Religious Seekers and the Advent of Mormonism
by Dan Vogel

Chapter 3
The Apostasy

[p.49]For early Mormons, apostasy from the primitive church was not just a matter of corrupt outward form but a loss of God’s spirit and authority to perform ordinances. Oliver Cowdery proclaimed this radical view in the first issue of the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, a Mormon newspaper appearing in Kirtland, Ohio, four years after the organization of the new church. It was also in this inaugural issue that Cowdery published the first printed account of priesthood restoration through angels. “Have men authority to administer [ordinances] in the name of Christ, who deny revelations?” he asked in September 1834. The true church, Cowdery explained, is “based, built, and sustained by immediate revelations in all ages of the world.”1 Cowdery told readers that he intended to give a history of the ancient Christian church from its founding by Jesus Christ “till it lost its visibility on earth; was driven into darkness, or till God took the holy priesthood unto himself, where it has been held in reserve to the present century.”2

Although the claim that the primitive Christian church fell into apostasy is as old as Luther’s reformation, the Seeker concept radically differed from that of most other Protestants, including those in the primitive gospel movement in America. Because Seekers held a radical concept of religious authority, they saw the apostasy of the visible church as complete and total. The world was in a state of spiritual apostasy only God could remedy.

The European Reformers as well as the American Primitivists held a concept of apostasy which focused on outward corruption of the visible church—doctrines and formalities. Thus the church had been corrupted but not totally lost. The Primitivists especially did not see a need for the restoration of authority since [p.50]they believed the Bible contained all necessary authority for restoring the church.

In America the trends of liberal reformation were set with the publication in 1793 of Unitarian Joseph Priestley’s three-volume work, History of the Corruptions of Christianity. In this influential work, Priestley meticulously detailed the outward corruption of the church and called for Christians to restore the church by purging it of false doctrines and practices.3

Alexander Campbell held such views. Although he believed that “all christian sects are more or less apostatized from the institutions of the Saviour,” he did not believe in the total corruption of the visible church. According to Campbell, if all believers could agree on the Bible’s authority in matters of doctrine and practice, strife and contention would end and order would be restored. Thus Campbell’s call for unity contained no claim to exclusive authority.4 Thomas Campbell made it clear in 1831 that he believed the apostasy was limited to the outward corruption of the church and that he in no way believed in the concept of total apostasy.5

As early as 1590, Henry Barrowe had described the Seeker’s concept of apostasy in his book A Brief Discovery of the False Church: “There are already those in England who teach that the Church of Rome is no true Church, its ordinations and sacraments are ineffective, its ministry is void, but the original seed of the Anglican Church received baptism and ordination from `that false Church,’ therefore they say that its ministries (the Anglican) and its baptisms are void and empty.”6 Seekers applied this criticism to all churches. Ephraim Pagitt, an Anglican cleric and advocate of a presbyterian church government, reported in 1646 that the Seekers “deny that there is any true Church, or any true Minister, or any Ordinances.”7

This position was stated even more clearly by William Erbery in 1648. Erbery, a spiritualistic Seeker and military chaplain, wrote that the apostasy had left the church in mystical Babylon, “since all the glory of the Gospel is gone, and all the gifts of the spirit constituting a Gospel Church are ceased.”8 Erbery explicitly warned the English Baptist congregations: “You are not in a capacity to baptize or be baptized, there being no true Administrator, nor a man sent of God with power from on high to baptize: First, because you have not the faith of the Gospel. Secondly, you are fallen from your first love, therefore the Apostacy is compleat and perfect and appears most visible in your Churches.”9

[p.51]This same concept was held by American Seekers, both before and after the Revolution. One of the “great Disputes among Gods people,” Roger Williams wrote in 1652, is “whether [the] Apostles or Messengers sent out to teach and baptise, that is, to Convert the Nations, be yet an Ordinance of Christ Jesus continued, or being extraordinary ceased?” According to Williams, the effect of the apostasy had been the destruction of the apostolic church, “a totall Routing of the Church and Ministry of Christ Jesus. . . . The Apostolical Commission and ministrie is long since interrupted and discontinued.”10 “The unknowing zeale of Constantine and other Emperours,” Williams continued,

did more hurt to Christ Jesus his Crowne and Kingdome, then the raging fury of the most bloody Neroes. In the persecutions of the latter, Christians were sweet and fragrant, like spice pounded and beaten in morters: But those good Emperours, persecuting some erroneous persons, Arrius, &c. and advancing the professours of some Truths of Christ (for there was no small number of Truths lost in those times) and maintaining their Religion by the materiall Sword, I say by this meanes Christianity was ecclipsed, and the Professors of it fell asleep, Cant. 5 [i.e., Song of Solomon 5]. Babel or confusion was usher’d in, and by degrees the Gardens of the Churches of Saints were turned into the wilderness of whole Nations, untill the whole World became Christian or Christendome, Revel. 12 & 13.11

