The first African-American General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Elder Peter M Johnson, has been assigned to lead the England Manchester Mission (EMM) with his wife Sister Stephanie Johnson from July 2020 through June 2022. They succeed former EMM President Stuart N McReynolds and Sister Sheryl McReynolds.
While it is not typical for General Authorities to serve as mission presidents, it is not unheard of for them to be assigned in this capacity. Since 1975, twelve sitting General Authorities have been called to serve in this role.
Elder Dieter F Uchtdorf, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and chairman of the Missionary Executive Council, said in a May 2020 Church News article that there are benefits for the person and to the Church to have General Authorities serve as mission presidents.
“They come back with a wonderful pool of wisdom and experience, which will help us and the Church altogether to become better in how we serve our missionaries, how we better serve our mission presidents, how we better connect members and missionaries, the member leaders — stake presidents, bishops — and the mission leadership out there in the field,” said Elder Uchtdorf.
President and Sister Johnson were set to begin their service in July 2020, but their arrival was delayed nearly seven weeks waiting for their visas to be processed during the unprecedented circumstances surrounding Covid-19.
“We are humbled by and grateful for the legacy of faith and the foundation of righteousness that exists throughout the United Kingdom,” said President Johnson to listeners at their first, ‘Why I Believe’ online devotional in September.
Even during their two-week self-isolation in England when they arrived, the Johnsons were busy engaging with each of the EMM missionaries via Zoom.
“It was amazing to feel instant love and gratitude for each missionary in the Manchester Mission,” said Sister Johnson. “That is the miracle of serving God and one another.”
The Johnsons oversee the work and training of more than 110 missionaries from about 20 countries across the world.
“Our vision is simply this, to become and help others become true disciples of Jesus Christ and enjoy the blessing of the holy temple,” said President Johnson. “This will be accomplished as we invite others to come unto Christ by helping them receive the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.”
President Johnson’s journey to Christianity began early on. His father associated with the Baptist faith; his mother with Jehovah’s Witnesses, and a belief in God was part of his home life. As a teen growing up in New York City, he joined the Nation of Islam and became Muslim. He said that this experience helped him to recognise the importance of spirituality in his life and prepared him later to come to know Jesus Christ and become a member of the Church. Later, as a young man, President Johnson served a full-time mission in the Alabama Birmingham Mission in the United States.
Prior to his call as a General Authority Seventy, President Johnson worked in higher education.
Before that, he was employed by an international accounting firm. He holds a PhD in accounting from Arizona State University and was a tenured associate professor at the University of Alabama (UA) teaching undergraduate and graduate courses. While there he also conducted academic research in financial reporting and firm valuation. In addition, President Johnson previously served as the director of diversity and inclusion initiatives for UA’s Culverhouse College of Business and was also president of the diversity section of the American Accounting Association.
When asked about racism and the civil unrest that exists in society President Johnson said, “We can't fight hate with hate. We must look to love to have peace and harmony; and be willing to make a sacrifice ourselves to make that happen. Racism is a chronic, and for some a self-inflicted disease, whose symptoms can be mitigated through a variety of remedies and programmes. But it can only be cured with a true understanding of what it means to love God with all our heart, mind and strength, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.”
He continued, “We need to be kind to one another and accept each other’s differences. The Lord loves diversity, if he didn’t, he would have created everything exactly the same. The Lord also loves oneness, inclusiveness and belonging This is our Father in Heaven’s design and that’s why he placed us here on earth with different opportunities, backgrounds, cultures, nationalities and differences; so that we can all come together and through Christ, lift each other up.”
“This may sound like a dream, but it is possible. It takes humility and faith. It takes wanting to learn and understand one another; knowing that it’s okay to disagree but not be disagreeable. We have to figure out a way – we can do it – we have to,” President Johnson said.
The Johnsons both played collegiate basketball and met each other while attending Southern Utah University (SUU). They have been married for more than 30 years, and shared insight on how as a bi-racial couple they keep their marriage strong and help others overcome prejudice.
“Did we have times that we felt people were not kind? Maybe, but we made a commitment to each other when we first got married that we weren’t going to let other people’s problems become ours,” said Sister Johnson.
“I think there is a lack of understanding, but we look to God with hope and that’s the greatest thing of all,” President Johnson said. “So, while there are those who have challenges with racism or other concerns, we are here to love them and help them look inside a person without judging.”
Sister Johnson holds two bachelor’s degrees; one in biology and one in nursing. She worked in maternity care for many years and later decided to dedicate all her efforts to raising their family. The Johnsons have been blessed with four children, a son-in-law and a new grandchild. Their two daughters, Whitney and Kiana followed in the footsteps of their parents, attending SUU and playing basketball for the university. Their son Aaron is currently attending university and their youngest son Micah is serving a mission in Minnesota while waiting for his visa to go to Madagascar, where he was originally called. During the next two years, the family plans to video chat often and stay connected until they are reunited.
Elder Johnson formerly served in a variety of roles: Area Seventy in the North America Southeast Area, stake (similar to a diocese) president, bishopric counsellor, mission leader and president of the young men’s group for his congregation. Sister Johnson previously served as a counsellor in Relief Society (women’s organisation), counsellor in the presidency of the young women’s organisation at the ward (local congregation) and stake levels, and as a teacher for Relief Society and Primary (children’s organisation).
President and Sister Johnson are happy to be in England. In the short time they have been here, they have taken up a new hobby of learning more about British history and enjoying the beauty of the countryside, as time permits.