I taught an Elder's Quorum lesson about a year ago on the topic of the apostasy. Here's some of the information I gathered for the class as a handout. It is a handout of quotes and references to information. None of it is my own commentary except this little bit at the beginning in italics.
The Great apostasy
and the marvelous restoration
This handout contains information that will aid you in your study of the apostasy and the restoration. For more information please see the list of books and articles under “Learn More.”
Why Study the Apostasy?
All the men holding the priesthood should have a thorough understanding of the development of false doctrine and the gradual change which took place, after the death of the apostles, which transformed the Church of Jesus Christ into a system as far removed from the primitive Church as are the poles of our hemispheres (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 3:268)
True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior. (Boyd K. Packer, “Little Children.” Ensign, November 1986.)
Eusebius on the Apostasy
The Church up to that time [the death of the apostles] had remained a pure and uncorrupted virgin, since, if there were any that attempted to corrupt the sound norm of the preaching of salvation, they lay until then concealed in obscure darkness. But when the sacred college of apostles had suffered death in various forms, and the generation of those that had been deemed worthy to hear the inspired wisdom with their own ears had passed away, then the league of godless error took its rise as a result of the folly of heretical teachers, who, because none of the apostles was still living, attempted henceforth, with a bold face, to proclaim, in opposition to the preaching of the truth, the ‘knowledge which is falsely so-called’ (Eusebius [270-340] quoting Hegesippus [110-180] in Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Series 2, 1:164).
New Testament Scriptures that Predict the Great Apostasy
Acts 20:29-30; 2 Peter 2:1-3 (cf. Jude 1:3-4, 17);
2 Thessalonians 2:3 (cf. Ephesians 2:19-22); Revelation 13:7 (cf. Revelation 14:6);
1 Timothy 4:1-4; Revelation 12:1-6 (cf. D&C 5:14; 33:5)
Commentary on 2 Thessalonians 2:3
By this apostasy we are not to understand a defection in the state, or from civil government, but in spiritual or religious matters, from sound doctrine, instituted worship and church government, and a holy life. The apostle speaks of some very great apostasy, not only of some converted Jews or Gentiles, but such as should be very general, though gradual, and should give occasion to the revelation of rise of antichrist, that man of sin. This, he says (2 Th. 2:5), he had told them of when he was with them, with design, no doubt, that they should not take offence nor be stumbled at it. And let us observe that no sooner was Christianity planted and rooted in the world than there began to be a defection in the Christian church. It was so in the Old Testament church; presently after any considerable advance made in religion there followed a defection: soon after the promise there was revolting; for example, soon after men began to call upon the name of the Lord all flesh corrupted their way, - soon after the covenant with Noah the Babel-builders bade defiance to heaven, - soon after the covenant with Abraham his seed degenerated in Egypt, - soon after the Israelites were planted in Canaan, when the first generation was worn off, they forsook God and served Baal, - soon after God's covenant with David his seed revolted, and served other gods, - soon after the return out of captivity there was a general decay of piety, as appears by the story of Ezra and Nehemiah; and therefore it was no strange thing that after the planting of Christianity there should come a falling away (Matthew Henry [1662-1714].Commentary on the Whole Bible).
We have the original word apostasía in our word apostasy; and by this term we understand a dereliction of the essential principles of religious truth - either a total abandonment of Christianity itself, or such a corruption of its doctrines as renders the whole system completely inefficient to salvation (Adam Clarke [1715-1832]. Commentary on the Bible).
The Roman pontiff exercised secular as well as spiritual authority; and in the eleventh century arrogated to himself the title of Pope, signifying Father, in the sense of paternal ruler in all things. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the temporal authority of the pope was superior to that of kings and emperors; and the Roman church became the despotic potentate of nations, and an autocrat above all secular states. Yet this church, reeking with the stench of worldly ambition and lust of dominance, audaciously claimed to be the Church established by Him who affirmed: “My kingdom is not of this world.” The arrogant assumptions of the Church of Rome were not less extravagant in spiritual than in secular administration. In her loudly asserted control over the spiritual destinies of the souls of men, she blasphemously pretended to forgive or retain individual sins, and to inflict or remit penalties both on earth and beyond the grave. She sold permission to commit sin and bartered for gold charters of indulgent forgiveness for sins already done. Her pope, proclaiming himself the vicar of God, sat in state to judge as God Himself; and by such blasphemy fulfilled the prophecy of Paul following his warning in relation to the awful conditions antecedent to the second coming of the Christ: “Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God.” (James E. Talmage. Jesus the Christ, 693.)