Asa Wild also spoke of the apostate condition of Christianity. Before Wild’s conversion to Seekerism, God showed him that his belief in the “commandments and doctrines of men” had spiritually blinded him and that the Methodist church, to which he then belonged, was “so mixed and blended with darkness, error, and the traditions of men, that they . . . lead the enquiring soul away from the simplicity of the gospel.” “I had felt,” Wild wrote, “the burden of the dead church lying with great weight on my soul.” Because of his exposure to Seekerism, he “beheld the church of God . . . lying in ruins.” Finally, in 1823, God told Wild that “the present state of the professed church of Christ, is notoriously corrupt, and degenerated from the purity of primitive christianity; that every denomination, though there are hundreds in all, are involved in the same fatal darkness, and bondage, though not all in equal degree.”12 In another account of the same revelation—published in Amsterdam’s Mohawk Herald and reprinted in Joseph Smith’s community newspaper—Wild reported: “He also [p.52]told me, that every denomination of professing christians had become extremely corrupt; many of which had never had any true faith at all. . . . Furthermore he said that all the different denominations of professing christians, constituted the New Testament Babylon.”13

Wild’s concept of apostasy extended beyond visible corruption. He criticized the churches for their lack of “true faith,” including spiritual gifts, and believed that latter-day restorers “will have higher authority, greater power, superior inspiration, and a greater degree of holiness, than was ever experienced before.”14 In the Seeker view, the apostasy was so complete that only a new divine dispensation of power could correct it.

The difference between Mormon and Campbellite concepts of apostasy became apparent on 4 February 1831 when Thomas Campbell wrote a letter to Sidney Rigdon denouncing the idea that Mormon converts were being rebaptized. He rejected as “anti-scriptural” the Mormon claim that “there has been none duly authorized to administer baptism, for the space of fourteen hundred years up to the present time, by showing that the church or the kingdom of Christ, must have been totally extinct during that period.” He reminded Rigdon that Jesus had promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church (Matt. 16:18).15

From his own study of the Bible, Joseph Smith concluded before age fourteen or fifteen that “mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised from the true and living faith. There was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament.” In 1820 or 1821, Smith received a heavenly vision which confirmed his early convictions. According to Smith’s earliest autobiography, Jesus declared to him: “Behold the world lieth in sin at this time and none doeth good, no not one. They have turned asside from the gospel and keep not my commandments. They draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me.”16 Smith’s later 1838 history is even more clearly Seeker, stressing abominable “creeds” and corrupt clergy who teach the “form of godliness” but “deny the power thereof.”17

The shifting emphasis between the two versions of Joseph Smith’s story points to a larger change in his understanding of what the apostasy signified and what kind of authority was required for restoration. (The problems of religious authority are addressed in detail in chapter 5.) In general, charismatic or spiritual authority was emphasized less, in favor of lineal (i.e., chain [p.53]of ordination) or legal (i.e., institutional) authority. In 1834 Cowdery wrote that the apostasy occurred when “God took the holy priesthood unto himself.” Earlier Mormon descriptions of the apostasy lacked this concept of priesthood. Although Mormon descriptions of apostasy were always Seeker in tone—apostasy was complete and included loss of authority—the early emphasis was on spiritual apostasy and spiritual authority and only gradually became concerned with lineal-legal issues.

The Book of Mormon never connects the apostasy with a loss of lineal-legal priesthood. Apostasy in the Book of Mormon is always portrayed as religious hypocrisy, unbelief, and the loss of the spirit. In the first description of the latter-day churches Smith translated, Jesus Christ declares to the Nephites that prior to his Advent there “shall be a great and a marvelous work” (3 Ne. 21:9) when

all lyings, and deceivings, and envyings, and strifes, and priestcrafts, and whoredoms, shall be done away. For it shall come to pass, saith the Father, that at that day whosoever will not repent and come unto my Beloved Son, them will I cut off from among my people, O house of Israel. . . . But if they will repent and hearken unto my words, and harden not their hearts, I will establish my church among them, and they shall come in unto the covenant and be numbered among this the remnant of Jacob [the Indians] (3 Ne. 21:19-20, 22).

Jesus’s words, dictated just prior to the 15 May 1829 reception of authority (discussed in the previous chapter), are similar to the words in the revelation given the previous March (compare BofC 4:5). Jesus describes a spiritual apostasy without detailing a loss of authority through a contaminated line of priesthood ordination. This concept of apostasy is consistent throughout the rest of the Book of Mormon.

