The Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the establishment of Zion are the two great events in the history of mankind that precede the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. “The building up of Zion is a cause that has interested the people of God in every age,” wrote the Prophet Joseph Smith. “It is a theme upon which prophets, priests and kings have dwelt with peculiar delight; they have looked forward with joyful anticipation to the day in which we live.”1 This latter-day restoration is the last act in God’s divine drama for his children before the Millennium. This is the “dispensation of the fulness of times” (Ephesians 1:10) in which the “restitution of all things” would take place as the Lord promised through “all his holy prophets since the world began” (Acts 3:21).
The gospel is actually older than the earth itself. Its principles are eternal and were made known to God’s children in the councils in heaven. The Father’s plan centered on Jesus Christ, who was chosen to be the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). In those councils our Heavenly Father explained that the earth would provide a place of testing for his children, declaring, “And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” (Abraham 3:25). Therefore, the Father granted his children the eternal principle of agency so that they might choose good over evil. Lucifer rebelled against the Father and his plan and was cast out of heaven. He became known as Satan, or the devil, the father of all lies, who on earth would deceive men and “lead them captive at his will, even as many as would not hearken unto [God’s] voice” (Moses 4:4).
On the other hand, God has raised up prophets to teach his children the saving principles and ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ. From the beginning there has been a struggle between the kingdoms of God and Satan. The Church of Jesus Christ, the Lord’s earthly organization, was established at times on the earth to gather the chosen and obedient children of God into a covenant society and to train them to fight evil. The true Church has the necessary principles and ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ that lead to eternal life.
A period when the Lord reveals his gospel doctrines, ordinances, and priesthood, is called a dispensation. For example, there were the dispensations of Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and of the Nephites. These dispensations gave the faithful and obedient the opportunity on earth to overcome the wicked world and prepare for eternal life by conforming to the principles and ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Time after time the flowering of the true Church was followed by an apostasy, or a falling away from the truth. Thus in world history these flowerings and apostasies were cyclical. Each time the Lord’s people fell into apostasy, there came a need for a restoration of the gospel. The Restoration discussed in this text is simply the last in the series of restorations that have occurred through the ages.
When the Lord Jesus Christ was born into mortality and ministered among Israel, he restored the gospel and the higher priesthood. He organized a church with a “foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 2:20) to carry on the work after him. The Savior spent much of his ministry privately tutoring his Apostles, giving them the authority and keys to continue the work after his death. He chose Peter, James, and John to be the presiding Apostles. At his ascension he commissioned the Apostles to carry the message of salvation unto all the world.
The Church was small in numbers when the Apostles assumed its leadership. Just over a week after the Savior’s ascension, the Holy Spirit was manifest in rich abundance on the Day of Pentecost as the Apostles taught the gospel and bore witness of the reality of the resurrected Lord. On this occasion three thousand people were baptized into the Church. The Apostles continued to minister with power and authority resulting in the conversion of additional thousands. So far, the gospel had been confined to the house of Israel. One day, however, as Peter was praying on the roof of a house in Joppa, he had a vision in which he learned that God is no respecter of persons, that no group should be regarded as unclean, and that the gospel should go to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews (see Acts 10:9–48).
The conversion of Saul of Tarsus sometime later was of great significance to the growth of the Church. Saul, who had been persecuting the early believers, beheld the Savior in a bright light while on the road to Damascus. “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest” (Acts 9:5), proclaimed the risen Lord to the stricken Pharisee. And Saul, the agent of the Sanhedrin, became Paul the defender of the faith, a “chosen vessel” (Acts 9:15) to proclaim the name of Christ before Gentiles and kings. Over the next thirty years this intrepid Apostle, along with many other devoted disciples who accompanied him, spread the gospel message and established branches of the Church throughout much of the Roman Empire. As growth continued and branches multiplied, elders, bishops, deacons, priests, teachers, and evangelists (patriarchs) were called and given proper authority by the Apostles.
