in Religion

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. “Just because we’re dealing with issues of eternal salvation, damnation, and eternal lakes of fire and brimstone, there’s no reason we can’t have a little fun. ”

    Not even sure what to make of that comment. I am quite certain that the LDS church is not as important as you seemingly think it is.

  2. 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.

    • You wrote:

      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.

      I think you misunderstand what I’m saying here. Runnells’ first objection right out of the gate is that the Book of Mormon contains “translation errors” that are unique to the 1769 version of the KJV. As evidence, he points to a Wikipedia article that just repeats that claim as if the errors are supposed to be self-evident. My point here is that the errors are not self-evident, and so I’m asking for clarification. I also point out that both Runnells and Wikipedia are incorrect, at least in the first example they cite, as the error in that verse – Red Sea as opposed to sea – is an error unique to the Book of Mormon.

      • I think you misunderstand my reply.If there are former English Mistranslation in the Bible also in the Book of Mormon, the Book of Mormon is clear plagiarism. Any questions?

        • No questions. I think you misunderstand the issue. Runnells doesn’t identify what constitutes a mistranslation, and the example he cites only contains an error that is unique to the Book of Mormon.

          Actually, the only question I have is why, if this is as unimportant to you as you claimed it is in an earlier comment, you still bother to engage.

          • I keep getting sucked in to your comment reply’s because I keep getting your e-mail reply’s with straw men attached. I have unsubscribed now. Have fun lying by omission for your lord.

          • It’s never fun to lie by omission, because you’re never sure if you’ve omitted enough.

  3. Page 8, you write: ” 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. ”

    You seem to be missing the point. Those subtle variations from the original documents are indications the BOM was copied from the KJV Bible. Nobody is disputing the meaning of the text.

    • On the contrary, your objection is actually different than Jeremy’s objection. He’s concerned that KJV language says something about “the Book of Mormon as an ancient text,” which it doesn’t. It’s clear the that the Book of Mormon’s use of KJV language is either inspiration or plagiarism, and departures from the KJV argue for inspiration.

  4. 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.)

    • Yes. Here’s my statement to Jeremy right after I provide the JS quote:

      Fair enough. But what does that mean, exactly?

 Throughout your letter, you return to this phrase repeatedly, as if it’s somehow a claim of Book of Mormon inerrancy, when, in fact, it’s precisely the opposite. If the Book of Mormon is the “most correct” book, that means that all other books, to one extent or another, are less correct, and therefore contain a degree of error. But it also a clear admission that the Book of Mormon itself also contains error. Joseph Smith does not state that the Book of Mormon is “entirely correct,” or “always correct,” or “the perfectly correct book.” He is offering a comparison rather than issuing an ultimatum. If the Bible and other books were only, say, 2% correct, and the Book of Mormon were 3% correct, it would still be “the most correct” under those circumstances, even if 97% of it were incorrect. (I personally don’t think the Bible is only 2% correct or that the Book of Mormon is only 3% correct; I’m pushing this to an extreme to illustrate the point.)

      The comparison highlights the fact that, while no religious texts are perfect, the Book of Mormon is the best of the lot. 

It’s also necessary to define what Joseph Smith, and those who quote him, actually mean when they say the Book of Mormon is “correct” in any respect – least, most, or otherwise. How comprehensively should we interpret that adjective? Is it more correct than, say, Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” on the subject of black holes? No, the Book of Mormon doesn’t even mention black holes, so Hawking’s book is demonstrably more scientifically correct than the Book of Mormon. Okay, then is the Book of Mormon the most grammatically correct of any book on earth? It clearly isn’t, although I don’t what book would be. (“Hey, Bob, you really ought to read Hobos in Love by Floyd Burgermeister. It’s a terrible story, but it’s the most grammatically correct of any book on earth.”)


In the context of the original statement, it’s clear Joseph is talking about the “precepts” that the Book of Mormon teaches and nothing else. In other words, if you’re looking to learn godly precepts while you’re stranded on a desert island, and you’re only allowed to have one book with you, then you ought to choose the Book of Mormon, as it’s your best bet for drawing closer to God. Science, grammar, spelling, penmanship – the correctness of any of those elements don’t come into play at all. To insist that they do is to push a tortured legalistic interpretation of Joseph Smith’s simple statement and distort his intent.

      • Perhaps you could explain the 8th Article of Faith:

        “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.”

        Why are there no concerns about the accuracy of the Book of Mormon’s translation?

        • Probably because the Book of Mormon admits its own errancy on its title page, and that whatever “mistakes of man” may have slipped through in the translation process aren’t enough to obfuscate the book’s divine message.

