What Went Wrong for the Early Christians?

Noel B. Reynolds


Brigham Young University–Idaho Devotional

June 15, 2004



When Joseph Smith emerged from the grove in 1820, he had learned first hand from Jesus Christ himself that the Christian churches of his day were all wrong, and that he was forbidden to join any of them. “Their creeds were an abomination in his sight,” their “professors were all corrupt,” and they were teaching “for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness,” but denying “the power thereof” (Joseph Smith 2:19).


From that first vision onward, Joseph Smith, and the Latter-day Saints who believed his testimony, understood clearly that the “restoration of all things” was made necessary by the loss of the true teachings and the church established by Jesus Christ during his life upon the earth. This first generation of Latter-day Saints were impressed by the rampant confusion and contradictions in the Christian world of their day and tended to see that confusion as sufficient evidence of an apostasy. Israel was scattered and lost. The restoration was necessary to gather Israel and to re-establish the true teachings and church of Jesus Christ in the world.


By the end of the 19th century, LDS scholars and leaders had entered a new phase by turning to the findings of modern historians in an attempt to expand their understanding of the apostasy. Protestant historians, who focused on the failings of the Catholic tradition, provided seemingly endless evidences of apostasy in Christian history, justifying the Protestant reformation in the process. They pointed to the obvious wickedness of late medieval popes and priests. They pointed to the sales of indulgences by which the Church was raising money by selling forgiveness of sins in this world to prevent punishment in the next. Guided by these 18th and 19th century Protestant historians, LDS writers pushed the apostasy further back in time by focusing on the sins of medieval Christianity.


Over the last century there has been an outpouring of rediscovered manuscripts, written during the first Christian centuries, that enable us to get a much clearer picture of what the Christian experience was like in those early times. And as our knowledge of these times grows, the apostasy is again pushed back further, even into the first century. Hugh Nibley was the first LDS author to enter this third phase. He located the apostasy in the later decades of the very first century, from which almost no writings survived. Using a stage metaphor, he calls it the years “when the lights went out.” And when they came back on at the end of the century, he said, the furniture had all been moved around. But because there are no surviving documents from this period, we don’t know how that happened.


In the 1960s, prominent LDS historian Richard L. Bushman observed that LDS students of the apostasy had become too dependent on Protestant, and often anti-Catholic, writers and challenged us to look at the apostasy afresh. He said that while noting the various changes to the doctrines and to the ordinances is helpful, it is not enough for it does not address the heart or causes of the apostasy, but focuses rather on its effects. It is as if you were to approach the aftermath of a car wreck. You can conclude from the debris, the twisted metal frame, the shattered glass, the injured and dead bodies, that an accident has occurred. But you would not say that the broken and scattered parts, the injured and dead bodies, and the twisted frame caused the accident. They are evidence that the accident occurred, but they are only its results. Likewise, all the doctrinal changes, the subsequent corruption, the centuries of religious strife and schism, and so on, may constitute good evidence that an apostasy occurred, but these may not be the causes of that apostasy.


The Greek term apostasia, as used in the New Testament, means rebellion. It was often used in classical Greek to indicate a military rebellion or coup. Thus, apostasia specifically refers to internal problems. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young both recognized this when they said that no force on this earth could destroy the Church from without. In so doing they were echoing the principle articulated by the angel who appeared to young Alma saying: “Alma, arise and stand forth, for why persecutest thou the church of God? For the Lord hath said: This is my church, and I will establish it; and nothing shall overthrow it, save it is the transgression of my people” (Mosiah 27:13, emphasis added).


You’ve all brought your scriptures today. I am going to give you a reward and throw in a scripture that is too long to read to you without your reading along. Look in Mosiah 2. This is earlier in the same book that I’ve just been quoting. I want to read with you verses 36 and 37. This comes from the famous address, the final farewell address of King Benjamin to his people. King Benjamin is teaching his people about apoastasy and and about faithfullness in the gospel of Jesus Christ.


