You read the CES Letter, and you don’t know what to think. Your world fit together so well, and now you feel it’s crumbling apart. You question everything, even your relationship with God. You want to know about seerstones and Book of Abraham papyri and polygamy. We will get to that. First, I want to put some framework around those issues.
Spiritual vs Historical Truth
Historical truths/claims can be validated through traditional intellectual and scientific methods. Example:
- The New England Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2015.
Some truths/claims are completely spiritual concepts that cannot be proven or disproven through traditional intellectual methods. Examples:
- God exists.
- The Christ-centered, LDS life can help me connect with God and live more abundantly.
Sometimes historical concepts intersect with things that seem like spiritual concepts, yet they are still historical concepts that can be validated through intellectual methods. Examples:
- God created the earth in six days.
- The Book of Mormon is an ancient American document.
Let’s be careful when we analyze the CES Letter issues that we are not conflating spiritual and historical concepts. Keep in mind that even if a historical claim is challenged, an underlying spiritual truth/claim may still stand.
I’ve heard LDS defend the Book of Mormon saying, “You will never prove the Book of Mormon true or not true through an intellectual process. It can only proven through a spiritual process.” I agree and disagree. If you’re equating “truth” to whether or not it’s an ancient American document, then I disagree. We may disagree whether the current evidence prove or disprove it, but that’s a historical claim that can be evaluated intellectually. If you define Book of Mormon “truth” the way I do, ie it is an inspired book of scripture, then I agree with the premise above. It can only be validated through a personal, spiritual process.
Three ways to view LDS Historical Issues
Literal, Believing View
This group views LDS historical claims as literal and factually accurate. Some feel no need to study any historical issues in depth. They might believe the history is not meaningful to their spirituality and relationship with God. When they do research into Mormon issues, they are usually satisfied with surface level answers that reinforce the traditional narrative.
Others have undergone a very deep and careful study of history on the issues and have come to an intellectual and scholarly view that it is true in the literal sense. They have read all the old FARMS or current FairMormon literature, are up on all the issues and believe the logic is strong. The more they study, the more they feel it validates the literal, LDS view.
Literal, Non-Believing View
Their search of Mormon history has led them to conclude that Mormonism is not what it purports to be. Some will move into a different form of Christianity, ignoring the similarly problematic origins of Christianity. Some will become atheistic, not trusting any religion. For them, they continue to view religion as binary, either true or not, based on the accuracy of the historical claims. These people never break out of a rigid view of Mormonism and religion of only having value in a literal and fundamental paradigm. Some will continue their search and stick with Mormonism but feel frustration and possibly even feel like they are living a lie.
They discover the same problems with historical origins, but instead of dumping the church immediately, they struggle through the dissonance and continue with a deeper search for truth about religion and God. They see that simplistic, binary models of evaluating LDS (or any religion’s) literal-historical claims aren’t sufficient.
They develop expanded views of religion, such as the sacramental/metaphorical paradigm. They develop nuanced understanding of religious concepts that were very simply defined for them in the past. Concepts like truth, faith, belief, revelation, prophet, authority, and priesthood. They realize that most of the great philosophers and thinkers on religion are not concerned with the historical origins. They decide to stay or leave based on how they view the truth and beauty of Mormonism and the fruits of the church in its current state not in the accuracy of its historical origins. They understand the value of religion comes in the daily-weekly lived experience.
There are really smart, honest, and good-hearted people in all three groups above. And of course there is crossover between these groups. One could believe in a literal way on some things and a nuanced view on other issues.
If you’re not happy in Mormonism and want a reason to leave, you will find it in the CES Letter. If you love Mormonism and want to stay in it but need some answers on the CES Letter issues to preserve your intellectual integrity, you will find those answers.
If you just want to know the truth regardless of where it takes you, then you have some work ahead of you. You’re in for a long but rewarding journey to discover truth that will likely lead to a more complex understanding of religion. Right now, it may seem like a binary decision. It’s true or not. Give me the facts. Through this journey, the search for the answer to the question “Is the church true?” will become less relevant than questions like Adam Miller proposes “Is this the Body of Christ? Is Christ manifest here?”
This is what I think Terryl Givens means when he says “faith is a choice”.
Oversimplified Church History
Most of us understand there are different layers in teaching history. We know George Washington probably told lies in his youth, and if it were proven his father never even owned a cherry tree, it wouldn’t shatter our world. We understand these things are always more complex with closer analysis. But with church history, we have an expectation that church teachings should be correlated to absolute truth.
