“South African Area Conference Inspires Thousands,” Ensign, Dec. 1978, 50–53
On a cold, drizzly, December morning in 1973, hundreds of leaders of the Church in South Africa gathered outside the mission home to share a moment of rededication with one of the Lord’s chosen servants. Missionary work had been struggling, and growth was unacceptably slow.
The visitor that eventful day was Spencer W. Kimball, then president of the Quorum of the Twelve. He had accepted the invitation of the mission president to rededicate the “great land of South Africa” to the preaching of the gospel, the conversion of the people, and the transformation of lives.
It’s not hard to understand the joy and gratitude of the Saints in South Africa and Rhodesia when they learned that this same man would return to Johannesburg—this time as president of the Church—to conduct the first area conference in that part of the world.
On October 23 and 24, President Kimball and other General Authorities spoke to an estimated 3,400 Saints and friends who gathered in Johannesburg in sweltering heat to hear the counsel of their leaders. The conference was the first in a series of area conferences in South Africa and South America, culminating with the dedication of the Sao Paulo Temple in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The Johannesburg area conference was the first ever held in South Africa, and it was the first time anyone could recall more than one General Authority being in the nation at one time. It came one week after the Johannesburg South Africa Stake had been divided to form the Sandton South Africa Stake, the second on the continent.
The area conference was held in the Film Trust Arena, a permanently installed circus-type tent, the only facility in Johannesburg large enough to accommodate such a gathering. The five General Authorities who spoke were President Kimball; President N. Eldon Tanner, first counselor in the First Presidency; Elder Gordon B. Hinckley of the Quorum of the Twelve; Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Presidency of the First Quorum of the Seventy; and Elder James A. Cullimore, an emeritus member of the First Quorum of the Seventy. They delivered powerful sermons to attentive congregations during two general sessions, a priesthood session, and a meeting for mothers and daughters.
President Kimball urged the Saints to be receptive to the promptings of heaven. “Revelation can come to every good, faithful man who holds the priesthood of God, and to every good woman who is the matron in her own home. The Lord will give you the answer to your questions and to your prayers if you are listening,” President Kimball said. “It doesn’t have to come only through the prophet, who is approved by the people of the Church; but all people, if they are worthy enough, close enough to the Lord, can have revelation.”
President Tanner recounted some of the great prayers that have been offered by prophets and recorded in scripture. He reminded the assembled Saints that prayer is one of the means by which people receive testimonies of the gospel, and he counseled families to pray together. “Regularly, night and day, kneel down and thank the Lord for the blessings you have received this day, and throughout your life. And in the morning, go to the Lord as a family. Pray to him and ask him to let his blessings attend you during the day, that you might do those things that are right.”
Elder Hinckley told the gathering that while the members felt great strength in their assembled numbers, they would soon return to their small scattered branches and wards and be faced with the loneliness that often accompanies those who live the commandments of God.
“It’s not easy to be virtuous, when all about you there are those who scoff at virtue. It’s not easy to be honest when all about you there are those who would place profit above principle. It’s not easy to be temperate when all about you are those who scoff at sobriety. It’s not easy to be industrious, when those about you do not believe in the value of work. It is not easy to speak in testimony of the divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ to those who would mock him, belittle him, and demean him,” Elder Hinckley said.
Then he promised the congregation: “If we will walk in the light of the gospel, if we will share with others its precious truths, there will be less loneliness, because the Church will grow in numbers, and there will be more of association.”
The Saints heard Elder Maxwell proclaim that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the truth. “There really is a true and living God. There really is a true and living church. There really are true prophets,” Elder Maxwell said. “The acceptance of and conformance to the truth, these central realities, brings true joy because there is a special gladness that goes with the gospel. This joy is very different from the mortal mirth of the worldly who are estranged from the living God, for theirs is a melancholy mirth.
“The jokes by drinkers about drunkenness are but an attempt to mock that which mocks them. Those who boast about their sexual conquests are boasting about that which has conquered them. The choice is ours—between joyful reality and artificiality with its plastic pleasures—a choice which must be made every day, and even every moment. To choose aright, we must know the truth.”
Elder Cullimore testified that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God, prepared through the eternities to restore the gospel. Like any true prophet, Joseph Smith was tried and tested, said Elder Cullimore. He was one whose prophecies came true, and he performed many miracles. “As we bear in mind the great ideas which Joseph Smith brought to the attention of mankind, which he has taught us, we begin to realize why his influence grows with the years.”
As the prayer of the last general session ended, the congregation reverently stood and began singing, “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet.” Then, as President Kimball departed the stand, they tearfully joined in a subdued chorus of “Come, Come, Ye Saints.” They had come to be sustained in their faith, and they felt the exquisite joy of strengthened testimony.
“Every speaker said exactly what we needed to hear,” commented one man as he walked from the hall. Another said, “I thought I was the only one there; they were all speaking directly to me.”
Preparations for the conference had begun long before and went beyond the details of forming committees, reserving facilities, and organizing the program. The people wanted to be prepared spiritually to receive the prophet and other General Authorities, and so many fasted and prayed. This brought a renaissance of spirituality among many members.
The excitement transcended all ages. Six-year-old Lauren Akenhead of Johannesburg and her eleven-year-old sister, Susan, kept asking their mother as the eventful days approached, “Is it today we’re going to sing for the prophet?” Sister Akenhead would answer, “No, not yet.” And since she was responsible for finding housing for some 550 conference visitors, she was thankful for the time left.
