Reviewed by Alison V. P. Coutts
“The idea that Christ’s church no longer existed was central to Joseph
Smith’s prophetic claims, and as such was among the earliest of the doctrines
established in this dispensation.”1
Although churches of the Reformation recognized that an
apostasy had taken place in the early Christian church, the first vision gave
Joseph concrete evidence that it had taken place—something he had not
contemplated, saying “at this time it had never entered into my heart
that all [churches] were wrong.”2 Early in the twentieth century B. H.
Roberts, James E. Talmage, and Joseph Fielding Smith published extensive
commentary on the apostasy.3 But since then, apart from articles
by Hugh Nibley and others, it would be fair to say that no book-length treatment
of the apostasy has been published. Until 2005. In 2005, three books appeared
that dealt with various aspects of the apostasy, and in 2006 a further volume
appeared on the shelves. This review examines two of those four publications,
all of which seek to answer the questions: “Why was there an apostasy?
How did it come about? What does it mean? What is the significance of new
discoveries on the study of the apostasy?”4 The other
two are treated by Jacob Rawlins.
Early Christians in Disarray
In 2001 an informal faculty reading group at Brigham Young University started
meeting to discuss early Christian texts. Out of those early meetings grew
a conference and a volume, Early Christians in Disarray, that explores the apostasy in the light of new discoveries
in early Christian texts. In his introduction, editor Noel B. Reynolds sets
out his purpose: “This volume is designed to support and encourage further
systematic research on [the apostasy]. It is not designed to be a comprehensive
or final treatment of any of these issues. The goals of the authors and editor
will be achieved if Latter-day Saints find its contents helpful for understanding
this important topic and if it provokes some of them to pursue these and related
questions with further research.”5
In Early Christians Eric Dursteler
examines the roots of the conceptions of the Christian apostasy accepted in
the Latter-day Saint community over the last century. Surveying the literature
from John Taylor to B. H. Roberts, James E. Talmage, and Joseph
Fielding Smith, up to present-day Apostles M. Russell Ballard and Dallin H.
Oaks, Dursteler details LDS thinking on the apostasy. He also brings in comments
from many noted historians, including Jakob Burckhardt and John Addington
Symonds, to make the case that, although Roberts, Talmage, and Smith could
not have been aware of the important studies by these historians, nevertheless
they were “influenced by Enlightenment and Romantic historians and trends”6 in their attempt to “to flesh out
their understanding of the historical continuum of the apostasy.7
In accord with the theme of the book, Richard Bennett and Amber Seidel maintain
that the idea of apostasy did not originate in the nineteenth century since
“for centuries, churches of the Reformation had been teaching that an
apostasy had long ago occurred in the Christian world.”8
Given this parameter, they survey the wide range of early Mormon preaching
and missionary publications to “show that Joseph Smith’s sense of an
apostasy from the true Christian faith was ratified in the first vision; .
. . [and] that this understanding changed and developed during the early years
of his prophetic training.”9 Citing accounts from both England and
America, Bennett and Seidel describe the tenor of the religious revival of
the time. But, importantly, they demonstrate that Joseph’s experience in the
grove of trees was one comprising forgiveness, atonement, and religious instruction.
Bennett and Seidel also “examine how the doctrine of the apostasy was
understood and taught by both leaders and missionaries within the first four
years of the organization of the Church of Christ in 1830.”10
As Joseph and Oliver’s understanding grew through the process of translating
the Book of Mormon and the Bible and through revelation, their understanding
of a loss of truth had deepened to a sense of a great and global apostasy,
that gross darkness blanketed the entire world and that the world lay in sin
and captivity, that religious corruption had contaminated much of Christian
communication and standards of behavior, that there had been a subtraction
of priesthood legitimacy and authority, that the apostasy extended to the
diminution and scattering of God’s ancient covenant people Israel, and finally,
if a less developed doctrine, that modern nations and governments acted without
This prevailing view characterizes the teaching of the
brethren in the early years of the church.
