Continuing on this theme, I wanted to give a little summary of John Wesley’s view of the apostasy. Wesley, whose Methodist movement was highly influential on Mormonism, was very interested in “the mystery of iniquity” or how Christianity had become corrupted. His speech by that name covers his views on the issue (Wesley’s Works vol. 3, Sermon 61) and offers additional, useful ways to look at the apostasy.
To Wesley, the apsotasy wasn’t about doctrine or priesthood, but about the conduct of Christians. Wesley sees the apostasy beginning in the Book of Acts, first with the failure to adhere to the community of goods and then with the disputes between Greek and Jewish Christians. Ananias and Sapphira were proof of one of Wesley’s major concerns: the danger of riches. “Mark the first plague which infected the Christian church! Namely the love of money! And will it not be the grand plague in all generations, whenever God shall revive the same work?” (456). Wesley sees Paul’s letters, particularly that to the Corinthians, as further proof that the mystery of iniquity had begun shortly after the ascension of Christ. In fact, Wesley wasn’t impressed with the apostolic church, generally. “We have been apt to imagine that the primitive church was all excellence and perfection! … But how soon did the fine gold become dim! How soon was the wine mixed with water! How little time elapsed before the god of this world so far regained his empire that Christians in general were scarce distinguishable from heathens, save by their opinions and modes of worship!” (461).
Yet after the apostles, Wesley sees continual decline. Yet God chastened the early Christian through persecution and thereby was able to regain pure Christian practice. This all ended with Constantine which removed the persecution, increased the wealth, both of which has disastrous consequences for Christian piety. Wesley did not see the apostasy as total, however. “Indeed, I would not dare say with George Fox that this apostasy was universal; that there never were any real Christians in the world from the days of the apostles till his time. But we may boldly say that wherever Christianity spread, the apostasy has spread also. Insomuch that although there are now, and always have been, individuals who were real Christians, yet the whole world never did, nor can at this day, show a Christian country or city” (466). The Reformation brought a minor reprieve but again, for Wesley, true Christianity was about conduct not doctrine and rituals. “It is certain that they were reformed in their opinions as well as their modes of worship. But is not this all? Were either their tempers or lives reformed? Not at all…. Ye fools and blind! To fix your whole attention on the circumstantials of religion! Your complaint ought to have been, the essentials of religion were not carried far enough. You ought vehemently to have insisted on an entire change of men’s tempers and lives; on their showing they had ‘the mind that was in Christ’, by ‘walking as he also walked.’ Without this how exquisitely trifling was the reformation of opinions and rites and ceremonies!… How little are any of these reformed Christians better than heathen nations!” (465). And later, “Which are the most corrupt, infernal, devilish in their tempers and practice? The English or the Indians [Asian]? Which have desolated whole countires, and clogged the rivers with dead bodies? ‘O sacred name of Christian! how profaned!’ O earth, earth, earth! How dost though groan under the villainies of thy Christian inhabitants!” You get the idea.
Wesley’s hope was to revive true Christian practice in Great Britain and beyond by focusing on instilling greater piety in peoples lives through earnest preaching (see above) and class meetings to keep people on the path of righteousness.
Anyway, that piety is more important than doctrine and ritual, that riches is the biggest danger, that the initial decline began with the failure to have all things in common, and that the apostasy wasn’t total as long as there were righteous individuals on the earth are all useful things to consider.
As a further question, did Joseph Smith, or other early Mormons point to any time periods or events in the early Christian church as being significant for the cause of the apostasy? Are any specific issues or dates mentioned?
For an overview, see Darren Schmidt, “The Pattern of Revival: John Wesley’s Vision of ‘Iniquity’ and ‘Godliness’ in Church History,” in Revival and Resurgence in Christian History, ed. Kate Cooper and Jeremy Gregory (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2008).