Chapter 8

Prophets and Apostasy

“Chapter 8: Prophets and Apostasy,” Missionary Preparation Student Manual (2005), 63–71


The Lord calls prophets to teach His children the plan of salvation. Adam was the first prophet, followed by others, such as Noah, Abraham, and Moses. Time and again throughout the history of the world, the people eventually rejected the prophets’ message. When this happened, prophets, ordinances, and priesthood authority were taken away and the people lived in spiritual darkness. These periods of darkness are referred to as periods of apostasy. Because of His mercy, in time the Lord called and sent new prophets to restore His gospel. Understanding this pattern of teaching, rejection, and restoration prepares a person to recognize the Lord’s hand in the latter-day Restoration through the Prophet Joseph Smith, who opened the dispensation of the fulness of times.

“A dispensation of the gospel is a period of time in which the Lord has at least one authorized servant on the earth who bears the holy priesthood and the keys, and who has a divine commission to dispense the gospel to the inhabitants of the earth. When this occurs, the gospel is revealed anew, so that people of that dispensation do not have to depend basically on past dispensations for knowledge of the plan of salvation. …

“The plan of salvation, which is older than the earth, has been revealed and taught in every dispensation beginning with Adam and is the same in every age of the world” (Bible Dictionary, “Dispensations,” 657–58).

There have been many dispensations on the earth. The first dispensation began with Adam. He was commanded to teach his family the gospel (see Moses 5:12). As time passed, many chose not to listen or obey and rejected God’s plan of salvation (see Moses 5:13). Because of His great love and mercy, Heavenly Father also revealed anew the gospel of Jesus Christ through the prophet Noah (see Moses 8:16–17). But as with Adam’s family, many people chose darkness over light and ultimately turned away (see Moses 8:20).

Other dispensations were brought forth through prophets such as Abraham (see Abraham 1:2–5) and Moses (see Exodus 3:1–10). All dispensations provided the opportunity for people to come unto Christ through faith in Him, repentance, baptism, and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost.

Doctrines and Principles to Understand

  • The Lord provides truth, priesthood authority, ordinances, and organization through His prophets.

  • Throughout history there has been a recurring pattern of apostasy and restoration.

  • The rejection of the Savior, His teachings, and priesthood authority resulted in the Apostasy of the New Testament Church.

  • The European Reformation helped prepare the way for the final Restoration.

Supporting Scriptures and Statements

The Lord provides truth, priesthood authority, ordinances, and organization through His prophets.

■ God loves His children and has provided a plan of salvation and happiness for them. This plan includes saving truths and ordinances. He always reveals His plan through His prophets. Under divine guidance, these prophets ensure that the teaching of gospel truths and the performance of saving ordinances are done in the correct manner and by the proper authority. Prophets also have a commission to ensure that the Church is organized properly and functions for the benefit of those who accept the Lord’s commandments. To those who are not familiar with the role of prophets, missionaries teach why these inspired men are necessary.

■ President Gordon B. Hinckley taught that one of the roles of prophets has always been to provide truth to the Lord’s children: “Ancient prophets warned not only of things to come, but, more importantly, they became the revealers of truth to people. It was they who pointed the way men should live if they were to be happy and find peace in their lives” (Be Thou an Example [1981], 124).

■ The Prophet Joseph Smith explained that the Melchizedek Priesthood “is the channel through which all knowledge, doctrine, the plan of salvation and every important matter is revealed from heaven. … It is the channel through which the Almighty commenced revealing His glory at the beginning of the creation of this earth, and through which He has continued to reveal Himself to the children of men to the present time, and through which He will make known His purposes to the end of time” (History of the Church, 4:207; paragraphing altered).

■ President Joseph Fielding Smith taught that the Lord provides and directs the use of His sacred ordinances through His prophets: “In every age when the gospel is on earth, it must be revealed to the Lord’s prophets, and they must be called to stand as legal administrators to perform and to direct the performance of the ordinances of salvation for their fellowmen” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1970, 6).

■ President Marion G. Romney, who was a counselor in the First Presidency, taught about the reasons for the Restoration of the gospel and the reestablishment of the Church of Jesus Christ: “For the purpose of saving mankind in this world, and in the world to come, the Lord revealed it anew in this dispensation through the Prophet Joseph Smith, Jun. Through him also the Lord … reestablished his Church, ‘… even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ (D&C 115:4). … This Church is the Lord’s appointed custodian and legal administrator of the ordinances of his gospel” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1965, 105).

Throughout history there has been a recurring pattern of apostasy and restoration.

