He felt his appointment to the Bible commission was truly from God. The Commission completed translations for three of the tribal languages, including his own Fanti language, before it was discontinued.

As we concluded teaching him the missionary discussions, we felt impressed to cover two additional topics that were not emphasized with other converts. The first was polygamy, and the role it played in Church history, and the second was Blacks and the Priesthood, and the role that would play in his life.

We decided to cover polygamy first. After we explained the doctrine and how it has been practiced and rescinded with a revelation to the prophet, Ebenezer replied that our explanation was consistent with the Bible and the Book of Mormon. In his earlier years he was a practicing Methodist, but the Catholic Church desired that he become a Priest in their denomination. His knowledge of the Bible impressed them, and they asked him to prepare a defense of Monogamy from the Bible. This would be used to counteract the strong Muslim proselyting encroachments in West Africa. Muslims can have up to four wives if they qualify in their religion. He lost respect for the Catholic Church in this matter because that doctrine and their position unfortunately could not be proved from the Bible.

Next we approached the subject of the Priesthood and the then current restriction of Blacks with regard to it. We rehearsed the historical restrictions of the Priesthood from the time of the Levites, and read out of the Pearl of Great Price concerning Abraham’s visit to Egypt in which the doctrine of the Priesthood is further explained. We stated clearly that currently in the Church, Blacks were not given the Priesthood. Then I asked him what he thought of this whole matter, to which he replied: “I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that this is the right Church. I must also accept this. I want to be a member of the true Church of God that has true prophets.” After teaching him all the missionary lessons, and these additional doctrines, he was anxious to be baptized, and we felt that he was ready. We asked the mission president for permission to baptize him, to which he agreed.

Ebenezer and Missionaries Steven Blodgett & Bruce Smith, Mannheim, 1967

President Cecil Broadbent wanted to meet this unusual convert from Africa, so he asked us to arrange for Brother Elegba to travel to Frankfurt to meet with him prior to his return home to Ghana. This he did, and the mission president assured him that even though he could not hold the priesthood, he could still be a missionary, for every member was to be a missionary.

Three weeks after his return to Ghana, Nana Bentsil I sent me a letter asking for missionaries to be sent to Ghana to help him teach and baptize converts. He explained that he had 34 people in his office that wanted to be baptized and he told them that authorized missionaries with the priesthood would have to come and baptize them.

I forwarded his letter to my mission president, who in turn forwarded it to the Church Missionary Department. He was told that the time was not right for missionaries to go to Africa. I conveyed the news back to Ghana, and wished him continued faithfulness and promised that the Lord would hear his prayers.

The next letter I received in November, 1967 from Ebenezer arrived just before I returned home to Utah from the mission field. In this letter he explained that he had approximately 2,000 people ready for the gospel. He had organized them into congregations and appointed teachers and leaders over them. He again asked for missionaries to be sent, and said they were anxious to be baptized by priesthood authority, and organized as we were elsewhere in the Church.

After I arrived home to Utah, I took the letter downtown to the Church offices. My cousin Lola Gygi worked there as a secretary to the First Presidency of the Church, and I asked her opinion about who I should talk to. She was surprised to see me, and asked, “Are you one of those people making trouble for the Church?” I said, “No, I hope not!” This was a time in Church history when protests were being staged against the Church for its policy regarding Blacks and the Priesthood. Black armbands were worn by athletes when competing against BYU, picketers were marching around Temple Square holding signs, and numerous news stories occupied local and national audiences regarding the subject. I was told to go home and that the Church did not want to comment on the matter.

My Dad suggested we should send copies of the Book of Mormon to Africa to assist Ebenezer in his efforts. I agreed and we sent many boxes of materials to his address in Abura Dunkwa, Ghana. Included were copies of the Book of Mormon, missionary tracts, lesson manuals, Church news and Church magazines. He replied that he was grateful for the materials and they were used extensively and distributed to all who where interested. We sent several more shipments over the next few months. I tried to explain to him the situation as best I could, but I sensed that he was becoming impatient and was not satisfied with my answers.