In the Book of Mormon, the New World prophet Moroni describes the condition of the churches in the day when the Book of Mormon would come “out of the earth . . . even as if one should speak from the dead” (Morm. 8:26):

It shall come in a day when the power of God shall be denied, and churches become defiled and be lifted up in the pride of their hearts; yea, even in a day when leaders of churches and teachers shall rise in the pride of their hearts, even to the envying of them who belong to their churches. . . . Yea, it shall come in a day when there shall be churches built up that shall say: Come unto me, and for your money you shall [p.54]be forgiven of your sins. O ye wicked and perverse and stiffnecked people, why have ye built up churches unto yourselves to get gain? Why have ye transfigured the holy word of God, that ye might bring damnation upon your souls? . . . Ye do walk in the pride of your hearts; and there are none save a few only who do not lift themselves up in the pride of their hearts, unto the wearing of very fine apparel, unto envying, and strifes, and malice, and persecutions, and all manner of iniquities; and your churches, yea, even every one, have become polluted because of the pride of your hearts (8:28, 32-33, 36).

Moroni’s statement that in the last days “the power of God shall be denied” cannot be construed as a reference to the loss of priesthood or to a break in the line of priesthood ordination as later Mormon conceptualizations of apostasy might suggest. “Power of God” is strictly spiritual, and its loss is attributed solely to spiritual pride, not to a break in the chain of ordination. Moroni makes clear what was to be denied when he states that his record “shall come in a day when it shall be said that miracles are done away” (8:26).

Moroni’s view of the apostasy is clearer in subsequent passages. In his last exhortation, he states that “if the day cometh that the power and gifts of God shall be done away among you, it shall be because of unbelief. And wo be unto the children of men if this be the case; for there shall be none that doeth good among you, no not one. For if there be one among you that doeth good, he shall work by the power and gifts of God” (Moro. 10:24-25). Moroni explains that these spiritual gifts come through “the power of the Holy Ghost,” without which no one can be saved (10:7, 17, 26). Here Moroni makes the statement, harmonious with Seeker theology, that spiritual gifts are the outward manifestations of saving grace at work within the church.

The first portion of the Book of Mormon, and the last to be translated—in June 1829—conforms to what has been said thus far about apostasy. The Book of Mormon prophet Nephi offers the following description of the latter-day Gentile churches:

The Gentiles are lifted up in the pride of their eyes, and have stumbled, because of the greatness of their stumbling block, that they have built up many churches; nevertheless, they put down the power and miracles of God, and preach up unto themselves their own wisdom and their own learning, that they may get gain and grind upon the face of the poor. And [p.55]there are many churches built up which cause envyings, and strifes, and malice (2 Ne. 26:20-21).

He again describes the churches at the time of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon:

For it shall come to pass in that day that the churches which are built up, and not unto the Lord, when the one shall say unto the other: Behold, I, I am the Lord’s; and the others shall say: I, I am the Lord’s; and thus shall every one say that hath built up churches, and not unto the Lord–and they shall contend one with another; and their priests shall contend one with another, and they shall teach with their learning, and deny the Holy Ghost, which giveth utterance. And they deny the power of God, the Holy One of Israel; and they say unto the people: Hearken unto us, and hear ye our precept; for behold there is no God today, for the Lord and the Redeemer hath done his work, and he hath given his power unto men; behold, hearken ye unto my precept; if they shall say there is a miracle wrought by the hand of the Lord, believe it not; for this day he is not a God of miracles; he hath done his work (2 Ne. 28:3-6).

Nephi thus condemns the latter-day clergy for their lack of spiritual endowment, not their lack of priesthood authority. “Because of pride, and because of false teachers, and false doctrine,” Nephi continues, “their churches have become corrupted” (2 Ne. 28:11-12). The false doctrine that especially concerns Nephi is the teaching that God is no longer a God of miracles. Miracles have ceased because the churches lack faith and have lost the spirit, both necessary requirements for salvation. Repentance and water baptism are only the “gate,” but actual remission of sins comes only through reception of the Spirit (31:17). After water baptism “cometh the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost; and then can ye speak with the tongue of angels” (31:21). “This is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine,” and those who teach otherwise do so at the peril of their salvation (31:21).

The Book of Mormon’s description of apostasy, which consistently emphasizes religious hypocrisy and the loss of God’s spirit, has profound implications for the early Mormon concept of authority. At this early phase of development, neither Joseph Smith nor Oliver Cowdery had reason to interpret their reception of authority in a lineal-legal context. Rather, they emphasized its [p.56]charismatic qualities. Nevertheless, the early Mormon description of apostasy, its emphasis on the loss of the spirit and accompanying outward manifestations, was purely literalistic Seeker.