■ Heavenly Father loves His children and provided a plan for them to return to live with Him. To show His love, He calls prophets to whom He gives priesthood authority and revelation. Prophets have always taught Heavenly Father’s plan to His children. Those who follow the prophets’ words are blessed with great happiness. However, those who choose to disregard or distort the principles and ordinances of the gospel begin to live in spiritual darkness. The Lord often removes His prophets from among those people who reject them. When prophets are no longer present, truth, priesthood authority, ordinances, and Church organization become corrupted, changed, or lost (apostasy). When the time is right, God calls a new prophet to restore His truth, priesthood authority, ordinances, and Church organization (restoration).

The repeated cycle of apostasy and restoration through the Lord’s prophets continued through much of the Old Testament times.

■ President Marion G. Romney described the repeating pattern of apostasy and restoration: “This has been the pattern now for nearly 6,000 years. In each gospel dispensation, men have rejected the gospel and as a consequence have sunk into apostasy, debauchery, and darkness. In each dispensation, the true nature of the Godhead—the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—has been revealed anew. The fundamental principles and ordinances have also been revealed anew and emphasized. The importance of complying with gospel teachings has been stressed” (“‘Choose Ye This Day,’” Ensign, Feb. 1977, 2).

■ “Adam was the first prophet on the earth. By revelation, Adam learned of mankind’s proper relationship with God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost; of the Atonement and Resurrection of Jesus Christ; and of the first principles and ordinances of the gospel. Adam and Eve taught their children these truths and encouraged them to develop faith and to live the gospel in all aspects of their lives. Adam was followed by other prophets, but over time the posterity of Adam rejected the gospel and fell into apostasy, choosing to be unrighteous.

“Thus began the pattern of prophetic dispensations that makes up much of the recorded history of the Old Testament. Heavenly Father revealed His gospel through direct communication to prophets such as Noah, Abraham, and Moses. Each prophet was called by God to begin a new dispensation of the gospel. To each of these prophets God granted priesthood authority and revealed eternal truths. Unfortunately, in each dispensation people eventually used their agency to reject the gospel and then fell into apostasy” (Preach My Gospel [2004], 33).

■ Elder Charles Didier of the Presidency of the Seventy explained the role of prophets in the restoration of truth during dispensations:

“Because of what Adam heard and what he saw, he qualified to be called the first prophet on earth, a personal witness of revelation given to man. His major responsibility now was to preserve the truth of the gospel and to teach it as it was given to him. Satan, on the other hand, representing the opposition, was going to do and teach anything to deny, to reject, or to ignore the gospel received by revelation, thus inducing the people who had accepted it into apostasy—a state of confusion, division, abandonment, or renunciation of their previous faith!

“The rest of the story of the Old Testament became, then, a religious history of continuous revelation through various prophets like Noah, Abraham, and Moses, at various times—called dispensations—to restore what had been lost because of renewed apostasy. These prophets were always called by God. They were given divine authority; they had the keys of the priesthood; they had a divine commission to speak in the name of the Lord and to teach and prophesy of the coming and the Atonement of Jesus Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of the world (see Amos 3:7)” (in Conference Report, Oct. 2003, 77; or Ensign, Nov. 2003, 74).

The rejection of the Savior, His teachings, and priesthood authority resulted in the Apostasy of the New Testament Church.

■ Several hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ, the people again fell into apostasy. Heavenly Father sent His Son to atone for our sins and restore His gospel. The Savior taught the gospel and performed many miracles during His ministry. He called twelve men to be His Apostles and laid His hands upon their heads to give them priesthood authority. He organized His Church and fulfilled prophecy. Most importantly, He completed the Atonement. The Son of God completed all that His Heavenly Father sent Him to do.

Jesus Christ gave His Apostles authority to teach His gospel, perform the ordinances of salvation, and establish His Church. However, most people rejected Jesus, and He was crucified. The wickedness of the people resulted in the persecution, killing, and scattering of the Apostles and Church members. Without revelation or priesthood authority, false doctrines began to be taught and the true Church of Jesus Christ was lost. God allowed truth, as well as His priesthood authority, ordinances, and Church organization to be taken once again from the earth because of the apostasy of His children.

This apostasy eventually led to the emergence of many churches. False ideas were taught and knowledge of the true character and nature of the Father, His Son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost was lost. The doctrine of repentance became distorted. Baptism and other ordinances and covenants were changed or forgotten. The gift of the Holy Ghost was no longer available. This period of time when the true Church no longer existed on the earth has come to be known as the Great Apostasy. It lasted until the Restoration through the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Prospective missionaries should have an understanding of this apostasy and be able to teach it in a simple manner to their investigators.

