Librarium: Thoughts on The Great Apostasy by James E. Talmage

First published in 1901, this book is a well-researched and aptly presented review of the historicity of what is known as “The Great Apostasy”, a time period in which it is said that the purity and simplicity of the Doctrine of Christ as established by Jesus himself during his sojourn and ministry in mortality. 

This second time period is known as the “Meridian of Time, not necessarily an exact division of physical time, but a historical division between the Garden of Eden and what is known as  the Millennium. From the  Garden of Eden (Adam) to the Great Flood (Noah), to the establishment of the Abrahamic Covenant  to the Meridian of Time (First Coming of Christ), to the Great Apostasy followed by the Restoration of the Fulness of Times (Joseph Smith), to the future Millennial period (Second Coming of Christ). These are the markers of historical time.   To simplify: life on earth can be seen in stages of Pre-Flood (when the Promise of Christ was established), Meridian (when the Promise of Christ was fulfilled), and the Millennium (when the Kingdom of God under Christ’s reign will be actualized for this planet).  My personal belief is that we are in the early Millennial stage.

Since the founding of the nation in 1776, life as we know it during the early 2020’s, has become more globalized and more tyrannical than we in America could ever have imagined.   Before now, various powers have wielded the sword of conquest over the heads of pre-existing nations, but not even the tyranny of Rome (in the Old World) and Spain (in the New World) will be able to rival what we will see before the Second Coming of Christ ushers in the full global governance of the Millennium.  Something for another essay, at another time.

The societal traumas of pandemic, war, poverty, crime, etc., have led to a spiritual discontent and a tendency to cast off everything of the past in a search for something unknown in the future that might be better, but history has shown us that these fearful times always lead to the tyranny of state control rather than the freedom and commitment to the principles of Liberty which have always provided a way to light our way through the darkness and out of chaos.  Again, another story for another day.

There are always evil, self-serving people who take advantage of these situations, both in and out of political, educational, and  religious institutions.   This was the situation in the ancient world which led to the Great Apostasy in the Christian church.   James Talmage gives us some insight into what corrupted the pure doctrine of Christ, why it happened, and the societal consequences.  I’ll discuss three of his main points, and these are the three things which I need to carefully consider in my own life and religious choices.  If God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, then learning His true doctrine and doing one’s best to live the revealed principles will lead to the best chance of living in a manner which provides blessings for oneself and for others, and to maintain the consistency that should exist in a simple system of belief that purports to be eternal in its existence.  It also means knowing the path of deviation from that doctrine, and how to avoid it.

“The corrupting of simple principles of the gospel by admixture of the so-called philosophic systems of the times.”[1]

Originally, the gospel spread only among the Jews.  Revelation given to Peter soon brought the gospel to the Gentiles (or pagans) as well.   Both Pagans and newly converted Jewish Christians tried to blend and bend Christian doctrine and practices into previous religious traditions.   As Talmage points out (quoting Christ), “No man, said He, putteth a piece of new cloth unto an old garment, for that which is put in to fill it up taketh from the garment and the rent is made worse.  Neither do men put new wine into old bottles; else the bottles break and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:16,17).

In our own day, we have been counselled to put aside the “traditions of our fathers”, if they are inconsistent with the principles of the Gospel.  It is a very difficult thing to “set aside the things of the world”, especially those which have been deeply ingrained into our cultures and societies for generations.   It is very easy to fall into complacency and embrace the philosophies of the world when everyone is doing it and may mock those who choose a different path.  In the Meridian of Time, it was the traditions of Judaism, which had corrupted both the Abrahamic Covenant and Mosaic Law.  Followers of Gnosticism worked to merge their teachings with Christian doctrine.  Platonic concepts of God became mixed with the Christian concept of God, leading to false doctrine and bitter conflicts concerning the nature of the Godhead.

Today the battle between the philosophies of Men and the doctrine of God grows ever stronger as we contend with controversies on the very nature of male and female, of the central role of the natural family in stable communities, of societal norms and cultural traditions which distort not only basic moral law, but also God’s Law of Liberty for both individuals and society at large. 

If we are to bring the Light of Christ to all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, we need to weave new cloth — using the warp of the Restoration and the weft of Personal Revelation. We need to weave the textures and patterns of a Zion society into the fabric of our daily lives and remove the old worn-out textures and patterns of the philosophies of Man, first as individuals and families, then as influencers in our communities.

