Since I was a teenager in Mormon seminary classes, I’ve remembered vividly the Book of Mormon prophet Nephi’s remarkable vision wherein he described eighteen centuries of Christian history following Christ’s earthly mission. The account of this vision is found in I Nephi, Chapters 13 and 14 in the Book of Mormon. One of the most salient features of this vision is Nephi’s striking foreshadowing of the “great and abominable church” among the nations of the Gentiles.1 Also extremely important to note is that Nephi makes clear that this one church is not just an amalgamation of all churches around the world who fight against the Lord, nor is it a collection of all churches which contain untrue doctrines. Rather, as stated by an angel in I Nephi 13:26, it is one particular denomination “which is most abominable above all other other churches,” (emphasis added), and the text following that verses demonstrates that its damage is done during a clearly delineated era of European Christian history.
What Nephi Saw
In Nephi’s vision, the “nations of the Gentiles” are the Christian nations of Europe, and sometime later, the Americas. His vision doesn’t purport to foretell the history of the other parts of the world outside of Europe and the Americas. Nephi saw that the Christian nations possessed the Bible, and that it contained a significant portion of Christ’s gospel, but was missing key parts which had been removed by the great and abominable church. Because of the plain and precious parts of the Bible missing from among the Christian Gentiles, Nephi states, in I Nephi 13:29, that he observed a future wherein “an exceedingly great many do stumble, yea, insomuch that Satan hath great power over them.” Eventually and dramatically, however, God pours out his wrath on the great and abominable church, and this occurs when it tries to destroy the “church of the Lamb.” The result is that the great and abominable church is militarily defeated, and said defeat is one of the most momentous events Nephi witnesses in his vision. The hypothesis of this essay is one that, to the author’s knowledge, has never before been propounded by any Mormon scholars or writers–that the historic military defeat of the great and abominable church has already occurred, and that its occurrence can be identified by looking back at the most religiously significant development in European history.
First, however, the scriptural and historical underpinnings of this theory should be fleshed out. The reader is encouraged to read the scriptural references, and all of First Nephi 13 and 14, to form his or her own opinion as to whether the interpretations herein are justified by the Book of Mormon text. In the timeline of his vision, Nephi saw that leading up to the aforementioned great fall, Satan’s influence was pervasive among the Gentiles. Two forces were seen to be at odds with each other—the “church of the Lamb,” the smaller of the two groups of people comprised of sincere followers of Christ, and the aforementioned great and abominable church, the larger force, which persecuted the smaller force. The great and abominable church had come to dominate the nations of the Christian Gentiles religiously, civilly, and militarily. Nephi saw that during this era, a divinely inspired man, reasonably identifiable as Christopher Columbus, left the nations of the Gentiles and crossed the ocean to the New World, where he encountered the descendants of Nephi and his brothers. Then, other Gentiles, desirous to leave behind the religious captivity of Europe, also sailed to America:
And it came to pass that I looked and beheld many waters; and they divided the Gentiles from the seed of my brethren.
And it came to pass that the angel said unto me: Behold the wrath of the God is upon the seed of thy brethren.
And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land.
And it came to pass that I beheld the Spiriti of God, that it wrought upon other Gentiles; and they went forth out of captivity, upon the many waters.2
Because these early pilgrims and settlers humbled themselves before the Lord, Nephi saw that “the power of the Lord was with them.” Nephi also saw a group of Gentiles still living in Europe fight battles against the settlers of America who had left them, but the latter, aided by God, were seen to prevail.3 During this time, the Christians on both sides of the ocean were seen to use the same scriptural standard, the Bible. Nephi saw that the Bible started out in its pure form, containing the fulness of the gospel of Christ, when it originally came from the Jews to the Gentiles. However, it didn’t remain intact. Many plain and precious teachings were removed from it by the great and abominable church, “that they [the church hierarchy] might pervert the right ways of the Lord, that they might blind the eyes and harden the hearts of the children of men.”4 As a result, a great many Gentiles were misled by their mistaken religious beliefs and led to do evil. One of those great evils was the desire by this dominant church power in the nations of the Gentiles to subjugate all people under its civil and religious rule.5
To solve the problem created by the Gentiles’ religious misconceptions and Satan’s exploitation of same to bring down Christianity, the Lord declared that he would restore those plain and precious lost truths missing from the Bible in a new book to come forth to the Gentiles “by the gift and power of the Lamb.”6 This second book would come from the records of Christ’s ministry to the descendants of Nephi and his brothers, and it would corroborate the testimony of Christ contained within the Bible that “the Lamb of God is the son of the Eternal Father, and the Savior of the World; and that all men must come unto him or they cannot be saved.”7 Like the Bible, it would contain several discrete books of its own.8 As a second witness of Christ from the ancient inhabitants of America, it would join with the witness of the twelve apostles in the Bible, “wherefore they both shall be established in one.”9
This second book, which Nephi identifies in I Nephi 14: 7 by its scriptural code phrase “a marvelous work,” is known to us today as the Book of Mormon. (For the other scriptural references wherein this term is used to refer to the Book of Mormon, see Who Translated the Book of Mormon Text into English for Joseph Smith to Read? under the topical essay listing “The Three Nephites’ Greatest Project” on this website.)