With the introductory caveat that “Whatever is taught about the apostasy
should be checked against the four standard works,”12
John Welch examines selected restoration scriptures as a means of reconstructing
key elements of the prophetic views of the apostasy, providing a guide to
our own further research on this topic. He finds in Doctrine and Covenants
64:8 frequently overlooked evidence that the Christian apostasy may have occurred
quite early because of unresolved conflicts between the disciples. His detailed
analysis of 1 Nephi 13 shows that Jewish persecution of the disciples
would contribute to their demise: “This revelation to Nephi draws attention
of historians to the tensions and persecutions against Christians, not by
Romans but by Jews, that occurred in the first three decades of Christianity.”13 Welch then turns his
principal attention to the parable of the wheat and tares in Doctrine and
Covenants 86 as a prophecy of the apostasy. Examining this parable with the
added insight from the KJV and JST versions of Matthew 13 in both chart form
and a detailed analysis, Welch concludes that in the original parable as reported
in Doctrine and Covenants 86, “Jesus clearly anticipated that a public
apostasy would surely come. He made it clear that the apostasy would affect
the entire field or world. . . . But at the same time, there was
hope. At the appropriate time, harvesters would come with instructions and
authorizations from the Master of the field, allowing the works of the last
days to go forth.”14
James Faulconer discusses what the New Testament writers thought about the
apostasy and what was meant by the term apostasy and related terminology during New Testament times.
He uses the Septuagint because it “gives
us a good look at how pre-Christian Jews as well as those of the early Christian
era understood the Old Testament.”15 Faulconer concludes that apostasy “covers a range of things, including leaving the
faith because of persecution, creating division in the body of the church,
. . . losing faith because one continues to sin in various ways,
teaching false doctrine, blaspheming, and denying the Holy Ghost, all of which
can be summed up in the phrase ‘turning against God’ or ‘departing from God’
as in Hebrews 3:12.”16 Most specifically, apostasy—at
least for the writers of the New Testament and their contemporaries—was
the rejection of temple and priesthood.
In his usual well-footnoted style, John Gee documents the evidence that many
plain and precious things were taken away from the scriptures, as Nephi had
foreseen (1 Nephi 13:26). While a great deal of scholarly attention has
been focused in recent decades on the ways in which the New Testament writings
were affected by theological politics in the third and fourth centuries, as
the Christian canon gradually took shape, Gee focuses on the second century
to document the extensive changing of the inspired writings that was already
in process. He surveys the writings of Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Irenaeus,
and Clement of Alexandria, to name but a few, concluding that “there
were a variety of accusations of corrupting scripture made against every party,
including the sect that eventually became the ‘orthodox’ or ‘Catholic’ one.”17 Looking at methods of and possible
motivations for corruption, Gee finally remarks, “the books that were
considered scripture, and some of the content of those books, changed from
the beginning to the end of the [second] century.”18
With such intriguing subheadings as “Philosophy as a Tool of Self-Defense”
and “Philosophy as the Handmaid of Theology,” Daniel Graham and
James Siebach address the widespread misunderstanding that the apostasy was
caused by the incorporation of Hellenistic (Greek) thought into the Christian
church. Rehearsing the history of Christian converts from the largely unlearned
early apostles, they note that “by the mid-second century some Christians
began to see it as their duty not to wait in silence for the sword of persecution
to fall, but to stand up and defend the faith in public forums. Justin Martyr
had studied in several philosophical schools before converting to Christianity.
Recognizing similarities between the teachings of the philosophers and the
doctrines of Christianity, he determined to use his education to defend the
faith against false charges.”19
Their conclusion after surveying the teachings of Clement and Origen is that
“Clement and Origen see Greek learning as providing genuine insights
but not as constituting a body of truth independent of the scriptures and
revelation. We should learn what the world has to teach us of worldly knowledge
but depend on revelation for our understanding of God and his ways.”20 Graham
and Siebach see the hellenization of Christianity as a result of the apostasy
and not its cause.
Joseph Smith’s teaching that God has a body contradicts the teachings of
all Christian churches today. David L. Paulsen demonstrates that this
was not new doctrine: “Joseph testified that his view was a restoration
of the biblical and primitive Judeo-Christian understanding of God, an understanding
that was lost because of a ‘falling away’—an apostasy—from the
truths once held by the earliest Christians.”21
Citing works from notable modern historians such as Adolf von Harnack and
J. N. D. Kelly on the early church fathers, reviewing the writings
of the early church fathers themselves, and drawing from Jewish traditions,
Paulsen shows that, in the first and second Christian centuries, both Jews
and Christians generally believed that God was embodied.
