Monday, October 19, 2009

In Search of the "Great Apostasy": A Catholic Response to Mormon Claims

By Patrick Madrid

SINCE ITS BEGINNING in 1830, the Mormon Church has denied any continuous historical connection with Christianity.

Mormonism's founder Joseph Smith, claimed that in 1820 God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him in the woods near his home in Palmyra, New York. Jesus said that for the proceeding 1700 years (give or take a century — Mormonism can't say exactly) the world had been living in the darkness of a total apostasy from the gospel.

This was the answer to a question young Smith had been pondering. "My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of these sects was right, that I might know which to join. . . .I asked the personages who stood above me in the light, which of all these sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong), and which I should join. I was answered that I must join none of them for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me [Jesus] said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that their professors were all corrupt"

Smith convinced his credulous followers, most of them simple rural folk, that he'd been chosen, in what Mormons have come to call the First Vision, to be the first post-apostasy prophet — God's hand-picked agent charged with restoring the true gospel.

Over the next several years Smith purported to have received additional revelations from "heavenly personages." He claimed that after establishing his church in Palestine, the resurrected Jesus appeared in South America to the Nephites (Jews who, Smith said, had migrated to the New World between 600 and 592 B.C.) and organized a parallel church there (3 Nephi 11-28).

The new prophet seized on Jesus' words in John 10:16 ("I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd") as proof of the Lord's impending South American travel plans. The exegesis might impress one unfamiliar

with the New Testament, but the usual understanding is that the "other sheep" Jesus referred to were the Gentiles, to whom the gospel also was extended.
Smith claimed the Nephite church had the same hierarchy and ordinances as its sister church in Palestine — living prophets, twelve apostles, seventy disciples — but things didn't go well for either church. Both collapsed under the weight of pagan influences, dissolving into complete apostasy.

The late Bruce McConkie, a Mormon apostle and, during his life, perhaps Mormonism's leading theologian, explained things this way: "This universal apostasy began in the days of the ancient apostles themselves; and it was known to and foretold by them. . . .With the loss of the Gospel, the nations of the earth went into moral eclipse called the Dark Ages. Apostasy was universal. . . [T]his darkness still prevails except among those who have come to a knowledge of the restored Gospel."[1]

Mormons believe the church Jesus established in Palestine, before its disintegration, was identical to the Mormon Church of today, with ceremonies such as baptism for the dead, a polytheistic concept of God (including eternal progression, the notion that God was a man who evolved into a god and that worthy Mormon males can evolve into gods), and other peculiar Mormon beliefs. The fact that no historical evidence exists to corroborate this position doesn't put much of a dent in the average Mormon's mental armor.

A chief reason is the devotion Mormons have for Joseph Smith. They hold he was God's mouthpiece. His "revelations" came directly from God. This belief points to Mormonism's weak point. If you can demonstrate to a Mormon that Smith was wrong about the great apostasy, Mormonism crashes down in a heap. If Smith was wrong about this point, he could not have been a true prophet of God, and Mormonism loses its basis (The Bible has strong words to say about false prophets in Deuteronomy 13:2-6 and 18:20-22.)

If Smith were right about apostasy, then Jesus was a pathetic failure when it came to establishing his Church. After all, what are we to think of his promises? If there really was a complete apostasy, how do we explain our Lord's claim that his Church never would be overcome, "Upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt 16:19)? What about his promise that he would be with his Church until the end of time (Matt 28:20)? What about his promise to send the Holy Spirit as a guide who would abide with the Church (John 14:16,26)? What about the Holy Spirit guiding the Church into all truth (John 16:13)?
A key difficulty for Mormons is that they can't say exactly when the apostasy took place nor can they point to any definitive historical event of it. Other than Smith's claims there is only an interior feeling or testimony on which Mormons can base their beliefs, but such subjective proof proves nothing. There are only a few chosen choices: (1) Jesus' words in the passages just cited were misreported; (2) Jesus did in fact say these things but didn't really mean them — at least not in the way they had been understood by Christians for the first eighteen centuries; (3) Jesus was a liar, or (4)Joseph Smith was wrong and Jesus meant what he said.

Mormonism's claim to be the "restored" church hangs upon there having been a complete apostasy. The late James E. Talmadge, prolific Mormon writer and member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, wrote, "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proclaims the restoration of the Gospel, and re-establishment of the Church as of old, in this, the dispensation of the fullness of times. Such restoration and re-establishment, with the modern bestowal of the holy priesthood, would be unnecessary and indeed impossible had the Church of Christ continued among men with unbroken succession of priesthood and power, since the meridian of time [the time of Christ].

"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 this 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"[2] (emphasis added).
Talmadge is correct in evaluating the consequences, of course: if no apostasy, no restoration, and if no restoration, no Mormonism.