Commentary on 1 Timothy 4:1
They will apostatize from the faith, i.e. from Christianity; renouncing the whole system in effect, by bringing in doctrines which render its essential truths null and void, or denying and renouncing such doctrines as are essential to Christianity as a system of salvation. A man may hold all the truths of Christianity, and yet render them of none effect by holding other doctrines which counteract their influence; or he may apostatize by denying some essential doctrine, though he bring in nothing heterodox (Adam Clarke. Commentary on the Bible).
The Greek word here - apostesontai - is that from which we have derived the word “apostatize,” and would be properly so rendered here. The meaning is, that they would “apostatize” from the belief of the truths of the gospel. It does not mean that, as individuals, they would have been true Christians; but that there would be a departure from the great doctrines which constitute the Christian faith. The ways in which they would do this are immediately specified, showing what the apostle meant here by departing from the faith. They would give heed to seducing spirits, to the doctrines of devils, etc. The use of the word “some” does not imply that the number would be small. The meaning is, that “certain persons” would thus depart, or that “there would be” an apostasy of the kind here mentioned, in the last days. From the parallel passage in 2 Th. 2:3, it would seem that this was to be an extensive apostasy (Albert Barnes [1798-1870] Notes on the Bible).
In Paul's first letter to Timothy, he prophesied concerning the departure of some of the saints from the faith...This prophecy has a number of features that make it of considerable interest. First of all, Paul specifically stated that his belief in the future defection was the result of revelation. In fact, not only did the Spirit speak these words to Paul, but it did so “expressly.” The chronological note is also important. Paul used the term “latter times” (hú fneroi kairoí) to denote the period in which the developments that he foretold would take place. In the ultimate sense, the period of time in which we now live can be called “the latter times” better than any other. As we learn through modern revelation, our day is the dispensation of the fulness of times — the preparatory era that precedes the Second Coming of the Savior. Yet Paul spoke using a different definition for “latter times.” His focus was on the last days of the Christianity of his era, the “latter times” of the early church.
A few decades after Paul foretold the departure of some from the faith in the “latter times,” Jude announced to his readers that they were then in “the last time” (é fnhatos chrs, Jude 1:17-19). Similarly, John expressed to the readers of his first letter the certainty of the fact that they themselves were in “the last hour” (escháebar; hoabar;, 1 John 2:18-19). With the revealed knowledge of important future events, John and Jude knew that they were not in the final era of the world. But their words reveal the fact that they knew that they were in the final days of the Christian church. That was the period of time concerning which the spirit spoke “expressly” (1 Timothy 4:1) to Paul.
...[T]he departure from the faith would be a rebellion against true principles of doctrine. Paul wrote that those who would depart would give heed to what he calls “seducing spirits” and “doctrines of devils.” It must be emphasized that what Paul saw was not an abandonment of religion but a shifting of loyalties from “the faith” to a false faith. Accompanying this defection would be the manifestation of the negative character traits cited in 1 Timothy 4:2.
1 Timothy 4:3 is interesting because it mentions two examples of the false ideas that the counterfeit religious system would foster: a prohibition against marriage and a prohibition against certain foods. Beyond that the Apostle gave no further details (Kent P. Jackson in John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks, eds., By Study and Also by Faith, 1: 89).
The Weakness of the Protestant Position
Many years ago I had an interesting conversation with a man who was a member of the Roman Catholic church. He was a great scholar; he must have had a dozen languages at his tongue's end, and seemed to know all about history, science, law, philosophy, and all the rest of it. We were frank and friendly with each other, and one day he said to me:
“You ‘Mormons’ are all ignoramuses. You don't even know the strength of your own position. It is so strong that there is only one other position tenable in the whole Christian world, and that is the position of the Roman Catholic church. The issue is between 'Mormonism' and Catholicism. If you are right, we are wrong. If we are right, you are wrong, and that's all there is to it. These Protestant sects haven't a leg to stand on; for if we are right, we cut them off long ago, as apostates; and if we are wrong, they are wrong with us, for they were a part of us and came out of us. If we have the apostolic succession from St. Peter, as we claim, there was no need of Joseph Smith and 'Mormonism;' but if we have not that apostolic succession, then such a man as Joseph Smith was necessary, and 'Mormonism's position is the only consistent one. It is either the perpetuation of the Gospel from ancient times or the restoration of the Gospel in latter days.”
