The Great Apostasy – When Exactly did it Happen?

Only One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church?

I have been meeting with Later Day Saint (LDS) Mormon missionaries on and off since December 2017. As I learn more and more about their faith and beliefs, I find myself affirming much of what they tell me. It has actually got to the point where I feel comfortable officially converting via re-baptism, and I am planning to do this after the exam period (I won’t say too much about my motivations, except that 1. I sincerely believe in most/all LDS doctrines, and 2. I am following Saint Paul’s example in becoming all things to all people, so as to save all people. Mormons need to hear the Gospel promise too!) Of course because I have a strong classical theistic grounding, and have been shaped by the liturgical life of Apostolic Catholic Christianity, as well as the theologies and philosophies of the east (Hinduism, Buddhism); So I interpret Latter Day Saint doctrines through a very unique and eclectic lens.

In any case, one thing that has always bugged me is this doctrine of “The Great Apostasy”. On one level, I completely affirm that all churches, religions, institutions and organisations have been commandeered by Satan and no longer clearly preach the Gospel. However on another level, I understand the Catholic and Orthodox argument that the apostolic succession of Bishops has never been broken, and it is possible to trace a line all the way back to Jesus through the Sacramental laying on of hands. According to this understanding, the church that Jesus founded has been around since day one, and the divine authority of Christ never left the earth.

Now, I intend at some point to blog about the doctrine of emergency. The short version is that in an emergency, anyone can perform any of the sacraments. I argue that this is exactly what happened in the case of the visions of Joseph Smith (And I likewise argue that the very same thing has happened to me). I might get the details a little wrong here, but supposedly the story goes that Joseph Smith retreated into the forest to pray to God and ask for guidance as to which church he should join. As he was praying, he was told by God that all of the churches have apostatised, and he should restore the true church himself. In a subsequent vision, Jesus, Peter, Paul and John descended from heaven and directly ordained Joseph Smith as a Prophet and Apostle.

According to the doctrine of emergency, I have no issues with this story. Joseph Smith was not ordained in the standard line of apostolic succession, but that’s fine – he was ordained directly by Christ in a vision. This gives credibility to the line of apostolic succession that exists in the churches that can trace their origins to Joseph Smith (primarily the Fundamentalist church (FLDS), the Restored Church (RLDS), and the mainstream LDS church, but there are also other groups).

So this would imply that the traditional Apostolic churches and the new restored churches are in actual fact the same church. There is only one true church, and it is both Mormon and Catholic. This represents my current understanding.

The Great Apostasy

However the missionaries who I speak to naturally understand the great apostasy to imply that at some point, the traditional apostolic succession was broken. My question has always been, “When?” – because the historical record is really working against the LDS account of events on this score. Today my question was answered in the form of the following lecture by Hyrum Smith:

In this video, Hyrum Smith proposes a timeline of events which state exactly when the apostolic succession was broken, and exactly when it was restored. He starts by verbalising the following relevant questions: “Why was the church restored when it was? If a restoration was necessary, why did God wait till 1820 to do it?” (I was thinking to myself, mainstream Christians face a similar problem. Why did God wait to send Jesus when he did? Why couldn’t Jesus have just come and sorted everything out straight away, rather than leaving us to suffer the pains and sufferings of history?) Hyrum then declares that he’s going to tell us exactly why 1820 was the only time that the church could have been restored. He then whips up a long timeline that goes like this:

  • 0AD – A saviour is born – Jesus of Nazareth
  • 30AD – Jesus is all grown up and begins his ministry
  • 33AD – Jesus establishes his church, is rejected by the world and crucified.
  • 42AD – Peter goes to Rome and establishes a church there. He ordains a bloke called Linus as a bishop.
  • 43AD – Paul goes to Rome, susses out the scene and discovers that the entire church had apostatised. Paul establishes a new leader – Deacon Linus.

Let’s pause here for a moment. Allegedly the apostasy that Paul discovered upon visiting Rome is recorded in Romans chapter 1, but I’m not sure which part of this chapter Hyrum is referring to. For one thing, the letter to the Romans strongly implies that Paul had not actually visited the Roman Christians at the time the letter was written. It is also somewhat convenient and confusing that the deacon that Paul ordains has the same name as the existing bishop of Rome. I’m wondering what the sources are for this claim, as it’s the first that I’ve heard of it. I suspect that it allows LDS apologists to read the historical record in their favour, by splitting references to Pope Linus into “Good Linus” and “Bad Linus”. But I’m open to further information and inquiry.

The timeline continues:

  • 64AD – The emperor Nero kills Linus the deacon. And the authorised church completely disappears from Rome
  • 70AD – The Roman army destroys Jerusalem. From this point until 1948, Jews have no homeland to call their own.
  • 78AD approximately – Bishop Linus, the Pope of Rome receives a letter from a mate. This letter claims that the Roman church is incredibly universal. Pope Linus is like “Heck yeah, let’s call ourselves the universal (Catholic) church.” The Roman Catholic Church is born.

So apparently the moment Linus the deacon was killed, the “true” church disappeared from Rome, and the one that was left behind was apostate. This is also a rather creative retelling of the origins of the Roman Catholic church, but I’m guessing there is a hint of truth to it. Only a hint though.

  • 96AD – All of the other apostles have been murdered except for the Apostle John. John is banished to the island of Patmos.
  • 101AD – The Apostle John passes away and the great apostasy is complete. There was no longer anyone on earth with the authority to say “Thus sayeth the Lord”

So according to this understanding of events, the apostolic succession of Rome is invalid because the “real” leader was murdered, and presumably failed to ordain a successor. Mysteriously, the other apostles didn’t ordain anyone either. As such, once the apostle John died, no one was left to carry on the torch.

