The Problems of the Great Apostasy

One the bed-rock doctrines of Mormonism (to the extent that we have any bed-rock doctrines) is that the church set up by Christ fell away from the true gospel, lost its priesthood authority, and slipped into apostasy. It seems to me that we have two fundamental problems with the doctrine of the Great Apostasy.

The first problem is historical. We need, it seems to me, to be able to tell a plausible historical story about how the Great Apostasy occurred. Traditionally, Mormons have told this story in two ways. First, we have a story of radical discontinuity between the apostalic church and the church after the death of the apostles. Second, and more prominently, we have the story of the Hellenization of the Gospel. Here we are largely borrowing, as I understand it, from the work of 19th century German historians, especially Adolph von Harnack. As I understand it, Harnack told a story of a pristine Christianity that in some sense became corrupted by Greek philosophy, which accounted for much of the subsequent theological tradition. Not surprisingly, Harnack’s history had a political agenda. He was a liberal protestant, interested in breaking with much of the tradition that his work was meant to subtlely label as inauthentically Christian. It turns out, of course, in Harnack’s work the early Christians were all liberal protestants. Mormon scholars, beginning with B.H. Roberts and culiminating with Hugh Nibley have grapsed onto this basic narrative, pushed a version of it in which the discontinuities are even more striking and have found, of course, that the early Christians, far from being liberal protestants, were all, in fact, Mormons. Making sense of these divergent strands of thinking in some sort of intellectually respectable way is one challenge.

The second big challenge of the Great Apostasy is essentially theological, and it boils down to a simple question: Why would God have allowed it? If we believe, as is generally taught with regard to the Great Apostasy, that it constituted a great loss of God’s truth and blessing priesthood authority to humanity, then I think that we must think of it as an evil event. Why would God allow such a thing? Seen in these terms, the theological problem of the Great Apostasy is simply a special case of the problem of evil, but one with its own particular contours and questions. By and large, it seems to me that these are questions that Mormons have not serioiusly asked. For us, the Restoration is such a fundamental part of our identity that what intellectual effort we lavish on the Great Apostasy is historical rather than theological. Here, I suspect that, as in so much else related to the Mormon mind, we are simply slipping into the grooves created by B.H. Roberts. His book on the Great Apostasy, Outlines in Ecclesiastical History was, as its name suggests, primarily concerned with history. It became the primary source of Talmage’s work The Great Apostasy, which also takes an essentially historical approach. Roberts having laid out the basic intellectual problematic — find the Great Apostasy in history — subsequent Mormon thinking has mainly been an attempt to offer ever more sophisticated refinements of his basic theory. Oddly, in all of this the glaring theological question becomes largely secondary.

57 comments for “The Problems of the Great Apostasy

  1. Interesting how this fits into Nibley’s latest book, in part.

    Yet, the question of the apostacy, and why God would allow it, fits into the general question of why the gospel does not cover the entire earth and why there needs to be a ministry in the hereafter.

  2. The second big challenge of the Great Apostacy is essentially theological, and it boils down to a simple question: Why would God have allowed it?

    For the same reason that anything “bad” ever happens: because people must be allowed their agency to choose their own course of action, which is God’s own Prime Directive, as I look at it. Apostacy happens because of the choices and actions of the chosen people, whoever, wherever and whenever they might be. It happened to the Jews, it happened to the ancient Christians, it happened to the Jaredites, and it happened to the Nephites.

    One would hope to be able to spot a trend in all of this.

    Nibley has pointed out that we are currently in an apostate condition. As he puts it in “Approaching Zion”:

    “Today, as in the ancient church, those who embrace Babylon in its stark reality do not renounce Zion. They don’t need to. As the Great Apostasy progressed, the Christian world got ever more mileage out of the name of Christianity. As the apostolic fathers and the early apologists observed, the farther they fall away from real Christianity, the more loudly they proclaim and the more enthusiastically they display the name and the banner of Christ. Christianity became an impressive pompa, a military parade rallying the righteous against the wicked. Finally, all you had to do to be righteous was to wave the flag of Christianity. As these early church fathers say, the word Christian completely lost its meaning. Today the beautiful word Zion, with all its emotional and historical associations, is used as the name Christian was formerly used, to put the stamp of sanctity on whatever men chose to do. The Hebrew word for financial activity of any kind is mamonut, and the financier is a mamonai; that is, financing is, quite frankly, in that honest language, the business of Mammon. From the very first there were Latter-day Saints who thought to promote the cause of Zion by using the methods of Babylon. Indeed, once the Saints were told to make friends with the Mammon of unrighteousness (D&C 82:22), but that was only to save their lives in an emergency. We have the word of the Prophet Joseph that Zion is not to be built up by using the methods of Babylon. He says, “Here are those who begin to spread out buying up all the land they are able to do, to the exclusion of the poorer ones who are not so much blessed with this worlds goods, thinking to ley foundations for themselves only, looking to their own individual familys and those who are to follow them. . . . Now I want to tell you that Zion cannot be built up in eny such way [sic].”
    “What do we find today? Zion’s Investment, Zion Used Cars, Zion Construction, Zion Development, Zion Bank, Zion Leasing, Zion Insurance, Zion Securities, Zion Trust, and so on. The institutions of Mammon are made respectable by the beautiful name of Zion. Zion and Babylon both have their appeal, but the voice of latter-day revelation makes one thing perfectly clear as it tells us over and over again that we cannot have them both.”

