“Great and Abominable Church”

Alan C. Miner

According to Stephen Robinson, 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.

The major characteristics of the “great and abominable church” (1 Nephi 13:6) described in 1 Nephi may be listed as follows:

1. It persecutes, tortures, and slays the Saints of God (see 1 Nephi 13:5).

2. It seeks wealth and luxury (see 1 Nephi 13:7-8).

3. It is characterized by sexual immorality (see 1 Nephi 13:7).

4. It has excised plain and precious things from the scriptures (see 1 Nephi 13:26-29).

5. It has dominion over all the earth, among all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people (see 1 Nephi 14:11).

6. Its fate is to be consumed by a world war, when the nations it incites against the Saints war among themselves until the great and abominable church itself is destroyed (see 1 Nephi 22:13-14).

Five of the six characteristics identified in 1 Nephi are also attributed to Babylon in the book of Revelation… . The one characteristic not common to both prophetic descriptions is Nephi’s statement that the great and abominable church has held back important parts of the canon of scripture. This omission in Revelation is not surprising since John’s record is one of the scriptures Nephi says was tampered with (see 1 Nephi 14:23-24).

Perhaps the greatest difficulty in understanding Nephi’s description of the great and abominable church is what seems to be a contradiction between chapter 13 and chapter 14. In 1 Nephi 13 the great and abominable church is one specific church among many--“most abominable above all other churches” (1 Nephi 13:5) … The apparent contradiction comes in 1 Nephi 14:10, in which we are told that the devils’s church consists of all those organizations not associated with the Church of Jesus Christ: “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.”

How can this be? … The answer is that the term “great and abominable church” is used in two different ways in 1 Nephi 13-14. In chapter 13 it is used historically, and in chapter 14 it is used typologically. In apocalyptic literature--remember that both Revelation and 1 Nephi 13-14 are apocalyptic in nature--the seer is caught up in vision and sees things from God’s perspective. Time ceases to be an important element; this is one reason the chronology in Revelation at times seems to be scrambled: with God there is no time as we reckon it (see Alma 40:8). Thus apocalyptic visions are highly symbolic … Once we understand that the term great and abominable church has two uses, the one historical and the other archetypal, the rest becomes easier… .

Because apocalyptic literature is dualistic, it deals with types; everything boils down to opposing principles: love and hate, good and evil, light and dark. There are no gray areas in apocalyptic writing. In this sense “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” (1 Nephi 14:10)… .

Clearly whatever denominational name we choose to give it, the earliest apostate church and the great and abominable church that Nephi and John describe are identical. the fact is, we don’t really know what name to give it. I have proposed hellenized Christianity, but that is a description rather than a name.

The historical abominable church of the devil is that apostate church that replaced true Christianity in the first and second centuries, teaching the philosophies of men mingled with scriptures. It dethroned God in the church and replaced him with man by denying the principle of revelation and turning instead to human intellect. As the product of human agency, its creeds were an abomination to the Lord, for they were idolatry: men worshipping the creations, not of their own hands, but of their own minds. [Stephen E. Robinson, “Nephi’s ”Great and Abominable Church,“ in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 7/1, 1998, pp. 34-39] [See also Stephen E. Robinson, ”Early Christianity and 1 Nephi 13-14,“ in The Book of Mormon: First Nephi, The Doctrinal Foundation, pp. 177-191]

”The Great and Abominable Church“

According to John Tvedtnes, the Gog and Magog prophecy of Ezekiel 38-39 is paralleled by John’s writings in Revelation 17-20 concerning his vision, part of which speak about the great ”whore,“ the ”mother of harlots“ (Revelation 17:1-6, 15-18) which falls (Revelation 18:1-3) and whose ”smoke rose up for ever and ever" (Revelation 19:1-3). It seems that John either borrowed words from the writings of Ezekiel or else they both experienced the same vision.

