When you are ill, especially with a fever that keeps you bedridden, you have a lot of time to think about things. I found myself in such a state this past month; too much exhaustion, travel, and stress left me with back-to-back flus, and then pneumonia. As I tossed and turned with fever over the course of several days, I found myself thinking about the two great temptations of apostasy that come to all of us, and how for all their superficial differences, they are, in the end, actually very similar.
While I admit the genesis of this essay is a fevered mind, I hope the result is not addled thinking but rather a useful way of looking at a particular type of insidious temptation. For the temptation we speak of here is not the brute force one of drugs or some other physical temptation, but rather a spiritual temptation—spiritual temptation that may, and often does, strike believing LDS members. Certainly these two forms of this spiritual temptation have touched my life, and as I experience it, it feels like having a devil on each shoulder, as in this image,
If the center path—the straight and narrow one—is the true and safe path each LDS member is enjoined by the Savior to follow, then these other two paths, one slightly to the right and one slightly to the left of that central path, are the two apostasies of which I wish to speak. They are so close to that central path, abutting it on either side and seemingly parallel, that it is quite easy to slip into one of these other two paths almost without noticing. Indeed, once on one of these other two paths, it is easy to continue to think of oneself as a believing Latter-day Saint—until it’s clear you are not because a Church disciplinary council is excommunicating you.
Let’s explore these two paths of apostasy . . .
The Apostate Church of Looking Beyond the Mark
I moved to Utah to become a BYU faculty member in the late 1980s. In the early 1990s, there was great ferment in Utah County. Many “study groups,” some associated with Sterling Allan, began to spring up discussing the state of the Church and the writings of those such as Avraham Gileadi; Bo Gritz became a Mormon and set about running for president of the United States and founded an “off the grid” community called Almost Heaven, Idaho; several new splinter groups of the LDS Church formed, including the “Manti cult” of James Harmston. My own visiting teaching companion wound up in that cult, her husband becoming the president of their Quorum of Twelve Apostles, and taking a second 19 year-old bride.
Being a still fairly naïve convert, all of this was fascinating to me. These members of the LDS Church felt that the official Church had lost its way, and was insufficiently righteous—both the leadership and the membership. As I talked to those involved, I was constantly regaled by stories of all the Rolls Royces and Mercedes Benzes in the Church’s underground parking garages, and other types of financial malfeasance among the Brethren. Of course, I had actually parked in those parking lots on occasion, and never had seen anything pricier than a Toyota, but my interlocutors were insistent.
Furthermore, it was during this time period that the idea that the Lord had “covered” the prophet (then Ezra Taft Benson) because of the iniquity of the other Church leaders and members took hold. This concept is in reference to 2 Nephi 27:5, which says,
For behold, the Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep. For behold, ye have closed your eyes, and ye have rejected the prophets; and your rulers, and the seers hath he covered because of your iniquity.
There were some interesting commonalities among many of these groups:
- The groups were convinced that Church leadership had gone astray. Thus the Lord needed to call new leaders by the voice of angelic messengers. Many of these folks testified that in answer to prayer about these matters, they had been visited by angels calling them to take the place of the official leadership that had either fallen or been “covered.”
- Another theme was that the Church had become “soft,” and the membership had accommodated themselves to “Babylon,” in imitation of their leaders. There was an emphasis on doing hard or unconventional things that would prove that these individuals were more righteous than the mainstream body of the Church. I remember one regional conference during that time period when the visiting authority recounting how he had just visited an area where everyone was building handcarts in order to be ready to move to Missouri, but no one had done their home teaching. Outward signs of extreme behavior became a marker of greater righteousness. During that period, I also heard an apostle say that a sign that a man was on the road to apostasy was if he paid 11% of his income in tithing. When I first heard that saying, I did not understand it. Now I do.
- Another theme was that the Lord was greatly displeased with the Saints, and that a great apocalypse was coming, which would start with a cleansing of the LDS Church. Only “true” followers of Christ would be saved, because only these would prepare according to the word of the Lord. The rest of the membership of the Church would perish. The pertinent scripture here is D&C 112:24-26, which states, “Behold, vengeance cometh speedily upon the inhabitants of the earth, a day of wrath, a day of burning, a day of desolation, of weeping, of mourning, and of lamentation; and as a whirlwind I shall come upon all the face of the earth, saith the Lord. And upon my house shall it begin, and from my house shall it go forth, saith the Lord. First among those among you, saith the Lord, who have professed to know my name and have not known me, and have blasphemed against me in the midst of my house.” Preparedness often took over the lives of these individuals, in the form of extreme food storage or preparations for a final gathering to Missouri. Their involvement in preparation became a way for individuals to strive to prove themselves more righteous than others, and thus earn the right to be spared while other LDS members would perish.
