The Great and Abominable Church

1 Nephi 13-14

© Copyright 1999-2000 by Richard G. Grant.
Free use is granted, with attribution, for any non-pecuniary purposes.





Introduction — Nephi's Contradiction

Nephi gives us the following major characteristics of the great and abominable church:

  1. It persecutes, tortures, and slays the Saints of God (13:5).
  2. It seeks wealth and luxury (13:7).
  3. It is characterized by sexual immorality (13:7).
  4. It has excised plain and precious things from the scriptures (13:26-29).
  5. It has dominion over all the earth, among all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people (14:11).
  6. Its fate is to be consumed by a world war, in which the nations it incited against the Saints turn to war among themselves until they destroy the great and abominable church itself (22:13-14).

Nephi tells us that this church is "most abominable above all other churches" (1 Nephi 13:5 & 26) and he makes plain that this is a specific historical organization. The formation occurred after the scriptures went forth from the hands of the twelve apostles, and it is the agent that removed from those scriptures plain and precious parts. Doctrine and Covenants 86:1-3 restates this chronology, making clear that the great and abominable church did its work after the Apostles had fallen asleep. Thus, the earliest time for the formation of this church would be near the end of the first century A.D.

It's obvious that by the time Constantine made Christianity the church of the Roman state (320A.D.), this pollution of the gospel of Christ had been completed. Some time between 100 A.D. and 300 A.D. the great and abominable church identified by Nephi had completed its work. Most LDS scholars fix this time closer to the beginning of this period–sometime in the early 2nd century. What name can we give to this church? Dr. Stephen Robinson, points out that this time period is a black hole as far as church history is concerned. All we can say is that Christianity at the end of the 2nd century was vastly different from the Christianity that entered that century. This is also freely admitted by most Christian scholars who have studied this period.(1)

Again, what is Nephi's great and abominable church? In chapter 14 he is told by the angel that in the last days there would be two churches only; "the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil" (1 Nephi 14:10). The angel further identifies this church of the devil as "the mother of abominations" and "the whore of all the earth." Finally in verse 17 the angel removes all doubt, clearly identifying this "mother of harlots" as "the great and abominable church." From this it would seem obvious that this great and abominable church is all churches that are not Christ's church. Dr. Robinson explains:

In the realm of religion there are only two categories: religion that will save and religion that won't. The former is the church of the Lamb, and the latter–no matter how well intentioned–is a counterfeit. Thus, even a "good" church must still be part of the devil's kingdom in the sense used in 1 Nephi 14 ("there are save two churches only"), for it cannot do what it pretends to do.(2)

Now, we seem to have a contradiction here. In chapter 13, Nephi made it plain that the great and abominable church was a specific organization. It came into existence at a specific time. It did some very specific things. Yet, in chapter 14 he makes it just as clear that this great and abominable church, this church of the devil, is not any specific denomination in Christianity, rather it is all of the denominations of apostate Christianity. The definition need not be restricted to even this boundary. Rather, as has been specified by many of the brethren, any organization, religious, political, or social, that fights against the true church of God is part of Satan's kingdom. Nephi's definition goes even further: "whoso belongeth not to the church of the Lamb of God, belongeth to that great church, which is the mother of abominations." So, which is it? Is the great and abominable church a single organization, or is it just a metaphor for evil in the world? Dr. Robinson suggests that it is both.

Apocalyptic Literature?

To understand this there must first be an appreciation for the kind of literature Nephi is writing. To some degree, I'm referring here to the kind literature we find in all scripture. Nephi, specifically relates his vision and its account to the future vision to be received by the apostle, John, and to the record of that vision which John would write. John's book, Revelation, is an example of what is called apocalyptic literature. This is a way of writing which makes heavy use of symbols and metaphors. The dream of Lehi, and the interpreting vision to Nephi are good examples of apocalyptic visions. For example, Dr. Robinson points out that an apocalyptic vision usually includes "an angelic interpreter for the seer to understand what he sees."