    To paraphrase a certain bumper sticker, “Apostacy happens.” Up until now, in every age, everyone’s supposedly best efforts have never been able to prevent it. Are we going to be the exception to the rule? I have my doubts; history is not on our side.

  3. In your first paragraph you make the statement “The first problem is historical. We need, it seems to me, to be able to tell a plausible historical story about how the Great Apostacy occurred.”.

    In your second paragraph, you make the statement “For us, the Restoration is such a fundamental part of our identity that what intellectual effort we lavish on the Great Apostacy is historical rather than theological.”

    I think I missed something. First, we need to come up with a plausible historical story, but yet, what “intellectual effort we [do] lavish on the Great Apostacy is historical…”.


  4. I know better than to pick on Nate’s spelling, but since everyone else seems to be following his lead, it’s apostaSy, not apostacy.

  5. 1. We’re/you’re talking about the “apostasy,” as opposed to the “apostacy,” right?

    2. The great apostasy is both a historical and theological event. There is nothing historically implausible about the death of certain church leaders resulting in significant change within the church, but history can’t explain very well why priesthood authority or “the Church” would ever be “lost” or “taken from the earth.” LDS teachings (or theology) picks up nicely where history leaves off telling us 1) that God exists in reality; 2) that worthy male members of God’s Church “hold” God’s authority aka “the priesthood”; 3) that priesthood holders must be “worthy” to hold and exercise God’s authority. It follows that the absence of worthy priesthood holders would result in a global loss of priesthood authority or God’s authority among mankind. Nothing problematic so far. LDS teachings also tell us that God allows human beings the freedom to make choices, and that he often does not prevent physical death among His servants. Thus, from a theological view one can easily see how God could “allow” human beings to kill his priesthood holding servants, resulting in a global loss of authority and a de facto death of the Church as an institution with any saving power.

    3. Ethesis is right. The “why” questions of the apostasy are the same as questions about the Church’s apparent failure to dominate the world and “save” every individual soul during its mortal existence. Freedom of choice explains this in part, and the very concept of ministry in the hereafter tells us that it doesn’t matter. As a matter of theology every soul has full opportunity to receive the gospel and the blessings of God’s authority (the priesthood).

    4. The interesting aspect of the apostasy to me is the timing (1700+ years is a long time). Could the restoration have occurred sooner? If not, why not? Likewise, could anybody but Joseph have carried it out?

  6. I think you raise a good question Nate. Further there is the question of why most of the world through most of the world’s history didn’t have the gospel. Admittedly Christianity in its vague form is throughout most of the world. But the fulness of the gospel? At best there are about 5 million of us active. Pretty small number.

    My suspicion is that perhaps having the gospel on this earth isn’t as important as we think. Otherwise I think God would have gone about things considerably differently.

    With regards to the apostasy, many assume that the leadership just died. I’m not sure that is accurate. The image in Revelation is of the woman fleeing into the wilderness. i.e. the leadership didn’t pass on keys and information. (There are hints of that in Clement which many apologists have latched onto) Probably the closest analogy is what happened with Moroni and the Nephites. (Minus the war and destruction, unless you count what the Romans did)

  7. Clark:
    I think you are right about the imporance of having the gospel on this earth. When the gospel is presented to you is similarly unimportant

    As far as the small numbers it is pretty amazing when you live in a city of 5 plus million people and realize that only a handful are members and that huge numbers have no knowledge of the church whatsoever.

    But the Church is on the earth now, even if it consists of only 5-10 million out of 5 plus billion. On my mission, D&C 123:30 gave me comfort with regard to this discrepancy: [Joseph speaking] “You know, brethren, that a very large ship is benefited very much by a very small helm in the time of a storm, by being kept workways with the wind and the waves.”

  8. Clark:

    Its not just that leadership died. Its that worthy priesthood holders died or ceased to be worthy priesthood holders.

  9. The only way I can make sense of it theologically derives from the `all intelligences are uncreated unequal’ axiom (which, of course, many find repugnant—but it absolves God of many philosophical difficulties). A certain critical mass of `celestial intelligences’ is necessary to maintain the True Church; but God has only a limited number, and if he spread them all out evenly in time, he would never have the critical mass. So he bunches them up in certain time periods, and by and large (though not exclusively) the best of those living in other time periods are for the most part terrestrial, as indicated by D&C 76:71-74 and also Melvin J. Ballard’s talk on the Three Degrees of Glory.

    Not pretty, but I don’t know if there are many good options on this one. As I just commented to Julie, however, certain drastic assumptions slice through many difficulties like a warm knife through butter.

  10. I tend to believe the apostacy started soon after Christ’s death. Throughout the New Testament, the apostles do not agree on a lot of matters, i.e. circumcission, and the split begins. This contiues throughout the heresies – Arius, Pelagius and particularly the Donatist controversy where the argument over the worthiness of priesthood holders, after many left and worshipped pagan gods to avoid persecution, came into play. This then led to further east-west splits ending with the theological divide ove the filioque clause in the 1200’s. Soon after the divide, I believe the restoration began with the Saints, such as Francis and Ignacius. Francis in particular witht he command to restore the church from the inside out and a rejection of church oppulance. Then the reformers, the eventually Joseph Smith.