The church has been guilty of teaching a very oversimplified version of its history. With the help of scholars like Richard Bushman and changes in style by the church, such as publishing the recent Gospel Topics Essays, we’re moving past that. Hopefully future generations of the church won’t struggle with this jarring process of facing online information that doesn’t match their oversimplified understanding.
In this article, where I say something is problematic or difficult, I mean that it challenges that traditional, oversimplified, unsustainable literal view of church history. I believe there are nuanced and metaphorical paradigms that can make sense of everything in the CES Letter.
CES Letter Background
In 2013, Jeremy Runnells at the request of a CES Director wrote a letter documenting the issues he found with the LDS church. He later published this in a pdf on his website, which is now known as the CES Letter. This became very popular very fast and within a couple years he had over 100,000 downloads. Jeremy Runnells and his CES Letter have sort of become icons in the Mormon world. It’s very likely if you talk to a faithful Mormon they will call the CES Letter hateful, poorly written trash full of lies. If you ask an Ex-Mormon, they will tell you it’s courageous, honest, and insightful. Many even view the CES Letter as their own evangelizing tool. If they can get their active LDS friend or family member to read it, they think it will destroy their faith in the church. On April 17, 2016, Jeremy Runnells was brought in for a disciplinary court and facing excommunication decided to resign from the church.
FairMormon, the group that does apologetic research and publications defending the church came out with a lengthy, point by point rebuttal. This is adequate for some Mormons but not all. Some, mostly ex-Mormon but even some LDS, view FairMormon as manipulating the academic research with the main intention of overcomplicating issues to make it seem like non-scholars have no way to evaluate things intellectually.
It’s very difficult to know who to trust. I try my best here to provide just about the most neutral perspective you will find. I don’t use Jeremy’s numbering system here, but I try to cover all his points.
Book of Mormon
KJV copied from the Bible The BOM contains short phrases and sometimes long quotations from the King James Bible. Sometimes the KJV had errors which Joseph didn’t fix. Sometimes it seems illogical for the KJV to be there at all. I think this is a legitimate problem. The most serious example is the Isaiah portion. See a little more thorough treatment on Isaiah problems here, but the gist of the issue is that Nephi had a copy and is quoting some portions of Isaiah (which Isaiah didn’t even write) before it was even written.
DNA We don’t find Israelite DNA when we do tests on Native American populations. The only possible way that scientists could agree that DNA science has not essentially ruled out America as a historical setting for the Book of Mormon is with the following contingency: Lehite settlers landed in America and then immediately intermarried with local natives, and continued to intermarry in a way that their DNA completely vanished.
Anachronisms An anachronism is when a supporting detail in a story is out of place, historically or chronologically. Critics accuse the BOM of containing anachronisms such as horses, elephants, domesticated animals, silk, and metalworking that don’t fit in an ancient America setting. LDS apologists have presented a lot of research on this. They create a possibility for viewing the BOM in a literal way, but for many people the explanations seem forced. For example, Mesoamericans didn’t have wheeled technology and didn’t ride horses, so when the Book of Mormon references horse and chariot it means a tapir or deer and a litter (non-wheeled conveyance device) which were unrelated, ie the tapirs didn’t haul the litter, they were just randomly used together in a phrase. This creates a plausible explanation, but for most people it’s not compelling. And unfortunately, there are many of these examples. Another anachronism that I think is more interesting, that the CES Letter didn’t really get into, is the out-of-place presence of very esoteric, specific Christian doctrine that seems to be the result of centuries long debate between Calvinists and Arminians.
Archaeology Again, Jeremy has the facts on his side here. The lack of swords, bones, pottery, writings, etc, that would confirm Book of Mormon historicity is concerning. Each year that passes, we find out more about these ancient civilizations and they seem to correlate less with Book of Mormon descriptions.
Geography names Here, I believe Jeremy reaches too far. The map showing Book of Mormon place names in proximity to update New York is very convincing on the surface, but the apologists have done a good job explaining this. In my opinion, LDS apologists overuse the parallelomania argument when they address critical arguments, but this is a time when it very accurately explains the issue. Parallelomania is the concept that two references appear correlated (or copied or plagiarized) when actually they are random coincidence. This occurs quite often naturally in texts and literature.