The literalistic Seekers’ sense of the apostasy can be seen in their interpretation of one biblical image. Both Puritans and Seekers were inspired by the image of the “church in the wilderness,” which they derived from Revelation and Canticles. “And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days” (Rev. 12:6). “Who is this that cometh out of the wilderness . . . fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners?” (Cant. 3:6, 5:10). Although Puritans and Seekers used the symbol of the “church in the wilderness,” each interpreted it differently.18

Jonathan Winthrop and others saw in the New World a unique opportunity to put their Puritan ideals into practice unhampered by the monolithic institutions of Europe and England. Once in New England, the Puritans believed it was their divine obligation to convert the Indians, to build a holy society, and to establish and maintain a pure church. The phrase which captured New England’s sense of mission was popularized in Samuel Danforth’s 11 May 1670 election day sermon: A Brief Recognition of New England’s Errand into the Wilderness.19

The wilderness was also seen as a place of refuge for the church. Because “all other Churches of Europe are brought to desolation,” Winthrop said, “the church hath noe place lefte to flie into but the wildernesse.”20 “God doth sometime[s] raise up a Church out of a wildernesse,” maintained John Cotton, “to take us aside from disturbances, and temptations in populous Cities.”21 God willing, the Puritans would create a “garden” in the midst of the “wilderness,” where their theocracy could flourish. In 1674, despite the perceived spiritual decline of New England’s youth, Increase Mather declared that God “hath turned this Wilderness into a Canaan, and here hath he given us Rest.”22 His son Cotton wrote in 1690 that the Puritan effort in New England had produced the Lord’s “Almost only Garden . . . in the vast continent of America.”23

The wilderness was not only an empty place to which the church was to flee but also full of temptations and trials for testing and purifying the church. Many Puritans came to cherish the “Wilderness-condition” of their church, where they could prove their faith. Cotton Mather affirmed, “a wilderness was a place [p.57]where temptation was to be met withal.”24 Elsewhere Mather wrote that when “the Church . . . fled into this Wilderness, [it] immediately found, The Serpent cast out of his Mouth a Flood for the carrying of it away [Rev. 12:6, 12].”25 “God hath led us into a wilderness . . . because he loved us,” declared Increase Mather in 1669. “Who knoweth but that he may send down his spirit upon us here, if we continue faithful before him”?26

The image of the church fleeing into the wilderness in order to purify itself was used repeatedly by Puritan ministers. Jonathan Mitchel of Cambridge reminded a group of Boston Puritans in 1667 that “it is our Errand into the Wilderness to study and practice true Scripture Reformation.”27 John Higginson in his 1663 election day sermon, The Cause of God and His People in New England, said, “when the Lord stirred up the spirits of so many of his people to come over into this wilderness, it was not for worldly wealth, or a better livelyhood here for the outward man,” but rather for “Reformation of Religion according to God’s word.”28 “You have solemnly professed before God, Angels and Men,” Samuel Danforth reminded his listeners in 1671, that you came to “this waste and howling Wilderness” to worship God in purity and holiness.29 When it became apparent that New England’s second generation was slipping into spiritual decline, the leading elders charged in 1671 that the backsliders were “turning the pleasant gardens of Christ into a wilderness.”30 Five years later Increase Mather lamented that the younger generation had “in great part forgotten our Errand in this Wilderness.”31

The Puritans believed they were the church in the wilderness, but the Seekers sought the true church in the “wilderness” of apostasy. For Seekers the wilderness became the symbol for the complete apostasy of the visible church. Both literalistic and spiritualistic Seekers spoke of the church in the wilderness. In 1646, Ephraim Pagitt reported that some English Seekers had declared the church to be “in the wildernesse” and that they were seeking it. Other Seekers, Pagitt continued, “say that it [the church] is in the smoak of the Temple,”32 undoubtedly a reference to spiritualistic Seekers, whose beliefs were defended in John Saltmarsh’s Smoke in the Temple (1646). Spiritualistic Seekers William Erbery and Henry Vane also spoke of the “Church in the Wilderness.”33

Roger Williams disputed the Puritan claim that they constituted the church in the wilderness. He argued that the church was in the wilderness of apostasy, not the wilderness of America, [p.58]and debated the point with John Cotton.34 Because of the apostasy, Williams argued, “the Church and Ministry of Christ Jesus, [was] put to flight, and retired into the Wildernesse of Desolation.”35 Williams looked forward to the church’s “coming out of the Babylonian Apostasy & Wilderness.”36 In 1659 George Fox declared that “the despised People of the LORD called QUAKERS” are “of the Seed of that Woman, who hath been long fled into the WILDERNESS.”37

In October 1830, shortly after the organization of his Church of Christ, Joseph Smith dictated a revelation in which God declared: “this church have I established and called forth out of the wilderness” (D&C 33:5). Two years later, while revising Revelation 12, Smith clearly identified the woman in the wilderness as “the church of God” and changed the reference about 1260 days to “years” (Rev. 12:5, 7, Inspired Version). Another revelation in 1832 explained that the “whore, even Babylon” drove the ancient “church into the wilderness” (D&C 86:3). When Smith revised one of his early revelations in 1835, he made it reflect the Seeker sense of the church in the wilderness. Instead of declaring a “reformation” of the churches, the altered revelation announced that Mormonism was “the beginning of the rising up and the coming forth of my church out of the wilderness [Cant. 3:6]—clear as the moon, and fair as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners [Cant. 6:10]” (D&C 5:14; BofC 4:5). At the dedication of the Kirtland temple on 27 March 1836, Smith prayed that “the church may come forth out of the wilderness of darkness, and shine forth fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners” (D&C 109:73). Echoed here was a Seeker concept of the church in the wilderness.