“Doctor,” said I, “that is a very clear and concise statement, and I agree with it in almost every particular. But don't deceive yourself with the notion that we ‘Mormons’ don't know the strength of our own position. We know it better than you do. We know it better than any other people can know it. We haven't all been to been college, we can't all speak the dead languages, and we may be ignoramuses as you say; but we know we are right, and we know you are wrong.” I was just as frank with him as he had been with me (Elder Orson F. Whitney, Conference Report, April 1928, 60.).
Is it to be wondered at, that from the sixteenth century onward, churches of man's contriving have multiplied with phenomenal rapidity? Churches and churchly organizations professing Christianity as their creed have come to be numbered by hundreds. On every side is heard in this day, "Lo, here is Christ" or "Lo, there." There are sects named from the circumstances of their origin-as the Church of England; others after their famous founders or promoters-as Lutheran, Calvinist, Wesleyan; some are known by peculiarities of doctrine or plan of administration-as Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Congregationalist; but down to the third decade of the nineteenth century there was no church on earth affirming name or title as the Church of Jesus Christ. The only organization called a church existing at that time and venturing to assert claim to authority by succession was the Catholic church, which for centuries had been apostate and wholly bereft of divine authority or recognition. If the "mother church" be without a valid priesthood, and devoid of spiritual power, how can her offspring derive from her the right to officiate in the things of God? Who would dare to affirm that man can originate a priesthood which God is bound to honor and acknowledge? Granted that men may and do create among themselves societies, associations, sects, and even "churches" if they choose so to designate their organizations; granted that they may prescribe rules, formulate laws, and devise plans of operation, discipline, and government, and that all such laws, rules, and schemes of administration are binding upon those who assume membership-granted all these rights and powers-whence can such human institutions derive the authority of the Holy Priesthood, without which there can be no Church of Christ (James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ, 698.)?
Rodger Williams. In June 1638 he became a Baptist; he was immersed by Ezekiel Hollyman, and in turn immersed Hollyman and ten others. This was the first Baptist church on the American Continent. But a few months afterwards he renounced his rebaptism on the ground that Hollyman was unbaptized, and therefore unauthorized to administer the rite to him. He remained for the rest of his life a ‘Seeker,’ cut loose from all existing Church organizations and usages, longing for a true Church of God, but unable to find one on the face of the whole earth. He conceived ‘that the apostasy of Antichrist hath so far corrupted all that there can be no recovery out of that apostasy till Christ send forth new apostles to plant churches anew’ (Schaff, Philip. The Creeds of Christendom, 3:851).
Thomas Jefferson. I hold the precepts of Jesus, as delivered by himself, to be the most pure, benevolent, and sublime which have ever been preached to man. I adhere to the principles of the first age; and consider all subsequent innovations as corruptions of this religion, having no foundation in what came from him....If the freedom of religion, guaranteed to us by law in theory, can ever rise in practice under the overbearing inquisition of public opinion, truth will prevail over fanaticism, and the genuine doctrines of Jesus, so long perverted by his pseudo-priests, will again be restored to their original purity. This reformation will advance with the other improvements of the human mind, but too late for me to witness it (Thomas Jefferson in 1820, quoted in Cousins, Norman, ed. “In God We Trust”: The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers, 156.).
Joseph Smith Sr. What he could not embrace was the institutional religion of his time. The reason became clear in one of his prophetic dreams. In the first dream, around 1811, Joseph Sr. found himself traveling in a barren field covered with dead fallen timber: “Not a vestige of life, either animal or vegetable, could be seen; besides, to render the scene still more dreary, the most death-like silence prevailed, no sound of anything animate could be heard in all the field.” The attendant spirit, according to Lucy, told Joseph Sr. that “this field is the world which now lieth inanimate and dumb, in regard to the true religion or plan of salvation.” Then appeared “all manner of beasts, horned cattle, and roaring animals...tearing the earth, tossing their horns, and bellowing most terrifically.” That was the religious world as Joseph Sr. saw it: empty and silent, or fiercely hostile to true wisdom and understanding. He concluded from his dream that the “class of religionists” knew no more of the Kingdom of God than “such as made no profession of religion whatever” (Bushman, Richard Lyman. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, 25-26).
