The Protestant Reformation grew out of a realization that Christianity had strayed from its original teachings and that doctrine had become corrupted. Many great men and women sacrificed and even died in an attempt to correct what they considered to be corruptions in doctrine.
However, the apostasy had not begun in their time. It had begun even before the deaths of Christ’s apostles. Throughout the Bible, there were times when false doctrines crept into local churches and had to be corrected by their leaders. After Jesus died, the apostles worked to keep this from happening, but frequently found themselves frustrated. New Christians often guessed at correct doctrine when they didn’t know what was true, and some tried to incorporate old beliefs into new ones. At one point, Timothy noted that they had lost all the Christians in Asia to apostasy.
Eventually, the apostles were dead. Now, when problems arose and people didn’t know what to believe, there was no authoritative answer. There were no prophets remaining and so, no one was authorized to seek an official answer from God. As a result, people studied the Bible and did the best they could to understand what God would want them to know. Unfortunately, the world has seen that it is easy to interpret the Bible in many different ways, and people disagreed over the answers.
Councils, like the ones in Nicaea, were held to put doctrine to a vote, in hopes of unifying the churches. Those who did not agree with the majority vote were excommunicated.
The Protestant reformation led to many changes in religion, but its own leaders understood they were not prophets and had only the Bible to turn to for guidance. Again, not all reformers over the years agreed with the interpretations given, and many thousands of churches developed over time. Even within the Protestant religion, there are many congregations who split over differences in eternally significant beliefs, such as infant baptism or the nature of marriage.
There has been a clear need for God to clarify to His children what the Bible means and how it should be applied today. In every dispensation, when apostasy occurred and prophets were taken from the Earth, prophets were eventually called by God again. God promised He would do nothing without first telling His prophets, and this means there have to be prophets in each dispensation. The Bible does not say there will be no further prophets and it does not say God has no further interest in talking to His children.
A variety of conditions occurred that made a restoration of the truth possible. Restoration and reformation are not the same thing. During the reformation, leaders protested current religious beliefs and practices and set out to change them. In a restoration, things are restored to their perfect form, in much the way Jesus restored the complete truth—He didn’t just make changes. This can only be done by a prophet.
Christianity has always existed. From the time Jesus and the apostles were gone, brave groups of people struggled to preserve the scriptures and God’s teachings as best they could. Because of them, Christianity did not disappear from the earth, even though some beliefs were lost or were altered by various religions.
Mormons—members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—honor the early Protestant reformers for their great sacrifices, many of which made our own religion possible. Because of them, there could be more than one church. The Bible was translated into English so that an ordinary plough-boy could read it and understand it. The United States provided freedom of religion for all. That concept might not have been perfected yet, and was not always honored, but it was legally required at the federal level, and, after the Civil War, could be enforced at all levels.
In 1830, Joseph Smith, a teenager, was faced with the complications created by the apostasy. There were many Protestant churches in his area and he visited them, trying to figure out which one to join. He was puzzled, however, by the claims of each church that it taught the complete truth. These churches contradicted each other, and they couldn’t all be true. How was anyone supposed to know which church really was right on any given doctrine?
Joseph Smith began reading the Bible. When he came to the book of James, he found a scripture that captured his attention. In James 1:5, he read: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. He immediately saw that James had given him the answer he needed. Man could be mistaken, but God knew what was true. If you really need to know the truth, God is the only source. He lived in a small and crowded home, so he went into the woods near his home to pray, wanting to pray aloud, since his question was so important.
Satan tried to stop the prayer, but soon Joseph Smith saw a light overhead which caused Satan to flee. God and Jesus Christ appeared to Joseph. God introduced His Son and Jesus instructed him not to join any of the churches because none was completely accurate.
When Joseph grew to young adulthood, God would send an angel named Moroni to mentor him and prepare him to become the first prophet of the final dispensation. Such an important dispensation—the one that will result in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ—certainly requires a prophet. As we look around today, we can see how desperately the world cries out for guidance and how even the best-meaning churches seem unable to agree on what is true. The world is very different today and different worlds require new spiritual guidance. God did not talk to Adam and then announce that we had everything we needed. He sent prophet after prophet, each one adding to our store of religious knowledge. In addition, he gave advice that was customized to the specific needs of the time. For instance, he told Noah to build an ark, but he didn’t give that instruction to Moses. Moses was told to have his people gather manna from Heaven. Later prophets were not. Each dispensation, each generation, has required special instructions designed to help it through its unique circumstances. People have lost the right to prophets only through their own actions, but that loss has always been temporary.
Today, more than ever, the world needs God to speak to them about the special needs of a complex time, and requires guidance to get safely through the final days of the planet.
Joseph Smith served as the church’s first prophet. Mormons do not worship him. He is a prophet, not a God, and is viewed in the same way we view Biblical prophets such as Noah and Moses. When he died, a new prophet was put into place and since that time, the church has never been without a prophet to guide us. Today that prophet is Thomas S. Monson.
Learn some basic Mormon beliefs.
Learn more about Thomas S. Monson.
Learn about Joseph Smith.