However, leading up to the time the Book of Mormon comes forth to supplement the Bible, the great and abominable church has to be subdued to allow this to happen. Nephi’s vision then chronologically backtracks to describe how this occurs before the Book of Mormon comes forth. After bringing about much subjugation and evil, the great and abominable church is seen to eventually mount its military forces together to destroy the church of the Lamb once and for all. Momentously, the Lord helps the church of the Lamb, which is observed to be “armed with righteousness and with the power of God in great glory,” so that its larger and more powerful evil counterpart cannot prevail against it. In describing the next scene of his vision, Nephi memorably records that “the wrath of God is poured out upon the mother of harlots [one of several synonyms used in the vision to identify the great and abominable church].”10 Regarding what is to ensue thereafter, Nephi declares that “then, at that day, the work of the Father shall commence, in preparing the way for the fulfilling of his covenants, which he hath made to his people which are of the house of Israel.”11
Meanwhile, having already seen the discovery and population of the Americas by the Gentiles, Nephi views them carrying the Bible to his family’s posterity, remnants of the House of Israel living in the Western Hemisphere. Due to the influence of Christianity and the Bible among the new Gentiles in America, they prosper and are greatly blessed by God. However, as a result of said prosperity, the Gentiles on both continents become materialistic and haughty, and because of their misunderstanding of God’s ways, come to believe that God no longer performs miraculous things among them, nor intends to supplement the teachings of the Bible.
For reasons I’ll explain below, I’ve concluded that what Nephi described as the “great and abominable church,” referred to a collective body comprised of the institutional hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church and the monarchies allied with it, as opposed to Catholicism’s lay membership, during the many centuries after Christ. I’m not unaware of how politically incorrect and harsh this opinion sounds to non-Mormons, especially Catholics. However, a closer reading of the actual scriptures that discuss the great and abominable church actually demonstrates that no sincere Catholic should be offended by what the Book of Mormon actually describes. In fact, the Book of Mormon offers high praise for people in European history whom we can identify today as prominent Catholics who tried to reform the church in conformity to the original Christian gospel. In fact, the account of Nephi’s vision in the Book of Mormon leaves little doubt that prominent Roman Catholics, were among those who comprised the church of the Lamb in the centuries after Christ. (See more on this point below.)
More importantly, by paying close attention to the details contained within the Book of Mormon narrative in 1 Nephi 13 and 14, I’ve concluded that not only did Nephi’s vision describe the advent of the Roman Catholic church and its dominance among the Gentiles, but as set forth in this essay’s first paragraph, the pouring out of God’s wrath upon the great and abominable church, predicted in 1 Ne. 14: 17 foretells the momentous time in human history when the Roman Catholic church was defeated in its attempt to rule and control the Christian world. The event Nephi prophesied is now past history.
The reason Book-of-Mormon-believing people, including Mormonism’s general authorities and scholars, don’t generally regard this prophecy as having yet been fulfilled stems, I think, from three problems. First, they forget that Nephi’s unique description of the great and abominable church describes actions which were historically performed exclusively by the specific organization that came to be known as the Roman Catholic Church at a time when no other candidate existed. Specifically, Nephi saw that early on, leaders and theologians of the great and abominable church presumed to decide what to include in the Bible, and what to exclude from it, after it came forth in its purity from the Jews and became available to Christian converts. From 1 Nephi 13 we read:
20 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld that they [Gentiles coming to the New World] did prosper in the land; and I beheld a book, and it was carried forth among them.
