In 1 Nephi 13:5, the angel says to Nephi “Behold the formation of a church which is most abominable above all other churches, which slayeth the saints of God, yea, and tortureth them and bindeth them down, and yoketh them with a yoke of iron, and bringeth them down into captivity.” We used to stress this being the Catholics but have sort of backed off this in the last few decades to the point where I don’t hear much talk about the GAC anymore. And yet it’s quite important in these chapters in the Book of Mormon where Nephi lays out a kind of visionary history of the world from Christ to the coming of the Book of Mormon.
Both the discussion of the apostasy and restoration that the kids are having now in church coupled with my recent discovery of the movie Agora on Netflix (it’s R but a fairly light R, historical violence that isn’t too bad), put me in mind of the topic.
In my dissertation, I note that the Book of Mormon’s presentation of the corruption of early Christianity as the loss of truth and the rise of an evil church, differed from the Protestant version of the apostasy as the addition of corrupting elements from outside (235-36). And in terms of the GAC, the Book of Mormon says that its principal feature is persecution of the saints.
Though Constantine sometimes gets blamed for doing bad things to Christianity, he was actually a pretty fair ruler who generally did not persecute other groups. The beginnings of laws against other groups started under Theodosius I (ruled 379-95) and were pushed even further by Theodosius II (reigned 408-50). Yet no figure embodies Christianity’s violent and bigoted turn in the era more the Bishop Cyril of Alexandria (376-444, bishop starting in 412).
Cyril started persecuting others almost immediately after his election. Says the early church historian Socrates Scholasticus, “Whereupon on the third day after the death of Theophilus, Cyril came into possession of the episcopate, with greater power than Theophilus had ever exercised. For from that time the bishopric of Alexandria went beyond the limits of its sacerdotal functions, and assumed the administration of secular matters. Cyril immediately therefore shut up the churches of the Novatians at Alexandria, and took possession of all their consecrated vessels and ornaments; and then stripped their bishop Theopemptus of all that he had” (7.7). The Novatians were a ascetic sect that were by all accounts pretty pious, by Cyril seemed to have tolerated no deviance whatsoever. Unfortunately, this trend would continued in Christianity for a long time.
And this bring me to the movie Agora, which dramatizes these events. The movie focuses on the Neoplatoic philosopher Hypatia and her nemesis Cyril. The first major event of the movie is the sacking of the Serapeum by the Christians in 391 (before Cyril, but still important). Whether the Christians destroyed the library of Alexandria at that time, as portrayed in the movie, is debated, but they may have. They certainly destroyed the statues and this became a common act.
The movie skips over Cyril’s attack on the Novatians and goes straight to his conflict with the Jews (7.13). The movie presents Socrates’s account of tensions between the Jews and Christians that lead to the Jews setting a trap for the Christians in the Christian church and the subsequent Christian purge of the Jews in Alexandria. Yet, I’m skeptical that the Jews actually attacked the Christians like Socrates said since I’m pretty sure that there were a lot more Christians than Jews in Alexandria at that time (so such an attack would have been unwise), and Cyril was a raging anti-Semite and didn’t need any provocation for his attacks on the Novatians and Hypatia. But who knows.
All this is shown as the showdown between Cyril and the governor Orestes and has quite a number of accurate elements: the attempt at reconciliation by swearing on the gospels, Orestes being hit in the head with a rock (though in a different context), and finally, the lynching of Hypatia.
The one inaccuracy I would point out is the portrayal of Hypatia’s religiosity. The Neoplatonists, though they were into astronomy, were not atheists as the movie suggests for Hypatia. Nevertheless, it is a very good movie and I would highly recommend it.
What’s also interesting is that in studying the topic, I noted that most early Mormons pointed to the fifth century as the time the priesthood was lost (though they didn’t explain why). I did find one who noted that date was the end of the Book of Mormon, but most said that it had to do with events in the old world. Why this is interesting is because Hypatia’s murder was in 415, and was discussed a lot in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Either way, Cyril was very bad, and even if he took these actions to extremes, Christianity for the next more than a thousand years didn’t tolerate much dissent. Nor did this persecuting tendency end with the Reformation: Protestants were generally against religious freedom almost as much as the Catholics were. There were some exceptions: the Anabaptists and other radicals did promote religious freedom but were generally not in power. However, two American colonies were run by radicals—the Baptists in Rhode Island and the Quakers in Pennsylvania—and both of these did promote religious toleration.
The early Mormons talked about these themes a lot.
Thus, if teaching these classes, I might make a few of these points. I would also point out that Cyril’s church wasn’t really the Catholic Church (he was in Alexandria not Rome, and there wasn’t really a pope at the time). Medieval and early modern Catholics did have a bad tract record on persecution, (so did the early modern Protestants) but the whole western world (including all the churches) improved in that area over time and none of them engage in any of these activities any more. So I’d say that churches who did such things were behaving abominably, but they don’t act that way any more. Churches change (even ours).
At the same time, I would note, that we all do need to be kind and supportive of different religions and that religious bigotry is a sin. As Joseph Smith taught in his March 20, 1839 letter from Liberty Jail,
And we ought always to be aware of those prejudices which sometimes so strangly presented themselves and are so congenial to human nature against our nieghbors friends and brethren of the world who choose to differ with us in opinion and in matters of faith. Our religeon is betwean us and our God. Their religeon is betwean them and their God. There is a ty from God that should be exercised towards those of our faith who walk uprightly which is peculiar to itself but it is without prejudice but gives scope to the mind which inables us to conduct ourselves with grater liberality to-wards all others that are not of our faith than what they exercise towards one an other these principals approximate nearer to the mind of God because it is like God or God like.
 Fleming, “The Fulness of the Gospel,” 245-47. I also note a post from Brad Kramer a while back arguing that DC 121:37 suggests that priesthood is lost through coercing other people. This was certainly an era where that occurred.