The Great Apostasy

Mormonism falls or stands on what has been termed “the Great Apostasy.”  This phrase, somewhat exclusive to Mormon dialogue, connotes many things to Latter-day Saints.  We think of “the dark ages” as void of light or communication from heaven.  We envision scripture being deviously corrupted in shadowed monasteries, bishops adorning themselves with excessive power, clergy unbridled by commandment or law.  While this is not necessarily erroneous, Elder Alexander B. Morrison wants to help LDS readers improve and elevate their knowledge of the Apostasy. 

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Turning from Truth is a fresh look at the cause of the Apostasy.  It speaks to “the intelligent, non-specialist LDS reader” who wishes to better understand that period of history and the setting in which the infant church began to crumble.  Nearly a century ago, James E. Talmage published The Great Apostasy.  Until now, no other enduring work on this topic has been published.  Turning from Truth arrives at a time when mainstream Christianity is struggling to determine doctrine, define moral postures on controversial issues, and for some, proceed in the face of injury and/or scandal.  This book will help us understand why – why Christianity splintered into so many diverse ideas, beliefs and denominations; that both institutional and individual apostasy contributed to the breakdown of the original church.  Elder Morrison’s book is not intended to be a scholarly academic treatise but to give a “brief and sketchy” (Elder Morrison’s own words) review of several centuries.  The book gives points of clarification that are extremely useful.

Mormon Thought on Apostasy

The book functions from a single premise: “Two glorified beings who spoke to the boy Joseph Smith on a spring morning in 1820 revealed a great truth when one of them said that the church He had established had been replaced by one which …had wandered far from the path and lacked divine approval” (p.x).

Elder Morrison quickly asserts, however, that “the dark ages,” the period of time between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, is a misnomer.  They were not, as Elder Morrison points out, “a millennium of darkness – a thousand years without a bath,” rather, they were a time of “great demographic growth, religious reform, increasing political stability, and enormous economic development” (3). 

“Though bereft of Apostolic direction, there were many good men and good women …who strove with all their hearts to follow Christ and His teachings to the best of their abilities” (4).  This is a truth Elder Morrison accentuates over and over again.  Mormon thought usually dictates little or no place for goodness and progress among people of that time.  Wanting to change this faulty sentiment, Elder Morrison continues, “In writing this book, I want to emphasize that the world owes a great debt to Christian churches which kept the lamps of civilization lit for so many years.  In recounting the sad truths of the Apostasy, we must take care not to be judgmental or self-righteous or to drive a wedge of contention between LDS and others” (4).  It is important that we, as Latter-day Saints, be better informed with respect to this time period and how other churches fit into its history.  Such an understanding can only improve our interfaith dialogue and sharpen our skills in sharing the restored truth with friends of other faiths.

Causes of the Great Apostasy

The word apostasia, from which its English equivalent, apostasy, is derived, means literally “to stand away” or “to stand against” (6).  Elder Morrison points out that this indicates a deliberate act of mutiny or rebellion took place.  The authority for individuals to act in the name of God was lost and sacred covenants were broken.  Or, you could say, the authority to act in God’s name was lost because sacred covenants were broken.  Elder Morrison teaches that individual apostasy always precedes institutional apostasy.  Consider Doctrine and Covenants section 121 – “Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man” when he undertakes to cover sins, gratify pride, or exercise control upon the souls of the children of men in unrighteousness.  “The heavens withdraw themselves!” (DC 121:37)

Internal dissent and contention – “self-inflicted” problems caused the authority to be lost.  The damage was done early, Elder Morrison claims.  The infamous (to LDS) Council of Nicea was a result – not a cause – of the Apostasy.  Greek philosophy, Elder Morrison continues, was also not the cause of the Apostasy; it did influence Christian theology but by that time, the Church was already apostate.  Personal apostasy led to a general apostasy.  “The church retained a form of godliness, some truth, and many devoted members, but strayed from its apostolic roots” (163). 

Considering those who now belong to these other churches, Elder Morrison says he has many Christian friends whose love for Jesus and personal goodness “put him to shame” (164).  These individuals try their best to live God’s standards and believe their “orthodox” Christianity must be divine because it has survived scandalous representatives.  While this perspective is clever, Elder Morrison thinks it flawed.  “Survival, even worldly power and acclaim, is not the same as divine approval” (164).  He writes, “The changes that occurred in the church were too deep-seated, too irreversible, too profound, too opposed to Christ’s gospel of love, to be excused as the innocent thrashing around of a growing baby” (164).  This is a strong and compelling statement.

Other reasons, cited by Elder Morrison, for the Apostasy were persecution, heresy, corruption of scripture, corruption of power, and the general social setting of the church.  These topics are discussed in greater detail, but are handled as a general overview with no in-depth discussion.  This approach allows readers to get a small taste of the history, become familiar with names and goings-on, but not much more.  This may be the right amount for many.  For others, it may simply whet the appetite.  You may think a “sketchy and brief” overview weakens the book, but deep, scholarly discussion was not Elder Morrison’s objective.  Being a “non-specialist reader” myself, I found the chapters documenting political and philosophical climates during the time of the Roman Empire fascinating.  I was introduced to many avenues of history with which I was unfamiliar.  Some chapters were a bit laborious and difficult to follow due to the brevity of the information, but I would not have wanted more.

Unfortunately, as Elder Morrison points out, we do not have many of the details of what happened to the early church and probably never will.  “The records simply are not available, and we cannot, therefore, say exactly when and under what circumstances the damaging changes were made” (164).  However, Elder Morrison summarizes the latest in biblical scholarship, uncovering new evidence and insights on the doctrine of the Apostasy between the first and fourth centuries. 

Heavens Opened

The glorious reality of this topic is that the period of the Great Apostasy has closed.

  The heavens are at this very time open!   This is Elder Morrison’s testimony.  A new dispensation opened with our beloved prophet, Joseph Smith.  Apostasy is something Joseph understood far too well.  During the Kirtland Era, many seemingly faithful Saints, left the Church.  After the Kirtland Temple was dedicated, Joseph warned the Saints of this possibility.  In 1836 he cautioned the Brethren, “For some time Satan has not had power to tempt you. Some have thought that there would be no more temptation. But the opposite will come; and unless you draw near to the Lord you will be overcome and apostatize (168).”

We would be wise to heed Joseph’s counsel today.  Unless we draw near to the Lord, personal apostasy can happen to us as well.  Turning from Truth helps readers better understand the Great Apostasy, while prompting examination of personal living and fortification against temptation.  Elder Morrison cautions, “Though institutional apostasy will not occur again, as we have been promised, individual apostasy remains as easy as ever (168).”