The Great Apostasy as Seen by Eusebius


One of the most fascinating periods in history is the first part of the Christian era. Its importance to Latter-day Saints is perhaps surpassed only by our ignorance of it. Yet there were historians who wrote during those centuries, historians who plainly and tragically portrayed the fate of the church established by the Lord during his ministry. Eusebius, one of the earliest Christian historians, actually witnessed and wrote of the beginnings of the great apostasy that ultimately made necessary the restoration of the gospel.

Eusebius was born about A.D. 260, probably in Caesarea, a Mediterranean port west and a bit south of the Sea of Galilee. He distinguished himself as a scholar while young, was imprisoned for his religious views in 309 and again in 311, and in 314 was made Bishop of Caesarea. There he had access to a large library, founded by Pamphilus; in addition, there was available to him the library at Jerusalem. He was a thorough and accurate writer who nevertheless produced no fewer than forty-six works. He died in 339 or 340, two or three years after the death of the Emperor Constantine, whom he admired greatly and whom he had baptized. One of Eusebius’s major endeavors was the ten-volume Ecclesiastical History, probably written just prior to 326, in which he records the events in the church from the death of the apostles to the triumph of Constantine.

One of the distinguishing features of Mormonism is its concept of the relationship of Christ, God the Father, and this earth; for instance, our knowledge that the God of the Old Testament, Jehovah, the God of Israel, was in reality Jesus Christ. This knowledge was shared by Eusebius and has since been lost in the general confusion about the nature of the Trinity. He says:

“The Marshal and Fashioner of the universe gave up to Christ Himself, … His first-begotten, the making of subordinate beings, and discussed with Him the creation of man: ‘For God said, Let us make man in our image and likeness.’

“This saying is confirmed by another of the prophets, who in hymns deifies him thus:

‘He spoke, and they were begotten:
He commanded, and they were created.’

The Father and Maker he introduces as giving commands like a supreme ruler by an imperial fiat; the divine Word, who holds the second place to Him—none other than the One whom we proclaim—as subserving his Father’s behests.” 1

“But it is obvious that they knew God’s Christ Himself, since He appeared to Abraham, instructed Isaac, spoke to Israel, and conversed freely with Moses and the prophets who came later, as I have already shown. … Obviously we must regard the religion proclaimed in recent years to all nations through Christ’s teaching as none other than the first, most ancient, and most primitive of all religions, discovered by Abraham … [to whom] an oracle was announced … by God—Christ Himself, the Word of God—who showed Himself to him.” 2

This concept of Christ and of the eternity of the gospel is excitingly familiar and beautifully clear to the Latter-day Saint reader. However, one translator of Eusebius, an Anglican, summarizes current secular ignorance as he admits:

“Eusebius’s view that the O.T. theophanies were appearances of Christ (in human form though not yet born a man) seems impossible to us. But have we yet solved the problem of reconciling the stories of encounters between men and the Deity with St. John’s assertion that no man has ever seen God?” 3

In a passage that clearly demonstrates both his understanding of the nature of Christ and the process of apostasy that was beginning to enter into the church and that was destined to culminate in the loss of this precious knowledge, Eusebius writes:

“Beryllus, … Bishop of Bostra in Arabia, perverted the true doctrine of the Church and tried to bring in ideas alien to the Faith, actually asserting that our Savior and Lord did not pre-exist in His own form of being before He made His home among men, and had no divinity of His own but only the Father’s dwelling in Him.” 4

One of the offices in the priesthood that is misunderstood by almost as many Mormons as gentiles is the calling of the seventy. Whether Eusebius really understood their function is not clear. However, he occasionally refers to them, collectively and individually:

“There is evidence that Matthias, who took Judas’s place in the list of apostles, and the other man honoured like him in the drawing of lots, had both been called to be among the seventy. Thaddeus, again, is said to have been one of them. … In addition to the Seventy there were other disciples of the Saviour.” 5

Eusebius quotes a fascinating little story about the missionary work and healings performed by “Thaddeus, one of the Seventy” after the crucifixion of the Savior, indicating that the calling of seventy was a fixture in the most primitive church, and that the responsibilities of this office did not terminate with the first mission on which the Lord sent the seventies. (See Luke 10:1–12.)