■ President Thomas S. Monson, a counselor in the First Presidency, described factors leading to the Great Apostasy:

“Most men did not come unto Christ, nor did they follow the way He taught. Crucified was the Lord, slain were most of the Apostles, rejected was the truth. The bright sunlight of enlightenment slipped away, and the lengthening shadows of a black night enshrouded the earth.

“Generations before, Isaiah had prophesied, ‘Darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people’ [Isaiah 60:2]. Amos had foretold of a famine in the land, ‘not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord’ [Amos 8:11]. The dark ages of history seemed never to end. Would no heavenly messengers make their appearance?” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1997, 73; or Ensign, May 1997, 51).

■ Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught:

“[Greek] philosophical concepts transformed Christianity in the first few centuries following the deaths of the Apostles. For example, philosophers then maintained that physical matter was evil and that God was a spirit without feelings or passions. Persons of this persuasion, including learned men who became influential converts to Christianity, had a hard time accepting the simple teachings of early Christianity: an Only Begotten Son who said he was in the express image of his Father in Heaven and who taught his followers to be one as he and his Father were one, and a Messiah who died on a cross and later appeared to his followers as a resurrected being with flesh and bones.

“The collision between the speculative world of Greek philosophy and the simple, literal faith and practice of the earliest Christians produced sharp contentions that threatened to widen political divisions in the fragmenting Roman empire. …

“In the process of what we call the Apostasy, the tangible, personal God described in the Old and New Testaments was replaced by the abstract, incomprehensible deity defined by compromise with the speculative principles of Greek philosophy. The received language of the Bible remained, but the so-called hidden meanings of scriptural words were now explained in the vocabulary of a philosophy alien to their origins” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1995, 113; or Ensign, May 1995, 84–85).

■ Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles spoke about how the Lord’s priesthood authority was lost from the earth:

“Early Christians endured the challenges of persecution and hardship. Peter and his brethren had a difficult time holding the Church together and keeping the doctrine pure. They traveled extensively and wrote to one another about the problems they were facing, but information moved so slowly and the Church and its teachings were so new that heading off false teachings before they became firmly entrenched was difficult [see 2 Thessalonians 2:3; 2 Timothy 4:3–4]. …

“Eventually, with the known exception of John the Beloved, Peter and his fellow Apostles were martyred. The Apostle John and members of the Church struggled for survival in the face of horrifying oppression. To their everlasting credit, Christianity did survive and was truly a prominent force by the end of the second century A.D. Many valiant Saints were instrumental in helping Christianity to endure.

“Despite the significance of the ministries of these Saints, they did not hold the same apostolic authority that Peter and the other Apostles had received through ordination under the hands of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. When that authority was lost, men began looking to other sources for doctrinal understanding. As a result, many plain and precious truths were lost” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1994, 84–85; or Ensign, Nov. 1994, 65–66).

The European Reformation helped prepare the way for the final Restoration.

■ Elder James E. Talmage, who was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, explained that “a general apostasy developed during and after the apostolic period, and that the primitive Church lost its power, authority, and graces as a divine institution, and degenerated into an earthly organization only” (The Great Apostasy [1958], iii).

With the Apostles gone, some local Church officers gradually assumed more control without priesthood authority. These local leaders determined policy and doctrine for their local areas, claiming to be the proper successors to the Apostles. These local leaders relied upon logic and rhetoric rather than upon revelation and compromised the true teachings of Jesus Christ.

“After centuries of spiritual darkness, truth-seeking men and women protested against the current religious practices. They recognized that many of the doctrines and ordinances of the gospel had been changed or lost. They sought for greater spiritual light, and many spoke of the need for a restoration of truth. They did not claim, however, that God had called them to be a prophet. Instead, they tried to reform teachings and practices that they believed had been changed or corrupted. Their efforts led to the organization of many Protestant churches. This Reformation resulted in an increased emphasis on religious freedom, which opened the way for the final Restoration” (Preach My Gospel, 35).

■ Elder M. Russell Ballard explained how God helped create an environment where the gospel could be restored:

“In 1517 the Spirit moved Martin Luther, a German priest who was disturbed at how far the church had strayed from the gospel as taught by Christ. His work led to a reformation, a movement that was taken up by such other visionaries as John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, John Wesley, and John Smith.

“I believe these reformers were inspired to create a religious climate in which God could restore lost truths and priesthood authority. Similarly, God inspired the earlier explorers and colonizers of America and the framers of the Constitution of the United States to develop a land and governing principles to which the gospel could be restored” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1994, 85; or Ensign, Nov. 1994, 66).

