After a boom in West Africa, LDS Church finds increasing acceptance in the east

Once shunned as cultic and anti-Christian, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has converted not only thousands of Africans but also collaborated with Africa’s historic denominations, including Muslims.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle Gary E. Stevenson visits with a mother at the Makuburi Health Center in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024. The Church is assisting with the expansion of the hospital to assist women and children.

Nairobi, Kenya • When missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints arrived in this mostly Christian East African nation 44 years ago, they were met with suspicion and some hostility. While many Christian churches urge their faithful to evangelize, Latter-day Saint missionaries were more aggressive, going door to door and even approaching people on the street.

Other Christian groups shunned Latter-day Saints as cultic and anti-Christian. In particular, they disapproved of the faith’s rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity, in which God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are believed to be three persons in one deity.

“Their mode of evangelism and doctrine were viewed by mainstream churches as veering away from the evangelical mainstream doctrine,” said the Rev. Martin Munyao, a senior lecturer at the Daystar University in Kenya.

But while the Rev. John Gatu, an educator in the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, agreed that Christians considered Latter-day Saints to fall outside the faith because of its non-Trinitarian doctrine, he said, “there is a generation which is looking for something different.”

Indeed, the Utah-based church, which gained legal approval from the Kenyan government to operate as a religion in 1991, is finding wide acceptance and now has 57 congregations and two missions in the country.

On Sunday, apostle Gary E. Stevenson ended a visit to Africa with a news conference in Kenya, where he said church membership had passed 20,000.

After a surge in membership through the 1980s, the church maintained double-digit percentage growth in several African countries in the past decade, during which time the membership has more than doubled, according to church sources. Nigeria has produced the most converts in that time, and in the western part of the continent as a whole, the church now counts more than 450,000 members.

“Missionaries who serve in Kenya (are) having converts into the church,” Stevenson said. “As we do that and the church continues to grow, continues to have congregations, we will build many houses to accommodate the congregations.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle Gary E. Stevenson and his wife, Lesa, shake the hands of missionaries of the Tanzania Dar es Salaam Mission in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024.

Part of their success, said Munyao, comes from a decline in evangelism by other Christian denominations in recent years, clearing the field for Latter-day Saint missionaries.

But Latter-day Saint congregations in Kenya have also found increasing acceptance among the churches that once shunned them, as well as with other faith groups, including Muslims, who make up some 6% of the population.

“They have supported some of our events, and we have used their venues for our events. We have invited them to our events,” said Rahman Ismail, executive director of the Interreligious Council of Kenya, who noted that Latter-day Saints had not yet joined the council.

In 2017, the church announced the construction of a temple in Nairobi, which is expected to be completed in 2026, according to general authority Seventy Ian S. Ardern, president of the church’s Africa Central Area, a group of 17 countries that includes Kenya. Temples are reserved for special worship events, while congregations’ weekly worship services occur in meetinghouses.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) An aerial view of the Nairobi Temple, the faith's first in Kenya, on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024.

The temple campus will include apartments, “so that people who come can stay for a period of time and participate in the ordinances of the temple,” Ardern explained. “In the temple, you will find the peace that Christ spoke about.”

In Kenya, as in the rest of Africa, the denomination carries out humanitarian and disaster relief work, supporting health, water access, and education and food programs.

Last year, the church launched more than a dozen educational projects focused on public primary schools, said Dennis Mukasa, the church’s regional humanitarian manager and president of the Nairobi Kenya East Stake, which includes a number of congregations. The program aims to improve classrooms and general school infrastructure while providing sanitation facilities under the acronym WASH, for water, sanitation and hygiene. Where they can, Latter-day Saint leaders in Africa look to work with existing governmental and nongovernmental agencies.

With Kenya’s ongoing drought, now deemed the worst in 40 years, the church is distributing food supplies to 40,000 households, alongside organizations such as the Red Cross.

Munyao said the church has prospered through this evident concern for the needs of Kenyans. “They are very much attuned to development, appeal to humanism,” he said, “and have an attachment to what is happening in the real world.”

At the news conference, Stevenson responded to questions about the church’s peacemaking, its humanitarian work and LGBTQ issues.

His tour had taken him to other countries in the Africa Central area, including war-torn Congo. He appealed for peace there, as well as in Sudan and Gaza.

“As we look at the conflicts,” the apostle said, “we hope leaders of the world will be touched in a way that they will try to find peace, and the people will do all that they can to love their neighbors.”

Like other Western faith leaders, Stevenson addressed the question of the LGBTQ in the church, saying that Jesus Christ welcomes all without any condition.

“There is no condition … of race, of ethnicity, of sexuality, of social economics or gender, all are welcomed to him,” he said. “So we strive to find a peaceful measure of love, of equality, of inclusion.”