One of the more controversial aspects of Nephi’s vision of the tree of life is the great and abominable church or church of the devil. In his record, Nephi states that “there are save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil” (1 Nephi 14:10). At times, Church leaders and members have associated “the church of the devil” with specific organizations, such as the Roman Catholic Church, while at others, they have tried to use it as a metaphor for any organization that promotes evil. In recent history, the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have stressed the latter. Yet, there is also a Church of the Lamb of God that is spoken of by Nephi that is also worth discussing as an opposite counterpart of the church of the devil.
In his vision, Nephi reports seeing “the formation of a church which is most abominable above all other churches” that was founded by the devil and that “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” (1 Nephi 13:5, 26). What this church of the devil was and how it participated in the Great Apostasy has been a matter of discussion over the years. Most famously, Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught that the Roman Catholic Church was this great and abominable church. This is what I was taught growing up in the post-McConkie era, to the point that I when a Catholic classmate at elementary school told me he was Catholic, I (unfortunately) responded: “Oh—that’s the great and abominable church, right?”, which left him very upset. The idea didn’t start with Elder McConkie, though. Many early Church members converted from Protestant backgrounds in the generally anti-Catholic environment of the early United States. At least as early as 1854, Elder Orson Pratt made the connection when wrote that the Roman Catholic Church was founded by “the Devil, through the medium of Apostates.” By 1906, Elder B. H. Roberts of the Seventy reported being asked “Is the Catholic church the church here referred to—the church of the devil?” while visiting outlying stakes of the Church. It is unfortunate and unfair to call the Roman Catholic Church the church of the devil or the great and abominable church—while there have been a lot of terrible things done in the name of that church, it has still been a force for good in the world and has played an important role in preserving the flame of Christianity throughout the centuries.
In recognition of the good that the Catholic Church does and our ongoing efforts to partner with them over moral issues, our Church has suggested alternative definitions of the great and abominable church. For example, in the “Come, Follow Me” curriculum this year, President Dallin H. Oaks is quoted as stating that the church in Nephi’s vision is “any philosophy or organization that opposes belief in God. And the ‘captivity’ into which this ‘church’ seeks to bring the saints will not be so much physical confinement as the captivity of false ideas.” Likewise, the Institute manual for the Book of Mormon cites a later explanation offered by Elder Bruce R. McConkie that calls the church of the devil all organizations that “are designed to take men on a course that leads away from God and his laws and thus from salvation in the kingdom of God.” That manual also cites a longer quote from Stephen E. Robinson that points out that “no single known historical church, denomination, or set of believers meets all the requirements for the great and abominable church.” The official stance of the Church today seems to be that the church of the devil includes any group that leads people away from God and to performing evil.
One of my favorite discussions about the churches from Nephi’s vision of the tree of life, however, comes from Elder B. H. Roberts. Elder Roberts was an influential general authority at the turn of the 20th century who was a prolific author on gospel topics and a well-respected orator. His writing and sermons had a strong impact on the Church, enough that they are part of our intellectual DNA today.
One topic on which this is true (and also relevant to the topic at hand) is the Great Apostasy. Roberts was among the first to publish a volume-length historical study of the Great Apostasy in the form of the 1893 Outlines of Ecclesiastical History. He continued to reiterate and develop his views in subsequent writings, including The Seventy’s Course in Theology and The Falling Away. As one scholar put it: “More than any Mormon scholar’s, Roberts’s ideas and approach effectively set the parameters and pattern for all subsequent discussions of apostasy.” That pattern, according to Eric R. Dursteler, was that there were innumerable “plain and precious truths” lost in the first Christian centuries, with the following Dark Age being the fullest expression of the effects of apostasy. The Renaissance, however, revived light and learning in the world, setting the stage for the Protestant Reformation, “which, in turn, acted as a prelude to the Restoration.” Other important authors working in the same era, like Elder James E. Talmage and Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, built on the work of B. H. Roberts to describe the Great Apostasy, and the writings of all three of these general authorities continue to shape our discussion of the topic today.