Mormons misconstrue the biblical passages which do refer to a "great apostasy" from the Christian Church. They read into the text a complete apostasy. Scripture mentions an apostasy in Matthew 24:4-12; Mark 13:21-23; Luke 21:7-8; Acts 20:29-30; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12; 2 Timothy 3:1-7, 4:1-4; 2 Peter 2:1-3; and Jude 17-19. Most of these verses say "many" will fall away, and not one mentions a complete apostasy of the Church. Another complication for Mormons is that these verses say the apostasy will take place at the end times, the "latter days" as the King James renders it. The second and third centuries were not the "latter days."
The next time you encounter the apostasy argument, ask the Mormon to read the entire context of whatever verse he's quoting and show you where the writer mentions a complete apostasy. Usually he'll claim a complete apostasy was the intent of the writer and that it's at least implicitly taught in the Bible.

The best way to refute this charge is to have the Mormon read Jesus' promises regarding the doctrinal integrity and the temporal perpetuity of his Church:

"On this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt 16:18); "Behold, I will be with you always, even until the end of the world" (Matt 28:20); "The Father. . . will give you another Advocate to be with you always" (John 14:16); "The Advocate, the Holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name, he will teach you everything and remind you of all I have told you" (John 14:26); "But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth" (John 16:13). Go through each text, pointing out that none mentions a complete apostasy.

Look also at the many New Testament verses which speak of the Church as Christ's own body, such as Romans 12:1-5; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Ephesians 3:4-6; 5:21-32; and Colossians 1:18. Since Christ is the mind and head of his Church (Eph 4:15-16), animating the body, the members enjoy and organic

spiritual union with him (John 15:1-8). It's inconceivable that he would permit his body to disintegrate under the attacks of Satan. The apostle John reminds us that Jesus is greater than Satan. (1 John 4:4).[3]

Although, tragically, the gates of hell can and do prevail over individual Christians who succumb to mortal sin and cut themselves off from life-giving union with Christ (Rom 11:22; Gal 5:4; 2 Peter 2:20-22; 1 John 5:16-17), they can't prevail against the Church Jesus built on the rock of Peter.[4] If they could — if they did — Jesus is made to look foolish for having taught, "Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? Otherwise, after laying the foundation and finding himself unable to finish the work the onlookers should laugh at him and say, 'This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish'" (Luke 15:28-30)

Consider another of Jesus' promises: "I will ask the Father and he will send you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of the truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it because it remains with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans" (John 14:16-18). If Mormons are right about a complete apostasy, Jesus did leave us as orphans — for 1700 years!

One thing Catholics should never do is try to avoid the fact that there have been immoral and heterodox members in the Church. Jesus didn't promise that the Church wouldn't be menaced by immorality and heterodoxy. Rather, he promised that the wheat and the chaff (good and evil) would be side by side in the Church until the end (Matt 13:24-43, 47-50).

In a recent written exchange[5], Mormon apologist Robert Starling, attempting to prove the divine origin of the Mormon, cited the chief Rabbi Gamaliel's prediction regarding the New Testament Church: "[I]f this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God" (Acts 5:38-39). Starling unwittingly undercut his own claim of a great apostasy. Gamaliel was right. The Church Jesus built could not be destroyed.[6]

In refuting Mormonism's theory of a complete apostasy (and in the process Mormonism itself), Catholics should be able to explain how the integrity of the Church was preserved. The answer: apostolic succession, the unbroken continuum of apostolic authority transmitted via the office of bishop.

This doctrine is the logical and scriptural alternative to the Mormon concept of an apostasy and restoration.

Jesus bestowed a unique authority on the twelve apostles. He conferred on them his power to bind and lose in heaven and on earth (Matt 18:18). He gave them his authority to forgive sins (John 20:21-23; 2 Cor. 5:18-20). He designated Peter as his vicar, giving him a special authority to govern the Church (Matt 16:18-19; John 21:15-17). He promised the apostles that when they taught, he spoke through them, and that whoever rejected their teachings rejected Jesus himself (Matt 10:40; Luke 10:16).

As the Church got off the ground, the apostles transmitted this authority to their successors (Acts 1:15-26). Paul exhorted a newly ordained bishop, "Do not neglect the gift you have, which was conferred on
you by the prophetic words with the imposition of hands [ordination] of the presbyterate" (1 Tim. 4:14). Later Paul reminded Timothy that the conferral of apostolic authority was not to be handed on to others without prudent consideration of a candidate's qualifications: "As for the imposition of hands, do not bestow it inconsiderably" (1 Tim 5:22).

Apostolic succession can be seen in early Christian clearly writings outside the New Testament. Around A.D. 80 Clement, a disciple of Peter and his third successor as bishop of Rome, in his letter to the Corinthians, expounded on many doctrines, including auricular confession, monotheism (Mormons claim the early Church believed in a "plurality of gods" and eternal progression), the ordained priesthood, and apostolic succession.

