Since 1978, when 19 Africans were baptized members of the LDS Church, more than 270,000 people on that continent have become Latter-day Saints, and the estimate of black membership worldwide is pegged at about 1 million.
Currently, Africa has 46 LDS stakes, 19 missions, 41 districts, 336 wards, 466 branches, three temples and two missionary training centers (in Ghana and South Africa.)
Those numbers are not only cause for celebration, but they will likely grow in the future, according to Elder Sheldon F. Child, a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, reflecting on what has happened to the face of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in three decades since the priesthood was extended to "all worthy males."
On Sunday, the church will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the June 8, 1978, announcement that then-President Spencer W. Kimball had received a revelation lifting a ban on priesthood ordination and thus temple ordinances for black Latter-day Saints worldwide.
The 7 p.m. service in the Tabernacle will feature Elder Child and Elder Earl S. Tingey of the Presidency of the Seventy, along with two stake presidents who preside over several LDS congregations in New Jersey and Atlanta. Tickets for the event are gone, but standby seating will be available on Temple Square.
Elder Child, a former mission president in New York, said he was contacted Thursday night by one of his former missionaries, Phoenix attorney Dustin Jones, who had heard about the event and was asking if he could find tickets. He has made plans to fly in Sunday to attend.
As a missionary in the early '90s, Jones was one of a handful of blacks who served under Elder Child. "He was just a great missionary. He loves the church, he taught the gospel well, he did a great job. He wanted to be here because this is very significant to them."
When told that two stake presidents would be sharing experiences, Jones said he believes there will be many more black Latter-day Saints called to leadership in the church. "He's very upbeat about African Americans becoming stronger in the church," Elder Child said.
The Sunday event is the first of its kind to be sponsored by the church. A local group of black Latter-day Saints, known as Genesis, sponsored a similar event in the Tabernacle five years ago.
The commemoration is another indication of the vast diversity represented by church growth worldwide, Elder Child said, recalling the first time he attended the Queens Ward in New York. "It was like the United Nations," he said, with blacks, Tongans, Hispanics, Indians and Chinese members all working in leadership roles.
"It was my first experience with a large ethnic population directly," Elder Child said, noting that as a Utah native, he hadn't been widely exposed to ethnic diversity. "They all brought their different cultures, and we were all brothers and sisters. It was just a great experience."
He acknowledged that many Latter-day Saints who spend years in Utah don't have the kind of exposure to diversity that can help them be sensitive to, and appreciative of, the richness that is cultivated in areas where the LDS population is more diverse.
"But if they did, they would have the same feelings I do. You just can't help but love the people. The more you get to know different races, the more you realize that we are all Heavenly Father's children, brothers and sisters.
"To be honest, I think we've got a ways to go in Utah because of the lack of diversity. But I can see things improving. The more people of various races move in, I think it will be helpful."
Elder Child said he doesn't recall that his missionaries encountered "any problem with someone asking" about why the priesthood ban existed or the folklore that was used to explain why it endured for almost 150 years within the church.
"When you think about it, that's just what it is folklore. It's never really been official doctrine. I know there have been some misconceptions and some statements made by people in the past, but as Elder (Bruce R.) McConkie said, we've received new and additional light and knowledge through revelation, and even the folklore is obsolete now because of the fact that we have the revelation."
He said he doesn't know of specific efforts to remove erroneous material from LDS publications. Church spokesman Mark Tuttle said the church "can't remove it from our history books, and that's mostly where it is."
"We have to keep in mind that it's folklore and not doctrine," Elder Child said. "It's never been recorded as such. Many opinions, personal opinions, were spoken. I'm just so grateful for this revelation," he said, adding he can recall exactly where he was and what he was doing when he heard the news 30 years ago.
Based on his experience during four years living in West Africa, he said, "We could have baptized a lot more people than we really did. The Lord has prepared the hearts of those people to receive the gospel."
He said the reason more members weren't baptized during his time there was "we couldn't assimilate them into the wards and branches (quickly enough). We didn't want to baptize them and then just have them fall away. Now that the wards and branches are stronger," and have local leadership, he sees continued expansion and strength.
"In Accra, Ghana, the stake there is as strong as any Wasatch Front stake," Tuttle said, adding that the average percentage of church attendance in that region approximates "what you would expect to find in the United States."
How would he respond to those who continue to wonder why the priesthood ban was ever part of LDS practice? Elder Child said he would tell them, "we're all Heavenly Father's children; let's put this behind us and just go forward."I would guess there are close to a million members who are of African descent. That's just an estimate, (the church doesn't record ethnicity on membership records) but I think that it's just going to continue to move forward and grow and grow."