History, apostasy, and faith-promoting rumors

Mormon belief in an early Christian apostasy suggests a couple of historiographic projects that are, I think, doomed to failure, but there might be an alternative. One common but unworkable approach is the attempt to document the falling away from the original church; the other is the quest to demonstrate an outward identity of early Christianity and current Mormonism. Both are quite viable as matters of belief or devotional reading of history, but neither one allows the kind of scholarship that doesn’t start with the conclusion.

If the apostasy itself is hard to grasp as history, belief in the apostasy is much easier to document. The question becomes: who among early Christians thought that night was coming? Who thought that darkness had already fallen? And who before 1830 thought that priesthood authority had been withdrawn, but would one day return? If we can answer those questions, we might not demonstrate that an apostasy took place, but we could potentially place the Mormon historical model of apostasy and restoration in a tradition reaching back to the first century. Hugh Nibley, in his work on early Christian belief in an apostasy, provided an initial basis for the first centuries A.D. (see Ryan Christensen’s excellent bibliographic note).

Confirming the Mormon view of history is also the function of the pseudo-prophecy of “Lutius Gratiano” (for the authoritative debunking, see Paul Pixton’s article). From the Mormon point of view, the time before 1830 lacked proper authority to conduct priesthood ordinances; apart from recognizing the prevailing state of apostasy and looking forward expectantly to the restoration, there wasn’t much else to be done. Or as the pseudo-prophecy puts it,

The old true gospel and the powers thereof are lost. False doctrines prevail throughout every church and all the lands. All we can do is to exhort the people to fear God, to be just, to shun evil, to pray, pray, pray. Prayer and purity may bring an angel to visit a deeply distressed soul … [who] will restore the old Church again (Cited from Pixton 28 n. 1).

Enlightened minds, skeptical of nth-generation copies passed down in all earnestness from gullible mission companions, read these lines and shake their heads. Surely no one looks at their own time and sees apostasy, or dreams of a far-off restoration!


In 1531, the Anabaptist leader Pilgram Marpeck authored what might be called a proto-Anti-Mormon tract. In it, he attacked various positions that are usually most closely associated with Caspar Schwenckfeld. Marpeck’s attack does not necessarily represent Schwenckfeld’s personal beliefs, but the tract can be taken as initial evidence of what some people believed in or around 1531. Namely, Marpeck writes,

They say that, at present, no longer does anyone have the power to employ the ceremonies of Christ, such as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, teaching, the ban, and the laying on of hands, and that those who do employ these ceremonies do so apart from God’s command….

They say that, as often as the Jews fell from God, they were restored and corrected through a new prophet. These fake teachers adduce many histories and accounts against the truth in order to prove that the fallen Christians of the kingdom of Antichrist also shall be brought back, in the same way, through prophets. Otherwise, as they say, one employs unwashed hands to carry out the work, teaching, and ceremonies of Christ. They introduce the fact that the apostles waited, as the Lord commanded, for the Holy Spirit.

In Marpeck’s opinion, the beliefs he is attacking are tantamount to Christ saying,

“If in time you grow in unbelief and fall, you will see miracles and great powerful deeds through prophets; then believe in them. But before such prophets are sent to you, you must give yourself unto repentance and heartfelt prayer, and thereafter I will send you prophets or apostles who will restore your fall. I will then send you prophets, as in former times I always sent them to the Jews after their judging, punishment, and repentance; they have thus been lifted up and corrected.” These prophets [that is, those who espouse the beliefs that Marpeck finds so ridiculous] were the first to invent this approach… [pp. 71, 89-90, 92-93 in The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck, trans. and ed. by William Klassen and Walter Klaassen [Kitchener/Scottdale: Herald Press, 1978]. The citations here are from Ain klarer vast nutzlicher vnterricht wider ettliche Trück vnd schleichendt Geyster… [Strasbourg: Jakob Cammerlander, 1531], VD16 M 925).

Belief that all the world was in apostasy? Check. Lack of authority to conduct ordinances? Check. Exhortation to pray and do good works and repent? Check. Expectation of a future prophet who will restore authority? Check. Marking the calendar for April 6, 1830, and plotting out the coordinates of the Great Salt Lake? Not so much, but you have to take what you can get.

