Defending the Faith: The fall of the early Christian church was almost inevitable

Return To Article
Add a comment
  • JLFuller Boise, ID
    June 23, 2014 9:49 a.m.

    Saved sinner suggests the primitive church succeeded. Mormons agree although with the caveat that it did not succeed intact. The dominant Christian authority lost some important elements but the fact that the Church survived is proved by its continued growth and the millions who continued to be taught of Christ, God the Father and the Holy Ghost. In that sense, truly, the gates of hell have not prevailed.

  • wilsclanmom Alexandria, VA
    April 28, 2013 10:29 p.m.

    The forces arrayed against early Christianity were indeed formidable. The hardest things to convey forward required person to person contact, namely, the offices of the priesthood conveyed by the laying on of hands. And the hardest things to prevent would be the cultural syncretism that seeped in from the ubiquitous Greek philosophy of the day. But the basic tenets of the faith--that Jesus died for our sins on the cross and rose the third day--survived and were carried forward. I do not believe Bro. Peterson means to denigrate early Christians who did all in their power without telephones and fax machines to ensure the survival of Christianity. I know from talking to him that he greatly admires the faithful Christians of the early centuries. God didn't fail when he planted His church in the sometimes hostile soil of the first and second centuries. He guaranteed that the seeds would survive and grow, especially in American soil, providing a perfect nursery for a latter-day work. Roman, Orthodox, Reformation and Restorationist Christians have much in common, should admire one another's strengths, and combine forces for the important moral battles of the day.

  • zoar63 Mesa, AZ
    April 28, 2013 2:23 p.m.


    "The Temple for Christians is Jesus"

    Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him,

    That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand.

    Let no man deceive you by any means: for [that day shall not come], except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition;

    Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God. 2Thes2:1-4

    How can Jesus be the temple for Christians and the son of perdition occupy the temple? Also Christ is supposed to be part of the trinity according to mainstream beliefs so technically how can the son of perdition occupy the trinity?

    That passage of scripture also states there will be a falling away. The very presence of numerous Christian denominations is the evidence for that prophesied falling away.

  • JLFuller Boise, ID
    April 28, 2013 10:14 a.m.

    Have you ever noticed that the folks who make the nastiest of anti-Mormon comments always seem to mix a nickel's worth of rumor, two cents worth of misunderstnading, aa dime's worth of laziness and claim it to be a dollar's worth of fact?

  • JLFuller Boise, ID
    April 28, 2013 8:12 a.m.

    It appears to me that Peterson has taken an historians view. Historical perspective is troublesome for some who proclaim to be solely in posession of true Christian thought and practice and that Mormons are excluded from their club for one reason or another. But history has a way of getting in the way of such things. It boil's down to the sum total of the evidence and the good professor always seems to have the lion's share in that department.

  • urroner Titusville, fl
    April 27, 2013 3:02 p.m.

    skeptic said "The Mormon church in its short history has not survived intact, there are several independent different Mormon churches including: the FLDS, etc."

    Is there a question in there somewhere? If there isn't, what is the point you are trying to make?

  • urroner Titusville, fl
    April 27, 2013 2:55 p.m.

    To BrokenClay, I don't understand your logic with you question about the Mormon god being so underwhelming. Let me ask a couple of question using, I hope, the same logic you used in the second bullet point of your post. Please inform me if the logic is wrong and how it is wrong.

    Question 1: Is the typical Christian god so powerless that he cannot save everybody? If he can save everybody, then why doesn't he?

    Question 2: If the typical Christian god is so powerful that he created everything from nothing, then why did he create a universe that has so much evil in it?

    I don't understand the laser beam focused logic you demonstrated with the question about the Mormon god being so underwhelming when the same type of logic, when not so focused in on another's view, can also be extremely likely used to question your own view of god.

    Of course, if you are atheist, please disregard what I have posted.

  • Shimlau SAINT GEORGE, UT
    April 27, 2013 2:02 p.m.

    How interesting that this mans articles always bring out so many comments.

  • brokenclay Chandler, AZ
    April 27, 2013 12:04 p.m.

    I have to agree with a couple of posters on here.

    First, the Holy Spirit is the ultimate resource given to the church for its edification. Dr. Peterson neglects this in his article. I'll take the Holy Spirit over the steam engine any day.