Eusebius quotes Clement of Alexandria (about A.D. 150–215) in a passage where reference is made to the seventy:

“James the Righteous, John, and Peter were entrusted by the Lord after his resurrection with the higher knowledge. They imparted it to the other apostles, and the other apostles to the Seventy, one of whom was Barnabas.” 6

As we look back across seventeen centuries, blessed with the hindsight that our position in time affords us, we are struck with the scores of references that Eusebius makes to apostasies and heresies within the church. One of the more pernicious was the teaching of the doctrine of celibacy:

“Clement [of Alexandria] … gives a list of those of the apostles who were married. This he does on account of those who condemn marriage. He says, ‘Will they also condemn the apostles? For Peter and Philip had children, and Philip gave his daughters to husbands. Indeed, Paul does not hesitate to address his wife in one of his letters. It was to facilitate his mission that he did not bring her around with him.’” 7

He quotes Clement again:

“We are told that when blessed Peter saw his wife led away to death he was glad that her call had come and that she was returning home, and spoke to her in the most encouraging and comforting tones, addressing her by name: ‘My dear, remember the Lord.’ Such was the marriage of the blessed, and their consummate feeling towards their dearest.” 8

Eusebius also quotes from Irenaeus (A.D. 130–200), Bishop of Lyon:

“… the people called Encratites preached against marriage, thereby rejecting the ancient plan of God and silently condemning the creator of male and female whose purpose was the begetting of human kind. … They also denied the salvation of the first man.

“This was introduced by them when a certain Tatian became the first to propound their blasphemy. He had been a disciple of Justin, and as long as he remained in his company he produced nothing of this kind; but after Justin’s martyrdom he apostatized from the Church. He grew exalted with the idea of becoming a teacher. He became puffed up, believing himself superior to the others. He fabricated his own brand of doctrine, telling tales of invisible eons, … and … he denounced marriage as corruption and fornication.” 9

This passage is most interesting, showing as it does not only that the early leaders strongly opposed the doctrine of celibacy, but also that deviation from the truth was beginning to spring up within the membership of the church.

Eusebius traces the development of apostasy in the Church from the very earliest days. Speaking of the first century, he says:

“… [Hegesippus (A.D. 100–180)] in describing the period [when the last contemporary of the Savior died] … adds that until then the Church remained a pure and untouched maiden. Those intent upon the corruption of the healthful rule of the Savior’s message lay low in murky darkness, if indeed such persons existed at all. But when the members of the sacred band of apostles had reached the end of life in different ways, and when there had disappeared that generation privileged to hear the wisdom of God in person, then did the organization of godless error take root through deceitful purveyors of falsehood. With none of the apostles still alive, they openly tried to counter the message of truth with the proclamation of a knowledge falsely named.” 10

“But with our greater freedom a change came over us. We yielded to pride and sloth. We yielded to mutual envy and abuse. We warred upon ourselves as occasion offered, and we used the weapons and the spears of words. Leaders fought with leaders and laity formed factions against laity. Unspeakable hypocrisy and dissimulation traveled to the farthest limits of evil.” 11

Finally, when, under the rule of Constantine, being a Christian was not only safe but also prudent, we find outsiders insinuating themselves into the church for reasons of personal ambition:

“There was also the unspeakable hypocrisy of men who crept into the Church and who took on the name and the character of Christians. Because of his benevolence and good nature, because his faith was real and his character true, [Constantine] put his trust in those who said they were Christians and who feigned the utmost affection for him.” 12

The writings of Eusebius portray graphically the condition of the church after the death of the apostles, written from a point in time where the doctrines were already beginning to be corrupted, when the true priesthood had already been lost. The tragic deaths of so many of the inspired leaders, the terrific influence of the pagan Constantine, and the story of apostasy after apostasy are all found in Ecclesiastical History.

In summation, I believe that Christ’s church was gradually lost and that the churches today do not teach the doctrine taught by the Master. The writings of Eusebius are but another testimony to the truth of these assertions.

Brother Merrill, an electrical engineer, is working toward his Ph.D. degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a member of the Cambridge Ward, Boston Stake, and serves as a seminary teacher.

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    G. A. Williamson (translator): Eusebius, The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1965), pp. 34–35.

  2.   2.

    Ibid., pp. 47–48.

  3.   3.

    Ibid., p. 48n.

  4.   4.

    Ibid., p. 270.

  5.   5.

    Ibid,, pp. 64–65.

  6.   6.

    Clement, Outlines, Book VIII, quoted in Williamson, p. 72.

  7.   7.

    Clement, Miscellanies, Book III, quoted in Colm Luibheid (translator): Eusebius, The Essential Eusebius (New York and Toronto: New American Library, 1966), p. 115.

  8.   8.

    Clement, Miscellanies, Book VII, quoted in Williamson, p. 140.

  9.   9.

    Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, Book I, quoted in Luibheid, pp, 135–46.

  10.   10.

    Luibheid, p. 117.

  11.   11.

    Ibid., p. 138.

  12.   12.

    Ibid., p. 208.