    The interesting thing about Joseph Smith as well, is that he mentioned in reference to the temple ceremonies that he was teaching “things which have been kept hid from before the foundation of the world” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 342). Drawing from this statement, I would say that the apostacy was not as severe as we may presume, since some things were not even revealed until the fullness of times. I would venture to believe that the Lord set out the plans for the church, but they were almost immediately lost in the bickering of the early saints so they did the best they could until the world was ready for the fullness of the Gospel.

  11. Christian,

    Then you factor in the high infant mortality rate and the equation gets REAL goofy.

  12. It happened to the Jews, it happened to the ancient Christians, it happened to the Jaredites, and it happened to the Nephites.

    Yeah, apostasy seems to be the usual course of things, eventually, after each restoration/dispensation. Is there room to suppose that the diffusion of some form of Christianity over a large part of the earth, even though without proper authority and with some errors, and/or some of the effects Christianity has had on human culture where it’s been present, has put us in a position now where we may be able to keep the fire burning? Sort of like how charcoal burns hotter because the wood has already been half-burnt? Very speculative, of course.

    Moses gave Israel a schoolmaster to prepare them to receive Christ and the higher law. Some of them did; many did not. Perhaps a broken form of Christ’s teachings could also have a useful, preparatory effect.

  13. Ben H., Yes!

    I’ve always been intrigued by the way D&C section 22 likens previous baptisms unto the Law of Moses. While the revelation makes it clear that baptism into another faith is considered a “dead work” and that one cannot enter into the strait gate by the “Law of Moses”, it also seems to imply that because the Restoration is a New Covenant, the “Law” (likened unto christianity) is useful for a period of time and therefore has a place under the wide umbrella of the restoration. Indeed, one almost gets the idea that christianity may be viewed as a “preparatory gospel” of sorts.

  14. Who knows when the Savior will come? We tend to place it in the near future (as did the pioneer Saints) but it could be 300 years away yet. There have been calculations as to how many people have lived on the earth and they generally are in the range of 100 to 150 billion. It is obvious that only a small percentage of those who have lived on the earth have become, or will become members of the Church.

    If we accept Rodney Stark’s projection that the Church will have about 280 million people in 2080, that will still be a small proportion of the estimated 8 to 10 billion then living.

    I think it is fair to say that the vast majority of those who have lived on the earth will hear the gospel in the spirit world. But someone, during the span of human existence, had to keep the the flame alive, even if the world was sunk in wickedness. Perhaps only one, as Moroni. I don’t know any place in the world where Joseph Smith could have been born which would have given him a better chance to restore the gospel. And even in 19th Century America, he was still put to death.

    As for why, I don’t know. The Lord has His purposes and this world is a time to be tested. Perhaps the testing does not all have to be done at the spiritual PhD level.

  15. “Perhaps a broken form of Christ’s teachings could also have a useful, preparatory effect.” Absolutely correct, Ben!

    In fact, if you look at where the Church has been successful in gaining many converts, it is almost all in “Christian” countries (once Europe, now Latin America, the Philippines, etc.). We have not yet cracked the code as to how to preach the gospel to non-Christian nations, but I believe we eventually will; and I think the gospel as taught in The Book of Mormon will be the key.

  16. Nate,

    I know I’m dense, but I don’t get your first problem re: history. If as you state, that the early Christians were “Mormon” like in belief, then doesn’t that in itself show that an apostacy took place because the “Mormon” like beliefs were changed over the years? Or are you arguing for a more gradual loss of authority/correct doctrine than the traditional Missionary story re: the apostles were killed/revelation ceased? Thanks. :)

  17. Jack (#11), yes, that’s another tough nut to crack on its own, as it flies in the face of the supposed necessity of this mortal probation. If you get around that one by supposing all those spirits were too righteous to need a mortal probation, that makes trouble for the hypothesis of #9.

  18. As far as why the apostasy occurred, I think the definitive answer should be somewhere in “Oolon Colluphid’s trilogy of philosophical blockbusters Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes and Who is this God Person Anyway?

    Seriously, I think it’s rather like Adam and Eve. Staying away from the tree didn’t work out, so plan B involved toil, suffering, and an Incarnation that ended in a bloody mess (as far as most observers were concerned). We can chalk it up as one more of God’s failures, or we can look at it as somehow a part of the plan. My assumption follows David Rodger in #16 and Ben Huff in #12–the form of the Gospel that remained was the form that could be spread to many people and thus prepare the way for Joseph Smith.

    As Nate points out, the historical aspect remains a problem.

  19. “Indeed, one almost gets the idea that christianity may be viewed as a “preparatory gospel” of sorts.”

    Oh, I see. Jesus came, but ultimately failed to establish a permanent church. However, that’s OK because he was just preparing the way for Joseph Smith.

    Sorry, but this idea seems a little backwards.

  20. One problem of how we talk about the history of the Apostasy is that most of what we say is ultimately dependent on Reformation-era polemic. My sense is that most Mormons and most work in Mormon studies assume an early outbreak of full-fledged apostasy, as early as the 1st century and not much later than the early 2nd century, which puts us on the early end of the spectrum. Our suspicion of Catholicism, papal primacy, the creeds and synods, however, doesn’t follow well from this assumption, I think. I suspect these attitudes are an inheritance from other strands of Reformation though that saw in Constantine’s establishment of Christianity in the 4th century as the clear mark of apostasy, with the creeds and synods being not the consequences of apostasy but the very process of apostasy itself.