The Camora/Moroni point is a bit more compelling, but still falls in the realm of parallelomania for me. However, this sword cuts both ways. The discovery on an ancient map of a place called Nahom, which correlates well with the place Nephi describes in the Book of Mormon has long been touted as one of the strongest “bullseyes” in support of BOM historicity. But this doesn’t exceed the standard of parallelomania any more than these critical arguments do.
View of the Hebrews I have mixed response on this. The CES Letter provides a lengthy explanation describing the connections. This might make a reader think he weights this evidence more than he really does. For me, VOTH is more of an “ah hah” than a condemnation.
Either critics have done a poor job communicating this point or apologists have done a poor job defending it. Critics tend to identify the common points between VOTH and the Book of Mormon, and apologists say “look at all this stuff that’s DIFFERENT, it’s obviously not plagiarized.” But the point, that I think is valid although more of a minor/supporting point, is that these ideas and concepts that the VOTH and BOM have in common illustrate the religious and historical thoughts of the period. They were products of the same environment. Do I think Joseph Smith plagiarized VOTH? No. Do I think the concepts and storyline behind VOTH were circulated in 1820’s New England and they might have had influence on Joseph? Yes.
Late War, Book of Napoleon Jeremy again might have appeared to give too much weight to these arguments. But that’s understandable, as they were new ideas that were coming out at the time he had his faith crisis, and they’re pretty compelling issues that haven’t been adequately addressed.
The idea here is that there were two books that came out before the BOM that both have a very Book of Mormony feel. A lot of usage of “and it came to pass”, long sentences, passive voice, and the same Old English style of writing. It turns out there was a genre of writing in Joseph’s time called the “ancient style” where people intentionally mimicked biblical King James style writing to make the book sound like scripture. Counter: a) The Book of Mormon’s use of chiasmus and Hebraisms are much more complex than its peers and b) Joseph’s lack of education makes his successful use of these even more confusing.
Seerstone with head in hat translation method The Church has been doing a very good job at softening the surprise factor on this one, with the release of the seerstone image in Aug 2015 and the Gospel Topics Essays and even adding this narrative into lesson manuals starting with Primary. But there are aspects of this that are still very difficult. 1) That Joseph didn’t even need or use the gold plates. 2) That Joseph used the same technique to translate the BOM as he had used previously in money digging expeditions. 3) That the seerstone/hat, treasure seeking narrative has crossover with the Angel Moroni finding of the gold plates narrative. None of this meets our expectation of how God should bring forth a work of scripture as important as the Book of Mormon.
Jeremy expresses his personal emotions about feeling lied to by the LDS church in this section. I went through these same emotions myself. But I also understand the FairMormon view on this. It’s a complex issue. I give credit to the church for making this information available recently, and I think Jeremy would also.
Complexity and Spiritual Value Jeremy and other critics list the negatives about the Book of Mormon, but don’t list the positives. In addition to the black/white lack of nuance with which the CES Letter approaches the issues, the other main issue is that it lists all the bad things but none of the good things to try to arrive at a holistic view. Grant Hardy’s book Understanding the Book of Mormon and other works like that show the Book of Mormon is extremely complex and consistent in its theology, geography, and internal narrative. It has transformative power in the lives of millions of people. The more I study the Book of Mormon, the less I believe it’s historical, but the greater I appreciate its spiritual value.
Book of Mormon Conclusions FairMormon spends a lot of time defending anachronisms, lack of archaeological evidence and other Book of Mormon historicity issues. It’s good to be familiar with their work. That works for many LDS but not all. In the LDS academic world, it’s becoming more and more acceptable to view the BOM, at least partially, as non-historical. LDS scholar Blake Ostler defines scripture as “human creativity responding to divine inspiration”. There are two non-traditional ways of viewing the BOM that fully admit the anachronisms. 1) The Expansion Model, which is the most popular right now among scholarly LDS: the BOM is a very loose translation based on an ancient record, but also includes significant expansion that came through the mind of Joseph and includes his 19th century ideas and perspectives. 2) Non-historical model: as a prophet, seer, and revelator Joseph had the right and the capability to create the BOM as a non-historical extended metaphor. I explore these theories, and what Joseph meant by the word “translation” and exploring concepts like midrash and pseudepigrapha.
