I had two young Mormon (LDS / Latter-Day Saint) missionaries come by my house the other day. Although I have had many meetings with Mormon missionaries in the past, this time I wanted to take a different tack than before. I wanted more than a contentious theological response that basically boiled down to “I have beliefs that disagree with yours.” I also did not want to launch into a philosophical criticism of their theology that required a grasp of infinite set theory. This time I decided to go after the very foundation of Mormonism’s claims: the so-called Great Apostasy.
Mormons are taught that their first prophet, Joseph Smith Jr., led a restoration of true Christianity which had been lost since the deaths of the apostles. This “apostasy narrative” is essential to Mormon legitimacy – for if the Christian Church did not disappear from the Earth for nearly 1,800 years, then LDS founder Joseph Smith had nothing to “restore” when he started the Mormon faith. What evidence is there to support such an idea? And how does it fare? Here is a brief exposition and critique.
(For a full critical review of the main Mormon text on this subject, see Was There a Great Apostasy??.)
Mormon Church History
The story of the founding of the Mormon Church begins in 1820 when a 14 year old boy named Joseph Smith Jr. prayed to God to ask which church he should join. The problem was that there were so many, and they all taught different things:
The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and Methodists, and used all the powers of both reason and sophistry to prove their errors, or, at least, to make the people think they were in error. On the other hand, the Baptists and Methodists in their turn were equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others. 10 In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it? (Hist. 1:9-10)
Smith, confused by all the different churches and teachings around him, read James 1:5 and decided it meant that God would reveal answers to people if they pray. (Note: It doesn’t.) He went into the woods, prayed, and “God and Jesus” appeared to him with this response:
I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof. (Hist. 1:19)
This is known as the “First Vision” (such things were popular in Smith’s day). Time passed, and eventually Smith is said to have translated (/plagiarized) the Book of Mormon. This is the book that LDS missionaries wish people to read and pray about to determine whether Smith was a true prophet of God (Moroni 10:4). Eventually Smith’s status was elevated to “Prophet” when he began the LDS faith.
This “restoration” of Christianity was supposed to counteract the loss of the priesthood and Church of Jesus Christ (another idea popular in his day). Although some gospel teachings survived in diluted form through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Without priesthood authority, religious leaders and individual believers could only try to do their best with the Light of Christ and these fragments of truth to guide them.” (Seminary Teacher Resource Manual). Try as they might, Christians had no authority to baptize or teach the truths of the gospel, thus the faith was lost until Smith came along 18 centuries later.
Mormonism has now lasted over 175 years. Per Smith, this obliterates the record set by the Church Jesus founded:
I have more to boast of than ever any man had. I am the only man that has ever been able to keep a whole church together since the days of Adam. A large majority of the whole have stood by me. Neither Paul, John, Peter, nor Jesus ever did it. I boast that no man ever did such a work as I. The followers of Jesus ran away from Him; but the Latter-day Saints never ran away from me yet. (Joseph Smith, History, 6:19)
The Mormon prophet of today, Thomas Monson, is said to be the authorized successor to Joseph Smith: “He and the Church’s other Apostles trace their priesthood authority back to Jesus Christ in an unbroken chain of ordinations” (Mormon.org). Now, this “unbroken chain” only traces back to Joseph Smith himself, of course. It is Smith’s claim to have been ordained to the restored priesthood by Jesus that grounds his claim – not an historical line of “authorized successors” from the apostles to Smith. This is to be expected, though, because, according to Mormonism, between the deaths of the apostles and Smith, the priesthood was gone from the earth due to the “Great Apostasy.”
The Great Apostasy
Mormons “believe that apostasy occurs whenever an individual or community rejects the revelations and ordinances of God, changes the gospel of Jesus Christ, or rebels against the commandments of God, thereby losing the blessings of the Holy Ghost and of divine authority.” These “apostasies” differ from “dispensations” which are times of prophetic guidance. Apostasies have allegedly recurred throughout human history – the longest stretching from the deaths of the apostles in the 1st Century to the founding of Mormonism in the 19th Century. That’s quite a claim. The problem for Mormons is that such an idea fits neither Church history nor Christian scripture.
It is Against History
Because all Christian groups believe they were ultimately founded by Jesus Christ, all who wish to be considered legitimate need to explain why they did not exist prior to their (actual) founding date. The gap is usually explained by what I call an “apostasy narrative” – a tale of how the “real” Christians somehow were excluded from the apostate church of whatever date one chooses to see as the beginning of the downfall of true Christianity. This explanation is given to justify the restoration/reformation of the Church at whatever date a given group began. Such an idea, though, is not grounded by a shred of non-question-begging historical evidence. The argument basically boils down to “The early Church did not teach Mormonism.” The best attempt I have seen a list various false teachings that existed at different periods of time. Theological errors have always been around, though. If the mere presence of heresy in some quarters grounds a “Great Apostasy” then there has never been a period of time that wasn’t an apostasy – including the times of the prophets, apostles, and Jesus himself! Like other “apostasy narratives,” the only reason Mormons have to believe in this “Great Apostasy” is the fact that their teachings are not found in the early Church. Nor are they justified by apostasy warnings in the Bible.
