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The “Completely False” Rationale for Mormonism’s Restoration

by Sharon Lindbloom
2 February 2023

I don’t envy members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints their work to defend their church. They have a very difficult job of it and here’s why.

LDS history is filled with regrettable behaviors and teachings that have their roots in the church’s leadership; leadership that is claimed to be tied directly and unerringly to God’s own revelatory leading. A foundational doctrine in Mormonism is that prophets, seers, and revelators of the LDS church will never lead the church (or its members) astray, so somehow today’s Latter-day Saints must find a way to reconcile past teachings with today’s realities as they present the church to the world.

Christian history also includes episodes of regrettable behavior and unorthodox teachings promulgated by men who were influential in early Christianity, but the difference is that Christians can (and do) say these things were wrong. We can (and are commanded to) look at past (and present) teachers and their teachings in light of what the Bible says. If any teaching doesn’t match God’s revealed truth in His Word, Christians are to call out the errors and cling to biblical truth. Any heretical teachings, or false influencers themselves, do not alter the truth God has given us. Christians are not called to defend these teachings or teachers; we are called to expose them and stand firm for what God has revealed in His Word.

Faithful Latter-day Saints don’t have this option. Their church asserts that it is led by men called of God to be God’s own voice to the people: Whether by God’s voice or the voice of his servants, “it is the same” (Doctrine and Covenants 1:38). How, then, can the faulty teachings of past leaders be explained?

Last week journalist Peggy Fletcher Stack of The Salt Lake Tribune posted an article that illustrates what is becoming a more common approach to dealing with these sorts of issues. Titled, “What Latter-day Saints get wrong about the ‘Great Apostasy’,” Ms. Stack writes,

“Latter-day Saints generally believe that Jesus established a church during his ministry, but after the death of his apostles, that body fell away from its gospel foundation due to what is called ‘the Great Apostasy.’

“Many have come to think that God withdrew from the world at that time and remained distant through the Dark Ages until 1830, when Christ’s church was ‘restored’ to its original form in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“That is an overly simplistic, if not completely false, narrative, about early Christians, according to a new book of essays, ‘Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints,’ from the Maxwell Institute at church-owned Brigham Young University.”

It may come as no surprise that the reason “many” Latter-day Saints believe these things about what the church calls the Great Apostacy is that this is what their church leaders have taught them. However, as LDS scholars have looked past the “completely false narrative” espoused by church leaders, their research has revealed an entirely different story regarding ancient Christianity. According to one of the book’s editors, Jason R. Combs, “The narrative of widespread apostasy ignores evidence that good Christians continually served each other and worshipped God throughout the history of Christianity.”

This truth is a problem for Mormonism. According to the LDS church, if there wasn’t a complete apostasy of the early Christian church there is no reason for Mormonism’s “Restoration” (see History of the Church, 1:XL). 

But it’s not only that. This foundational doctrine of the LDS church is off-putting to people outside of Mormonism. Joseph Smith’s denunciation of all of Christianity in the retelling of his First Vision is highly offensive to much of the world. According to Joseph, he asked God which church he should join. God answered and said to join none of them for they were “all wrong.” Furthermore, God said “that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt,” that they were teaching man-made doctrines rather than God’s truth (Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith—History 1:18-19).

This doesn’t sit well with people, either conceptually or historically; Dr. Combs endeavors to sweep the problem away. As Ms. Stack reports,

“Smith did say God told him in his ‘First Vision’ that all Christian creeds were ‘an abomination,’ Combs writes, but that should not imply that there was ‘mass corruption in the ancient church or a complete loss of everything that was good.’”