First Vision Concerns
Many LDS are surprised to learn the version of the First Vision account in our scriptures is not the only account Joseph gave. There are four different accounts, each one with varying information. Some of the differences seem pretty important. ie In only the last one he talks about two personages, both Heavenly Father and Jesus. In the other accounts is it just one. In the earlier accounts, the focus is on Joseph praying with the intention of repenting of his sins not with the intention of discovering which church is true. There doesn’t seem to be the declaration of authority and exclusivity to Joseph’s mission until the last one.
This is problematic, but this issue was never as troubling to me as it is to some others. The FairMormon arguments make some sense. I think there are reasons for the different accounts.
It does seem odd why the “two personages” part of the story wasn’t emphasized in earlier accounts. And it’s puzzling why Joseph didn’t seem to testify or talk about the First Vision in the early years of church history. One point to understand, is that a vision is visionary. It’s not necessarily a physical visitation like we assume.
Richard Bushman and Greg Prince, two scholars I respect greatly, have a similar view on this. Neither look at it as proving the church is exclusively “true”. But both look at the multiple accounts as strong evidence corroborating the fact that something did happen in the grove, with the earliest 1832 account most likely being the most factually accurate. And the 1838 account being a founding document to establish a religion–a formal presentation of what the early church thought it meant.
Book of Abraham
The CES Letter gives overall fair treatment to Book of Abraham issues. Joseph purchased some mummies that came with ancient scrolls and stated these were the writings of Abraham and Joseph (son of Jacob/Israel). He translated the Book of Abraham and published it in 1838. The scroll was lost but then turned up in a museum in 1966, and shown by Egyptian experts to be a common Egyptian funerary text and has nothing to do with Abraham. The KEP (Kirtland Egyptian Project) appears to show where Joseph was in error, but it’s argued this was a side project that doesn’t necessarily show how the Book of Abraham text was revealed to Joseph. I go into this in more detail on my Book of Abraham page.
Apologists have a couple theories to counter this.
- Missing scroll. They argue the scroll found in 1966 is missing a portion that might have the Book of Abraham on it. This is not impossible, but I feel it is unlikely. This is a fairly technical issue that is not impossible to understand for the lay person, but requires a more analysis and reading than I’ll do here.
- Catalyst argument. The church’s essay on the Book of Abraham suggests the church is willing to accept this. The idea here is to acknowledge the scrolls Joseph Smith purchased had nothing to do with Abraham, but it was good for him to believe the scrolls were the writings of Abraham, because it helped him tap into his revelatory power, and produce the Book of Abraham. This kind of nuanced view is similar to the view some LDS scholars take on the Book of Mormon, seeing it as inspired but not historical.
Facsimiles Jeremy’s points are strong, but like some other areas he overreaches just a tad by getting so specific with his argument details. This invites LDS Egyptologists to obfuscate and focus the discussion on esoteric, supporting details that don’t add or take away much from the discussion. The bottom line is: the interpretations Joseph made for the facsimiles don’t match up to what Egyptologists say they are.
Additionally, I think it was a bad move for Jeremy to use this line “Joseph Smith is saying that this figure with an erect penis is Heavenly Father sitting on his throne”. It’s a minor point, and at that it’s not even a slam dunk, and to include that kind of language that offend so many LDS moves things into emotional territory away from intellectual and factual.
Newtonian Physics and Thomas Dick plagiarism This section is interesting. I think the correlations are not extremely strong for these two sources, but it’s possible they were used as source material. Joseph Smith apparently borrowed from many sources. It’s possible he borrowed from Emanuel Swedenborg, who wrote about the three degrees of heaven—celestial, terrestrial, telestial, and also eternal marriage. He also might have borrowed from John Milton’s Paradise Lost: preexistence, Jesus created Earth, etc. Fiona Givens said “Joseph loved to plagiarize,” playfully expressing the idea that Joseph felt it was his prophetic role to take truth existing in the world from various sources and bring it together in the restored gospel. I personally find this a beautiful and profound concept.
KJV in Book of Abraham Not a big deal, especially if we allow for a “loose” translation.
My addition on Book of Abraham content Something Jeremy didn’t include, but something I think is kind of a big deal is some of the content in the Book of Abraham that is the justification for some of the racist cultural attitudes of the past. Abraham 1 recirculates the Bible’s curse of Ham story, which was popularly interpreted in Joseph’s time by many Christians as justification for racism.
