Church History
The Book of Mormon in Soweto

The Book of Mormon in Soweto

Piet Mafora was making deliveries in Johannesburg one day in 1968 when he first saw a chapel from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was a welcome sight; Piet belonged to a group in Soweto whose members believed in and studied the Book of Mormon, but no one in the group had ever met a Latter-day Saint. The location explained why: the Church was in a white neighborhood but all the study group’s members were black, and this was a time when South African law and culture limited interaction between races.

Despite those barriers, a group member named Moses Mahlangu was determined to make contact. The church building was empty the first time Mahlangu visited, but when he returned he met Maureen van Zyl, a ward member who put him in contact with the mission home. Mahlangu soon met with the mission president and expressed his own and his group’s desires to join the Church and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.

Mission leaders admired Mahlangu’s conviction but worried over how to proceed. Members of Mahlangu’s group were dedicated, and leaders believed that the Church would grow quickly in Soweto once established. But in addition to barriers unique to South Africa, there had been a restriction in the Church since the 1850s on ordaining black men to the priesthood. Unsure how to deal with the challenges of the restriction and pressure from government officials not to have racially integrated congregations, mission leaders asked Mahlangu to wait.

Mahlangu and other group members waited patiently for over a decade. In 1978 President Spencer W. Kimball announced that Saints could be ordained to the priesthood “without regard for race or color,” but in South Africa, obstacles remained. Mission and stake leaders counseled together about how to move forward in the face of government scrutiny and reticence among some white members, including a few local leaders. “We looked at the principles in the Book of Mormon,” stake president Olev Taim noted, observing that Nephites and Lamanites overcame deep divisions to live as brothers and sisters in the gospel.

Moses and Elizabeth Mahlangu

Moses and Elizabeth Mahlangu, circa 1992

By 1980 members in South Africa were prepared to begin the work of establishing a multiracial Church. Across the country, there were more baptisms of black and mixed-race converts than of white converts that year for the first time. In Natal Province, many Indian converts joined the Church. Mahlangu and members of his group were baptized in September.

At first they attended the Johannesburg Ward, waking up at 4:00 a.m. to arrive at church on time. At times, they heard racially or politically insensitive comments in Church. Other times, members’ examples encouraged them, such as when one mother corrected her young son’s inappropriate remark by immediately reminding him, “The Church is for everybody.”

In 1981 a branch was organized in Soweto, with white members like Maureen van Zyl coming into the township to attend alongside the Mahlangus and other black Saints. As they spent time together and listened to one another, they developed lasting friendships, despite the cultural differences that had divided them.