    Second, it's perpetually interesting to me that Mormons have such a low view of their god. He's powerless to preserve the church for trivial reasons like a lack of printing presses and telephones. You've got the Creator as your leader, and yet he's not able to operate without modern technologies.

    Third, the Gospel came when the time was exactly right (the fullness of time; Gal 4:4; Eph 1:10), as judged by God. If Christianity needed cell phones to survive, maybe he should have waited a couple more millennia to send his Son. One might wonder about the wisdom and foresight involved in such a decision.

  • sharrona layton, UT
    April 27, 2013 10:45 a.m.

    RE: Defending the faith(in JS).
    The true church is made up of individuals, not four walls. Any church organization that claims to be the only true church to a person that knows the scriptures that they are a false church.
    Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.(1 Cor 12:27).

    Christ said he was coming for a Church=(ekklesia/elect) without a spot or a wrinkle(Eph 5:27). He was not saying He was coming for a church building or some organization recognized by the federal government. Those who put their trust in Jesus Christ are the true [invisible]church.

    A total apostasy would make Jesus a liar. “… Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. (Mt 16:18). Not the rock of revelation but Jesus Christ.See,(Mt 18:20)

    RE: A history buff, write down what He said or did? “The Holy Spirit, … will teach you(disciples), and remind you of all that I have said to you. ”John 14:26) . The writing of the N.T..

  • Richard Hitchens Layton, UT
    April 27, 2013 8:27 a.m.

    So God set up his church in an era where it was destined to fail for lack of technological development?

  • thinking outside the box Ogden, UT
    April 26, 2013 11:07 p.m.

    Something to remember when reading this article is that there were Jews at the time of Christ who had the Septuagint...the Greek version of the Old had a people group who valued the passing down of God's message by way of revelation, then passed down a in the past orally and in writing. So was the case for Christianity. After approx. 4000 years the Jewish beliefs were still intact even though the people of Israel had many seasons of rebellion against God and times of corruption. Jews became slaves of other countries...However, many Jews became Christians and carried on their high value of preserving God's Word, plus Jesus said he would be with his people always...and the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth.

  • A history buff austin, TX
    April 26, 2013 5:42 p.m.

    We have no indication that Jesus ever told any of His followers to write down what He said or did. The 4 gospels that were canonized centuries later were written by anonymous authors, decades after His resurrection. Do we know how Jesus intended for the gospel to be spread without corruption? It appears He intended His Apostles to do this, in person. The fact that there was such dramatic variance in core doctrines in the proto-orthodox communities in the centuries after the death of the Apostles validates Dr. Peterson's assertions.

  • zoar63 Mesa, AZ
    April 26, 2013 1:28 p.m.


    "Assuming, of course, that the farm boy wasn't lying about the whole thing..."

    And if he wasn’t….

  • RanchHand Huntsville, UT
    April 26, 2013 12:06 p.m.

    Mountanman says;

    "Interesting answer a 14 year old farm boy received when he asked THAT question, wasn't it?"

    Assuming, of course, that the farm boy wasn't lying about the whole thing...

  • Wanda B. Rich Provo, UT
    April 26, 2013 9:41 a.m.

    I'm reluctant to talk about a "great apostasy," because the more I study, the less I am convinced that Jesus (or his apostles) founded anything we could call a church. There is no record of Jesus setting up an organization beyond sending a few messengers out to teach and baptize and heal. He was an itinerant preacher who went about doing good. After his death, the apostles and others went far and wide, baptizing and establishing "churches," which we would probably call congregations (or "branches" in current LDS vernacular). But these small groups had constant problems and were not really tied together by any sort of central hierarchy until long after the death of the apostles. Christ certainly started a movement. But whether we can call it a "church" is questionable. And as Dr. Peterson points out, this movement was full of disarray right out of the gate. So what is this apostasy? How can you apostatize from something that is already falling apart?

  • Johnny Triumph American Fork, UT
    April 26, 2013 9:20 a.m.

    Shortsighted to put the failure of the early church on communication, things were not much better until a state sponsored church grew. There is no doubt that communication advances have allowed a more consistent flow of doctrine but there's little to say the lack of communication caused the demise of the early church.