21 And the angel said unto me: Knowest thou the meaning of the book?
22 And I said unto him: I know not.
23 And he said: Behold it proceedeth out of the mouth of a Jew. And I, Nephi, beheld it; and he said unto me: The book that thou beholdest is a record of the Jews, which contains the covenants of the Lord, which he hath made unto the house of Israel; and it also containeth many of the prophecies of the holy prophets; and it is a record like unto the engravings which are upon the plates of brass, save there are not so many; nevertheless, they contain the covenants of the Lord, which he hath made unto the house of Israel; wherefore, they are of great worth unto the Gentiles.
24 And the angel of the Lord said unto me: Thou hast beheld that the book proceeded forth from the mouth of a Jew; and when it proceeded forth from the mouth of a Jew it contained the fulness of the gospel of the Lord, of whom the twelve apostles bear record; and they bear record according to the truth which is in the Lamb of God.
25 Wherefore, these things go forth from the Jews in purity unto the Gentiles, according to the truth which is in God.
26 And after they go forth by the hand of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, from the Jews unto the Gentiles, thou seest the formation of that great and abominable church, which is most abominable above all other churches; for behold, they have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away.
27 And all this have they done that they might pervert the right ways of the Lord, that they might blind the eyes and harden the hearts of the children of men.
28 Wherefore, thou seest that after the book hath gone forth through the hands of the great and abominable church, that there are many plain and precious things taken away from the book, which is the book of the Lamb of God.
29 And after these plain and precious things were taken away it goeth forth unto all the nations of the Gentiles; and after it goeth forth unto all the nations of the Gentiles, yea, even across the many waters which thou hast seen with the Gentiles which have gone forth out of captivity, thou seest—because of the many plain and precious things which have been taken out of the book, which were plain unto the understanding of the children of men, according to the plainness which is in the Lamb of God—because of these things which are taken away out of the gospel of the Lamb, an exceedingly great many do stumble, yea, insomuch that Satan hath great power over them.
The description in these verses provides conclusive evidence as to whom Nephi is talking about. Only one organization fits this description of having decided what books would comprise the Bible, and which verses would be edited or remain unedited. However, if the reader is unable to associate Nephi’s account in these verses with the well-documented history of the Roman Catholic Church’s exclusive role in defining the original Christian canon, it becomes difficult for that same reader to identify and connect later events in Catholic history with the things Nephi states were perpetrated by the great and abominable church.
Second, judging from many decades of personal experience attending LDS meetings across the United States, many Mormon readers apparently don’t recognize or identify Roman Catholic practices when they read Nephi’s descriptions of characteristics for which the practice of Catholicism is famous–gold, silks, scarlets, fine-twined linens, precious clothing and historically, harlots. Even if they do recognize the heavy presence of these things in Roman Catholic history, Mormons are reluctant to say so because they don’t want to offend Catholics. Usually, most Mormons simply misunderstand what they’re reading, thinking those peculiar words merely refer to all “untrue” churches around the world. But the practices described by Nephi, within the very specific context of occurring within the “nations and kingdoms of the Gentiles” in 1 Ne. 13: 3, leave no other candidate, especially since the reference to removing precious parts of the Jewish scriptures has already identified the early Roman church. Notice the language Nephi uses:
3 And he [the angel showing Nephi the vision] 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 bright them down into captivity.
6 And it came to pass that I beheld this great and abominable church; and I saw the devil that he was the founder of it.
7 And I also saw gold, and silver, and silks, and scarlets, and find-twined linen, and all manner of precious clothing; and I saw many harlots.
8 And the angel spake unto me, saying: Behold the gold, and the silver, and the silks, and the scarlets, and the fine-twined linen, and the precious clothing, and the harlots, are the desires of this great and abominable church.12
Those who have served LDS church missions in Europe or Latin America have probably experienced what I did when seeing visually magnificent Roman Catholic cathedrals and church buildings whose interiors, furnishings, instruments and associated priestly vestments displayed gold, silver, expensive and ornate stained glass, silks, scarlets and “fine twined linens” [see 1 Ne. 13: 5-9]. The cathedrals in Latin America were originally erected by Spanish Catholics (Portuguese Catholics in Brazil) using indigenous labor–poor peasants who’d had Catholicism’s excesses forced on them. In my mission to southeast Mexico, Catholic churches in Oaxaca and Puebla were considered must-sees because their interior walls and ceilings were almost completely covered in gold. The Templo de Santo Domingo in Oaxaca had required the use of 60,000 sheets of gold, but it was hard to determine whether it had more gold, or less, than that found within the Iglesia de Santo Domingo in Puebla. Catholic churches in Europe are equally magnificent in their size and visual splendor, or more so. In Latin America, I became aware that while poor people were allowed to attend services in such imposing edifices, they derived few other benefits from them. They were required to pay sizable sums to be married in those churches which were allowed to be used for such, and this expense prevented millions from being wed at all in any marriage recognized by Catholicism.
