Part 59: CES Letter Other Concerns/Questions [Section A]

by Sarah Allen


We’re starting the last section of the CES Letter besides the conclusion, so it’s just a few more weeks of this series. This particular section is a hodgepodge of all of the different things Jeremy could think of that didn’t quite fit in the other sections, as well as other questions that revisit some of the ones already asked.

Jeremy begins with a quote taken from Richard Bushman, noted historian and author of Rough Stone Rolling, that was given during an informal fireside at someone’s home, filmed, clipped into a short, 2-minute video, then handed over to various critics to pass around:

“The dominant narrative is not true. It can’t be sustained.” — RICHARD BUSHMAN, LDS HISTORIAN, SCHOLAR, PATRIARCH — VIDEO | BUSHMAN’S AFTERMATH LETTER

This little quote is stripped of all context, even in the context of that short video snippet. The quality is poor so I’m going to reconstruct this as well as I can. The question that was asked was something like the following:

Q: I wondered, um, so, it’s really a lot of the incongruity that—that—that exists now that is giving rise to a lot of past misinformation about situations seems to be caused in my—my view by, by the disparity between the dominant narrative, the dominant, what I would call the Orthodox narrative, what we learn as missionaries, what we teach, you know, investigators, what we learned in Sunday School, and then as you get older, you kind of start to experience Mormonism in—in different ways. And those ways become, um, very important to you and dear to you, but sometimes they may not—they may not jive with some elements of the Orthodox narrative. And so, what I’m wondering is, like, in your view, do you see room within Mormonism for several different narratives, multiple narratives of a religious experience, or do you think that, in order for the Church to remain strong they would have to hold to that dominant narrative?

A: I think that if the Church remains strong, it has to reconstruct its narrative. The dominant narrative is not true. It can’t be sustained, so the Church has to absorb all this new information, or it’ll be on very shaky grounds. And that’s what it’s—it’s trying to do, and it’ll be a strain for a lot of people, older people especially. But I think, I think it has to change. Um. You know, Elder Packer had the sense of protecting the little people. You’ve—you’ve got the scholar’s image of his faith and it was the grandmothers living in San Pete County, and that was a very lovely pastoral image, but the price of protecting the grandmothers was the loss of the grandsons. They got the story wrong, it doesn’t work, so we just had to change our narrative.

That may not be word-for-word accurate, as there was a lot of background noise and it was difficult to hear at times. But basically, Bushman was saying that some of the details in our Church’s history as we knew it were inaccurate and those discrepancies caused some of the younger generation to have a faith crisis when it came to light. So, to prevent that, we need to correct the story where we know it’s inaccurate and pass along correct information, even if it rattles some of the older generations and their preconceived ideas. He also stated that the Church is attempting to do that very thing and to absorb the recently discovered information (such as Joseph Smith using his personal seer stone for the bulk of the translation after Moroni took back the Interpreters). You have stories passed down through the generations that may be faith-promoting but not be entirely accurate, like the seagulls in Utah saving the pioneers’ crops, and we need to correct those inaccuracies where we can.

He was not saying that the Church was not true, and when it came to his attention that critics of the Church were using his statement as evidence that the Church was lying about its history, he became very concerned and tried repeatedly to set the record straight. He wrote a letter to John Dehlin to post on his Mormon Stories website, and he has tried to clarify his words on multiple occasions. I want to post a few excerpts from some of his different replies here.

From a reply to Dan Peterson:

I have been using the phrase “reconstruct the narrative” in recent talks because that is exactly what the Church is doing right now.  The Joseph Smith Papers offer a reconstructed narrative, so do some of the “Gospel Topics” essays.  The short First Vision film in the Church Museum of History mentions six accounts of Joseph’s experience and draws on all of them.  That is all reconstructing the narrative.  …  Similarly, we now have assimilated seer stones into the translation story.  A picture of a seer stone now appears in the Church History Museum display.  That would not have happened even five years ago.  The list goes on and on.

I consider Rough Stone Rolling a reconstructed narrative.  It was shocking to some people.  They could not bear to have the old story disrupted in any way.  What I was getting at in the quoted passage is that we must be willing to modify the account according to newly authenticated facts.  If we don’t we will weaken our position.  Unfortunately, not everyone can adjust to this new material.  Many think they were deceived and the church was lying.  That is not a fair judgment in my opinion.  The whole church, from top to bottom, has had to adjust to the findings of our historians.  We are all having to reconstruct.  In my opinion, nothing in the new material overturns the basic thrust of the story. I still believe in gold plates.  I don’t think Joseph Smith could have dictated the Book of Mormon text without inspiration.  I think he was sincere in saying he saw God.  The glimpse Joseph Smith gives us of divine interest in humankind is still a source of hope in an unbelieving world.