One of Clement's most telling lines is this: "Our apostles too were given to understand by Our Lord Jesus Christ that the office of bishop would give rise to intrigues. For this reason, equipped as they were with the perfect foreknowledge, they appointed the men mentioned before and afterward and laid down a rule once for all to this effect: When these men [bishops] die, other approved men shall succeed to their sacred ministry."

In A.D. 110, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch and disciple of the apostle John, while on his way in chains to Rome to be martyred for the faith, composed letters to six major centers of Catholicism, along the route (Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Philadelphia, Smyrna, Rome). Ignatius provides us with valuable insights into doctrines and practices of the Christian Church at the close of the first century — only one generation removed from the time of Christ. His writings make it clear that the early Church was thoroughly Catholic.

His letters contain a recurring exhortation to remain in communion with the bishops who are successors to the apostles:

"Be eager, therefore, to be firmly grounded in the precepts of the Lord and the apostles, in order that whatever you do you may prosper, physically and spiritually in faith and love, in the Son and the Father and in the Spirit. . . together with your most distinguished bishop and that beautifully-woven spiritual crown which is your presbytery and the godly deacons. Be subject to the bishop and to one another" (Letter to the Magnesians 13:1-2).

Another Church Father, Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, explained in A.D. 180, "It is possible, then, for everyone to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors [down] to our own times; men who neither taught anything like these heretics rave about.

"Since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume at this the succession of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the succession of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul, that Church which has the tradition and the faith which come down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. With this Church, because of its superior origin, all churches must agree — all the faithful in the whole world — and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition" (Against Heresies,3,3:1-2).

The Mormon Church simply has no convincing answer to the ocean of the biblical and historical evidence of which this is just a drop. All of it contradicts the complete apostasy theory. Yet there's another problem with the theory: the problem of silence. There's no evidence of any outcry from the first or second century "Mormons" denouncing the introduction of "Catholic heresies."

Mormons might respond that, since Catholics gained the upper hand in the struggle for control of the true Church, they simply expunged any trace of the Mormons — a comforting but inviable argument. We have records of many controversies that raged in the early days of the Church (we know in great detail what turmoil the early Church passed through as it fought off various threats to its existence), and there just is no evidence — none at all — that Mormonism existed prior to the 1830s.

It's unreasonable to assume the Catholic Church would allow the survival of copious records chronicling the history, teachings, and proponents of dozens of other heresies, but would entirely destroy only the records of early Mormonism.

If Mormons want their claim of a complete apostasy as to be taken seriously, they must evince biblical and historical evidence supporting it. So far they've come up empty-handed. Honest investigators will see the unavoidable truth: The Mormon "great apostasy" doctrine is a myth. There never has been — nor will there ever be — a complete apostasy. Jesus Christ promised that his Church, established on the solid rock of Peter, will remain forever. We have his Word on it.

Notes: [1] Bruce McConkie, Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966ed.),43-44. McConkie, ever pugnacious when his religion was at stake, made it clear that the Catholic Church was the wholly corrupt phoenix which rose from the ashes of Christ's failed Church. "Iniquitous conditions in the various branches of the great and abominable church in the last days are powerfully described in the book of Mormon (2 Nephi 28; Mormon 8:28-38; Doctrine and Covenants 10:56). It is also to the Book of Mormon to which we turn for the plainest description of the Catholic Church as the great and abominable church. Nephi saw this 'church was the most abominable above all other churches' in [his] vision. He 'saw the devil that he was the foundation of it,' and also the murders, wealth, harlotry, persecutions, and evil desires that historically have been part of this satanic organization. He saw that this most abominable of all churches was founded after the day of Christ and his apostles; that it took away from the gospel of the Lamb many covenants and many plain and precious parts; that it had perverted the right ways of the Lord; that it had deleted many teachings from the Bible; that his church was the mother of harlots; and that, finally, the Lord would again restore the gospel of salvation" (ibid.,1958ed.,314-315). In recent years the Mormon Church has engaged in a strenuous public relations program designed to garner for itself acceptance as a mainstream "Christian" denomination. Anti- Catholic comments such as McConkie's, although de rigueur among Mormon apologists in the past, are no longer allowed in official Mormon works.

[2] James E. Talmadge, The Great Apostasy (Salt Lake City: Desert Books,1968ed.),iii. For a discussion of apostolic succession see Warren H. Carroll, The Founding Of Christendom and The Building Of Christendom (Front Royal: Christendom College Press,1985,1987).

