On the Uses of the Doctrine of Apostasy

The doctrine of apostasy has come on hard times. In the past, railing against the degraded state of Christendom was a staple of Mormon evangelism, but of late it seems to me that we have softened this teaching. Not only is McConkie-esque speculation about the sectarian identity of the “Great and Abominable Church” (blessedly) on the wane, but in many ways Mormonism has taken on a more ecumenical flavor. One cannot imagine President Hinckley going on Larry King and bluntly declaring that all of the Christian sects are an abomination before God, having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof. In short, the whole doctrine of the apostasy has a set of narrow, sectarian connotations that in many ways Mormons now seek to avoid.

In a pseudo-ecumenical Mormonism, does the doctrine of Christian apostasy have any meaning or power beyond carefully qualified and theologically technical claims about priesthood authority? Generally speaking, when I have talked about this issue with Mormon kibitzers they have had one of two responses. The first has been that the doctrine of apostasy is a bit of sectarian embarrassment. Far better to let it die a PR-induced death. The second response has been to argue that the retreat from apostasy has had unfortunate effects, watering down the message of the Restoration, down playing the uniqueness of Mormonism, and hence reducing its potential appeal.

It seems to me, that there is at least one other way of thinking about the apostasy. Essentially this is a doctrine that criticizes religion. Now in a secular world, I think that there is a tendency for believers of whatever faith to circle the wagons and stand-up for religion against its critics. On this rather defensive view, religion becomes a prima facie term of approbation and harsh criticisms of religion are seen as offering aid and comfort to secular critics. Yet there is much in religion to criticize. Pat Robertson’s rhetorical excesses come to mind. Less spectacular — but in my view much more important — are the failings of those complacent believers who see religion as yet another trapping of middle-class respectability, but for whom it fails to call forth affirmative effort to serve their fellow men. And so on.

Brigham Young was fond of teaching that prayer for the poor was good but that hot food was better. In doing this, he was drawing a distinction between true religion and apostate religion. It was not, however, a distinction drawn in sectarian terms. It seems to me that this is a useful function for the doctrine of apostasy today. My point is not that we should abandon Mormonism’s claims to unique authority, but rather that we should understand that the doctrine of apostasy goes much deeper than the issue of a choice between differing denominations. Rather, it can also be seen as a choice between “pure religion” (of whatever sect or denomination) and that which has “form of godliness but denies the power thereof.”

59 comments for “On the Uses of the Doctrine of Apostasy

  1. January 6, 2006 at 2:00 pm

    So, in other words, you can be an active, believing Mormon, but utterly apostate from true Christianity?

  2. Nate Oman
    January 6, 2006 at 2:03 pm

    It depends on how you define “active” and “believing,” but I think that in at least some sense the answer must be yes…

  3. Matthew Crowley
    January 6, 2006 at 2:15 pm

    “In a pseudo-ecumenical Mormonism, does the doctrine of Christian apostasy have any meaning or power beyond carefully qualified and theologically technical claims about priesthood authority?”

    Interesting question. Would anyone take issue with me if I posited that if a person were to faithfully do all they could to adhere to the doctrines of any Christian faith (maybe even any non-Christian faith) that they would likely be exalted ultimately? Clearly the absence of authority on the earth led to a great deal of error and led many down some strange doctrinal roads, but I think it is interesting to ask how crucial it is to have the knowledge that we do or access to the priesthood.

    Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t trade those things for anything. On the other hand I have always puzzled somewhat at the idea that only a very tiny number of God’s children will have been exposed to the gospel in mortality. Believing as I do that God ultimately triumphs in the end and that His plan is calculated to exalt the maximum number of His children, and further believing that this plan will succeed, I can’t escape the idea that what one does in this life is ultimately more important for most that the knowledge or ordinances they receive.

    This begs the question, to whom ARE these things important? I think the answer is those of us who are exposed to them. It would seem that those of us who are exposed to the gospel simply have a different test than they vast majority of God’s other children

    What think ye?

  4. January 6, 2006 at 2:17 pm

    Nate, you’re proposing a definition of “apostate” that entirely crosscuts denominational boundaries, no? So apostate religion is simply religion that isn’t fully lived. In effect, apostate religion becomes a synonym for religious hypocrisy.

    This means that two scriptural symbolic universes come into contact. The image of a violent, tyrannical “whore of all the earth” which is often deployed in the context of canonical discussions of apostate religion become wedded to the personal and even psychological New Testament symbolism of the whited sepulcre and the Pharisee. I guess the question this raises in my mind is this: does some oppressive global institution exist that forces people to live religion incompletely? Does that institution line its walls with gold, etc., as Nephi claims for the apostate religion?

    Some people on the left would want to describe the WTO in these terms. Some on the right might describe the UN the same way. But in non-conspiratorial contexts, it becomes difficult for me to understand the application of these scriptural symbols of apostacy to your proposed redefinition.

  5. Nate Oman
    January 6, 2006 at 2:22 pm

    RT: Good question. The short answer is that I don’t know. The thing is, that even under the “old” definition of apostasy I didn’t really know what to do with these texts. It seems to me that they work best in a conspiritorial context, but my problem is that I don’t believe in conspiracy theories. Of course, when in doubt one can always simply read the texts as being metaphorical or allegorical ;->….

