What is the Great and Abominable Church?

Q. By the many references to the “abominable” church, is Smith referring to the Catholic Church?  Furthermore, how does this square with the current tolerant approach that other religions simply don’t have the full gospel?

Thank you for this astute question. Let’s first examine these references and see what we can make of them:

The References

The clearest reference to the great and abominable church (also known as the mother of harlots and the whore of all the earth) comes from the book of 1st Nephi in the Book of Mormon. Nephi, as a prophet, is shown an incredible vision of the coming Holy One of Israel, Jesus Christ (the vision happens about 600 years before Jesus’s birth). Nephi witnesses in this vision that Jesus was born to a virgin, that he grew up to be a minister and a healer, and “that he was lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world.” The vision also shows that Jesus will visit Nephi’s own people in central America. Wonderful and welcome news.

Then the bad news comes: the righteous Nephites and Lamanites, destined to become Christians and to devote themselves to His cause, after four generations will descend into war and “shall dwindle in unbelief.” The spotlight of the vision then shifts back on the European and Middle-Eastern “nations and kingdoms of the Gentiles:”

I saw among the nations of the Gentiles the formation of a great church. 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 bringeth them down into captivity.” 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.

And I also saw gold, and silver, and silks, and scarlets, and fine-twined linen, and all manner of precious clothing; and I saw many harlots. 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. And also for the praise of the world do they destroy the saints of God, and bring them down into captivity” (1 Nephi 13:4-9).

Nephi then witnesses the merging of Old and New Worlds as the Gentiles begin to colonize the American continents. They bring with them a book that the angel describes as “a record of the Jews, which contains the covenants of the Lord, which he hath made unto the House of Israel; and … are of great worth unto the Gentiles.” That is, the Europeans are bringing the Bible to the remnants of Nephi’s people, who have dwindled in unbelief and forgotten the God they once worshiped!

This is terrific news to Nephi, but the angel isn’t finished dispensing gloom. He mentions that the Bible has been tampered with by the great and abominable church:

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 plainness 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. Wherefore, these things go forth from the Jews in purity unto the Gentiles, according to the truth which is in God.

“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 a 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. 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. 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 [the Bible].

“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 of them” (1 Nephi 13:24-29).

In short, Satan has success not only in obliterating the Christian religion in the New World (Nephi’s descendants), but also in corrupting the Bible of the Old World via his abominable church. This is distressing to Nephi, but he is assured by the voice of the Lord of an eventual happy ending in the restoration of the gospel, beginning with the coming forth of the Book of Mormon:

“Behold,” saith the Lamb of God, “after I have visited the remnant of the House of Israel (and this remnant of whom I speak is the seed of thy father), wherefore, after I have visited them in judgment, and smitten them by the hand of the Gentiles, and after the Gentiles do stumble exceedingly, because of the most plain and precious parts of the gospel of the Lamb which have been kept back by that abominable church, which is the mother of harlots,” saith the Lamb–“I will be merciful unto the Gentiles in that day, insomuch that I will bring forth unto them, in mine own power, much of my gospel, which shall be plain and precious,” saith the Lamb.

“For behold,” saith the Lamb, “I will manifest myself unto thy seed, that they shall write many things which I shall minister unto them, which shall be plain and precious; and after thy seed shall be destroyed, and dwindle in unbelief, and also the seed of thy brethren, behold, these things [the Book of Mormon] shall be hid up, to come forth unto the Gentiles, by the gift and power of the Lamb. And in them shall be written my gospel,” saith the Lamb, “and my rock and my salvation” (1 Nephi 13:34-36).

Nephi next sees other records come forth to restore both lost spiritural truths and confidence in the Bible. He also receives a promise that all who hearken unto the Lamb of God (Jesus Christ) will be numbered among the House of Israel and “shall be a blessed people” and “shall be no more brought down into captivity.” He sees the retribution of the abominable church:

“And that great pit, which hath been digged for them by that great and abominable church, which was founded by the devil and his children, that he might lead away the souls of men down to hell–yea, that great pit which hath been digged for the destruction of men shall be filled by those who digged it, unto their utter destruction,” saith the Lamb of God.


And it came to pass that [the angel] said unto me, “Look, and behold that great and abominable church, which is the mother of abominations, whose founder is the devil.” And he said unto me, “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; 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.

And it came to pass that I looked and beheld the whore of all the earth, and she sat upon many waters; and she had dominion over all the earth, among all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people. And it came to pass that I beheld the church of the Lamb of God, and its numbers were few, because of the wickedness and abominations of the whore who sat upon many waters; nevertheless, I beheld that the church of the Lamb, who were the saints of God, were also upon all the face of the earth; and their dominions upon the face of the earth were small, because of the wickedness of the great whore whom I saw.