In my own critique of Joseph Smith’s polygamy, I give the following as a summary of the difficult aspects of it. I am careful to include only facts that both LDS and non-LDS scholars agree on. The church published an essay on Nauvoo Polygamy which essentially admits each of these items, so they should be open territory for active LDS to discuss and not assume they are anti-Mormon concoctions.
- Joseph married somewhere in the neighborhood of about 30 women
- At least some of Joseph’s polygamous marriages were sexually consummated, scholars will haggle on the exact number (which I feel is important to understand generally to help process the meaning of all this) is probably more than 10 and less than 20
- He married other men’s wives, though these marriages are sometimes argued by LDS scholars as not involving sexual relations
- Joseph married several teenage girls, with the youngest as 14 (also argued by LDS scholars that this relationship was not consummated)
- He hid many of these from Emma, and she was very upset about it
- The first marriage, Fanny Alger, seems a bit out of place with the others, occurring in Kirtland at least five years before the others
- He told people that God sent an angel with a sword to threaten his life if he didn’t start doing polygamy and sometimes used that story to convince the girl to go along with marriage
- That some of the women involved seemed to be deeply saddened by the marriage with Joseph and were upset spiritually and emotionally
If Jeremy stopped there, he probably wouldn’t get much static from LDS apologists, but the following are factual points that are being challenged and difficult to prove either way.
- whether or not some of the marriages with the young teenagers were consummated
- sexual relations with the women he married that were already married, ie polyandry
- whether or not it was shocking for a 40 year old man to marry teenage bride in this time period
- the details of whether Joseph’s polygamy was consistent with what was published in D&C 132 and how much of the doctrine was openly taught by Joseph
My opinion on this? From a 30,000 ft view, it just doesn’t matter much. Regardless of who’s right on those four bullet points, the preceding 8 bullet points are enough for most reasonable people to look at this and think “that’s pretty messed up and probably not what God wanted for his church.”
It’s natural for us to judge Joseph Smith for this. I think it’s useful for us to say “that’s not the kind of behavior we should condone”. But I think it’s too difficult to make a final judgment on Joseph for this. There are major questions about how Joseph introduced and practiced polygamy that show it wasn’t all about sex. It’s clear there were some powerful doctrinal issues intertwined, eternal families and the concept of sealing the human family together as a way to prepare for exaltation.
Jeremy goes way too far, in my opinion, in this section, when he compares Joseph Smith to Warren Jeffs and calls Joseph a pedophile. I think that was unnecessary, and is more reflective of a close minded, attacking spirit and not an inquisitive and exploratory attitude, which I think Jeremy originally intended the CES Letter to be.
Brigham Young taught funky stuff like Adam-God, blood atonement It’s true Brigham Young taught a lot of weird stuff. We don’t believe in prophet infallibility. I think we know that and we say that, but we don’t really believe it. We still have a false understanding in the LDS church that the prophet has a direct conduit to God and speaks directly for God. We have hope and faith that the current prophet is leading the church the best he can according to the will of God, but we should not be surprised if past mistakes are corrected.
Priesthood ban Yeah, it was racist. Yeah, it was a mistake. Kudo’s to the church for reversing the ban and with the recent essay saying there was no doctrinal reason for it. It’s a compelling reason to have doubts about the church. But I think it can be overcome when we understand prophets are not perfect and can make mistakes. We are growing as a society and a church. Let’s be part of the solution and work together for more progress.
Mark Hoffman, Salamander letter The brethren were tricked in the early 1980’s by Mark Hoffman by some forged documents representing weird stuff about Mormon history. I don’t find it incredibly troubling they were tricked. Yes they were duped, but again no one ever said they were perfect. Also, nothing in the Salamander Letter is tremendously different than material published by D. Michael Quinn which LDS scholars generally accept as trustworthy. The origins of the Angel Moroni and discovery of the gold plates definitely had some crossover to the magical world. As I mention earlier, I do find this a troubling aspect of Mormon history.
Kinderhook Plates In 1843 some men fabricated some ancient looking stone plates with Egyptian looking writing on them and offered them to Joseph Smith to trick him. These are called the Kinderhook Plates. By a couple different accounts, Joseph put them on display in his house, declared them as being a record from a Jaredite and started to translate them. But the translation effort never got past the very infant stages and nothing was ever published. I think this is a little troubling to a literal believer, especially as it gives more insight into the Book of Abraham translation, as it appears Joseph started the translation using the same process.