    If we assume an early apostasy, what do we expect people living afterwards to have done? Gathering up what truth was left, preserving it, spreading it, institutionalizing it, studying it, explaining it–all of those seem like good things to me. It was enough to sustain people through centuries of persecution and martyrdom. Yet it’s still too easy to dismiss everything between 100 and 1517 AD as unrelenting spiritual darkness and to divorce from our history anything that happened during that time.

  21. Good comments all. I will just add two points:

    1. With regard to the historical problem. We have two narratives that we use. The first is the loss of priesthood authority. In order for this to make sense we need to have some sort of clear concept of priesthood authority and we need to be able to locate that concept in very early Christian documents. It is not clear to me that we have. The second narrative has to do with the Hellenization of Christianity. The problem with this narrative is that it sets up a dicotomy between Hebrew and Greek culture that is probably not really tenable. The first century Palestine of Christ was a Hellenized place. Christianity was — in a sense — always a Hellenic movement, especially with the ministry of Paul to the (Greek speaking) gentiles. Indeed, my understanding (corrections from those who know better welcome) is that with the exception of Mark, which was written in Aramaic, all of the New Testament was originally written in Greek. In short, Hellenization is not going to provide the historical story of discontinuity that we are going to need. For Roberts onward Mormons have been working on this story. It is not clear to me that we have it nailed down correctly.

    2. Agency, I think, is too simple as a theological explanation of the Apostasy, I think. The problem is that it explains why God cannot work through this or that person, but it does not explain the global extinction of authority. Why couldn’t God have simply sent John the Baptist, Peter, James, and John seventeen centuries earlier to restore the priesthood? I think that you are going to need some much broader historical story to explain this beyond individual human agency. Furthermore, I don’t see that analogies to the Nephites etc. really answers the question. It simply relocates precisely the same issue in a new context. We know that God COULD restore the priesthood becuase he DID actually restore it. What we need is an explanation of the long waiting period. Finally, agency is not even a fully satisfactory explanation of individual losses. Sometimes God intervenes to protect his servents (Alma and Amulek) and sometimes he does not (Abinadi). Why?

  22. Wakarusa: read “Joseph Smith” as shorthand for “the restoration of the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ through the latter-day prophet Joseph Smith.” That’s the operating assumption around here.

  23. 24: Similar vein–if John the Beloved never died and was left on the earth, then the priesthood was never taken from the earth and no restoration was necessary. As an apostle, would he not have held the keys upon the death of all the other apostles?

  24. Another problem with simply explaining the apostasy in terms of “agency” is that it calls into question certain promises about the Restoration, which, it is claimed, has produced a church that will never again fall into apostasy. We traditionally tend to think that God would never allow a prophet to lead the church astray.

    If it were possible for agency to thwart the mission of the early saints, however, then it is possible for agency to thwart the mission of the Latter-day Saints. Putting agency above the will of God means that the Church may also someday fall into apostasy. So it we assume that people have the power to thwart the will of God, we need to rethink the meaning of these promises.

  25. In the 128th section, JS says baptism for the dead was established before the foundation of the world, indicating that God knew the possibility of apostasy and prepared for it. He goes on to say that we cannot be made perfect without our dead, and they cannot be made perfect without us. Is there something incalculably important about our reaching out toward those who lived and died during the Great Apostasy? Something inherit in this reaching that both groups need? This kind of goes along with the idea of the small helm on a large ship. We (the Church) need to exist as a sort of priestly class to conduct temple ordinances, thus the emphasis on our living lives of purity.

  26. Nate:

    Very nice followup points. While I agree that the theological question of “why the long wait?” is very interesting, our lack of historical details for telling the story of the apostasy in a credible way seems even more significant.

    I agree that neither early Christian documents on the priesthood, nor Hellenization per se does not give us a satisfying explanation, since, as you point out we don’t have the documents, and gospel truths relied on today were passed on through the very Greek culture and language that is supposed to have destroyed the Church. Of course we have to look at the Roman and Jewish influences here too. Allong with the Hellenic influence, Roman paganism and persecution of Christians by the Roman state and Jewish institutions alike would have taken a devastating toll on the early Christian church. I think history supports this opposition to the Church, but again, history doesn’t explain why the Christian church that ultimately survived was not the “true church” anymore.

    Maybe the answer (and what you are noting) is that there is very little if any extra-restorational “history” that establishes the occurance of the apostasy. Of course, with the theology of the restoration has come the knowledge that there was an apostasy and that the restoration was needed, but beyond that, we don’t have much of a basis to explain the apostasy and restoration, especially to non-believers. Our LDS position ends up looking tautological: the restoration tells us there was an apostasy and restoration.

    As far as the theology. It certainly tells us the “whats”, but as with many other doctrinal issues, the “whys” are left unstated.

  27. There is an informal group of scholars that has been meeting at BYU for some time now. I think they call themselves the Hellenization Group or some such thing. As I understand it, their purpose is essentially to explore the kinds of issues Nate raises with respect to Apostasy. For instance, it is now the fashion to say that Hellenization was a *result* of the Apostasy, not its cause.

