The Great Apostasy and the History of the Church

Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Seminary Teacher Resource Manual, (2001), 16–21


The Great Apostasy (about A.D.  100–1820)

When Jesus Christ came in the flesh, He fulfilled the law of Moses and established His Church (see 3 Nephi 15:2–9; 18:5). After His death and Resurrection, the Lord continued to lead His Church through the Apostles (see Matthew 10:1–4; Ephesians 2:20). The Apostles held the priesthood keys that were necessary to continue the Lord’s work. (See Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 1–3.)

Persecution against Christ’s followers persisted after His death and Resurrection. The Roman emperor Nero, who ruled from A.D.  54–68, intensified this persecution, slowing the Lord’s work. False teachers arose, and many Church members lost faith. Eventually the Apostles were killed and the priesthood and Church of Jesus Christ were taken from the earth, resulting in the Great Apostasy. (See 2 Thessalonians 2:1–3; 1 Timothy 4:1–3; Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 3–6.)

Some gospel teachings survived in diluted form through the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Without priesthood authority, religious leaders and individual believers could only try to do their best with the Light of Christ and these fragments of truth to guide them. Those who practiced beliefs that differed from the government-accepted religions of the day often suffered persecution. True freedom of religion did not exist. (See Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 6–9.)

After Columbus’s voyage to the Americas, many of the Europeans who migrated there came in search of religious freedom. The Bill of Rights was adopted as part of the United States Constitution on December 15, 1791. The first article of this law proclaimed the right of individuals to practice religion according to their beliefs and desires. Though periods of religious persecution still followed, this document provided the basis for religious liberty under which Christ’s Church could be reestablished. Just fourteen years later, on December 23, 1805, in Sharon, Vermont, in the northeastern United States, the Prophet Joseph Smith was born. (See D&C 101:77–80; Joseph Smith—History 1:1–5; Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 9–27.)

New York (1820–31)

In 1816, Joseph Smith’s family moved to Palmyra, New York. As a young man, Joseph desired to know which church was true. He spent much time thinking and studying about religion and attending the meetings of the various churches as time permitted. In the spring of 1820, Joseph’s pursuit of truth led him to a grove of trees to pray. In answer to his prayer, God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to him. Christ’s message to Joseph was that the true Church was no longer on the earth. (See Joseph Smith—History 1:5–10, 15–20; Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 29–36.)

On September 22, 1823, an angel named Moroni appeared to Joseph and told him that God had a great work for him to do (see Joseph Smith—History 1:30–43). Four years later, in 1827, Moroni delivered to Joseph the gold plates from which Joseph translated the Book of Mormon. By April 1830, Joseph had received the priesthood from John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John (see Matthew 10:1–4; Joseph Smith—History 1:68–73), published the Book of Mormon, and organized the Church of Jesus Christ (see D&C 20:1). At that time Joseph began his inspired translation of the Bible. (See Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 37–66, 117–19.)

Ohio (1831–38)

In February 1831 the Church moved to Kirtland, Ohio. Kirtland remained the center of the Church until 1838, during which time the Lord revealed many truths regarding the doctrine and organization of the Church (see for example D&C 42). More sections of the Doctrine and Covenants were revealed in Ohio than in any other place (see Chronological Order of Contents). The work on the Joseph Smith Translation was mostly completed on July 2, 1833. In 1835 the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was organized, and the Doctrine and Covenants was published. The first temple was built and dedicated in Kirtland in 1836. Significant priesthood keys were restored to the Prophet in the Kirtland Temple, as recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 110. (See Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 89–126, 153–68.)

Missouri (1831–38)

In 1831 the Lord revealed that the city of Zion would be built in Independence, Jackson County, Missouri (see D&C 57:1–3). Many members of the Church moved from Kirtland to Independence to settle in Zion. Both Ohio and Missouri became gathering places for the Saints. However, tensions and conflicts grew between the established non-Mormon settlers of Jackson County and the new Mormon settlers. Persecution against the Saints became so severe that they were eventually forced to leave Jackson County. Most of the Missouri Saints eventually resettled to the north in Caldwell and Daviess County and established the cities of Far West and Adam-ondi-Ahman. At the Lord’s command, Joseph Smith led an armed militia known as Zion’s Camp from Ohio to Missouri to help the impoverished Saints and, if possible, restore their lands. While they did not regain their lands, Zion’s Camp served as a valuable training experience. When the Quorums of the Twelve Apostles and Seventy were organized, the vast majority of those called were veterans of Zion’s Camp. (See Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 106–11, 127–52, 181–92.)

At the same time as the Missouri Saints were suffering these persecutions, many Church members in Ohio were falling into apostasy. Backbiting against the Prophet Joseph Smith soon turned to persecution. The apostasy became so widespread that even several of the Apostles lost confidence in Joseph Smith and would not sustain him, though some later repented. Persecution grew until the faithful Saints in Kirtland were forced to leave, at which time they moved to Missouri. (See Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 169–80.)

Shortly after the Kirtland Saints moved to Far West, the persecutions that started in Jackson County expanded to other areas of Missouri. The governor of Missouri chose to believe the false reports about the Mormons and ordered the militia to drive them from the state. Armed confrontations resulted. Some members were killed, and many were defiled, beaten, plundered, and driven from their homes in the winter of 1838–39. Some leaders of the Church were imprisoned, including Joseph and Hyrum Smith and Sidney Rigdon, the entire First Presidency. These were some of the darkest days in the Church’s history. (See Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 193–210.)

Illinois (1839–40)

The people of Illinois received the destitute Saints with sympathy, offering them food, clothing, and other necessities. The Prophet Joseph Smith joined the Saints in Quincy, Illinois, on April 22, 1839, after spending close to five months in Liberty Jail. Joseph went to Washington, D.C., and met with Martin Van Buren, president of the United States, to seek justice for the atrocities committed against the Saints in Missouri. However, the president feared the political results of aiding the unpopular Mormons and refused to help them. (See Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 219–22.)

Prior to the Prophet’s going to Washington, the Saints purchased a mosquito-infested swamp in Commerce, Illinois. After draining the land, they began building the City of Nauvoo. During the period the Saints lived in Nauvoo, the Twelve Apostles were sent to teach the gospel in the British Isles. Elder Orson Hyde, one of the Twelve, received a special mission to dedicate the Holy Land for the return of the Jews. Also during this period, Joseph Smith introduced baptism for the dead and the endowment and directed the building of the Nauvoo Temple. Joseph organized the Relief Society, published the Book of Abraham, and recorded Doctrine and Covenants 132. (In this section the Lord revealed the principles of eternal marriage and commanded some men in the Church to take more than one wife. Later the Lord commanded the men of the Church to have one wife only. Eternal marriage continues to be available to worthy Saints in temples throughout the world.)

Thousands of converts joined the Church and immigrated to Nauvoo. For a time Nauvoo’s population and economy rivaled those of Chicago. With about 15,000 living in and around Nauvoo, Hancock County became one of the most populous counties in the state. These were some of the happiest times in early Church history. But as the Saints prospered and grew in political power, the fear, jealousy, and bad feelings from their Illinois neighbors began to grow. (See Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 211–66.)

The Prophet Joseph wrote letters to the candidates for president of the United States to ask what they would do to help the Saints recover their losses in Missouri. None offered the kind of help the Church desired, so in January 1844 Joseph was nominated by members of the Church as a candidate for president. He published a pamphlet and organized priesthood holders to preach the gospel and campaign for him. (See Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 269–70.)

As was common throughout Joseph’s life, enemies of the Church harassed the Prophet by bringing false charges and swearing out warrants for his arrest. Opposition to the Saints grew in Illinois, and the Prophet was periodically forced into hiding. In June of 1844 the Prophet Joseph, as mayor of Nauvoo, and the city council met to discuss an anti-Mormon press that slandered citizens of the city and that they feared would incite further mob violence against the Saints. When they ordered it destroyed as a public nuisance, the governor of Illinois ordered the Prophet Joseph to Carthage, Illinois, to stand trial. The governor promised his protection, but, as recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 135:1–7, the Prophet Joseph and his brother Hyrum were murdered in Carthage by a mob. (See Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 266–85.)

After mourning the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum, many members questioned who would lead the Church. On August 8, 1844, the Church held a public meeting on this subject. Sidney Rigdon spoke about how he should be the new leader of the Church. Brigham Young also spoke, at which time the Lord sent a spiritual manifestation to the Saints. Many in the congregation saw Brigham Young transfigured, so that he resembled the Prophet Joseph in voice, manner, and appearance. The vast majority of Saints accepted Brigham’s leadership. He directed the Church for the next three years as President of the Quorum of the Twelve before he was sustained and ordained President of the Church in December 1847. (See Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 286–96, 334–36.)

Under President Brigham Young’s leadership, the Church continued to grow in Nauvoo, in spite of increased persecution. The quorums of the seventy were expanded, more missionaries were called, and in December 1845 Church members began receiving their endowments in the Nauvoo Temple. Just two months later, in February 1846, the Saints began to leave Nauvoo for Iowa enroute to the Rocky Mountains. (See Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 297–307.)

Winter Quarters (1846–47)

Through the winter and spring of 1846, the Saints moved across the state of Iowa, establishing camps such as Garden Grove, Mount Pisgah, and Council Bluffs. At these places the first groups of Saints built small log houses, planted crops, and moved on. Later other migrating groups of Saints would use the facilities, harvest some crops, plant more, and move on. (See Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 308–21.)

In July 1846 the United States government asked for 500 Mormon volunteers to fight in the Mexican-American War. To many Church members this was a heavy burden, since they had just been driven beyond the United States border. Brigham Young counseled the Saints that, while this would take men from their families, it would also prove the Saints’ loyalty and provide money and clothing to help with the exodus. The Mormon Battalion marched to California, over 3,300 kilometers (2,000 miles), which is believed to be the longest military march in United States history, but never had to fight in the war. (See Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 315–16, 322–26.)

The Saints spent the winter of 1846–47 preparing for the trek west at a camp in Nebraska that they named Winter Quarters. Wagons were built, food collected, and horses and oxen purchased. One hundred forty-three men, three women, and two children made up the first group called to pioneer the route to the Rocky Mountains. This group included mechanics, teamsters, hunters, blacksmiths, and representatives of many other useful trades. After traveling three months and 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) through unsettled territory, Brigham Young’s pioneer company arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847. (See Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 329–33.)

Utah (1847–Present)

The pioneers immediately began planting crops and building a city. Just three days after arriving, Brigham Young designated the spot for the temple. In all, 11 companies of Saints, together with a group of members from Mississippi and some Mormon Battalion soldiers, arrived in the valley in 1847, making a total of 2,095 people. Frost, droughts, and crop-devouring crickets made it difficult to survive in the Salt Lake Valley. (See Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 328–29, 333–34, 337–51.)

Between 1847 and 1857, Brigham Young established over 100 settlements in the Intermountain West. Many were concentrated in a line southwest from Salt Lake City to San Bernardino, California, to create a means of safe immigration from the Pacific. (See Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 361–67.)

Saints gathered to Utah from Europe, the Pacific, and the eastern United States. In 1856 President Young decided to reduce the costs of the trip by having some of the emigrants pull their belongings in handcarts rather than riding or walking alongside wagons and teams. Ten handcart companies made up of nearly 3,000 individuals arrived in the Salt Lake Valley between 1856 and 1860. Most made the trip without undue hardship. However, in 1856 the Willie and Martin companies started late and experienced early snows that resulted in great loss. Over 200 people in these companies died of starvation, fatigue, and cold, probably more than in any other emigrant group in United States history. Saints continued to make the trek across the plains by handcart or wagon team until 1869, when the transcontinental railroad was completed. (See Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 326–28, 356–61, 388–95.)

The Church faced challenges during this period from bad publicity in eastern United States newspapers and from apostates. Other opposition included the threat of United States military takeover and the general challenges of developing settlements in a harsh environment. (See Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 368–91.) In 1867 President Brigham Young called Eliza R. Snow to reestablish the Relief Society. That year also saw the organization of the Sunday School program, the reorganization of the School of the Prophets, and the completion of the Tabernacle on Temple Square in Salt Lake City. The precursor to the Young Women program was founded in 1869, followed in 1875 by the precursor to the Young Men program. The Primary was organized in 1878. (See Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 392–415.)

The St. George Utah Temple was dedicated in 1877, the first in the West. The Saints had been able to receive their endowments in the Endowment House in Salt Lake City since 1855, but the first endowments for the dead were performed in St. George. In the years that followed, temples were completed in Logan, Utah (1884); Manti, Utah (1888); and Salt Lake City (1893). The Church founded the Utah Genealogical Society during this period, and work for the dead increased. (See Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 415–17, 435–37, 444–50.)

On August 29, 1877, President Brigham Young died, having served as the leader of the Church for over 33 years, longer than any other prophet of this dispensation (see Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 419–21). John Taylor was sustained as the next President of the Church and served until his death in 1887. This decade in Church history was marked by great persecution. Prompted partly by an anti-Mormon media campaign focusing on plural marriage, the United States Congress enacted a series of laws to make plural marriage illegal. Over 1,000 Saints, mostly men but some women, were imprisoned, and many others, including Church leaders, were forced into hiding. In 1889, Wilford Woodruff was sustained as the fourth President of the Church. A year later, in 1890, the Lord rescinded the practice of plural marriage. (See Official Declaration 1; Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 422–42.)

A Worldwide Church Expansion (1890s–Present)

Beginning in the 1890s Church leaders encouraged the Saints to remain in their homelands and build up the Church. This policy was reinforced in 1906 when President Joseph F. Smith became the first prophet to visit Europe. The Church established colonies in Mexico in 1885 and Canada in 1887. In 1901 Heber J. Grant opened Japan for missionary work. In 1920 Elder David O. McKay, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, went on a world tour to better understand the conditions of members throughout the world. (See Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 460–62, 489–91, 499–502.)

In the early 1900s the Saints benefited from increased tolerance in the United States. Under President Joseph F. Smith (1901–18), the Church put renewed emphasis on education. President Smith led the way and, with others like Elders James E. Talmage and John A. Widtsoe, published works that helped the Saints better understand the doctrines of the kingdom. (See Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 486–94.) This emphasis led to the establishment of the first released-time seminary program next to Granite High School in the Salt Lake City area in 1912. The first institute of religion was convened in Moscow, Idaho, in 1926. The early-morning seminary program began in 1950, and home-study seminary started in 1966. (See Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 495–508, 550, 557–61.)

The Church reached its first one million members in 1947 while George Albert Smith was President. During the administration of President David O. McKay (1951–70), new temples were built for the first time outside the United States and Canada. In 1975, to meet the needs of the expanding Church, President Spencer W. Kimball (1973–85) organized the First Quorum of the Seventy as the Church’s third governing quorum. In 1976 two revelations (later D&C 137 and 138) were sustained by the Church and added to the Pearl of Great Price. In 1978 President Kimball received a revelation that all worthy males in the Church could now receive the priesthood regardless of race or color (see Official Declaration 2).

In 1979 the Church published a new English edition of the Bible with new, helpful study aids. Two years later the Church published a new English edition of the triple combination with similar aids. At this time sections 137 and 138 were moved from the Pearl of Great Price to the Doctrine and Covenants. (See Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 493, 588–89.) Similar editions followed in other languages. When President Kimball died in 1985, the Book of Mormon had been translated into over 70 languages. In 1989, when President Ezra Taft Benson was prophet, Church membership reached seven million. To keep up with the growth, the Second Quorum of the Seventy was organized. (See Conference Report, Apr. 1989, 22; or Ensign, May 1989, 17.) During the administration of President Gordon B. Hinckley (1995–), the Church received more positive media attention than at any time in its history. In 1997 President Hinckley announced that numerous smaller temples would be built throughout the world (see Conference Report, Oct. 1997, 68–69; or Ensign, Nov. 1997, 49–50).

The message of the Restoration is that the Lord has returned His priesthood and Church to the earth through the Prophet Joseph Smith. This priesthood power was passed from prophet to prophet and is still on the earth today. The Church will continue to grow until the gospel “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” (History of the Church, 4:540).

Some Important Gospel Principles to Look For

  • Studying the sections of the Doctrine and Covenants in their historical setting helps us understand them better.

  • Understanding the Church’s past can help prepare us for the direction the Church will take in the future.

  • Coming to realize our place in history helps us fulfill our role as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Additional Resources

  • Church History in the Fulness of Times: Religion 341–43, pp. v–13.

  • Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual: Religion 324–325, pp. 1–2.

Suggestions for Teaching

Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Video presentation 2, “The Great Apostasy” (16:28), and presentation 3, “Overview of Church History” (10:30), can be used in teaching an overview of Church history (see Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Video Guide for teaching suggestions). CES Church History Resource Videocassette presentation 1, “A Stone Cut Out,” can be used as part of the following teaching suggestion.

Overview of Church History. Understanding the Church’s past can help prepare us for the direction the Church will take in the future.

(25–30 minutes)

Tell students: Imagine you are lost in a large, thick forest and that you can see no more than 10 meters in front of you. Imagine that you can move 1,000 meters in any direction to help you find your way. You can do this only once, and then you will be returned to your original location. What direction would you go? Why? If no one suggests it, point out the advantages of going 1,000 meters straight up. Discuss the importance of getting the “big picture.” Tell students that today they are going to see the big picture of Church history.

Consider using this pretest: Write on the board (or have students write on a piece of paper) the five major areas of early Church history: New York, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and Utah. Ask questions related to the events you want to discuss in your lesson, such as:

  • Where did Joseph Smith receive the First Vision?

  • Where was the first temple built?

  • Where and when was the Church organized?

If desired, include your own area as the “sixth” area of Church history, and add questions related to the history of the Church where you live.

Have students keep the tests, and tell them they can change their answers as you teach today’s lesson. Review the materials in the Church history introduction above (pp. 16–20), together with any details you wish to include about the history of the Church in your area.

You could also create a chart to help students organize the material. Create a timeline on a poster with dates corresponding to the major events in the Church history introduction, similar to the one shown here. (You could also give the timeline to students as a handout.)

Review the materials in the Church history introduction, and have students fill in the events that correspond to the dates on the timeline. Keep the poster (or tell students to keep the handout), and refer to it during the year to remind students how events or revelations fit into the “big picture.”

Many of the places studied in this lesson will be unfamiliar to the students. Use the maps in the back of the triple combination to help students locate and become familiar with them.

You could show “A Stone Cut Out,” presentation 1 of the CES Church History Resource Videocassette (8:08), either at the beginning or end of the lesson.

Help students understand that an overview like this can help give context to the Doctrine and Covenants. Share the last paragraph of the Church history introduction. Explain that understanding the Church’s past can help prepare us for the direction the Church will take in the future. It can also help us understand our role in the Church and where we fit in.