- Strict gender hierarchy was also part and parcel of this worldview. Getting back to righteousness also meant returning to the rule of men over women. Men in these groups felt that priesthood power gave them “final say” over all household affairs, and that their wives and children were “subject” to them. This, according to their view, was the natural order ordained by God, and must be shored up among those who desired to be more righteous in the eyes of God.
- Sexual license for men was always lurking around the corner for these groups. The idea that the first LDS prophet to go astray was Wilford Woodruff because he retracted the law of plural marriage was almost universal. Some groups were tentative about espousing sexual license for men, but others, such as the Harmston cult, embraced it enthusiastically, while still others, such as Gritz, faced accusations of secret infidelities. Indeed, it is interesting to contemplate that the great schism in the Harmston cult was over whether God wanted you to sleep with your multiple wives at the same time, or sequentially. Others toyed with the idea that in the celestial kingdom all could have sex with all—and, of course, the “elect men” would be permitted to live in this earthly life as they would one day live in the celestial kingdom. For men attracted to these groups, being entitled to fully express themselves as sexual beings in one way or another seemed always a sign of “truth.”
- Another overall theme was the rigid condemnation of others for being less righteous. Through outward performances, one could show one’s spiritual superiority to others. Thus, to win that competition, one had to be prepared to be even more strict in every aspect of religion, so that one could gain victory over other aspirants for “top spiritual dog” status. I remember Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin once said, “[There is an] erroneous belief that all members of the Church should look, talk, and be alike. The Lord did not people the earth with a vibrant orchestra of personalities only to value the piccolos of the world. Every instrument is precious and adds to the complex beauty of the symphony. All of Heavenly Father’s children are different in some degree, yet each has his own beautiful sound that adds depth and richness to the whole.” (https://www.lds.org/liahona/2008/05/concern-for-the-one?lang=eng ). Well, not in this Apostate Church—in this church everyone must be piccolos, and those piccolos will be graded on how shiny and loud they are in comparison to their fellows. Sometimes there seemed even a veiled threat of violence behind this social policing, in addition to the overt threat of ostracism.
- “Off the grid” became a mantra in these groups. To get away from Babylon, one must physically remove oneself from it. Many of these groups sought for safety and freedom in isolated rural areas, and many prided themselves on growing their own food and not being connected to any municipal utilities. Some, such as Gritz, actually sold real estate lots in rural areas for believers to join “covenant communities.”
- The elect (i.e., members of these groups) are above the laws of the fallen LDS Church and even the laws of the land. Many of these groups participated in behavior that was illegal, which was OK because they were the elect, and thus they were justified in the eyes of God. Gritz, for example, first got in trouble with the Church for not paying his federal income taxes.
- The idea of esoteric knowledge not given to the mainstream membership of the LDS Church is also very common. The “elect,” of course, are deserving of this esoteric knowledge, and it will be provided to them by those special individuals called by angelic messengers to preach the “truth” to those who are worthy. That is why study groups or seminars or self-published books are needed. (And the books are often long, rambling attempts at a grand unified theory of everything.) There is the aroma of priestcraft in this.
This Apostate Church of Beyond the Mark is always with us. While I am most familiar with its flourishing during the early 1990s, this path is alive and well today. The faces and the names may change, but groups displaying this syndrome abound still. For all the media attention lavished on someone like Kate Kelly, there are always members of the Apostate Church of Beyond the Mark who are being excommunicated on a continual basis as well, the most recent high profile individual being Denver Snuffer. If you discover a group that has a preponderance of the nine symptoms listed above, please beware.
What is so insidious about this Apostate Church is that it “catches” those LDS members who pride themselves on their righteousness. Some may even be “stunned” to learn they are going to be excommunicated—after all, they are the elect of the LDS Church! Jacob had this to say about the specific stumbling blocks facing such individuals (speaking originally of the Jews of old):
“[T]hey despised the words of plainness, and killed the prophets, and sought for things that they could not understand. Wherefore, because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall; for God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it. And because they desired it, God hath done it, that they may stumble.” (Jacob 4:14).