Notions about apostasy were closely intertwined with opinions about the Catholic church. The Book of Mormon proclaimed that all churches had “gone out of the way” (2 Ne. 28:11) and particularly singled out the Catholic church as the “most abominable above all other churches” (1 Ne. 13:5; cf. v. 26). At first glance, this seemed little more than a typical Protestant denunciation of Catholicism.

Although the Book of Mormon appeared years before the high point of American anti-Catholicism, when convents were burned in Boston and New York, anti-Catholic sentiment had existed from the early days of colonization. The Puritans had left England when bitterness against Catholics was at its peak there. [p.59]Catholicism was not only a competing theology but a force plotting with France and Spain to overthrow the English government—a civic as well as a religious concern.38

Anti-Catholicism, mingled with concerns about apostasy, was as old as the Reformation. Luther himself, in an introduction to Robert Barnes’s History of the Popes in 1536, said that “all who have the spirit of Christ know well that they can bring no higher or more acceptable praise offering to God than all they can say or write against this bloodthirsty, unclean, blasphemic whore of the devil.”39 But the establishment of English Protestantism under Henry VIII and subsequent intrigues to place a Catholic on the throne were more immediate influences on seventeenth-century anti-Catholic sentiment.

Few Catholics were in the colonies during the seventeenth century, but by 1790 the Irish were immigrating in significant numbers to Boston, New York, and Philadelphia; and Catholics were also centering in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Nearly all of the colonies had legal sanctions against Catholics.40 The Puritans tried to prevent the introduction of Romish influences by excluding all Irish from entering the colony and by instituting oaths of allegiance which denounced the Pope.41

The Quebec Act of 1774, a measure designed to extend religious toleration to the Catholics in Quebec and to include in that province the French settlers of the Ohio territory, aroused strong colonial opposition. Americans accused the crown of secretly plotting with Rome to establish Popery on their borders. “We may live,” one editorialist declared, “to see our churches converted into mass houses and our lands plundered by tythes for the support of the Popish clergy. The Inquisition may erect her standard in Pennsylvania and the city of Philadelphia may yet experience the carnage of St. Bartholomew’s Day.”42 One pamphleteer warned: “If Gallic Papists have a right/ To worship their own way/ Then farewell to the Liberties,/ Of poor America.”43 John Trumbull believed that England “Struck bargains with the Romish churches/ Infallibility to purchase;/ Set wide for Popery the door,/ Made friends with Babel’s scarlet whore.”44

Between the adoption of the federal constitution in 1787 and 1820, a spirit of liberalism led many states to change anti-Catholic laws. Vermont began the trend in 1786 by dropping an anti-Catholic clause in its constitution, South Carolina followed in 1790, New Hampshire in 1792, and New York removed its oath against Catholics in 1822. But from 1820 to 1829, [p.60]anti-Catholicism again increased and the “No-Popery crusade” took real form. Some historians have blamed large-scale foreign immigration for this Protestant reaction. The influx of immigrants, especially Irish, did bring unprecedented growth for the Catholic church. In 1807 there were 70,000 Catholics in the United States. By 1830 the number had increased to 600,000.45

During the Papal Jubilee of Leo XII in 1827, Catholics made a bid for new converts. In October 1829, the first Provincial Council of Catholicity in America, which met in Baltimore, recommended native rather than foreign bishops. Protestants saw these developments as signs of the Catholic church’s growing strength in America. One editor called the Baltimore gathering a “singular specimen of papal authority exercised over the people of a free country.”46

In Adam Clarke’s popular nineteenth-century commentary on the Bible, Revelation’s description of the “great whore that sitteth upon many waters” was explained as a reference “no doubt” to the “Latin Church.” Commenting on the whore’s wealth, Clarke wrote that it “strikingly represents the most pompous and costly manner in which the Latin Church has held forth to the nations the rites and ceremonies of its idolatrous and corrupt worship.”47 Clarke’s commentary on Revelation was reproduced in Josiah Priest’s View of the Expected Christian Millennium published in Albany, New York, in 1828.48 Charles Crawford, in his 1783 poem The Christian, referred to the Pope as “the man of sin” and to the Roman church as “the whore.”49 The New York Telescope in 1825 stated, “our celery call the church of Rome `Mystery, Babylon the Great, the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth.'”50 In 1835, Joseph Smith’s scribe, Oliver Cowdery, mentioned that the Baptists, Presbyterians, and others referred to the Catholic church as “the Beast.”51

It is thus not surprising that in the Book of Mormon Nephi sees in vision, “the foundation of a great church . . . which is most abominable above all other churches” (1 Ne. 13:4-5). Nephi, six hundred years before John the Revelator, labels this church with the epithets the book of Revelation would apply to the apocalyptic woman: “great and abominable” (13:6/ Rev. 17:5), “mother of harlots” (13:34, 14:16, 17/ Rev. 17:5), and “whore of all the earth” (14:10, 11, 12/ Rev. 17:1). Nephi also describes the whore’s gold, silver, silks, scarlets, fine-twined linen, all manner of precious clothing, and daughter harlots, which he says are “the desires of this great and abominable church” (13:7-8/ Rev. 17:4-5).52

