When the Lord Jesus Christ lived and ministered among the Jews in the Holy Land, he organized a church among them. Many people do not understand this, but it becomes clear as one gains familiarity with the scriptures. He called 12 men to be apostles, other men to be "seventy" (Luke 10:1 & 17), and gave these men his authority - or priesthood. We know that Peter, the chief apostle, led the church in the absence of Jesus and oversaw further organization and development.
Paul says that the Lord
"...gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, and for the edifying of the body of Christ." (Ephesians 4:11-12).
It is evident that the Lord intended for his church to grow and continue, even after he was gone. He called his apostles to go out into all the world to teach his gospel and baptize converts (Matthew 28:19-20). The group (or quorum) of 12 Apostles was intended to remain intact, as illustrated by the calling of Matthias to fill the vacancy of Judas (Acts 1:21-26).
We have before us some of the epistles of these early apostles and prophets written to the various communities of saints of that day. Paul wrote to the believers among the Romans, the Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians... etc. We have the epistles of James, Peter, and John.
The Great Apostasy
What happened to this original Christian church that Jesus set up? What happened to the organization of prophets, apostles, seventy, high priests, bishops, elders and other offices mentioned in the bible? Are any of the Christian churches that exist today this true church of God? Are any of them really sanctioned by God?
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints claims to be that original Church, restored again to the earth in all its truth and fullness. This is a bold declaration to be sure, but it is not one made out of arrogance or self-righteousness. The assertion is made because we have the responsibility to make it. We do not claim to be morally superior to others who call themselves Christians or who live good lives. But we do have a greater light and knowledge, which the Lord has commanded us to share to the world - just as he commanded his original disciples.
Our beliefs are right in line with what the Bible teaches. For the Bible long ago prophesied that there would be an apostasy, or a falling away from the truth (2 Thess. 2:1-4, 2 Tim 4:3-4, Amos 8:11-12, Micah 3:5-7, 11). The Lord himself, in answer to the apostle's inquiry as to when he would come again, foretold the darkness and apostasy that would cover the earth before his return. He even foretold what would happen to them, and how the people would seek to kill them:
Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name's sake. (Matt. 24:9)
This apostasy occurred somewhat gradually. It really begins with the crucifixion of the Lord himself, but we can see that Jewish and Roman hostility to the early Christian church did not end there. The martyrdom of Stephen is recorded in Acts 7:55, and the martyrdom of James in Acts 12:1-2. We can surmise also that the church began to be corroded from within. Paul marvels that the church members in Galatia have so quickly fell away from the truth, embracing false notions and falling prey to deceptions (Galatians 1:6-8). In time, many false doctrines began to creep into the ancient church. A latter-day apostle, Orson Pratt wrote this summary:
"The great apostasy of the christian church commenced in the first century, while there were yet apostles in their midst; hence Paul, just previous to his martydom, enumerates a great number who had made a 'shipreck of their faith,'... This apostasy had become so general that Paul declares to Timothy, 'that all they which are in Asia are turned away from me;' and again he says, 'at my first answer no man stood with me, but all men forsake me;'. He further says that 'there are many unruly, and vain talkers, deceivers, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre's sake.' These apostates no doubt, pretended to be very righteous; for, says the apostle, 'they profess that they know God: but in words they deny him, being abominable and disobedient and unto every good work reprobate.'"
Orson Pratt quoted in "The Great Apostasy" by James E. Talmage, p.43
Eventually, all the apostles were all killed, all save John the Beloved who was exiled to the Isle of Patmos where he wrote the book known as The Revelation. The church fell into fragments and disbelief. True believers were killed for political gain, money and power.
What was the result of this general apostasy? The world fell into darkness, a time even non-believers refer to as 'the Dark Ages'. Education and literacy were limited. The "church" and religion became a political tool, a venue for power and riches where leaders could control the masses with fear. Scriptures generally were not read by the common man, but by the scribes and so-called priests. A whole host of false doctrines and twisted practices were perpetuated in the name of God. True prophets, communicating with God and leading his people by the light of revelation were no longer on the earth. The true priesthood power -- the real authority to act in the name of God and perform the vital ordinances such as baptism and giving the Gift of the Holy Ghost -- the keys of which were held by the apostles, was no longer to be found.
Of course, this was not the first apostasy to ever occur on the earth. Since the creation of man, there have in fact been several eras where mankind rejected the laws and revelations of God. Another modern apostle has reminded us
The Lord has tried time and again to give us his truths. There have been many apostasies and restorations recorded in the days of Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses. Then the Lord, loving his children with his supreme love, sent his only begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Still, many rejected Christ's message.
Elder M. Russell Ballard - "Message of Startling Truth" Church News Jan 25, 2003
Setting the Stage for the Restoration
It is our contention that the human events which followed over the succeeding centuries gradually paved the way and set the stage for the return of the fullness of the gospel to the earth once again. It happened in the Lord's time, in the right place and with men and women whom he used as his instruments. The Lord knows the end from the beginning. He is omniscient. His plans cannot be frustrated. He is a caring Father to mankind, but also a just God. Mankind would suffer in the darkness for a long time, but eventually the light would return.