Testimony/spiritual witness concerns Jeremy criticizes the LDS practice of encouraging a spiritual witness to truth. He says many religions use this same pattern, and their members receive spiritual witness, but “every religion cannot be right together.” He says he has felt what LDS call the Holy Ghost during the middle of rated R movies such as Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan, and also at ex-Mormon conferences.
Some people believe spiritual confirmations are self-induced “confirmation biases”. I think that does occur, but I also believe in a spiritual element. I wrote this in my description about my own personal faith journey.
One challenging aspect was what would I do with the knowledge I understood from a spiritual perspective. I couldn’t deny that I had felt powerful spiritual experiences. I began to reinterpret these spiritual experiences. I had previously prayed to ask God if the Book of Mormon was true and felt he had burned it into my heart that it was true. Now I don’t think it was true. How could that be? Maybe it meant it is true in a different way than I previously assumed. Maybe simply the message from God was, “I love you. I’m here. Thank you for seeking me.” I don’t believe in dumping or ignoring spiritual experience, but I learned it wasn’t easy to understand the exact meaning.
I would probably agree with Jeremy that he did feel the Holy Ghost in all those instances. I think the Holy Ghost comes often and for many reasons, and it his role to confirm truth, but it may be difficult to interpret the meaning with precision. For both myself and others, I liberally acknowledge the Holy Ghost alive in lives of human beings. But also for me and myself, I’m skeptical when a human being translates those feelings from the Holy Ghost into axioms meant to be understood as absolute truth.
Priesthood Restoration Angels came on two separate occasions to give Joseph and Oliver the priesthood. Joseph never talked about these events for several years later. Very problematic, along the lines of what I mention above on the First Vision accounts.
Magical Worldview Seerstone/hat is mentioned above. Jeremy also introduces here the account of Oliver and his divining rod. Oliver Cowdery owned a divining rod that he used to find water. Joseph told him it was a spiritual gift and that he should use it to try to translate the Book of Mormon. Apparently, Oliver failed and wasn’t able to come up with anything, and was rebuked by God in the Doctrine and Covenants for it. This account is included in the Doctrine and Covenants sections 8 and 9, which was modified from the original Book of Commandments account which is a bit more explicit about the divining rod.
When I first learned this story, it blew my mind that I never knew the backstory of that famous seminary scripture “study it out…their bosom shall burn”. I feel this is yet another historical piece of information that is very challenging to the literal believer. The apologists will say, no big deal, this is just a way that God is revealing his truth to his servants. I don’t think it logically fits into the narrative. But I also find the finalized account in the D&C spiritually inspiring and it resonates with me as a model for comprehending spiritual truth. We don’t believe God literally writes scripture with a pen and his own hand, so we obviously believe there is some sort of human transmission involved. A nuanced view of scripture can accept it as spiritual truth even when it appears man made. Either partially man made or even mostly man made. I also think this account potentially gives a lot of insight in the BOM translation process, being much more “loose” than we might have thought.
Witnesses The gist of this section is that the witnesses appear to be strong evidence for the Book of Mormon, but when you break things down in detail, the strength dissipates a little.
Against: Some of the witnesses seemed pretty sketchy, later hooking up with the Strangite church. They didn’t sign their own names. Joseph signed for them. Martin Harris said that the eight witnesses saw the plates with their spiritual eyes not physical eyes.
For: The eight witnesses’ testimony was that they both saw and felt the plates. Martin was one of the three witnesses not one of the eight (the three did not have physical experiences). There are no direct statements from any of the eight witnesses that deny their testimony. It’s human nature that if an event like this was faked, that it would be exposed over time. It’s just too hard to conceal a conspiracy. Many critical scholars, such as Dan Vogel, precisely because the eight witness testimonies are so compelling, actually believe Joseph faked the creation of some plates to fool the eight witnesses.
Overall, I conclude the witnesses are a net win for the apologists. I think the strength of the evidence is weakened a bit with some of the arguments Jeremy makes, but overall it’s a pretty compelling argument that none of the witnesses ever retracted or tried to expose Joseph. The existence of the gold plates appears to be a line in the sand most faithful LDS scholars won’t cross. BOM historicity seems to be fair game, but you don’t see very many faithful LDS scholars denying the existence of the gold plates. For a very nuanced, alternative view of the gold plates, see my post here.
