Reclaiming The Great Apostasy

The Church takes a very dim view of the period between 100 A.D. and 1820.  Preach My Gospel, the manual for missionaries, uses the following words and phrases to describe 1700 years of humans worshipping God and Christ:

  • Doctrine was corrupted
  • False Ideas
  • Distorted
  • Spiritual Darkness

Hildegard of Bingen receiving a revelation and dictating to her scribe

The Church unequivocally rejects most of the history of Christianity, preferring to seemingly jump directly from apostles to apostles, dismissing a millenia and a half of righteous striving as “spiritual darkness.”  As a historian, I’ve always found this to be upsetting, to say the least.  It betrays a real lack of knowledge and lack of respect for the people who kept Christianity alive. The Church likes to claim credit for Restoring what was lost, but if it had been truly lost, if nobody had heard anything about Jesus since100 A.D., I think Joseph Smith would have had a much steeper uphill climb in proclaiming the Restoration.

I understand the rationale behind setting up a straw man of the Dark Ages.  Light seems to shine brighter in contrast to a dark abyss.  Truth has more meaning if you can point to lies.  You can’t restore something unless you are sure it is hopelessly broken to begin with.  It is psychologically very appealing to set up everyone else as corrupt, deceived, distorted and dark so that one’s own knowledge seems perfect and unblemished.

I imagine we have all sat through lessons in which we were asked to enumerate what was restored by Joseph Smith (and thus, by implication, what was lost in the Apostasy.)  I’m not going to rehash that.  Instead, I want to explore what the “Apostasy” gave us, and what we lose when we dismiss it as darkness.  I honestly don’t think I can do it justice in one post, so I’m thinking I’ll return to it when it is my posting spot again as my own personal series.

  1. The New Testament.  We would not have the Gospels if they had not been painstakingly recopied by scribes.  Were there errors in recopying? Sure. But we wouldn’t have them at all without those apostate monks.  The same folk also gave us literacy by keeping the study of books alive in an era with very low education rates.  Joseph Smith would never have read James 1:5 if centuries of monks hadn’t recopied it and kept the knowledge of reading in existence.
  2. The religious festivals we celebrate and use to center our lives on Christ did not exist in 100 A.D.  Palm Sunday, Easter, Advent, Christmas – none of these sacred festivals existed in the times of the first Apostles.  So perhaps the First Presidency should rethink that Christmas Devotional as really it is an homage to false traditions? 
  3. Art and Architecture – our Temples and art owe much to the Western artistic tradition which was developed in ignorance and darkness by deceived people who barely managed to scrape a testimony.  Likewise our hymns, our musical instruments, and music generally is honestly just the pagan bleating of distorted doctrines.  We should return to the music traditions of 100 A.D., whatever those might be.
  4. The Ancient World shows little evidence of widespread charitable effort.  Christians, wallowing in darkness, tried to apply the story of the Good Samaritan by creating hospitals, orphanages, soup kitchens, homeless shelters and many other institutions that simply did not exist at concepts or institutions before.  I don’t know about you, but I’m really really grateful that hospitals exist.  It’s too bad they were founded and developed by confused wanderers who had no idea what Christianity really was.

These are merely broad strokes of the contributions of Christianity that we dismiss so easily.  But we lose much more.  By denying that medieval Christians understood truth, we cannot study their examples or stories for inspiration. We refuse to accept the validity of visions or revelations received by anyone between 100-1820.  This is particularly damaging to women, because beyond the patriarchy of the New Testament and the Doctrine and Covenants there are millions of Christian women who have lived and died by their faith.  There were saints who saw Christ in vision and lived by faith.  There were martyrs who died far more horrible deaths for still less cause than Joseph Smith. There were pilgrims who travelled longer in harder terrains to seek sanctified land than our modern pioneers.  There were leaders who created and led institutions that carried the flame of Christianity and helped build lives of piety, charity and Christlike living.