The sense of exclusion was enhanced by the difference in clothing worn by the priesthood versus that worn by parishioners. The former’s robes and finery, funded by parishioners’ donations, gave the impression that priests constituted a royal class. The Catholic emphasis on material opulence continues today, unfortunately, and can be seen not only in its grand churches and cathedrals, but in the robes, headpieces, and golden objects and furnishings on display in any Christmas or Easter service televised from a Catholic cathedral. From the authors’ perspective, the contrast between the wealth manifested in Catholicism’s material symbols and the relative poverty of so many of the religion’s adherents has always been stark, and clearly at odds with Christ’s own example during his mortal sojourn.
In the passage of scripture quoted above, I Nephi 13:5 refers to another hallmark of the great and abominable church: it binds good Christians (the “saints of God”) into captivity, imposes heavy burdens on them, and tortures and kills them. But again, many Mormons fail to link Nephi’s words in verse 5 with Catholicism’s well-documented and admitted history of oppression and persecution of Christians and Jews in Europe and the Americas. The biggest explanation for why this connection is missed is probably general unfamiliarity with the specific history of Europe during the middle ages and second millennium A.D. Another common reason is the general reluctance among good people to alienate their Catholic friends. But, in attempting not to offend, these well-intentioned students of scripture miss the vital point the Book of Mormon makes: only those people who are furthering those practices of oppressing, persecuting, killing, or teaching false gospel to other Christians come under Book of Mormon condemnation. Catholics themselves aren’t being criticized if they’re not pursuing illegitimate objectives. Neither are the other members of other denominations. God still judges people individually by their own actions, not by those holding positions of church leadership.
What Nephi described as the great and abominable church wasn’t everyone who was nominally Catholic, but a great evil movement within Catholicism which threatened innocent people everywhere who followed the true precepts of Christianity. This latter group was called “the saints of God,” or “the church of the Lamb of God “in Nephi’s narrative of his vision.13 Much like Germans ruled by Hitler in World War II weren’t necessarily individually guilty of Hitler’s sins, or those of his advisors, individuals who were Catholics during their church’s reign of terror are not under condemnation for decisions made by kings and popes. In the epoch Nephi saw in vision, the saints of God, or the members of the church of the Lamb, consisted of all righteous Catholics, including such great reformers as Jan Hus, Martin Luther, William Tyndale, Huldrych Zwingli, and John Rogers, and newly converted Protestants. Many of these people were persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, and slain by the Roman Catholic church. But this group, much smaller in number but growing, in order to gain acceptance with God, sought to follow biblical teachings in the way they lived their lives, instead of relying on rituals and blessings administered through the Catholic priesthood. Therefore, if we look for fulfillment of the prophecy that the wrath of God would be poured out upon the great and abominable church, we shouldn’t look for a time when the Roman Catholic church ceased to exist. Rather, we should look for the defeat of the great evil effort within the “Holy Roman Empire” to subject the rest of the Gentile nations, and then the Americas, to its creeds, practices and rule. And what Nephi described he saw in vision can be matched to some very specific, extremely momentous events in Western history (i.e, the history of Europe and the Americas).
Crucial to analyzing what Nephi describes in his vision is noting carefully the chronology of events he describes. The rise and military defeat of the great and abominable church all happens before the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. After its history of evil outlined above, wherein righteous people are tortured and killed, the church of the Lamb nevertheless gains strength. To suppress this, the evil church gathers together multitudes of people to destroy its less-numerous enemy.14 But God invests the church of the Lamb with his own power.15 As a result, wars and rumors of wars break out among the nations ruled by the “mother of abominations” or “mother of harlots,” which are synonyms for the great and abominable church. I Nephi 14:14-17 relates that the wrath of God is poured out upon it, while simultaneously the power of the Lamb of God descends upon the saints of the church of the Lamb and arms them “with righteousness and with the power of God in great glory.” This causes “wars and rumors of wars” to break out among all the nations under the control of the evil church. With the Lord himself against it, it does not prevail.