I find this incredibly problematic and implausible. For one thing, even if the apostolic succession in the church of Rome was invalid, that doesn’t deal with the apostolic successions in the churches of Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and the rest of the world. When and how did those successions die?

Hyrum continues with a sweeping survey of mainstream church history:

  • 320AD – The Early Christians – despite technically being apostates – had a very rough time. Emperor Constantine calls the Council of Nicaea with the purpose of establishing an ecumenical understanding of God. The Nicene creed is produced and the Roman Catholic church becomes formal church of the state. The “Reign of the Popes” begins
  • 785AD – The Empress Irene is in charge. She calls another council of Nicaea. Saints become canonised. Idol worship begins in the Catholic church.
  • 900AD approximately – We have a female pope! Pope Joanna. The Catholic church denies this fact but the Lutheran church supposedly has detailed documentation.
  • 1100AD – There are three popes simultaneously. They all excommunicate each other and go to war.
  • 1200AD – The printing press is invented. Pope innocent the Third is fighting a lot of wars and runs out of money. He invents “the sale of indulgences.” Apparently this meant “you could pay to have your sins remitted”. And you could even pre-pay for your future sins.
  • 1300AD – There is an intellectual revolution in Europe: The Renaissance.
  • 1492AD – Columbus discovers the new world.
  • 1515AD – Martin Luther emerges. With his access to ancient documents he begins to have a problem with indulgences. “Jesus didn’t say anything about it.”
  • 1523AD – Luther is excommunicated. The Church declares that to kill Luther would not be murder. Luther goes into hiding. German princes shelter him and he becomes head of the Lutheran church.
  • 1534AD – Henry VIII has problems with the wife. He wants a divorce. The Pope refuses to agree and grant him one. The Anglican church is born.
  • 1540AD – John Calvin starts up the Huegenots.
  • 1560AD – John Knox founds the Puritan movement.
  • 1575AD – Bartholemew day. The Catholics in Paris round up and slaughter all of the Protestants.
  • 1620AD – The Puritans migrate to America, because they are fed up with the lack of freedom in the continent. The nation of America has its formal beginnings.
  • 1776AD – America gets sick of King George and his bullshit; they tell him to fuck off and that they aren’t gonna pay taxes to him any more. Independence is declared. War begins. There is no way that this war could have been won apart from the direct intervention of God.
  • 1787AD – The constitution is established. For the first time in history, a nation has freedom of religion firmly baked in to it’s most fundamental laws and principles of governance.
  • 1805AD – God raises up a leader: Joseph smith is born in upstate New York
  • 1812AD – The war of 1812. Britain is defeated. USA establishes its’ own navy.
  • 1817AD – Satan also raises up a leader: Karl Marx is born. There are 700,000,000 communists today, so there’s still lots of work to do to save the world.
  • 1820AD – Joseph Smith wants to know what church to join. He goes into the forest to pray. Jesus Christ appears to him and the Restoration begins.
  • 1830AD – The Church is formally re-established on earth. More progress is made in this year than in all 5000 years past.
  • 1860AD – “Family trouble.” – The Civil War

During his presentation Hyrum makes the point that 1820 is the only time the church could have been re-established and survived, because religious freedom was necessary and it was only at that time in America that religious freedom had been established. This is an interesting point.

Conclusion

In the end I find the account of the great apostasy proposed by Hyrum Smith to be wanting. There are simply too many holes in it. Instead I’m happy to affirm that 1. All churches are apostate, including the Catholic church and LDS church, and 2. Both the LDS church and Catholic church have valid apostolic successions.

I look forward to learning more about the LDS faith, but I am as yet unconvinced of the great apostasy narrative as they understand it.

 

 

2 thoughts on “The Great Apostasy – When Exactly did it Happen?

  1. Maybe you’re conflating apostasy and the broken apostolic succession. We read about Alma in the Book of Mormon being one of the wicked priests of King Noah. They were presumably dutifully set apart and ordained in their callings, but they were surely in apostasy. Then there’s King David in the Old Testament – whether you can say he apostatized I’m not sure, but it was a grievous sin he committed, which caused a lot of issues. I guess my background is such that I don’t really care when the Catholic Apostasy happened, in that I think it was more of something that happened over a couple hundred years than something that was one specific event. You mention the emergency thing, but there’s another possibility according to the Doctrine & Covenants, which is that others with the priesthood can get together and re-ordain a new prophet/apostles. When the prophet/president dies, the quorum of the 12 choose a new one with his counselors, generally from the 12 although it doesn’t have to be. If all the apostles are gone, new ones can be chosen by the 70. What if all the 70 are gone? New ones can be chosen by a quorum consisting of all the high councils in all the stakes. So there’s pretty much always going to be someone around who could re-establish the church leadership, but that is separate from whether or not the church is in apostasy. That said, I don’t think you have to believe the apostasy narrative the way the missionaries are explaining it to believe in the church and join it. The timeline discussed above is one person’s opinion to try to explain it, but honestly it doesn’t really matter. The church was in apostasy, and an emergency restoration was needed. All the scattered churches had their own apostasy over a period of time, including those we read about in the Americas in 4th Nephi. Apostasy is a state of being and a larger process, not a specific event. If you’re looking for events, that’s a history question, rather than a question of faith.

    • Thanks for leaving this comment!

      I actually agree with what you’ve said 100%, and I think I even briefly mentioned this in the post towards the beginning. Even if the Catholic apostolic succession was valid, clearly the church is in apostasy and has been since the beginning. But as I’ve mentioned elsewhere on the blog, I think that ALL church institutions are in apostasy, including both the LDS church and the Catholic church. That isn’t going to stop me from converting, as I have developed a love for the LDS scriptures, practices and doctrines. But it keeps my head screwed on tightly.

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