The Great Apostasy
When Adam and Eve were placed on the earth, God spoke with them personally. Adam was the first prophet and received instruction from God and from those God chose. He learned the commandments and God’s plan for him and his family. When Adam died, a new prophet was chosen. This was necessary because the new world must get off to a good start and know from the beginning what was true and what was expected of them. Throughout much of the Bible, there were prophets on the earth who instructed and led the people in their spiritual lives.
However, there were times when the prophets were taken from the people of the Bible. These were times when the people preferred wickedness and ignored or even killed the prophets. During those times, the people were left to flounder on their own, having past teachings if they chose to use them, but having no new guidance to get them through the changes in the world. As things changed, new situations arose that were not covered by previous revelation, and without a prophet, the people could only guess what to do.
In time, however, God always restored the prophets and called the people to repentance. These times when prophets were on the earth were called dispensations. The times when there were no prophets were called apostasy.
When Jesus came and began his ministry, he became the prophet. It was He who communicated with God and delivered God’s words to the people who were willing to listen. In time, of course, Jesus was killed. The apostles continued to lead the church and to provide a prophet for the people, but the people were largely disinterested. One by one the apostles died or were killed and eventually there was no one who had the authority to carry on as the prophet. The small band of followers was left on its own to keep Christianity alive, but there was no prophet. This has become known as the Great Apostasy.
This great apostasy was foretold by the earlier prophets. Amos warned the people: “11 Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord:
12 And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it. (Amos 8)
We’ve seen this occur as we watch the history of the religious world. In time, people couldn’t remember what the truth was or couldn’t decide what was true in a changing world. As a result, the growing numbers of Christians were at odds with each other. They began splitting into smaller churches with opposing beliefs. People were discouraged from reading the Bible themselves, if they could read, so they would have to trust their religious leaders as to what God said, and this allowed dramatic interpretation or corruption of truth to occur.
Although the prophets were gone, God had not turned away from His children. Powerful spiritual forces were at work to prepare the world for the end of the Great Apostasy.
The invention of the printing press, which made it less expensive to print Bibles that could be placed into the hands of ordinary, educated people, helped to prepare for a time when the prophets could return. The work of the Protestant Reformation also helped to pave the way for a restoration of truth. John Wycliffe protested corruption that had crept into the Savior’s church and was placed on house arrest for doing so until his death two years later. Jan Huss was burned at the stake as a heretic for agreeing with some of Wycliffe’s beliefs. And of course, Martin Luther changed religious history when he protested the sale of indulgences and other corruptions. When summoned by the emperor, he stated,
“Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason-I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other-my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. … Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.”
As Luther and others saw, the churches were contradicting one another and contradicting scripture. These efforts at reform set the stage for the kinds of changes that would cause others to wonder about the diversity of contradictory doctrine in existence, and this, in turn, would lead some of them, one young man in particular, to begin a search for the one true church.