■ President Gordon B. Hinckley taught that the reformers were doing their best to find the truths that had been lost to the Great Apostasy:

“This was … a season of growing enlightenment. As the years continued their relentless march, the sunlight of a new day began to break over the earth. It was the Renaissance, a magnificent flowing of art, architecture, and literature.

“Reformers worked to change the church, notably such men as Luther, Melanchthon, Hus, Zwingli, and Tyndale. These were men of great courage, some of whom suffered cruel deaths because of their beliefs. Protestantism was born with its cry for reformation. When that reformation was not realized, the reformers organized churches of their own. They did so without priesthood authority. Their one desire was to find a niche in which they might worship God as they felt He should be worshiped” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1999, 92–93; or Ensign, Nov. 1999, 73).

■ President Thomas S. Monson taught about the crucial contributions of the reformers:

“Honest men with yearning hearts, at the peril of their very lives, attempted to establish points of reference, that they might find the true way. The day of the reformation was dawning, but the path ahead was difficult. Persecutions would be severe, personal sacrifice overwhelming, and the cost beyond calculation. The reformers were like pioneers blazing wilderness trails in a desperate search for those lost points of reference which, they felt, when found would lead mankind back to the truth Jesus taught.

“When John Wycliffe and others completed the first English translation of the entire Bible from the Latin Vulgate, the then church authorities did all they could to destroy it. Copies had to be written by hand and in secret. The Bible had been regarded as a closed book forbidden to be read by the common people. Many of the followers of Wycliffe were severely punished and some burned at the stake.

“Martin Luther asserted the Bible’s supremacy. His study of the scriptures led him to compare the doctrines and practices of the church with the teachings of the scriptures. Luther stood for the responsibility of the individual and the rights of the individual conscience and this he did at the imminent risk of his life. Though threatened and persecuted, yet he declared boldly: ‘Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me.’

“John Huss [or Hus], speaking out fearlessly against the corruption within the church, was taken outside the city to be burned. He was chained by the neck to a stake, and straw and wood were piled around his body to the chin and sprinkled with resin; and he was asked finally if he would recant. As the flames arose, he sang, but the wind blew the fire into his face, and his voice was stilled.

“Zwingli of Switzerland attempted through his writings and teachings to rethink all Christian doctrine in consistently biblical terms. His most famous statement thrills the heart: ‘What does it matter? They can kill the body but not the soul.’

“And who cannot today appreciate the words of John Knox? ‘A man with God is always in the majority.’

“John Calvin, prematurely aged by sickness and by the incessant labors he had undertaken, summed up his personal philosophy with the statement: ‘Our wisdom … consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves.’

“Others could indeed be mentioned, but a comment concerning William Tyndale would perhaps suffice. Tyndale felt that the people had a right to know what was promised to them in the scriptures. To those who opposed his work of translation, he declared: ‘If God spare my life, … I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the scripture than thou dost.’

“Such were the teachings and lives of the great reformers. Their deeds were heroic, their contributions many, their sacrifices great—but they did not restore the gospel of Jesus Christ” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1975, 20–21; or Ensign, May 1975, 15–16).

■ President Monson concluded that the work of the reformers was not in vain. It prepared an environment where the Bible was available to honest truth seekers, including young Joseph Smith Jr.: “Of the reformers, one could ask: ‘Was their sacrifice in vain? Was their struggle futile?’ I answer with a reasoned ‘no.’ The Holy Bible was now within the grasp of the people. Each person could better find his or her way. Oh, if only all could read and all could understand! But some could read, and others could hear, and all had access to God through prayer” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1997, 74; or Ensign, May 1997, 51).

■ President Joseph Fielding Smith explained that the work of all these reformers prepared the way for the Restoration of the gospel:

“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” (Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. [1954–56], 1:174–75).

■ President Smith explained that the Reformation “was really the dawn of our present day. The yoke of that great power, which kept the nations bound, not merely physically but spiritually, was broken; and rays of light commenced to find their way through so that freedom of religious belief and liberty were established” (Doctrines of Salvation, 1:177). The time and circumstances were now right for young Joseph Smith Jr. to be called as the first prophet of the Restoration.

Points to Ponder

  • What lessons can be learned from the recurring cycle of apostasy and restoration?

  • In what ways did the reformers help make the Restoration possible?

  • What can we do to detect and protect ourselves from personal apostasy?

Suggested Assignments

Recommended Additional Reading

True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference

  • “Apostasy” (pp. 13–14)

  • “Prophets” (pp. 129–30)

Notes and Impressions

Moses and the Tablets, by Jerry Harston

The Restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood, by Kenneth Riley, © 1965 IRI

Paul Mann, © 2002 IRI

Martin Luther Posts His Religious Theses, Dale Kilbourn, © IRI