It should be emphasized that although the great and abominable church’s failure to militarily or governmentally control the nations over which it once exercised unbridled dominion does not equate with its complete destruction, its failure to prevail does begin the process of its gradual decline and final destruction. The Book of Mormon indicates that eventually, when it is utterly and finally destroyed, its fall is of “great” magnitude.16
According to I Nephi 14:17, when the Father pours out his wrath on the mother of abominations to counter its campaign to subdue the saints of God among the Gentiles, the work of the Father “commence[s] in preparing the way for the fulfilling of his covenants which he hath made to his people which are of the house of Israel.” That this phrase refers to the advent of the Book of Mormon is confirmed by Jesus’ identical words to describe the coming forth of the Book of Mormon in 3 Ne. 21:1-7. Note the similarity of the language used: Jesus explains in verse 7 that when the Book of Mormon comes forth to the remnant of the Nephites and Lamanites from the Gentiles, “it shall be a sign unto them that they may know that the work of the Father hath already commenced unto the fulfilling of the covenant which he hath made unto the people which are of the house of Israel.”
In other words, to discern what Nephi was describing in I Nephi 13 and 14, we need to look into the history of Christianity in Europe and the Americas to see what events happened before the Book of Mormon came forth, which would be momentous enough to look like the military defeat of, and the beginning of the decline of the great and abominable church. In the author’s opinion, the historical events jump out at the reader.
The Religious Persecution by the Holy Roman Empire in Europe
There can be little doubt that the beginning of the corruption of the Catholic Church had much to do with its history of combining the legitimate objectives of spiritual leadership with the objectives of acquiring civil governmental power–the ability to control armies, imprison and put to death perceived heretics, and create its own civilly binding commandments and crimes.
A turning point for the Catholic church in Europe was the Roman Empire’s transformation into the Holy Roman Empire, accomplished through a Roman pope and a German emperor. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, “Real German history begins with Charlemagne (768-814).”
This source describes how this emperor viewed himself and his reign: “The Frankish king desired like Solomon to be a great ecclesiastical and secular potentate, a royal priest…his conception of his position [was] as the head of the Kingdom of God…[he was] crowned emperor by the Pope on Christmas Day, 800. On this day the Germanic idea of the Kingdom of God, of which Charlemagne was the representative, bowed to the Roman idea, which regards Rome as its centre, Rome the seat of the old empire and the most sacred place of the Christian world. Charlemagne when emperor still regarded himself as the real leader of the Church…He even interfered in dogmatic [doctrinal] questions.
Charlemagne…regarded his possession of the empire as resulting solely from his own power…Yet on the other hand he looked upon his empire only as a Christian one, whose most noble calling it was to train up the various races within its borders to the service of God and thus to unify them . . .
The church became the primary institution in Europe, transcending all of its local and regional monarchs, to the point that the continent took on an alternate name: “Christendom.” The Holy Roman Emperor became the world’s most powerful civil ruler, crowned by its most powerful religious figure.17
Another subtle evil associated with church leaders possessing full governmental power was the removal of healthy and necessary religious and civil checks on the two closely connected heads of church and civil government. Popes were responsible for crowning the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and emperors had superior power to raise revenue or muster armies to fight the church’s perceived enemies. The result was a system whereby to fight religious tyranny, one had to fight the tyranny of civil government, and vice versa. If the pope was murdering innocents, defrauding Catholics out of their money, or promoting whoredoms, one could not confidently seek relief from the government of the Catholic man whom the pope had anointed emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
The predictable result was chronically immoral practices by the Catholic priesthood over the centuries, and an enhanced appetite for wealth to fund the dual expense accounts of church and state. This essay does not delve deeply into the evil practiced by Catholic popes, cardinals, bishops and priests during the centuries. Countless books and articles have been written about this subject, and even the most staunchly devout Catholic historian will not dispute that it happened. But some allusion to Catholic misdeeds bears mentioning to demonstrate how closely it matched what Nephi saw in his vision, and to help determine whether or not he indeed witnessed the Protestant Reformation bringing about the military and civil defeat of the Catholic Church.