And now, I say unto you, my brethren, that after ye have known and have been taught all these things, if ye should transgress and go contrary to that which has been spoken, that ye do withdraw yourselves from the Spirit of the Lord, that it may have no place in you to guide you in wisdom’s paths that ye may be blessed, prospered, and preserved - I say unto you, that the man that doeth this, the same cometh out in open rebellion against God; therefore he listeth to obey the evil spirit, and becometh an enemy to all righteousness; therefore, the Lord has no place in him, for he dwelleth not in unholy temples (Mosiah 2:36-37).


We have, from Benjamin, the best analysis of how aposastsy occurs in the life of an individual person, in this passage. In the Old Testament, apostasy or rebellion against God consisted specifically in the breaking of covenants that men had made with Jehovah. The Lord warned Moses,


You are going to rest with your fathers, and these people will soon prostitute themselves to the foreign gods of the land they are entering. They will forsake me and break the covenant I made with them. On that day I will become angry with them and forsake them (Deut 31:16, NIV, emphasis added).


The word used here is apostasion, meaning “little rebellion” or “little apostasy,” and specifically indicates divorce, or breaking of the marriage covenant. The Lord repeatedly likened his covenant with Israel to the covenant of marriage, and apostasy from that covenant was likened to adultery. We might expect, therefore, that the demise of the early Christian church also was a result of internal developments—breaking of covenants—and not something imposed from the outside.


LDS scholars today conclude increasingly that the root causes of the apostasy were the breaking of sacred covenants by the Christians themselves. The more we learn about the first decades after the passing of Christ, the more we can see internal rebellion against God’s covenants and against his authorized servant—much like the rebellions against Moses in the wilderness, or like those against Joseph Smith in Kirtland in 1836. The rebels were members of Christ’s church, sometimes leaders, who sought for earthly power, glory, and even justification for their own sins. The Restoration scriptures give us some key insights: The first section of the Doctrine and Covenants says,


they have strayed from mine ordinances, and have broken mine everlasting covenant; They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall (D&C 1:15-16, emphasis added).


Thus the Lord describes this apostasy as breaking covenants and straying from His ordinances. The Lord likewise says concerning his disciples during his earthly ministry, “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” (Doctrine and Covenants 64:8). Thus, we see that apostasy involves breaking God’s covenants, turning from Him to idols and things of this world, and also not repenting of our sins, which is of course the most fundamental thing we have covenanted to do.


The scriptures of the Restoration make it clear that ordinances such as baptism, priesthood ordination, and marriage are all based in covenants between men and God. The person receiving the ordinance has made certain covenants with God, and God in turn makes promises to the person. The ordinance is a public witness of these covenants. What we have not previously realized is that when the second-century Christians redefined these ordinances as sacraments, they simultaneously abandoned their covenantal understanding of the ordinances. There were significant efforts in the Protestant Reformation to restore those covenantal understandings to the ordinances, but these all failed. Reinvented as sacraments, the ordinances were understood in traditional Christianity as the means by which God could bless a person with an infusion of divine grace, through the mediation of the priest. Once the covenantal understanding was lost, it made sense to bless everyone possible. So why would we deny baptism to infants if the recipient no longer was expected to be making a meaningful covenant in connection with that ordinance? A similar analysis applies to Christian sacraments such as last rites. This helps us understand what Nephi meant when he explained the apostasy by saying that “many of the covenants of the Lord have they taken away” (1 Nephi 13:26). 


New research by several LDS scholars in different fields is helping us understand the apostasy better. Their work has identified several common myths and misconceptions that Latter-day Saints have about the apostasy, and helps us understand the falling away from the true church more accurately and completely. I will argue that the Christian apostasy occurred sometime during the first century—or before 100 c.e. Traditional Christianity, as we know it, was not established until the Nicene Council in 325 c.e. or during the fourth century.