  • skeptic Phoenix, AZ
    April 26, 2013 9:05 a.m.


    The Mormon church in its short history has not survived intact, there are several independent different Mormon churches including: the FLDS, etc.

  • skeptic Phoenix, AZ
    April 26, 2013 8:02 a.m.


    Apostasy like conversion is a individual action not a church or society action. Therefore, every living Christian would have had to quite the church of Christ and dropped their priesthood to require a restoration. There is no good reason to believe that has happened.

  • Mountanman Hayden, ID
    April 26, 2013 7:50 a.m.

    Denominationalism, creedalism and doctrinal division is proof that the original Christian church did not survive in tact. Otherwise there would be "one faith, one Lord and one baptism". We are left to take our pick among the thousands of options of Christianity on the earth! Which church should I join? Interesting answer a 14 year old farm boy received when he asked THAT question, wasn't it?

  • caleb in new york Glen Cove, NY
    April 25, 2013 10:07 p.m.

    I think Brother Peterson's remarks overlook the powerful influence that the Holy Spirit can have to guide individuals and that the same Holy Spirit was available to guide the members and leaders of the original church. Based on that power the original church could have survived if they had strengthened themselves to withstand cultural assimilation.

    At the time of the restoration the people had the printing press which allowed a printed Bible and printing of the Book of Mormon, but otherwise they did not have advanced communication technology. Trains, telegraphs, all came later on.

    But I agree that survival of the church would have been a very difficult task for the reasons Brother Peterson mentions.

  • JSB Sugar City, ID
    April 25, 2013 6:02 p.m.

    Rational and good people can look at the same evidence and facts and come to different conclusions. The answer is, of course, to go to God and ask Him where the truth is. That's what Joseph Smith did. That's what I have done and have come to the conclusion that there was an apostasy and a restoration. I would have trouble debating with scholars on any position.

  • sharrona layton, UT
    April 25, 2013 5:09 p.m.

    RE: Cinci Man,, "perfect". “be ye therefore perfect( teleios), even as your Father in Heaven is perfect' (Mt5:48) Christs’ high ideal of perfect love(see vv 43-47). Love is an communicable moral attribute like, grace, mercy; holiness, righteousness.

    RE: ,historical use of temples, *Built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy Temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.(Eph 2:20-22) *past tense.

    The Temple for Christians is Jesus, “destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). After Christ’s resurrection the meaning of these words became plain, when Jesus spoke of the destruction of the temple, he was speaking of his own body (John 2:22).

    @ John 16 to learn of the importance the Holy Ghost . John 16:7,” comforter” =(G 3875 G paraklētos) =”advocate” In 1John 2:1. Like ( Holy Spirit/Ghost=(pneuma) same Greek Word.

  • Craig Clark Boulder, CO
    April 25, 2013 5:01 p.m.


    No religion is as static as it makes out to be. If it were, it would soon die out.

    The trick to making change is to spin it as continuity with eternal truths. I know that sounds cynical but for 2,000 years Christianity has held that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever even though we all know that human understanding is perpetually in a state of development.

  • Thinkman Provo, UT
    April 25, 2013 4:00 p.m.

    If you define "fall" in the way the LDS Church does which equals changing doctrine, ending certain rituals and ordinances, eliminating other key principles of the Church, then doesn't that mean too that the LDS Church itself has also, "fallen."

  • RanchHand Huntsville, UT
    April 25, 2013 2:08 p.m.

    Along with everything else Mr. Peterson listed, there was also the fact that early Christians never knew when the Apostle was speaking for god or merely stating his personal opinion. Much like today; even though we have instantaneous communication today.

  • Craig Clark Boulder, CO
    April 25, 2013 1:48 p.m.


    Non-Catholic historians admit, it can be demonstrated easily that early Church writers, such as Ignatius of Antioch, Eusebius, Clement of Rome, and Polycarp, had no conception of Mormon doctrine, and they knew nothing of a "great apostasy."

    They also knew nothing of the Protestant Reformation. That doesn’t stop Lutherans, Calvinists, Wesleyans and the many denominational spinoffs from selectively using the Bible to support their respective theologies and doctrines. Are you sure it matters to God?