Many conference visitors had tight budgets that could not be stretched far enough to pay for expensive hotel rooms. Just two days before the conference was to start, Sister Akenhead (pronounced ache-in-head) jokingly commented, “That’s just what I’ve got—an achin’ head!” But she was glad to help. She had just received a telephone call from two young men serving in the Rhodesian Army in Salisbury, Rhodesia, who had been able to get an unexpected two-day leave and who would need housing during the conference. Soon another call came from a missionary in Rhodesia. He and his companion had just baptized two people, and the new converts wanted to come to Johannesburg to see the prophet. They too would need accommodations.
Many members, and even some nonmembers, responded enthusiastically. In some homes, sleeping bags stretched from wall to wall. Some people gave up their own beds so that their guests might be more comfortable. Seventeen, eighteen, or nineteen guests in one home were not uncommon. And in most instances, food was provided as well.
“It’s costing people so much to come to Johannesburg and us so little to get to conference that we ought to be willing to share the expenses,” said Sister Akenhead.
Maurice Gould and his wife, Denise, were happy to share their home with visitors, and they volunteered for the transportation committee. Brother Gould was anxious to see President Kimball again. After the 1973 prayer of rededication, President Kimball did something at the Johannesburg Stake conference that Brother Gould says he will never forget. In one session, President Kimball had called up all of the deacons, shook their hands, and gave each a one-rand note (the equivalent of a United States dollar) to start their mission funds. Although Brother Gould didn’t receive the handshake or money, the incident made a lasting impression on him. “He’s the friendliest man I know,” Brother Gould said of President Kimball. “And I’m glad he returned to our land.”
Hundreds of other Church members traveled thousands of miles to experience firsthand what Brother Gould had enjoyed—the special feeling one gets in the presence of one of God’s servants.
Johannesburg is near the center of a mission that stretches 1,500 miles through South Africa and Rhodesia. Some of those attending the conference came by air, others by car or bus. But none came with as much drama as the members from Rhodesia, a country engulfed in guerilla war.
Glen Gifford of the Salisbury First Branch loaded his wife and two young daughters into the family car for the eight-hundred-mile journey to Johannesburg. Besides their luggage, the Giffords carried a machine gun for protection in the event of terrorist attack. Traveling through the Rhodesian bush, people formed convoys and were ushered through threatened areas by armed government vehicles.
Sister Pauline Wainwright and five of her six children boarded one of three chartered buses for the trip to the conference. Their bus broke down as it pulled away from the chapel in Rhodesia, and the delay caused the travelers to miss the convoy, which departed only twice a day at specified times. Repairs on the bus took two hours, and to continue on the journey would mean traveling without the protection of the convoy. After a prayer offered by the branch president, the group decided to go on alone, armed with three automatic weapons and the power of faith.
“The Lord asked us to come to Johannesburg, and so here we are,” Sister Wainwright said after the delayed bus arrived safely for the conference.
Brother Gifford spoke with similar faith: “I believe the prophet has a message for the people of Rhodesia in South Africa, and we wanted to be here to hear it. I have great hope in his message.”
Those attending the conference found comfort in President Kimball’s opening comments: “We bring to you our greetings, our blessings, and our great affection. We bring to you this, our innermost feeling, and pray for you. We understand some of the problems that upset you. Our prayers are constantly for you, that the Lord may bring about the blessing that will bring peace and joy and happiness, and your well-being.”
Sister Lena Dicks of the Springs Ward, South Africa, expressed the thought of many who heard the prophet’s message. She found great comfort in the knowledge that President Kimball “prays for peace in these lands and for our individual safety.”
For many, that message of prayer compounded the comfort they received in 1973, when President Kimball offered the prayer of rededication which gave the South African Saints additional hope and a challenge.
He prayed that the Saints would “find interested people,” that the missionaries would be “impressive in their proselyting,” and that “wards and stakes and branches may dot this land, that it will grow in numbers and in power. We look forward to the day, our Father, when all the processes might converge to bring a temple to this land, wherein all the youth and people of this land may have their endowments and the blessings that are available to righteous people.”
Members of the Church in South Africa consider President Kimball’s prayer of rededication one of the most significant events to occur in their nation during the 125 years the Church has been established there.
“I was here as a missionary and in other capacities before President Kimball came here in 1973,” said President E. Dale LeBaron of the South Africa Johannesburg Mission. “There was an unsettled feeling among the members of the Church. President Kimball’s visit had a calming effect. His prayer told them they have a future, and that the kingdom is going to grow. There is a different spirit here now.”
Conference-goers left with a greater awareness of the history of the Church in Africa. The night before the first conference session, visitors saw hundreds of performers from the wards and branches throughout the conference area trace the history of the Church in South Africa in song and dance.
That history began in 1853 when three missionaries from Salt Lake City landed in Capetown after a seven-month journey. They had traveled without purse or scrip, and found themselves in a strange but promising land. The trio met opposition, especially from hostile ministers whose aroused followers made the missionaries the target of rotten eggs and mob violence. But the missionaries persevered with hard work and great faith, and eventually they found converts who became the nucleus of the Church in South Africa.
Today Church membership in South Africa is about 6,500, with 750 in Rhodesia. With the formation of the second South African stake, the Church is experiencing record growth. Missionary work is moving ahead with growing enthusiasm.
As the area conference became history, the Saints returned to their homes with renewed conviction and resolution. They were determined to be better fathers and mothers, more considerate neighbors and friends, better citizens, and more reliable workers in essence, more Christlike, and more willing to share with those about them the truths they had learned.
President Kimball’s rededication of the land in 1973 may have been the turning point of the Lord’s work in that nation. But the area conference of 1978 will be remembered as a time of spiritual refinement. Local Church leaders predict it will be remembered as an event which launched a new phase of growth and maturity for the Church in South Africa, Rhodesia, and the rest of the African continent.