While the Apostles and other missionaries were courageously working to establish the Lord’s kingdom on earth, the seeds of apostasy were already sprouting within the Church. Peter wrote that there were false teachers already among the people and that still others would come “who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction” (2 Peter 2:1). Peter also predicted that “many shall follow their pernicious ways” (v. 2). Paul similarly testified that out of the congregation of believers would “men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:30).
But internal apostasy and disbelief were not the only challenges the early missionaries faced. While it was generally Roman policy to extend cultural and religious freedom to their subjects, there were intermittent periods when the Christians were severely persecuted, making it difficult for them to worship openly and proclaim the “good news” of the gospel. Naturally, at such times the Church leaders were especially targeted for imprisonment and death. The first notable Roman persecution occurred during the reign of Nero, who made the Christians the scapegoat for the burning of Rome in A.D. 64. Tradition says the Apostle Peter was crucified upside down and that later, in A.D. 67–68, the Apostle Paul was beheaded by the order of the emperor.
At first the Twelve perpetuated the apostolic office. For example, Matthias, who was not of the original Twelve, was called to be an Apostle. But through the spirit of prophecy, the leaders of the Church eventually recognized that an apostasy was not only inevitable but imminent. As the Apostles were killed, revelation to guide the Lord’s church ceased, along with authority to operate it.
The years after the Apostles died provided ample evidence of the predicted demise of Christ’s church. Principles of the gospel were corrupted by being mixed with prevailing pagan philosophies. Loss of the Holy Spirit was evidenced by a gradual disappearance of spiritual gifts. Changes were made in church organization and government, and essential ordinances of the gospel were modified.
According to President Joseph Fielding Smith, the results of the Apostasy were devastating: “Satan in his wrath drove the [Church] into the wilderness, or from the earth; the power of the Priesthood was taken from among men, and after the Church with its authority and gifts disappeared from the earth, then in his anger the serpent continued his war upon all who had faith and sought the testimony of Jesus, desiring to worship God according to the dictates of conscience. So successful did he become that his dominion extended over all the known world.”2
The change from truth to error in the Church did not take place in a day. The Apostasy, hastened by the death of the Apostles in the latter half of the first century, gradually deepened during the years that followed. By the fourth century there was hardly a trace of the Church of Jesus Christ that was recognizable, and the “long, dark night” was well underway. With the Apostles gone, local church officers gradually assumed more authority. Bishops determined policy and doctrine for their local areas, claiming to be the proper successors to the Apostles. Gradually, a few bishops in key cities, such as Rome, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Antioch gained supreme authority in their entire regions. A great diversity of practices and dogma came as church leaders relied upon logic and rhetoric rather than upon revelation. “The compromising of truth and error, the assimilation of the gospel of Christ with the philosophies of men produced a new religion. This new religion was an appealing composite of New Testament Christianity, Jewish traditions, Greek philosophy, Graeco-Roman paganism, and the mystery religions.”3
As the Christian church developed and spread, the Roman government changed its policy from mostly toleration to persecution. This was in part due to Christianity emerging as a group separate and distinct from Judaism, which had been allowed special privileges under Roman law. The Christians were considered antisocial in that they refused to hold political office, serve in the military, use the civil courts, or participate in public festivals. They were called atheists because there was no room in Christian monotheism for the Roman gods or for a deified emperor. For these reasons, and perhaps for others, the Romans sporadically launched attacks upon the church until the reign of Diocletian (A.D. 284–305). Diocletian determined to destroy everything that was not pagan as un-Roman. Churches were destroyed, scriptures burned, and Christians made to sacrifice or face torture. In an edict of 306 the persecution was ordered empire-wide.
It was perhaps inevitable that the empire would be forced to rescind its anti-Christian legislation. The church continued to grow, and the weakening condition of the empire called for unity, not disharmony. Constantine, at the Milvian Bridge in A.D. 312, utilized the cross as his symbol as he crushed his opponent Maxentius. The next year at Milan, Constantine issued his famous Edict of Toleration which granted to all people the right to worship as they pleased, revoking the measures which had meant to suppress Christianity.