    “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” - John 10:17

  • Cinci Man FT MITCHELL, KY
    April 25, 2013 11:42 a.m.

    To Sharrona:
    Once again you comment without reading ALL the scriptures, especially the Bible. Look up the word, "perfect". Also, try helping us understand the historical use of temples. Even Jesus himself frequently taught in the temple.

    Also, you conclude that if one uses only a subset of scripture and history, it mandates the conclusion that Mormon doctrines didn't exist. Every time I read your posts, I see how limited your resources are. And for sure, the Holy Ghost is not part of your life. But I invite you to read John 16 to learn of the importance the Holy Ghost is, even to Jesus.

  • Cinci Man FT MITCHELL, KY
    April 25, 2013 11:33 a.m.

    To savedsinner:
    As a Biblical Christian, you will be able to show us the Bible verses where Jesus taught us to pray to Him, not to Heavenly Father. It seems that in my Bible, Jesus taught us to pray to the Father in His (Jesus') name. Thanks for helping us!

  • Craig Clark Boulder, CO
    April 25, 2013 11:17 a.m.

    Sneaky Jimmy,

    "....What is truly remarkable is the fact that Christianity survived at all...."

    Indeed. Had Christianity remained a localized group of dissident Jews in Judea, it might have died out by the end of the first century. That it survived and flourished is due in large measure to the radical efforts of Saul of Tarsus.

    Taking interpretive liberties, Saul (or Paul) forged an advocacy of Jesus that was adaptable and appealing to the larger Mediterranean world. The result was a rising Gentile church that came to eclipse its Judean forerunner. But it also made Christianity incompatible with its Jewish roots and made the schism with Judaism inevitable.

  • Tyler D Meridian, ID
    April 25, 2013 10:37 a.m.

    @Craig Clark – “Jesus announced the arrival of the Kingdom of God”

    And the real irony (and tragedy) of this is had he been born in India and later made this pronouncement, rather than being killed for it the response would have been something like “good job Jesus, glad you figured it out. Now go build an ashram (or wonder the countryside) and spend the rest of your life teaching people how to realize the same.”

  • skeptic Phoenix, AZ
    April 25, 2013 10:36 a.m.

    It seems confusing that if there is a god who was capable of organizing and establishing such a complex religion and church that he had no plan for its preservation, delivery and application so as to leave it to politics to make of it what ever best serves and profits different interest and organizations.

  • Craig Clark Boulder, CO
    April 25, 2013 9:52 a.m.

    "The church founded anciently by Christ not only didn’t survive intact but probably couldn’t have. Ancient means of communication weren’t up to the task...."

    Jesus announced the arrival of the Kingdom of God. The church came instead. I agree with Daniel Peterson that communication was not up to the task of preserving the original thrust of what Jesus tried to bring forth. That’s partly why disunity tore at the movement right from the outset.

    I say partly because the larger cause of internal conflict was the Hellenistic world into which the movement spread very rapidly led by a maverick self-proclaimed apostle, Saul of Tarsus.

    Joseph Smith used the term apostasy to describe what happened. Martin Luther spoke of a paganized church of Rome. I find neither of those terms helpful to modern understanding that we today might more accurately call cultural assimilation.

  • sharrona layton, UT
    April 25, 2013 9:27 a.m.

    Non-Catholic historians admit, it can be demonstrated easily that early Church writers, such as Ignatius of Antioch, Eusebius, Clement of Rome, and Polycarp, had no conception of Mormon doctrine, and they knew nothing of a "great apostasy." Nowhere in their writings can one find references to Christians embracing any of the peculiarly Mormon doctrines, such as polytheism, polygamy, celestial marriage, and temple ceremonies.
    If the Church of the apostolic age was the prototype of today’s Mormon church, it must have had all these beliefs and practices. But why is there no evidence of them in the early centuries, before the alleged apostasy began? Catholic Answers
    JS History All their creeds were abomination?
    Early creed Used at Baptisms; ”If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is LORD(YHWH),” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” ( Romans 10:9)(cf. 1Cor 12:3. Paul is ascribing deity to Jesus.
    I.e, Joel 2:32. And everyone who calls on the name of the LORD(YHWH) will be saved

  • Sneaky Jimmy Bay Area, CA
    April 25, 2013 9:25 a.m.