And it came to pass that I beheld that the great mother of abominations did gather together multitudes upon the face of all the earth, among all the nations of the Gentiles, to fight against the Lamb of God. And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld the power of the Lamb of God, that it descended upon the saints of the church of the Lamb, and upon the covenant people of the Lord, who were scattered upon all the face of the earth; and they were armed with righteousness and with the power of God in great glory. And it came to pass that I beheld that the wrath of God was poured out upon the great and abominable church, insomuch that there were wars and rumors of wars among all the nations and kindreds of the earth.

And as there began to be wars and rumors of wars among all the nations which belonged to the mother of abominations, the angel spake unto me, saying, “Behold, the wrath of God is upon the mother of harlots; and behold, thou seest all these things–And when the day cometh that the wrath of God is poured out upon the mother of harlots, which is the great and abominable church of all the earth, whose foundation is the devil, 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 who are of the House of Israel” (1 Nephi 14:3, 9-17).

The account of the vision closes with Nephi seeing the Apostle John, where he learns that it will be John’s responsibility to “see and write the remainder of these things” including “the end of the world.” Nephi mentions that he sees many of the same things as John, but is forbidden from writing them, since they are within John’s purview alone.

As it turns out, John later wrote about the end of the world in the Bible’s Book of Revelation. He also wrote about the great whore who sits upon many waters:

 And there came one of the seven angels which had the seven vials, and talked with me, saying unto me, Come hither; I will shew unto thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters: With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication. So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness: and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication: And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus: and when I saw her, I wondered with great astonishment. […]

And here is the mind which hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth. And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space. And the beast that was, and is not, even he is the eighth, and is of the seven, and goeth into perdition. And the ten horns which thou sawest are ten kings, which have received no kingdom as yet; but receive power as kings one hour with the beast. […]

And he saith unto me, “The waters which thou sawest, where the whore sitteth, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues. […] And the woman which thou sawest is that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth” (Revelation 17:1-6,9-12,15,18).


That last bit from the New Testament has been interpreted by Christianity in a variety of ways. Many scholars believe that John was using veiled language in speaking about the pagan Roman empire. In particular, on contemporary Roman coins, Rome was often represented as a woman sitting on seven hills and John likely borrowed that imagery for his allusions. Some argue that it referred to a smaller group of Jewish Roman sympathizers such as the Herodians who were not well-liked by traditional Jews and early Christians.

Protestants, including Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ellen G. White frequently attribute the mother of harlots to the Catholic church, reasoning that over the centuries this church has gained widespread influence “over many waters,” and does have a history of institutional persecution.

Nephi’s vision helps give this entity more context, at first describing it as a church which purposefully altered the Word of God (the Bible), by removing “plain and precious” truths prior to its wide distribution throughout Europe. This sounds like a specific institutional agent and is likely closely related to the earliest iterations of Christianity. Dr. Stephen E. Robinson wrote about this agent and time period in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies:

Can we, then, identify the historical agency that acted as the great and abominable church in earliest Christianity? Such an agent would have had its origins in the second half of the first century and would have done much of its work by the middle of the second century.

This period might be called the blind spot in Christian history, for it is here that the fewest primary historical sources have been preserved. We have good sources for New Testament Christianity; then the lights go out, so to speak, and we hear the muffled sounds of a great struggle. When the lights come on again a hundred or so years later, we find that someone has rearranged all the furniture and Christianity has become something very different from what it was in the beginning. That different entity can accurately be described as hellenized Christianity (Nephi’s “Great and Abominable Church”).

Later in Nephi’s vision, the great and abominable church appears to take a more general role as any and all organized forces opposed to the Church of the Lamb of God. (“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 reveals a subtle shift in the way the angel frames the abominable church. At first the title is reserved for a particular entity who despicably tampers with the Holy Word; then here, it is applied to all who stand in opposition to the work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Since it appears the first abominable church (the agent that “rearranged” the Christian furniture, removing plain and precious truths from the Bible) has come, done, and gone, we take the latter interpretation for our modern guide. The LDS Guide to the Scriptures identifies the great and abominable church as “every evil and worldly organization on earth that perverts the pure and perfect gospel and fights against the Lamb of God.”

Views of other churches

Does this mean we believe Catholics are abominable? No. We only have a problem with those Catholics who pervert the gospel and fight against Jesus. That leaves a vast majority with whom we are neighbors and friends. And the same goes for Eastern Orthodox Christians, Evangelicals, Methodists, Anglicans, Copts, etc. We reach out in love to all our fellow Christians and cooperate with them in many endeavors.

There are still many beliefs that divide us (such as the common Protestant belief in Biblical inerrancy), but we don’t condemn the gentile Christians who “stumble exceedingly, because of the most plain and precious parts of the gospel of the Lamb which have been kept back by that abominable church.” We have hope in the Lord’s promise to them:

“I will be merciful unto the Gentiles in that day, insomuch that I will bring forth unto them, in mine own power, much of my gospel, which shall be plain and precious” (1 Nephi 13:34).

