The Greater Apostasy? Responsibility and Falling Away in LDS Narratives

Over the course of the 20th century, LDS narratives about early Christianity shifted dramatically in one respect. While earlier accounts explained that the Great Apostasy occurred due to the failure of church leaders, by the 1980′s retellings of the Great Apostasy narrative blamed the general membership for going astray. LDS narratives about early Christianity, like most other Christians, have a great deal to do with constructing a meaningful identity. In this way, these narratives have a different goal than those of historians. Nevertheless, this shift in the LDS narrative reveals a great deal about how LDS identity is constructed and what values these stories seek to communicate.

In the early and mid-century narratives, many of the “internal” causes of the Great Apostasy had to do with the failures of Church leaders and misconduct of the institutional church. These narratives were heavily dependent upon Protestant anti-Catholic histories of the early Church which depicted church leaders as corrupt and lamented the rise of authoritative institutions. In elaborating the “internal causes” of the apostasy, Talmage quotes early church leaders and Protestant historians who rail against the ecclesiastical leadership. He emphasizes that both “cannot be charged with bias against Christian institutions.” (Great Apostasy, 87.) Mid-century LDS writer James L. Barker sees the main cause of the Great Apostasy as the violation of the separation of Church and State, arguing that “divine leadership” is one of the two organizing principles, along with “individual liberty” of the Church. (Apostasy From the Divine Church, p.5). Similarly, Edgar Lyon depicts Christian leadership as becoming corrupt and an unsafe guide to preventing apostasy (Apostasy to Restoration, 85). Indeed, the corruption of leadership was one of the strongest themes of early LDS apostasy narratives. (See also, B.H. Roberts, Outlines of Ecclesiastical History, 157-79.

More recent Mormon narratives of the Great Apostasy accept this earlier view to some extent, but the blame for the apostasy has shifted away from the organization and leadership to a failure on behalf of the church members to sufficiently obey church leaders. For example, Reynolds explains, “LDS scholars today conclude increasingly that the root causes of the apostasy were the abandonment or breaking of sacred covenants by the Christians themselves….we can see internal rebellion against God’s covenants and against his authorized servants–much like the rebellions against Moses in the wilderness, or against Joseph Smith in Kirtland in 1836.” (Reynolds in Early Christians in Disarray, 4-5). Callister’s account suggests, “if there had been significant righteousness among the Saints, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles would have continued.” (The Inevitable Apostasy and the Promised Restoration, 46) Kent Jackson is even more explicit in placing the blame with modern parallels: “zealous Church members, what a modern apostle has called ‘alternate voices,’ teachers whose words they found to be more ‘pleasing unto the carnal mind’ (Alma 30:53)–more intellectually stimulating, more in style with contemporary ideas, or more spiritually titillating–than were the teachings of the Lord’s authorized servants.” (From Apostasy to Restoration, 21) He continues in framing the apostasy in terms of contemporary LDS anxiety of authority: “The divinely revealed authority of apostles was replaced by the self-appointed authority of intellectuals.” (ibid)

These more recent accounts are radically different from earlier LDS treatments of the Great Apostasy. In these, the fall of the leadership is caused by the members-in some cases explicitly “intellectuals,” and we do not see unscrupulous priesthood nor the extending of power of the Church over the State as salient causes. This shift in emphasis reflects the rise of LDS concern for centralizing authority in church institutions and its leaders, rejecting the preferences for decentralization in the Protestant narrative. Part of the problem with the previous Great Apostasy narrative’s condemnation of Catholic authority is that the LDS Church actually sought to project the same kind of definitive rule, as opposed to Protestant preferences for personal religion. This shift suggests also a great anxiety over obedience in the latter part of the 20th century, developing a narrative of early Christianity to teach this value.

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  • RaymondSwenson

    The apostacy of the members was already taking place in the First Century and was the reason apostolic authority was withdrawn. The same thing happened with the Nephite rejection of the three surviving disciples ordained by Christ. The corruption of the leadership was an eventual manifestation that was completed by the time of Constantine, but it was the product of the earlier rebellion of the members. The change in LDS narratives has been moving the focus to earlier times.

