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Why Mormonism, U.S.-born faiths are growing in Ghana

Strict teachings, missionary zeal, community spirit turn Africans into Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists and Latter-day Saints.

First Published May 30 2014 03:55 pm • Last Updated Jun 02 2014 10:16 am

Accra, Ghana • Evidence of Christianity’s hold on this West African nation is everywhere — from Jesus Furniture Works and Rock of Ages Hair Salon to With God All Things Are Possible Fashion Designs and slogans such as "trust and obey" or "God never fails" painted on taxi windows.

It’s on the towering cross over Christ the King Catholic Church and in the sounds of religious exuberance blaring into the streets nearly every morning and evening. Believers pour into storefront sanctuaries to worship with New Heaven Prosperity Ministry, Power of Faith Worldwide and even the Ghana Police Church.

At a glance

Project support

Tribune reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack and her husband, photographer Michael Stack, traveled to Ghana as fellows for the Washington, D.C.-based International Center for Journalists, whose program to promote global excellence in religion coverage is supported by the Henry Luce Foundation.

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Thrown into this eclectic mix are three American-born versions of the ancient faith — Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventism — each claiming to strip away centuries of tradition to practice a purer, more Bible-based brand of Christianity.

All three faiths emerged in the 19th century at a time of religious upheaval and fervent millennial anticipation in the eastern U.S. — each preaching a coming apocalypse and the return of Jesus in the flesh. All three exist outside the boundaries of historic Christianity, though Adventists, with their paid clergy and Protestant-like organization, come closest to it.

They have found ways and means to explain Christ’s delayed return, and developed tools for surviving into and beyond the 21st century — and in settings far from where they began. All have zealous missionary efforts, attracting followers to distinctive brands of Christian worship, beliefs and practices. They baptize by immersion and eschew alcohol and tobacco.

Of course, each insists its own version is the "one and only true church."

Meanwhile,other Christians and observers can see that these three denominations quietly are growing in number, visibility and influence across Africa — and particularly in Ghana.

These days, you can see neatly dressed Witnesses going house to house, clutching their Bibles on the red dirt roads of Accra. Then there are pairs of young Mormon missionaries — one of whom is often American — in white shirts and dark pants, sweltering on street corners in front of giant posters proclaiming "Families Are Forever." And how about all those well-mannered Adventists, consistently filling their pews on Saturday, while others work or play?

The country not only abides these newcomers, in recent years, it also has welcomed them.

"Every Christian has tactics for winning souls for their church," says Kingsley Darko, an elder with the Ghana-based Church of Pentecost who now lives in Utah.

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Witnesses and Mormons, for example, "have time to go out and reach people," Darko says. "I like it."

He doesn’t share the Adventists’ view of the Sabbath or shunning meat, but he believes that church’s emphasis on learning and health has made a positive contribution to the nation.

"Sometimes we have lots of arguments," Darko says, "and then we laugh and disperse."

Everybody, he says, "thinks there is good in other faiths."

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Faith-drenched demographic • Ghana, though economically depressed, is a relatively stable country on the continent, with strong protections for religious freedom in its constitution and no objection to proselytism.

More than 70 percent of Ghanaians are Christians, according to the 2010 census. The largest group, as elsewhere, hails from the Pentecostal or charismatic movement, with 28 percent of the country’s 25 million people. Next come mainline Protestants, including Anglicans, at 18.4 percent, followed by Catholics with 13 percent. Muslims make up about 17 percent of the population.

Of the three American-born faiths, the Adventists arrived first — 126 years ago — and boast the biggest membership at nearly 400,000 and 1,243 congregations. They have built 916 schools, 13 hospitals and 12 clinics throughout the country.

Jehovah’s Witnesses came in 1924 and have more than 100,000 members — three times that many attend their annual conventions in Ghana — with more than 1,000 congregations. The church could use an additional hundred "kingdom halls," or meetinghouses, because it baptizes an average of 114 people a week, Ghanaian Witnesses say.

Mormons began evangelizing in earnest in 1978 after the Utah-based faith ended its centurylong ban on men of African descent in the church’s all-male priesthood (though scores of Ghanaians had read LDS materials and thought they were already members before that).

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reports more than 57,000 Ghanaians on its rolls, but the number attending is less than 50 percent of that, according to LDS officials there.

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