Mormon Myths

Great and Abominable Church

(c) Copyright Michael R. Ash 2002. All rights reserved


Is Roman Catholicism the “Great and Abominable Church”?

In 1 Nephi chapter 13 we read of Nephi’s vision of the great and abominable church – whose founder was the devil (6) – which would take many precious teachings away from the scriptures (26-29). Some Latter-day Saints have supposed that the “great and abominable church” refers to the Roman Catholic Church. The source of this belief is often laid at the feet Elder Bruce R. McConkie who made such charges in his first edition of Mormon Doctrine:

Later editions of Mormon Doctrine (the second edition didn’t appear until 1966) removed such references, but not before the LDS bestseller popularized the belief among many Latter-day Saints. (See Quinn 2002, and Mauss, 162-3.1) McConkie, however, was not the first general authority to suggest that the Book of Mormon’s “great and abominable church” and “church of devil” referred to the Catholic Church. In 1854, Orson Pratt wrote that the founder of the Roman Catholic Church was “the Devil, through the medium of Apostates, who subverted the whole order of God” and that they derived their “authority from the Devil....” (Orson Pratt, 2:4, 205.)

Pratt’s The Seer like McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine caused heartburn for first presidencies and other general authorities. “In April 1855,” notes Gibson, “Brigham Young wrote to the editor of Great Britain’s official LDS Church Publication, The Millennial Star, and asked him to cease republishing The Seer in England. Brigham Young stated that while there were many beautifully written articles in it, there were also ‘many items of erroneous doctrines.’ For that reason the Saints were cautioned against accepting the magazine.” (Gibson [1995].) For the next decade Young continued to make statements regarding some of the “objectionable” teachings found in Pratt’s publications. Likewise, in 1960, two years after McConkie published Mormon Doctrine, the first presidency noted that the book was a “&#145concern to the Brethren ever since it was published’” and they felt that it was “&#145full of errors and misstatements.’” (Buerger [1985], 9.)

Pratt and McConkie were not alone, however, in their classification of the Roman church as the “great abominable church.” In 1882, for instance, an article in the Contributor claimed that many scriptures (including ones from Revelation) “point to the Roman Catholic power as that great and abominable church.” (“Inconsistencies of Modern Christianity,” Contributor, [November 1882], 4:2, 65.) A dozen years before McConkie published his book, President J. Reuben Clark made some remarks in a Conference address about “that great and abominable church, the whore of all the earth....” “I am not going to say what that church is,” he said cryptically, “though I have a very definite and clear idea.” (President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., Conference Report, April 1946, p.156.)

Over a century later, perhaps in thanks to McConkie’s reintroduction of the issue, Reynolds and Sjodahl, in their Commentary on the Book of Mormon suggested that the references in Revelation and Nephi to the mother of harlots and abominations and the great and abominable church “have been understood to refer to the Roman Catholic church and papacy.” (Reynolds and Sjodahl, 1:114.)

Despite first presidency concerns about Pratt’s and McConkie’s publications there appeared to be other occasional anti-Catholic references made by LDS leaders when discussing chapters 13 and 14 of 1 Nephi. Is this then the official and current LDS belief? Is Roman Catholicism the “church of the devil” the “great and abominable church” and the “mother of abominations?” The answer, quite frankly, is “no.”

Why, some might ask, would some Latter-day Saints, even general authorities, misinterpret the Book of Mormon’s meaning of the “great and abominable church”? As I’ve noted in other writings, the Church was not restored in a cultural vacuum. Early Saints brought their world views with them. The same thing, of course, continues to happen today. In the early days of the Restored Church many Protestants were anti-Catholic and believed that the Roman Catholic Church was the “mother of harlots and abominations” mentioned by John in his Revelation (17:5). Anti-Catholic articles were printed in major frontier newspapers, Catholics were at times treated to violence, and Catholic doctrines were referred to as “‘repugnant’” and “&#145blasphemous.’” Prior to the early nineteenth century, Roman Catholicism “had been branded as an illegal form of worship in New York. Members of this communion were not permitted to proselyte, erect cathedrals, nor celebrate public Mass.” (Backman, 59.)

