Because of events, apostasy is once again a subject on Mormon minds. The archetypal source of a definition comes from what is know as “The Great Apostasy” when the Church was lost from the Earth, leaving no God given authority. It has been assumed that the death of the original Apostles ordained by Jesus and complete Hellenization of doctrine caused the downfall. This is merely a generalization and doesn’t actually help in discussion about what Apostasy is and how to avoid it occurring again. Besides, the term didn’t exist beyond the concept until years after the founding of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The explanation of how it came about was not as important for the Restoration concept as the fact it did happen. Speculation about the reasons and events leading up to this Great Apostasy were a later development.
More sophisticated examinations of the topic have recently come forward as the old explanations are found to be problematic. The focus on Catholicism and Constantine’s unification of Christian theology is primarily based on Protestant criticism. A large weakness is reliance on arguments that don’t fully recognize a complete falling away, but merely a divergence from the still existing path. Looking farther in the past to the 1st Century and the Bible itself to argue for the Great Apostasy can enlighten what it means to turn away from God and his authority. The main book that will be referred to, Early Christians in Disarray edited by Noel B. Reynolds, argues that false teachings and Hellenistic doctrines are late stage symptoms and not the cause of the great loss. Although still shrouded in the mystery of time, clues exist that the seeds of a Great Apostasy were planted during the time of the Apostles. Their deaths could have finalized rather than precipitated the Church’s disintegration; leaving only a vestige of authority for one generation.
There seems to be a belief that a wholesale Apostasy is impossible for this final dispensation. Indeed, Joseph Smith is quoted to have boasted in the same manner as Paul in 2 Corinthians 11, against false teachers, “I am the only man that has ever been able to keep a whole church together since the days of Adam… Neither Paul, John, Peter, nor Jesus ever did it. I boast that no man ever did such work as I. The followers of Jesus ran away from Him; but the Latter-day Saints never ran away from me yet” (History of the Church, 6:408–409. Volume 6). This is coupled with the quote, ““It is only a handful of priesthood you see here tonight, but this church will fill North and South America—it will fill the whole world” (Quoted in Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, p. 39). The defining image of a stone cut without hands rolling away the wicked governments of the World from Daniel 2:44-45 is interpreted as triumphant Church growth.
Although it is true that the Church will stay intact as prophesied in the Scriptures and by modern Prophets, individual Apostasy will still be rampant. There seems to be a warning such as 1 Nephi 14 that strength will be more spiritual that numerical:
11 And it came to pass that I looked and beheld the whore of all the earth, and she sat upon many waters; and she had dominion over all the earth, among all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people.
12 And it came to pass that I beheld the church of the Lamb of God, and its numbers were few, because of the wickedness and abominations of the whore who sat upon many waters; nevertheless, I beheld that the church of the Lamb, who were the saints of God, were also upon all the face of the earth; and their dominions upon the face of the earth were small, because of the wickedness of the great whore whom I saw.
The book of Revelation, that 1 Nephi 14 requests its readers to refer for details about the last days, is filled with sorrow and defeat of the Saints at the hands of wickedness. These visions were written as warnings to the various congregations that for the most part were in danger of losing the faith. Coupled together can be a stern reminder that what befell the Meridian Church can come close to repeating itself. Indeed, another revelation in 2 Nephi 30:10 states, “For the time speedily cometh that the Lord God shall cause a great division among the people, and the wicked will he destroy; and he will spare his people, yea, even if it so be that he must destroy the wicked by fire.” Against overwhelming odds, there no doubt will be those who fall away because of the pressures and worldly enticing.
What caused the Great Apostasy is still a large question mark. There is not one sure thing that can be pointed out, but the final result is breaking of Covenants made to God by the individual:
“As noted in the beginning, any number of things can lead someone into apostasy: affliction and persecution (Matthew 13:21; 24:10); lawlessness (Matthew 24:12); the difficulty of Christ’s teachings (John 6:66); a lack of spiritual discernment (Acts 28:26—27); blasphemy (1 Timothy 1:19); worldly empty chatter (2 Timothy 2:16); love of the present age (2 Timothy 4:10); as well as deception by false prophets and teachers, desire for followers, lust, resentment of authority, and promises of freedom from restraint (2 Peter 2:1—22). But these cannot be understood apart from also understanding apostasy as rejecting the requirement that we stand before God in priesthood service. This distinguishes Christianity as a religion from what we might describe as a merely Christian ethos. One could live according to the principles of Christianity, its law, if you will, without believing in God. In principle, one could even live according to those principles and believe in God and have one’s mind attuned to spiritual things without being a Christian. In other words, one can be ethical or even spiritual without being godly—without being covenanted. In the end, however, the Father requires godliness of us, not merely ethics and not only spirituality. To be ungodly is not to be apostate; insofar as we remain human we are, in a certain sense, ungodly. To reject godliness and its requirements is to be apostate, and in neither the Old nor the New Testament, can godliness, life in covenant relation with God, be understood apart from priesthood service.” (James E. Faulconer, “The Concept of Apostasy in the New Testament”)
Probably the first step to Apostasy for an individual is faultfinding. This is especially grievous when directed toward the Church leadership. Joseph Smith stated, “I will give you one of the Keys of the mysteries of the Kingdom. It is an eternal principle, that has existed with God from all eternity: That man who rises up to condemn others, finding fault with the Church, saying that they are out of the way, while he himself is righteous, then know assuredly, that that man is in the high road to apostasy; and if he does not repent, will apostatize, as God lives.” It should be no wonder that those who are most likely to leave the Church or be disciplined accuse Elder’s Quorum leaders, Bishops, Stake Presidents, and etc. of any number of wrong doing. The leadership is not immune to this, because early history and revelation condemns bad feelings among those who should be an example:
“Given in September 1831, Doctrine and Covenants 64 is addressed to the elders of the newly established Zion, encouraging them, as is often quoted, exhorting them to be obedient and to “be not weary in well-doing” (v. 33), forbidding them to “get in debt to thine enemies” (v. 27), and requiring them “to forgive all men” (v. 10). Standing at the head of this crucial administrative revelation of the fledgling kingdom, however, is a sober disclosure that “there are those who have sought occasion against [the Prophet Joseph Smith] without cause” (v. 6); although he had indeed sinned, he had also confessed and had been forgiven by God (v. 7). The brethren, therefore, were told that they should not accuse him or any others who are willing to repent and confess their transgressions.