It should be noted before moving on that Elder Roberts rejected all Christian churches outside of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as apostate and corrupted shadows of the true church of Jesus Christ. While he describes the failings of the Roman Catholic Church throughout the late classical and Medieval periods in detail, he states his opinion that the Protestant reformers “left more truth in the Catholic church than they brought out with them, or found in their speculations after leaving that church.” On another occasion, he stated that “so far as the Catholic church is concerned, I believe that there is just as much truth, nay, personally I believe that it has retained even more truth than other divisions of so-called Christendom.” The benefit of the Protestant Reformation was not that it restored truth or moved people closer to it, but that “it did overthrow the power of the Catholic Church in a great part of Western Europe, gave larger liberty to the people, and thus prepared the way for the greater work which followed it—the introduction of the Dispensation of the Fullness of Times.” Both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches were spoken of as being apostate organizations in Elder Roberts’s writings.
In 1906 at the spring general conference, Roberts focused a significant portion of his talk around the question “Is the Catholic church the church here referred to [in 1 Nephi 14]—the church of the devil?” Given how he focused on the failings of the Medieval Catholic Church in his book on the Great Apostasy, one might wonder if he would have responded that the church of the devil was indeed the Catholic Church. He did not, however, feel like that was a good answer. His answer was that: “I would not like to take that position, because it would leave me with a lot of churches on my hands that I might not then be able to classify.” He went on to say: “I would not like … to designate the Catholic church as the church of the devil. Neither would I like to designate any one or all” of the various faiths and religions found around the world. Instead, he felt that Nephi “has in mind no particular church, no particular division of Christendom, but he has in mind … the whole empire of Satan; and perhaps the thought of the passage would be more neatly expressed if we use the term ‘the kingdom of evil’ as constituting the church of the devil.” This church of the devil, then, is summed up by Elder Roberts as “evil … untruth … [and] all combinations of wicked men.” 
While Elder Roberts was known to emphasize the idea that all other faiths and religions are apostate, he still acknowledged that they had portions of the truth and righteous individuals. In his 1906 general conference address, he stated that “they have retained fragments of Christian truth … and it would be poor policy for us to contend against them without discrimination.” Elsewhere, he wrote that, “just as when the sun goes down, there still remains light in the sky— so, too, notwithstanding this apostasy from the Church, there still were left fragments of truth among the children of men. … The light of truth burned in the bosom of good men.” This understanding of other churches informed how he interpreted the counterpart of the church of the devil, the “Church of the Lamb of God” that Nephi spoke of in 1 Nephi 14.
Elder Roberts defined the church of the Lamb of God as being the opposite of the church of the devil. He said: “All that makes for untruth, for unrighteousness constitutes the kingdom of evil—the church of the devil. All that makes for truth, for righteousness, is of God; it constitutes the kingdom of righteousness—the empire of Jehovah; and, in a certain sense at least, constitutes the Church of Christ.” As such, the Church of the Lamb of God is larger than just the membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and includes all who “are seeking to know God and to keep His commandments.” With this understanding in mind, Elder Roberts encouraged his audience to “seek to enlarge this kingdom of righteousness both by recognizing such truths as it possesses and seeking the friendship and co-operation of the righteous men and women who constitute its membership.” B. H. Roberts felt that God-fearing individuals throughout the world were a part of the Church of the Lamb of God, not only members of our church.
There are parallels to Elder Roberts’s understanding of the Church of the Lamb of God in the writings of other Latter-day Saints. Terryl L. Givens, for example, has drawn on the writings of Protestant authors who spoke of the true church of Christ fleeing into the wilderness like the woman in Revelation 12 and rendered “invisible, protected, nourished, and preserved.” This invisible church continued to exist throughout the apostasy “where righteous individuals, their spiritual gifts, and godly principles and practices persisted.” In his writings, Givens points to people spoken of in a revelation to Joseph Smith as “those which I have reserved unto myself, holy men that ye know not of” (D&C 49:8) as members of this invisible church. Givens, in a manner similar to Elder Roberts, suggests that this idea of an invisible Church of righteous individuals is an important part of “reconsidering the meaning of … the Church of the Lamb of God.”