Robert Mason and Wilford Woodruff. The second reason for my peculiar belief in such principles, teachings, and doctrines was that in the days of my youth I was taught by an aged man named Robert Mason, who lived in Sainsbury, Connecticut....Father Mason did not claim that he had any authority to officiate in the ordinances of the gospel, nor did he believe that such authority existed on the earth....He told me that the day was near when the Lord would establish His Church and Kingdom upon the earth with all its ancient gifts and blessings. He said that such a work would commence upon the earth before he died, but that he would not live to partake of its blessings. He said that I should live to do so, and that I should become a conspicuous actor in that kingdom.
The last time I ever saw him he related to me the following vision which he had in his field in open day: “I was carried away in a vision and found myself in the midst of a vast orchard of fruit trees. I became hungry and wandered through this vast orchard searching for fruit to eat, but I found none. While I stood in amazement finding no fruit in the midst of so many trees, they began to fall to the ground as if torn up by a whirlwind. They continued to fall until there was not a tree standing in the whole orchard. I immediately saw thereafter shoots springing up from the roots and forming themselves into young and beautiful trees. These budded, blossomed, and brought forth fruit which ripened and was the most beautiful to look upon of anything my eyes had ever beheld. I stretched forth my hand and plucked some of the fruit. I gazed upon it with delight; but when I was about to eat of it, the vision closed and I did not taste the fruit. At the close of the vision I bowed down in humble prayer and asked the Lord to show me the meaning of the vision. Then the voice of the Lord came to me saying: ‘Son of man, thou hast sought me diligently to know the truth concerning my Church and Kingdom among men. This is to show you that my Church is not organized among men in the generation to which you belong; but in the days of your children the Church and Kingdom of God shall be made manifest with all the gifts and the blessings enjoyed by the Saints in past ages. You shall live to be made acquainted with it, but shall not partake of its blessings before you depart this life. You will be blest of the Lord after death because you have followed the dictation of my Spirit in this life.’”
When Father Mason had finished relating the vision and its interpretation, he said, calling me by my Christian name: “Wilford, I shall never partake of this fruit in the flesh, but you will and you will become a conspicuous actor in the new kingdom.” He then turned and left me. These were the last words he ever spoke to me upon the earth....The vision was given to him about the year 1800. He related it to me in 1830, the spring in which the Church was organized. Three years later when I was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, almost the first person I thought of was this prophet, Robert Mason. Upon my arrival in Missouri with Zion's Camp, I wrote him a long letter in which I informed him that I had found the true gospel with all its blessings; that the authority of the Church of Christ had been restored to the earth as he had told me it would be; that I had received the ordinances of baptism and the laying on of hands; that I knew for myself that God had established through Joseph Smith, the Prophet, the Church of Christ upon the earth.
He received my letter with great joy and had it read over to him many times. He handled it as he had handled the fruit in the vision. He was very aged and soon died without having the privilege of receiving the ordinances of the gospel at the hands of an elder of the Church. The first opportunity I had after the truth of baptism for the dead was revealed, I went forth and was baptized for him in the temple font at Nauvoo
(Wilford Woodruff in Cowley, Matthias F. Wilford Woodruff, His Life and Labors, 18).
Witnesses of the Marvelous Restoration
The Lord. Wherefore I the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth, called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments; and also gave commandments to others, that they should proclaim these things unto the world...that the fulness of my gospel might be proclaimed by the weak and the simple unto the ends of the world...and also that those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased... (D&C 1:17-30)
The First Presidency. We solemnly declare that in these the latter-days, God has again spoken from the heavens through His chosen Prophet, Joseph Smith; that the Lord has, through that same Prophet, again revealed in its fulness His gospel,—the plan of life and salvation; that through that Prophet and his associates He has restored His holy Priesthood to the earth, from which it had been taken because of the wickedness of men; and that all the rights, powers, keys, and functions appertaining to the Priesthood as so restored are now vested in and exercised by the inspired leadership of His Church... (April 1942 Conference Report, 88)
President Spencer W. Kimball. In 1976 an area general conference was held in Copenhagen, Denmark. Following the closing session, President Kimball expressed a desire to visit the Vor Frue Church, where the Thorvaldsen statues of the Christus and of the Twelve Apostles stand. He had visited this some years before. Others of us had also seen it but some had not, and he felt we should all go there. The church was closed for renovation, nevertheless arrangements were quickly made for us to be admitted for a few minutes...To the front of the church, behind the altar, stands the familiar statue of the Christus...Along each side stand the statues of the Apostles, Peter at the front on the right side of the church, and the other Apostles in order...