“Unauthorized additions to the ceremonies of the Church, and the introduction of vital changes in essential ordinances.”[2]

The Great Apostasy saw the beginning of several controversies, which still continue today.  Wars have been fought over these issues, the ordinance of Baptism being one of the most important.   Baptism by immersion, baptism by sprinkling, infant baptism (christening), or baptism of adults only….”What should we do?”, our religious ancestors asked themselves.  The Baptist sect of Protestantism was founded on this very issue.  Other sects have taught that baptism is not necessary for salvation.  In the Meridian of Time, Christ set the example of baptism by immersion by one having the authority of the Aaronic priesthood, John the Baptist.  Adam and Eve, Enoch, and others who lived before Christ, taught and practiced baptism by immersion.[3]  The fullness of this ordinance was lost during Apostasy era, and has now been restored by the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1829[4], thus re-establishing the continuity between times past, times present, and into the future.

Our awareness of the history of the ordinance of Baptism[5] can help us prevent a second Apostasy, both in our personal lives and in the body of the Church.

There are other “essential” ordinances. The word “essential” is defined by Noah Webster (1812 dictionary) as something that is “necessary to the constitution or existence of a thing”; and “important in the highest degree”.  The following are those ordinances which are considered to be “essential” to salvation:  Confirmation, Priesthood Ordinations and Setting Apart, Administering to the Sick, and Administering the Sacrament.  Specific instructions[6] for each ordinance have been restored, to which Latter-Day Saint Christians should strictly adhere in order to prevent apostasy.

Baptism is just one example of the many changes which were made by the 4th century A.D.  Talmage examines more of these in Chapter X.

“Unauthorized changes in Church organization and government.”[7]

“The principle of self-government, or common consent, was respected in apostolic days with a care amounting to a sacred duty”.[8]

From the initial establishment of local congregations, through the 2nd century A.D., each were independent of the others, without any sort of coordinating body overseeing them.  “Each Christian assembly was a little state, governed by its own laws, which were either enacted, or at least approved of, by the society.[9]   Talmage details the development of a universal church and the pontificate that later emerged in Rome.  I highly recommend reading it, for the history of the rise of apostate Christianity is the history of Western Civilization, a basic understanding of which is necessary to understanding it’s wars and contentions, it’s Crusades and other societal conflicts.

The Restoration of the fulness of the gospel in our time, from 1830 A.D onward, has seen many authorized changes – from independent congregations coordinated by a prophet, later the Quorum of the Twelve, to the global establishment requiring a central authority working with the governments of the earth in order to open doors to the preaching of that gospel, the tension between local control and central control is a sensitive balancing act.   The recent pandemic crisis is a case in point.   Governments were not consistent in their policies.  In America, state policies regarding masking or gatherings or vaccinations were not consistent.  How can the Church of Jesus Christ maneuver through the muddy waters of individual rights, governing authority so the greater part of the people will have guidance?  I think we began to see the light, when the responsibility for such decisions was returned wholly to local areas, stakes, and wards, with bishops and the ward councils deciding if cancelling meetings or mask mandates were the best way to meet the needs of their congregations.   One way to avoid a general church Apostasy, is to return to the ideas of self-government and local autonomy in matters specific to conditions in various geographical and political locations,  while still maintaining communication and adherence to the actual doctrine of the Gospel, rather than establishing policies, which may or may be applicable in all areas of a global church.  We live in a day and time with such great technical advantages in the field of communications, unimagined in the times past, that this balance can actually be achieved as we build Zion among every nation, kindred, tongue, and people.

Final Thought:

In my opinion, knowing the history of the Great Apostasy will go a long way towards preventing the tendency of Mankind to desire to create a Church in his own image, rather than in God’s image.  Books such as The Great Apostasy can enlighten our minds and strengthen our commitment to preserve and protect the purity of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.  It is widely available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Deseret Books, and other similar outlets.


[1] Discussed in Chapter VII, pages 96 – 112: The Great Apostasy; Talmage, James E.; 1973 edition, Deseret Book Company.

[2] Discussed in Chapter VIII, pages 113 – 129: The Great Apostasy; Talmage, James E.; 1973 edition, Deseret Book Company.

[3] Woodford, Robert J.; How Much Do We Know About Baptism Before Christ’s Time?, article in July 1991 Ensign magazine.

[4] The Authority to Baptize; https://history.churchofjesuschrist.org/content/the-authority-to-baptize?lang=eng

[5] Baptism and the Gift of the Holy Ghost; https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/teachings-joseph-smith/chapter-7?lang=eng

[6] Priesthood Ordinances and Blessings; https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/principles-of-the-gospel/priesthood-ordinances-and-blessings?lang=eng

[7] Discussed in Chapter IX, pages 130 – 149: The Great Apostasy; Talmage, James E.; 1973 edition, Deseret Book Company.

[8] Chapter 11, page 131: The Great Apostasy; Talmage, James E.; 1973 edition, Deseret Book Company.

[9] Chapter 11, page 131: The Great Apostasy; Talmage, James E.; 1973 edition, Deseret Book Company.

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