    Our Church is less than 200 years old, and in a sense we’re in the same position as early Christianity. When I was younger, it was easy to look at the profound theological development in the early Church and label that as apostasy. But we have undergone a similar theological development, which forces me to look on what happened in early Christianity with more sympathy. Conversely, I don’t think we are immune from apostasy ourselves. Indeed, our fundamentalists friends would argue that we are in apostasy already.

  28. Wakarusa,

    Yes, my assumptions do create a paradox. But, what of the Law of Moses? The Lord tried to give the Israelites the fulness of the Gospel but they coudn’t handle it. So he gave them something they could handle and they didn’t do too well with that either. The difference with the apostasy [apostacy? what in the heck is the correct spelling?] is that medieval christianity is what the saints were left with after what appears to be a systematic dismanteling of the church (as I read it in the BoM) rather than an implimented measure from God to see them through–as was the case with the Law of Moses. But even so, they both seem to come out of wash with similar characteristics–the most notable being that they both preserved enough truth in the minds of the people so as to prepare some of them (albeit–a small percentage in both cases) to accept the fulness of the gospel.

  29. BTW, the majority scholarly opinion is that Mark too was originally composed in Greek, not Aramaic.

  30. Moroni in Ether 8:18 speaks of a particular combination being that which “…is most abominable and wicked above all, in the sight of God.”

    Perhaps this correlates with 1 Nephi 13:

    26 And after they go forth by the hand of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, from the Jews unto the Gentiles, thou seest the formation of that great and abominable church, WHICH IS MOST ABOMINABLE ABOVE ALL OTHER CHURCHES; for behold, they have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away.

    27 And all this have they done that they might pervert the right ways of the Lord, that they might blind the eyes and harden the hearts of the children of men.

    If so, this may explain, in part, the reason for the difficulty in establishing the proper cause for the apostasy. Secrecy!

  31. “Apostasy” seems to be the preferred spelling, and the most sensible given the word’s etymology. The word derives through the Middle English “apostasie” from the Late Latin “apostasia” meaning “defection.” The Latin was derived from the Greek “aphistanai” meaning “to revolt.” This, in turn, can be broken down into “apo-” meaning “away from” and “histonai” meaning “to stand.” At least according to my dictionary.

  32. Bryan Warnick, I will give you two scriptures supporting the notion that the Church can fall, contrary to what many have supposed:

    Alma 27:13 “Nevertheless he cried again, saying: Alma, arise and stand forth, for why persecutest thou the church of God? For the Lord hath said: This is my church, and I will establish it; and nothing shall overthrow it, save it is the transgression of my people.”

    D&C 124:32 “But behold, at the end of this appointment your baptisms for your dead shall not be acceptable unto me; and if you do not these things at the end of the appointment ye shall be rejected as a church, with your dead, saith the Lord your God.”

  33. Nate, do you think this is a special case of Mormons not doing theology when they should, or is it just part of the general problem that we don’t do theology? There are a lot of “glaring theological question[s]” that we ignore in favor of historical treatment (or just plain ignore).

  34. What does everybody make of JS’s comment that “I have more to boast of than ever any man had. I am the only man that has ever been able to keep a whole church together since the days of Adam”? Is apostasy inevitable? In some places Nibley almost argues that the apostasy was planned from the beginning and that the apostles barely tried to put together a permanent church. What think ye?

  35. > The interesting aspect of the apostasy to me is the timing (1700+ years is a long time). Could
    > the restoration have occurred sooner? If not, why not? Likewise, could anybody but Joseph
    > have carried it out?

    In thinking about this, I’ve come to the general conclusion that the Restoration happened as soon as it could. It happened in what was almost certainly the most religiously free nation on Earth, and Joseph Smith still ended up being martyred. The Saints were persecuted and forced to flee to Utah.

    If the Restoration had been attempted sooner, the restored church might have been crushed before it developed. (Or, possibly worse, coopted by a government. Here’s a bit of alternate history for you: A young Spanish explorer in Mesoamerica in the early 1500s finds and translates the golden plates and begins to restore the gospel, including the doctrine of plural marriage. Although nobody expected it, the new religion runs afoul of the Spanish Inquisition. But when Henry VIII of England is looking for a way to have a male heir, he decides Los Mormones have the answer. Mormonism becomes the established religion of England.)

    If the Restoration had happened a generation or two later, the restoring prophet would probably have lived to a ripe old age, and Church headquarters would probably still be somewhere back east. And the growth curve of the Church would be behind where it is.

  36. That’s an interesting answer, Eric, but Old Testament prophets (Isaiah, at least) spoke of the nations being mere tools in the Lord’s hands (Does the ax boast against him who wields it? Does the clay pot boast against him that formed it?); one gets the sense that the power of God could have torn down oppressive governments if he’d wished.

    In the same vein, President Kimball would always talk about how the Lord easily has the power to break down barriers to missionary work in hostile nations as soon as we have sufficient missionaries to do the work. This `manpower argument’ is President Kimball’s answer to Nate’s related question about why the gospel is unavailable to so many even today, and it resonates with my speculative theological answer about the reason for the apostasy in comment #9.