[p.61]Because the Book of Mormon singles out the Catholic church as the “most abominable above all other churches” (1 Ne. 13:5; cf. v. 26), one might conclude that the Book of Mormon’s description of this church is typically Protestant. But the Book of Mormon surprises readers when it concludes its description of the “mother of harlots” with a Seeker twist. According to Seekers, Protestants were as corrupt as Catholics. Asa Wild, for example, proclaimed that “all the different denominations of professing christians, constituted the New Testament Babylon . . . this mother of harlots.”53 Solomon Chamberlain, a Seeker who was one of the first converts to Mormonism, soon after an 1816 vision proclaimed that “all denominations on earth were as John said constituted the great whore of all the earth.”54 Quakers, too, retained the Seeker attitude by branding all opponents “the Great Whore.”55

Mormons held the same view. In 1841, Mormon apostle Parley P. Pratt commented that although the Protestants call the Catholic church the “mother of harlots” and believe her to be in a state of apostasy, still, they draw their authority from her.56 In 1845, Mormon apostle John Taylor wrote that “the old church is the mother [of harlots] and the protestants are the lewd daughters.”57 Roger Williams believed that the Church of England was “a daughter . . . of the great whore of Rome,” which aided the papist cause by also persecuting God’s saints.58

So also, in the Book of Mormon, after describing the Catholic church as the “most abominable above all other churches,” Nephi writes, “and I saw many harlots” (1 Ne. 13:5, 7). He then elaborates along Seeker theology: “There are save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil; wherefore, 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 Ne. 14:10).

Mormons believed that the worst sin of the mother church was complicity in the alteration of the Bible. “They have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious,” Nephi learns in the Book of Mormon. This was done “that they might pervert the right ways of the Lord, that they might blind the eyes and harden the hearts of the children of men” (1 Ne. 13:26-27). Because of the altered condition of the Bible, “an exceeding great many” of the Gentiles “do stumble, yea, insomuch that Satan hath great power over them” (13:29).59

[p.62]Seeker doubts about scripture were identical to the Mormon position. Seekers renounced scripture as a sure means of salvation because they believed that “the original manuscripts have been lost.”60 Anglican Richard Baxter reported that the Seekers “taught that our Scripture was uncertain” and that “true” Scripture was “lost.”61 This concept of scripture was retained by the Seekers who converted to Quakerism.62 Hence Protestants believed the Seekers were “anti-scripturalists.” “Seekers,” Baxter wrote in 1660, “are questioning all things, and endeavouring to disparage the holy Scriptures.”63 The Protestant position was best illustrated by Adam Clarke’s own confidence in the extant manuscripts and in his criticisms of the Catholic church based on his reading of the Bible.64

Thus the Seeker and Mormon concepts of apostasy are to be distinguished from the position held by other Primitivists. For Seekers and early Mormons, contemporary sectarian strife and theological debate underscored the completeness of the apostasy from Jesus Christ’s original church and intensified the need for a restoration.


[p.62]1. Oliver Cowdery to William W. Phelps, 7 Sept. 1834, in Messenger and Advocate 1 (Oct. 1834): 15.

2. Ibid., Nov. 1834, 28.

3. Joseph Priestley, History of the Corruptions of Christianity, 2 vols., 3rd ed. (Boston, 1797), see esp. 1:iii, ix, 97, 161-69; 2:3-5, 97.

4. Christian Baptist 4 (6 Nov. 1826): 89. For Campbell’s views on apostasy and restoration, see James DeForest Murch, Christians Only: A History of the Restoration Movement (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Co., 1962), 9-18, 35-52, 67-81, 109-21; Winfred Ernest Garrison and Alfred T. DeGroot, The Disciples of Christ: A History (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1948), 124-79; Robert Richardson, ed., Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, 2 vols. (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Co., 1897-98), 1:236-46, 349, 2:150-54, 517-24; and Nathan O. Hatch, “The Christian Movement and the Demand for a Theology of the People,” Church History 67 (Dec. 1980): 545-67. On the tension between the concepts of restoration and unity, see George Hugh Wilson, “Unity and Restoration in the Ecumenical Thought of the Disciples of Christ: With Special Reference to the Disciples’ Part in the Evolution of the World Council of Churches,” Ph.D. Diss., Hartford Seminary Foundation, 1962.

5. Thomas Campbell to Sidney Rigdon, 4 Feb. 1831, in E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed [sic]; or, A Faithful Account of That Singular Imposition and Delusion, from Its Rise to the Present Time (Painesville, OH: E. D. Howe, 1834), 121.

[p.63]6. In Rufus M. Jones, Mysticism and Democracy in the English Commonwealth (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1932), 67.