Thus, when reading 1 Nephi 13-14, both churches spoken of can be broadened out considerably from narrow interpretations of specific organizations. Elder B. H. Roberts understood that when Nephi writes that “there are save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil” (1 Nephi 14:10), one cannot assign only one specific organization to each of those churches, since it would “would leave me with a lot of churches on my hands that I might not then be able to classify.” Instead of fighting specific organized religions, he felt that, “the servants of God have a right to contend against that which is evil, let it appear where it will, in Catholic or in Protestant Christendom, among the philosophical societies of deists and atheists, and even within the Church of Christ, if, unhappily, it should make its appearance there” and to embrace those who “are seeking to know God and to keep His commandments” as members of the Church of the Lamb of God.
 Orson Pratt, The Seer (Washington D.C., April 1854), https://archive.org/stream/seereditedbyorso01unse/seereditedbyorso01unse_djvu.txt.
 B. H. Roberts, CR, April 1906, 14-15. See https://prophetsseersandrevelators.wordpress.com/2014/02/26/b-h-roberts-the-church-of-the-lamb-and-the-church-of-the-devil/ or The Essential B.H. Roberts, ed. Brigham D. Madsen (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999), 175-182 for other locations to access the full text of the talk.
 Cited in Come, Follow Me—For Individuals and Families, Book of Mormon 2020, p. 15.
 See chapter 4 of the Book of Mormon Student Manual (SLC: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2009) at https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/book-of-mormon-student-manual/chapter-4-1-nephi-12-15?lang=eng.
 Eric R. Dursteler, “Inheriting the ‘Great Apostasy’: The Evolution of Mormon Views on the Middle Ages and the Renaissance,” Journal of Mormon History 23 (Fall 2002): 23-59, https://mormonhistoryassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Journal-of-Mormon-History-Vol.-28-Issue-2-2002.pdf.
 B. H. Roberts, Outlines of Ecclesiastical History (Salt Lake City: George Q. Cannon & Sons Company, 1893), 249.
 B. H. Roberts, CR, April 1906, 15.
 Outlines of Ecclesiastical History, iii.
 CR, April 1906, 14-15.
 CR, April 1906, 15.
 CR, April 1906, 15.
 B. H. Roberts, Defense of the Faith and the Saints, 2 vol (Salt Lake City: Deseret News: 1907- 1912), 2:303-304.
 CR, April 1906, 15-16.
 Terryl Givens, “‘We Have Only the Old Thing’: Rethinking Mormon Restoration”, Apostasy and Restoration Conference, Brigham Young University, 3 March 2012, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/597de9b0914e6bed5fd41726/t/59da963ab1ffb6b10397a455/1507497532644/We+have+only+the+Old+Thing+Final+version.pdf. He also speaks of the idea of an invisible church or a church without walls in an address at Notre Dame that took place on 5 December 2013: “The Woman in the Wilderness: Mormonism, Catholicism, and Inspired Syncretism,” https://static1.squarespace.com/static/597de9b0914e6bed5fd41726/t/59da905203596eb5954d0bb9/1507496023651/Notre+Dame+Woman+in+Wilderness.pdf.
 CR, April 1906, 15-17.
Miranda Wilcox and John Young’s book,
Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness And The Concept Of Apostasy, has much more along this line for those who may be interested.
Thanks MJP. I loved Standing Apart–it is a fascinating read and I felt like it explored some important ideas. Both the Givens and Dursteler essays (or later versions of them) that I cited in this post were also published in that collection.
And me too!
Nice post, Chad. I’ll probably end up stealing from it frequently.
Interesting post. We must recognize, though, that Nephi’s concept of a “church” is an anachronism, if we are talking about a centralized organization that governs many smaller congregations, such as the Catholic Church or the LDS Church does today. The word “church” doesn’t appear in the KJV Old Testament at all. The Hebrew word (kahal) equivalent to the Greek term (ecclesia), which was translated as “church” in the New Testament, is rendered as “congregation” or “assembly” in the OT by the KJV translators, which is the meaning of both terms. In the Bible, there was no concept of a large umbrella organization with centralized leadership that we today would call a “church.” So, whatever Nephi saw, he would have had no Hebrew (or reformed Egyptian) word to describe it. The concept itself would have been totally foreign to him.
