The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints boldly and with scriptural authority proclaims that the gospel of Jesus Christ, along with the sacred authority to administer its ordinances, was taken from the earth within the first few decades after the Savior’s resurrection. This is referred to in the Bible as the “falling away” (2 Thessalonians 2:3), translated from the Greekapostasia–meaning “revolution or rebellion.” Paul wrote to Timothy that this apostasy was imminent, speaking of the church in general: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). In his departing words to the saints at Ephesus, Paul also warned the leaders “that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves [that is, within the body of the church] shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30). Peter cautioned the church against false teachers among them, “who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of” (2 Peter 2:1-2).
Evidence of this apostasy, or falling away from the teachings of Jesus Christ and his appointed apostles, can be found through-out religious history.2 Ordained ministers of the Savior’s church died and were replaced by leaders who lacked divine authority, advanced their own versions of doctrine, and often sought for their own power and glory. Leadership offices in the church that were once filled through the process of revelation and prophecy by apostolic authority were now politicized.3 Prospective bishops campaigned for the “callings,” and financial interests, personal influence, as well as rhetorical talents often meant victory over a more worthy opponent. Within a few decades after the crucifixion, not only were the inspired church leaders martyred but the doctrines and principles they taught were substituted with fables–just as the apostles had foreseen. Many contrasting and conflicting ideas about the nature of God, angels, the role of Jesus, and man’s destiny were circulated. Pagan philosophies mixed with Christian doctrines, distorting and further confusing truth. By the early third century what was left of the church was in doctrinal disarray. Often, the Christians were split into many warring sects with little in common except that they called themselves “Christians.”4
During his reign, the first emperor of Rome, Constantine the Great (who was born 245 years after the death of Christ), granted freedom of worship to the Christians and recognized the church as a legal entity in order to establish political stability. He was also generous to the church–bestowing many gifts and structures as well as rights. History records that he was probably sincere in his support for unity among Christians but it was clear that he was capable of combining his limited faith in Christianity with the practical needs of the empire’s administration. By this time, of course, Christian doctrines had been contaminated by the ongoing apostasy. The Bible as we know it today did not exist. Scripture was a loose collection of religious letters, writings, and memoirs assembled and used by clerics only. Authorship of certain of these writings was unknown or unauthenticated and the validity of others was in question. In fact, each of the main religious leaders of that time had their own scriptural base that differed from the scriptures used by other leaders.
Serious questions had risen within the Christian leadership regarding the nature of God and Jesus Christ. With three major parties to the argument, the controversy reached the level where a political resolution was necessary. It was in this climate that Constantine called and presided over the first great ecumenical council of the church at Nicaea in 325. More than 300 church leaders (the actual number varies in different accounts) from all parts of Constantine’s empire were in attendance. Circular debate and intrigue ruled the council as some philosophical or theological dogmas were advanced while others, with their proponents, were condemned. Constantine, the apparent leader of this council sided first with one argument, then with the opposite. It is clear that his objective was harmony and not truth. In the end, a certain order was gained in the adoption of the Nicene Creed. This creed formed the basis for historically orthodox Christianity and, while it was not universally accepted, it was the criterion whereby Christian doctrine, scripture, and practice could be judged.
Traditional Christian foundations were further debated and refined in later councils–each characterized by heated debate and religious lobbying by zealots on all sides. In these councils, connections and advantage were often used to gain favor. What had been the kingdom of God established by Jesus Christ and sustained by his chosen apostles was now reduced to conclaves of hundreds of spiritual leaders who did not know the nature of God! All that would have been necessary was for one apostle to be there to give counsel and direction–but there was none. It is folly to suggest that a true Christian doctrine, plan of salvation, or divine organization for the church survived, or could have survived through this doctrinal fire storm. But the falsehood and folly would continue as others involved themselves in uninspired tampering with doctrine.
Perhaps the most imposing contributor to the ideology of the post-apostasy Christian church was Augustine.5 Born in 354, he was a teacher and a philosopher while in his twenties and, interestingly, was attracted to Christianity through the philosophy of Neoplatonism, the writings of Cicero, and the sermons of St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan.
Ambrose baptized Augustine a Christian in 386. A sincere, brilliant, but troubled man, Augustine eventually achieved a position of eminence in the church and set about defining and refining Christian beliefs to accord with the attitudes he had gathered in his pre-Christian life. He was a champion of the so-called Trinity doctrine–combining Christianity with Neoplatonism. The ideas of original sin, infant baptism, and being saved wholly by election and the grace of God–all of which strongly influenced John Calvin, Martin Luther, and other reformers–were not the contributions of Jesus Christ or the apostles, but of later uninspired church leaders, authenticated by this honorable bishop of Hippo, Augustine. The famine of “hearing the words of the Lord” spoken of in Amos 8:11-12 was in full swing. The lights of revelation were out.
There is a good reason that the Dark Ages were so named. The world had slipped into an unequaled abyss of ignorance and abuse of humanity. Most of the hideous examples of man’s inhumanity to man were expressed and promoted in the name of religion–a religion closely controlled by oppressors and tyrants who could justify themselves by either declaring to be in the errand of the church or by purchasing advantage with money. Even into the 1500s, the accounts of behavior by church leaders were alarming. Murder, extortion, rape, greed, moral depravity, horrid abuses of power, bribery, and fraud marked the behavior of those recognized in the office of the Holy See.6 Respected historian William Manchester says of the period 1480-1520,
At any given moment the most dangerous enemy in Europe was the reigning pope. It seems odd to think of Holy Fathers in that light, but the five Vicars of Christ who ruled the Holy See during Magellan’s lifetime were the least Christian of men: the least devout, least scrupulous, least compassionate, and among the least chaste–lechers, almost without exception. Ruthless in their pursuit of political power and personal gain, they were medieval despots who used their holy office for blackmail and extortion. … Simony was institutionalized; a board was set up for the marketing of favors, absolution, forged papal bulls. … Selling pardons for murderers raised some eyebrows, but a powerful cardinal explained that “the Lord desireth not the death of a sinner but rather that he live and pay.”7
These papal excesses did not go unnoticed, of course. Many brave souls denounced church corruption and worldly excesses. The punishment for dissent was, however, excommunication, imprisonment, torture, and death.