          • The text is often referenced as a whole – ‘I believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God’. Perhaps a more*intellectually honest way to testify of the correctness of this book would be, “I believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God except in regards to science, grammar, spelling, and penmanship.”

            Can you point out which passages in the Book of Mormon are part of the “divine message,” and which ones we should just accept as “mistakes of man?”

          • Perhaps a more*intellectually honest way to testify of the correctness of this book would be, “I believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God except in regards to science, grammar, spelling, and penmanship.”

            You are equating “word of God” with “infallible,” which is a faulty assumption. Infallibility and agency are incompatible, at least in mortality.

            Can you point out which passages in the Book of Mormon are part of the “divine message,” and which ones we should just accept as “mistakes of man?”

            I recommend you cut out the middleman and take that question to that God whose word this is.

        • The lack of concern about the accuracy of the Book of Mormon translation is inferred in the 8th Article of Faith as you also consider the claim that it was translated by the gift and power of God. If true, as I believe it to be, translation by the gift and power of God would be the benchmark of any attempt to translated it into English.

          The Bible makes no such claim of being translated by the gift and power of God. You have transcription after transcription and translation after translation with the Bible. The point of the 8th Article of Faith is to describe an apples and oranges comparison between the translation of the two books as being described in the 8th Article of Faith. We have no reason to doubt in the translation process of the Book of Mormon because the Lord himself bore testimony of the translated record in D&C 17:6 stating that it is true. There is no reason to doubt the translation results.

          • A reply to Hunter…
            Because the Bible was not translated by the Gift and Power of God, so it cannot make such a claim.
            In fact, the Bible is horribly inaccurate, when compared to the Book of Mormon, for this reason.
            The Bible was originally written as a collection of individual documents. In Hebrew. There were many copies made, and individuals who collected these transcripts would often have their favorites and may not have others within their collection. So the collections from one Synagogue to another would be different.
            After Christ, the SAME problem existed. The writings of the apostles would be copied and sent around in collections, some collections being more complete than others.
            Then along came the Septuiginta (or Ebdomikonda), the 72 elders of the Orthodox Church who translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek. They all translated all of the collection they had, which included books like Maccabees and other books that are contained in the Orthodox Apocrypha (and I make that distinction, because the Catholic Apocrypha and other Apocryphal collections contain some of the same books, but also other books).
            Then the Councils, like the Council of Nicaea, gathered and decided to “pick and choose” which of the books they would keep and which would be left behind. Most of those left out of the “official collection” came to be called the Pseudepigrapha.
            We have the following problems:
            1) No one old testament collection could be said to be “complete”
            2) We have no way of knowing what old testament “books” were lost from any collection
            3) During the process of copying the old testament “books” errors were undoubtedly introduced
            4) The Septuiginta took the “closest” translations of the old testament and made an “official” translation
            5) No one new testament collection could be said to be “complete”
            6) We have no way of knowing what new testament “books” were lost from any collection
            7) During the process of copying the new testament “books” errors were undoubtedly introduced
            8) The Councils took the most complete(?) collection of new testament “books” and made an “official” collection
            9) Then all the translation errors created by going from Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, into English…

            Nearly 10 levels of error inducing activity.

            The Book of Mormon?
            1) Written by the authors on plates that were kept together and passed down from one person to another
            2) Compiled and edited by one man
            3) Translated by Joseph Smith (by the Gift and Power of God, not by man’s understanding and learning)

            So… we aren’t really concerned with the translation because there isn’t much to be worried about. Grammar? Penmanship? Spelling? How would these things invalidate the word of God? Science? The Book of Mormon is not a Science Text, but a Religious one. And most of those claims have been discussed and refuted time and time again.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

    • I think you’ll post more on this tomorrow, but I thought I’d share a few things.

      I’ve heard the explanation before that goes something like this: Jesus quoted from the Old Testament during His ministry. And which version/translation of the Old Testament did Jesus use? Many versions existed at the time: Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic paraphrasings called Targums. The one time Jesus quoted scripture in the synagogue, it appears he read from the Greek Septuagint. But when not in the synagogue it appears Jesus uses an Aramaic version of the Old Testament verses.

      Quoting from Christianity Today, “What Bible Version Did Jesus Read?”, Further evidence for this can be seen in the fact that when Jesus alludes to Scriptures in the Gospels, he usually does so in a manner that agrees with the Aramaic Targum (scriptural paraphrasing in Aramaic), not the Greek or Hebrew versions. Some examples: In Mark 9:42 –50, Jesus warns of judgment by speaking of Gehenna and alluding to Isaiah 66:24, “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” The word Gehenna does not appear in the Hebrew or Greek, but only in the Aramaic.

      So, what I take from this is that Jesus could have referred to any # of Old Testament versions or simply paraphrase a version in his own language, Aramaic. What did he use? He appears to regularly have used the one He was familiar with — the Aramaic version (unless he was in the synagogue, in which case he used the Greek Septuagint). Any version would have worked, but Jesus used the one closest to Him. Big surprise? Not really. We can debate which of these versions — Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic — should have been used (because the debated version is the most pure, accurate, etc.) by Jesus.

      Similarly, the 1769 KJV available to Joseph is what most likely would have been transmitted to Joseph through the Spirit to Oliver to paper. Or the other obvious alternative is that Joseph plaguarized the entire thing. But why the few differences? Any other version instead of the KJV — Tyndale’s, Luther’s, or another English translation — could have worked just the same. The same spirit that communicated the complexity of the Book of Mormon whispered (or showed to Joseph in his stone at the bottom of the hat) what words Joseph was to communicate to his scribe. What version of Isaiah was on the Gold Plates? Probably not the KJV, as that version hadn’t been created around 600 BC. It seems that it really doesn’t matter what version of Isaiah was on the Gold Plates, as Joseph primarily “translated” via the rock/hat after Martin lost the 116 pages. Joseph used the Urim/Thummin at first, but from what I understand the rock/hat became more commonly utilized after Martin Harris’ lost pages. And since Isaiah was so well preserved from well before Christ to the Dead Sea Scrolls we have pretty good confidence all versions are nearly identical.

      I remember seeing Isaiah chapters of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the late 90s at BYU’s Museum of Art. I learned at the time that the exactness/fidelity of this Dead Sea Scrolls version of Isaiah with other Isaiah versions was nearly 100%. The Brass Plates that Nephi had in his possession and the Dead Sea Scrolls would be as identical as what we see in the Book of Nephi.

      Could have gone many ways for Jesus and Joseph, but the version selection went the way it did. And I’m fine with that.

  7. 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.”

    • I think there’s plenty of room for people like you. And my point of view is not “it’s all literally true.” I think a great deal of scripture is figurative, and I think there’s room for people who come down on all sides of that question.

  8. 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.

    • It’s also a misrepresentation of what actually happened. Fanny was somewhere between 17 and 19, not 14. And Joseph was sealed to 14-year-old Helen Mar Kimball for eternity only, meaning it was not a marriage and there was no sex.

    • Actually, your fabricating standards that that era did not have. You say the age difference and minimal age of 14 was perverted then? On what grounds?

      The age of consent was 10 years old in Illinois at the time. Attitudes towards marriage age didn’t morph into today’s standards until the turn of the 20th century. People call Joseph a pedophile, a term that wasn’t coined and defined until 1896 by a Viennese psychologist and didn’t make its way into common usage until 1940’s.

      Illinois law is what Nauvoo law was mirrored after regarding the law of minimum marriage age being 14 years old. Even the non mormon governor Thomas Ford was 29 when he married his 15 year old wife.

      It’s important to also not that the Nauvoo expositor made no mention of the age of Joseph’s plural wives (Alger & Kimball).

      There is no evidence that the age was as socking to the critics of that era as it is to today’s critics. You are rewriting historical standards a century after the fact. Fortunately congress can’t write ex-post facto laws per the constitution. But that’s what you guys are doing, rewriting standards of a society long gone.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.”

    • Well, as to the blessing, I’m not in a position to comment one way or the other, except to say that Jeremy’s strict legalistic interpretation of such things throughout his letter makes me wonder if there’s more to the story.

      As for his pending excommunication, I don’t understand why he wants to hold on to membership in a church he so clearly despises. Given that he now makes his living from a foundation he created which is designed to lead as a many people away from the Church as possible, I also don’t understand why the Church is somehow evil by insisting that he continue that effort without being able to claim membership in the very Church he is working to destroy.

    • Actually if you understand mormon doctrine, there will be healings of those types of things as the millenium begins. That type of blessing would unlikely have a time frame requirement and would come in the Lords time. I’m sure it would also be based on Jeremy’s faithfulness, which is obviously a problem for him now.

  11. Silly question: What is your name? Is it Stallion Cornell? I have been foolishly calling you Daniel Peterson haha! Woops. I am glad I caught on but wow I have been misleading some people just a tiny bit. 😉 sorry man.