Anti-Catholicism is as old as the Reformation. Martin Luther himself referred to the popes collectively as the “‘whore of the devil.’” (Vogel, 59 and Wright, 2:568.) Adam Clarke’s popular nineteenth-century Bible commentary equated the “great whore that sitteth upon many waters” (Rev. 17:1) with the Catholic Church. (Vogel, 60.) Some early nineteenth-century Protestant writings referred to the Roman Catholic Church as “‘the whore’” and the “‘mother of harlots and abominations of the earth.’” (Ibid.) Yet other religious figures of the day believed that not only were Catholics part of the “the whore,” but so were competing Protestants. (Ibid., 61.) From comments of early Latter-day Saints it becomes obvious that the Saints were familiar with such anti-Catholic rhetoric. In 1835, for instance, Oliver Cowdery mentioned that several Protestant groups including Baptists and Presbyterians referred to the Catholic Church as “‘the Beast.’” (Ibid., 60.) George Q. Cannon (George Q. Cannon, Journal of Discourses [June 11, 1871], 14:167), Orson Pratt (Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses [January 25, 1874], 16:347), John Taylor (John Taylor, Journal of Discourses [October 8, 1882], 23:262), as well as articles in the Messenger and Advocate (3:9, 513), and the Times and Seasons (3:15, 815 and 4:10, 149), all pointed out that Protestants referred to the Catholic Church as the “mother of harlots.” Like some of these nineteenth-century religious leaders, several early Saints noted that the children (Protestants) of the “mother of harlots” were as corrupt as the parent organization. (Orson Pratt [1850], 44.) A bad tree, these Saints argued, produces bad branches. (Times and Seasons, 3:15, 815.)

This rejection of Catholicism and Protestantism – which was not necessarily unique to Mormonism (Vogel, 61.2) – lead to some LDS comments (in typical nineteenth century hyperbole) which have been misconstrued by LDS critics as demonstration that Mormonism isn’t Christian or that it attacks Christianity. “Has this great and abominable power,” Orson Pratt asked for example, “under the name of ‘the mother of harlots,’ popularly called Christendom, fought against the Saints in this country?” (Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses [July 10, 1849], 7: 184.) Writing in The Seer, Pratt claimed: “Both Catholics and Protestants are nothing less than the “whore of Babylon” whom the Lord denounces by the mouth of John the Revelator as having corrupted all the earth by their fornications and wickedness.” (Orson Pratt, 255.) In a similar vein, John Taylor once said: “We talk about Christianity, but it is a perfect pack of nonsense.... It is a sounding brass and a tinkling symbol; it is as corrupt as hell; and the devil could not invent a better engine to spread his work that the Christianity of the nineteenth century.” (John Taylor, Journal of Discourses [January 17, 1858], 6:167.)

In the context of the times, we can see that when these early LDS leaders spoke with nineteenth-century hyperbole, they were not so much attacking other Christian faiths as they were resorting to the same rhetoric as the Protestants themselves while claiming that there was an apostasy after the death of Christ apostles, and the world remained in apostasy until the restoration of the Gospel through Joseph Smith. So how should the Book of Mormon’s “great and abominable church” be understood? Not all early LDS authorities took the anti-Catholic approach. B.H. Roberts believed that the “church of the devil” comprised that which is evil, untrue, as well as all “combinations of wicked men.”

Roberts made a point of noting that he did not believe that Nephi’s vision of the “great and abominable church” referred “to any one of the many divisions of Christendom.” (Roberts [1909], 3:264-5.) Likewise, in a 1906 Conference address, Roberts remarked that he had previously been asked if the Book of Mormon’s “church of the devil” referred to the Catholic Church.
More recently other LDS scholars have taken the same perspective on this issue. Among these we include Daniel Ludow (Ludlow, 123), Kent P. Jackson (Jackson, 21), Robert J. Matthews (Matthews, 29), Hugh Nibley, and others. The “great and abominable church,” Nibley once wrote, are “any who fight against Israel. It doesn’t pinpoint any particular church here.” (Nibley [1986b], 4.) Stephen Robinson has given probably the best treatment on this subject and notes that Nephi’s reference to the “great and abominable” church is used in two different ways – as an historical institution (chapter 13) and typologically (chapter 14). (Robinson [1988], 36.) Let’s deal with the latter type first. Apocalyptic literature (such as Revelation and 1 Nephi 13-14) must often be understood symbolically.
Robinson also uses the comparison of Zion and Babylon. Both refer to particular cities, but they also refer to a state of righteousness or wickedness.
Nephi in fact notes this typology when he says, “There are save two churches only” the church of the Lamb of God (Zion); and the church of the devil (Babylon). “Whoso belongeth not to the church of the Lamb of God belongeth to that great church, which is the mother of abominations; and she is the whore of all the earth.” (1 Nephi 14:10.) st as there are historical counterparts to Zion and Babylon, however, there was also an historical “great and abominable church.” This is where some have suggested the Roman Catholic Church. Robinson claims, however, that this is “untenable, primarily because Roman Catholicism as we know it did not yet exist when the crimes described by Nephi were being committed. In fact, the term Roman Catholic only makes sense after A.D. 1054 when it is used to distinguish the Western, Latin-speaking Orthodox church that followed the bishop of Rome from the Eastern, Greek-speaking Orthodox church that followed the bishop of Constantinople.”
Dr. Nibley made the same argument many years earlier. The plain and precious parts of the Gospel he observed, “were all taken away before the Roman Catholic Church appeared at all.” (Nibley [1986b], 4.) “The great apostasy,” Nibley notes elsewhere, “came in the second century; the scriptures were completely corrupted by then. This is long before the Roman [Catholic] church became the leading church. The Roman church was ‘small potatoes’ at that time. It wasn’t until the fourth century that they took over. You must not identify this just with the Roman Catholic Church. People do because that’s a simplistic answer.” (Nibley, 196.)