Most of the group were near the rear of the chapel, where the custodian, through an interpreter, was giving some explanation. I stood with President Kimball, Elder Rex Pinegar, and President Bentine, the stake president, before the statue of Peter. In his hand, depicted in marble, is a set of heavy keys. President Kimball pointed to them and explained what they symbolized. Then, in an act I shall never forget, he turned to President Bentine and with unaccustomed sternness pointed his finger at him and said with firm, impressive words, “I want you to tell every Lutheran in Denmark that they do not hold the keys! I hold the keys! We hold the real keys and we use them every day.” This declaration and testimony from the prophet so affected me that I knew I would never forget it-the influence was powerfully spiritual and the impression was physical in its impact as well.
We walked to the other end of the chapel where the rest of the group were standing. Pointing to the statues, President Kimball said to the kind custodian who was showing us the building, “These are the dead Apostles. Here we have the living Apostles.” Pointing to me he said, “Elder Packer is an Apostle.” He designated the others and said, “Elder Monson and Elder Perry are Apostles, and I am an Apostle. We are the living Apostles. You read about seventies in the New Testament, and here are living seventies, Brother Pinegar and Brother Hales”(Boyd K. Packer, The Holy Temple, 84.).
Elder Orson F. Whitney. Seven hundred years before the birth of our Savior, a prophet of God upon the eastern hemisphere predicted the coming forth of “a marvelous work and a wonder.” “Mormonism,” so called, according to the faith of its adherents, is the fulfilment of that ancient prediction. And indeed it would be difficult to conceive of anything more marvelous, more wonderful, than the foundation facts upon which rests the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. What could be more strange, more unexpected, than the re-opening of the heavens in an age when it was believed and asserted that the heavens were permanently sealed, that God no longer spoke to man, that revelation had ceased, and that angels would never again commune with earth’s inhabitants? But lo! the heavens are opened; angels come to earth; and not only this, but God himself descends from his glorious throne and appears unto man, opening the last and greatest of the gospel dispensations. An angel reveals the hidden past of the American continent—the Book of Mormon, containing the fulness of the gospel, a history of the Americas in prehistoric times, and a prophecy of their wondrous future. An angel restores the Aaronic priesthood, which holds the keys of repentance and baptism; and other angels bring back the higher or Melchizedek priesthood, holding the keys of heavenly mysteries; and under this delegated divine authority, without which no man can lawfully represent God, or administer the sacred ordinances of the gospel, the Church of Christ is organized once more upon the earth. Truly, a marvelous work and a wonder—so marvelous, so wonderful, that most men reject it, deeming it a fable. And yet it is nothing more nor less than the plain fulfilment of prophecy.
This Church was founded for a definite purpose. It is not merely one more added to the hundreds of religious sects with which the world is filled. It is the lifted ensign for the gathering of God’s chosen Israel from the four quarters of the globe, for the purpose of building a Zion, the New Jerusalem, and preparing a people for the glorious coming of the Lord (Orson F. Whitney, October 1916 Conference Report, 52.).
Early Christians in Disarray. Edited by Noel B. Reynolds
Lost Christianities. Bart Ehrman
Mormonism and Early Christianity. Hugh Nibley
Outlines of Ecclesiastical History. B. H. Roberts.
Restoring the Ancient Church. Barry Robert Bickmore
The Great Apostasy. James Talmage
The Inevitable Apostasy and the Promised Restoration. Tad R. Callister
The World and the Prophets. Hugh Nibley
“Apostasy and Restoration.” Dallin H. Oaks. Ensign, May 1995
“Early Signs of the Apostasy.” Kent P. Jackson. Ensign, Dec. 1984.
“From the Beginning” Elder Neal A. Maxwell. Ensign, Nov. 1993.
“The Great Apostasy as Seen by Eusebius.” Hyde M. Merrill. Ensign, Nov. 1972
“The Morning Breaks; the Shadows Flee.” Elder Bruce R. McConkie. Ensign, May 1978.
“Were an Apostasy and Restoration Predicted?” Barry R. Bickmore. Found at http://www.fairlds.org
“Whither the Early Church?” S. Kent Brown. Ensign, Oct. 1988.