I didn’t hear from him for two years, although we heard news reports about activity in Ghana and Nigeria regarding thousands of people who had somehow learned of the Church, had scriptures and other Church literature and were meeting and calling themselves adherents to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In the next letter I received from him in 1977 he indicated that he would be traveling to the United States to try to obtain funding for more mining activities in Ghana. He also informed me that the Church was growing and approximately 4,000 members had been baptized and were actively attending meetings and classes taught by him and James Johnson who he had called to preside over the various congregations. Ebenezer had been promoted to King of his region and it was difficult for him to keep up with those responsibilities and to administer the Church also. He again expressed concern that missionaries had not been sent to Africa.

The revelation to President Spencer W. Kimball was received in June, 1978. In a letter to Church Priesthood holders and members sent on June 9, 1978 he announced that "the day had finally arrived when all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color." This was 11 years to the day since Ebenezer was baptized a member of the Church in Mannheim in 1967.

I immediately sent a letter to Ebenezer with the good news. I invited him to come to Salt Lake City if he were ever in the country again. He replied by return letter that he would be in United States the following year (March, 1979), so we made arrangements for his visit.

Ebenezer and wife Hanna 1979, Angie and Dad, Sandy, Utah

It was a joyous day when he arrived at the airport dressed in his royal warerobe, together with his wife Hanna. We took him to our humble home and my parents graciously offered to have him to stay in their large guest room at their home for his stay in Utah. Now we learned more of what had transpired over the past 11 years since his baptism and conversion to the Gospel in Germany, and after his return to Ghana. We learned of his love for the Lord and His Church, and of his determination to bring the Gospel to his native countrymen despite all obstacles. Despite his involvement with politics and appointment to political offices, he felt his appointment from the Lord to preach the gospel was primary in his life.

He the other leaders began to baptize in preparation for the missionaries they hoped would soon come. His initial congregation in Accra consisted of 600. He had been told that it was not possible to send missionaries into the country, and when he realized that his baptisms were not valid, “many became discouraged”, he said, but others did not falter. They held Sunday School to study the Book of Mormon and Sunday School manuals, organized a Primary and Relief Society, fasted on Fridays and prayed together on the beach Friday evenings before breaking their fast. The first congregation was in Accra and the second in Cape Coast. Brother Bentsil also established a Mormon Kindergarten with 250 students, and in 1976 a secondary school that then had 96 students; a popular system in a country where many of the schools are run by churches.

Ebenezer and Hanna in 1979 at our home in Sandy, Utah

The first missionaries to be sent to Ghana following the June revelation to President Kimball, were Rendall and Rachel Mabey and Edwin Q. and Joan Cannon. They arrived in Nigeria in December 1978 as special representatives of the Church International Mission and had remarkable success, baptizing hundreds of members and establishing 27 branches in Nigeria and Ghana. The Reverend James Johnson, now Brother Johnson, in whose charge he left the schools and Sunday schools, has been traveling with them. President Kimball reported to regional representatives in 1979 that there had been 430 baptisms in Ghana already with 483 baptisms in Nigeria.

Brother Bentsil’s time consuming schedule as Regional King and as consultant to the U.S. government on developing Ghana industries frustratingly kept him out of the country when the missionaries were there.
He recounted to us of the conversion of his wife and children to the Church and her difficulty at first in leaving the Methodist tradition she grew up in. She admired the strict teachings of morality in the Mormon Church and this led to her full conversion to the Gospel. “This one thing is of the greatest need in our country,” she stated.

Nana Bentsil I, 1979 visit to Salt Lake City

His visit to General Conference in the Tabernacle on Temple Square in April of 1979 was a highlight, chronicled in the Church News, together with photos of him in his native royal robes. In the days following the conference I accompanied him to interviews with Elder Jacob de Jager, head of the Missionary department, with Church news and Church Ensign reporters and writers who were anxious to hear his story and report the amazing account of his conversion and efforts to bring the Gospel to West Africa.

Steve Blodgett

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful and inspirational story! Thanks for sharing it.