The great and abominable church in the Book of Mormon

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The great and abominable church in the Book of Mormon

What is the "great and abominable church" referred to in the Book of Mormon? It is claimed that Latter-day Saints believe that the scriptural terms "church of the devil," the "great and abominable church," and the "whore of all the earth" refer to a specific religion. It is claimed that the Book of Mormon teaches that "all mainstream Christians fall into the world system know as the devil's church (or Satan's kingdom)."

Question: Do Latter-day Saints believe that the scriptural terms "church of the devil," the "great and abominable church," and the "whore of all the earth" refer to a specific religion?

According to the Book of Mormon, the "great and abominable church" and "whore of all the earth" refers to any organization that opposes the true Church of Jesus Christ

The Church does not teach or endorse the idea that these terms refer to any specific religion or organization. It is clear that in cases where past church authorities have modified this definition through speculation, that the First Presidency has firmly declared those speculations to be in error.

The criticism is based upon references in the Book of Mormon to the "church of the devil," which is referred to as the "whore of all the earth." For example:

And he said unto me: Behold there are save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil; wherefore, whoso belongeth not to the church of the Lamb of God belongeth to that great church, which is the mother of abominations; and she is the whore of all the earth. (1 Nephi 14꞉10)

George Q. Cannon publicly associated the "whore of all the earth" with those that persecuted the Church

Although the scriptures do not associate this "church" with a specific organization or religion, several early 19th century church leaders stated their opinions regarding who they considered the "whore of all the earth." For example, George Q. Cannon publicly associated the "whore of all the earth" with those that persecuted the Church:

And to-day, those who are inciting mobs against this people; those who go to Congress, and incite persecutions against us; those who fulminate threats and frame petitions; those who meet together in conventions; those who gather together in conferences, are those who belong to this "mother of abominations," this "whore of all the earth," and it is through the influence of that accursed whore, that they gather together and marshal their forces in every land against the Latter-day Saints, the Church of the living God.[1]

Heber C. Kimball associated the "whore of all the earth" with the national government

Heber C. Kimball associated the "whore of all the earth" with the national government that failed to help the Saints during their times of persecution:

It is very easy to be seen that the nation that has oppressed us is going down. The Lord revealed to Joseph Smith something about the judgments that await the inhabitants of the earth, and he said in the revelations that the judgments should commence at the house of God. I will read to you parts of the revelations which speak of these things....and that great and abominable church, which is the whore of all the earth, shall be cast down by devouring fire, according as it is spoken by the mouth of Ezekiel the Prophet....[2]

Orson Pratt claimed that it was the founder of the Catholic Church in a publication that was later repudiated by the Church

Orson Pratt, in his 1853-1854 periodical The Seer, claimed that the founder of the Roman Catholic Church was “the Devil, through the medium of Apostates, who subverted the whole order of God” and that they derived their “authority from the Devil....”[3] The Seer, however, never achieved sufficient circulation to propagate this idea through the general Church membership. In fact, The Seer was disowned by the First Presidency in 1865 for containing "doctrines which we cannot sanction."[4]

Bruce R. McConkie's first edition of Mormon Doctrine associated it with the Catholic Church, before that edition was refuted by the First Presidency

Bruce R. McConkie is credited with promoting the idea within the modern church that the "great and abominable church" was in fact the Roman Catholic Church. The first edition of McConkie's Mormon Doctrine, a book which contained sufficient errors that the First Presidency declared that the book was "not approved as an authoritative book"[5] and that it should not be re-published, contained this rather direct statement:

It is also to the Book of Mormon to which we turn for the plainest description of the Catholic Church as the great and abominable church. Nephi saw this ‘church which is the most abominable above all other churches’ in vision. He ‘saw the devil that he was the foundation of it’ and also the murders, wealth, harlotry, persecutions, and evil desires that historically have been a part of this satanic organization.[6]

The offending language was removed in the second edition of Mormon Doctrine and replaced with language more consistent with the Book of Mormon

When the first edition of Mormon Doctrine went into circulation, the idea that the "great and abominable church" was the Catholic Church became embedded in popular belief, despite the fact that this idea was never sanctioned or preached over the pulpit. A second edition of Mormon Doctrine was eventually released with the offending language regarding the Roman Catholic Church removed. In the second edition, McConkie states:

The titles church of the devil and great and abominable church are used to identify all churches or organizations of whatever name or nature — whether political, philosophical, educational, economic social, fraternal, civic, or religious — which are designed to take men on a course that leads away from God and his laws and thus from salvation in the kingdom of God.[7]

This statement more closely aligns with what the scriptures themselves say, without any additional interpretation. Modern church leaders have stayed close to the definition in the Book of Mormon, by identifying the "great and abominable" church as any organization the leads people away from the Church of Jesus Christ.