Myth #1: The Apostasy happened because of outside persecution


Both the Bible and the writings of early Christians extensively document internal divisions that were a major problem within the church. Paul’s first epistle to the church in Corinth details several schismatic developments in the Corinthian branch:


For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:11-13)


Paul marvels at how quickly the Galatian Saints have “turned from the gospel” (Galatians 1:6-8). Paul’s second epistle to the church in Corinth mentions false apostles whom Paul describes as “ministers of Satan” (2 Corinthians 11:13-15). In his second epistle to Timothy, Paul says that “all Asia is turned away” (2 Timothy 1:15). In his letter to Gaius, John reports that in one unnamed branch of the church, the leader Diotrophes, will have nothing to do with John and his brethren. Not only does he refuse to accept John and his emissaries, but he opposes those who do want to accept them and “puts them out of the church” (3 John 1:9-10). In the book of Revelation, John writes inspired letters to seven of the churches in Asia, calling them to repentance for the most egregious of sins (Revelation 2–3). Any stake president or bishop receiving one of these letters today would know that he and his members were way out of line and probably scheduled for church disciplinary action.


Virtually every epistle in the New Testament bears witness to divisions and rebellions in the Church, though we do not usually read the text with that in mind. We tend to see these as calls to repentance and assume that they were probably effective. But why should we assume that they were effective? The collapse of the church in the first century suggests that they were not. When the second century opens, we are confronted with clear evidence of a growing variety of competing versions of Christianity, and the original structure of priesthood leadership has disappeared. All that remain are city leaders, still known as bishops, but not called or supported by a central structure under the direction of prophets or apostles. In his letters to the churches in Greece, Clement, bishop of Rome during the last few years of the first century, urged the saints to repent of their jealousies and divisiveness. Ignatius, a bishop in Antioch who was martyred around 115 AD, warned of many of the same things.


These kinds of divisions and internal problems are not unknown to Latter-day Saints. Think of the Kirtland period and the rampant and recurring apostasy and opposition to Joseph Smith’s leadership. In many ways, the early Christian church seems never to have transcended its “Kirtland period.” The Latter-day restoration did transcend these early apostasies by the strength of its prophet and the loyal apostles that stood with him before and after his death. Two weeks ago, President Hinckley was in England and told how the church was in deep trouble in Kirtland, and then again in Nauvoo. He then explained how the flood of faithful new converts from England was crucial in helping the Church to survive those crises. Since those difficult days, the Church has benefited from higher and higher levels of unity and loyalty among its members, so that today we can hardly understand the challenges of internal strife that characterized much of our early Church history.


But even today, there are experiences in new branches of the Church that seem to recapitulate these earlier problems. Some of you have lived in the mission field in small branches with inexperienced members and leaders. It is not that unusual in that immature stage of development to see petty jealousies, small offenses, position seeking, and violation of the commandments threatening to wreck the Church from within. But in spite of this, the unity and faithfulness of the Church has continued to grow in this last dispensation. As the Prophet Joseph said,


No unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done (HC 4:540, p. 9).


Myth 2: The Apostasy was caused by the hellenization of Christianity or the incorporation of Greek philosophy and culture into the teachings of the church.


The world in which Jesus established his church was full of pagan superstitions and excesses. But the educated and ruling classes of the Roman empire—who had been thoroughly hellenized in earlier centuries—put their trust in the teachings of the Greek philosophers who discouraged religious superstition and challenged men to become virtuous by living up to universally recognized standards of good human conduct. While the Christians could agree generally with that stance, they could not accept the philosophers’ rejection of the gods or claims to be able to make men good through their own self discipline alone. The Christians recognized that without the atonement of Jesus Christ and the guiding and purifying effect of the Spirit in their lives, men could not become truly good. Paul warned the saints: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8). This, however, is the only explicit reference to philosophy in the New Testament, suggesting that it was far from being his major concern with the first-century saints.