The Catholic church of the fourth century,” writes Robinson, “was the result of the Apostasy – its end product – not the cause.” “No single known historical church, denomination, or set of believers,” Robinson continues, “meets all the requirements for the great and abominable church.... Rather, the role of Babylon has been played by many different agencies, ideologies, and churches in many different times.” (Robinson [1988], 38.)

Robinson also makes this important point:
The Church has always recognized – despite periods of hyperbolic rhetoric – that there is truth in other faiths. More than one LDS authority has noted that other spiritual leaders, including Calvin and Luther “were inspired in thoughts, words, and actions....” and that such inspiration “came from the Father, his Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost....” (Joseph F. Smith, “Editor’s Table,” Improvement Era [June, 1907], 8; see also German E. Ellsworth., Conference Report [April 1912], 89 - 90.) What Latter-day Saints claim is that Mormonism embraces all truth. Bring us your truth, the Church offers, and we will add to it. Joseph once said:
B.H. Roberts, who was thoroughly familiar with the writings and recorded sermons of Joseph Smith, observed:
“Did I build on any other man’s foundation?” Joseph once asked. “I have got all the truth which the Christian world possessed, and an independent revelation in the bargain....” (HC, 6:479). “There is some truth in all religions, in heathendom as well as in Christendom,” observed Orson Whitney. “And it is the truth in those systems that perpetuates them, not the errors with which the truth is mixed. There are millions of good, honest people all over the world, in all the churches, but they have not the fulness of the Gospel. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is its one depository. This is the claim we make. This is the ‘Mormon’ attitude.” (Orson F. Whitney, Conference Report [October 1929], 29.) “Although I was going to say I am not a Universalist,” John Taylor once remarked, “but I am, and I am also a Presbyterian, and a Roman Catholic, and a Methodist, in short, I believe in every true principle that is imbibed by any person or sect, and reject the false. If there is any truth in heaven, earth, or hell, I want to embrace it, I care not what shape it comes in to me, who brings it, or who believes in it, whether it is popular or unpopular. Truth, eternal truth, I wish to float in and enjoy.” (John Taylor, Journal of Discourses, 1:155.)

In a 1909 Conference, Charles Callis gave a good overview of the LDS view of other churches (especially in regards to the early days of the restored church) when he said:

In conclusion, while some – though not all – Latter-day Saints through the years have connected the Book of Mormon’s “great and abominable church” to Roman Catholicism (just as many Protestants read the same thing into John’s “mother of harlots”), when we read what the text (1 Nephi) actually says (exegesis) rather than what we read into the text (eisegis), we find that the Book of Mormon (and hence official LDS doctrine) is not anti-Catholic. We also understand, in the context of the times, that early Latter-day Saints understood that while other faiths were apostate, they nevertheless were often inspired and embraced many truths. The Saints offered such believers added truths.

            1 At times LDS missionaries have referred to the Catholic Church as the “GA” (pronounced gee-ay) – an acronym for “Great and Abominable.” Use of acronyms among LDS missionaries is not limited to the Catholic Church. Some missionaries refer to those belong to the Jehovah’s Witnesses as jay-dubs (short for JW’s). Even within the Church such acronyms are often used by missionaries or members. “GA,” for example, can also refer to a “general authority” (which can make things ironically confusing), and “SP” for “stake president,” “MP” for “mission president,” and so on.

            2 Methodist leader Roger Williams, for instance, believed that the Church of England was “‘a daughter... of the great whore of Rome.’” (See Vogel, 61.)

 

Michael R. Ash

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