  6. Nate Oman
    January 6, 2006 at 2:27 pm

    FYI, I blogged a little more than a year ago on the problem of conspiritorial rhetoric in the scriptures. Check out:

    “Michael Moore and the Gadianton Robbers”

  7. Lamonte
    January 6, 2006 at 2:36 pm

    Is it more important to present our belief in the apostasy in an “in your face” sort of manner that will most likely offend anyone who has a devout belief in their current religious culture? Or is it better to state our belief that there was an apostasy, in perhaps a softer manner using that very term “our belief”, and explain our belief in the need for the restoration. My experience is that this approach is more likely to provoke thoughts in the mind of the non-Mormon of occasions they might have wondered how the authority to act in the name of God could possibly have survived the despicable abuse of religious power by those in authority throughout the ages. They may be delighted to find that there is an established religion that has been founded on doctirne they themselves have wondered about.

    Certainly it is important for us all to be valiant in expressing our belief and knowledge of the Restoration and expaining the need for it. But if doing so requires that I attempt to discredit all of the good that other religious traditions do because I belief their ancient leaders turned away from God then I’m afraid that I won’t be very effective.

  8. January 6, 2006 at 2:52 pm

    I’ve thought that popular conceptions of the “apostasy” where reactionary in nature. That is to say that in an age when people debated the merits of one sect over another, the response was, “well, you are all wrong.” We now live in a time when the ovewhelming majority of presbeterians, Dutch reformed christians, and methodists, etc. have no clue what makes their faith diferent than one another’s. So what is the response to them…”well, you are all wrong” doesn’t particularly work because the response is, “wrong about what?” Alan Wolfe’s, The Transformation of American Religion does a great job of outlining this trend.

    But this does not change the text of our scripture. It still states that it is an abomination; but, perhaps you are correct that there is much that is abominable before the Lord…and not adopting pure religion is likely up there on the list.

  9. Mark N.
    January 6, 2006 at 3:12 pm

    Ronan: So, in other words, you can be an active, believing Mormon, but utterly apostate from true Christianity?

    If we’re to believe Hugh Nibley in “Approaching Zion”, it’s all too likely.

  10. Ben H
    January 6, 2006 at 3:13 pm

    Of course, doesn’t Teach My Gospel make the doctrine of the apostasy rather prominent in the missionaries’ teaching routine? This seems a strong step away from any sort of PR-induced euthanasia. However, it also could be read as sympathetic with your point, Nate, about moving away from focusing on denominational issues, so that the doctrine of apostasy is most fruitfully discussed more intimately, and something more subtle and personal than denominational affiliation can receive some real attention.

  11. Jack
    January 6, 2006 at 3:18 pm

    I think a better question is: can we live the way God would like us to without the fulness of the gospel?

  12. Mark N.
    January 6, 2006 at 3:32 pm

    None of us are living the way God would like us to, so long as we merely have to vocally commit to living the Law of Consecration without having to actually do it.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if, as a part of our temple covenants, we committed to living the Law of Tithing without actually being required to do it?

  13. Jack
    January 6, 2006 at 3:40 pm

    Well, maybe this is what Nate is really getting at.

    I disagree with Nibley on consecration. I think a faithful member should have no obstruction to living that law. It’s just not so easy to see when one is and or even when one isn’t.

  14. rich
    January 6, 2006 at 3:50 pm

    I see the restoration as less a return of God’s authority to the earth and more a dramatic increase of God’s interaction with the earth, primarily with the intent to fulfill promises he made long ago to Israel’s progenitors.

    In the grand scheme of Israel’s redemption, there appeared to be a cooling off period–after the Jews rejected their God–where Israel was scattered throughout the world and left to proverbially wander in the desert for around 1500 years.

    Joseph Smith was raised up not so much to revive the decrepit state of gentile Christianity as to bring about promises made to Lehi and his posterity–and to Israel in general–that God would remember them in the last days and return them to the lands of their inheritance and the religion of their fathers.

    For some reason, the focus since Joseph’s day has shifted from the redemption of Israel after a long and punitive haitus to a more technical question of whether or not ordinances performed without priesthood authority are indeed binding in heaven, and when and where that priesthood authority was lost and when it was restored, and what all this means in the discussion of a “true” church, etc. The apostasy debate Nate has repudiated revolves almost entirely around those kinds of questions. That position was and is wrong, but not because debate over a “true” church goes against the new “ecumenical” flavor of church PR.

    It’s wrong because it’s irrelevant. The debates about authority and “which church is true?” are entirely peripheral to the more central issue of Israel’s redemption and what role the church should play in that work in the Latter-days. Focusing on the apostasy amounts to making the “how” of God’s use of Gentile nations in Israel’s redemption the object of our religion, when in fact the object should really be “what” God wants us to be doing as a church today to further the redemption of his covenant people.

    Is it possible that the church has dropped its focus on the apostasy not because the thinking or conclusions were wrong, but more because the focus itself was off-base?