The main problem in assuming that Greek philosophy played a major part in the apostasy is that the chronology is off by a whole century. The first Christian writer to know and use philosophy extensively was Justin Martyr—who wrote in the second half of the second century—by which time the apostles were long dead, the priesthood gone, and the ordinances corrupted. The apostasy was already in full swing. And even this first Christian philosopher was not encouraging the adoption of philosophical teachings in the Church. Rather, he used his philosophical training to defend Christians before the ruling classes of Rome. He pointed out to them the virtues of Christians in terms that made them sound a lot like the Stoics and the Epicureans and that definitely distinguished them from the superstitious and orgiastic practices of the popular religions of the day. 


During the third century, however, in the city of Alexandria, Egypt, a new way of using Greek philosophy arose. Men like Clement of Alexandria, his star pupil Origen, and later Athanasius began to use elements of Greek philosophy to articulate and develop Christian doctrine. Origen, who died in 254 c.e., wrote “Perchance, too, philosophy was given to the Greek directly and primarily, till the Lord should call the Greek. For this was a schoolmaster to bring ‘the Hellenic mind,’ as the [law of Moses brought] the Hebrews, ‘to Christ’” (Miscellanies 1.5.28). Philosophy and reason were not superior to revelation for Clement and Origen, but they did provide another fully reliable source of truth. For them, the Greek philosophical tradition was a rich resource for all who wanted to defend, establish, or develop Christian doctrine. The result of such efforts over the following centuries was a new Christianity that had been thoroughly hellenized.


Not all third-century Christians were comfortable with the fast-moving shift to philosophical discourse in Christian dialogue. Tertullian challenged this new trend and asked, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians....? Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition!” Tertullian and some other writers and leaders saw the essential differences and antipathy between the Greek rhetorical style that seeks to uncover absolute, unchanging truths about the Universe, and the Judaic-Christian tradition that believes in revelation and the reality of historical events of great religious significance. 


But, already in apostasy, the third-century Christians were in deep trouble. Official persecutions were increasing. They were plagued by a rapidly multiplying diversity of Christian doctrines and sects—each claiming to be the true heirs of Christ and the apostles. There was no central leadership to help them distinguish between the true and the false. They needed some universal standard and authority to which they could agree and by which they could divide true and false Christianity—the orthodox from the heretical. Threatened with the utter demise of Christianity, they turned to the well established and widely admired principles of Greek philosophy for a solution. Even Protestant historians, who used to criticize the hellenization of the early churches, now recognize would have dwindled into an insignificant folk religion without the infusion of Greek thought. Soon, the third-century Christian thinkers came to share Clement’s appreciation for the work of Plato and his successors. They even went so far as to claim that God had sent the Greeks to prepare the systems of thought that would bring Christianity to its divinely intended completion. The fulness of Christian doctrine and understanding could only occur as the teachings of Christ and the apostles were united with the teachings of Plato and the other Greek philosophers. The Nicene Council of 325 c.e. and other later councils officially incorporated this approach and issued creeds that have been used to distinguish the orthodox from the heretical from that day to this. And this is why the Christian world today is not willing to see the Latter-day Saints-or any other believers in Christ who refuse to accept the creeds of the councils-as Christians.


            This new use of philosophy was accompanied by a subtle shift in Christian thinking. Consider the declarations of John and Peter:


That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:3);


And we are witnesses of all things which he did both in the land of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom they slew and hanged on a tree: Him God raised up the third day, and shewed him openly; not to all the people, but unto witnesses chosen before of God, even to us, who did eat and drink with him after he rose from the dead (Acts 10:39-41).