It is Against Scripture
This startling 1,800 years apostasy is allegedly predicted by the Bible, but that idea fares no better than the Mormon’s false historical narrative. Mormons try to show that this “Great Apostasy” was predicted by in the Bible, but the passages are all either so general as to be useless for a specific prediction, or they are so precise that they cannot refer to the time period Mormons say they do.
Old Testament verses cited by Mormons to prove the coming of the Great Apostasy only indicate some future falling away or judgment of God for disbelief (e.g., those in Isaiah). When particulars are given, however, they run contrary to what Mormons teach. The most cited passage, for example, is Amos 8:11 which Mormons are taught is a prediction of the “Great Apostasy.” It is clear from both the Bible and history, however, that this is not the case. The chapter uses pretty standard Day of the Lord language, found throughout scripture to indicate God’s judgment (often via invading armies). Amos specifically named these northern tribes as the object of his prophecy in chapter 2 (vss. 6-16). In chapter 8 he says it again: “The end is come upon my people of Israel.” Amos 8:12 says Israel will look to solve their famine of revelation “from the north even to the east.” Why not “from north to south”? because in the south (i.e., Judah) revelation did not cease! Amos also describes the recipients of this prophecy as the northern cities of Samaria, Dan, and Beersheba. Amos prophesied these things around 760 B.C., and they all happened around 723 B.C. when the Assyrians invaded. Thus, the prophecy had been fulfilled for 2,550 years before the Mormons tried to apply it to the Christian Church. Mormons may claim that this is an instance of dual-fulfillment, but they will need to contend with the specific details of this prophecy that do not fit the Christian Church. Besides all the specified names and geographical details above, Amos says the reason God’s judgment is coming: because Israel mistreated the poor (8:4-6), and for worshiping false gods (v. 14). Whatever else its failures may have been, the Christian Church of the second century was hardly worthy of this judgment. It treated the poor very well and was not idolatrous.
The New Testament verses cited by Mormons to prove the coming of the Great Apostasy (e.g., Mt. 24 or Acts 20) only indicate some future falling away – none give a useful timeline nor any non-question-begging details that pick out some second century event(s). For example, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3 only indicates a promise some future falling away. It could have been immediately or it could have been 1,000,000 years in the future. What is worse for the Mormon here is the solution offered to the general problem of apostasy that Paul gives just a few verses later: “stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.” So it is the tradition of the Church that safeguards believers against apostasy – but the Mormons would have us believe that this tradition died with the apostles. In 2 Timothy 4:1-3 Paul indicates here that at some time in the future there would be false teachers and those who follow them. Two things ruin the Mormon understanding of this verse: (1) Paul is writing to Timothy – his chosen successor. He tells Timothy to pass on the sound teaching he learned from Paul to other Church leaders. Mormons would have us believe this did not take place. And once again, the protection from apostasy is found in apostolic tradition two verses earlier (2:22).
Now, even if early Church history seemed to fulfill these biblical predictions, the Great Apostasy as described by Mormon teachings is theologically impossible. When Jesus founded the Church, he said “the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Mt. 16:18). Jesus prayed that Peter – who Mormons acknowledge as the Chief Apostle and the one to whom Jesus left the Church – would not fail (Lk. 22:32). Unless Jesus failed his own test for wisdom (Mt. 7:24-27), his Church cannot have gone into apostasy nor disappeared from the earth. Paul calls the Church the “pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). The apostle Paul says Christ’s kingdom cannot be shaken (Heb. 12:28). Thus, the Church that existed after the time of the apostles cannot have gone into apostasy nor disappeared from the earth.
Between the founding of the Christian Church and the arrival of Mormonism is a period of 1,800 years. If the Great Apostasy narrative were true, it would have invalidated about 98% of the history of the Christian Church up to that point. If Jesus would remain with his apostles to “the end of the age,” and his gospel went to the “whole world” in their lifetime, and the Church established by that gospel could not be shaken or overcome, then how could the “plain and precious truths of the gospel” be lost the instant the last apostle died? Did every one of the apostolic successors simply forget the gospel? Did the worldwide believers fail to notice that the chosen leaders of the Church were teaching a false gospel? Would such things not constitute an “overcoming” or a “shaking”? Yet the inspired writers of the Bible say this can never happen. Thus, the Mormon narrative that includes the apostasy of the Church is false.
This conclusion is in agreement with Mormonism’s own teachings:
The restored Church affirms that a general apostasy developed during and after the apostolic period, and that the primitive Church lost its power, authority, and graces as a divine institution, and degenerated into an earthly organization only. The significance and importance of the great apostasy, as a condition precedent to the re-establishment of the Church in modern times, is obvious. If the alleged apostasy of the primitive Church was not a reality, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not the divine institution its name proclaims. (James E. Talmadge, The Great Apostasy, Preface)