Constantine himself did not become a Christian until he lay dying, but his acceptance and endorsement of Christianity placed the church in partnership with the aims of the empire. The desperate need to strengthen Roman unity is credited for Constantine’s interest in the theological dispute within the church. To resolve a dispute over the nature of the Godhead, Constantine was instrumental in calling the Council of Nicaea, the first of the great ecumenical councils, in a city just south of his capital in A.D. 325. The creed that emerged from the council’s deliberation, and was approved by the emperor, is a classic example of the way apostasy results when revelation is supplanted by argumentation and decree. As similar conflicts were resolved during the following centuries, a strong alliance developed between the state and the church, ensuring a growing secular influence upon the doctrines and practices of the church.
By the time of the barbarian invasion of Western Europe in the fifth century, many of the Germanic tribes already had been reached by various types of Christian missionaries. Therefore they took quickly to Roman culture and Catholicism. The sack of Rome in A.D. 410, however, was a clear signal that the empire was not invulnerable. The masses of Goths, Vandals, and Huns who crossed the imperial boundaries turned the unity of the West into a shambles, leaving behind the beginning of several nationalist states. Local political leaders exerted increased influence over the church in their areas at the expense of Rome. For the next several centuries, the churches in the various developing European countries became in effect the fiefs or feudal estates of the lords of the manors. Culture, education, and general morals retrogressed. It was a beginning of the time often referred to in history as the Dark Ages.
By the fourteenth century, Europeans began to show renewed interest in classical Greece and Rome, resulting in a flowering of literature, science, and art. It was, in effect, a period of “rebirth,” or “renaissance,” when men with confidence in themselves started to explore new ways of exploiting their environment. Artists turned from dreary mysticism to employ their skills using new techniques in sculpture, art, and literature. It was an age of naturalism—when the tools of science and art were applied to glorify the human body and to erect vast new cathedrals.
Men seemed to unshackle themselves from old ways. Gunpowder revolutionized warfare; the mariners’ compass opened new vistas of travel and exploration; commerce was launched into the vast reaches of the Orient; and the Western Hemisphere was discovered. In the fifteenth century printing by movable type was greatly refined, and the whole field of printing gained new potential. This of course directly affected the rise of the universities and the dissemination of information.
The Renaissance was also a time of spiritual change. In their search for the classical past, men were introduced to the writings of the early church fathers and to copies of the scriptures in Hebrew and Greek. The scholars of the Renaissance began making these works available to the common people. Discovering the simplicity of the early church as opposed to the ritual and complexity of medieval Christianity led many to discover “anew” their original faith. These people founded or joined new religious orders, such as the Franciscans and Dominicans, as well as heretical movements, such as the Albigensians and Waldensians. In a sense, the effects of the Renaissance provided a setting for the Protestant reformation, which tore asunder the unity of Christendom once and for all.
The most famous of the Reformers was Martin Luther, who was born in Eisleben, Saxony, on 10 November 1483. When he was eighteen he was sent by his father, Hans Luther, to Erfurt to prepare for a career in law. In 1505, however, he abandoned his legal training to enter the monastery of the Augustinian Order of Eremites. In 1508 he was sent to Wittenberg to further his studies in theology and lecture on Aristotle’s philosophy. From his earliest years, he seemed to have been tormented by the wide discrepancy between the doctrines and teachings of the scriptures and the practices of Catholicism. During a journey to Rome in 1510, he was shocked at the corruption of the clergy and the religious apathy of the people. This did much to dispel the veneration in which he had held the papacy and armed him to challenge its authority. Luther’s intensive study of the Bible led him to the doctrinal position that later came to mark the reform movement: that men are justified by faith alone (see Romans 3:28) and not by their good works.
That which most provoked Luther’s direct opposition to the Church of Rome was the sale of indulgences by the agents of Pope Leo X. These indulgences were offered to repay Albert of Mainz his cost in acquiring the archbishopric of Mainz and to continue work on St. Peter’s unfinished basilica. The purchase of indulgences granted individuals the remission of sin and punishment in purgatory and complete remission of all sins for the dead. On 31 October 1517, Luther nailed to the church door at Wittenberg his Ninety-five Theses, which challenged the church to debate on the efficacy of indulgences and the church’s sacramental practices.
Luther’s theses were originally written to promote discussion among scholars, but the masses soon saw in him a champion and public hero. He defended himself against prelate and scholar and finally was even heard by the imperial diet (assembly) at Worms in 1521. By this time his movement had moved beyond the merely religious to the political, and the unity of the holy Roman Empire was threatened.
When Luther was ordered to give up his work, he boldly declared: “Unless I be refuted by Scriptural testimonies, or by clear arguments—for I believe neither the Pope nor the councils alone, since it is clear that they have often erred and contradicted one another—I am convinced by the passages of Scripture, which I have cited, and my conscience is bound in the word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything; since it is insecure and dangerous to act against conscience.”4
Luther’s resistance led to his excommunication from the church and to his being placed under the ban of the empire, which made him an outlaw. Luther was protected by German princes who sympathized with his ideas and who wanted more political autonomy from Rome. This protection enabled him to begin a German translation of the Bible. This translation was of transcendent importance in all of Europe because it was the first common language translation not based on Jerome’s Latin Vulgate.
Gradually new forms of worship and doctrinal innovations advocated by Luther were introduced in many of the German states. When it was evident the Catholic church would not reform, Luther’s followers founded the Lutheran church. Lutheranism became the religion of many of the northern and central German states but never succeeded in winning Bavaria and the states to the east. The faith spread northward, however, into Scandinavia and from there into Iceland. While it cannot be said that Luther brought religious freedom to Europe, the strength of his movement at least assured a pluralistic society where other religious groups could work for toleration.
Although Luther was the most famous of the Reformers, he was not the first. A century and a half earlier, in the 1300s, John Wycliffe in England denounced the corruption and abuses of the Catholic church and condemned the pope as anti-Christ. He translated the scriptures and circulated them among the common people. He was strongly condemned by the church, but his teachings were widely accepted among his countrymen. Thus, when Luther and other continental reformers began their work, many Englishmen sympathized with them.
The Reformation in England was different than in other countries. King Henry VIII, who disapproved of Luther, insisted that the pope did not have the authority to deny Henry a divorce from his wife. A quarrel ensued in which the king rejected the pope’s authority, and in 1533 the pope excommunicated the king. Henry then established the Church of England.
The two major reformers in Switzerland were Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin. Zwingli convinced the citizens of Zurich that the Bible should be the only standard of religious truth. Using this standard Zwingli rejected life in a monastery, celibacy, the mass, and other Catholic practices.
John Calvin was even more influential. At Geneva, he attempted to create a holy city around the biblical models. Gradually Calvinism became predominant in many parts of Switzerland, and from there it spread to France, England, Scotland, Holland, and in a lesser degree to Germany. John Knox, an early convert to Calvinism, helped refine and expand its teachings.
The Pilgrims and Puritans, two strict Calvinist groups who came to the New World, greatly influenced American values. For example, basic tenets of Calvinism prominent in early America included the absolute sovereignty of God, the election of man to grace, the idea that saved church members were to be instruments in God’s hand in redeeming others, and the concept that the church was to be “a light on the hill” to influence the affairs of men in this world.