As part of an ongoing interest in covenant, Noel Reynolds examines the second-century
transformation of covenant-based ordinances into Christian sacraments as a
principal cause of the apostasy and thereby illuminates Nephi’s statement
that many of the covenants were taken away (1 Nephi 13:26). Reynolds
points out that one would expect covenants to be part of the early church,
“When we look closely at the writings of the earliest Christians, we
might naturally ask, ‘Where have all the covenants gone?’ Though the writings
of this period occasionally allude to covenants and even occasionally feature
them, there is nowhere evidence that the concept of ordinances based in covenants
is either central or pervasive.”22
In this final chapter of a fascinating and comprehensive book, Reynolds looks
at the demise of the covenant and the alternatives sought to fill its absence.
His conclusion is a fitting one for a book on apostasy:
The centrality of the Christian’s covenant to repent of sin and obey God’s
commands had already been marginalized, and the traditional ordinances had
lost their covenantal basis, being redefined as sacraments by which God’s
grace could be transmitted to a recipient through the mediation of a priest.
The subsequent shift to a theology that found truth in nature through reason
ensured that the original covenantal understandings of the Christian’s relationship
to the Father could never be recovered, though their echoes would reverberate
hauntingly down through the ages, leading many dissatisfied Christians to
long for a restoration of original Christianity.23
Where Have All the Prophets Gone?
Spanning the history of Christianity from the early church fathers to the nineteenth
century, Scott R. Petersen has assembled many original and secondary sources
in order to answer the question “Where have all the prophets gone?”
His stated aim is “to present a condensed but accurate view of the evolution
of Christianity and apostasy from pure, revealed religion, from the days of
Adam to the modern world.”24
In the first chapter, Petersen looks at Christian writings such as the Bible,
Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, and the apostolic fathers in light of the truth
of their content. His next chapter reviews these writings to look at apostasy
in the dispensations from Adam to Christ. Along the way, Petersen treats us
to an analysis of why there is historical discrepancy in the number of dispensations
(p. 38). The next two chapters, “The Apostolic Dispensation”
and “Scriptural Predictions of Post–New Testament Apostasy,”
as one might expect, rely heavily on scripture to show the establishment of
the Christian church by Christ and to present the prophecies of an apostasy.
But in his thorough way, Petersen also refers to Eusebius, Josephus, Ignatius,
Turning once more to scripture, Petersen surveys prophecies in the Old and
New Testaments of the great apostasy to take place after the death of the
last early apostle. Although the majority of his evidence comes from the New
Testament, the writings of Isaiah and Amos particularly more than hint at
this coming apostasy.
In “Christianity in the First Century,” Petersen spends quite some
time in the books of Enoch and other apocryphal and pseudepigraphical works.
This longish chapter contains much useful information for Latter-day Saints
on early Christian thought on such subjects as the premortal nature of man,
the plan of salvation, baptism for the dead, authority, and eternal progression
For a good introduction to the councils and creeds of early Christianity,
appendixes in Early Christians provide succinct descriptions. Petersen takes this further and devotes
an entire chapter to the subject. He details the controversies facing the
councils and those who constituted them, concluding that, during this period,
“councils and creeds replaced divinely appointed authority, and scholarship
replaced revelation” (p. 191).
This conclusion forms the lens through which Petersen reviews “The Church
of the Middle Ages.” His harsh, but supported premise is that, “Beginning
with the Donatists in the fourth century, continuing with the Crusades in
the eleventh century onward, and ending when the activities of the Inquisition
ceased in the eighteenth century, physical force was used to compel people
to comply with the orthodox beliefs of the Universal Church” (p. 199).
Interestingly, whereas Graham and Siebach staunchly defend Augustine’s motives,25 Petersen pulls no punches in condemning
Augustine as a prime mover in the corruption of early Christian doctrine (p. 212).
Equally, Petersen’s chapter on the Renaissance and the Reformation contains
a harsh condemnation of the origins of the Anglican Church. Having my roots
in that tradition, I found that a little heavy-handed, but I realize that
my view is probably nostalgic. However, the chapter contains an excellent
survey of the origins of the English Bible,26 together
with introductions to the key reformers.
