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It’s not unusual for Josephine Bills to get a text message or a phone call from a friend saying, “I saw you in the temple today.”
Bills lives in Eagle Mountain, Utah, but these texts come in from across the world. She is known as the model for the painting, “And Thou Didst Hear Me,” which is displayed in temples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But Bills discovered the most meaningful location when her brother saw the portrait in the Accra Ghana Temple, a place so meaningful because of her namesake.
Bills grandfather, Joseph William Billy Johnson, is known as a pioneer for bringing the church to West Africa.
Johnson first became converted to the church after reading a pamphlet containing the testimony of Joseph Smith, the first prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Oh, I wept when I read the testimony, and I felt the Spirit,” Johnson said in an interview with the Church History Department of the LDS Church. “I became convinced immediately. … So I started reading the books, all the books. I couldn’t stand; I couldn’t sit without sharing.”
He wrote to Salt Lake City and asked for missionaries to come to West Africa, but because of the ban barring black males from holding the priesthood, the request went unfulfilled. For the next 14 years, Johnson and others in West Africa continued to share the gospel.
When the priesthood ban was lifted in 1978, Johnson happened to tune into the radio in time to catch the revelatory announcement.
“I jumped and started crying and rejoicing in the Lord with tears that now is the time that the Lord will send missionaries to Ghana and to other parts of Africa to receive the priesthood,” he said according to a Church History Article. “I was so happy indeed.”
When the missionaries arrived, people flocked to them to receive the long-awaited ordinance of baptism.
“My mom and my aunt were in the line of people waiting to be baptized when the missionaries came,” Bills said.
Johnson was the first branch president of the Cape Coast Branch and later served as patriarch of the Cape Coast Ghana Stake.
“I love that his name was also Joseph,” Bills said. “There’s Joseph Smith and Joseph in Ghana.”
And there’s Josephine Bills.
“I was named after him and with that comes a responsibility to honor his name, to keep doing good and to uphold his name because I was named after such a great man,” Bills said. “A name is not just a name. A name is how you honor your heritage, your family, your line — especially with the name of my grandfather.”
This story was shared with artist Elspeth Young as she did Bills hair prior to Bills modeling for her painting. The story struck Young because Bills had pioneer heritage and the subject of the painting was a pioneer, Jane Elizabeth Manning.
Young first heard Manning’s story while in a class at BYU.
“I was absolutely taken with her faith and her fortitude and her persistence and her testimony,” Young said.
Manning trekked over 800 miles from Connecticut to Nauvoo, Illinois to join the Saints. She lived in the home of Joseph Smith and became one of the first African-American women to enter Utah.
“I wanted to try to communicate, through the visual gifts that I’ve been given, her faith and her devotion to the gospel,” Young said.
Young started to search for a model for the painting. Her son was friends with Bills’ then-fiance (now-husband). When her son saw the wedding invitation on social media, he showed it to his mom.
“We browsed some pictures of Jo and I knew she was one in a million,” Young said.
When Young discovered the story of Bills’ heritage, she knew it was no coincidence. Bills went to Young’s studio where Young photographed her in several poses, including one of Bills kneeling in prayer.
“When my mother saw that pose she said to me that she thought it would be a magnificent temple painting,” Young said.
Young had never submitted a piece for temple consideration, so she began the arduous task of creating a painting that expressed what it means to worship in the House of the Lord.
“At one point when I was finishing the painting I actually painted some roses scattered around her,” Young said. “I really liked the roses themselves but they just interfered with the message of the painting. There was an innate reverence to the piece … so I painted them back out. I do like the simplicity, and therefore the innate purity, that Jo displays within the painting.”
Creating sacred artwork is an honor for Young.
“In our lives we are to live the motto, ‘Holiness to the Lord,’” Young said. “It’s one thing to try and create images that one would hope would express the testimony inscribed on any temple. In my own life I strive to and I hope that my life would reflect ‘Holiness to the Lord.’”
Bills recalls moments when people have approached her and said the painting touched them or made them cry.
“I never thought I would have that much influence or be able to be a part of something that touched someone’s heart,” Bills said. “I’m just humbled at the experience to be able to do it.”
For Bills, it’s another way to honor her grandfather’s name.
“I think my grandfather is heaven just smiling,” Bills said. “The church is still alive and growing strong.”