1 Nephi 13:1-5 — LeGrand Baker — “the formation of a great church.”

1 Nephi 13:1-5 
1 And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld many nations and kingdoms.
2 And the angel said unto me: What beholdest thou? And I said: I behold many nations and kingdoms.
3 And he said unto me: These are the nations and kingdoms of the Gentiles.
4 And it came to pass that I saw among the nations of the Gentiles the formation of a great church.
5 And the angel said unto me: 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.

What Nephi was being shown was the “formation” of a great and abominable church. That formation began in the old world even before the apostles were killed. Both Paul and Peter warned the saints—not that it was coming—but that it is upon them already.

The apostate movement did not originate as a single organization, but it was a widespread decay of both doctrine and priesthood authority. Nephi understood it as a single church because it had a single founder—the devil—and because, in all of its parts, it engaged in the same coercive and destructive tactics.

Christianity quickly spread all over the world. Historians credit that spread to the vigor of Christian missionaries, but we can gather from the Savior’s statement to the Nephites that he personally visited the remnants of the house of Israel wherever they were. That would account for the sudden growth of Christianity. For example, I learned while I was on my mission that there is a little chapel near Norwich, in Norfolk, England that sits on the hill where tradition says the Savior came and taught the sermon on the Mount—which, judging from his appearance in America, is precisely what we would expect he would have done. There is another tradition that both Peter and Paul were in England, as well as in Gaul and Italy. The acts of Thomas tells how that apostle went to India and was very successful there. Marco Polo reported that not long before he arrived in China, there had been a titanic battle between the Christian and non-Christian armies, and that the Christians had been wiped out. One of the greatest problems these widespread congregations had was their inability to communicate with each other. The technology did not exist that would enable men with priesthood authority to keep reins on the church organization or its eroding doctrine. There was no way for the apostles to keep in touch with each other or with their converted friends—except by letters that were slow in arriving (that is, if the letters arrived at all).

From the writings of the apostles in the New Testament, it is clear that people, rather than letting go of their old traditions, were importing them into the church. The upshot was that each of the scattered congregations was left to its own resources and its own interpretations of doctrines.

One can find other symptoms of apostasy developing even before the conclusion of the New Testament. The letters written by Peter and Paul show that neither of them had any hope that the church they had helped establish would survive. Rather, their letters focused on the hope that their friends would hold on to their own individual testimonies— that they would be able to endure to the end.{1}

There was a systematic, murderous persecution of the saints by the Roman government. In time, all of the Twelve except John were martyred and the church was left without apostles or prophets. The result of that was that many of the people who actually did have the authority to lead the church by revelation, and actually did have the true doctrines, were killed, and other people (some well meaning, others self serving) tried to take their place and established their own authority. The result was that within the first few generations in most parts of the world, Christianity was different from the Church that had been instituted by the Savior and his apostles. The apostasy was already completed within 150 or 200 years so the question was how is the Lord going to fix things. The way he accomplished that was one of the most wonderful stories in history.

So “the formation of a great church” that Nephi describes was a general apostasy, where people without proper authority sought to restructure the church and accommodate its teachings to their own purposes.
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FOOTNOTES

{1} Examples of warnings of that early apostasy are Acts 20:28-31; Galatians 1:6-8; 1 Timothy 4:1-3; 2 Timothy 1:13-15, 3:10-15, 4:1-8; 3 John 1:9-11.

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