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 Nephis 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:
It is also to the Book of Mormon to which we turn for the plainest description of the Catholic Church as the great and abominable church. Nephi saw this ‘church which is the most abominable above all other churches in vision. He saw the devil that he was the foundation of it and also the murders, wealth, harlotry, persecutions, and evil desires that historically have been a part of this satanic organization.(McConkie , 130.)
Later editions of Mormon Doctrine (the second edition didnt 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 Mormons 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.)
Then speaking of harlots in the figurative sense, he [Nephi] designated the Catholic Church as the mother of harlots... (Ibid., 314-315.)
[Under the heading, Church of the Devil] The Roman Catholic Church specifically singled out, set apart, described, and designated as being most abominable above all other churches (I Ne. 13:5). (Ibid., 129.)
Pratts The Seer like McConkies Mormon Doctrine caused heartburn for first presidencies and other general authorities. In April 1855, notes Gibson, Brigham Young wrote to the editor of Great Britains 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 .) For the next decade Young continued to make statements regarding some of the objectionable teachings found in Pratts publications. Likewise, in 1960, two years after McConkie published Mormon Doctrine, the first presidency noted that the book was a ‘concern to the Brethren ever since it was published and they felt that it was ‘full of errors and misstatements. (Buerger , 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 McConkies 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 Pratts and McConkies 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 Mormons meaning of the great and abominable church? As Ive 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 ‘blasphemous. 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 Clarkes 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 , 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 isnt 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 Mormons 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.
They constitute the church of the devil, the kingdom of evil, a federation of unrighteousness; and the servants of God have a right to contend against that which is evil, let it appear where it will, in Catholic or in Protestant Christendom, among the philosophical societies of deists and atheists, and even within the Church of Christ, if, unhappily, it should make its appearance there. But, let it be understood, we are not brought necessarily into antagonism with the various sects of Christianity as such. So far as they have retained fragments of Christian truth -- and each of them has some measure of truth that far they are acceptable unto the Lord; and it would be poor policy for us to contend against them without discrimination. Wherever we find truth, whether it exists in complete form or only in fragments, we recognize that truth as part of that sacred whole of which the Church of Jesus Christ is the custodian; and I repeat that our relationship to the religious world is not one that calls for the denunciation of sectarian churches as composing the church of the devil. All that makes for untruth, for unrighteousness constitutes the kingdom of evil the church of the devil. All that makes for truth, for righteousness, is of God; it constitutes the kingdom of righteousness the empire of Jehovah; and, in a certain sense at least, constitutes the Church of Christ. With the latter the kingdom of righteousness we have no warfare. On the contrary both the spirit of the Lords commandments to his servants and the dictates of right reason would suggest that we seek to enlarge this kingdom of righteousness both by recognizing such truths as it possesses and seeking the friendship and co-operation of the righteous men and women who constitute its membership. (Roberts, 1:34.)
Roberts made a point of noting that he did not believe that Nephis vision of the great and abominable church referred to any one of the many divisions of Christendom. (Roberts , 3:264-5.) Likewise, in a 1906 Conference address, Roberts remarked that he had previously been asked if the Book of Mormons church of the devil referred to the Catholic Church.
Well, said I, in answer, I would not like to take that position, because it would leave me with a lot of churches on my hands that I might not then be able to classify. So far as the Catholic church is concerned, I believe that there is just as much truth, nay, personally I believe it has retained even more truth than other divisions of so-called Christendom; and there is just as much virtue, and I am sure there is more strength in the Roman Catholic church than there is in Protestant Christendom.
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 doesnt pinpoint any particular church here. (Nibley [1986b], 4.) Stephen Robinson has given probably the best treatment on this subject and notes that Nephis reference to the great and abominable church is used in two different ways as an historical institution (chapter 13) and typologically (chapter 14). (Robinson , 36.) Lets deal with the latter type first. Apocalyptic literature (such as Revelation and 1 Nephi 13-14) must often be understood symbolically.