These are declarations of fact, knowledge, and eye-witness accounts. They say that they have seen and heard and they bear testimony. Compare these to the philosophical declaration that the Church produced in the fourth century. The Athanasian creed focuses on the definition of the nature of God: “ the Son of God, is God and man; God, of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of the substance of his mother, born in the world; perfect God and perfect man, of a rational soul and human flesh subsisting.” Though the incorporation of Greek philosophy into Christianity was not an original cause of the apostasy, the apostate Christian churches generally reached out to embrace philosophy as a means of bringing common standards and rationality to Christian belief. It is widely recognized today by Christian historians that they saved the Christian tradition by doing so.


Myth 3: The Roman Catholic church specifically is the great and abominable church spoken of in Nephi’s vision.


Given the dependence of the early LDS writers on Protestant historians, who were themselves often anti-Catholic, it is not surprising that Latter-day Saints tended to interpret Nephi’s vision in this way. The Protestant emphasis on the corruption in medieval Christianity naturally suggested the Catholic Church as the church of the devil described by Nephi in his vision. But if we look more closely at these scriptures, we will see that the church of the devil arose centuries before the Catholic Church was established as such, and we will see that it includes much more than just one such organization. There is much more to it.


In the vision recorded in 1 Nephi 13, Nephi saw that the great and abominable church was formed in the first century when the record of the Jews went forth from the Jews to the Gentiles (v 25-26) and that it was founded in opposition to the Church of God (v. 5), which tells us that the two existed simultaneously. Nephi saw further that the devil’s church took away many parts of the gospel, including the covenants, as verse 26 tells us, and later took away many precious things out of the Bible (v. 28). Now, in the first century, the Christian scriptures consisted principally of the Old Testament, available principally in a Greek translation, called the Septuagint. A few years ago I had a personal experience that confirmed Nephi’s account in a dramatic way. I was a guest of the director of the Vatican Library in Rome, and he brought out their fourth century copy of the complete Bible for me to see—Codex Vaticanus B. The first page we looked at had numerous erasures, additions, and changes written right on the page in different inks and different hands! I asked, pointing to some of these, “What is that?” The reply: “Oh, that’s where they made corrections.” Over the last two decades, many New Testament scholars have argued convincingly that the final texts of the gospels and the epistles that were eventually canonized, took shape during a long period in which they were modified as necessary to support the emerging theological orthodoxy among the leaders of the Christian churches. Their principal evidence comes from scriptural quotations in second century documents which are different and which would not have supported the theological orthodoxy that emerged later.


Nor did this process of change go unnoticed in those early centuries. Paul warned the Thessalonians that some people might try to stir them up with false letters addressed from the apostles. Peter said that many in his day were “wresting” the scriptures, or distorting their true meaning (2 Pet 3:15-16). Ignatius of Antioch, a bishop who was martyred around 110 AD said that he could not write down all of the teachings of the apostles because they were too sacred. Justin Martyr, whom we mentioned before, accused Jewish leaders of deliberately removing passages from the Old Testament. During the second century, many bishops and writers in the church accused “heretics” of changing the scriptures. Tertullian of Carthage claimed that Marcion, a leader in what is now Turkey, deliberately cut out pieces of the scriptures that he did not like, and Clement of Alexandria accused some people of rewriting parts of the gospels. By the third century, the accusations of changes in the scriptures die down. However, we have virtually no texts predating the third century by which to verify this. Less than one percent of the existing New Testament fragments can be dated to the second century, and those are mere fragments. We also have other writings, letters primarily, from the second century which quote scriptures and these quotations frequently differ from what we have in the New Testament today.