The seriousness of the problem of these young priesthood leaders seeking to find fault and to accuse one another is then driven home by a chilling revelation. The Lord had seen this once before among his young disciples in the Old World, and he had little desire to see it again: “My disciples, in days of old, sought occasion against one another and forgave not one another in their hearts; and for this evil they were afflicted and sorely chastened” (D&C 64:8). Although this passage is brief and cryptic, it may uncover an important insight: troubles that plagued the early Christian church seem attributable precisely to internal disharmony and aggressive confrontations among its leaders. Then, most problematical of all, they failed to forgive one another.” (John W. Welch, “Modern Revelation: A Guide to Research about the Apostasy”)
Loss of belief in God’s authorized servants to lead the Church and teach the principles of the Gospel is the end product of Apostasy. They close their ears and deny the existence of miracles in the past or the preset. Having rejected the Covenants over current philosophy because of sin and price, any doctrine or interpretation is good enough so long as it conforms to contemporary sensibilities. Repentance is always possible at this stage, but difficult to achieve:
“What effect did Greek philosophy have on the development of Christianity? The disappearance of the apostles by the early second century made it inevitable that the authority of the priesthood could not continue. When the few bishops and priesthood leaders appointed by John, the last apostle, died out, there was no more authority on the earth. Although some false doctrines inspired by philosophy seem to have appeared in the first century, most Christians and their leaders seem to have been innocent of philosophical training and interests, and it is doubtful that the false doctrines were a sufficient cause of the apostasy. Philosophy came into Christianity gradually, first as offering a forum for discussion of Christian beliefs and a venue to defend the faith against slanders and misrepresentations. Later, it offered a common ground for discussion of shared beliefs, and a method for systematically organizing Christian beliefs. Finally it offered to fill the gap left by the loss of continuing revelation. When debates broke out about church doctrine, based on sophisticated philosophical conceptions that went far beyond the simple message of the scriptures, the church needed an authoritative method of adjudicating the issues. Originally the apostles could go to God in prayer and receive revelation to resolve the difficulty. Now that they were gone, and the immediate connection to God was cut; the church needed a reliable procedure for resolving conflicts. The Council of Nicea set a precedent: a worldwide council of bishops—local leaders—could provide the authority, and philosophy could provide the method. Doctrines would be defined ever-more narrowly in ever-more sophisticated terms. Faith would be determined by philosophical theology. Church leaders would henceforth have to be conversant in philosophical theology, which presupposed a knowledge of Greek philosophy. When disputes about doctrines arose, they would be settled by philosophical debates and political machinations, not by revelations to inspired leaders.” ((Daniel W. Graham and James L. Siebach, “The Introduction of Philosophy into Early Christianity)
For today’s Apostates, both liberal and conservative, the leadership of the LDS Church are the ones taking the members down false paths. They insist that the old order must be abandoned to make way for political ideologies and scholastical endorsements. Before Hellenism completely overtook the doctrines of the Apostate Church, Tertullian asked, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? what between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from ‘the porch of Solomon,’ who had himself taught that ‘the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart.'” Those questions are as important today as they were back then, with hindsight instructing the Saints what happens when the World becomes an interpretive framework of the Gospel and not the other way around.
Brigham Young once said that Salt Lake City will have the same sins as other great populated places. There have been teachings that the judgement and justice of God will start among the Mormons who should know better. Perhaps there is something special about this final dispensation, but not without prophesied disruptions and its own individual falling away. The great questions that must be asked by each of us is if we are a wheat or tare, a goat or sheep, and what ground we find the seed of our faith. A good place to start is contemplating what went wrong the last time the Church was forced into the wilderness. New insights make that more possible than ever before.