Renowned historian Kenneth Scott Latourette speaks of the decline of the clergy in this period: “It is not surprising that in the rank and file of the bishops and priests there was widespread corruption. Clerical concubinage was prevalent. . . . We read of bishops with numerous illegitimate progeny for whom they provided.”18
At the time of the Reformation, the Catholic Church “officially advocated celibacy for the religious, and prohibited marriage [for clergy], but allowed fornication and concubinage.”19 For instance, in 1527 all but 10 out of 200 Catholic clergymen in Thuringia were living with women outside marriage.20
Pope Sixtus IV (1471–1484) established the practice of selling indulgences in order to establish a new stream of church revenue, and consequently agent-salesmen were sent out across Europe offering wealthy donors the right to commit pre-paid sins. Pope Alexander VI (1492–1503) was one of the most controversial of the Renaissance popes. He was the father of at least seven children from at least three known mistresses, If that was not enough, he deeded parcels of real estate owned by the church to his children, and set his sons up in positions of church employment. In response to these and many other instances of papal corruption, particularly the sale of indulgences, Luther wrote The Ninety-Five Theses, which launched the Protestant Reformation.21
Most readers will probably remember learning in high school something about the link between Spain and Catholicism, before and during the Protestant Reformation in Europe. Spain had already initiated the Spanish Inquisition, wherein it attempted to purge its Jewish population, and later groups, of any hint of dissension from Catholic orthodoxy. But even if you remember this part of history, you may not have made any mental connection between that era and the era Nephi described in his Book of Mormon narrative in I Nephi 13 and 14, even if you had read those Book of Mormon chapters carefully. The momentous events that unfolded when Spain joined forces with the Holy Roman Empire are summarized below, and those events appear to be precisely what Nephi was talking about when he saw a great confrontation arise between the great and abominable church and the church of the Lamb. It is hoped that the reader will be motivated to read more on this subject to test the conclusion reached in this essay. (Wikipedia is always a good place to go for this kind of research, as its essays, which are informative themselves, are also heavily footnoted and provide the primary sources of the information provided.)
In 1516, through the process of royal intermarriage, Spain became the most powerful nation on earth. Its new dominion now included much of Europe and most of the Americas. The marriage had allowed it to become part of the Habsburg Empire, a subset of which consisted of the league of city-states comprising the Holy Roman Empire. The new merger meant Spain and the Holy Roman Empire were now part of the same colossus, a conglomerate of European nations. By 1519, Charles V, Spain’s newly-ascendant 19-year-old king, was crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by the pope, and set about consolidating his power and enlarging his vast domain even more. With Spain now leading the Catholic empire, the church now had the military power to accomplish things that had previously been beyond even the power of the Vatican to do by itself. However, an immediate challenge to the Holy Roman Empire arose in the form of rebellion against church orthodoxy.
When Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on a door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517, it was an unprecedented challenge to the Roman church. While it was not the first step in the Protestant Reformation, it was the boldest.
The new church he established presented an alternative to many German nobles and landholders, many of whom agreed with Luther’s view that the established church had become a moneymaking enterprise rather than a spiritual body. The Lutheran movement allowed them to get out from under Rome’s thumb, while assuring them that they could still receive salvation. Further, Luther’s motto of sola scriptura—“scripture alone”—gave these new converts a sense of righteous justification in what Catholic loyalists considered rebellion.
Hostilities soon broke out between the kings of various German territories, Lutheran versus Catholic. In 1555, the Peace of Augsburg led to a lull in the fighting and established the Lutheran church as a legitimate, state-sanctioned church. This treaty’s terms stated that subjects within a [local] king’s territory must conform to his church affiliation, or else relocate. This ruling effectively redrew the German map. Catholics became predominant in south and west Germany, Protestants in the north and east—a pattern that largely holds today.
In the realm of European religion, the floodgates had been opened, with effects spreading far beyond Germany. The survival and success of Martin Luther and his namesake church emboldened followers of other reformers such as John Calvin, John Knox, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Hus.22
Following his coronation as Emperor, for the next 37 years until he abdicated his throne and retired to a monastery, Charles V began making war on and subduing city-states in Europe, while commissioning the overthrow of the Aztecan and Incan empires, and everything in between them, overseas in the Americas. The emperor became determined to place as much of the world as possible under the Holy Roman Empire’s dominion while simultaneously gathering lands and property for Spain. He became the world’s most powerful man.