It’s important to keep in mind that Marpeck is an express opponent of all these ideas (and his arguments against them are by no means flimsy). One has to be cautious in interpreting one man’s statements about the beliefs of his opponents. On the other hand, Marpeck’s writing suggests that some Anabaptist groups are too quickly categorized as spiritualists who sought the church of Christ in their hearts, when in fact some of them saw it, concretely, in the future. That is both a tradition that historians can argue about, and a timeline of history in which Mormons can place themselves.

29 comments for “History, apostasy, and faith-promoting rumors

  1. There are many Anabaptist beliefs that parallel Mormonism. For example, the city of Munster was led by a prophet who instituted polygamy, common-property, and had himself crowned king of the kingdom of God on earth. ;-)

  2. Yes, but the Münster episode was so generally nutty and ended so badly that I hope we don’t find too many Mormon parallels there. Despite our glamorizing of Zion’s Camp, the Mormon Battalion, and the Utah War, Mormon history is surprisingly bare of actual armed conflict between organized military forces. Not a single decent cavalry charge in 178 years of history and counting.

  3. In 1621, Robert Cushman preached a sermon at Plymouth–one of the first recorded sermons on (now-)American land. In it, after railing against the peoples of Europe for their coldness, carnality, and so on, he says that this new land is a way for the righteous to flee into the wilderness, and perhaps a new light will rise up here.

    “[I am] considering Gods dealing of olde, and seeing the name of Christian to be very great, but the true nature thereof almost quite lost in all degrees & sects, I cannot thinke but there is some judgement not farre off, and that God will shortly, even of stones, rayse up children unto Abraham.
    And who so rightly considereth, what manner of entrance…we have had amongst these poore Heathens since we came hither, will easily thinke, that God hath some great worke to doe towards them.”

    So as far as I can tell, he’s saying that everything is apostate, but perhaps in this new land God will raise up a true prophet and church soon.

    Didn’t the founder of the Baptist sect believe that all was in apostasy and that the true priesthood needed to be restored?

  4. I think Hatch’s volume Democratization of American Christianity is a helpful work here. A number of groups believed in something of an “Apostasy” after the first century. Notably Bishop Francis Asbury, father of American Methodism. He also believed that Methodism was something of a restoration, though.

    This is an interesting excerpt. Thanks for sharing it.

  5. Some of theses writings seem to only equate apostasy with ‘sin’ (?). They don’t tell us what is missing that once was. They are not even clear if they are talking about a noun or a verb.
    Clearly, Christians during the ‘missing time’ of 1800 years, had not forgotten Christ, abandoned their devotion, or given up their piety. Faith, repentance, baptism continued, as today, at several levels.

  6. I thought Vogel’s _Religious Seekers_ was an excellent study of this sentiment in 17th and 18th c. American and European Christianity.

  7. This may be repeating something in one of those links, but this post brought to mind Elder Holland’s talk from a few years back, when he said:

    It is true that some few in that day did not want their ministers to claim special sacramental authority, but most people longed for priesthood sanctioned by God and were frustrated as to where they might go to find such. [The note he includes after this statement reads: See David F. Holland, “Priest, Pastor, Power,” Insight, fall 1997, 15–22 for a thorough examination of priesthood issues current in America at the time of the Restoration.] In that spirit the revelatory return of priesthood authority through Joseph Smith should have eased centuries of anguish in those who felt what the famed Charles Wesley had the courage to say. Breaking ecclesiastically with his more famous brother John over the latter’s decision to ordain without authority to do so, Charles wrote with a smile:

    How easily are bishops made
    By man or woman’s whim:
    Wesley his hands on Coke hath laid,
    But who laid hands on him?

  8. >>Yes, but the Münster episode was so generally nutty and ended so badly that I hope we don’t find too many Mormon parallels there.

    I know. But as a never-mo, I admit I relish pointing out unwelcome parallels like these. On a slightly more faith-promoting note, Thomas Muntzer held that after the death of the apostles the church fell into darkness, and he castigated Luther for rejecting the restored “future church” and its prophetic giftings. The “future church” idea Muntzer apparently lifted from Joachim of Fiore. There. I hope I’ve atoned for my wicked never-mo ways.

