The Webster’s definition of apostasy is 1) renunciation of a religious faith and 2) abandonment of a previous loyalty. Tracing the word back to its original Greek, one finds that an apostate could be defined as ‘one who stands apart.’ There are many great men and women who, based on their conscience or on revelation, were called to stand apart from their religious traditions. I would like to consider a few of these great souls both within and without the Mormon sphere.
I have truly enjoyed reading on the life and works of Martin Luther. For many years, I simply placed him in the realm of a predecessor to Joseph Smith. This is still a valid statement but I believe we can learn much more from his life and struggles. He was born 8 years before Columbus discovered America. He grew up in the home of his parents who looked forward to their son becoming a lawyer and supporting them. While returning to school after a visit home, he was knocked down by a lightning strike. Fearful for his life, he pledged at the spot to enter the service of God. Two weeks later, he entered the monastery at the age of 22 never having read the Bible. When it was presented to him, he devoured it spending many days and months reading the word of God. Continually, through fasting and prayer, he sought to be acceptable to God. In 1510, Luther had the privilege of spending a month in Rome. He returned to Germany disillusioned by the crassness of the priests and the singular focus he saw there on money and excess.
While much of his life in the monastery was filled with the anxiety of a sinful soul, Martin struggled to find peace with God. Something, he realized, that could not happen until the whole man had been changed. With this challenge he struggled for many months. In 1513, he was assigned the chair of the Bible. Teaching from the Psalms brought him to the realization that Christ had indeed taken upon him our sins. It was an epiphany for the man who came to realize that he had did not have to rely on the myriad of acts demanded by the Holy Roman Church but only upon the merits and mercies of Jesus Christ.
This awakening caused him to rethink all that he had come to accept within the church and quickly led to the 95 Theses hanging on the door of the church in Wittenberg. His path took him before kings and princes. He was thrice excommunicated and condemned to death for his efforts to reconcile the actions of the church with the scriptures. His writings were burned and his life was only spared by the help of friends.
While he did not initially intend to break from the Catholic Church, he succeeded in crystallizing the German efforts to separate themselves from the Italian papal domination.
“Here, I stand” Words Martin Luther is said to have uttered as he stood before Emperor Charles V who was awaiting a recantation of all the ills that Luther had brought out upon the church. Luther did not recant but branded himself an apostate. One who stands apart.
(Here I Stand, A Life of Martin Luther by Roland H. Bainton and The Life and Times of Martin Luther by J. H. Merle D’Aubigne’)
What would you call a man who deserted his home and struck out into the wilderness with his family without telling anyone? What would you think if this same man sent his sons back to kill one of the leaders of the church, kidnap his assistant and steal the sacred records of their faith?
I have often wondered what Lehi must have endured to follow the word of God into the desert. In this day, I would liken it to someone fleeing out of Salt Lake only to return, kill a church official and steal one of the original copies of the Book of Mormon.
Here is a man who, based on a dream, packed up a few possessions and disrupted the lives of his family in a major way. I don’t think Laman and Lemuel ever got over it as they stated in 1 Nephi 18:
21 Behold, these many years we have suffered in the wilderness, which time we might have enjoyed our possessions and the land of our inheritance; yea, and we might have been happy.
22 And we know that the people who were in the land of Jerusalem were a righteous people; for they kept the statutes and judgments of the Lord, and all his commandments, according to the law of Moses; wherefore, we know that they are a righteous people; and our father hath judged them, and hath led us away because we would hearken unto his words…
Lehi was called to leave his comfortable surroundings and his family, friends and church at the request of God. He was to separate himself from the life and environment that, undoubtedly, was comfortable and appealing. Wouldn’t Lehi have been considered an apostate by the leaders of the Jerusalem community? What kind of faith would it have taken to leave behind the comfort of orthodoxy for a tent in the desert?
Lehi, the visionary man, was willing to stand apart from what had been his entire life and livelihood. He caused his family and selected friends to leave the known and comfortable for the unknown and painful. While he may have been an apostate to the elders of Jerusalem, he was the father of a new nation to us… all because he hearkened to the word of God given him in a dream.
Alma the Elder
Alma had things going quite well. He had recently been elevated to a high priest position under great King Noah. He, perhaps along with his wives and concubines, were likely living large as we read in Mosiah 11:
14 And it came to pass that he (King Noah) placed his heart upon his riches, and he spent his time in riotous living with his wives and his concubines; and so did also his priests spend their time with harlots.
15 And it came to pass that he planted vineyards round about in the land; and he built wine-presses, and made wine in abundance; and therefore he became a wine-bibber, and also his people.
That is, until he heard Abinadi preach of Christ and was convinced that something was seriously wrong with what he was seeing. Unable to convince Noah of the error being committed, Alma was forced to flee for his life. He found refuge in the wilderness and was led by God to form a community based on principles that set him apart from his former life and position.
Given that King Noah was the ruling secular and religious authority at the time, I am sure that Alma was branded as an apostate; one who has abandoned his previous loyalty. To us, Alma was responding to the promptings of the spirit – first, seeking to give a man of God a wide berth but ultimately to re-establish the church of Christ in the wilderness.
Good Apostate or Bad Apostate?
The message here is that there may be times when being an apostate is doing the right thing. If the existing religious framework has become disconnected from the original mission of the church, it may take an apostate or two to bring some, perhaps a remnant, back in alignment with the will of God. Samuel the Lamanite stood on the wall and delivered a message to the Nephites that God was not pleased. Some people heard his words and repented. Most times, it seems these outliers are given the task of taking the message of repentance to the majority and are then encouraged to flee for their lives.
In D&C Section 112, we are told that ‘vengeance cometh speedily upon the inhabitants of the earth’ and ‘upon my house shall it begin.’ The meaning here to me is that latter day church is to encounter a correction or cleansing. Several times in the Book of Mormon, we Gentiles are told to ‘repent and return’ to the gospel. We are told that only we Gentiles who repent will participate in the building of New Jerusalem (3 Nephi 21:14-24). I believe there are many scriptural signs that dictate we, as a people who profess to have taken upon them the name of Christ, will need to repent and return or be left behind.
Have our hearts been so focused on riches that we are ripe for the message of Samuel the Lamanite to be delivered to us? Could it come from someone who was branded by the hierarchy of the church as an apostate? Time will tell.
What think ye?