Another prophet who experienced the same vision as John was the Book of Mormon prophet Nephi, who, having been informed that John would record the vision, was told to write only part of what he saw (1 Nephi 14:25-28). So it is noteworthy that Nephi, in writing of his vision, not only refers to the great “whore” (1 Nephi 14:10-12), but employs the term “great and abominable church” (1 Nephi 13:6-8, 26-28; 14:3, 9, 15-17; 22:13-14; 2 Nephi 6:12; 28:18-19) in reference to that term.

With these facts in mind, it is most interesting that in the Doctrine & Covenants 29:21, we read that “the 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.” (emphasis added) While the “great and abominable church” is described by Nephi, this term is not used in the biblical book of Ezekiel nor elsewhere in the Bible. How then, one might ask, can the Doctrine and Covenants attribute such a prophecy to Ezekiel seeing how this passage (“spoken by the mouth of Ezekiel”) is found in all manuscripts and early publications of this revelation with only minor variations, none of which affect the wording?

One of the possibilities is that the text of the book of Ezekiel may have been modified, resulting in the loss of this prophecy from the Bible (see 1 Nephi 13:26). Several of the Church Fathers of the first centuries of the Christian era quoted items from Ezekiel that are not found in the biblical book of that name. Epiphanius (ca. A.D. 315-403) attributes to Ezekiel the story of the blind and lame men, which is also found, without attribution, in TB Sanhedrin 91a-b but which is unknown form the biblical Ezekiel.

Additionally, during the rabbinic council held in Yabneh (Yamnia) in A.D. 90 to determine which books would be accepted as authentic scripture, there were many disagreements over the canonicity of Ezekiel, whose description of the temple service in the last days (chapters 40-48) contradicted the rules laid down in the Torah. Of this, one of the rabbis said, “When Elijah comes, he will explain the difficulty” Others were not content to wait so long. Rabbi Hananiah literally burned the midnight oil for many nights revising the text of Ezekiel. The Talmud said of him: “Blessed be the memory of Hananiah, son of Hezekiah: if it had not been for him, the book of Ezekiel would have been ‘hidden’ (i.e., withdrawn from public reading), … What did he do? They brought him three hundred measures of oil, and he sat down and explained it.” By this, it was understood that the rabbi had modified the text to make it acceptable to the council.

This story suggests the possibility that the passage relating to the latter-day destruction of “the great and abominable church” may have been omitted form the book of Ezekiel, either inadvertently or during a deliberate modification of the text.

Another possible explanation for the absence of the passage from the book of Ezekiel is that it was included in another of Ezekiel’s books that is no longer extant. Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century A.D., declared that Ezekiel had “left behind him in writing two books” containing prophecies about the calamities that would befall the Jews. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls are five fragmentary copies (4Q385, 4Q386, 4Q387, 4Q388, 4Q391) of a text that has been termed “Pseudo-Ezekiel” because it contains passages from the biblical Ezekiel that vary from what is found in the standard Masoretic Hebrew text and some material not found in Ezekiel at all. Strugnell and Dimant have referred to the text as “Second Ezekiel.”

It is unlikely that Nephi had access to the writings of Ezekiel, for he lived in Babylon at the time that Lehi’s family left Jerusalem. But the similarity between the prophecies suggests that Ezekiel, like John and Nephi, shared the same vision of the future destruction of the wicked. [John A. Tvedtnes, “Ezekiel’s ”Missing Prophecy," in Voices of Old Testament Prophets: The 26th Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium, pp. 110-119]

Note* Apparently Isaiah also saw the same vision or one similar to that of Nephi, for in expounding Isaiah’s prophecies (1 Nephi 20-21--compare Isaiah 48-49), Nephi declares: “And the blood of that great and abominable church, which is the whore of all the earth, shall turn upon their own heads … and that great whore, who hath perverted the right ways of the Lord, yea, that great and abominable church, shall tumble to the dust and great shall be the fall of it” (1 Nephi 22:13-14) Later, after quoting a large section of Isaiah’s writings (2 Nephi 12-24--compare Isaiah 2-14), Nephi also declares: “But behold, that great and abominable church, the whore of all the earth, must tumble to the earth, and great must be the fall thereof” (2 Nephi 28:18) [Alan C. Miner, Personal Notes]

Step by Step Through the Book of Mormon: A Cultural Commentary