The Church needs the Apostasy to support the narrative of the Restoration.  But you don’t need the Apostasy.  You don’t have to dismiss 1500 years of testimonies and faith just because their hierarchy or form of worship was somewhat different from yours.  After all, the Church of 1800 bears scant resemblance to the scattered congregations of 100.  And the Church of 2020 has changed significantly since the days of the pioneers. What was once required in the Temple is now dismissed.  Patterns of organization, instruction and leadership are very different from Nauvoo. If we can accept truth despite alterations now, then go ahead and look for truth in the “Dark Ages.”  I think you’ll find rather more to build your faith and your love of Christ than you’d expect from a bottomless chasm of spiritual darkness.

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15 Responses

  1. Violadiva says:

    I love this post and these brilliant ideas! Thank you.
    I do confess to have wanted an explanation of the octopus sucking HvB’s brain in the image… guess I’ll have to caption that one myself!

  2. Shawn says:

    I’ve always struggled with the derogatory name applied to the “dark ages,” but I didn’t know why until now. I see they needed a lesser-than-us enemy to triumph over. And I look at the beauty of Europe and think, this was definitely the result of very spiritual and faith-minded people.

    • Em says:

      In fairness to the Church, they’re hardly the ones who thought of this “see how brilliant we are compared to the dark ages” stuff. We can thank the Renaissance dudes for the construction, which many modern people have accepted without question. Petrarch, I’m looking at you, bro.

  3. Allemande Left says:

    Em, Amen and amen. thank you for putting in words what I have thought for some time.
    There are spiritual giants to explore: Teresa of Avila, St John of the Cross, St. Francis, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard, St. Augustine, the Counter Reformation, The Eastern Orthodox Church. There is so much more!
    I personally have found Teresa of Avila’s metaphor of The Interior Castle wonderful and enlightening. She was an incredible woman. Thank you and please carry on!!!

  4. Tina says:

    Thank you! This is beautiful.

  5. SisterStacey says:

    Em! I agree! I studied the Middle Ages and I love them. Margery Kempe and her belief that God talked to her (personal revelation). Julian of Norwich and her communication with God. I lived in the UK and I loved going into the ancient cathedrals. To me, those were the builders’ testimonies. I had this thought the other day while listening to a podcast about medieval miracles where someone was healed by praying to a saint and I thought… maybe that was the way for Heavenly Parents to bless their children when the priesthood wasn’t on the earth.

  6. Em says:

    I find Margery Kempe so relatable and infuriating at the same time. Like you can tell she was not at all easy to travel with, but also the people around her were not super nice or accepting either. But I love that she knew her life and her experience was so important she had to dictate it and get it in writing. Julian I do not know and will have to explore. But I have thought of writing a series of posts about these to often forgotten women, so that should keep me nice and busy.

  7. Mary Young says:

    Amen! I’m a convert with 12 years of Catholic school under my belt (try announcing that in any BYU class, especially in 1968). I spent 3.5 years as an investigator in large part because everything I cherished in my religion, everything that brought light and learning and joy and stability to my life, was dismissed with disrespect – and I knew the Bible far better than the missionaries did. The Dark Ages, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance just weren’t that dark. I know this because I majored in art and art history and minored in history; I chose these fields because I read so much and loved what I learned (and still do both). I’ll see your cartoonish Nephi illustrations and raise you a Book of Kells or a Bayeaux Tapestry! And don’t get me started on female saints. I grew up with marvelous stories of fearless, kind, faithful women; they gave me a stubborn belief in my own worth as something besides a baby producer or housekeeper. Joan of Ark, anyone?
    I love this quotation: There is nothing I would rather not know than know. I can’t remember who said it first (Henry James?), but I find it a good and useful motto for life. Don’t just take what you’re fed. Search!

  8. Wally says:

    Thank you for this. Our overuse and misuse of the term “restoration” really needs to be rethought. We hear a lot about the “restoration” continuing today, but most of what is “restored” never existed at any point in the ancient church we are supposedly “restoring.”

  9. spunky says:

    Thank you! Such a fun read! I agree. Restoration is just… no so much. I really believe there is a whole different world out there in Christianity, if only we could embrace it—

  10. Thanks for this reminder! It was wonderful to reflect on the good works of these medieval Christians.

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