Defining the Great and Abominable Church
My Evangelical friends should know that I have worked tirelessly to excise the inappropriate usage of some Mormons to consign all other denominations to the heading “great and abominable church” (GAC).
I’m fairly certain, that this has been promulgated the most by the authoritative sounding book published by the late Bruce R. McConkie (BRM). While BRM was an LDS apostle, at the time his book was published he was not an LDS apostle. For a number of reasons why this book was problematic, (as seen from the leadership of the Church), you can see a number of sources, including this one. Of particular note, is the need of over 1000 corrections, and even then, the President of the Church did not want any other editions published. More information about this can be read about in the biography on David O. McKay.
It’s probably clear by now, that I don’t consider Mormon Doctrine to be “Official Mormon Doctrine.” I point out that the book has never passed the Church’s correlation, and therefore, I don’t think anyone should use McConkie’s writings as “the official” way to interpret LDS scriptures. In fact, in discussing the “Great and Abominable Church,” there is a writing that HAS passed Church correlation. I think that all LDS church members should read this talk before ascribing anyone to the “great and abominable church.”
The article was written by Stephen Robinson, and is found in the 1988 January Ensign magazine, entitled “Warring against the Saints of God,” on page 34. You can read the entire article for yourself, and also check my conclusions, but I’m going to give a paraphrase of the article.
Nephi’s vision in 1 Nephi chapters 13 and 14 fits into the genre of apocalyptic literature, meaning that the seer is caught up in vision and sees things from God’s perspective. “Time ceases to be an important element; this is one reason the chronology in Revelation at times seems to be scrambled: with God there is no time as we reckon it. (See Alma 40:8.)” Because of the symbolic nature of apocalyptic visions, usually an angelic interpreter is required. The symbols are all-inclusive: all things can be placed into the categories. While the name of the symbol may change, the character, that which defines the symbol, always stays the same. And while a symbol could theoretically stand for a single thing, often it doesn’t. For instance Babylon doesn’t describe a single city, it describes a situation, one script, one plot. Therefore, in apocalyptic literature, the important point is identifying the patterns and characteristics of those categories.
We are informed that great means large, and abominable means that which God hates, often being associated with idolatrous worship or gross sexual immorality.
The Hebrew and Greek words for “church” have a broader meaning anciently than our modern use of church, meaning basically any association of those with the same loyalties, and was not restrictive to mere religious associations.
Robinson posits that the term great and abominable church should mean: “an immense assembly or association of people bound together by their loyalty to that which God hates. Most likely, this “church” is involved specifically in sexual immorality, idolatry (that is, false worship), or both.” Then Robinson lists the major characteristics of the GAC as found in 1 Nephi and compares that with the characteristics of Babylon as found in Revelation.
1. The GAC persecutes, tortures, and slays the Saints of God. (See 1 Ne. 13:5.) & Babylon is drunk with the blood of the Saints, the martyrs of Jesus, and the prophets. (See Rev. 17:6; Rev. 18:24.)
2. The GAC seeks wealth and luxury. (See 1 Ne. 13:7–8.) & Bablyon is known for her enjoyment of great wealth and luxury. (See Rev. 17:4; Rev. 18:3, 11–16.)
3. The GAC is characterized by sexual immorality. (See 1 Ne. 13:7.) & Babylon is characterized by wanton sexual immorality. (See Rev. 17:1–2, 5.)
4. The GAC has dominion over all the earth, among all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people. (See 1 Ne. 14:11.) and Babylon has dominion over all nations. (See Rev. 17:15, 18; Rev. 18:3, 23–24.)
5. Its fate is to be consumed by a world war, when the nations it incites against the Saints war among themselves until the great and abominable church itself is destroyed. (See 1 Ne. 22:13–14.) and Babylon’s fate is to be consumed by the very kings who, because of her deceptions, have made war on the Lamb. (See Rev. 17:14–16; Rev. 18:23.)
6. The GAC has excised plain and precious things from the scriptures. (See 1 Ne. 13:26–29.)
In Revelation, there are several symbols of the devil’s kingdom. The un-virtuous woman representing false religion, and not kingdoms or governments as the beast and its horns do.
Chapters 13 and 14 of 1 Nephi use different definitions for “church” and therefore can cause an apparent contradiction. In Chapter 13, the GAC is one SPECIFIC church among many others that are not ‘great and abominable’. The language of “most abominable above all other churches (1 Ne. 13:5, 26) does not make sense otherwise.” Further, the church described in chapter 13 has a “specific historical description: it was formed among the Gentiles after the Jews transmitted the Bible in its purity to the Gentiles. (1 Ne. 13:26.) It is also the specific historical agent responsible for excising plain and precious truths from the scriptural record.” We’re also reminded that the GAC did it’s work after the end of the first century a.d.