In 1 Nephi 13:4-9, Nephi lists several identifying features of the church of the devil. He says they will torture and slay the saints. They will bind down the people with yokes of iron, which recalls Joseph Smiths comparison of creeds to iron yokes (Doctrine and Covenants 123:7-8 ). Nephi further tells us that this church was founded by the devil, followed materialistic pursuits, and sought worldly praise. He further tells us that there are only two churches, the church of God, and the church of the Devil, which is the great and abominable church. It seems, then, that Nephi did not have a single ecclesiastical organization in mind, but rather he was describing all organizations (for that is the original meaning of the word church, or ekklesia, in Greek) that sought worldly rewards and opposed the Saints of God. In summing up the constituents of this evil church, Nephi later says,


For the time speedily shall come that all churches which are built up to get gain, and all those who are built up to get power over the flesh, and those who are built up to become popular in the eyes of the world, and those who seek the lusts of the flesh and the things of the world, and to do all manner of iniquity; yea, in fine, all those who belong to the kingdom of the devil are they who need fear, and tremble, and quake; they are those who must be brought low in the dust; they are those who must be consumed as stubble; and this is according to the words of the prophet (1 Nephi 22:23).


Furthermore, as Nephi tells us later, many people throughout the ages preceding the Restoration and the Second Coming would be true, humble followers of Christ who erred only because of their leaders (2 Nephi 28:14). We know further that the Spirit continued to strive with men and that some men were inspired. Nephi said of Columbus that he was inspired by God. Joseph Smith, when he read Foxe’s Book of the Martyrs which records all those who have died for the faith from the early Apostles to the Protestant movements, said that many of these people were true disciples who would receive salvation. President John Taylor said in 1873, “There were men in those dark ages who could commune with God, and who, by the power of faith, could draw aside the curtain of eternity and gaze upon the invisible world… have the ministering of angels, and unfold the future destinies of the world” (JD 16:197). As the Prophet Joseph Smith revealed in these latter days, all those who died without knowing the gospel, who would have embraced it and lived it had they had the chance, will be heirs of the celestial kingdom. We must, therefore, be careful when we judge what the final state of others will be.


The confusion and competition that Joseph Smith and his contemporaries observed in the Christian world continues to this day. A few years ago, spokesmen from a broad range of Christian churches met to lament this scandal of a divided Christian world and to assess the continuing barriers to unity. They recognized that the half-century of ecumenical efforts inspired by the organization of the World Council of Churches in 1948 and earlier reunification movements had failed, deteriorating into little more than local interfaith discussion groups and joint humanitarian efforts, most of which had been coopted by the liberal wings of their churches. The mergers that have occurred in recent decades have been motivated more by declining membership and financial weakness than from reconciliations of differences in doctrines or practices. And we appear today to be on the brink of a new rash of divisions as mainline Protestant churches fail to resolve internal differences about the ordination of women or the status of homosexuals.


What is striking in this discussion, for a Latter-day Saint looking on, is the widespread agreement among conservative Christians of all stripes on the following two propositions: 1) there has long been a widespread apostasy from the true Christianity, and 2) the True Church cannot be divided up; its doctrines are not disposable; and compromise between warring factions cannot lead to truth. Where they all disagree with each other is over the specific forms of apostasy, and over which churches are apostate, and which are not. The prospects of a united Christian world are so faint that one symposium participant mused, we will not likely make any progress until God sends us a solution from heaven. And then he noted ironically, if such divine aid were to come, it might be in just as unlikely a form as a babe being born in a manger (Touchstone, August 2003, 51).


Studying the apostasy can help us to understand and appreciate the Restoration even more. But there is also a lesson here that can benefit each one of us. As individuals, we must carefully keep our covenants, or we will lose the guidance of the Spirit, and fall into apostasy ourselves. Further, we must teach this lesson to our children. As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has said, the Church is never more than one generation away from extinction. In each new generation—each individual member, needs to be converted, to make a covenant of obedience to the Father, and to grow in faithfulness in his service.


I bear my testimony that the true church of Jesus Christ has been restored through the prophet Joseph Smith. Both the Father and the Son, and then numerous angels came to him. The priesthood of God has been restored. Lost scriptures have been translated and published. We are the most blessed of all peoples to live in a day when we can be led by a prophet, when the Church of Christ is solidly established throughout so much of the earth, when we have so many scriptures and revelations, and when we have temples where the culminating ordinances of the plan of salvation can be administered. And I leave you that testimony in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.