1 Nephi chapters 13-14
After introducing us to the apostasy that destroyed the Savior’s Church Nephi does a quick jump, passing over a thousand years of European history to a new era of enlightenment. Much had happened in Europe during the time that Nephi skipped over. The original Christianity had been completely absorbed by pagan traditions. However, during that absorption the first steps toward preparation for the restoration of the gospel had already taken place. Europe had been “Christianized.” The pagan gods seemed to have disappeared. but the basic theology of the pagan religions still remained essentially intact,
An example of how that was done is the missionary effort of the French king Charlemagne. His missionary methods were simple and effective. When his armies conquered a village, he gathered its leading men together and forced them to hear a sermon preached by his own priest. The sermon carried a simple message: baptism was necessary for one to go to heaven, so without baptism one would go to hell. After the sermon, Charlemagne gave his captives a choice. They could either be baptized and go to heaven at their leisure, or they could refuse to be baptized and go to hell immediately. They tended to choose baptism. Charlemagne was not interested in theology, so he let them keep their old beliefs but insisted they worship “Jesus” rather than Odin. Thereupon Odin became “Jesus,” and the local gods were given the names of Christian saints. The belief systems remained the same. Jesus now looked and acted much like Odin, but Odin did not exist anymore. Since false gods only exist in the minds of their worshipers, when the worshipers no longer worship them those gods no longer exist. That is important because, no matter what their beliefs were, the Europeans were now worshiping a god whose name was “Jesus.” Consequently, centuries later when Gutenberg invented the printing press and Rasmus published the New Testament in Greek, much of the preliminary work toward a real European conversion to Christianity had already been done.
Armed with these new printed scriptures, the Reformers began to address the questions, “Who was the real Jesus, and what did he really teach?” It was not necessary to start afresh by introducing Christianity to Europe, because the Europeans already worshiped “Jesus.” All that was necessary was to redefine both Jesus and his teachings. That was accomplished on two fronts: first by the great Protestant reformers, and then by the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Both groups read and accepted the New Testament and tried to make their religions square with the teachings they found there.
Then even more marvelous things began to happen. People who read the New Testament discovered a theology in which God was loving and kind and where individual people had souls that mattered. But that was not all. With the invention of the printing press, scholars began to publish works of ancient Greek histories and philosophers. Thus, the very best ideas of the ancient world were thrust upon Europeans as new and revolutionary ideas. Into the mix of the Judeo-Christian doctrines that people had individual worth, were the Greek ideas of rationality and responsibility and the Roman idea of the supremacy of the law. Calvinism added the doctrine of the Protestant Work Ethic. Ittaught that one should work hard, be frugal, honest, and generous, because those qualities are evidences that one is in God’s good graces, and such a person will go to heaven. That doctrine was the rationale behind the individual initiative that created the free market system and participatory government. All of those ideas came together in England, where they were merged with an acceptance of freedom of religion and with the very best of British legal traditions: British Common Law and the fundamental principles of local and national, democratically elected representative government. All of those ideas blossomed together into a beautiful new kind of Christianity. That Christianity had taken almost 2000 years to develop, and when it was at its purest beauty, it was transplanted to North America where it could mature to create the political, economic, and religious environment in which the fullness of the gospel could be restored by the Prophet Joseph Smith.
No doubt, Nephi saw all of that, but he focused on those events during that 2000-year history that were most relevant to himself and to his people. He described Columbus as being brought to America by the Holy Ghost, and then the European invasion and destruction of the cultures of the American Indians.
Thus the events that Nephi described to us may be seen in two lights—each illuminating a different facet of the same history. One is the story of corruption, decadence and apostasy in the old world. But the other is the testimony of how the Lord carefully works through human history to achieve his purposes, without violating the agency of any individual. Even though Nephi mourned because of the destruction of his own people, his mourning was subordinated to his rejoicing in the restoration of the gospel, the triumphal return of the Savior, and the establishment of His millennial reign.
There are two ways to consider the Great Apostasy. The first is to see it as a dreadful thing that extended through the period of the Roman Empire, through the Dark Ages, through the Reformation and the Renaissance, and continues on through to our time. That view is defensible but inadequate.
The second way of looking at the apostasy is to see it as a short-term event lasting less than 200 years as the Church established by the Savior was perverted from within and persecuted from without, then seeing most of the next 1600 years as events in the process of creating an environment in which the gospel could be restored. That is a much more positive and accurate description of what happened.