Religious Persecution and the Great and Abominable Church

By April 24, 2015

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.[1]

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.

[1] 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.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Not sure I buy the late date for Roman era authority loss. Out of curiosity what do you make of the Clement quote Nibley used to like to pull out arguing not everything was given to the second generation of leaders.

    If you buy it, then the question then becomes from a more theological perspective what happens to Bishopric keys if those with keys over them pass away and no one new is called. I’d think it entails the loss of keys.

    The interesting and perhaps problematic view of Nibley’s take (and it’s been years so I may be mangling it somewhat) is that authority was purposely taken away rather than falling away. Although some would say that metaphorically that’s what is meant by the woman fleeing into the wilderness in Revelations.

    Comment by Clark — April 25, 2015 @ 4:14 pm

  2. I guess I meant this not as a definitive statement but as an additional angle by which to think about our apostasy narrative. Sort of like these posts I did a while back

    And to note that it was interesting that the early saints usually pointed to the fifth century.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 25, 2015 @ 5:42 pm

  3. This is interesting and useful to me. Thanks.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — April 25, 2015 @ 9:49 pm

  4. I’m not convinced the BoM is talking about the Catholic Church, at least not in the context you suggest as the Great and Abominable. There are descriptive terms that Nephi gives which do not tie in to the Catholic Church.
    Second, the time period you are suggesting, was prior to the Catholic Church actually becoming a universal church. The Christian church was still in its infancy and fighting over many issues, including which sect would be dominant. Arians still held great sway over many areas and Arianism almost became the universal belief over Trinitarianism.

    Next 1 Nephi 22, suggests that this great church/organization will be destroyed, preserving the saints, even “if by fire”. That it will be destroyed in a time of vapor and smoke – things that did not occur in the times you are looking at.

    Instead, I look at the GAC as the rich and powerful who seek to gain greater power in the world through violent means, getting gain through their secret combinations. This occurred anciently through Roman Emperors’ intrigue, and such evil occurs today. It does not require a bishop or a Pope to create such a wicked cabal of power.

    Comment by rameumptom — April 26, 2015 @ 1:29 pm

  5. I specially said it was not the Catholic Church and that this was before the papacy so no need to be redundant.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 26, 2015 @ 1:35 pm

  6. And thanks, Edje

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 26, 2015 @ 2:19 pm

  7. I’m convinced that our problem in understanding what the GAC is, is related to the word “church”. When3ever the BoM uses the word “church”, it appears to mean the same as the “congregation” in the Old Testament. To make a long story short, one doesn’t have to belong to a formal “church” to be a member of the GAC; in fact historically many of its members have been virulent atheists (think Communism, Nazism, etc.). The key factor seems to be a desire and/or effort to use FORCE against human agency, especially moral agency. In this respect, the GTA has been around a very long time, and is still here, wearing many hats. In fact, by this definition, some members of the LDS church would qualify as members of GAC, a rather discomforting thought. When one observes the current lynch mob mentality of those in the SSM movement towards ANY dissent from LGBT orthodoxy, the BoM seems very prescient.

    Comment by Gary Cooper — April 27, 2015 @ 11:50 am

  8. Sorry for the typos: UI meant “GAC”, not “GTA”, and “Whenever”, not “When3ever”.

    Comment by Gary Cooper — April 27, 2015 @ 11:51 am

  9. Good points, Gary. I’d just note that while ostracizing and ridicule are unkind, they’re quite a bit different from actual lynching for religious purposes which is depicted in the movie I noted above.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 27, 2015 @ 3:39 pm

  10. Steve, how about using the force of the State to fine businesses out of existence, and seize the financial assets of the owners who refuse to cater events that they believe are contrary to their religious beliefs? Force against conscience doesn’t always take the form of physical violence; often it is the mere threat of violence. The power of the State is the incarnate form of such a threat, hence the considerable attention that the BoM devotes to righteous vs unrighteous government.

    Comment by Gary Cooper — April 29, 2015 @ 8:17 am

  11. Still seems different from actual lynching, but maybe we can agree to disagree.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 29, 2015 @ 11:59 am


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