    It’s actually interesting that you post on this subject. IFor the last couple days I’ve been playing with the idea of writing an article on Mormonism and its echoes of the Radical Reformation. I also have a thread ongoing at MADB about the “first vision” of Valentin Wiegel, an Anabaptist mystic.

  9. #7: “It is true that some few in that day did not want their ministers to claim special sacramental authority, but most people longed for priesthood sanctioned by God and were frustrated as to where they might go to find such.”
    I agree with the first part of the statement, I am not sure on the second part. There were lots of places to go for Priesthood Authority. My reading is most in the locale of Joseph Smith, were against a Priesthood. This was one of the things that angered Ministers against Joesph, that he was claiming to be the only one with the Authority to baptize.(?)

  10. “Surely no one looks at their own time and sees apostasy, or dreams of a far-off restoration!” I am not sure if I am reading this sentence correctly.

    I think T.T.( #6) brings up an important study on this subject with Dan Vogel’s “Religious Seekers”. Rick Grunder’s “Mormon Parallels” also documents numerous people in Joseph Smith’s environment looking forward to or believing a restoration had taken place. People in the early 1830’s believed the restoration had occurred with the forming of Evangelical Methodists in Pennsylvania. As for priesthood, people also believed this would or had happened outside Mormonism.

  11. Thanks for this post Jonathan. With regard to the “Lucius Gratiano” pseudo-prophecy, I happen to have the Hoffnung Zions Lutz/Gratianus book on microfilm on my desk at home now — it just arrived more than three years after our blog discussion of it over at BCC in 2005 (thanks for finding it and sending it!). That was one of my favorite blog discussions to date because the subject roused my interest and the analysis was downright fun. This type of thing emphasizes the value, to me, of all this Mormon blogging. This shows us that, like in a ward, some Bloggernacle discussions can continue over years, with the parties involved aware of the other parties’ views on the topic but with all parties learning from the exchange. In looking back to our 2005 discussion of the Lucius Gratiano material, I note that this post in particular seems to pick back up from a comment of yours there in which you stated that

    But there’s a more interesting question: what statements can we find in the 18th century or earlier that express recognition of apostasy and expectation of a restoration? How close can we come to a statement like the “prophecy”, from Lutz or anybody else, and how early?

    As to the isse of Apostasy at hand with this and some of your other posts, I also must say that your timing suits me too since I have also been contemplating matters associated with our understanding of the Apostasy lately. I must also say, with Chris, that there is a very uncomfortable similarity indeed between details of the Restoration attempted by the Münster Anabaptists and the Latter-day Saint movement exactly 300 years later. Of course, as you note, the whole “Rebellion” and armed insurrection aspect of the effort is entirely missing from the Latter-day Saint experience but many of the doctrines sought to be restored, including polygamy, as Chris pointed out, were very similar. In fact, I have a post on the drawing board relating to Dürrenmatt’s haunting play Die Wiedertäufer.

    As to your review of Marpeck’s writings as a basis to infer prevalent sentiments at the time, I agree with you about the disclaimer associated with this approach but also note that it can provide some understanding of what the arguments were. I should point out that the recent issue of BYU Studies takes a similar approach to investigating what Mormon missionaries were actually preaching in Denmark in the 1850s based on (anti-Mormon) writings of theologian Dr. Peter Christian Kierkegaard, the brother of philosopher Søren Kirkegaard (Julie K. Allen and David L. Paulsen, “The Reverend Dr. Peter Christian Kierkegaard¹s ‘About and Against Mormonism’ (1855).” BYU Studies 46.3 (2007)).

  12. m&m or Jonathan (or anyone else),

    m&m quoted Holland that:

    It is true that some few in that day did not want their ministers to claim special sacramental authority, but most people longed for priesthood sanctioned by God and were frustrated as to where they might go to find such.

    What would one cite for such an assertion? That’s a pretty strong claim to make, that most people at the time wanted ecclesiastical authority to have special sacramental authority. To be honest in most of my limited studies on the matter I haven’t read much about anyone giving a rodent’s hind end about such matters. Is there some literature dealing with this that I am missing?