  37. Eric/Christian/Nate:

    Who is to say that there have _not_ been other restorations of the Gospel/Priesthood authority? i.e. just because we don’t know about it doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. Eric’s Spanish explorer could have received revelations, tried to reform Christianity, and simply never gotten off the ground enough to warrant any historical record or notice.

  38. Would it be right to interpret the narrative in 3 Nephi and 4 Nephi as a theological description of what “happened” in the Greco-Roman world? Or, to put it another way, is it possible that the narrative in the Book of Mormon that describes how righteousness led to affluence which led in turn to apostasy is meant to provide an explanation for the process of aspostasy generally?

    Obviously it wouldn’t be a historical explanation in the usual sense of the term, but I imagine it could represent a prophetic or theological interpretation or description of how the early church “fell away,” either as Joseph Smith saw it or as the narrator(s) of the Book of Mormon saw it. Whether they understood the early Christian church to have gone through exactly the same pattern is something I just don’t know.

  39. Just a personal opinion, but I think the development of communication and transportation were limiting factors in the timing of the full restoration.

    With the early church, communication was strictly limited to walking/ships/letters/etc. As apostles went off on their various missions, they couldn’t gather together to maintain and build up the church.

    When the restoration occured, affordable and portable mass printing technology was just becoming available and the era of canals and railroads were beginning to increase travel and information distribution.

    When the church was small, it was able with great difficulty to gather together to Zion and become an isolated and peculiar people. This provided the removal of the world needed for early church growth.

    As the church matured, technology has continued to increase to allow a global church with strong communication to prevent (most of) the divisions that lead to apostasy.

    Just my $.02

  40. lyle (#39): The Book of Mormon does suggest other groups besides the Nephites (Jacob 5, 2 Nephi 29, and 3 Nephi 15 or 16 come to mind). But if one takes Jacob 5 as a direct correlation to history, it sounds like the Lord made his rounds establishing the Church in several separate places around the time of his mortal ministry, and then didn’t return until the modern universal Restoration.

    Speaking of Jacob 5, it makes it sound like the apostasy occured simply because the Lord was too busy to stay around and continually take care of things, and that he was surprised and disappointed everything had gone south. (I’ve always wondered why he says “What more could I have done?” when he was gone most all the time; how about hanging around, for starters?) But surely that would be taking the parable too literally.

  41. Christian,

    But, if we stick with parable in a more literal way, then the lord of the vinyard would have been standing around watching the fruit grow. There is only so much that can be done.


    Without wanting to speak for Nate, I have a hunch that he might ask why the Lord didn’t send more light and truth into the world in the days of the early church so as to increase technology then. But then again, maybe that’s something that He’s always been willing to do. Who knows? It’s quite a little conundrum. Of course, Nate knew that when he started this thread.

  42. Nate,

    In your post you said the following: “Why would God have allowed it? If we believe, as is generally taught with regard to the Great Apostasy, that it constituted a great loss of God’s truth and blessing priesthood authority to humanity, then I think that we must think of it as an evil event. Why would God allow such a thing?”

    How about the Flood, if were are to believe the Bible God not only allowed it but caused it. How is the flood any less “evil” than an Apostasy? The Apostasy was something triggered by men, God didn’t take away the Apostles, men killed them. However it wasn’t man that caused the rains to come down. Under this line of thinking you make it appear as if there was never any sort of plan to this world. Did God screw up on his first try and said “Ah to hell with it, I am going to flood them out and start over” or was He simply in His infancy as a god and therefore was still learning the ropes of godhood so to speak.

    How about the question of Judas? Jesus being all knowing essentially knew the moment that He picked Judas as one ofHhis apostles that He was essentially condeming the man to eternal damnation, such that “it had been good for that man if he had not been born. (New Testament | Matthew 26:24) What would God allow such an event?

    It all comes back to “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.” (Old Testament | Isaiah 55:8)

    Anyhow, my two cents

  43. I don’t see that the apostasy presents any theological problem at all.

    Presumably, there would still be false religions in an apostasy free world (i.e., not everybody would belong to the true church). Thus, there would still be a need for proxy ordinances and missionary work. And as far as the impact that it has on an individual’s salvation, there is no difference between

    (a) being born into an apostasy free world in an area where neither you nor your family will ever hear the name of Jesus Christ,


    (b) being born into a world where the true authority of Christ has been lost.

    Thus, we have exactly the same problem whether or not there is an apostasy, and there is no unique theological problem associated with the theory of apostasy.

  44. Underlying all of this, of course, is “what causes the Lord to intervene in the flow of humanity?”

    And the only answer is we don’t know, because we have to come back to Isaiah 55:8, quoted above. We know that His hand is in everything, but we don’t know how much. To constantly be righting the ship is eventually to abandon the principle of free agency. Which is why, in the end, the first principle is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

    But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t see to learn, to know and to understand. Even if we don’t have, and may never have, complete answers in this world.

  45. I like that thought Arturo. Here are some more thoughts

    Isn’t the Church’s official *position* merely that there was a restoration, and that the restoration is the evidence that there was an apostasy? We’re to accept the restoration with faith, not based on certitude from history fact or acceptable theological arguments. I think BH Roberts and Talamage would agree with that.