I would not like, therefore, to designate the Catholic church as the church of the devil. Neither would I like to designate any one or all of the various divisions and subdivisions of Protestant Christendom combined as such church; nor the Greek Catholic church; nor the Buddhist sects; nor the followers of Confucius; nor the followers of Mohammed; nor would I like to designate even the societies formed by deists and atheists as constituting the church of the devil. The Book of Mormon text ought to be read in connection with its context with the chapter that precedes it and the remaining portions of the chapter in which it is found then, I think, those who study it in that manner will be forced to the conclusion that the Prophet here has in mind no particular church, no particular division of Christendom, but he has in mind, as just stated, the whole empire of Satan; and perhaps the thought of the passage would be more nearly expressed if we use the term the kingdom of evil as constituting the church of the devil. (B. H. Roberts, Conference Report, April 1906, p.14, 15)
The church of the devil is equivalent to that great and spacious building seen in vision by both Nephi and his father. (See 1 Ne. 8:26-28, 31, 33-34; 1 Ne. 11:35-36.) The apocalyptic description of the great and spacious building matches the characteristics of the church of the devil; the artificial structure without foundation represents the carnal world, and its values and life-style include mockery of the kingdom of God. It fights against the Apostles of Jesus Christ, and its fall will be great, for thus shall be the destruction of all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, that shall fight against the twelve apostles of the Lamb. (1 Ne. 11:36.) (Ibid., 36-37.)
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.
Just as Zion is wherever the pure in heart dwell (see D&C; 97:21), so Babylon is wherever the wicked live. Latter-day Saints dont seem to have any trouble understanding that Zion is a spiritual category that may in different contexts mean Salt Lake City or a branch in some outlying area of the world or Far West or Jerusalem or the city of Enoch or the New Jerusalem. Why, then, is it difficult to understand Zions opposite, Babylon, in the same way? (Ibid., 37.)
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.
In the period between Peter and the Roman emperor Constantine, there were many Christian churches besides the Orthodox church: Ebionites, Syrian and Egyptian churches, Donatists, Gnostics, Marcionites, and so on. Even if we use the term Catholic for the church Constantine made the state religion in A.D. 313, the New Testament as we know it was already widely circulating. That is, the plain and precious parts had already been removed. The notion of shifty-eyed medieval monks rewriting the scriptures is unfair and bigoted. We owe those monks a debt of gratitude that anything was saved at all. (Ibid., 38.)
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 wasnt until the fourth century that they took over. You must not identify this just with the Roman Catholic Church. People do because thats 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 , 38.)
Clearly, whatever denominational name we choose to give it, the earliest apostate church and the great and abominable church that Nephi and John describe are identical. The fact is, we dont really know what name to give it. I have proposed hellenized Christianity, but that is a description rather than a name.
Robinson also makes this important point:
The historical abominable church of the devil is that apostate church that replaced true Christianity in the first and second centuries, teaching the philosophies of men mingled with scriptures. It dethroned God in the church and replaced him with man by denying the principle of revelation and turning instead to human intellect. As the product of human agency, its creeds were an abomination to the Lord, for they were idolatry: men worshipping the creations, not of their own hands, but of their own minds. (Ibid., 39.)
In either the apocalyptic sense or the historical sense, individual orientation to the Church of the Lamb or to the great and abominable church is not by membership but by loyalty. Just as there Latter-day Saints who belong to the great and abominable church because of their loyalty to Satan and his life-style, so there are members of other churches who belong to the Lamb because of their loyalty to him and his life-style. Membership is based more on who has your heart than on who has your records. (Ibid., 37.)
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, Editors 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:
Have the Presbyterians any truth? Yes. Have the Baptists, Methodists, &c;,, any truth? Yes. They all have a little truth mixed with error. We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true Mormons. (HC, 5:517.)
B.H. Roberts, who was thoroughly familiar with the writings and recorded sermons of Joseph Smith, observed:
It was not the aim of Joseph Smith in his lifes work to found a new religion. Throughout he presupposes the truth of the Christian religion, and accepts it. He realized that other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Christ Jesus. (CHC, 2:362.)
Did I build on any other mans 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:
Some people say, Is not the religion of my father and mother good enough for me? They were good people, and if I can live to be as good as my father and mother, I am satisfied. But, in that, men and women deceive themselves. Our fathers and mothers lived up to the best light they had before the gospel was restored. They obeyed God to the best of their ability, when they lived up to the measure of truth He gave unto them. But the Lord in this day hath spoken unto the people and commanded that they should obey the fullness of the everlasting gospel. (Charles A. Callis., Conference Report [April 1909], 19.)
In conclusion, while some though not all Latter-day Saints through the years have connected the Book of Mormons great and abominable church to Roman Catholicism (just as many Protestants read the same thing into Johns 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.
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 Jehovahs Witnesses as jay-dubs (short for JWs). 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.
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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