To understand how this notion took root, one must turn to certain verses in the Book of Mormon that caused people to reach such a conclusion. From I Nephi Chapter 13:
4 And it came to pass that I saw among the nations of the Gentiles the formation of a great church.
5 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.
6 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.
7 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.
8 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.
I Nephi Chapter 13 also describes the effect the great and abominable church would have upon the Bible, which "proceeded forth out of the mouth of a Jew":
24 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 fulness 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.
25 Wherefore, these things go forth from the Jews in purity unto the Gentiles, according to the truth which is in God.
26 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 that 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.
27 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.
When I first read these verses at the age of nine, I was a Roman Catholic at the time. Because I was familiar with Catholic history, I initially concluded that the Roman Catholic Church was the "great and abominable church". This conclusion was reinforced by these critical milestones in Catholic history (after the jump):
-- The LDS doctrinal belief that the original church of Christ began to apostasize around 100 A.D. and became the Roman Catholic Church; this apostasy was sealed at the Council of Nicea.
-- The initial monopoly on Christianity owned by the Roman Catholic Church.
-- The repeated Crusades led by the Catholic Church to recover the Holy Land by force.
-- The selling of indulgences by medieval Catholic authorities (see Mormon 8:32).
-- The Catholic-led Inquisition, launched to ferret out Marrano Jews who falsely converted to Catholicism.
-- The wearing of expensive ceremonial clothing and vestments by senior Catholic officials (archbishop and higher).
It is no wonder that I initially believed the Roman Catholic Church to be the "great and abominable church". But even experienced Mormon theologians were taken in by this; in the first edition of Mormon Doctrine, Bruce R. McConkie wrote "It is also to the Book of Mormon to which we turn for the plainest description of the Catholic Church as the great and abominable church".
But there are several verses in the Book of Mormon that rebut the notion that the Roman Catholic Church is the one and only "great and abominable church". From 1 Nephi 14:
9 And it came to pass that he said unto me: Look, and behold that great and abominable church, which is the mother of abominations, whose founder is the devil.
10 And he said unto me: Behold there are save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the bother 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.
11 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.
12 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 ball 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.
13 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.
Note that verse 10 states "there are save two churches only". Obviously, since there are dozens of denominations within Christianity, this cannot apply to the present-day Roman Catholic Church. What this describes is a future system being laid in place right now which will be a hideous secular combination of church and state. Diversity, multiculturalism, anti-racism, gay rights, environmentalism and political correctness in general are being pushed with an almost religious-like fervor. Equal opportunity is being sacrificed for the sake of equal outcome. Public disagreement with these principles brings a variety of sanctions. Public disagreement with Holocaust theology also brings imprisonment in many European countries. When the system is finally constructed, we will find many Roman Catholics and those of other faiths on the side of the church of the Lamb of God. We will also find a number of Mormons on the side of the great and abominable church, having been suborned by political correctness.
And finally, we go back to Mormon 8:32:
32 Yea, it shall come in a day when there shall be churches built up that shall say: Come unto me, and for your money you shall be forgiven of your sins.
Note the use of the word "churches" plural; this implies that many churches do this. The Trinity Broadcasting Network is probably the most flagrant offender.
The Bottom Line: Although the Roman Catholic Church may have been a "great and abominable church" at one time, the Reformation, which introduced denomination diversity into Christianity, also triggered reforms within the Roman Catholic Church. The indulgences, crusades, and inquisitions all subsided. Thus the great and abominable church is still a future entity, the foundations for which are being presently laid. FAIRlds issued a statement which best summarizes official LDS thinking on this issue:
According to the scriptures, the "great and abominable church" and "whore of all the earth" refers to any organization that opposes the true Church of Jesus Christ. The Church does not teach or endorse the idea that these terms refer to any specific religion or organization. It is clear that in cases where past church authorities have modified this definition through speculation, that the First Presidency has firmly declared those speculations to be in error.
And finally, in dealing with those who hold different faiths or belief systems, we would do well to remember the Eleventh Article of Faith; "We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may". This means that when we as Latter-day Saints approach those of different faiths, we do not seek to take away that which they already have, but to offer them the opportunity to sift and refine that which they already have by adding to it that which we have.