Now, while most of us aren’t going to join one of these groups, there is still the ever-present temptation to veer to this side in a spiritual sense—the side of rigidity, the side of resisting all change brought about by the official leadership in the Church, of condemnation of any who are different, of feeling oneself so much more righteous than others, of feeling that outward performances are the mark of our elect status. Our Adversary knows that for some of us, this is the only way he can cause us to fall. Some of us may not be in danger of falling short of the mark, but going beyond the mark may be quite a different matter.
The Apostate Church of License
On the left hand side of the straight and narrow path is another apostate church—the Church of License. This church is much discussed in the scriptures, and so its errors are more well known than the Beyond the Mark Church.
In this church, the only sin is intolerance of sin. Indeed, the very concept of sin is subverted in this church. There is no “natural man” who is an “enemy to God.” No, God created the natural man, and so the natural man must be good just the way he is. The only real sin is in trying to reform the natural man, or making him feel bad about himself.
In the classic 1951 movie, The African Queen, there is a famous exchange between Katherine Hepburn, playing a religious woman, and Humphrey Bogart, playing a hardened boat captain, who are forced by circumstances to take a river trip together in Africa. Hepburn’s character has just thrown all of Bogart’s liquor overboard:
Charlie Allnut: What are you being so mean for, Miss? A man takes a drop too much once in a while, it's only human nature.
Rose Sayer: Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.
Those belonging to the Church of License would not understand what Rose Sayer is talking about. Who we think we are by nature, is what God intended us to be. And if God intended it, it must be good and right that we are so. Therefore, telling someone they must rise above who they think they are is just plain odious. Asking someone to repent or to change is to deeply wound an innocent soul beloved of God, and that is surely a morally repugnant thing to do. To even suggest that it is in an individual’s power to change can thus be seen as a form of harm perpetrated against that individual. Rather, we must assume an individual is powerless to be other than what they think they are, because it is God that caused them or created them to be just as they think they are.
So since there is no sin (except for asserting that there is sin), there can be no punishment for those simply living out what they believe to be their authentic lives. Therefore there is no law that has a claim on individuals living as they feel they should. God intended we be free to be just as He has made us; in that way, we fill the measure of our creation.
Thus who we think we are becomes the final arbiter of truth and falsehood, virtue and vice, pleasure and pain, righteousness and unrighteousness. There is no standard or Word above our free will. The doctrine that there is an unalterable law that stands above our individual will is, thus, offensive in the sight of this apostate church’s membership, as is was to Alma’s son Corianton:
“And now, my son, I perceive there is somewhat more which doth worry your mind, which ye cannot understand—which is concerning the justice of God in the punishment of the sinner; for ye do try to suppose that it is injustice that the sinner should be consigned to a state of misery” (Alma 42:1).
This “purity” of heart, which consigns no man to punishment (except those who believe there is sin), is viewed as the outward sign of inner righteousness. The less you believe anyone can really sin, the more righteous you are in this church. Of course, it helps that the world very much appreciates this point of view, and deems members of the Church of License as the most enlightened and progressive of those who call themselves LDS.
Several other positions are often associated with the rigidity of this viewpoint, I have found in my experience. The first is an inflexible pacifism. If there is no sin, what can possibly be worth fighting for? If no one is right and no one is wrong, why would we take up arms, even in defense? Surely the highest, purest moral position is that there is nothing ever worth fighting for.
I’ve also seen this extended to such things as vegetarianism, which can likewise become in some individuals an inflexible outward performance of inner “purity.” (Perhaps this is why D&C 49:18 suggests, “And whoso forbiddeth to abstain from meats, that men should not eat the same, is not ordained of God.”) Similarly, there is a particular twisted interpretation of feminism that sometimes accompanies this path, one that insists that any differences between men and women serve only to subordinate women, and so erasure of sexual/gender difference is the only “pure” position to hold.