In time, Charles V saw fit to split his empire so as to allow his brother, Ferdinand I (who succeeded Charles as the next Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 1558), to lead the Habsburg Empire separately from the governance of Spain, as the latter had heavy responsibilities in its own dominion in Europe and the Americas. However, both powers remained allies devoted to the same religious, political and military causes. Charles V’s successors, after his abdication to a monastery in 1556, continued to gather together their armies to fight the Christian reformers, but the biblically-literate Christians of the Reformation, who themselves were motivated by the teachings of the New Testament, continued to resist. The Spanish Armada sailed from Spain to England in 1588 in an attempt to overthrow the Protestant queen of England and return that land to Catholicism, but was famously defeated. The Pilgrims who came to Americas in the early 1600s successfully escaped the increasing pressure on Protestants in Europe, and they founded in North America the colonies which grew into the earliest American states.
Although France was never part of the Spain-Holy Roman Empire alliance, it, too was a country where Catholic leaders made war on local Protestants during the Reformation. Between 1562 and 1598, approximately 3,000,000 French Huguenots were slaughtered by French Catholic forces. The killing in France constituted the second deadliest Catholic purge of the Reformation, behind only the approximately 8,000,000 lives lost during the Thirty Years War which later raged in much of Europe through the mid-1600s.23 Thus,
When Bohemian King Ferdinand II (later to become a Holy Roman Emperor) mandated Catholicism for all in his territory, it sparked a revolt that spread, becoming the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). This pitted Catholic strongholds such as France, Spain and Poland against Protestant-aligned nations including Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands. By its end, through treaties called the Peace of Westphalia, the borders and power balance across Europe had changed. As summarized by Encyclopaedia Britannica, “The ancient notion of a Roman Catholic empire of Europe, headed spiritually by a pope and temporally by an emperor, was permanently abandoned, and the essential structure of modern Europe as a community of sovereign states was established.”24
Despite the significance of the Peace of Westphalia, there is no universal agreement on the exact or approximate date the Reformation ended. Various interpretations emphasize different dates, entire periods, or argue that the Reformation never really ended. However, there are a few popular interpretations that are used by large groups of observers.
-Historically, the Peace of Westphalia is considered to be the event that ended the Reformation. This is the most commonly held interpretation.
-According to other historical interpretation, the Reformation could truly be considered to have ended in the middle 18th century, as the Peace of Westphalia did not specify, nor did it mean that it concluded; that is around time the First Great Awakening (1730–1755) took place. People who hold this interpretation often argue that the emergence of Pietism prolonged the Reformation up to this point.
-Some argue that the Reformation never ended as new groups have splintered from the Catholic Church (e.g., Old Catholics, Polish National Catholic Church, etc.), as well as all the various Protestant churches that exist today. No group splintering from the Catholic Church since the 17th century has done so on the basis of the same issues animating the Reformation, however.25
But the loss of life among Protestants in Europe, and by natives in Meso- and South America, had been staggering. The Thirty Years’ War had devastated Germany especially, killing between 25% and 40% of its entire population.26 Scholars estimate that adding together Spain’s and the Holy Roman Empire’s attempts over the centuries to establish Catholic hegemony in Europe and the Americas resulted in the deaths of some 50,000,000 to 68,000,000 people, many of whom died among the native peoples in America under Spanish-Catholic rule.27 During the Reformation, William Tyndale had followed the earlier fate of the Bohemian priest and theologian Jan Hus in being burned at the stake by the Catholic church. Tyndale’s sin had been his efforts to publish the Bible in English and promote biblical literacy among all Christians, as opposed to deferring to Catholic priests to perpetuate Catholic dogma. John Rogers, a religiously devout husband and father of ten children who shared Tyndale’s desire and helped his cause, was also burned at the stake. Ulrich Zwingli, one of the most renowned scholars and reformers (and in the author’s opinion, most inspired), died in battle fighting his Catholic attackers. These and many other saints of God, virtually all of whom were Catholic when martyred, were proof that being Catholic didn’t protect anyone from the megalomania of the “Holy” Roman Empire.
As noted, however, gradually, the Catholic nations allied with Spain and the Habsburg Empire suffered increasing military and social defeats while growing numbers of Protestants were becoming biblically literate. Previously-Catholic countries no longer tolerated the slaughter of citizens merely for being insufficiently orthodox, which the Holy Roman Empire had been allowed to inflict for centuries. Nor were they willing to be ruled or taxed by Rome and its surrogates. As Spain and the Habsburg Empire began to lose battles and wars, they could no longer hold power in Europe together.
