Mormon belief in an early Christian apostasy suggests a couple of historiographic projects that are, I think, doomed to failure, but there might be an alternative. One common but unworkable approach is the attempt to document the falling away from the original church; the other is the quest to demonstrate an outward identity of early Christianity and current Mormonism. Both are quite viable as matters of belief or devotional reading of history, but neither one allows the kind of scholarship that doesn’t start with the conclusion.
If the apostasy itself is hard to grasp as history, belief in the apostasy is much easier to document. The question becomes: who among early Christians thought that night was coming? Who thought that darkness had already fallen? And who before 1830 thought that priesthood authority had been withdrawn, but would one day return? If we can answer those questions, we might not demonstrate that an apostasy took place, but we could potentially place the Mormon historical model of apostasy and restoration in a tradition reaching back to the first century. Hugh Nibley, in his work on early Christian belief in an apostasy, provided an initial basis for the first centuries A.D. (see Ryan Christensenâ€™s excellent bibliographic note).
Confirming the Mormon view of history is also the function of the pseudo-prophecy of “Lutius Gratiano” (for the authoritative debunking, see Paul Pixton’s article). From the Mormon point of view, the time before 1830 lacked proper authority to conduct priesthood ordinances; apart from recognizing the prevailing state of apostasy and looking forward expectantly to the restoration, there wasn’t much else to be done. Or as the pseudo-prophecy puts it,
The old true gospel and the powers thereof are lost. False doctrines prevail throughout every church and all the lands. All we can do is to exhort the people to fear God, to be just, to shun evil, to pray, pray, pray. Prayer and purity may bring an angel to visit a deeply distressed soul â€¦ [who] will restore the old Church again (Cited from Pixton 28 n. 1).
Enlightened minds, skeptical of nth-generation copies passed down in all earnestness from gullible mission companions, read these lines and shake their heads. Surely no one looks at their own time and sees apostasy, or dreams of a far-off restoration!
In 1531, the Anabaptist leader Pilgram Marpeck authored what might be called a proto-Anti-Mormon tract. In it, he attacked various positions that are usually most closely associated with Caspar Schwenckfeld. Marpeck’s attack does not necessarily represent Schwenckfeld’s personal beliefs, but the tract can be taken as initial evidence of what some people believed in or around 1531. Namely, Marpeck writes,
They say that, at present, no longer does anyone have the power to employ the ceremonies of Christ, such as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, teaching, the ban, and the laying on of hands, and that those who do employ these ceremonies do so apart from Godâ€™s command….
They say that, as often as the Jews fell from God, they were restored and corrected through a new prophet. These fake teachers adduce many histories and accounts against the truth in order to prove that the fallen Christians of the kingdom of Antichrist also shall be brought back, in the same way, through prophets. Otherwise, as they say, one employs unwashed hands to carry out the work, teaching, and ceremonies of Christ. They introduce the fact that the apostles waited, as the Lord commanded, for the Holy Spirit.
In Marpeck’s opinion, the beliefs he is attacking are tantamount to Christ saying,
“If in time you grow in unbelief and fall, you will see miracles and great powerful deeds through prophets; then believe in them. But before such prophets are sent to you, you must give yourself unto repentance and heartfelt prayer, and thereafter I will send you prophets or apostles who will restore your fall. I will then send you prophets, as in former times I always sent them to the Jews after their judging, punishment, and repentance; they have thus been lifted up and corrected.” These prophets [that is, those who espouse the beliefs that Marpeck finds so ridiculous] were the first to invent this approach… [pp. 71, 89-90, 92-93 in The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck, trans. and ed. by William Klassen and Walter Klaassen [Kitchener/Scottdale: Herald Press, 1978]. The citations here are from Ain klarer vast nutzlicher vnterricht wider ettliche TrÃ¼ck vnd schleichendt Geyster… [Strasbourg: Jakob Cammerlander, 1531], VD16 M 925).
Belief that all the world was in apostasy? Check. Lack of authority to conduct ordinances? Check. Exhortation to pray and do good works and repent? Check. Expectation of a future prophet who will restore authority? Check. Marking the calendar for April 6, 1830, and plotting out the coordinates of the Great Salt Lake? Not so much, but you have to take what you can get.
It’s important to keep in mind that Marpeck is an express opponent of all these ideas (and his arguments against them are by no means flimsy). One has to be cautious in interpreting one man’s statements about the beliefs of his opponents. On the other hand, Marpeck’s writing suggests that some Anabaptist groups are too quickly categorized as spiritualists who sought the church of Christ in their hearts, when in fact some of them saw it, concretely, in the future. That is both a tradition that historians can argue about, and a timeline of history in which Mormons can place themselves.