This promise is fulfilled whenever an ally of the Lamb (a true believing Christian) is led to discover that the gospel of Jesus Christ has been restored and that the Lord has preserved His plain and precious Word through the Book of Mormon and modern prophets. In this article I’ve already given you a taste of this rich and powerful book. Please read it and pray to God about it, that you may find the Lord’s mercy and feel His love.

Queston Box: Definition of Scripture

Question:  How many divine writings are there for Mormons? Which are the most authoritative? Do the Scriptures for Mormons evolve or are they set never to change?

True to the Faith, a book published by the Church, defines Scriptures as follows:

“When holy men of God write or speak by the power of the Holy Ghost, their words “shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation” (Doctrine and Covenants 68:4). The official, canonized scriptures of the Church, often called the standard works, are the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.”

In addition to the four standard works above, we listen to the words of living prophets and apostles every six months in a general conference of the Church.  They give us the counsel and words of Christ we need for the specific problems we are facing today – for example there just wasn’t the internet or video games or a TV to deal with when the Bible and Book of Mormon were written.  We consider this modern counsel to be scripture as well.

We are told that our purpose in life and our Heavenly Father’s  “work and glory is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39).  We gain eternal life by exercising faith in Christ, repenting of our sins to become like Christ, and by making covenants (two-way promises between us and God) through ordinances such as baptism.  These principles taught to us in the scriptures have always existed and will never change.

On the other hand, specific commandments can be revoked.  Two well-known examples include:  1) After Abraham demonstrated his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, the command was revoked and a ram was used instead,  2) After Christ came, the law of Moses was fulfilled and the sacrament was introduced instead to remind us of the atonement.  If a commandment for the Church needs to be revoked or changed or even added today, it will be presented in general conference – most likely by the prophet President Monson.

The standard works (Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price) and the words of modern apostles and prophets all complement and support each other as the Lord’s scripture.  As far as what we consider to be the most “authoritative”, that question would only be an issue as far as specific commandments are given (like what I talked about above).  Then the Lord’s most recent word would be what we would follow.  For instance, after Christ fulfilled and did away with the law of Moses, we don’t follow that law of Moses in the Old Testament anymore.  However, we still read and study the Old Testament as scripture for the eternal laws and principles taught there that teach us how to be like Christ – like the ten commandments.  If President Monson were to give us a new specific commandment, we would consider it to now be the Lord’s will on the matter.

It’s not on my calendar…

Q. What scripture tells us that no one knows the final coming of the Lord not even the angels in heaven?  – jim

Jim, I believe you’re referring to Matthew 24:36

But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.

Even today, we still don’t know the day and hour, but Jesus did instruct us to be watchful and ready.  He compared the signs of the second coming to the leaves of a fig tree that signal the coming of summer.  Those who prepare themselves spiritually will be able to recognize the events leading up to His coming.  Others will be caught off guard as when a thief breaks into a home.  Even if we aren’t counting down the days, we can prepare ourselves for it.  We can be ready.

The Testimonies of Witnesses

If you take a close look at the Book of Mormon (and I hope you will), you will inevitably uncover a controversy:  its origin.

It was published in 1829 by Joseph Smith, but he did not claim authorship; his claims were a bit more extraordinary.  He said an angel led him to the buried book, written on metal sheets the color of gold.  The text was a form of hieroglyphics, and he was able to translate it into English over the course of a few months using “the gift and power of God” residing in a pair of special interpretive stones, the Urim and Thummim.  When the translation was finished, the angel came and collected the gold plates and then the manuscript was taken to the printer.

Joseph kept the gold plates hidden from the public at the Lord’s command; many find the story that the angel Moroni took them back to be suspiciously convenient.  Since the plates are not available today for examination, skeptics have contended that there were no plates to begin with.

Does his story hold water?

Some dismiss the question too easily before examining any evidence.  The story’s supernatural elements (an angel and a pair of interpreting stones) provide convenient rationale to attribute it to fiction.  Even those who believe in the power of God may feel more comfortable disregarding the story because it doesn’t jive with their current conception of God or simply because it is something of which they’ve never heard.  In essence they say, “Surely something so powerful and interesting, if true, would have been brought to my attention already.”

Joseph’s story is, admittedly, somewhat fantastical.  It stretches one’s worldview.  Fortunately, the Lord provided aid to the incredulous:  eyewitnesses.

Were there actual gold plates?