  13. I don’t know if you guys have heard, but there was a Swedish father who said there would be a group of people next to a salt lake and stuff, this was in the 1500s. I saw it in Especially For Mormons Volume 3 I think.


  14. #13: Well, it is my understanding BY salted the lake, so the male Saints would not waste their valuable time fishing.

  15. #12: “.. giving a rodent’s hind end about such matters.” I believe these matters were very much cared about. Local Ministers preached against any priestcraft needed for salvation. They saw baptism as needing no man between them and God. They believed in repentance, not “confession’ to a priest. There was also preaching against the “Gift of the Holy Ghost”, if it meant outward showings of it, as rolling on the ground, passing out, speaking in tongues, etc.

  16. Bob read the comment again. I would like some justification that in that day, “most people longed for priesthood sanctioned by God.” You examples illustrate that they didn’t long for priesthood sanctioned by God, at least in the Mormon sense of the term. “They saw baptism as needing no man between them and God” means that proper priesthood authority was not as important as the ordinance and a good heart. Not believing in confession again means getting the priest out of the way, i.e. no need for “priesthood sanctioned by God.” “Local Ministers preached against any priestcraft needed for salvation,” again, lots of getting the priest out of the way, not much in the way of people really wanting priesthood sanctioned by God.

  17. #17: I am saying, in my readings, (not my opinion,I’m not that old), in the Joseph Smith locale, a priesthood was UNWANTED, and looked down upon. I maybe misread #7: “few in that day did not want their ministers to claim special sacramental authority” I am not sure what Elder Holland was trying to say..(did or didn’t).

  18. David Clark, m&m provided a link to a footnoted speech. Click the link, check out the footnote, and tell us what you think. I take responsibility only for my own footnotes. (Generally, I don’t expect the same painstaking treatment of history from a devotional Ensign article that I would from a scholarly source; for the same reason, I don’t give particular weight to devotional Ensign articles as statements of history.)

  19. I did check the link. Who publishes the “Insight” journal that he is referring to? There are lots of journals/magazines called Insight out there.

  20. I’m pretty sure this Insight is the BYU publication for undergraduate papers. The subtitle of Holland’s paper was “Joseph Smith and the Question of Priesthood” when it was included in a 1997 Joseph Fielding Smith Institute (BYU) compilation.

  21. Elder Holland: ” Those Apostles were soon killed or otherwise taken from the earth, and their priesthood keys were taken with them.”
    Is this saying only 12 people held the priesthood, and never passed on to others by the 12?

  22. To the extent that there is evidence that there has been, within traditionally identified Christian churches or movements, a belief that new authority needed to come from God in order to reestablish the church in full, it would bear on another issue: Whether the LDS Church is properly classified as being within the Christian tradition. If believing in a need for a restoration from heaven of authority to perform ordinances is one Christian viewpoint with an historical precedent, then that aspect of LDS doctrine would seem to fall within one branch of the recognized Christian tradition.

    After all, the anti-Mormon assessment of Joseph Smith is that he assembled the ready-made aspects of Christianity on the American frontier and created books and a church that was wholly a product of its Christian environment. It may have been in reaction to certain aspects of traditional Christianity, but like the Reformation, that relationship is one of historical and logical descent. No one argues that Protestants are not Christian because they rejected aspects of Catholicism. There is a delineated evolutionary line linking the Reformation to the Catholic Church. For the same reason, anyone who rejects Smith’s explanation for the source of his inspiration must logically accept Mormonism as a product of a Christian Milieu, and therefore within the genus of Christianity.

    Frankly, on the issue of priestly authority, it has always seemed to me a bit too convenient that Martin Luther proposed that the assertedly corrupted priesthood authority of the Catholic Church could be replaced with a Priesthood of All Believers. Luther cited I Peter 2 with its declaration that the recipients of the epistle are “an holy nation, a royal priesthood”. Apparently, the wider import of this passage as a charter of priesthood to all believers was missed by Catholic and Orthodox readers for 1400 years. As Evangelical “House Church” advocate Frank Viola has pointed out in his book Pagan Christianity, the actual practice of most Protestant churches is that priestly functions are primarily limited to ordained ministers, something he feels is inconsistent with the Priesthood of All Believers. (Viola’s book refuses to address the passages we are all familiar with that illustrate that priesthood ordination existed in the primitive Church apart from receiving baptism.) So the concept of a Priesthood of All Believers functions primarily as a substitute for a chain of priesthood ordination linking the current minister to the apostles, rather than an authorization for any random member of a congregation to step forward and conduct a meeting, select the hymns, or offer the sermon.

