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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.

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Of the three denominations, however, the LDS Church has the grandest, most prestigious headquarters — and the most white Americans involved in its activities.

Its gleaming white temple with gold angel on top looms above Accra’s Independence Avenue, across from the Canadian Embassy on one of the most important streets in the capital. Its manicured lawns and gardens spread across many acres, which also hold an apartment building for temple patrons, a distribution center, an office building, an LDS stake center, and, soon, the country’s Missionary Training Center.

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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Mormon chapels are easily identifiable on Accra’s architectural landscape, being larger and more Bountiful-like than the smaller structures favored by Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Seeing the size and style of the LDS buildings, some call Mormonism "the rich church," presuming that it teaches the "prosperity gospel" — that God blesses the righteous with earthly wealth — or gives handouts to new converts.

It doesn’t, though that perception persists, thanks to Mormonism’s standardized chapels.

Mormonism may be growing the fastest, but Jehovah’s Witnesses are more numerous and widespread.

"They are more aggressive about opening new areas," says Matt Martinich, a researcher in Colorado Springs who tracks worldwide growth of these churches. "They send members to a new city where there isn’t a Witness presence and give them the commission to start a new church."

Mormons, on the other hand, follow a "centers of strength" strategy. Their missionaries focus on cities where most members live, which sometimes slows the religion’s spread to rural regions.

Adventists reach out via large gatherings and a television ministry.

All three denominations are involved in what Carl Raschke describes as "infrastructure evangelism."

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"They will go in and build schools and churches and development projects that the people desperately need," says Raschke, a religious studies expert at the University of Denver who has written about Christianity in Africa. "Well-constructed buildings have an element of prestige."

Plus, these faiths tap into long-standing community relationships, extended families and traditions.

"Africans are not as individualistic as we are," he says. "They are tribal in terms of faith preferences."

Growth really depends, he says, on which missionary gets there first.

That would be the Adventists.

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Advent of Adventists • Adventist missionaries arrived in Ghana in 1888, and almost immediately found potential converts, especially in rural areas.

They discovered the Ashanti tribe, which coincidentally believed God was born on Saturday — the Adventists’ holy day and most distinctive doctrine.

Now, some 60 percent of Ghanaian Adventists are Ashanti, explains Solace Asafo-Hlordzi, communication director for the denomination’s Southern Ghana Union Conference.

All it takes to be baptized is to accept Christ as your personal savior, she says, and to attend a Bible studies class.

Such conversions often happen after one of the faith’s "crusades," during which a pastor might gather crowds at an outdoor location and spell out Adventist beliefs every night for two weeks. At the end of his presentation — Adventist clerics in Africa, like Witness elders and Mormon bishops, are always men — onlookers are invited to come forward and declare their Christian awakening.

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Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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