Stephen E. Robinson (1998): "an often misunderstood concept: the great and abominable church of the devil"

In 1 Nephi 13–14, the prophet Nephi relates a vision in which he saw the future of the world and its kingdoms as it related to his posterity. Nephi's vision is the type of revelation known in biblical literature as apocalyptic, a type represented in the New Testament most fully by the Revelation of John. The two revelations have more in common, though, than apocalyptic form, for they both deal in part with an often misunderstood concept: the great and abominable church of the devil. The visions together give us prophetic information about the matter. —(Click here to continue) [8]

The Church does not take an official position on this issue

Statements about matters about which there is no official doctrine
J. Reuben Clark
This is one of many issues about which the Church has no official position. As President J. Reuben Clark taught under assignment from the First Presidency:
Here we must have in mind—must know—that only the President of the Church, the Presiding High Priest, is sustained as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator for the Church, and he alone has the right to receive revelations for the Church, either new or amendatory, or to give authoritative interpretations of scriptures that shall be binding on the Church....
When any man, except the President of the Church, undertakes to proclaim one unsettled doctrine, as among two or more doctrines in dispute, as the settled doctrine of the Church, we may know that he is not "moved upon by the Holy Ghost," unless he is acting under the direction and by the authority of the President.
Of these things we may have a confident assurance without chance for doubt or quibbling.[9]
Harold B. Lee
Harold B. Lee was emphatic that only one person can speak for the Church:
All over the Church you're being asked this: "What does the Church think about this or that?" Have you ever heard anybody ask that question? "What does the Church think about the civil rights legislation?" "What do they think about the war?" "What do they think about drinking Coca-Cola or Sanka coffee?" Did you ever hear that? "What do they think about the Democratic Party or ticket or the Republican ticket?" Did you ever hear that? "How should we vote in this forthcoming election?" Now, with most all of those questions, if you answer them, you're going to be in trouble. Most all of them. Now, it's the smart man that will say, "There's only one man in this church that speaks for the Church, and I'm not that one man."
I think nothing could get you into deep water quicker than to answer people on these things, when they say, "What does the Church think?" and you want to be smart, so you try to answer what the Church's policy is. Well, you're not the one to make the policies for the Church. You just remember what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians. He said, "For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2). Well now, as teachers of our youth, you're not supposed to know anything except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. On that subject you're expected to be an expert. You're expected to know your subject. You're expected to have a testimony. And in that you'll have great strength. If the President of the Church has not declared the position of the Church, then you shouldn't go shopping for the answer.[10]
First Presidency
This was recently reiterated by the First Presidency (who now approves all statements published on the Church's official website):
Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church. With divine inspiration, the First Presidency...and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles...counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith. Isolated statements are often taken out of context, leaving their original meaning distorted.[11]

In response to a letter "received at the office of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" in 1912, Charles W. Penrose of the First Presidency wrote:

Question 14: Do you believe that the President of the Church, when speaking to the Church in his official capacity is infallible?
Answer: We do not believe in the infallibility of man. When God reveals anything it is truth, and truth is infallible. No President of the Church has claimed infallibility.[12]
There is more material on official doctrine in the Church in this link.
  1. George Q. Cannon, "PREDICTIONS IN THE BOOK OF MORMON, etc.," (April 6, 1884) Journal of Discourses 25:128.
  2. Heber C. Kimball, "OBSERVANCE OF THE COMMANDMENTS OF GOD," (January 6, 1861) Journal of Discourses 9:131.
  3. Orson Pratt, The Seer (Washington D.C., April 1854).
  4. Deseret News (12 August 1865): 373.
  5. Dennis B. Horne, Bruce R. McConkie: Highlights From His Life & Teachings (Eborn Books, 2000), [citation needed].
  6. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine [1st edition] (Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1958).
  7. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd edition, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 760. GL direct link
  8. Stephen E. Robinson, "Nephi's 'Great and Abominable Church'," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 7:1 (1998).
  9. J. Reuben Clark, Jr., "Church Leaders and the Scriptures," [original title "When Are the Writings or Sermons of Church Leaders Entitled to the Claim of Scripture?"] Immortality and Eternal Life: Reflections from the Writings and Messages of President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., Vol, 2, (1969-70): 221; address to Seminary and Institute Teachers, BYU (7 July 1954); reproduced in Church News (31 July 1954); also reprinted in Dialogue 12/2 (Summer 1979): 68–81.
  10. Harold B. Lee, Teachings of Harold B. Lee (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1996), 445.
  11. LDS Newsroom, "Approaching Mormon Doctrine," (4 May 2007)
  12. Charles W. Penrose, "Peculiar Questions Briefly Answered," Improvement Era 15 no. 11 (September 1912).

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources