A few weeks ago I was asked to teach a lesson to the 14-15 year old youth Sunday School class about the Great Apostasy. I reached out to Dr. Greg Prince for advice on how to approach this subject. His response was so helpful, I thought it would be worth being a post itself. Greg gave us permission to post his private e-mail to me.
AN APPROACH TO TEACHING ABOUT THE APOSTASY
by Greg Prince
Were I to teach a lesson on the Apostasy, either to kids or adults, I would shy completely away from the notion of The Great Apostasy, which as I understand it from LDS Biblical scholars (the more honest ones, at least) cannot be accepted as institutional history. That said, the door is wide open to talk about apostasy as an individual phenomenon that immediately makes it accessible even to the kids. Let’s accept a dictionary definition of the word as a starting point: “abandonment of a previous loyalty.”
My best understanding of priesthood is actually the standard LDS one, but it is one that few understand even though they can repeat it: authority and power to act in the name of God. Those two parts are acquired separately and in quite different fashions. Authority is a legalistic concept, much the same as it is in a non-religious venue. For example, a Justice of the Peace (JoP) is given authority by the government to perform certain functions such as marriages, which then are recognized by the state as legitimate. It does not matter whether the JoP is a good guy or a bad one; as long as he is authorized by the state, his actions will be accepted as legitimate.
The same thing holds with LDS priesthood authority. Once ordained, an LDS priesthood holder may function in legal aspects of the Church, such as baptism, blessing the sacrament, etc., and whether he is a good guy or a bad one, the Church recognizes the legitimacy of the ordinances he performs. He may commit adultery on a Saturday night and perform a baptism the following day, and even if subsequently discovered for his sin, the ordinance is still considered valid. The Church may take disciplinary action against him, even stripping him of his priesthood (in which case subsequent acts are not recognized by the Church), but the recipient of prior ordinances is not required to repeat those ordinances.
The other half of priesthood, however, is anything but automatic. One seeks “power from on high,” as the ancient apostles did when told of it by the resurrected Christ in Luke 24, but there is no automatic claim on it. And it makes all the difference. Whereas a baptism is automatic, other ordinances such as blessing the sick are conditional. If the conduit to divine power is open, then the words of the officiator are likely to be fulfilled, even miraculously. If that conduit is clogged or closed, however, the officiator is likely on his own, often with disastrous outcomes. I have seen this, unfortunately, on many occasions, and it is nearly always the recipient of the bogus blessing who bears the burden of failed expectations.
So back to the original topic of apostasy. If you teach the dual nature of priesthood, with one part automatic but the other conditional, then you have framed apostasy in an individual context that will reach LDS audiences of all ages. Furthermore, if you wish to shift the discussion a few degrees, you can also make the topic immediately relevant to the girls and women, for they, too, can draw upon “power from on high” in the same contingent manner as the boys and men. Consider the following editorial from the Improvement Era (predecessor to the Ensign), and note the direction under which it was written:
“Can any one, without the Priesthood, pray and have his prayers answered? Or receive the Holy Ghost, with its gifts and manifestations?
The answer is Yes. Men, women and children who do not hold the Priesthood have had their prayers answered millions of times in the history of Christianity the world over and in the history of this dispensation. Men, women and children also receive the Holy Ghost after baptism through the laying on of hands.
May one have revelations and visions of heavenly beings, without the Priesthood?
Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery did so. In May, 1829, John the Baptist appeared to them, and that was before either of them had been ordained. It was John, in fact, who conferred the Priesthood upon them. This function of having visions, of course, was exceptional in their case.
If, then, one may pray, may have his prayers answered, may have the Holy Ghost bestowed upon him, and may exercise many of its gifts, without holding any Priesthood, what is the place of Priesthood on the earth?
Chiefly Priesthood functions in connection with organization. That is, the greatest need of Priesthood is where there is a service to be performed to others besides ourselves.
Whenever you do anything for, or in behalf of, someone else, you must have the right to do so. If you are to sell property belonging to another, you must have his permission. If you wish to admit an alien to citizenship in our government, you cannot act without having been commissioned to do so by the proper authority.
Now, a religious organization, or the Church, is in the last analysis a matter of service. You baptize someone, or you confirm him, or you administer to him in case of sickness, or you give him the Sacrament or the Priesthood, or you preach the Gospel to him–what is this but performing a service?
Now, when it comes to earthly power to perform a definite service, we call it the power of attorney in the case of acting legally for someone else, or the court and the judge where it is a question of acting for the government.
But in the Church of Christ this authority to act for others is known as Priesthood.” (“Priesthood Quorums–Why Priesthood At All?” [“All Melchizedek priesthood material is prepared under the direction of the Council of the Twelve”]; IE 34(12):735, Oct., 1931)
Great email…would love to hear him opine on the Great Apostasy in a subsequent post.
“I would shy completely away from the notion of The Great Apostasy, which as I understand it from LDS Biblical scholars (the more honest ones, at least) cannot be accepted as institutional history.” Why do we still teach it like this in the church then? Why have our apostles and prophets not corrected this if it is not correct. I spent 2 years on my mission teaching about the great apostasy…because without that apostasy there was no need for the restoration of the church.
Notice how he qualified the word “Apostasy” with the word “Great”. The idea he is pushing against as well as I did in an earlier post, is the idea that all went dark; that God ceased to speak for over 1,000 years; this is probably the common perception amongst Mormons.
In reading Greg’s books, listening to him speak, and through private conversation with him, I would also gently push back against your interpretation of your quotation of him. He is not saying that something wasn’t lost; he is suggesting that not EVERYTHING was lost (the common LDS perception). I would agree with you that if their was no apostasy, then their would be no need for a restoration.
I would go so far as to say that even official Church statements rejects the common perception of the “Great Apostasy”.
Here is a link to my apostasy post from last month. It has the official Church statement to which I referred above:
Here is a recent podcast with Greg Prince in which he discusses quite explicitly the Priesthood Restoration. I think you’ll like it. I mean, who doesn’t like a little Greg Prince? Right?
That is directly off LDS.org. There are a number of other references to the great apostasy on there which would also lead me to believe the church hasn’t truly shied away from the term or the idea.
“When individuals or groups of people turn away from the principles of the gospel, they are in a state of apostasy. One example is the Great Apostasy, which occurred after the Savior established His Church. After the deaths of the Savior and His Apostles, men corrupted the principles of the gospel and made unauthorized changes in Church organization and priesthood ordinances. Because of this widespread apostasy, the Lord withdrew the authority of the priesthood from the earth. This apostasy lasted until Heavenly Father and His Beloved Son appeared to Joseph Smith in 1820 and initiated the restoration of the fulness of the gospel.
During the Great Apostasy, people were without divine direction from living prophets. Many churches were established, but they did not have priesthood power to lead people to the true knowledge of God the Father and Jesus Christ. Parts of the holy scriptures were corrupted or lost, and no one had the authority to confer the gift of the Holy Ghost or perform other priesthood ordinances.
We now live in a time when the gospel of Jesus Christ has been restored. But unlike the Church in times past, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will not be overcome by general apostasy. The scriptures teach that the Church will never again be destroyed (see D&C 138:44; see also Daniel 2:44).
Although there will not be another general apostasy from the truth, we must each guard against personal apostasy by keeping covenants, obeying the commandments, following Church leaders, partaking of the sacrament, and constantly strengthening our testimonies through daily scripture study, prayer, and service.”
I would agree with your assessment in so far as the “Church” represents all of collectively. Yes that is what is on LDS.org and that what you generally hear in our Ward buildings at often in General Conference. But taking the quotes you used and then comparing them to the Church’s 1978 statement, what are we supposed to do?
I think it does point to a shift in our LDS thought on the subject. Anytime we see what appear to be contradictory statements, that points to paradigm shift. My personal interaction with those of other faiths forces me to confront these “either/or” paradigms and and times reject those paradigms.
Regarding priesthood authority, which the LDS.org you sighted talks about, Could our Church possibly be as the Saducees during Jesus’ time? What I mean is, the Saducees were the ones that protected the temple and we are the “guardians” of the temple now. That is, Mormon priesthood authority, as used in the temple, will bind us all together and back to God. Just a thought.
As usual this is a great post.