Two specific characteristics of apocalyptic literature will help us understand how the Lord is using this term, "the great and abominable church." First, names are frequently used as symbols. Second, there are no gray areas; in apocalyptic writings, "everything boils down to opposing principles: love and hate, good and evil, light and dark." Let's examine these two characteristics as they apply to Nephi's description of the great and abominable church.

Names used as Symbols

This is a concept that is really very familiar to Latter-day Saints. We speak frequently of Zion. When we use this name we sometimes are referring to a specific place. We also know that Zion is the Lord's name for the congregation of the "pure in heart." We may both live in present Zion, and at the same time be striving to bring about a future Zion. Similarly the Lord makes symbolic use of many place names to represent the opposite of the pure in heart. Most familiar is Babylon. This is the name of a real historical city. It was and is a city known for its wickedness. It was Satan's city. So the Lord will frequently use that name as a symbol or metaphor for the wickedness of the world. Dr. Robinson says that Babylon: "is not one city but many cities, all of which fall into the larger category of 'that great city' which is the antithesis of the city of God. . . Just as Zion is wherever the pure in heart dwell (Doctrine and Covenants 97:21), so Babylon is where the whore lives."(3)

Either Good or Not Good

There is no gray in apocalyptic literature. Everything is black or white, good or bad, righteous or evil. Dr. Robinson says that "at the very least, everything can be reduced to the opposing categories of A and not-A."

Thus, any organization that fails to support the true church of God, any organization that does not teach the true gospel of Jesus Christ, any people who do not live by the standards of the Master, such are to at least some degree part of Satan's kingdom–part of that great and abominable church.

In one verse, Jacob illustrates both characteristics of this apocalyptic terminology as he uses Zion and whore metaphorically in his definition of Satan's kingdom. He declared:

"Wherefore, he that fighteth against Zion, both Jew and Gentile, both bond and free, both male and female, shall perish; for they are they who are the whore of all the earth,–for they who are not for me are against me, saith our God" (2 Nephi 10:16).

What / Who is the Great and Abominable Church?

At this point it may be obvious. Just as Zion and Babylon are used specifically and metaphorically, Nephi is using the term great and abominable church in different ways in chapter 13 and chapter 14. In chapter 13, Nephi is identifying a specific organization. His use is not metaphorical. He is labeling and describing those theologians and scholars, probably in the 2nd century A.D., who should have been the honorable and responsible caretakers of a most sacred record. Was this an established organization? Was it an organized conspiracy? Perhaps the only leadership was that of Satan working in the hearts and minds of faithless men seeking to reconcile Christianity with what they had accepted as the truths of Greek philosophy. Dr. Robinson says is simply: "When Jewish Christianity and Greek culture met head-on in the gentile mission field in the middle of the first century, the Greeks eventually won, and Jewish Christianity was ultimately "revised" to make it more attractive and appealing to a Greek audience."(4)

In chapter 14 Nephi uses "great and abominable church" in a metaphorical sense. This is not the naming of any specific organization. Rather, this is the apocalyptic categorization of all humanity into the kingdoms of God or Satan, into Zion and Babylon. Dr. Robinson points out that "there will always be a Babylon and a Zion." He explains:

From the apocalyptic point of view there is only one script, one plot, from the foundation of the world until its end. The characters in the play and the lines they deliver are always the same from dispensation to dispensation, although the individual actors who play the roles and speak the lines may change with time. Therefore, there is always the role of "that great city," though the part might be played at different times in history by Sodom, Egypt, Nineveh, Babylon, Rome, Berlin, Moscow, or Washington, D.C. The important thing is to know what the archetypical patterns are and their identifying characteristics. Then we can orient ourselves in any time or place and know who functions now in the role of Babylon and where Zion is located.(5)

And as stated earlier, in the realm of religion there also can be but two categories: religion that does save and religion that cannot. No matter how well intentioned, any church that is not the church of the Lamb of God, is a counterfeit. Even a "good" church, no mater how sincere and faithful, is still part of the devil's kingdom in the sense used in 1 Nephi 14 ("there are save two churches only"), for it cannot do what it claims to do – it cannot bring salvation to its members.