    I think the point of the restoration isn’t that God fixed what was broken in Christianity . . . it’s that he’s back to fulfill his promises to his covenant people . . . AND . . . the means and organizations he uses to ultimately fulfill those promises may, or very well may NOT look anything like the Christianity we’ve grown accustomed to over the last 2000 years.

  15. rich
    January 6, 2006 at 3:53 pm

    AND . . . the current state of the church could thus be framed less as a “moving away” from erroneous doctrines of the past than as a “moving towards” what it must become to fulfill the role God intends for it in Israel’s redemption.

  16. Gilgamesh
    January 6, 2006 at 3:54 pm

    In wouldn’t say the doctrine is not taught, or even that it is watered down. I would say those that used the doctrine for divisiveness no longer have a soap box in the general LDS community due to the efforts of President Hinckley and others to show that, even though we believe the other churches lost their authority, we recognize that individuals within their churches may bring forth good fruits.

    I think the trend, starting with President Kimball, has been to recognize that Christianity lost the authority to perform the ordinances necessery for Celestial Salvation, but Terrestrial salvation is still attainable by those that attend other faiths. Still an apostacy, still on authority, but a recognition that there are good people out there.

    Politically, it would be difficult for the church to do much of it’s humanitarian work without Catholic Relief Services. It is better to have a good relationship with them than not. They recognize, just as we do, that religions have a right to believe that they hold the keys to salvation.

  17. rich
    January 6, 2006 at 3:56 pm

    To wrap this all up and return it to Nate’s original question . . . I don’t think there is much use for the elaborate discussion of apostasy in the future. And I don’t feel compelled in any way to preserve it by revamping it as a measure of one’s sincerity as a religious diciple.

  18. Nate Oman
    January 6, 2006 at 3:59 pm

    Rich: It seems to me however that (1) we want to have a language that allows us to criticize certain forms of religiousity; and, (2) the doctrines of apostasy are largely about a language designed for the criticism of certain forms of religiousity.

  19. rich
    January 6, 2006 at 4:15 pm

    Nate: Define language.

  20. Julie M. Smith
    January 6, 2006 at 4:26 pm

    Well, we know Nate hasn’t read the lesson in the WW manual for RS/EQ this week. . . he would have found a nice presentation of good ol’ traditional LDS teachings on the apostasy. (There were a few borderline-cringeworthy moments for me as I read it.)

    I realize this is a too-nuanced position for the 15 second sound-bite on national TV or at a cocktail party, but we have to do a better job of articulating our truth claims while in the same breath acknowledging the goodness and value of other traditions. Not an easy task . . .

  21. WillF
    January 6, 2006 at 4:34 pm

    I think most churches believe they are the true church. We are just the ones who come out and insist on it.

  22. Jeremy
    January 6, 2006 at 4:37 pm

    It seems to me the church is taking a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, there is a greater ecumenical outreach and a greater effort to maintain a voice of diplomacy and common ground; on the other hand, there has been in recent times a greater emphasis on Joseph Smith (though perhaps this emphasis relates to recent landmark anniversaries). This emphasis on Joseph Smith tends to focus on what constituted the restoration as a whole rather than pointing out the faults for which the restoration served as a corrective. In other words, it asserts the truth of the Restoration and allows that assertion without explicitly framing that truth in terms of its polar relationship to the apostasy. I don’t have it on hand, but I seem to recall an article by an apostle in the most recent Ensign that takes this tack. State the truth without stating directly what that truth inherently deems false.

  23. Visorstuff
    January 6, 2006 at 5:39 pm

    I think one big think to point out, is that the doctrines state that other churches apostasized from true Christianity, not that all people apostasized from living true Christianity. And that the priesthood was gone, and could not authitatively preach/teach true Christianity.

    The rhetoric that is being softened is toward individuals. It is also reflective of the optimistic nature of the brethren right now. Less doomsday, and more to look forward to, with an eye of faith. There are many “good people of other faiths,” who do great things. But their church is still not approved of by the Lord, doesn’t hold his priesthood, nor a “fullness” of the gospel that grows with revelation (fullness as opposed to complete) and yet still can do much good.

    I think we remember the harsher talks and examples of preaching against traditional Christianity much more than we remember the ecumenical teachings of Smith, Young, Woodruff and others.

  24. Visorstuff
    January 6, 2006 at 5:40 pm

    the end of my first paragraph should read “authoritatively preach/teach true Christianity”

  25. January 6, 2006 at 5:45 pm

    RT, (#4), I think that view of apostasy as religious hypocrisy is remarkably like what I take Nibley to be arguing in his various notions of Sophic vs. Mantic. I think Nibley’s treatment problematic for reasons I’ve discussed. But he basically argues that what counts is less what you believe than your anticipation for revelation. It’s kind of an odd notion, but does make a bit of sense.

  26. Nate Oman
    January 6, 2006 at 5:49 pm

    “Nate: Define language.”

    A medium of thought and communication.

  27. rich
    January 6, 2006 at 7:05 pm


    I DO want a language for criticizing certain forms of religiosity. And I can see how doctrines of apostasy “might could” be revamped towards that end. But why? Aren’t there better tools for developing that language? Like words that don’t come loaded with decades worth of well-developed and commonly understood meaning?