The work of all these reformers was in preparation for the restoration of the gospel. President Joseph Fielding Smith has written:
“In preparation for this restoration the Lord raised up noble men, such as Luther, Calvin, Knox, and others whom we call reformers, and gave them power to break the shackles which bound the people and denied them the sacred right to worship God according to the dictates of conscience. …
“Latter-day Saints pay all honor to these great and fearless reformers, who shattered the fetters which bound the religious world. The Lord was their Protector in this mission, which was fraught with many perils. In that day, however, the time had not come for the restoration of the fulness of the gospel. The work of the reformers was of great importance, but it was a preparatory work.”5
Another important preparation for the restoration of the gospel was the discovery and colonization of America. It had been preserved as a choice land from which the gospel would go to the nations of the earth in the last days. Moroni, an ancient American prophet, wrote: “Behold, this is a choice land, and whatsoever nation shall possess it shall be free from bondage, and from captivity, and from all other nations under heaven, if they will but serve the God of the land, who is Jesus Christ, who hath been manifested by the things which we have written” (Ether 2:12).
The arrival of Christopher Columbus was seen in vision by Nephi, also an ancient American prophet, over two thousand years before Columbus was born. “And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren [descendants of Lehi], by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land” (1 Nephi 13:12). Columbus himself confirmed in his writings that he felt inspired in his ventures as a mariner and in establishing religion among the Indians.6
Nephi continued his prophecy: “And it came to pass that I beheld the Spirit of God, that it wrought upon other Gentiles; and they went forth out of captivity, upon the many waters” (1 Nephi 13:13). Many people who settled the promised land were led there by the hand of God (see 2 Nephi 1:6).
Nephi foresaw many other events in America. He saw that the Lamanites would be scattered throughout the land by the Gentiles, and that the Gentiles would humble themselves and call upon the Lord, and the Lord would be with them. Nephi beheld that the Gentiles who had settled in North and South America would war against their “mother Gentiles” and would be delivered by the hand of the Lord (see 1 Nephi 13:14–19).
President Joseph Fielding Smith said, “The discovery [of America] was one of the most important factors in bringing to pass the purpose of the Almighty in the restoration of his Gospel in its fulness for the salvation of men in the latter days.”7
While many historians today insist that most early colonists came to America for economic reasons, many colonists were also seeking religious liberty. Among these were the Puritans, who established a powerful religious commonwealth in New England. They believed that they possessed the true faith and consequently did not tolerate any other religion.8 This intolerance had to be overcome before there could be a restoration of Christ’s church.
Certain dissenters among the Puritans, Roger Williams chief among them, argued that there ought to be a clear distinction between church and state and that no particular religion ought to be imposed upon the citizens. He also taught that all churches had fallen away from the true apostolic succession. Williams was banished from Massachusetts in 1635, and within a few years, he and others with similar ideas succeeded in obtaining a charter to establish the colony of Rhode Island, which allowed total toleration of all religions.
A courageous woman, Anne Hutchinson, who went to Massachusetts in 1634, disagreed with the local leaders on two theological issues: the role of good works in salvation and whether or not an individual may receive inspiration from the Holy Spirit. Mrs. Hutchinson was likewise banished from Massachusetts, and she sought refuge in Rhode Island in 1638. Despite the efforts of Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and others, religious toleration was not achieved in New England for another century and a half.
Meanwhile, various religiously motivated groups established settlements throughout the rest of the American colonies. Each in its way contributed to the religious environment of America. Roman Catholics who settled Maryland passed the first toleration act in American history. Quakers in Pennsylvania also promoted religious tolerance and separation of church and state. The various colonists were of so many different faiths that it was impossible for any one denomination to predominate. This religious pluralism was a major reason for the religious liberties that became a unique feature of the United States.