Perhaps Joseph Smith’s narration of his First Vision could be understood a little less severely than is common in the LDS church – if not for Mormonism’s prophets, seers, and revelators (as well as other authoritative church leaders) who have explained what it means. And what they say it means is that there was indeed mass corruption in the ancient church. Consider just a few of their teachings:

  • “For hundreds of years the world was wrapped in a veil of spiritual darkness, until there was not one fundamental truth belonging to the place of salvation that was not, in the year 1820, so obscured by false tradition and ceremonies, borrowed from paganism, as to make it unrecognizable; or else it was entirely denied …Joseph Smith declared that in the year 1820 the Lord revealed to him that all the ‘Christian’ churches were in error, teaching for commandments the doctrines of men.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation 3:282)
  • “…there was a complete falling away from the gospel which had been established by the Son of Man. The Church lay in darkness, and the darkness enveloped the earth. This spiritual darkness contin­ued for hundreds and hundreds of years.” (Milton R. Hunter, Con­ference Reports, October 1951, 140-141)
  • “After the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized, there were only two churches upon the earth. They were known respectively as the Church of the Lamb of God and Babylon. The various organizations which are called churches throughout Christendom, though differing in their creeds and organizations, have one common origin. They all belong to Babylon.” (George Q. Cannon, Gospel Truth 2:56, 1974 edition)
  • “In short, apostasy reigned supreme; it was universal, complete, all pervading. The religion of the lowly Nazarene was no where to be found. All sects, parties and denominations had gone astray.” (Bruce R. McConkie, “Once or Twice in a Thousand Years,” Ensign (Reprinted conference address), April 2005, 6).
  • “For hundreds of years, fol­lowing the universal apostasy, the inhabitants of the earth walked in spiritual darkness. They became divided and sub-divided. Satan had obtained such power over their thinking that the fundamen­tal principles of the gospel ceased to exist among them.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions 5:xi).

It cannot be denied that mass corruption in the ancient Christian church is exactly what LDS leaders have taught throughout the history of Mormonism. As reported by Ms. Stack, Dr. Combs thinks “Better knowledge of ancient Christians would free today’s Latter-day Saints from spending their time ‘trying to prove other churches and religions wrong or apostate.’” I don’t think so. An LDS church manual for missionaries directs, 

“Investigators must be told that a universal apostasy occurred following the death of Jesus and His Apostles. If there had been no apostasy, there would have been no need of a Restoration” (Preach My Gospel, “The Message of the Restoration, 2019, 36). 

This universal apostasy of Christianity is the reason for the LDS church’s existence and requires a clear emphasis in Mormon proselytizing efforts. Knowing that there really was no universal apostasy as taught by LDS prophets, seers, and revelators doesn’t change a thing for Latter-day Saints in their personal missionary efforts. An LDS apostle taught,

“The gospel as restored by Joseph Smith is either true or it is not. To receive all of the promised blessings we must accept the gospel in faith and in full…when you pick up a stick you pick up both ends. And so it is with the gospel. As members of the Church we need to accept all of it (James E. Faust, “Lord, I Believe; Help Thou Mine Unbelief,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2003, 21-22).

And “all of it” includes accepting a demonstrably false narrative upon which the entire “restoration” is built.

As I said earlier, I don’t envy the position Mormons are in. MRM’s Aaron Shafovaloff puts it well:

“Mormons are in a tough spot today, wanting simultaneously to affirm their traditional and scriptural teachings on the Great Apostasy (replete with harsh, sweeping moral indictments), yet generalizing these ‘apostate’ Christians as having good intentions and the light of Christ.” (“The Great Apostasy”)

To do that, Latter-day Saints must throw the authoritative teachings of their church’s leadership under the bus as Dr. Combs has done. 

It’s not always comfortable or popular to defend the truth, but unlike the false, faith-promoting teachings of LDS leaders, the truth is defensible. 

God Himself is Truth; He is the One who reveals “deep and hidden things, [who] knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with Him” (John 14:6; Daniel 2:22). God will never provide a “completely false narrative” and call it true. The fact that LDS leaders do so is a red flag that should not be ignored. 

To see Sharon’s other news articles, click here.

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