  28. January 6, 2006 at 8:24 pm

    I like a narrow view of apostasy, one that maintains its clarity and vigor as a word, and power as a concept. To me its essence is open rebellion, a proactive contention against formerly-held beliefs and loyalties.

    Hence I would agree that it is not helpful or accurate for Mormons to think of the rest of modern Christianity as apostate. To be well-intenioned and sincere, but mistaken, is not to be apostate.

    But on the other hand, I disagree with what Nate seems to be saying here, that a lack of valiance or kind of spiritual laziness constitutes apostasy. It makes the word less threatening, but emasculates it doing so. I would rather see other words and concepts used to foster reflection on the depth and purity of religiosity.

  29. Ben H
    January 6, 2006 at 8:45 pm

    But Christian, whatever you think the connotations of “apostasy” should be in the abstract, for Mormons there is this situation that called for a restoration, and it needs a name, and so far, the name has been “apostasy”. As long as we claim the restoration was necessary, we will be talking about this, and since the traditional word in Mormon discourse for that situation has been “apostasy”, we would need some pretty forceful reasons to adopt a different word for it, even if in various ways many of us reconceptualize what the problem was that required the restoration.

  30. Jeremy
    January 6, 2006 at 9:19 pm

    But Christian, whatever you think the connotations of “apostasy� should be in the abstract, for Mormons there is this situation that called for a restoration, and it needs a name, and so far, the name has been “apostasy�.

    Maybe, in the interest of diplomacy, we could just call it “The Great Lull”?

  31. January 6, 2006 at 9:21 pm

    Ben, we could still say an apostasy occurred after the first generation of apostles; that generation rebelled and so on, and the authority was lost etc. Hence a restoration was necessary. But is it necessary to think of as apostate all the intermediate generations that had to live with the results of one generation’s apostasy? (I don’t dispute this has been common usage in the Church, and perhaps some or many continued to willfully rebel against the plain meaning of the scriptures or something; but perhaps also our thinking could be refined a bit. Perhaps also distinctions can be made between apostate doctrines and apostate people, I don’t know.)

    Anyway I’m actually arguing for a sense that—as I’ve described—preserves your concern for a valid historical meaning for the restored Church, and against the sense Nate proposes, which renders an indifferent, slacker Mormon apostate.

  32. Randolph Finder
    January 6, 2006 at 9:49 pm

    Actually, I find the LDS concept of the apostacy to be rather moebius-stripish (circular with a twist). I think the question that sort of leads oddly backwards and forwards is “Was the apostacy the fault of the Christians of the time?” Given that none of the new testament apostles became a prophet, who was supposed to have lead them *and* unify them? Given the rapid spread of Christianity, the oppression by the Romans and the great geographical distances, was it *possible* for Christianity to have remained unified in the 2nd & 3rd century *without* it becoming the official religion of Rome. Was it wrong for the First Council of Nicea to be called to attempt to find a common ground to keep from Christianity from splintering even more than it did?

    When did the apostacy occur? About the only agreement I can find is that it was complete by the First Council of Nicea is 325AD..

  33. January 6, 2006 at 9:58 pm

    I was interested in the passing comments above about “consecration.” One thing that interested me last weekend as I was working my way to the end of Bushman’s Joseph book was his description of the way the Joseph himself backed away in demonstrable ways in Nauvoo from the consecration language and asks from the Saints that were so much a part of his language in Kirtland and Missouri. Interesting discussion about the complications in Joseph’s own thinking. Thinking about that, I’m wondering if it’s all that clear what “consecration” means for our time and place.

    And by the way I agree about conspiracy theories in general. They require such faith in the cooperation, thinking, and foresight of mere humans.

  34. Jeremy
    January 6, 2006 at 10:08 pm

    And by the way I agree about conspiracy theories in general. They require such faith in the cooperation, thinking, and foresight of mere humans.

    Speaking of which, I’ve heard that the sequel to The DaVinci Code is supposed to have some Mormon stuff in it. So perhaps in popular culture we’ll at least be regarded in some degree as being in on the ancient esoteric secrets supressed by Rome… :)

  35. adre
    January 6, 2006 at 10:38 pm

    So, in other words, you can be an active, believing Mormon, but utterly apostate from true Christianity?
    Mormonism is the only form of true Christianity there is. All others are the apostates.

    And I don’t believe this doctrine is dead or dying. Of course the PR department probably doesn’t want to see Hinckley on Larry King Live denouncing everyone else, but just because they’re not playing up the apostasy on cable news doesn’t mean it’s been recused or that we believe in it any less.

  36. adre
    January 6, 2006 at 10:45 pm

    Randolph, most people consider the Old World to be apostate by 325, yes. This guy proposes that Britain was the last stronghold for true Christianity and that 570 is the date of worldwide apostasy, with the fall of the Celtic Church http://www.whyprophets.com/prophets/celtic.htm .

    Honestly, any exact statement, including the one I just linked to, is speculation. It’s unknown exactly when the world was officially considered apostate. It was sometime between 300 and 700 AD for the areas we have records from now (Book of Mormon, Bible).

    And Peter was left to lead.

  37. Seth Rogers
    January 6, 2006 at 11:22 pm

    Yes, the human implementation of religion in the other christian sects is an “abomination” in God’s eyes. Popular Mormon practice of religion is also an “abomination.”

    Anyone who truly believes in human fallibility and the need for constant repentance ought to freely admit this. If the other christians really are as big on Christ’s grace as they say they are, they ought to be the first in line to admit that their religious practice is abominable.

    “All sin and fall short of the …. I forget, but you get the point.

    But really, in American religious practice, the age-old call to repent has been largely replaced by insipid mantras of “I’m OK and your OK.”

    That might indeed be abominable.

  38. adre
    January 6, 2006 at 11:32 pm

    “I’m OK, You’re OK” isn’t meant to take the place of calls to repentance. It’s meant as a way a social philosophy. Everyone needs to repent and surely we still need to people to sound that call, but because everyone needs to repent, after we sound the call to repentance (however many times we may be asked), we need to go on to “I’m OK, You’re OK” and leave everything else up to God.

  39. Ned
    January 7, 2006 at 3:10 am

    Apostasy: abandonment of religion, either as an institution or as an individual.

    Institutional apostasy is “The Apostasy.� It describes the historical piece of trivia that makes sense out of the current chaos in Christendom. The early Christian Saints departed from God in the aggregate, and here we are today. Albeit simple, this meaning of apostasy offers a plausible explanation for a theology claiming “the� truth amidst many other religions offering a richer heritage. It does not, however, serve as a foundation for faith or knowledge: I don’t pay tithing because the apostasy is the most coherent explanation of the disorganized state of organized religion. Epistemological certainty requires pragmatic assurance. The institutional form of “apostasy,� then, merely appeases intellectual challenges to the historical legitimacy of a relatively brand-new religion. It will likely continue to do so.

    Personal apostasy describes the means through which an individual abandons religion after having actually experienced it. We have traditionally associated personal apostasy with criticism of Church leaders, policy, or doctrine. That is the most common outward manifestation of Church departure, and Church membership we view as religious practice. Accordingly, an “apostate� has denoted a person who outwardly leaves the Church, usually through criticism.

    Nate’s commentary brings to light another form of personal apostasy—hypocritical spiritual complacency. Although it is no new phenomenon, this complacency has in the past been a circumstance that is difficult to identify in others. Dirty within, the dish is clean without. For this reason, “apostasy�—in its personal sense—has not been used to describe spiritual complacency. So what, then, is the basis for Nate positing that “apostasy� seems to be admitting this new meaning? Church PR? I think not. Spiritual complacency is likely becoming either more manifest or more prevalent, or both. Construing “apostasy� to mean spiritual complacency does not indicate a shift in institutional policy; rather, it indicates a shift in aggregate behavior. The word will always describe the most outwardly prevalent means for abandoning religion. That means seems to be taking a new form. Nate is right.

  40. annegb
    January 7, 2006 at 4:18 am

    I was going to say something snotty about posting so deep that people can’t understand what you’re saying, then I thought, “oh, anne, have mercy. even deeply intellectual people need a place to go.”

  41. Tatiana
    January 7, 2006 at 4:40 am

    Focusing back on the saints and consecration, there’s this problem that we who have so much tend to find difficult, that is: what those with less consider luxuries, we consider necessities. If we look at the situation of the saints all over the world, we know that it’s wrong for there to be huge income disparities and social distinctions, yet they are there. It seems like in the Book of Mormon, every time the covenant people allowed that to happen, there was some awful destruction, then they repented and fixed it until the next time.

    Doesn’t that apply to us now? I can’t get around the idea that it must. Yet I also find indoor plumbing, hot showers every day, refrigeration for food, plenty of books to read, etc. to be necessities. All those things are clearly luxuries from the point of view of a global average household. What about a global average LDS household? I guess it’s right that we should provide for our own families first, then for our own church members, then for all people. But when I compare myself to, for instance, some Mayan Guatemalan member family who live in a mud hut with a single well in the middle of the village, no electricity, no plumbing, and not enough iron in their diet for proper brain development in their children, how can I justify buying a copy of Rough Stone Rolling (something I rather want) when that same money could feed that member family for a month?

    What step in this reasoning is faulty? I do think the money can be used most wisely in ways that will increase the long-term income potential for those families, but can you tell that to a hungry baby? The PEF is great but is it enough?

  42. Rosalynde Welch
    January 7, 2006 at 8:46 am

    There was more than one occasion in grad school on which I was grateful to have the ideological resources to disaffiliate myself, if pressed, from reformed, Roman and orthodox Christianity, and from Judaism and Islam, and indeed from certain aspects of Mormonism as well. It never actually came to that, gratefully.

    I’ve been (rather idly) wondering how to handle apostasy in my RS lesson tomorrow. It seems to me that whereas the discourse of apostasy once played a direct and indeed dominant role in maintaining the boundaries of Mormon identity, it now plays a much less direct and active—though still crucial—part in the same process. “Apostasy” now works primarily to facilitate the logic of our myths of origin, centering around the first vision and the restorations of the priesthood, and while these foundational stories are still loadbearers in Mormon identity, they put apostasy at one mytho-historical remove from LDS self-definition.

  43. Ned
    January 7, 2006 at 9:05 am

    Posted at 3 in the morning, the following sentence wants of clarification: “I don’t pay tithing because the apostasy is the most coherent explanation of the disorganized state of organized religion.” Let me rephrase: “The reason for paying tithing is not because the apostasy is the most coherent explanation of . . . .”

  44. Razorfish
    January 7, 2006 at 10:34 am

    Regarding Post #14

    “I see the restoration as less a return of God’s authority to the earth and more a dramatic increase of God’s interaction with the earth, primarily with the intent to fulfill promises he made long ago to Israel’s progenitors.”

    I think the thrust of this thought helps strike the proper balance between the relative importance of the Restoration and the long-term significance of the apostacy.

    Assuming the reality of the apostacy (direct loss of priesthood authority and ability to administer ordinances required for salvation), the spiritual consequences are dire and legion for countless told millions (or billions) of people through many centuries and dispensations. However, just as the consequence of sin is swallowed up in Christ’s atonement, so to is the apostacy swallowed up by vicarious redemptive temple work and the principle of “accepting the fullness of the gospel in the next life.”

    This so-called back door clause in LDS doctrine completely mitigates the sting of the apostacy. In fact in some respects, this doctrinal clause makes the apostacy essentially irrelevant. It also significantly dilutes the urgency of missionary work to administer savings priesthood ordinances in this life. If good faithful / valiant (non-LDS) people don’t adequately have a chance to accept the gospel in this life, surely they will accept it in the next life (God knows their hearts).

    I can’t fathom that a infinately small percentage of LDS covenant abiding people will be the sole remnant of God’s humanity to inherit Celestial Glory, but rather a significant legion and body of non-LDS people will also be worthy of these blessings in the next life (albeit the ordinances will be administered vicariously at some point – but that’s just a matter of checking the box).

    The apostacy then becomes much less spiritually significant, and therefore, less divisive between other faiths if there is a common understanding that everyone will have and adequate chance to accept the gospel in the next life.
    Therefore, the apostacy has less relevance in “picking and choosing” who merits eternal life, and more relevance in showing God’s hand in fulfilling all the promises and blessings to Israel and that ultimately it will be redeemed and that His work will be completed.

  45. annegb
    January 7, 2006 at 12:06 pm

    Ned, when I read your post, I laughed out loud. Because it makes no sense to me either way.

  46. Blake
    January 7, 2006 at 12:48 pm

    Nate: I have real reservations about limiting apostasy to no-priesthood. What JS believed he was restoring was not merely a Church organization but glorious truths that had been lost that gave a true view of God. I also have reservations about the “beliefs” don’t really matter line of approach that is assumed by Nate here. I recognize the problem that if another group were to teach similar things to LDS doctrine then it may turn out to be a non-apostate Church. Yet new revelation was central to the restoration. JS saw his mission, I believe, as restoring a more nearly true view of God so that God could be approached and known face to face. So believe that there is an important doctrinal dimension to apostasy as well.

    It seems to me that any doctrine that creates alienation between humans and God because it makes God inaccessible for religious purposes is a doctrine that foments apostasy. Thus, it seems to me that the Absolutist or Platonist turn of the Church is quite significant. God is outside of time, outside of space, not subject to being affected, beyond human categories or conception of any sort etc. and thus inaccessible for religious purposes, to use Whitehead’s venerable phrase.

    I believe that LDS doctrine is absolutely unique in the sense that it personalizes God and rejects the theological absolutes that follow from the doctrine of ex nihilo creation and Aristotelianism or Platonism that characterizes virtually all current Judeo-conventional christian-Islamic thought. When God is made so far away that whe cannot speak with one another as one man (or woman) speaks to another we have lost Christianity and the apostasy is inevitable. Doctrines of divine embodiment of the Father, rejection of creatio ex nihilo, eternal existence of intelligences, and degrees of glory are utterly unique (tho perhaps in some form one or other of these views may be approximated in some religious tradition or New Age systems). That we are of the same species as the gods is breathtaking — and where else can it be found? It is of the essence of LDS thought that our heritage is divine and our capacity is to fully share in God’s divinity in unity with the Godhead. That is breath-taking and stunning. So I am surprised that we now reduce the apostasy to no authority.

    That said, a charitable view toward other traditions and others not LDS is also possible. The purposes that we have in life may not be the same. Perhaps not all truly choose to pursue an eternal family, or full divinity. God loves any person born in China as much as he loves Pres. Hinckley, and yet that person may never hear the gospel in this life. Moreover, in sending that person to China we must presume that God knew full well what the circumstances of that person’s life would be. Persons are sent to homes with a history of child abuse and terrible violence. In going to such homes, it seems to me that we can assume that God would not send anyone into a situation not calculated to be for that person’s best interest in the eternal scheme of things. So I believe that we each have purposes for life that we have chosen before this life. Our lives are so prepared that we will have the opportunity to learn what we undertook to learn from our mortal experiences.

    It is possible that given the purposes of the person who is born in China that learning of the one true religion was not part of God’s purpose for their lives (isn’t that obvious?) because given where they are in their eternal journey of progression and learning, an experience is China, or being born into a a Zen Buddist home, would serve them to learn and progress better than being born in SLC, Utah. Being born into an abusive family may give opportunities to learn about forgiveness and repentance and taking a stand and breaking family chains better than being born into a less disfunctional family. Yet we are all born into families that are disfunctional to some degree.