Even though there were many different churches in America, most colonists did not claim membership in any particular denomination. An important movement in American religious history was the Great Awakening, which began about 1739 and continued for almost two decades. This first widespread revival in early American history was a fervent effort to restore righteousness and religious zeal. The Great Awakening swept throughout the length and breadth of the thirteen colonies. Evangelists and itinerant preachers held services in informal settings, including homes, barns, and even pastures. The Great Awakening kindled a religious commitment that had not been felt in America for years, and it promoted greater participation by both laymen and ministers in the affairs of organized religion. It also aroused within the colonial Americans a desire to unite in a democratic order.9
In spite of this zeal, complete religious freedom was not achieved in America until the American Revolution enhanced the climate for religious freedom. As colonists united against the British, they discovered that their religious differences were really not important to their cause and that they could agree on the essentials of their religious beliefs.10 Furthermore, Thomas Jefferson was a fierce opponent of undue pressures upon government by organized religion. The Declaration of Independence, which he wrote, stated that man was capable of discovering correct political institutions for himself.
With the new feeling of freedom that followed the Revolutionary War, several states sought to protect basic human rights, including religious liberty. Virginia was one of the first in 1785 when it adopted Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, which guaranteed that no person could be forced to attend or support any church or be discriminated against because of his religious preference.11
After a few years as an unsuccessful confederation of states, the United States drafted a new constitution in 1787 that was ratified in 1789. This document, which was formed “by the hands of wise men whom [the Lord] raised up unto this very purpose” (D&C 101:80), embodied both the democratic impulse for freedom and the fundamental need for order. Freedom of religion was guaranteed in the first amendment to the Constitution.
The Prophet Joseph Smith stated that “the Constitution of the United States is a glorious standard; it is founded in the wisdom of God. It is a heavenly banner; it is to all those who are privileged with the sweets of liberty, like the cooling shades and refreshing waters of a great rock in a thirsty and weary land.”12 One reason this was true was because “under the Constitution the Lord could restore the gospel and reestablish his church. … Both were part of a greater whole. Both fit into his pattern for the latter days.”13
Concurrent with the American Revolution and the establishment of the Constitution was a Second Awakening that brought about a reorientation of Christian thinking. Several new religious societies grew in strength and held a variety of beliefs: Unitarians, Universalists, Methodists, Baptists, and Disciples of Christ. Many beliefs were introduced in the new nation, including the idea that there was a need for the restoration of New Testament Christianity. Those searching for this restoration were popularly known as seekers. Many of them were ripe for the divine Restoration and became its early converts.14
Almost concurrently with the Second Great Awakening, there arose a spirit of revivalism. Itinerant preachers held spirited camp meetings among new settlers in frontier areas of the growing United States. Lonely settlers from farms and villages gathered in huge crowds to enjoy the camp meetings. Noisy but gifted preachers lent a festive air to these religious gatherings while trying to win converts to their faith.15
The Second Great Awakening also influenced the formation of voluntary associations to promote missionary work, education, moral reform, and humanitarianism. Revivals brought religious emotions to a fever pitch and aided the growth of the popular denominations, particularly the Methodists and Baptists.16 This religious awakening lasted for at least forty years, including the time of Joseph Smith’s first vision.
The restoration of the gospel and of the Lord’s true Church could not have taken place amidst the religious intolerance in Europe and early America. It was only possible in the setting of religious liberty, reevaluation of Christian thinking, and spiritual awakening that had developed in early nineteenth-century America. The Lord’s hand was evident in directing that the Restoration take place exactly when it did.
According to one historian, there was a special timing to when the Restoration took place:
“Its timing in 1830 was providential. It appeared at precisely the right moment in American history; much earlier or later and the Church might not have taken hold. The Book of Mormon would probably not have been published in the eighteenth century, in that still largely oral world of folk beliefs prior to the great democratic revolution that underlay the religious tumult of the early Republic. In the eighteenth century, Mormonism might have been too easily stifled and dismissed by the dominant enlightened gentry culture as just another enthusiastic folk superstition. Yet if Mormonism had emerged later, after the consolidation of authority and the spread of science in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, it might have had problems of verifying its texts and revelations.”17
God knows the end from the beginning and is the author of the grand design of human history. He directed the affairs of history so that America was appropriately fertile soil for the seed of the restored gospel to be planted and tended by his chosen seer, Joseph Smith.