Of course, the hallmark of the Church of License is its position on sexual sin, namely that any sexual relations between consenting individuals cannot be condemnable. Such relations are simply the full expression of the loving will, completely justified by God. The view of Alma, speaking to his son Corianton, makes no sense at all to the Church of License: “Know ye not, my son, that these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost?” (Alma 39:5). The idea that a third party, such as the LDS Church, could condemn any type of consensual sexual relations seems stunningly inappropriate and presumptuous to adherents of the Church of License.
Once again, the overarching themes include ones we have seen before with the Beyond the Mark Church. To those belonging to the Church of License, the official Church leadership is also hopelessly out of step with God’s will; members of the Church of License are much more righteous and pure than the mainstream membership of the LDS Church; and the LDS concept of “sexual sin” is deeply flawed. The Church of License also opines that LDS Church doctrine is infinitely malleable, and that the official LDS Church leadership could simply choose to change its doctrine to fit that of the Church of License. The fact that the LDS Church has proven recalcitrant on this score is viewed as lamentable.
However, what Alma, in the end, successfully preached to his son Corianton is that the Church of License is a false church:
“But there is a law given, and a punishment affixed, and a repentance granted; which repentance, mercy claimeth; otherwise, justice claimeth the create and executeth the law, and the law inflicteth the punishment; if not so, the world of justice would be destroyed and God would cease to be God. . . . What, do ye suppose that mercy can rob justice? I say unto you, Nay; not one whit. If so, God would cease to be God . . . But God ceaseth not to be God” (Alma 42: 22, 25, 23).
Like the Beyond the Mark Church, the Church of License will always be with us as a standing temptation to the membership of the LDS Church. It is very tempting to go along with shifts in social mores; one will even be rewarded by the world for doing so. Certainly it creates less discord within families and amongst friends to veer into the path of the Church of License. And one can achieve a real sense of personal purity and higher righteousness by moving towards a stance of greater tolerance of sin. If the first apostate church causes us to stumble by looking beyond the mark, this second apostate church causes us to fall by asserting there is no mark after all and that the true path is neither straight nor narrow.
But They Are, in the End, the Same Church
Though members of the two apostate churches seem vastly different on the surface, yet the flaw is the same: they set themselves up in the place of God, and they do it for reasons of pride and the lusts of the flesh. Those belonging to both churches wind up being very rigid and inflexible—about very different things! Members of each church feel spiritually superior to mainstream faithful LDS members and their leaders. And yet both apostate churches tend to be quite sympathetic to sexual sin, feeling even justified by God in this behavior.
Knowing the hallmarks of these two apostate churches may be helpful in seeing them for what they really are. It is important to “cross ourselves” when we feel the tug of these two paths in our own hearts (Alma 39:9). If you are feeling so much smarter and so much more righteous than the average Latter-day Saint (or even Apostle), something is definitely amiss and it’s time for a course correction. That may also mean disassociating ourselves from those who are determined to tread these alternative paths, which rupture can bring pain and sorrow. A straight and narrow path is a hard road to follow, but it is the only way to safety and happiness.
One set of road signs on that straight and narrow path is provided by our official LDS Church leadership. Recognizing that they are but fallible mortals, their guidance is nevertheless still much more trustworthy than the guides you will find in the two apostate churches. Give heed to the official leadership of the LDS Church, and they will not fail you. One of the most important functions they perform, sad as it may be, is setting the bounds of membership in the Church. We will continue to see excommunications among those who have joined the Beyond the Mark Church and the Church of License. This is as it should be, for these apostate churches ultimately lead to a vastly different destination than the straight and narrow path of our Savior. The straight and narrow path is inclusive of all, and yet completely intolerant of sin because sin is real and it is the enemy of all happiness.
The Savior’s path is a redemptive one, and that, in the end, is the great difference between it and the paths of the two apostate churches. There is no power of redemption in apostasy, and never can be. Steer carefully between the Charybdis and Scylla of these two apostate churches, whatever form they may take in your generation.
Full Citation for this Article: Cassler, V.H. (2064) "The Two Churches of Apostasy," SquareTwo, Vol. 9 No. 1 (Spring 2016), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleCasslerTwoApostasies.html, accessed <give access date>.
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I. Leslie Bates
This is one of the best articles I have ever read on the matter of two types of apostasy. I absolutely appreciate this piece - it articulates what I am seeing and it reminds me of what President Oaks once said - that we need to make sure we don't go overboard in any one direction. Moderation, humility, prayer, study and faith - key principles to avoid one extreme or the other!