The story now shifts to the colonization of the American continent, the religious
persecution in England, and religion in the early days of America. Petersen
gives us insight into such religious thinkers as Anne Hutchinson, Jonathan
Edwards, and George Whitefield and looks at the people of the Mayflower
and the Massachusetts Bay colony.
The final two chapters deal with the religious revival in eighteenth-century
America and the restoration of the true church. The survey of the different
groups who led the revival is very interesting.
So if one were to pick between the four books on the apostasy currently under
review, how would one do it? As indicated in the previous review, Elder Morrison’s
book is the most accessible for the reader wishing to gain an overview of
the topic. Of the Reynolds edited volume and the Petersen book, I would pick
Early Christians—not only (lest this is raised by the discerning reader
of introductions) because I was deeply involved in it as the staff editor,
but also because of the wide choice of viewpoints on the many different aspects
of the apostasy it presents.
1. Ryan G. Christensen, “Bibliographical
Note on Latter-day Saint Writings on the Apostasy,” in Early Christians
in Disarray: Contemporary LDS Perspectives on the Christian Apostasy, ed.
Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: FARMS and BYU Press, 2005), 371.
2. Milton V. Backman Jr., Joseph
Smith’s First Vision: The First Vision in Its Historical Context (Salt
Lake City: Bookcraft, 1971), 163.
3. B. H. Roberts, Outlines of Ecclesiastical
History, 3rd ed. (Salt Lake: Deseret News, 1902); James E. Talmage, The
Great Apostasy: Considered in the Light of Scriptural and Secular History
(Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1909); Joseph Fielding Smith, The Progress
of Man (Salt Lake City: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1936).
4. Noel B. Reynolds, “Introduction:
What Went Wrong for the Early Christians?” in Early Christians,
5. Reynolds, “Introduction,”
6. Eric R. Dursteler, “Inheriting
the ‘Great Apostasy': The Evolution of Latter-day Saint Views on the Middle
Ages and the Renaissance,” in Early Christians, 45.
7. Dursteler, “Inheriting the
‘Great Apostasy,'” 47.
8. Richard E. Bennett and Amber J.
Seidel, “‘A World in Darkness': Early Latter-day Saint Understanding
of the Apostasy, 1830–1834,” in Early Christians, 73.
9. Bennett and Seidel, “‘World
in Darkness,'” 68.
10. Bennett and Seidel, “‘World
in Darkness,'” 68.
11. Bennett and Seidel, “‘World
in Darkness,'” 81.
12. John W. Welch, “Modern
Revelation: A Guide to Research about the Apostasy,” in Early Christians,
13. Welch, “Modern Revelation,”
14. Welch, “Modern Revelation,”
15. James E. Faulconer, “The
Concept of Apostasy in the New Testament,” in Early Christians, 135.
16. Faulconer, “Concept
of Apostasy,” 136.
17. John Gee, “The Corruption
of Scripture in Early Christianity,” in Early Christians, 172.
18. Gee, “Corruption,”
19. Daniel W. Graham and James
L. Siebach, “The Introduction of Philosophy into Early Christianity,”
in Early Christians, 207.
20. Graham and Siebach, “Introduction
of Philosophy,” 218.
21. See Donald Q. Cannon, Larry
E. Dahl, and John W. Welch, “The Restoration of Major Doctrines through
Joseph Smith: The Godhead, Mankind, and the Creation,” Ensign, January 1989, 27–33, cited in David L. Paulsen,
“Divine Embodiment: The Earliest Christian Understanding of God,”
in Early Christians, 240–41.
22. Noel B. Reynolds, “The
Decline of Covenant in Early Christian Thought,” in Early Christians, 297.
23. Reynolds, “Decline
of Covenant,” 324.
24. Scott R. Petersen, Where
Have All the Prophets Gone? (Springville,
UT: CFI, 2005), ix. Subsequent parenthetical references in the text are to
25. See Graham and Siebach, “Introduction
of Philosophy,” 223–33.
26. For those wanting more
on this subject, a new volume by Ray L. Huntington, David M. Whitchurch,
W. Jeffrey March, and Andrew C. Skinner entitled Faith of Our Fathers:
The History of the English Bible should
be forthcoming later in 2007 from Brigham Young University’s Religious Studies