    So there was an apostasy, and let’s be more careful about the definition. It doesn’t mean, as it seems to be used in post #2, that people or the Church aren’t living the gospel perfectly. Apostasy, or the Great Apostasy means and implies I think a condition when the priesthood authority to perform the saving ordinances, and to enable preaching of the gospel by the power of the Spirit, was lacking among mortals on the earth. (I’m intending to excluding *changed* beings like John the Beloved and the 3 Nephites.)

    And lets be careful about when the Great Apostasy might have started. Just because the church the Savior organized in Jerusalem may have petered out in two centuries, doesn’t mean the apostasy started then. Though it did for some. For another couple hundred years the Nephites still had priesthood and prophets through Mormon and Moroni. And we know nothing of *lost sheep* who the Savior visited. (Did their *apostasy start even after that of the Nephites/Laminites?) I like Lyle’s observation in post #39.

    The point, I think, is that we shouldn’t base our testimony on established historical fact, but on revelation from the Spirit. The apostasy occurred because the Spirit tells me there was a restoration through the Prophet Joseph. And we’re all a little fuzzy about the details of the apostasy, but that’s OK. Hugh Nibley may propound may an evidence of an apostasy, and I love reading about all that he writes, but do you think that he based his testimony on all those evidences he writes about?

    I think God doesn’t want to make many matters crystal clear, factually, (without spiritual witness I mean) because (and here I don’t presume to know or limit God’s reasons, but merely illustrate one plausible one) He wants us to base of conviction on revelation and act on that with agency. And why do we tend to accept certain kinds of knowledge as more important than others – like why is the historical fact of an apostasy somehow assumed to be better proof than the proof of an apostasy that comes form a spiritual witness that it occurred? Is this life about learning to relay more on that kind of spiritual knowledge?

    I’m beginning to believe that agency has much to do with everything in this life, much more than we think. Elder Maxwell’s final two books seem to make that point. Maxwell there seems to me to be saying that although agency isn’t the first principle of the gospel, it is a pre-eminent and pervasive, and a prerequisite principle, even to the principle of faith. He says agency is one of the *deep things* of the gospel.

    So, Nate, I think agency does have much to do with the why of a great apostasy after all.

    And maybe we forget that the gospel comes to the earth in this life in packets, in dispensations. And its presence here is marked by periods of its absence. So the presence of the gospel and priesthood and all in this life discontinuous in this life. And maybe in the next life (which God seems to view as more a part of the totality of our existence than we do) the gospel and priesthood authority and all is characterized by no discontinuity. Maybe its always there, or always there in organized fashion at least since the Savior’s death, or Adam’s death. So, maybe in the grand scheme, I mean plan of things, it isn’t unfair that there are big chunks of time in this world when there is a global apostasy. And that brings us back to Arturo’s above post.

    And maybe this is a long winded answer to Kristine in post #35.

    (And maybe all of the above is worth much less than my meager tax refund I just stayed up calculating online.) Sorry for the long post at a less than coherent hour.

  46. Arturo (#45), when I wrote #38 I thought Nate had made the point you’re making; but now that I look back I can’t find that he did, and I guess I falsely gave him credit for something someone else said or something I imagined somebody should have said.

    Anyway, I agree that on the theological side the apostasy is just a special case of the general problem of why the gospel is and has been rarely available. But even if apostasy itself is not a unique problem, I still think the general problem is a serious one. The “manpower argument” is one answer, but I don’t think it’s adequate.

  47. ” I guess I falsely gave him credit for something someone else said or something I imagined somebody should have said.”

    I have no objection ;->. I don’t think that the Apostacy is a wholly unique theological problem, as I said in my original post. Certainly, it is very similar to the “problem” of not everyone having access to the Gospel even though the Church is on the earth. I suppose that I think that there is some meaningful distinction between an earth with no true church and an earth with a true church someplace. Of course, from the point of view of the person with no access or interaction to the church, the issue is identical. On the other hand, from the point of view of the whole earth, there is a difference.

    “Nate, do you think this is a special case of Mormons not doing theology when they should, or is it just part of the general problem that we don’t do theology? There are a lot of “glaring theological question[s]” that we ignore in favor of historical treatment (or just plain ignore). ”

    I don’t know that there is anything special about the absence of a sustained theological account of why the Apostacy was necessary, although its absence is interesting in that we do have several more or less sustained attempts to provide some historical account. Incidentally, I am not sure that theology is something that we aren’t doing but “should” be doing. I am not quite certain where the “should” comes from. I find these sorts of questions interesting and others do as well. Furthermore, there may be some for whom these sorts of questions present some sort of religious or spiritual crisis (haven’t met such a person yet, but no doubt there Mormons out there who stew in why-did-God-let-the-great-apostasy-happen angst.) and for whom some sort of relatively sophisticated disscussion might be religiously important or useful. For the most part, however, I simply think that these are interesting puzzles that I would like to know the answer to. I do think that reflection and thinking about the doctrines of the Restoration is a kind of worship, but I am by no means convinced that it is the most important kind.