Liberation from Spanish-Catholic Hegemony in Latin America
The move to throw off Spanish rule and forced Catholicism in the Americas began later than in Europe. Spain had been the first European country in the New World, and it had imposed Catholicism on the natives. Though Protestantism had thrown off Spanish/Catholic hegemony over Europe by the mid 1600s, and England, France and the Netherlands had become greater powers, Spain continued to dominate the Americas for quite a while longer. The Spanish Jesuit priests weren’t removed from the Americas until 1767. As the 1800s began, though, the move to liberate Latin America from Spanish and Catholic rule was born. In South America, Jose de San Martin and Simon Bolivar liberated the whole continent, country by country, from Spanish rule by 1822. In Mexico, Miguel Hidalgo, a Catholic priest, and Agustin de Iturbide did the same, winning independence in 1821 and successfully defending against a Spanish reconquest attempt in 1829. Part of the independence process in Mexico required changing the country’s status in 1821 from being a new, independent, somewhat emphemeral Catholic monarchy controlling central America, to a federal republic granting central American countries the right of self-government in 1823. Meanwhile, at the dawn of the 19th century, costly wars in Europe against the French had forced Spain to sell off its possessions in the current territory of the United States.
Thus, the attempt of the Holy Roman Empire to religiously and politically rule the nations of the Gentiles in Europe and the Americas failed. Its gradual but momentous military and governmental defeat was complete as the Book of Mormon was published in 1830. When the first Books of Mormon were taken to the Lamanites in the early 20th century, Spain owned not a single possession in North, Central or South America, and had become a relatively minor country in Europe. The Catholic Church held no military or governmental power over any nation other than the Vatican itself. Protestantism had spread throughout Europe, and become more prevalent than Catholicism in North America. The biblically inspired movement to abolish slavery in England and the United States had also revolutionized Christian nations and set an example for the rest of the world. In Christian nations everywhere, recognition of the freedom of individuals to practice the religion of their choice, and to be free from the civil power of a church, whether Christian or otherwise, came to be seen as a natural inference from biblical teachings. Not surprisingly, in Latin America, which had been homogeneously Catholic for centuries, several Christian denominations, including Mormonism, experienced impressive growth in the 20th century, and said growth continues today.
Catholics remain all over Europe and the Americas, and in parts of Asia, but today the efforts to physically force Catholicism on Jews and Gentiles have been abandoned. Only the costly apparel, golden instruments and the visually magnificent church buildings remain unchanged today from centuries earlier, along with Catholicism’s own set of unique doctrines, of course. But the Roman Catholic church, led currently by a determined Pope Francis, appears eager to correct its past errors
. All of this began because courageous disciples of the church of the Lamb among the Gentiles, understanding the message of Christ contained within his gospel, and viewing themselves as His agents, risked or sacrificed their lives to proclaim the soul-liberating good news. The Christian world was forever transformed by their devotion.
These are the momentous events that Nephi saw. It is no wonder he felt compelled to record them on his plates.
1. In this essay, the Book of Mormon’s stylistic capitalization of the term “Gentiles” will be used, as will the meaning of that term as it is conceptualized in First and Second Nephi.
2. I Nephi 13:10-13
3. I Nephi 13:16-19, 30
4. I Nephi 13:27
5. I Nephi 13:20-33
6. I Nephi 13:35
7. I Nephi 13: 35-40
8. See I Nephi 13: 39.
9. I Nephi 13: 41.
10. I Nephi 14:17
12. I Nephi 13:3-8
13. See 1 Ne. 13:9 and 1 Ne. 14: 9-14.
14. I Ne. 14: 13
15. I Ne. 14: 14.
16. II Ne. 28: 18
17. Jeffrey A. Ambrose, “Germany and the Catholic Church,” in The Real Truth (online magazine), December 14, 2012
18. Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, Vol. 1, (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1975) p. 641.
19. Clyde L. Manschreck, Melanchthon, The Quiet Reformer (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2009), p. 72, cited in Wikipedia Article “Fornication.”
21. See Wikipedia article “Reformation.”
23. See Wikipedia article “French Wars of Religion.”
24. See Wikipedia essay, “Reformation.”
27. For further analysis of the death toll from enforcing Catholicism, see David A. Plaisted, Estimates of the Number Killed by the Papacy in the Middle Ages and Later (free online book) copyrighted 2006.