    • Baltzer

      A most insightful comment. Coincides with LDS scholars decreasing blame upon a mostly post-apostasy Catholic church for purging plain and precious things from the scripture. As we learn more about the misty first two centuries I suspect we will have a clearer idea of the apostasy which once was presumed to be Catholic.

  • DavidH

    I think the theories of Reynolds and other LDS scholars are interesting, but they have not [yet] been adopted as the correlated position of the Church. I think the best official current statement is that in Preach My Gospel:

    “The Great Apostasy

    “After the death of Jesus Christ, wicked people persecuted the Apostles and Church members and killed many of them. With the death of the Apostles, priesthood keys and the presiding priesthood authority were taken from the earth. The Apostles had kept the doctrines of the gospel pure and maintained the order and standard of worthiness for Church members. Without the Apostles, over time the doctrines were corrupted, and unauthorized changes were made in Church organization and priesthood ordinances, such as baptism and conferring the gift of the Holy Ghost.

    “Without revelation and priesthood authority, people relied on human wisdom to interpret the scriptures and the principles and ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ. False ideas were taught as truth. Much of the knowledge of the true character and nature of God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost was lost. The doctrines of faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost became distorted or forgotten. The priesthood authority given to Christ’s Apostles was no longer present on the earth. This apostasy eventually led to the emergence of many churches.”

    I think there is a great deal of freedom in how we understand the “Great Apostasy”. The standard works offer clues, but not great detail, and the LDS understandings have evolved over time. While as you point out, there are groups of scholars who now blame the brand new members of the Church in the Meridian of time for not being faithful enough, there are others who maintain that the “Great Apostasy” was not as “Great” or as much of an “Apostasy” as it had been traditionally understood particularly from Protestant narrative. E.g., that there was no loss of “truth”, that the truth remained, but was spread out. But I leave that for another day.

  • Larrin

    The problem with stating that the loss of Priesthood led to apostasy is the belief/doctrine that John never died. Therefore the Quorum of Twelve could have been refilled at any time according to Mormon understanding of the way quorums should work. Therefore, the easiest solution is to say that the members were so wicked or the teachings so corrupted that God allowed the church to die. This of course creates a further problem of explanation: were the people really that wicked? If there were 50 people that were righteous should God allow the apostasy? 10? 5? Even the Book of Revelation says that there were still some righteous churches. But Mormons used to reading the Old Testament would perhaps not be fazed by being told that “everyone was wicked.”

    While the idea that the emphasis on obedience led to this explanation is plausible and may have some merit, I think it came about for the simple reason that the theories were broken.

    • trytoseeitmyway


      • Larrin

        Insightful question.

        • trytoseeitmyway

          Thanks. But I don’t see an answer.

          If you think my question wasn’t clear, you might have said that explicitly, instead of resorting right away to sarcasm. Your comment earlier implied that there is a “doctrine” that John never died. Since I have never heard that declared as a doctrine of the Church, I wrote to question whether it really is such a thing. An answer would explain why the term doctrine is appropriate in this context, assuming that it is.

          • Larrin

            I will happily answer: D&C 7.

          • trytoseeitmyway

            OK thanks. And John (with Peter and James) did refill the quorum when the priesthood was restored to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdrey.

  • Stephen Manning

    When Mormons complain that they are unjustly deprived of the title “Christian” by other Christians, the Great Apostasy lies unattended to in the background. In fact, LDS theology more than implies that Mormons are the only Christians. It is the Catholics, Orthodox and the Johnny-Come-Lately Protestants who have no claim to that title by LDS doctrine, which holds that the effective ordinances of grace disappeared…disappeared…with the death of the Apostles. Joseph Smith was not chosen to reform the Church –it had long ceased to exist– but to restore it. I wish Mormons were more honest about their radical differences with orthodox Christianity. It makes them more interesting.

    • manaen

      When I hear someone purport to compare Mormonism and mainstream/orthodox/historical/traditional Christianity, I usually answer,
      “Jesus Christ is the definition of Christianity. The Church and gospel he originally gave us and later restored are mainstream/orthodox/historical/traditional Christianity. How much some person or church varies from these is the measure of how far they are from mainstream/orthodox/historical/traditional Christianity.”