7. E[phraim] Pagitt, Heresiography; or, A description of the Hereticks and Sectaries of these latter times, 3d ed. (London, 1646), 150.

8. William Erbery, The Lord of Hosts (London, 1648), 30; see also William Erbery, The General Epistle to the Hebrews (London, 1652), 1-4.

9. William Erbery, A Call to the Churches (London, 1653), 3; see also 10-11.

10. Roger Williams, The Hireling Ministry None of Christs (London, 1652), 20, 2, and unpaginated page at beginning under heading “In this Discourse are briefly touched these Particulars.”

11. [Roger Williams], The Bloudy Tenent ([London], 1644), section headed “A Reply to the aforesaid Answer of Mr. Cotton,” chap. lxiv, 95.

12. [Asa Wild], A Short Sketch of the Religious Experience, and Spiritual Travels, of Asa Wild, of Amsterdam, N.Y. Written by himself, by Divine Command, and the most infallible Inspiration (Amsterdam, NY: printed for the author by D. Wells, 1824), 43-44, 53, 54, 78. This revelation was originally published in 1823 in the Mohawk Herald (Amsterdam, NY).

13. Wayne Sentinel, 22 Oct. 1823.

14. Ibid. Cf. Wild, Short Sketch, 79.

15. Thomas Campbell to Sidney Rigdon, 4 Feb. 1831, in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 121. The same argument from Matt. 16:18 was used by William Allen against Seeker claims of complete apostasy. See A Doubt Resolved, or Satisfaction for the Seekers (London, 1655), 16.

16. In Scott H. Faulring, An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1987), 5, 6.

17. Joseph Smith, Jr., et al., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2nd ed., 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1964), 1:6. Cf. Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1984), 200.

18. For a discussion of the varying interpretations of the “church in the wilderness,” including those held by Puritans, Seekers, and Mormons, see George Huntston Williams, “The Wilderness and Paradise in the History of the Church,” Church History 28 (Mar. 1959): 3-24. See also James A. Vendettuoli, “The English Seekers: John Jackson, the Principal Spokesman,” Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1958, 201-17.

19. On the Puritan concept of an “errand into the wilderness,” see Sacvan Bercovitch, “The Historiography of Johnson’s Wonder Working Providences,” Essex Institute Historical Collections 104 (1968): 138-61, and “Horologicals to Chronometricals: The Rhetoric of the Jeremiad,” Literary Monographs, Eric Rothstein ed., vol. 3 (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1970), esp. 3-26; Kenneth B. Murdock, “Clio in the Wilderness: History and Biography in Puritan New England,” Church History 24 (1955): 221-38, revised and reprinted in Early American Literature 6 (Winter 1971-72): 201-19, and “William Hubbard and the Providential Interpretation of History,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 52 (1942): 15-37; Peter N. Carroll, Puritanism and the Wilderness: The Intellectual Significance of the New England Frontier, 1629-1700 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969); Alan Heimert, “Puritanism, the Wilderness, and the Frontier,” New England Quarterly 26 (Sept. 1953): 361-82; and Perry Miller, [p.64]The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (Boston: Beacon Press, 1953; reprinted 1966), 1-39, and Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1956), 1-15.

20. Jonathan Winthrop, “Reasons To Be Considered,” Winthrop Papers, 5 vols. (New York: Russell & Russell, 1968), 2:138-39.

21. John Cotton, A Brief Exposition with Practical Observations upon the Whole Book of Canticles (London, 1655), 71. Cotton is commenting on Solomon’s Song 3:6, “Who is this that cometh out of the wilderness.” Peter Bulkeley also expressed the same idea in Gospel Covenant (London, 1646), 305.

22. Increase Mather, “To The Reader,” in Samuel Torrey, An Exhortation unto Reformation (Cambridge [MA], 1674).

23. Cotton Mather, The Present State of New-England (Boston, 1690), 37.

24. Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana, 3 vols. (Hartford, 1820), 2:67.

25. Cotton Mather, The Wonders of the Invisible World (Boston, 1693), 5b.

26. Increase Mather, The Mystery of Israel’s Salvation Explained and Applyed (Cambridge [MA], 1669), 163-64.

27. Jonathan Mitchel, Nehemiah on the Wall (Cambridge, [MA], 1671), 28.

28. John Higginson, The Cause of God and His People in New England (Cambridge, [MA], 1663), 10-12.

29. Samuel Danforth, A Briefe Recognition of New England’s Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge [MA], 1671), 9-10.

30. Letter of the Elders to the General Court of Massachusetts Bay, 31 May 1671, in Records of Massachusetts Bay, Vol. 4, pt. 2, 490.

31. Increase Mather, An Earnest Exhortation to the Inhabitants of New England (Boston, 1676), 16-17.

32. Pagitt, Heresiography, 150.

33. William Erbery, The General Epistle to the Hebrews (London, 1652), 1, 3; Henry Vane, Two Treatises (n.p., 1662), 1-2, 45.