    Thank you for addressing one of the most fascinating aspects in all of history. What is truly remarkable is the fact that Christianity survived at all. Examine these crazy facts:
    1. Christianity spread far, wide and deep despite all the logistical problems pointed out in the article.
    2. There was the equivalent of the "extermination order" against Christians throughout the Roman Empire yet people remained committed.
    3. Constantin's "Vision", in this sign you will conquer. Was it really a vision?
    The more one looks at early Christianity, the more one is amazed.

  • RG Buena Vista, VA
    April 25, 2013 9:05 a.m.

    To savedsinner: The Bible was not compiled until about 300 AD. So the Christians before that time could not be called Biblical Christians. But I think they were true Christians, don't you?

    The Christians described in Bible times had living prophets and apostles. They had the priesthood, which could only be received by ordination by one holding it. They added to existing scripture. They had a lay ministry, and their leaders did not attend divinity school. All the branches of the early church were part of one organization. These things are all apparent when you carefully read the Bible. My point is that Latter-day Saints, who also have living prophets and apostles, profess an open cannon, have a lay ministry, and have a similar priesthood structure and general leadership which is at the head of local congregations are today's real "Biblical Christians." Although they have done a lot of good for a lot of people, today's Protestant churches are quite different from the church, described in the Bible, that Jesus organized.

  • Tyler D Meridian, ID
    April 25, 2013 9:02 a.m.

    Dr. Peterson seems to contradict himself right out of the gate when he says (in the 1st sentence) “the Church founded by… Christ” but then goes on to suggest that what makes the Christian Church a church is its scriptures (i.e., instructional doctrines). Since Christ did not write the scriptures, how could he have founded a church?

    Also, his entire premise (festering heresies, false apostles, etc…) suggests that in the decades it took to get the complete New Testament, errors would inevitably been included. If that is so, why is the NT still considered canonical?

  • NC Diaspora Chapel Hill, NC
    April 25, 2013 8:19 a.m.

    I think this article needs to be more clearly identified as LDS apology for a predominately LDS audience. As someone who is LDS myself, but who has read widely on the evolution of Christiainity, and as someone with Christian friends from other denominations, I would no more presume to publically discuss the "inevitable fall" of their early Christian churches anymore than I would appreciate them publically discussing the "inevitable fall" of Joseph Smith. I don't blame Dr. Peterson, but the website editors should be more careful to identify this as a faith-based LDS discussion of our own doctrine of apostasy and not a scholarly or even public opinion commentary on early Christianity. President Monson and others are constantly being recognized for their work to build bridges of understanding between ourselves and those of other faiths, but the presentation of this article does not help those noble aims.

  • Cats Somewhere in Time, UT
    April 25, 2013 7:58 a.m.

    Thanks Dr. Peterson.

  • savedsinner ferron, UT
    April 25, 2013 7:54 a.m.

    Except that Jesus' church did survive, as He said it would (And I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Mt 16:18). On this, all orthodox Christianinity agrees. It is one of the basic truths about Christianity. Mormon theology denies this basic truth, one of the many deviations of Mormonism from Biblical Christianity. Yet LDS folks are offended when we (Biblical Christians) point out that this is one of the many reasons we cite when concluding that Mormonism can not be "Christian".

  • Palmetto Bug Columbia, SC
    April 25, 2013 5:56 a.m.

    I had been saying a similar thing for years. I'm glad someone more articulate than myself put these thoughts down in print.

  • Phil Kitchen UK, 00
    April 25, 2013 5:28 a.m.

    Very interesting article. It is somewhat of a miracle to recount what happened after the apostasy i.e.scriptures were gathered together undoubtedly with some interpolations. As the centuries unwound, many efforts were made to translate the old and new testament into usable everyday languages. Eventually, these efforts were crowned with success. The book of Judah carried forth to America and many other countries became a bastion of faith and a great defender of faith (as is stated of King James in the preface). Indeed, were it not for the Bible and its commonality of use, the verses which led Joseph Smith to reflect, ponder and pray would not have existed at all. The accomplishments of the first quorum of the twelve '... to go into all the world and..... preach the gospel to every creature ...' has to be one of the greatest success stories of all time.