Latter-Day Saints can look back through history and see key moments, events which helped set the stage for the restoration. Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press led to the bible being printed and distributed among the general population. The protestant reformation led by such great and inspired men as Martin Luther, Calvin Bishop, and others helped many break with the church of Rome. They were courageous and valiant in their protest. Columbus's monumental discovery of the new world opened the door to religious freedom for the future colonialists.
"The Old Testament prophet Joel foresaw the Spirit of the Lord working among individuals to help prepare the world for the Restoration. The Lord said, 'I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions:'
"'And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit' (Joel 2:28-29). Of Joel’s vision, President Joseph Fielding Smith said: 'I think, properly, we could go back into the days of the revival of learning — the renaissance, as it is called — and the reformation in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, to find the beginning of the fulfilment of this promise.'"
Arnold K. Garr, "Preparing for the Restoration", Ensign, June 1999 p. 34
Finally, Latter-Day Saints firmly believe that the founding fathers who gave birth to the great nation of America were raised up by God and guided in their efforts to accomplish his special purposes. A nation of freedom was born, a land particularly protective of the freedom of worship and religion. America was a nation prepared in a unique way, where God could begin again to restore his true gospel to the earth. In a modern day revelation the Lord spoke:
And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto ths very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood.
Doctrine and Covenants 101:80
And several beautiful scriptures along these lines are contained in the Book of Mormon, an ancient book of scripture I will talk more about in a later writing. Here is one verse from a time when the Lord was speaking to a people called Nephites, a branch of Israelites who left Jerusalem in about 600 B.C. and were led by the Lord to the American continent. This people were also visited by the Lord after his resurrection, and he taught them, but eventually they too would fall into apostasy and disbelief. The Lord in speaking to them during his visit, prophecied about the future need for a free nation to be set up by the "gentiles" on the American continent.
For it is wisdom in the Father that they [the gentiles] should be established in this land, and be set up as a free people by the power of the Father, that these things might come forth from them unto a remnant of your seed, that the covenant of the Father may be fulfilled which he hath covenanted with his people, O house of Israel;
Book of Mormon, 3 Nep. 21:4
All of it was in fullfilment of prophecy, all of it leads to the restoration of the Gospel through the young latter-day prophet, Joseph Smith.
The Gospel Restoration
In the spring of 1820, 14 year old Joseph Smith lived with his father, mother and 8 siblings on a farm in Palmyra, in upstate New York. The family had lived there for four years, having moved there from Vermont when Joseph was about 10. In Palmyra at the time there was "an unusual excitement on the subject of religion" as Joseph writes in his history. Members of his family were proselyted to various sects, but Joseph, though he felt great concern over the subject, and spent many hours reflecting over the question of which church to join, made no firm commitments.
During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness; but though my feelings were deep and often poignant, still I kept myself aloof from all these parties, though I attended their several meetings as often as occasion would permit. In process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them; but so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.
Joseph Smith History 1:8
Joseph could not see how to get a clear answer. As ministers and religious groups tend to do, there was much argument, much persuasion, much exhorting. Each was trying to prove their cause and disprove the other. Here was young boy who's mind was open to truth, and who really wanted to find an answer. He was not content to join with a religion in some casual way, or based even on family or social ties as many people do. He struggled with the question of what God would have him to do. He could not percieve that a clear answer could be found through reason alone. How many people with religious feelings have struggled with these questions? How does one come to know truth? How does one come to know God's will for him- or herself?
Joseph one day was reading in the bible, specifically in the Epistle of James, chapter 1 verse 5:
"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."
Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed to wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the bible.
Joseph Smith History 1:11-12
In time, Joseph determined to ask God, in solemn prayer, which church he should join. It was to be a decision with monumental effects. The foundations of this great Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, now in numbers over 11 million, all stem from that one decision of the boy Joseph to go into the woods and offer a prayer.
I would encourage the reader to go to the source, and read Joseph's own account of what occurred: Joseph Smith History. Joseph was visited by God the Father, and his Son, Jesus Christ. They spoke to him, and in answer to his specific question told him to join none of the churches. They told Joseph that the true Church of Jesus Christ was not at that time on the earth, but that the time would come when he, called as the Lord's servant, would restore this church in its fulness.
Joseph recieved an answer to his prayer, and more. He was called by God to a sacred work. He was to be the prophet to bring about the great restoration. The long darkness had ended, and light had burst forth again to the world. It is truly astonishing to know what God has done, and how he has worked in these the Latter days.
Almost immediately angels came from the Divine Presence to teach doctrine, to confer power and authority and priesthood, and to give again the keys of the kingdom, which are part of the holy apostleship, so that mortal men can bind on earth and have it sealed eternally in the heavens.
Within a single decade the Book of Mormon came forth; the Church and kingdom of God on the earth was reestablished; revelation and prophecy became the order of the day; and the gifts of the Spirit -- all those ancient signs and wonders and miracles -- were poured out upon the faithful. Once more there were visions and tongues and prophecies; the sick were healed, the lame walked, the blind saw, and the dead were raised. It was with the Latter-day Saints as it had been with the former-day saints.
...The gospel sun, which had its setting in the day when darkness covered the earth -- that same gospel sun had its rising in the new day of restoration.
Elder Bruce R. McConkie, "The Morning Breaks; The Shadows Flee" Ensign, conference report, May 1978