34. For background on the Williams-Cotton exchange, see Sacvan Bercovitch, “Typology in Puritan New England: The Williams-Cotton Controversy Reassessed,” American Quarterly 19 (Summer 1967): 166-91.

35. Williams, Hireling Ministry, 2. For Cotton’s differing interpretation on this point, see John Cotton, The Bloudy Tenent, Washed . . . Whereunto is added a Reply to Mr. Williams Answer to Mr. Cottons Letter (London, 1647), 45.

36. R[oger] W[illiams], George Fox Digg’d Out of His Burrowes (Boston, 1676), 66.

37. From the title page of George Fox’s The Great Mistery of the Great Whore Unfolded (London, 1659). See also George Fox, A Journal, ed. Margaret Fox (London, 1694), 115-16.

38. On anti-Catholicism in early America, see Ray Allen Billington, The Protestant Crusade, 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1963); Thomas T. McAvoy, A History of the Catholic Church in the United States (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969), esp. 123-34; David Brion Davis, “Some Themes [p.65]of Counter-Subversion: An Analysis of Anti-Masonic, Anti-Catholic, and Anti-Mormon Literature,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 47 (Sept. 1960): 205-24; and Theodore M. Hammett, “Two Mobs of Jacksonian Boston: Ideology and Interest,” Journal of American History 62 (March 1976): 845-68.

39. In Billington, Protestant Crusade, 2-3.

40. See Billington, Protestant Crusade, 8-9.

41. Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England, 1628-1686 (Boston, 1853-54), 3:291, 294, 5:193-94.

42. Pennsylvania Packet, 31 Oct. 1774.

43. In Billington, Protestant Crusade, 17; see also A Full Vindication of Measures of Congress from Calumnies of their Enemies (New York, 1774), 26.

44. American Museum, 1:313, in Billington, Protestant Crusade, 19.

45. See Billington, Protestant Crusade, 22-23, 32-37, and McAvoy, History of the Catholic Church, 133.

46. The Philadelphian, in the New York Observer, 28 June 1829.

47. Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible . . . with a Commentary and Critical Notes, 7 vols. (n.p., 1810), 7:1036-37.

48. Josiah Priest, A View of the Expected Christian Millennium (Albany, 1828), esp. 126-27.

49. Charles Crawford, The Christian: A Poem, in Four Books (Philadelphia, 1783), xxiv-v.

50. New York Telescope 1 (12 March 1825): 161.

51. Messenger and Advocate 1 (April 1835): 104.

52. According to both Nephi and the Revelator, the “many waters” which the whore sits upon represents her “dominion of all the earth, among all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people” (14:11, 12/ Rev. 17:1, 15). Commenting on Revelation’s woman “drunken with the blood of the saints,” Clarke said it refers to “the cruelties exercised by the Latin Church against all its has denominated heritics.” See Clarke, The Holy Bible, 7:1036-37. In 1835, Oliver Cowdery remarked that “the Catholic church has cruelly tortured many of its dissenters, and we have no doubt, but that in a coming day, the innocent blood of thousands will be brought up as a charge against some of its former members.” Messenger and Advocate 1 (April 1835): 107. Roger Williams believed that “the bloudy storme of the slaughter of the Witnesses, is yet to be expected and prepared for” before the fullness of the Gentiles comes in. See Williams, Hireling Ministry, 21.

53. Wayne Sentinel, 22 Oct. 1823.

54. In Dean C. Jessee, ed., “The John Taylor Nauvoo Journal: January 1845-September 1845,” Brigham Young University Studies 23 (Summer 1983):45.

55. See the title page of George Fox’s The Great Mystery of the Great Whore Unfolded (London, 1659). See also Fox, Journal, 115.

56. Millennial Star 1 (Jan. 1841): 236.

57. Times and Seasons 6 (15 Feb. 1845): 811. See also Taylor’s comment in Faulring, American Prophet’s Record, 358.

58. In John Garrett, Roger Williams: Witness Beyond Christendom, 1603-1683 (London: Macmillan Co., 1970), 60.

59. In 1832, William W. Phelps, editor of the first Mormon newspaper, identified this wicked church with the Catholic church: “It will be seen [p.66]by this that the most plain parts of the New Testament have been taken from it by the Mother of Harlots while it was confined in that Church,—say, from the year A.D. 460 to 1400.” See Evening and Morning Star, June 1832.

60. “Seekers,” New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (1908-14), 10:235; see also M. J. Havran, “Seekers,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 17 vols. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1967), 13:47.

61. [Richard Baxter], Religuiae Baxterianae: or, Mr. Richard Baxter’s Narrative of the Most Memorable Passages of His Life and Times, ed. Matthew Sylvester (London, 1696), 76.

62. Fox, Journal, 89, 102, 203, 264, 359, 397.

63. Richard Baxter, The Successive Visibility of the Church of which the Protestants are the soundest Members (London, 1660), 27.

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