At the same time, the labeling of any church as the great and abominable in the 1 Nephi 13 sense is not justified. Dr. Robinson makes clear the importance of understanding the difference between Nephi's two uses of this term.(6)

The organization identified in chapter 13 was evil. It persecuted and killed the Saints of God. It did not seek the truth but corrupted that truth. There are many "good" churches today whose intentions are honorable and whose teachings are wholesome and Christ centered. Such churches cannot be called abominable in the chapter 13 sense. Yet, in the black and white sense of chapter 14, they are not Zion and thus must be identified with Babylon.

What about the individuals who might be members of a church of Babylon? Dr. Robinson makes this important clarification regarding the application of this terminology to the individual:

Individual orientation to the Church of the Lamb or to the great and abominable church is not only by membership but by loyalty. Just as there are those on the records of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who belong to the great and abominable church by virtue of their loyalty to Satan and his life-style (2 Nephi 10:16), so there are members of other churches who will eventually belong to the Lamb by virtue of their loyalty to him and to his life-style, which will lead to their accepting the saving ordinances. The distinction is based on who has your heart, not on who has your records.(7)

Notes and References:

1. "Early Christianity and 1 Nephi 13-14," by Dr. Stephen Robinson, in The Book of Mormon: First Nephi, The Doctrinal Foundation, page 188. Dr. Robinson is a professor of ancient scripture at BYU. This reference is the principle source for most of the material in this article.

2. Ibid., p. 184.

3. Ibid., pp. 182-3.

4. Dr. Robinson provides some detail: "Can we identify the historical agency that acted as the great and abominable church in earliest Christianity and which Nephi and others describe? I would like to argue that the great and abominable church Nephi describes in chapter 13 had its origins in the second half of the first century and had essentially done its work by the middle of the second century. This period might be called the blind spot of ecclesiastical history, for it is here that the fewest primary historical sources have been preserved. Essentially, what happened is that we have good sources for New Testament Christianity (the New Testament documents themselves); then the lights go out (that is, we have very few historical sources), and in the dark we hear the muffled sounds of a great struggle. When the lights come on again a hundred years or so later, we find that someone has rearranged all the furniture and that Christianity is something very different from what it was in the beginning. That different entity can be accurately described by the term hellenized Christianity. The hellenization of Christianity is a phenomenon which has long been recognized by scholars of Christian history, but it is one which Latter-day Saints know better as the Great Apostasy. Hellenization means imposing Greek culture on the native cultures of the East. The result was a synthesis of East and West, with elements of the Greek West predominating, a melting-pot, popular culture which was virtually worldwide.

". . . When Jewish Christianity and Greek culture met head-on in the gentile mission field in the middle of the first century, the Greeks eventually won, and Jewish Christianity was ultimately 'revised' to make it more attractive and appealing to a Greek audience. Primary prejudices of the Hellenistic world were the 'absolute' nature of God (that is, he cannot be bound or limited by anything) and the impossibility of anything material or physical being eternal. In order to accommodate these ideas and thus appeal to a broader gentile audience, Christianity had to discard the doctrines of an anthropomorphic God and the resurrection of the dead or else 'reinterpret' them in a manner that had the same effect." (Ibid., pp.188-9)

5. Ibid., p. 183.

6. Dr. Robinson says concerning the "good" churches: "Such a church cannot be called the great and abominable church in the sense used in 1 Nephi 13, for its intentions are good and honorable, and quite often such churches teach people enough truth that they can then recognize the true church when they meet it. These churches do not slay the Saints of God, they do not seek to control civil governments, nor do they pursue wealth, luxury, and sexual immorality. Such churches may belong to the kingdom of the devil in the apocalyptic sense, where there are only two categories, A and not-A, but they cannot be called the great and abominable church in the historical sense–the description is just not accurate." (Ibid., p. 184.)

7. Ibid., p. 184.