One of the most fundamental Mormon doctrines is that which was first communicated to Joseph Smith through theophany: that none of his contemporary churches were true, because, according to God himself (to quote both Isaiah 29:13 and 2 Tim. 3:5):
They were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed [Joseph] said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof. (Joseph Smith-History 19)
Couple this with the sixth Article of Faith:
We believe in the same organization that existed in the primitive church, namely apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists and so forth.
From these statements we have deduced the Great Apostasy: that somewhere between the time that Jesus founded his church (another doctrine in Mormonsim) and the time that Joseph Smith went into the woods to pray, the Christian church as a whole apostatized from the true Gospel of Christ. Essential doctrines were lost and the authority of stewardship over God’s economy was taken off the earth in such a way that it could in no way be regained except through direct agency of God himself (i.e. a human “reformation” as through Martin Luther and others was not enough). The result was a Christianity that primitive Christians would have difficulty recognizing. This deduction has been confirmed by various heavenly messengers who have restored key doctrines and authorities taken from the earth when the above mentioned apostasy occurred.
(For more background on the LDS view of the Great Apostasy, please click here.)
And yet, for all our (justified) celebration of the Restoration of the Gospel and Priesthood Keys, our understanding of the Great Apostasy has been favored with few explicit statements from heaven. How we think of the apostasy as Mormons has been shaped by both our culture and understanding of history.
But the Great Apostasy is nevertheless a key doctrine in Mormonism, because without it, there is no need for a Restoration and Joseph Smith does not enjoy a special status as prophet among private religionists and armchair theologians. If there was no Apostasy, then Joseph Smith’s work is nothing special—certainly nothing to up and leave your current church for.
For those waiting/hoping for an announcement, revelation, or realization that the Mormon understanding of the Apostasy is fundamentally flawed or requires qualification, sorry, this is not that post. If anything interest in the Apostasy has been renewed and it has again become a topic suitable for detailed examination in general conference. Elder Jeffrey Holland has spoken on it twice in less than two years (October 2007 and April 2008).
No, LDS surety that an Apostasy did happen is as firm as ever. But the LDS understanding of how an Apostasy happened is changing in some positive ways. Where blame was once sneeringly cast, there are now feelings of sympathy, camaraderie, and much of Kirster Stendahl’s “holy envy.” Where there was once historical generalizations made about the way Early Christianity was influenced away from eternal truth, there is now an understanding that the history of early Christianity is much more complex and we must be much more careful about how we study it. This reinvigorated intellectual honesty has made us realize that our understanding of how the Apostasy unfolded (but not that it unfolded!) is due for some major changes.
In this series I intend to compare and contrast 19th century (part 2) and 20th century (part 3) Mormon conceptions of the Apostasy with current trends and questions (part 4) and give my own analysis of the situation and opinion on the doctrine (part 5).