In the summer of 1829 in Manchester, New York, just after completing the translation, Joseph met with eight close associates and (with the Lord’s permission) showed them the gold plates.  They were permitted to see, feel, and hold the record and examine closely the inscriptions on each leaf.  They each signed the following testimonial, published with the Book of Mormon ever since (my emphasis):

Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That Joseph Smith, Jun., the translator of this work, has shown unto us the plates of which hath been spoken, which have the appearance of gold; and as many of the leaves as the said Smith has translated we did handle with our hands; and we also saw the engravings thereon, all of which has the appearance of ancient work, and of curious workmanship. And this we bear record with words of soberness, that the said Smith has shown unto us, for we have seen and hefted, and know of a surety that the said Smith has got the plates of which we have spoken. And we give our names unto the world, to witness unto the world that which we have seen. And we lie not, God bearing witness of it.

Christian Whitmer
Jacob Whitmer
Peter Whitmer, Jun
John Whitmer
Hiram Page
Joseph Smith, Sen
Hyrum Smith
Samuel H. Smith

This was not some idle piece of writing for them.  It implicated them.  They were interviewed, accused, and mocked.  From that day on, they each stood firm in their eyewitness testimony of these plates.  Five of the eight remained in good standing with the Church, enduring mobs, extermination orders, and repeated forced expulsion from their homes.  Jacob Whitmer and Hiram Page stopped practicing, but still believed; and John Whitmer was excommunicated in a later Church incident, but not one of them (not even John who had ample reason and opportunity to expose the prophet) rescinded his testimony.  If there were no plates, the reason for their steadfastness becomes a mystery.

Others had experiences that confirm the existence of the plates.  For instance, Joseph’s wife Emma described the following concerning the period of translation:

The plates often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen tablecloth, which I had given him to fold them in. I once felt of the plates, as they thus lay on the table, tracing their outline and shape. They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb the edges of a book.

These testimonies, among others, corroborate the young prophet’s story of the gold plates.  It is strong evidence that they existed.

Was there an actual angel?

A few days prior to the eight witnesses’ encounter with the plates, three of Joseph’s closest friends were given a more miraculous manifestation.  The gold plates were revealed at the hands of the angel Moroni and the voice of the Lord declared the record to be true.  Their testimony accompanies each copy of the Book of Mormon as well:

Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That we, through the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, have seen the plates which contain this record, which is a record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites, their brethren, and also of the people of Jared, who came from the tower of which hath been spoken. And we also know that they have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us; wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true. And we also testify that we have seen the engravings which are upon the plates; and they have been shown unto us by the power of God, and not of man. And we declare with words of soberness, that an angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon; and we know that it is by the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, that we beheld and bear record that these things are true. And it is marvelous in our eyes. Nevertheless, the voice of the Lord commanded us that we should bear record of it; wherefore, to be obedient unto the commandments of God, we bear testimony of these things. And we know that if we are faithful in Christ, we shall rid our garments of the blood of all men, and be found spotless before the judgment-seat of Christ, and shall dwell with him eternally in the heavens. And the honor be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, which is one God. Amen.

Oliver Cowdery
David Whitmer
Martin Harris

As you can see, these witnesses had a different type of encounter with the gold plates.  They saw an angel and heard the voice of God.  They were commanded to “bear record of it,” or tell people about it.


Now, just the testimony of these three alone would be solid ground for a case in a court of law, but there is another even juicier part of this tale.  Several years later, all three of these men struggled with Joseph Smith’s leadership and were excommunicated from the Church.  For some time they were among Joseph’s strongest critics, yet every time they were interviewed (and there were hundreds of interviews, usually with very skeptical interrogators), they would each enthusiastically stand by their commitment to bear record of the plates and the angel who revealed them.

Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris eventually made amends with the Church leadership and returned to full fellowship.  David Whitmer remained separate from the Church, but committed to believing in the Book of Mormon and the angel Moroni.  Every one of them testified of the plates on their death beds.

Is Joseph’s story true?

That is a question you must decide for yourself.  Eight eyewitnesses claimed to have seen and hefted the plates and committed their testimony to writing.  Emma felt them through a cloth on the table.  Three eyewitnesses had them presented by an angel and lived up to the command to testify.  Even when they most wanted to see the prophet fail and could have recanted and exposed him, they didn’t.  Even at death’s door, with nothing left to gain, they stood by their words.  And these are just a few examples among many more.

These things may be enough to convince you or not; I don’t know.  I only hope to illustrate that there are good, rational reasons to believe Joseph Smith’s story.

The witnesses weren’t what made me believe it, but learning about them helped solidify my belief.  Really what convinced me was reading the book that came from these gold plates.  Near the end of the book, Moroni (the angel) writes, “by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.”  Read it yourself and take the chance to ask God in prayer if it is true.

The power of God is not a fairy tale.  When He brings forth scripture, He provides witnesses; when He calls a prophet, He gives reason to believe.  His actions make tangible marks on the world.  When you pray to Him, He will give distinct answers to your heart and mind.