[3] 1 Timothy 3:15 describes the Church as "The household of God. . . the pillar and foundation of truth." In light of this, we find additional assurance that the house that Jesus built will not be pillaged by Satan. "No one can enter a strong man's house to plunder his property unless first he ties up the strong man. Then, he can plunder his house" (Mark 3:27; cf. Matt. 12:29). Jesus is the "strong man" guarding his household, the Church.

[4] Jesus didn't command his followers to do things he himself couldn't do. "Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on a rock" (Matt 7:24-25). It was no coincidence that Jesus used the words, "on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt 16:18; Luke 6:46-49). See also Hebrews 11:10 and 1 Peter 2:6-8.

[5] This Rock (July 1991), 18.

[6] For a full length examination of this issue see the two hour video-taped debate. A Catholic-Mormon Dialogue (Patrick Madrid vs. Gary Coleman, 1989), available This was the first-ever debate between a Catholic apologist and an official representative of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. See also the debate between Patrick Madrid and Frank Bradshaw (LDS)

[7] For a thorough treatment of early Church writings see William Jurgens' three-volume Faith Of The Early Fathers (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1970) and Johannes Quasten's four volume, Patrology (Westminster, Maryland: Christian Classics, 1986). A helpful critique of Mormonism, including the First Vision, is found in Jerald and Sandra Tanner, The Changing World Of Mormonism (Chicago: Moody Press,1980).


Anonymous said...

This is brilliant. The most important thing I've learned about having a reasonable dialogue with Mormons is that it's almost impossible, because there is really nothing to agree on to begin with. Their reinvention of Christianity assured that.

Thanks for the concise information.

Unknown said...

Ditto. Excellent article in every way. I run a website called Catholic Digital Studio On this site, we have three sections on Mormonism all by Vic Scaravilli, a lay Catholic apologist and instructor at our Parish. There are two videos, one called The Great Apostasy. He wrote several letters to the editor on Mormonism, which I republished. More recently, he conducted two radio show debates with Van Hale on k-talk, a Salt Lake City radio station. I have mp3 downloads available, all for free. (All my stuff is free). I'll forward your article to Vic. He'll love it. Good job. You're spot on! -- Mary Ann, webmaster.

Anonymous said...

Here is how I refuted the "Great Apostosy" on the Catholic Answers Forum:

I would post the whole thing but it's too long to post, apparently.

Anonymous said...

The only thing to be determined is the veracity of the First Vision of Joseph Smith. In that vision, in which God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him, he was privileged to ask which of the churches he should join. Here is the answer they gave him:

"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.”
He again forbade me to join with any of them...."

Regardless of all the historical, scriptural and doctrinal evidence that can be readily produced to show that an apostasy occurred(see my article at for an example), it all comes down to whether the First Vision actually happened.

If God did indeed appear to Joseph Smith and tell him that the creeds and churches of men were false and that he was to "go not after them," then the matter is settled. It is the voice of God to our time.

If it did not occur, then it matters not what else Latter-day Saints have to say on the matter.

It is left to each individual as a matter of faith and God will judge each of us for our actions and ouur belief or unbelief. The Holy Spirit will bear witness of truth to those who ask.

I know by the Holy Ghost that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and that the First Vision indeed occurred. I know this for myself, independent of any other person, having received it by the prayer of faith. I invite the reader to ask of God for his own independent witness of the First Vision, trusting not in the arm of the flesh or in man, but in the Spirit.

For many Protestant religions, belief in apparitions and visions is foreign to their experience. Catholics, who believe in Lourdes and Fatima, should have no trouble considering the viability of a vision to a modern saint. Ask of God and you will find an answer. Joseph Smith was indeed a prophet.

Matt said...

I'll make my biases clear from the beginning: I'm a member of the LDS church, and believe quite strongly in that faith. I'm not really qualified to participate in a discussion about the historicity of a complete apostasy. But what I find rather odd is that in a discussion claiming to fairly present the side of Mormonism no mention is made of Mormonism's greatest defender, Hugh Nibley. I've read a book of his that talks about the early church, and he presents plenty of quotes from first and second century sources that support our claims. Even if you think all of his work is hogwash, to give a fair presentation of the LDS position you need to at least mention Nibley. To completely ignore his work, acting like it doesn't exist, is ill-informed at best.

I also think that the implication that all, or at least most, Mormons are simple-minded farmers was unnecessary, though that's beside the point. I did appreciate that other than that statement towards the beginning, the article tried to be fair and kind to an opposing position.

Seth R. said...

For the most recent Mormon scholarship on the idea of the Apostasy, I'd suggest "Early Christians in Disarray: (look it up on Amazon).

You can also find a lot of LDS responses to many of the points raised in this article at the following link:

Seth R. said...

For the most recent Mormon scholarship on the idea of the Apostasy, I'd suggest "Early Christians in Disarray: (look it up on Amazon).

You can also find a lot of LDS responses to many of the points raised in this article at the following link: