A lot of questions asked in my survey for future missionaries (which will be available for two more weeks if you haven’t yet taken it!) were along the lines of, “What can I do to prepare?” There are so many directions the answer to that could go. One of the things I wish I had studied and understood before I left was the Great Apostasy. I knew when Joseph Smith has The First Vision, God’s true church wasn’t on the earth. I knew after Christ died, it went into apostasy because people didn’t want to follow His teachings. But I didn’t know a whole lot more than that.
Why Did The Great Apostasy Occur?
While I was in the MTC, I started thinking harder about the Great Apostasy and wanted to understand it better. What I couldn’t understand was why, for roughly 1,700 years, people were sent to earth with no chance to accept the gospel at all because it didn’t exist.
I asked one of my MTC teachers about it, and he told me he had a strong testimony of the apostasy. How could someone have a testimony of a period of darkness? I couldn’t wait to hear his. He then bore his testimony of the Restoration and how he knew Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, foreordained to bring the light of the gospel back into the world. Because of him, we have the Book of Mormon, the Priesthood, and Christ’s church on the earth today. Although that is the message we seek to spread throughout the world, it didn’t answer my question.
God Didn’t Cause It. Man Did.
After we had been in the mission for three months, teaching and seeing what being a missionary was really like, my Mission President had us go to the mission home for a special conference. He answered our questions and taught us things we could better apply to our work now that we were actually doing it. During that time, he also gave us a lesson on the Great Apostasy. I ate up every single word and finally began to understand the reason behind it.
The Great Apostasy was prophesied by Paul (Amos 8:11), and Joseph Smith was foreordained to bring the world out of it because God knows what will happen before it actually does. But He didn’t cause it; man did. Since God gives us our agency, if there weren’t enough people willing to live the gospel, the church couldn’t exist.
My President had us read 3 John 1:9-10, which reads:
9 I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not.
10 Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church.
He explained that John, an apostle, tells Gaius, a church member, that he tried to visit a ward. But Diotrophes, the bishop (or branch president, whatever the setup was at the time) tells him no. He also tells the members if they receive John, he’ll excommunicate them. Diotrephes wants to be the highest leader.
We also read Philemon 1:19, a letter Paul wrote which says, “I Paul have written it with mine own hand.” People at the time were forging letters from the apostles to justify actions they knew were contrary to the gospel but wanted to do anyway.
The church started going into apostasy while the apostles were still alive. They went out to preach the gospel and all but two of them were murdered. Peter was crucified and Paul beheaded in Rome. Luke was hanged in Greece, Simon was crucified in Britain, Mark was killed in Egypt, and Matthew in India – to name a few. Judas committed suicide, which left only John the Revelator, who was translated according to his own desire (D&C 7:1-6). Bishops couldn’t ordain apostles, and the organization died out along with the Priesthood.
After having the Great Apostasy taught to me this way, I wanted to learn everything I could about it. The book, The Great Apostasy, by James E. Talmage, is not part of the missionary library. We had to read all the books in it before we could ask permission to read other books, so I read them as fast as I could with every spare minute I had. My president then said I could read The Great Apostasy and I ate up every word.
Why It’s Important to Understand the Apostasy
I think the Spirit was directing me toward a desire to learn more about the Great Apostasy because I didn’t understand how big of a deal it would be to the people I would teach. Telling Italian Catholics the Pope didn’t get his Priesthood from Peter and that their infant baptism wasn’t done by the proper authority turns their world upside down. It can only be effectively done with the Spirit present and from a place of Christlike love with sincere concern for their salvation. Put yourself in their shoes and realize what they’re hearing. You are essentially teaching a religious history lesson that goes against everything Catholics believe, and we usually had to go over it more than once.
They believe Priesthood authority was passed from Jesus to Peter to a bishop named Linus and then down the line to the current Pope. We, however, believe Linus the bishop apostatized and was removed from his calling. Peter did ordain another man named Linus as deacon, but as such, that Linus couldn’t ordain leaders. The Roman Emperor Nero had Linus the deacon killed and the true Priesthood of Christ disappeared from Rome at that time. (This explanation can be found here; see #1 in the list below.) I wouldn’t go that deep in an initial lesson, but understanding the fundamental difference between the Catholic belief that the Priesthood was passed on and the LDS belief that it was taken from the earth is important. It’s the very reason the church needed to be restored.
Depending on where you serve, this may not be as big of a deal as it was in my mission. Either way, learning why the Restoration was necessary can help strengthen your own testimony of it!
We didn’t have Preach My Gospel when I was a missionary, and the guidelines have since been updated. The missionary handbook now states:
Use the important hours before 10:00 a.m. to prepare to serve the Lord. Follow guidelines for personal study and companion study each morning (see Preach My Gospel, pp. viii–ix, 17–26). Focus your study on the standard works, the approved missionary library (see Preach My Gospel, p. viii), and the Church magazines. Study only these materials.
Jesus the Christ, also by James E. Talmage, is included in the missionary library and contains a chapter about the Great Apostasy. It’s Chapter 40, titled, “The Long Night of Apostasy.” It’s basically a one-chapter version of the book, The Great Apostasy. Preach My Gospel contains a section that talks about what apostasy means and how the Great Apostasy was one of many. Falling away from God’s teachings has been a pattern among His children since the beginning of time. And each time, God has sent a prophet to restore the gospel. The Great Apostasy was no exception, following the same pattern with the church being restored through Joseph Smith. For teaching purposes, these are adequate. But if you do want to read the book The Great Apostasy, do it before you go!
1. A talk given at Ricks College in 1988 by Hyrum W. Smith, called “The Restoration of the Church, Why Now?” It gives a basic timeline of the apostasy and some key dates that led up to the church being restored. You can find it here.
2. On lds.org, there’s a page title, “How can I explain the Apostasy and the Restoration to others?” that may also be helpful to you. It offers a list of scriptures and talks that go along with this topic.
3. On sugardoodle.net, there is an object lesson you can use to help people understand both The Great Apostasy and The Restoration. I used this same one as a missionary, and it really helped for people to be able to visualize the fall and re-establishment of Christ’s church, under His direction.