  48. “no doubt there Mormons out there who stew in why-did-God-let-the-great-apostasy-happen angst”

    I don’t know, Nate–even *I* can’t get worked up about this one, and I can usually do angst with the best of ’em :)

  49. Personally, I have had a difficult time understanding what we believe the apostasy to have been at all.

    1) The priesthood was taken from the earth. When? Obviously people other than the apostles had the priesthood, they could have kept ordaining people. In fact, according to Joseph Smith, we don’t even need apostles for the church to go forward, merely somebody with the fulness of the priesthood. Why is it that we assume that as soon as the other 11 apostles died, John went and hid in a cave and suddenly all of the priesthood ordinations that had happen up to that point suddenly became void. The truth is that the priesthood could have continued for a long, long time after the death of the apostles.

    2) The truth was taken from the earth. Again, when? Well, we answer, when the doctrines started to change. Is that the sign of apostasy? If so, we are in big trouble because we have change our doctrines quite a few times over our history. See “Line Upon Line” by signature book for details. Why is it that when we see a change in teachings we automatically assume it was for the worst? Could the church have been adapting itself to expand into the hellenistic world? Couldn’t they have merely been receiving more light and knowledge?

    3) The people became unworthy and therefore the truth and authority were taken away. This sounds an awful lot like an excuse if you ask me. What evidence do we have that ALL priesthood leaders became unworthy? If we point to the occurance of the apostasy, we are only going in circles.

    With regards to how God could have let this happen, we cannot merely brush this question aside with a “It happened before.” When did it happen before that there was no priesthood on the earth at all? Never, as far as I can tell. To say that God’s authority fell off the earth for over a millennium screams out for some sort of validation.

    We can’t just say it was because of agency, because the agency we are talking about is God’s agency. Why didn’t He do something? Why did He wait so long? I believe it would be very difficult to show how originally the Christian message was accepted by thousands upon thousands of people as judged by the relative success of the apostles. But then as soon as they died, everybody all of a sudden rejected the gospel. One must come up with an explanation which also shows how they rejection was any different from the was people reject the gospel today, or how they have ever done so. Why hasn’t our agency thrown our church into apostasy? To say that it is because we are more righteous seems more than a little self serving.

  50. I don’t know whether this thread is dead, but I just read through it and I think Nate has identified an important issue, from both the historical evidence perspective and the theological perspective.

    For one thing, the term “apostasy” means turning from one’s religious faith–not turning from the “truth,” however that is defined. A Catholic who joins the LDS church is an apostate from the Catholic church. When we talk of apostasy, we should remember that it’s a relative term. Apostasy can be good or bad, depending on one’s perspective. In fact, our missionary effort is intended primarily to promote apostasy; i.e., a turning away from our converts’ religious traditions.

    The idea that the gospel was taken from the earth seems to me, on its face, to be a historical and doctrinal misconception. Some aspects of the gospel, such as temple ordinances, may have been taken, but the fundamental principles of loving God and others, the Beatitudes, etc., have remained since the time of Christ.

    More importantly, the Book of Mormon teaches that God speaks to all people, all over the world. If so, in what sense are the religions that arise from this form of inspiration “false”? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that other religions, including the non-LDS Christian world, are adapted to the people they serve, and can also be inspired by God?

    There’s much more to discuss here if this thread isn’t dead.

  51. Jeffery,

    Were the comments that Joseph recorded in the sacred grove as coming from the Saviour a figment of his imagination? If not, then the answers to your questions are found in the record of that experience.

  52. Related to all this, hasn’t the LDS church apostatized from the original Mormonism of JS long ago? The bogus official explanation of how the WofW became a commandment or Brigham Young’s Mark of Cain BS (probably to accommodate slavery) being obvious examples. In the latter case, the church clumsily corrected the “mistake” only a generation ago. A periodic reform back to basics is healthy for any organization, including organized religions. It’s ironic that, in the absence of periodic reformation, orthodoxy always leads to apostasy.

  53. I Pray for all of you Mormans every day. Please resurch the Great Apostacy with the respect that the jewish and Romans hated early christians and would have been very happy to reveal any type of dissention among the early church. Please be honest with yourselves the great Apostacy never happened. If you want to know the true history of the morman faith go to I love all of you as brothers and hope you will come to know the truth.

    God bless all of you with faith and grace the learn the truth.

    I can’t spell ether


  54. Steve #54, The mark of cain goes back to the old testament when cain killed his brother abel he was turned black. Do you ever wonder why people in any Christ-centered faith dont name their children after certain names even though they are found in the bible or any of the modern scriptures? That is because the scriptures arent a book of saints, they are and account or record of what has happened. Brigham Young could be called many things but a biggot, hardley. That was one of the things that the southern states took issue with The Church, the fact that they were nice to the American-Indians, and protested slavery. I think you, Steve #54 need to get your facts straight brother! We do not Believe that the LDS church is apostated, we believe some different and seemingly complicated differences. However, for MILLIONS it is the closest anyone will get to the True Church.

  55. Wilson #55, whats your problem!? I think as a “Christian” you need to learn to be a little more loving or are you one of those Evangelical Wack-jobs that adopted the doctrine of “hate thy neighbor” Your “group” is always running around Claiming that Mormons (in all varieties and flavors) believe in a “different” Jesus. Well Brother to suppose that there is more than one Jesus other that the one found in the New Testamant (KJV) is Blasphomy. Mormons, RLDS, FLDS and LDS all believe in the true Christ, which is Jesus the only be-gotten of the Father! The BS that there are more than one and that some believe in this one or that one has to STOP! Your un-temple worthy Mormon is a better man than you’ll ever be!

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