Temple and Freemasonry It’s commonly understood that there are a lot of correlations in the temple endowment to masonic temple rituals. In the 1980’s, there was a myth circulating which seems to be dying out, but may still be believed by some LDS. That myth was that the masons were originally the ones that built Solomon’s temple, and they learned the ancient temple ceremony and passed it down within freemasonry down to present day. So the correlation to freemasonry is actually an evidence for the temple ceremony. This is false, and we find that mason ceremony content is traced back to about 1700 England, with some elements possibly being a few hundred years older.
The temple ceremony has changed a lot since it was first introduced by Joseph Smith. Many elements that come straight from freemasonry and that seem a little off compared to standard LDS views have slowly been removed over time, with the last, significant change in 1990.
The current apologetic response, which I find very satisfactory, is that there is nothing critically important about the parts of the temple ceremony that has crossover with the masons. The important part is the covenants and the doctrine. The ritual aspect that is borrowed from the masons is simply for teaching effect.
One aspect on this topic that I think Jeremy missed that I find a challenge to some, but not for others (see the note on plagiarism above), is the doctrinal and scriptural influence that masonry seems to have had on Joseph Smith. There are many correlations to George Oliver’s book Antiquities of Freemasonry, published in 1823. Ideas in this book that Joseph might have borrowed are:
- backstory to Abraham for Book of Abraham: raised among Chaldeans, parents were idolaters, visited Egypt, taught astronomy
- theory that Melchizedek was Shem
- doctrines such as deification (man can become a god), in depth discussion and importance of priesthood, preexistence
Science Concerns and Questions Here Jeremy talks about evolution, Noah’s flood, Tower of Babel. All these are theologically difficult questions for most of the world’s religions. I think there are satisfying answers, viewing these scriptures from a metaphorical perspective of scripture. Progressive Jews and Christians have been dealing with these issues for over 100 years. Mormons are a little late to the table.
Scriptures Concerns and Questions Here Jeremy brings up weird stuff in the Old Testament, the story of Nephi killing Laban, and polygamy in D&C Section 132. Again, I believe these are all difficult questions not just for Mormons but for anyone who believes in God and scripture, but not impossible to overcome with a nuanced view. In a way, I believe the LDS church’s organizational structure enables it to be more equipped to deal with this kind of thing than other churches. Fundamental Christians are forced to believe every word of the Bible is God’s literal word. Progressive Christians don’t have a strong, central leadership that can provide guidance globally, so they are left too much to individual interpretation. As recent as 1981, the church made a change to the wording of the Book of Mormon to help it avoid sounding racist. We don’t believe scripture is God-breathed and inerrant. Some of it is more useful than others. We have an effective organization structure where our leaders can help us best interpret and understand scripture.
Church’s whitewashing of history The point Jeremy makes here is that the church has been dishonest about church history. I understand the frustration on this issue. I don’t think it proves the church wrong or right. Richard Bushman recently said he believes the leaders of the church have been less knowledgeable about these historical details than one might assume. I think the essays the church has come out with recently are a huge step in the right direction. I’m generous with the brethren. My overall view is that they learned along with a lot of us in the internet age, and they have done their best to move in the right direction, though change in the church is sometimes slow. I also am very sympathetic to Jeremy and others that feel burned by the church and feel they have been lied to. I felt that way myself for several years and those feelings are not easily resolved.
Church finances The accusations the CES Letter make here are related to the amount of tithing the church receives compared to the humanitarian aid the church gives. Criticism over the City Creek mall. Criticism over the lack of transparency. I think generally this is an overplayed criticism. I have trust that the church is well managed. I know people that work for the church in financial areas. No one is getting rich off the church. The City Creek investment funds were from the business arm of the church that generates return on interest for future capital projects. I think the church does a lot in terms of service and aid. Fast offerings are never counted in that humanitarian aid figure, and they are passed 100% through to those in need. I’d like to see more transparency, but I don’t feel this is a huge problem.
I don’t think Jeremy is fair to the church in this area. It’s easy to paint the church as a corporate behemoth demanding pittance from poor members. But, in my opinion that’s a simplistic, superficial view. People in every religion and through time have seen financial sacrifice as a measure of worship and feel blessed when they do. The widow’s mite was one of the most powerful concepts Jesus taught.