It is probably safe to say that the development of the printing press had more impact on the world than any other invention. After Gutenburg invented a printing press with movable type, the literate people of the world had the means of being enlightened on many subjects–particularly religion. Until that time the Bible was used, but only under the direction of a church official. But all that would change. In the 1500s, Bibles became more common and accessible. As a result, people began to notice distinct differences between Bible teachings and the policies and actions of the established church. Some brave reformers tried to restructure the church to accord with Bible teachings–at the peril of their lives. Others began to form their own ideas about how the gospel ought to be administered and interpreted. Thus began the Reformation, a protest (hence the title “Protestant”) movement starting with the great reformers, especially Martin Luther in 1512, and John Calvin in 1533.8
Amidst this spirit of Protestant reform, King Henry VIII formed the Church of England in 1534.9 The Pope had refused to grant him a divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon. In indignant retaliation, Henry coerced Parliament to pass the Act of Supremacy, which made the king head of the church in England, thus revoking the pope’s authority in England. Henry’s successors presided over many disputes regarding whether the Church of England should be Protestant or Catholic. Queen Elizabeth I effected a political compromise between the two theologies.10 The founders of Puritan and Methodist movements (of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, respectively) broke away in Protestant reform. The Separatists (eventually named Congregationalists) broke away from the Church of England. Still another group went to the Netherlands under the direction of John Smyth and later became known as the Baptists.11 Within these various Protestant groups there began to be widespread disagreement over points of doctrine, liturgy, and organization. These hotly disputed issues caused unavoidable splinter denominations and new churches with new doctrines. By the early 1800s literally hundreds of Christian churches had been organized to accommodate the individual religious persuasions of their members.
The great reformers did not seek to establish a true church nor did they believe they had the authority from God to do so. Most simply wanted to reestablish the church on the teachings of Christ. Martin Luther was disappointed to find that his efforts to reform the Roman Catholic Church had instead resulted in a Lutheran church. He did not want the church to be named after him, for he felt that the church should be named after Christ.12 Roger Williams, the founder of the Baptist church in America, firmly believed that the authority to act in the name of God had been taken from the earth and that none in his day held the sacred power to restore it. He predicted that the true gospel would someday be returned to the earth under the direction of “new apostles to recover and restore all the ordinances and churches of Christ out of the ruins of antichristian apostasy.”13 He urged his followers to establish an environment that would permit God to “pour forth those fiery streams again of tongues and prophecy in the restoration of Zion.”14 John Wesley founded Methodism after his efforts to reform the Church of England failed. Like Luther, Williams, and others, Wesley recognized that the church had ceased to enjoy the same spiritual experiences as the apostles. Wesley writes,
It does not appear that these extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost were common in the church for more than two or three centuries. We seldom hear of them after that fatal period when the Emperor Constantine called himself a Christian. … The Christians had no more of the Spirit of Christ than the other heathens. … This was the real cause why the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost were no longer to be found in the Christian church–because the Christians were turned heathens again, and had only a dead form left.15
After the passing of the reformers, these churches were left in much the same condition. Disputes and divisions among the sects continued. Soon churches built up colleges where those wishing to enter the ministry could be trained in their unique religious dogma. Once they were prepared for church leadership, these new pastors went forth to expound their biblical interpretations and win converts. The seeds of the Dark Ages were still producing their confusing fruits, but the light was about to shine forth again. The long-anticipated restoration of all things–foreseen and hoped for by prophets of old–was waiting in the wings.
2 See Daniel H. Ludlow, ed., Encyclopedia of Mormonism (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 1:56-58, s.v. “Apostasy.”
3 See Jacob Burckhardt, The Age of Constantine the Great, trans. Moses Hadas (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California, 1949), 309.
4 See E. R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1965), 102-5, 118-19, 130-32.
5 See World Book, 1:888, s.v. “Augustine.”
6 James A. Haught, Holy Horrors (Amherst, New York: Prometheus, 1990), 81-84.
7 William R. Manchester, A World Lit Only by Fire (Boston: Little, Brown, 1993), 37.
8 See World Book, 16:195-99, s.v. “Reformation.”
9 See World Book, 3:542-43, s.v. “Church of England.”
10 See ibid., 3:543.
11 See World Book, 15:833-36, s.v. “Protestantism.”
12 See World Book, 12:527-29, s.v. “Luther, Martin.”
13 John Cotton, A Reply to Mr. Williams … , ed. J. Lewis Diman, in The Complete Writings of Roger Williams (New York: Russell & Russell, 1963), 2:11, 19; cited in Donald Skaggs, Roger Williams’ Dream for America (New York: Lang, 1993), 43.
14 Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution … , ed. Samuel L. Caldwell, in Complete Writings, 3:307; cited in Skaggs, Roger Williams’ Dream, 49, emphasis in original.
15 Albert C. Outler, ed., “Sermon 89: The More Excellent Way,” in The Works of John Wesley (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1986), 3:263-64.