    Clearly, the question of authority to function as a priest was on the mind of Luther and other Reformers when they came up with this solution. They did not have the historical institution, so they had to look at other potential sources of authority, such as the Holy Ghost and the Bible. I think it should be reasonable to expect that occasionally Protestant Christians would wonder if the Priesthood of All Believers had sufficient charter in the Bible, and that it might be necessary to have more particular ordination from someone with clear authority from God.

    Or look at it from another perspective. The actual practice of a widely-shared Priesthood, establishing an actual “holy nation”, is perhaps best exemplified by the Latter-day Saints. I doubt, for example, that Luther contemplated that women could act in all priestly functions, so the demography of his concept is best illustrated by the LDS example. Peter’s image of “an holy nation” is exemplified by the patriarchal aspects of LDS priesthood conferred, ideally, from father to son, with each family unit led by a functioning priest who trains the next generation of priests. This image, by contrast, is not found in a typical Protestant denomination. Isn’t it possible (however unlikely) that some Christians during the last two millennia may have pictured an LDS-style broad priesthood in Peter’s words, and noticed the lack of anything resembling that in their contemporary churches?

    In other words, even if we don’t currently know of anyone who speculated about priesthood authority in any of these ways, the possibility that someone did seems real, and therefore worth searching for. These may be more hypotheses than tested theories, but they seem to be hypotheses that are worth seeking evidence to prove or disprove.

  23. #22: Doesn’t matter how many tens of thousands might have received the priesthood through ordination by the apostles. If the apostles retained the *keys* without passing them on to successors, the keys left the earth with the last of the apostles, according to Mormon construction.

  24. Raymond (#23): You have articulated what I call the “two churches” of the Restoration: first, the vertical hierarchy of the global Church’s apostolic Priesthood leadership; second, the horizontal structure of the local churches’ congregational administration of believers. That’s the genius of the organizational restoration, imo – the marrying of Catholic and Protestant ideals into one organization.

  25. #24: So when Peter, James, and John died, the Church ended and all that happened after that was “apostasy’?

  26. #26: I shoulda known better. Bob, read the post again. Read Jonathan’s last post on the apostasy, too. Read them both again a second time. Then consider why your question is so … whatever …

  27. #27: I read Elder Holland again: ““[The priesthood] activates and governs all activities of the Church. Without priesthood keys and authority, there would be no church.” I am sorry that I need ‘The Great Apostasy” distilled down to a few simple words or thoughts…but I do.

  28. #23:

    >>Luther cited I Peter 2 with its declaration that the recipients of the epistle are “an holy nation, a royal priesthood”. Apparently, the wider import of this passage as a charter of priesthood to all believers was missed by Catholic and Orthodox readers for 1400 years.

    Actually, it’s more like 1300 years. A number of early Christians read this passage in much the same way Luther did, and we don’t get non-metaphorical references to Christian priests until early in the third century. As late as the time of Origen he felt he had to formally defend calling Christian leaders “priests”, because such a designation seemed to violate the democratic lay-priesthood that technically exists under the new covenant.

    You also need to be careful in your assertions about ordination, because there are about a half dozen Greek words that get translated as “ordained” in the KJV, and all of them could be translated as something like “appointed” rather than as references to a formal endowment of priesthood authority. It’s very easy to read modern Mormon (or in the KJV’s case, Anglican) assumptions back into the New Testament Church.

    >>Or look at it from another perspective. The actual practice of a widely-shared Priesthood, establishing an actual “holy nation”, is perhaps best exemplified by the Latter-day Saints.

    I agree that one of the cleverer aspects of Mormonism was that it translated the “priesthood of all believers” into something more visible than merely the abstract concept that it denoted in traditional Protestantism. It (usually) avoided the charge of priestcraft, because all males could become priests (so it’s not just a few claiming priesthood in order to lord it over all the others), but it also retains the mystery and sense of empowerment that make Catholic priesthood appealing.

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