Names of the church Here Jeremy criticizes the church for receiving the name of the church through revelation, but then later changing the name with minor revisions a couple times. I feel this is no big deal at all, and also highlights a major issue I have with Jeremy’s approach. He assumes there is a level of precision and accuracy with prophetic revelation that I don’t think is necessary or realistic.
Anti-intellectualism In September 1993, the church excommunicated six scholars who published historical and other material that the church deemed as inappropriate conduct for a member. Many viewed this as symbolic of a time period when the church was tightening its borders. But twenty years later, the environment in the church has completely changed. The church is publishing essays on controversial church history subjects, opening up in a way it never has. The church made it public they did not require all members to believe or vote against gay marriage.
Where to go from here?
Patrick Mason said the CES Letter does a very good job at deconstructing an unsustainable version of Mormonism. But he believes there is a sustainable version that will endure. He sees faith crisis and faith reconstruction into a deeper, more sustainable version as a natural process that mature adults pass through. I went through faith crisis after coming across all these historical issues. I stumbled around for several years, before I was able to piece together a view of Mormonism for myself that was intellectually satisfying and spiritually enriching.
Some will read this and be satisfied with the simple answers from the traditional, literal perspective. Some will read this, lose their testimony of literal Mormonism and leave the church, like Jeremy. Some will struggle with the information, study deeper, and modify their views. Whether they stay in the church will depend largely on how they perceive the fruits of the church, ie whether involvement in the church brings them joy and helps them live a more enriched life.
For more study on the historical issues, I recommend:
Richard Bushman, D. Michael Quinn, FairMormon, Dan Vogel, Brian Hales, Brent Metcalfe, Dialogue. Don’t be afraid to read both Mormon and “anti-Mormon” sources and sort things out yourself. Look for facts and ignore conclusions. Make the conclusions yourself after careful study.
Please also look into expanding into a more nuanced view of religion by studying:
Terryl Givens, Adam Miller, Greg Prince, Maxwell Institute, podcasts from Dan Wotherspoon, the info I share on other pages on this site especially on religious paradigms, James Fowler, Marcus Borg, and the patterns of progressive Christianity or religion in general.
If you’ve given time to analyze the history, I hope you give equal weigh to evaluating the LDS religion as it exists as a force for good today, in helping people connect with God and providing a Body of Christ who serve and worship together. Check out the section on my site labeled “LDS Truth and Beauty” where I share my reasons for believing in the LDS church despite having non-traditional views on historical origins.
I know many people are looking for a simple answer to this. Just tell me it’s true or not. All this hemming and hawing reminds you of your six year old who won’t directly answer your question of whether or not he cleaned his room. The unfortunate truth is that there is no simple, direct answer. If you’re being shaken by the CES Letter, it’s OK. You’re not crazy or sinful for doubting. These are tough, tough issues. It’s taken you out of your comfort zone, but life wasn’t meant to be comfortable always.
I implore you to spend more than an hour–more than a year–searching with your entire soul to discover the truth about God and religion. Spend your lifetime if necessary. You have a long, hard road ahead of you to discover truth about religion and God, but it’s a satisfying journey with depth and spiritual enrichment.
Terryl Givens said in his letter to a doubter :
I have no glib solace to offer. I will not bore you or insult your spiritual maturity with injunctions to pray harder, to fast more, to read your scriptures. I know you have been traveling that route across a parched desert. But do let me repeat here three simple ideas; Be patient; remember; and take solace in the fellowship of the desolate.
That path seemed desolate even for Mother Teresa.
I am told God lives in me and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. … Heaven from every side is closed.
Though the path seems desolate and dark at times, there are moments of beauty as expressed by Fyodor Dostoevsky
I will tell you that I am a child of this century, a child of disbelief and doubt…How much terrible torture this thirst for faith has cost me and costs me even now, which is all the stronger in my soul the more arguments I can find against it. And yet, God sends me sometimes instants when I am completely calm; at those instants I love and feel loved by others.
German philosopher Nietzsche said “if you stare into the abyss long enough, the abyss will also stare into you.” This is scary stuff. There’s a lot at stake. Eternal families and heaven and God and salvation and purpose of life. Stare into that abyss for as long as you need. Don’t flinch when it stares back. Don’t surrender when it enters you and fills you with fear and doubt. Pushing back at that abyss with courage will bring the reward that God promises.
But from there you will seek the LORD your God, and you will find Him if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul.