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A Reply from a Former CES Employee

Daniel Peterson is a brilliant BYU professor who spends a lot of his time engaging in LDS apologetics. In August of 2014, Peterson gave a presentation to the apologetic group Fairmormon on the topic of a PDF booklet titled “Letter to a CES Director: Why I Lost My Testimony” by a guy named Jeremy Runnells.

The following is the first paragraph from the transcript of that presentation.

Some of you don’t know what the “Letter to a CES Director” is. It’s a letter that’s been circulating online for about a year now… a year and a half, I think, as far as I know, that has gotten quite a bit of circulation. It’s a kind of compendium of standard critical arguments against the truth claims of the Church. It’s entitled “Letter to a CES Director: Why I Lost My Testimony,” and it was written, as the story goes, by request of a CES director who wanted to know why this young man had decided to leave the Church. He wrote the letter. The CES director said he would get back to him with answers, but he did not, according to the story. Now the thing is about 90 pages long, and it’s just a rata-tat-tat list of objections. I can understand why a normal person confronted by that would say, “Well, you know, I’ve got a life. Its 90 pages of quick and dirty objections would take 500 pages to respond to, and probably wouldn’t do much good, so, never mind.

– Daniel Peterson, “Some Reflections on that Letter to a CES Director,” August 8, 2014

Well, I’m here to tell you that Daniel Peterson was wrong. It would only take 231 pages. And 113,031 words. Because, yes, I’ve personally written a comprehensive, line-by-line response to the “Letter to a CES Director.”

Which proves that Dan Peterson was right about one thing – I have no life.

Honestly, why would I do this?

Probably because Runnells’ letter has become the new gold standard for those taking issue with the Church. Dissidents like John Dehlin and blogs like MormonThink and ZelphontheShelf (a great, great title, by the way – well done, Zelph!) frequently quote from it as the authoritative source for orthodox ex-Mormon positions.   As I wander in and out of various Facebook groups and blog discussions, I become astonished at how far-reaching the influence of the CES Letter really is. While I was preparing this response, I received word that one of my cousins has lost her faith as a result of it. Indeed, so many cite Runnells’ arguments as the catalyst for their own faith crisis that it begs for a substantive and faithful reply.

There have been attempts, of course, but most of them are like Daniel Peterson’s – shorter summaries rather than a line-by-line refutation. FairMormon comes closest – they have devoted considerable resources to responding to it, except the presentation is somewhat disjointed. I thought it would be helpful if someone like the CES director to whom the letter was directed had actually replied in a comprehensive conversation rather than through a piecemeal series of encyclopedia entries. I’m not a CES director, but I did teach early morning seminary for three years, which makes me a former CES employee. (Or a CES contractor, anyway.) That gave me enough chutzpah to rise up to the challenge.

When I first read the CES Letter, I realized that I had already written a number of things about many of the subjects, so I started cutting and pasting responses, which deluded me into thinking I could pull this thing off without much effort. But then when I fully committed to making my way through the whole thing, I realized how naive I had been. (I even ended up having to do things like read almost all of “View of the Hebrews” by Ethan Smith. Nobody should have to read “View of the Hebrews” by Ethan Smith.) But, still, I kept slogging on until it became too late to turn back.

Anyway, now it’s done.

Originally, I had the whole thing embedded in this post, which caused the site to crash, as my hosting service couldn’t handle pulling up a 32 meg file for every visit.

So here’s the deal. If you really want to read the whole thing all at once, you can download the PDF and peruse it at your leisure. If you click on the button below, it will open the PDF in a new browser tab. If you right-click on it, you can choose to download it directly to your own computer.

Download CES Reply


It’s essentially a book, and not a short book, so I don’t expect that everyone will want that much CES Letter in their lives in a single dose.

So in the meantime, I’m going to post it in a serialized fashion on this blog so you can digest it in smaller chunks. The blog version will likely differ slightly from the PDF version, as I’ll add transitions and things to make the experience a little smoother.

Also, be warned that I plagiarize heavily from myself, and you may discover large passages in my response that you’ve already read before on this blog. I make no apologies and give myself no proper attribution.

So consider this post a warning. You’re going to see a lot more on this subject in the coming days.  If you’re not interested, feel free to ignore me. If you are interested, also feel free to read ahead.

Guest Post: Were the Lamanites Werewolves?
CES Reply: Foreword

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  1. Sorry, I stopped reading your answer to the CES letter at your first strawman argument. “Again, where are the errors? Is it an error to say “afterwards” and not “afterward?” Certainly both are acceptable. Are we talking about commas? Because inserting commas and using a slight variation of a word doesn’t change the meaning of the text at all.”

    No one is talking about grammar or punctuation. You set that up as the only strawman available and knocked it down just as effortlessly as it is was meaningless, like many apologists do. If you want to be taken seriously deal with the real issue!

    A more serious translation error affects Isaiah 9:1, copied into the Book of Mormon as II Nephi 19:1 `…and afterwards did more grievously afflict by the way of the Red Sea beyond Jordan in Galilee of the nations.’ A translation error in this verse of Isaiah has given the text almost the opposite meaning to the original. The phrase `did more grievously afflict’ should be rendered as `honour’ in English. Thus the New International Version reads `…In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles…’.

    Better luck next time.

  2. You: “From the outset, we cut to the heart of most of your problems with this grammar indictment. Because the vast majority of your objections rely on the premise that error is always a sign that God is absent, because he would never allow his true Church to make even trivial mistakes.”

    Joseph Smith:“I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.” (History of the Church, 4:461.)

  3. Is there any particular reason that you decided to take such a mocking tone when responding to these points? The original purpose of this letter was to list out all the concerns or questions that Jeremy had, for the CES director.

  4. Just a note about populations and losses in battle, in reference to point #6, on page 19. A population of a few million from a founder population of 100 is not that hard with normal population growth rates, even for a pre-industrial society. This is true even assuming no other people in the Americas. These population growth rates and losses in battle have been observed and are well documented in other parts of the world.

  5. Wow, that’s a long document! I’m an ex-Mormon who hasn’t even read the CES Letter all the way through, so I don’t think I’m going to make it all the way through yours either. I appreciate the effort, though. I read some of it, and I enjoyed your good humor about it all.

    One topic that I’m fascinated with is the Book of Abraham. It’s what lead me out of the church. Have you read Robert Ritner’s essay rebutting the church’s BoA essay?

    Ritner is a non-Mormon Egyptologist who has written quite a bit on the Book of Abraham. Also, here’s a video that includes testimony from other non-Mormon Egyptologists who debunk the church’s position on the BoA:

    I think I might have been able to stay a member of the church if they made room for people like me who could no longer have literal beliefs in the truth claims. This is how many progressive Christian churches work today. I understand your point of view that it’s all literally true, because I was once there too. But it would be nice if people in the church could say “I believe it to be literally true, but there are a lot of tricky things in church history that some might not be able to reconcile.”

  6. I enjoyed your Reply. You obviously have put a lot of effort into this. I’m not criticizing, because I think what you are doing is well founded and wish to God that it was enough. The Church has serious issues that it is going to have to face and its not the CES letter. The JS relationship to Fanny Alger and Helen Mar Kimball are problems. JS never denied his relationship with the 14 year old Alger, only that it was not adultery (presumably because she was a plural wife). Any way you cut it, a 37 year old man involved with 14 year old girls is not admirable and is indefensible. It was perverted then and it’s perverted now.

  7. Im on page 150 and all I have to say is, THANK YOU SO MUCH! You have done a terrific job and I sincerely have laughed out loud many times. You are amazing thank you this is just what I needed. I have spread this to every LDS page I could conceivably consider throughout the facebook world and will continue to spread this amazingly insightful response to a completely fallacious letter.

  8. J Runnells is set to be excommunicated on Sunday the 17th. He has requested accommodations for his hearing:

    When Jeremy Runnells was 14, a General Authority blessed and promised him that his hearing would be naturally restored. This never happened.

    Jeremy lost half of his hearing six months ago. Even with cochlear implants, Jeremy is legally deaf.

    Now, he faces excommunication. He’s asked to have a deaf interpreter.

    His stake president’s response:

    “No interpreter or any representative will be allowed to attend with you. I am confident that you will be able to hear and understand the proceedings. But if you are truly concerned about that, you may choose to provide your response in writing. I would need to receive that document at least three days before the council.”

  9. The mormon church’s position is that they have a prophet that communicates directly with God and can get answers to one or more of these issues or questions that seem to be troubling so many of its members (and those who are not members). Some of the concerns brought up in the CES letter are nontrivial. Why then are there not offical answers to these questions from the church that are faith promoting? There is more information coming from the church, which is a good thing, but none of it appears to give spiritual or faith promoting rational to many of the seemingly deeply concerning questions or issues. Seems to me that God would want to draw more people to this church which is so small in relative numbers rather than drive more away…and the church has a tool to do that via this revelatory power that it suggests that is has. Anyone can attack, make fun of or offer counter arguments to the author of the CES letter based on their personal study or experience. Its quite another thing for the church to exercise the primary thing that they hold up as a differentiator between the mormon faith and other christian religions (ongoing revelation) to put these issues to rest. Why then do they not do this for one or more of the issues brought up in the CES letter?

    • I don’t attack the author of the CES letter, nor do I make fun of him. I do offer plenty of counter arguments.

      As for what the church should or shouldn’t be doing, the answer is that the problem often lies in our expectations of what the church should be rather than an acceptance and understanding of what the church actually is.

  10. Hey, we’d like to share the link to your CES Reply on our blog but noticed something that should probably be corrected. We appreciate your work and would hate for someone to get excited about one of your defenses only to have that excitement turn to cynicism when they find out that an important claim wasn’t exactly accurate.

    The issue is in regards to the chariots and horses argument that the Book of Mormon never talks about people riding chariots or horses. Alma 18 and Alma 20 seem to negate that. But it is interesting that it isn’t mentioned more often if the BoM really were a fraud and the existence of “horses” and “chariots” were evidence of an anachronism.

  11. God, is it even possible for you to not sound like a paasive agvressive prick? Even if you were right (which you are so incredibly not.) your writings make you sound like a smug asshole.

  12. I’m quite late to the conversation, but fascinated by your thorough treatment here. Excellent points about the motivation behind writing the CES letter. It’s evident that it’s written by a guy in a lot of pain–all the more reason to approach his points with compassion (which you sometimes do) instead of dismissiveness (which you often do). Also, you’re pretty rough on him for his logical fallacies and taking things out of context while doing the same thing yourself.

  13. I know I’m a bit late to the party, but I wanted to thank you for taking the time to write all of this. It definitely did not reconvert me, as many of my disagreements with the Church are philosophical in nature, but I was previously convinced by some of the arguments presented in the letter, and I am grateful that I no longer accept them.

  14. I have read Daniel Peterson for years. When you start right out calling him “a brilliant Professor,” you perhaps give too much away about what you have to say about the CES letter, I confess I am not motivated to engage with your 231 pages.

  15. I won’t read further than the intro because you are treating the entire thing like it’s funny to you instead of a compassionate response to earth-shattering doubts and frustration from people looking for an official church response. The Gospel topics essays are not direct, and they do not adequately address concerns. You force anyone who would try to dialogue with you to endure your invalidations and passive aggressive and smug attitudes. Christ gave us very clear direction in what tone to take in defending our faith. It’s as if you want to entertain those who want to stay instead of help those who think they might have to leave.

    • “It’s as if you want to entertain those who want to stay instead of help those who think they might have to leave.”

      That’s actually quite insightful, I think. I admitted as much in a follow-up post:

      I readily admit that my reply is unlikely to persuade Jeremy Runnells to reclaim his faith, although I’d be delighted if that were the (unlikely) result. Nor did I write it for any who have already made up their minds that faith in LDS truth claims is incompatible with intellectual honesty.

      Instead, I wrote it for those believers who read the CES Letter and feel like chumps. They still want to believe, but they think they can’t do that because there’s no other way to look at these issues than the way Jeremy Runnells has presented. I wanted to provide an example of a believer who has honestly and frankly confronted all of these issues head on with logic, intelligence, and solid information, and still come out with a testimony on the other side. Hopefully, someone who finds their testimony shattered by the CES letter can look at me and think, “well, if that Bennett bozo can read this and keep his faith, maybe I can, too.”