What if you could be arrested for going to Mutual? Or killed for bearing your testimony? Imagine what it would be like if it were against the law for you to have your own copy of the scriptures or if there were no living prophets to guide you.
Early Christians faced those kinds of situations after Jesus Christ’s death. Fewer than 400 years after the death of the Savior, the Church as Jesus organized it was nowhere to be found in the whole world. This began the period known as the Great Apostasy. The New Testament Apostles and Book of Mormon disciples were gone. And gone with them was the authority to administer the Church and to hold the priesthood.
It was a time when people persecuted, tortured, and killed Christians and when the church itself became corrupt without inspired leadership. The world was in spiritual darkness.
What Is the Apostasy?
The term apostasy means turning away from the truth. Some people today leave the Church. But the Great Apostasy, as we call it now, was more than that. With the death of the Apostles, priesthood keys, or the presiding priesthood authority, were taken from the earth. Without these watchmen—the Apostles who had kept the doctrines of the gospel pure and who maintained the order and standard of worthiness in the Church—the members faced serious challenges. Over time doctrines were corrupted and unauthorized changes were made in Church organization and priesthood ordinances.
What Happened to the Apostles?
Following the Savior’s death, the Apostles spread the gospel, and the Church grew quickly throughout the Roman Empire. But almost immediately after the Ascension of the Savior, the Apostles began to be persecuted. James, the brother of John and one of the original Twelve Apostles, was killed by Herod (see Acts 12:1–2). Peter and Paul were also killed during New Testament times.
We don’t have records of the deaths of all the Apostles, but we do know that all but John the Beloved died and, after a time, ceased to be replaced. The keys and authority of the holy priesthood were lost with the deaths of the Church leaders. Without this authority, no new revelation, doctrine, or scripture could come.
What Happened to the Church?
The Apostles were killed during a time when the entire Church was being persecuted. Nero, a Roman emperor, was the first to make laws to exterminate Christians, in about A.D. 65. Under his reign, thousands were cruelly killed. A second round of persecutions began in about A.D. 93 under Emperor Domitian. Succeeding emperors continued torturing and killing Christians. As a result of these persecutions, thousands of Christians were martyred. Many others apostatized.
In about A.D. 324 Constantine became the emperor of the Roman Empire. He made Christianity a legal religion, stopping centuries of persecution. His actions linked the church to the government, and corrupt church leaders began seeking power and the honors of the world.
Teachers within the church began to adopt false religious concepts from Greek philosophy and pagan religions. False ordinances and ceremonies were also introduced. Even though the church still taught some truth, the true Church of Christ and the priesthood were no longer on the earth. And as Christianity spread to various parts of the world—including to Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas—new churches were formed and grew. None of these churches, however, was the true Church, since the Lord had already taken priesthood authority and priesthood keys from the earth.
What Happened to the Scriptures?
We know from the Book of Mormon that the scriptures that came from the Jewish people had many plain and precious parts taken from them (see 1 Ne. 13:23–29). The eighth article of faith says, “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly.” [A of F 1:8]
During the time of the Apostasy, precious doctrines were lost from the Bible through carelessness, uninspired translation, or deliberate efforts to erase the truth. A restoration of that lost doctrine and truth was necessary. The Book of Mormon and other scripture revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith brought back many of those plain and precious parts of the gospel.
A Light out of the Darkness
The Lord knew the Great Apostasy would take place (see 2 Thes. 2:3), so He prepared a way for His gospel to be restored. In the centuries leading up to the First Vision in 1820, various translations of the Bible became widely available through the newly developed printing process of movable type. Because the church did not want people to read the word of God, many were imprisoned or martyred for reading or owning scriptures. But during this time, the Lord inspired people to begin fighting against the abuses and evil they saw within the church. This period is called the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation eventually created an environment in which the Lord could restore His authority and truth to the earth.
Today we can be members of “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” (D&C 1:30) because the Lord restored His gospel and conferred priesthood authority to the Prophet Joseph Smith to organize His Church (see D&C 27; D&C 65; D&C 128:18–21).
We are blessed to live in this time, when the gospel in its fulness has been restored—a time when you can go to church, bear your testimony, and read the scriptures.
John the Beloved
The Apostle John was banished to the Isle of Patmos in about A.D. 93 or 94. The Savior had promised John that he would live to see His Second Coming (see John 21:21–23; D&C 7). The Prophet Joseph Smith said John was ministering among the lost ten tribes (see History of the Church, 1:176).
The Apostle Paul
The Apostle Paul was not one of the original Twelve Apostles. He was a Jew called Saul who persecuted the Christians for many years until the Savior appeared to him on the road to Damascus, and he was converted. (See Acts 8–9.) Saul, later called Paul, became a great Apostle and missionary. He was martyred for his faith in the Savior during Roman persecutions against the Church.
The Apostle Peter
Peter was the head of the Church after the Savior’s death and Resurrection. Although there are no scriptural records of Peter’s martyrdom, tradition says Peter died on a cross, as did the Savior. Peter is said to have requested to be crucified upside down, because he did not consider himself worthy to die in the same way the Savior did (see Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. [1954–56], 3:151–52).
Peter’s life was one of faithfulness. Then in modern times he appeared to the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) said of Peter: “With his loyal associates, James and John, Simon Peter returned to the earth, bridging the gap of darkened centuries. Together they appeared on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, where Peter delivered to the young prophets the keys of the kingdom, which the apostles possessed from the Lord Jesus Christ” (Peter, My Brother, Brigham Young University Speeches of the Year [July 13, 1971], 8).
It is still a mystery why Constantine stopped years of persecution and made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire. Some sources say he did so because of a vision he had during a battle. Whatever his reasons, Constantine tried to convince Romans to be baptized into Christianity.
The Nicene Council
Since there was no prophet to receive revelation, the church would frequently decide issues in a council, or meeting of church leaders. In A.D. 325, Emperor Constantine called a council in Nicaea (in modern Turkey) to decide on the nature of the Godhead. There had been much argument about whether God was one or three individuals, and the decision of the council further confused understanding of the Godhead. The truth that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three distinct beings and that They have separate roles was lost.
During the Apostasy, many ordinances were altered or added without proper authority. The church allowed infant baptism and baptism by sprinkling or pouring, instead of by immersion. Pagan influences and philosophies of the time crept into the church—such as burning incense, celibacy (the clergy remaining unmarried), and the belief that the body was evil and that God did not have a body. The honoring of martyrs turned to superstition and worship.
Because of the wickedness within the church, the gifts of the Spirit ceased and people began to deny true spiritual gifts. Without revelation, church organization changed through the government of men, instead of through inspiration from God. Church offices were bought, sold, and voted on.
Apostasy in the Western Hemisphere
In the Book of Mormon, we learn that Christ’s Church in the Americas disappeared by about A.D. 400. All those who would not deny Christ were killed, and the three Nephite disciples were taken from among the Nephite people. Moroni alone was left to tell of his people’s destruction. (See Morm. 8:3, 10–11; Moro. 1:2.)
According to tradition, Peter was crucified in Rome. (A.D. 64 or 65)
The Apostle Paul died while a prisoner in Rome. (A.D. 65)
John the Beloved was banished to the Isle of Patmos. (A.D. 93 or 94)
Constantine made Christianity a legal religion. (A.D. 324)
Moroni told of the apostasy of the Nephite nation. (A.D. 400–21)
Movable type allowed scripture to be widely available. (A.D. 1450)
Reformers helped create an environment for the Restoration. (A.D. 1500–1600)
God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to Joseph Smith. (A.D. 1820)
Priesthood authority was restored and the Church was organized. (A.D. 1829–30)