In order for the Mormon church to make any sense, there has to have been a Restoration. In order for there to need to be a Restoration, there has to have been a Great Apostasy. This is fundamental enough that the new Preach My Gospel manual that the missionaries use starts out with the Great Apostasy from the beginning. The main problem, in my opinion, is that there’s no good evidence that such a Great Apostasy occurred, at least to the extent that it would have needed to occur for Mormon theology to make sense.
From the standpoint of Mormonism, the Apostasy meant that 1) there were no more living prophets and/or apostles to continuously reveal the truth, 2) true doctrine became subverted by human ideas and was thus lost (and without living prophets, it was not re-discoverable), and 3) the priesthood authority was gone from the earth.
Each one of those points is incredibly problematic. The first point seems hard to argue with, because nobody was claiming to receive revelation, prophet-style, on behalf of all Christendom. To many Mormons, thats eals the deal. However, the sad truth is that the Latter-Day church doesn’t seem to get ay revelation, either. After Joseph Smith, there’s basically been a long line of prophets who don’t prohesy. Now, most Mormons will dispute this, and their evidence will be geenrally statements that they personally ascribe prophetic-revelation-status to (though the maker of the statement did not), or they appeal to the “probability” that the prophet gets these big revelations all the time, but doesn’t share them with the Church and the world for whatever reason. Or, barring those, they will shift their definition of revelation to include a moregeneral type of inspiration.
In any case, there’s not much evidence that the rate of contemporary revelation right now was any different than during the Great Apostasy. Nevertheless, there’s a differnence- the next two points (true doctrine and priesthood authority) make clear the difference between the Church during the Great Apostasy and the Latter-Day Church.
James E. Talmage, in pretty much any book he wrote, was quick to trot out shady, questionable doctrines and practices of the medieval Catholic church as evidence of its apostasy. What it basically comes down to is that doctrines were changed away from the “plain and precious truths” that were taught by Jesus Christ and his apostles. This is also problematic, for a couple of reasons.
First, despite what Mormons may learn in Primary and Sunday School, many doctrines and practices have also changed during the not-quite-two-hundred years of the latter-day church. I need only mention the big, contentious ones like polygamy, Blood Atonement, and the Adam-God theory. Sure, some of those doctrines have come and gone, but so did some of the questionable Catholic doctrines that Talmage loves to pick on. It’s not limited to the anti-Mormon fodder, either. Plenty of other doctrines and practices have changed or evolved over time and members don;t even bat an eye.
As an aside- a common Mormon metaphor for the Apostasy and Restoration is a broken glass. You can’t just put the pieces of a broken glass back together to make the cup good again; you have to actually make a new cup. The broken glass is the Christian church during the Apostasy and the new-blown glass is the Restored church. If the Apostasy was just a matter of inspired leadership and correct doctrine, then the metaphor is complete junk. Rediscovering old, correct doctrine, if such a thing exists, is merely a matter of going back to old texts and seeing what was taught before the change away from the truth. It is well within human capability, and it’s exactly what the Reformers were trying to do. If it was just a matter of inspiration/revelation and true doctrine, then the Reformation (and accompanying counter-reformation) should have done the trick. The Mormon Church even teaches that those men were inspired.
This is the point in the discussion where the Mormon falls back to the bunker of Priesthod authority, but I am afraid there is no cover to be found there either.
According to Mormon theology, the big evidence for the Apostasy and Restoration, the real clincher, was authority. God’s priesthood, the power and authority to act (and lead) in His name, was gone from the earth. It had to be fully restored in order for God to run things the right way, for the ordinances like baptism to have any effect, and for the Kingdom of God to be built on earth.
However, there’s no real indication that the Priesthood, assuming that it did indeed exist the way that Mormonism teaches that it once did, ever left the earth. In fact, I think it’s completely and utterly unreasonable to think that it did.
Mormonism believes in a lay priesthood- all worthy men can (and these days should and are) be ordained deacons, teachers, priests, and elders. This Priesthood existed in the time of the apostles, but it was lost, so only the apostles themselves could give the Priesthood back to us. Thus, first John the Baptist and then Peter James and John appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery to give them this priesthood, so there would be an unbroken line of authority back to Jesus Christ (for the Melchizidek Priesthood) and to Aaron (for the Aaronic Priesthood).
But that means that this lay Priesthood existed in New Testament times, but it had disappeared by Joseph Smith’s time. The problem is that the Christian church didn’t disappear during that time. In order to have the Priesthood die out and fade away but the Church continue, you’d have to have an entire generation of Priesthood-holders simply not give the Priesthood to anyone else. Simultaneously, you’d have to have an entire generation of Church leadership come in and claim leadership positions without even holding the Priesthood (if you think about that in the framework of the modern Mormon Chruch, it doesn’t even make sense).
The Mormons claim that John, not Linus, was the second leader of the Church (since he got Revelation on Patmos after Peter’s death, and only the leader of the Church would get scriptural revelation like that), which means that the Catholic line of authority was broken from the beginning. The problem with that apologetic is that it confuses leadership with the Priesthood. Linus may not have been “the prophet,” but as a member of the Church, there’s no reason at allt ot hink he didn’t have the Priesthood. Past that, the Catholic church (and the Orthodox Church and even the Anglican Communion) can show an unbroken line of apostolic succession all the way down to the current set of bishops. What reason then is there to believe that all those bishops don’t have the Priesthood?
Sure, they may not use it right, and they may have their heads full of false doctrine, but Mormon theology is pretty clear that priesthood authority doesn’t go away despite personal apostasy. A wicked missionary’s baptism is still valid, because he had the authority, and it was the Priesthood (i.e., God) doing the job, not him. Look at Alma the Elder in the Book of Mormon- he was one of a whole crop of evil clergymen who were ordained by the equally wicked King Noah and were doing al kinds of wring things and teaching all kinds of wrong doctrines. Nevertheless, the line of authority that gave Alma his Priesthood was still a valid one, so he could baptize all of those people at the Waters of Mormon. If he had the Priesthood, then why don’t the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox clergy have the Priesthood?
In short, although there may have been a falling away from the truth over time, there’s no real reason to believe that The Great Apostasy ever happened in such a way as to necessitate the Restoration as it is taught in Mormonism.
Note- I have added this post to my Sailing Away From Mormonism page.
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