In Chapter 14, on the other hand, an exclusionary definition of church is used, instead of many possible different churches or organizations, only two are talked about. Robinson asks: “ How can the devil’s church or churches be one and many at the same time? …. The answer is that the term is used in two different ways in 1 Nephi 13–14. In chapter 13 it is used historically, and in chapter 14 it is used typologically.”
Robinson quotes 2 Nephi 10:16 to describe this typology: “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.” (Italics added.)” If we apply the definitions of apocalyptic literature to the GAC (one exclusive and historical and the other inclusive and archetypical, we see the historical in chapter 13 and the archetypal in chapter 14.
Some further information about apocalyptic literature:
“Apocalyptic literature is dualistic. Since it deals with types, everything boils down to opposing principles: love and hate, good and evil, light and dark. There are no gray areas in apocalyptic writing. In this sense, there are only two categories in the realm of religion: 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.”
This is how Robinson applies the distinction to the Great and Abominable Church.
“In the historical sense, though, only one entity can be the great and abominable church. Well-intentioned churches would thus not qualify as the mother of abominations described in 1 Nephi 13. They do not slay the saints of God nor seek to control civil governments nor pursue wealth, luxury, and sexual immorality. In either the apocalyptic sense or the historical sense, individual orientation to the Church of the Lamb or to the great and abominable church is not by membership but by loyalty.”
At this point, it is probably good to recap what Robinson wrote: Well-intentioned churches do not qualify as the GAC defined by 1 Nephi 13 because they do not fulfill the qualifications outlined in 1 Nephi 13. Furthermore, for both definitions of GAC, loyalty is more important than membership, and since no mortal has the ability to see into another person’s heart and judge them, we are wrong to judge their loyalty by calling them a member of the GAC.
Robinson’s money quote, which passed church correlation just fine: “Just as there Latter-day Saints who belong to the great and abominable church because of their loyalty to Satan and his life-style, so there are members of other churches who belong to the Lamb because of their loyalty to him and his life-style. Membership is based more on who has your heart than on who has your records.”
Finally, the smack-down: “Some Latter-day Saints have erred in believing that some specific denomination, to the exclusion of all others, has since the beginning of time been the great and abominable church. This is dangerous, for many will then want to know which it is, and an antagonistic relationship with that denomination will inevitably follow.”
Robinson then outlines how Judaic elements were not able to fulfill the scriptural requirements of belonging to the GAC. After which, Robinson outlines why it is untenable for Roman Catholicism to be considered the GAC. Untenable means undefendable. All Robinson has to do to show that something is indefensible is to show that any of the claims are wrong. Robinson shows this by recognizing the historical fact that the Roman Catholic Church did not exist when the GAC was doing it’s work. Robinson shows that the plain and precious parts were already removed by 313 AD, before the Catholic church was made a state religion by Constantine. Robinson shows how the orthodox church was not known for it’s immorality (rather its asceticism), and how they weren’t able to persecute any saints, as they had NO power, and were themselves being persecuted!
So Robinson’s conclusion was that “The Catholic church of the fourth century was the result of the Apostasy—its end product—not the cause.”
And therefore it would be incorrect to call the Catholic church or anything that came after the Catholic church the GAC.
Robinson then outlines how we know of no historical church, denomination, or set of believers that meet the requirements for being the great and abominable church, because no historical organization fulfills the requirements listed in the scriptures. The reason we know of no historical church is because we have the fewest primary historical sources. After this historical blind-spot, we find a different entity than the one that Christ organized, Hellenized (or made-Greek) Christianity. While LDS do not believe that Hellenized Christianity maintained the same fullness necessary, one should also not conflate Hellenized (and incomplete) Christianity with the Great and Abominable Church.
I conclude with Brother Robinson’s final paragraph:
“The historical abominable church of the devil is that apostate church that replaced true Christianity in the first and second centuries, teaching the philosophies of men mingled with scriptures. It dethroned God in the church and replaced him with man by denying the principle of revelation and turning instead to human intellect. As the product of human agency, its creeds were an abomination to the Lord, for they were idolatry: men worshipping the creations, not of their own hands, but of their own minds.
Babylon in the first and second centuries may even have been a collection of different movements. Some Jewish Christians couldn’t let go of the law of Moses and eventually gave up Christ instead. The Orthodox Christians adopted Greek philosophy. The Gnostics wallowed in the mysteries and in unspeakable practices on the one hand or in neurotic asceticism on the other. Second-century compilers like Tatian and Marcion rewrote the scriptures, the latter boldly chopping out anything he didn’t like. And all of them together forced the virtuous woman, the true church of Jesus Christ, into the wilderness.”