What do history's most notorious despots have in common with many of the flag-waving, patriotic politicians of our day? Both groups rise to power through the exploitation of fear, which has become a societal plague. There have been widespread casualties. We need an antidote. Feardom offers its readers a much-needed immunization.
Two prophets, half a world and hundreds of centuries apart, were shown a detailed vision of the future. Nephi and John’s shared experience detailed many significant events, some of which yet remain in our future. And while Nephi was instructed not to document much of what he saw, the complete task fell to John—the (altered) result of which we have in the book titled Revelation.
John’s imagery paints for us a great battle between two churches—two groups of people: the kingdom of God, and the kingdom of the devil. This divine duel, which predates our mortal experience, unfolds with apocalyptic controversy in the pages of scripture. It is the only real conquest that has ever existed, though adapted and fictionalized by many great writers: good versus evil; light versus darkness; Jehovah and His followers versus Lucifer and his subjects.
Unfortunately, John’s writings are difficult to interpret, and thus a stumbling block in our effort to make sense of their modern application. Though “plain and pure, and most preciously and easy to the understanding of all men” when John had finished his task, a “great and abominable church” corrupted it. So just who, or what, is this great and abominable church?
The identity of this group has long been the subject of speculation and, while I don’t claim to speak with any authority, I do believe that previous guesses have missed the mark—and that my belief offers a perspective that seems to not have been considered by most Latter-day Saints. For some time, chiefly due to Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s opinion, many believed that this nefarious “church”—referred to as Babylon in John’s writings—was the Roman Catholic Church. (This opinion being published as part of the authoritatively titled Mormon Doctrine led to its widespread adoption as the correct interpretation of the identity of the enemy in Nephi and John’s visions.)
This position has now been discredited. And yet, others affirm that the great and abominable church includes actual churches, and potentially other organizations. “No single known historical church, denomination, or set of believers meets all the requirements for the great and abominable church,” writes Stephen E. Robinson, a popular Mormon author in the LDS Church’s official magazine. He continues: “Rather, the role of Babylon has been played by many different agencies, ideologies, and churches in many different times.” This vague interpretation of nameless and ever-changing actors is unsatisfying, much like clergy attempting to describe God as “a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions.” We must first know our enemy in order to defeat it.
The enemy is, and ever has been, Caesar—an abstraction referring to mortal and secular government, or “the state.”
Membership in God’s kingdom is exclusive and requires renouncing membership in, and allegiance to, the enemy’s kingdom. Thus we read that “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; wherefore, whoso belongeth not to the church of the Lamb of God belongeth to that great church, which is the mother of abominations; and she is the whore of all the earth.”
This “whore of all the earth,” which John similarly stated (as if to refer to its global presence) “sitteth upon many waters,” was identified by Nephi’s brother Jacob as “he that fighteth against Zion,” since, as God said, “they who are not for me are against me.” But Babylon is not comprised, by default, of every person who isn’t a baptized, faithful Latter-day Saint. It’s they who “fight,” or perhaps compete, against God. Who contends for man’s allegiance, reverence, and glory? Who claims power to rule, and dominion over the earth? Who dethrones God to exalt himself as deity? Caesar.
If the great and abominable church’s membership is comprised of those who fight against God’s kingdom, consider the apostle Paul’s description of who he and the Saints were fighting against: “principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” Put simply, the Saints were—and are—fighting against their respective Caesars who are institutionalizing the devil’s attempt to gain ground on the kingdom of God.
When Lucifer attempted to tempt Jesus, he approached him while he was high on a mountain, surveying the many kingdoms below. “All this power will I give thee,” the devil said, “and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it.” Recall that the whore was not an amorphous label given sometimes to churches, and other times to “agencies” and “ideologies”—it had “dominion over all the earth, among all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people.”
The leader of this great and abominable church was often referred to by Christ as “the prince of this world”—perhaps an attestation to the influence he (temporarily) had. Lucifer gains power, oppresses others, corrupts the Saints, promotes the wicked, and institutionalizes evil through the use of government—through the forceful rule over men by other men. Satan’s control of earthly institutions of power—governments—was never disputed. It has, however, been affirmed by a modern prophet, Joseph Fielding Smith:
Satan has control now. No matter where you look, he is in control, even in our own land. He is guiding the governments as far as the Lord will permit him. That is why there is so much strife, turmoil, and confusion all over the earth. One master mind is governing the nations. It is not the president of the United States; it is not Hitler; it is not Mussolini; it is not the king or government of England or any other land; it is Satan himself.
I don’t believe that members or leaders of other churches, past or present, fit the characteristics of the great and abominable church—a group of oppressive, power-hungry people who fight (or act in opposition to, or compete against) God’s followers. When said churches have colluded with the government—when heads of state have become heads of religions—then we see these evils. And when church and state are separate, the latter still fits the bill, getting “gain” and “power over the flesh,” seeking the “lusts of the flesh and the things of the world,” and doing “all manner of iniquity.”
One must also wonder if Nephi and John, looking forward to a future world with which they were completely unfamiliar, described governments as churches in part due to their shared appearances; Caesar’s counterfeits have produced statist temples, robes, liturgy, canonized texts, and sacraments. High priests and parishioners alike pledge their allegiance and declare their submission to Caesar on an ongoing basis.
But no man can serve two masters, so it’s not surprising to see revered prophets taking sides in the eternal contest between Christ and Caesar, defying the mandates of men and the corruption of Lucifer. They declared themselves citizens in the kingdom of God, subject to Christ, and an enemy to Satan. Moses defied Pharaoh; Jeremiah rebuked Jehoiakim; Mary and Joseph fled from Herod’s murderous mandate, and Moses’ mother likewise disobediently preserved her son’s life; Daniel rejected King Darius’s decree; Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego chose God over Nebuchadnezzar; and many other examples affirm that worldly powers—wickedness encouraged and coordinated by the devil—fight against God. One scriptural story after another elevates a prophetic hero in the reader’s eyes specifically because he rebelled against the Caesar of his day.
Peter faced the same opposition. After Christ’s crucifixion—an action worthy of the great and abominable church—the Sadducees schemed as to how to quell the ecclesiastical opposition. “Let us straitly threaten them,” they said, “that they speak henceforth to no man in [Christ’s] name.” And that’s what they did.
But Peter and his apostolic associates continued defying the “whore” that fought them; missionary work continued, as did the miracles. And in response, the high priest and his fellow Sadducees on the council (that held political authority) “were filled with indignation,” fueling their animosity enough to actually seize and incarcerate the religious renegades.
Later brought before the council, Peter was questioned as to why he had defied their threats. “Did we not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in [Christ’s] name?” Peter’s response provides the theological foundation upon which Christians have defied Caesar in succeeding centuries: “We ought to obey God rather than men.”
No man can serve two masters. Caesar and God both demand our allegiance. The great and abominable church, or Babylon, or the great whore—the organized oppression of men by one another through earthly rulers and political institutions—does not tolerate individuals who pledge allegiance to God and claim citizenship in His kingdom alone.
This competition—this fight against Zion—will come to a head, as described throughout scripture, and in Nephi and John’s visions. Babylon the great ultimately falls, for every knee must bow, and every tongue confess, that Jesus is the Christ. Caesar’s worldly dominion melts away in an instant, as He who reigns replaces all the counterfeit competition.