And when Alma established the first church among the Nephites, this was a radically new concept. In both the OT and the BoM, the people of God were simply an entire people. King Benjamin didn’t preside over a church. He presided over a people, just as David did. The prophets in the OT were not leaders of some sort of organization we would recognize as a “church.” So Alma was centuries ahead of his time. Of course, this raises all sorts of questions about the translation and the original record of the Book of Mormon. The first instance of “church” occurring in the BoM is in 1 Nephi 4, where Laban supposedly had been out among the elders of the church. What was this “church” that Laban was part of?
You bring up some excellent points, Wally. Like you say, it does bring up questions about the translation of the Book of Mormon and the original record. My first thought is that maybe Nephi has in mind something more like the Ummah in Islamic thought–the community of believers that are tied together by shared beliefs–but that the word that came to Joseph Smith to match the term Nephi used was church. I recognize that Islamic thought would be anachronistic as well, but there might have been similar ideas in Nephi’s world.
It is difficult to say what church it was that Laban participated in, though. I don’t know enough about Judaism at that period to intelligently comment on what organizations might have been referred to by Nephi there, but it’s definitely something to look into.
Thanks for the insightful article. As support for your line of thinking, I have of late realized that we as Latterday Saints may have an over-inflated view of our role and influence in the work of God on earth and preparing the earth for the millenium. Those who will survive the calamaties and be progressed enough to live into the millenium are those of at least terrestrial order which will be vastly non-members. So, it is the other faith traditions of all kinds that are raising the millions and millions of souls from the telestial level to be good men and women of the earth that are doing the heavy lifting of preparing the earth for Christ’s second coming, not so much the Latter-day Saints, notwithstanding the important work of necessary ordinances for salvation and exhaltation the Church provides. We should be more thankful for the other faith traditions’ contributions and join with them more hand-in-hand.
I’m curious, Chad. You mention Orson Pratt and B. H. Roberts. Were the views of these men isolated opinions, or was it the consensus of Church members and leaders in the 19th and early 20th centuries that the “great and abominable church” referred to the Catholic Church? Do you know whether there is evidence bearing on that question?
I’m not really sure, SDS. I know that other Church leaders like Heber C. Kimball or George Q. Cannon pointed at the national government when it was persecuting the saints during the mid-to-late-1800s or anyone involved in those persecutions as representing the great and abominable church. I believe that Parley P. Pratt had similar views to his brother Orson on the subject, but I don’t have a good source off the top of my head.
Now, B. H. Roberts was against identifying the Catholic church with the Church of the devil, but he mentioned hearing people make that connection in outlying stakes. The fact that he had heard it and felt that it was a big enough deal to devote a general conference talk to pushing back against the idea indicates to me that it was common, though perhaps not the dominant belief of the membership.
Ultimately, however, it would take a lot more searching to find out how much of a consensus there was on the idea prior to Bruce R. McConkie publishing Mormon Doctrine.
My uneducated guess would be that most members probably did make this association, because I think that similar descriptions were familiar as part of Protestant anti-Catholic polemics. Any my son’s Sunday School teacher taught his class ten years ago that the B of M references were to the Catholic Church. But I’d like to think that discerning members didn’t rush to embrace that interpretation, even back in the day.
I believe the use of the church is a bit narrow. The combined sects of Christianity still constitute less than 1/3 of the world’s population. All the major world religions would be a more accurate grouping of something labeled a false church. That renders the debate over Catholicism as one borne from myopic/naive speculation. Nephi never lived in a world of multiple Christian sects but certainly knew of Babylon. As to what he saw in vision I cannot say, but I would be surprised if it was only of Christian sectarian strife, though that’s what he may focus on if only because of the impact of the Gentiles on his descendants. I suspect by the time we’ve reached that point in the text we’ve narrowed things down a bit from the near universality of false belief.