    So I am suggesting that we see those in other religious traditions and walks of life as fufilling their life’s purposes, learning what they came to learn (or not), growing from where they are and being served best where they are until they choose another way. I suggest we see their walk of life as God-facilitated even without the true and living Church as its purpose. I also suggest that we see our own station in the same way and remain open to the possibility of being called to learn new things and reach new horizons and even open to the possibility of a new walk of life if God calls us to do so.

  47. Blake
    January 7, 2006 at 1:03 pm

    Nate: I have seperated this post because it cuts to the quick in your position. If personal hypocrisy is the dividing line between apostate/non-apostate, then it is functionally useless since all religions (and non-religions) have their fair share of hypocrites and jerks, and all of us have our fair share of hypocrisy and jerkiness. It doesn’t divide or define, it just warns everyone the same. If failing to live a good life is what true religion is all about (and to a certain extent it is) then religion and any belonging-to becomes rather secondary because there are good and bad people in all religions, and good and bad in all people. As a demarcer it fails utterly and totally. Now Evangelicals believe that only the Christians can truly please God because only a person who has accepted Christ is justified and all who have not are not acceptable before God regardless of how they live their lives. But I presume that is not a view that has any pull for you.

  48. January 7, 2006 at 1:06 pm

    With regard to tomorrow’s lesson, which has been brought up a couple of times here… While the word “apostasy” appears in section headings and in a couple questions, it doesn’t look like Pres. Woodruff ever uses the word in any of the given quotes. Hence I think a splendid lesson could be given without even mentioning the word “apostasy”!

  49. Carl G
    January 7, 2006 at 5:43 pm

    I think Nate’s usage of “apostasy” (basically, true v. false religion) is more a generic than specific usage (apostasy, not the Apostasy), and the two have been conflated somewhat in this thread. Or at least I regard the Great Apostasy as having ended with the Restoration, and would make a hard distinction between the generic and specific, though T. Edgar Lyon and doubtless others are not always troubled by the conflation of apostasy with the Apostasy. Perhaps another point for discussion.

    Anyway, Ben (#10) made a good point that the Great Apostasy has made a real comeback in the missionary curriculum, which indicates to me that the church is not retreating from it, but perhaps even emphasizing it anew to promote differentiation. See the article by Duffy in the Sept. 2005 Sunstone (http://www.sunstoneonline.com/magazine/issues/138/28-46_duffy%20web.pdf). Rosalynde (#42) nods to this historical/theological usage as well and rightly sees its essential place in our aetiology. I think “the Great Apostasy” will continue to be very prominent in our discussions of origins and our efforts at historical differentiation, but by restricting our usage primarily to describing the dead history of the “Great Lull” (nice coinage!), it becomes much less offensive in contemporary interfaith discourse.

    It’s interesting as well that two recent books have tended somewhat towards Randolph’s understanding (#32), or at least offer revisionist accounts of the Apostasy that largely exculpate Christians from the second century onwards. The old “Evil Christian” theory, even with it being localized to the primitive church (no one left to offend there), is slowly being reevaluated. I personally think this is less due to discomfort with sectarian polemic than with the very real historical and theological problems with the “Evil Christianâ€? thesis.

  50. JWL
    January 8, 2006 at 2:10 am

    We’ve heard from the RS/Prsthd teachers, now it’s time to hear from the Gospel Doctrine teachers. Further to Blake’s #46, I would note that this Sunday’s GD lesson is on the preexistence. Hints and pieces of this powerful “story of eternity” (to use Richard Bushman’s phrase) are found in various ancient biblical and apocryphal sources, but it was declared heretical by a Church council in 553. Whether or not we use the term “apostacy,” we need a way to put forth our position that important truths have been lost and that only with modern prophets have they been fully restored. Surely this wonderful knowledge, which turns every human’s life into a hero’s quest, is religiously significant in providing a motivational history to explain why we want to lead moral lives.

  51. comet
    January 8, 2006 at 4:04 am

    Apostasy is part and parcel with the one true church doctrine. The minute a religion
    relents on its truth claims it loses its power to persuade adherents and investigators
    alike. The haunting refrain “why this particular one and not some other?” will inevitably
    corrode committment in one way or another. That hard edge must be articulated somewhere throughout the religious body in both doctrine and practice. The question is, will religious identity be articulated primarily in terms of doctrinal position (as it was a generation or two ago) or
    social issues (as it increasingly seems to be now) or some other way (say through dietary
    taboos like coffee, tea, even cola drinks)?

    The word apostasy is too confrontational to be of much use in public, but it is still important for
    internal consumption. Even beyond PR concerns, reliance on terms like apostasy seems to signal a church still not strong enough to assimilate rival gods, let alone annihilate them as the term apostasy would seem to suggest. For example, I’m thinking of “honji suijaku,” the Buddhist practice when it first entered Japan of appropriating native Shinto dieties as mere manifestations of the original Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. For a church that holds ambitions to circumscribe all truth into one great whole, something of this nature would seem to be inevitable, but it probably won’t happen under the aegis of apostasy which seems too all-or-none.

