From the beginnings of time, God set up a plan to make sure everyone would understand what was true and what was not. He knew that if everyone was left to make his or her own choices on the subject, there would be chaos, because people would simply make what they wanted to be true fit into the gospel. To prevent this, He gave us prophets who were the only people authorized to receive official revelation for the Church. Each person was then responsible for praying for confirmation of that person’s role as the prophet. Once he knew who the prophet was, he could turn to the prophet for official information on God’s teachings.
There were times, of course, when there was no prophet. Those times were called apostasies and they happened when people rejected and endangered the prophets. God would take away prophecy for a while before allowing us to try again. When Jesus Christ began his ministry, He served as the prophet as well as the Lord. There was no need for another prophet when the Lord Himself was here. However, when he was killed, we again needed a prophet. Peter, as head of the apostles, received that responsibility. He received revelations such as the one that took the gospel out beyond the Jews to all the world. His revelations changed practices, even practices in place while Jesus was alive. The same revelation that made it acceptable to preach the gospel to the world was also used to end required circumcision, for instance.
Apostasy in ancient times
Most of the apostles were killed, however, and after a while, no one was appointed to take their places as they died. The world had largely rejected the prophets and so they lost the privilege of having one. Now the few valiant Saints who remained faithful were left on their own to decide what was true.
Even while the apostles remained, Saints were wandering off course. The apostles spent much of their time writing letters or preaching in an effort to stem incorrect interpretations of gospel doctrine. Fortunately, there was a source of official information, someone authorized to interpret scripture correctly. When the apostles were gone, there was no one to ask when disagreements arose. Each group of Saints made its own interpretations. If they disagreed, they simply broke off to form a new denomination.
Various councils in places like Nicaea codified the most popular doctrines, but they were chosen by ordinary people, not prophets and were made long after the apostles were gone. The Protestant reformers tried to codify doctrine as well, but they never considered themselves prophets and were simply doing the best they could, often under dangerous conditions. They, and their later followers, helped to bring about freedom of religion, a condition essential for a restoration to occur.
Any time God brought prophets back into the world, it was necessary to restore anything that had been lost while there were none. By the 1800s, so many truths taught in the Bible were lost or altered that small adjustments weren’t enough. There were millions of denominations, all teaching conflicting ideas even when they were part of the same larger faith group. Not only were there many variations of Protestantism, but there were even variations in groups within that division—for instance, there are many different flavors of Baptist faith.
Joseph Smith was baffled by all these choices. He understood instinctively that they could not all be true since they disagreed with each other on very critical subjects. He found that James 1:5 in the Bible instructed Christians to pray if they wanted to know what was true. Since that was obviously the only way he could really learn the truth, he did just that. He was told in a vision by God and Jesus Christ personally that none had the complete truth, so he wasn’t to join any of them. When he was grown God sent an angel to help prepare him to lead the restoration as a prophet.
The Church he helped to organize is known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some people call it the Mormon Church, but Mormons ask that that name not be used. The Book of Mormon quote Jesus Christ in saying that the Church belongs to the person for whom it is named, and so it needs to be named after Jesus, not Mormon, who was a prophet. The word Mormon can be used to describe the Church’s members, however.
Mormon doctrine is restored knowledge, not new ideas. Many of the teachings of Jesus Christ and the apostles have been lost or altered. Many take small portions of the Bible out of context, giving them a meaning never intended. Of course, there are also many translations of the Bible, all of which can alter a meaning based on the word choices the translator makes. It is impossible to simply translate word for word without making choices. Over time, occasional verses were added or subtracted to meet a specific goal. Finally, of course, the Bible was not compiled until long after the apostles were gone and there were many documents. Compilers made choices about which to include and there is not, today, a single canon. Various faiths use different combinations of books in their Bibles and some books are lost completely. (See Mormonism and the Bible/Lost Scripture at FAIRLDS.org.)
Without a prophet, it is impossible for the gospel to travel on a correct path. Although the Bible is an essential resource revered by Mormons, we know it has been interpreted in many different ways, as evidenced by the many churches in existence today that interpret it differently. The gospel requires a prophet to clarify that which is not always clear.
Mormonism provides that prophet. The Bible says the Church must be built on a foundation of prophets and apostles and that God will do nothing except through prophets. He understood the essentialness of the prophet’s role, which is why He created prophets to begin with. Only with a prophet can a true restoration occur.