  52. Jack
    January 8, 2006 at 6:40 pm

    I’m swayed by comments #46 & #50.

    What about them there “plain and precious parts” of the gospel that were “take[n] away?”

  53. Mark N.
    January 9, 2006 at 2:36 am

    I think it’s interesting that whenever the topic of “apostasy” comes up, it’s always with reference to something that happened a long time ago to another group of saints, but never in the context that it’s something we have to be on guard against in our own day. Given that the Book of Mormon is given as a warning (“Look what happened to us, see to it that you don’t let this happen to you, too”) against apostasy and falling away, our refusal to discuss it in that light seems rather interesting, if not altogether short-sighted.

  54. Jack
    January 9, 2006 at 10:40 am

    Mark N.,

    I think what we’re dealing with here is a refusal to accept the idea of a general falling away because of warped doctrine and loss of authority. The Book of Mormon (imo) makes that kind of apostasy quite clear as well. That said, I agree with you–that being on guard against apostasy in our own day is central to the message of the BoM.

  55. Nate Oman
    January 9, 2006 at 10:51 am

    Blake: I didn’t offfer hypocrisy as the sine qua non of apostasy. Nor am I suggesting — as you seem to assume — that one should abandon the notion that the Restoration involves the revelation of uniquely important truths over and beyond the restoration of priesthood authority. Nor am I denigrating belief, per se, although I seriously doubt that one can be damned for holding incorrect opinions.

    Rather, my point is that the language of apostasy is ultimately a language designed for the condemnation of certain forms of religiousity, and that we needn’t view this in purely sectarian terms. Hence, it is not simply a matter of saying that Anglicans are wrong — although I believe in many ways that they are — but also a way of saying that certain kinds of religious behavior are wrong. Hypocrisy is one example of religious misbehavior but I think that there are others.

  56. Jack
    January 9, 2006 at 11:37 am


    It seems to me that the “language” of apostasy ought to be broad enough to include a discriptive-ness of sorts having to do with a general falling away which occured not to long after the rise of the early christian church–which (falling away) resulted in the rise of, not only warped religiousity, but false doctrine which proved destructive regardless of the pursuit “pure religion.”

  57. Jack
    January 9, 2006 at 11:47 am

    …of course, a general apostasy can certainly be the result of empty religiousity–no doubt.

  58. Barry
    January 12, 2006 at 5:49 pm

    This whole discussion on apostacy is interesting. One point that has been missed is that apostacy is the falling away from the truth, not a church, as we in the church so often suggest. The restoration provided us the opportunity to re-establish the authority and the doctrine of true christianity back unto the earth. Our challenge now is not to apostacize from this true religion and change doctrine into dogma. This is not only a B of M principle but also a NT principle, the leaders of that day had lost the truth, they were more interested in their authority than the truth, and were more interested in Christ’s authority than what He said. Doctrines of men mingled with scripture are what we as LDS should be concerned about. Priestcraft was one of the practices that the B of M warns us about within the church. Who and how we worship will determine whether we fall into apostacy or not and for those who think that and want to promote the God will not allow us to fall doctrine, that teaching is the first part of the oath of a Zoramite, infallibility is not the doctrine of Christ’s church, only the doctrine of an apostate church that once had the truth and lost it.

  59. Razorfish
    January 12, 2006 at 10:46 pm

    Apostasy is the Falling Away from the Truth

    I agree the more universal and emcompassing definition of the Apostasy is a “falling away or loss of Truth” which includes authority, priesthood, ordinances, rituals, gospel truths, nature of God, esoteric mysteries, origin and ultimate disposition of men and women…in short the Plan of Salvation as revealed (again) through the Restoration and the Prophet Joseph.

    As marvelous and wonderous as it is to contemplate the restoration of so many hidden truths and spiritual knowledge that lay hidden for hundreds and thousands of years, the limited penetration of the restored gospel relative to the sea of humanity that has ever lived seems problematic. Today less than 2/10’s of 1 % are members of the Church. In all of human history, this number shrinks again by at least a factor of 10.

    Nephi when seeing by vision the latter days, saw the remnant of the restored church scattered across the world and noted that numerically “it’s numbers were few” (1st Nephi 14:12). In part this was due to the wickedness of the great whore who had dominion and power over nearly all the world.

    Daniel foretold the stone (restored church) that would be cut out of the mountain without hands that would consume the earth and break down all political kingdoms and consume them all and stand forever (Daniel 2:44).

    In reconciling these two visions, it just seems that as impressive as the Restoration is in terms of spiritual knowledge, it’s geographic and numerical penetration seems dwarfed in comparison to the sea of humanity.

    I’m not suggesting that somehow the Plan of Salvation is “behind schedule” in any respects and that the velocity of the Restoration needs to somehow pick up (although it is), but it does seem daunting to me how relatively few souls through all the generations of this earth life have had a full knowledge of the gospel truths.

    It seems historically the Apostasy only compounds this problem (the relatively few who had the truth in the primitive church, soon lost it or part of it). Although everyone will ultimately get the chance in the spirit world, does it strike anyone as interesting how relatively few are exposed to the fullness of the gospel while on earth?

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