From the blog at Plonialmonimormon (which also has a bunch of other quotes Bushman has given over the years):

Over the years, my position has remained pretty constant on the question of divine origins and inspiration of the prophets. I believe pretty much the way I did when I was a missionary. I misstated my position once in a fireside that John Dehlin has made much of as if I had given up belief. I said the history as we believe it is not true, by which I actually meant not accurate. We have had to correct lots of details in the Joseph Smith period. But the fundamental thrust of that history remains the same. God was working among the people I believe and we are the heirs of that great movement.

And from the letter written to John Dehlin:

…I discovered that some people thought I had thrown in the towel and finally admitted the Church’s story of its divine origins did not hold up. Others read my words differently; I was only saying that there were many errors in the standard narrative that required correction.

The reactions should not have surprised me. People have had different takes on Rough Stone Rolling ever since it came out. Some found the information about Joseph Smith so damning his prophethood was thrown into question. Others were grateful to find a prophet who had human flaws, giving them hope they themselves could qualify for inspiration despite their human weaknesses. The same facts; opposite reactions.

The different responses mystify me. I have no idea why some people are thrown for a loop when they learn church history did not occur as they had been taught in Sunday School, while others roll with the punches. Some feel angry and betrayed; others are pleased to have a more realistic account. One theorist has postulated an “emotional over-ride” that affects how we respond to information. But the admission that we ourselves are subjective human beings whose rational mechanisms are not entirely trustworthy does not diminish our sense that we are right and our counterparts mistaken.

As it is, I still come down on the side of the believers in inspiration and divine happenings—in angels, plates, translations, revelations—while others viewing the same facts are convinced they disqualify Joseph Smith entirely. A lot of pain, anger, and alienation come out of these disputes. I wish we could find ways to be more generous and understanding with one another.

Really, all he’s saying here are the same things I’ve been saying throughout this entire series: be willing to adjust your assumptions when you learn new information. Accept that people are human and can and do make mistakes, even the prophets. Recognize that history is messy with plenty of gaps, and sometimes, inaccuracies get passed along innocently by people who don’t know any better. Someone who is ignorant of the facts and passes along information that they believe to be correct, but that ultimately is not correct, is not lying to you. They were just wrong. They’re not the same thing.

Jeremy continues:

These concerns are secondary to all of the above. These concerns do not matter if the foundational truth claims (Book of Mormon, First Vision, Prophets, Book of Abraham, Witnesses, Priesthood, Temples, etc.) are not true.

Then, I guess it’s a good thing that they are true, isn’t it? Jeremy’s assertions to the contrary have been shown to be incorrect or at least unproven throughout this entire Letter. Repeating something over and over again does not make it true. You have to back it up with evidence, and he has not done that very successfully. The CES Letter relies on you not knowing how to investigate its claims.

Jeremy lists four main topic headings (which he misnumbers by repeating #2), and each of those topic headers have multiple concerns given. The first topic is 3 pages long, so I won’t be able to get through the entire thing today, but hopefully I can wrap it up next week and move on to the next one.


Adding to the above deceptions and dishonesty over history (rock in hat translation, polygamy|polyandry, multiple first vision accounts, etc.), the following bother me:

Before we get into what else bothers him, I didn’t want to let this comment go unchallenged. Firstly, I do not believe there were any deceptions or dishonesty involved with the Church’s teachings or responses to any of those topics. Jeremy’s not being aware of something the Church has repeatedly published in their official publications is not the same thing as the Church deliberately hiding that information from view.

Secondly, the information that was supposedly hidden is not faith-damaging. What is damaging is the idea that you know everything there is to know about a topic and that you, or the Church as an organization, cannot possibly be incorrect in your assumptions. In other words, it’s not the information itself that can be upsetting, it’s the fact that we didn’t know that information to begin with. That happens sometimes in a Church with a lay ministry, especially when it involves records from 150 years ago written by people who had to abandon everything and flee for their lives on multiple occasions. Documents were lost, records are incomplete, and people can’t teach you things they don’t know themselves. There are things we don’t know. There are things we’ll never know in this lifetime. Showing each other—and the Church itself—some grace and understanding is imperative.

There’s a very big difference between telling a lie and being wrong, as I said above, and Jeremy has consistently conflated the two as if they’re the same thing. He will continue to do that throughout the rest of this Letter. This section in particular is full of that deliberate misunderstanding.


OFFENDING TEXT (Emphasis Added)

Early in its history, Church leaders stopped conferring the priesthood on black males of African descent. Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice.”

In sharp contrast to the above statement:


August 17, 1949

The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time. The prophets of the Lord have made several statements as to the operation of the principle. President Brigham Young said: ‘Why are so many of the inhabitants of the earth cursed with a skin of blackness? It comes in consequence of their fathers rejecting the power of the holy priesthood, and the law of God. They will go down to death. And when all the rest of the children have received their blessings in the holy priesthood, then that curse will be removed from the seed of Cain, and they will then come up and possess the priesthood, and receive all the blessings which we now are entitled to.’

President Wilford Woodruff made the following statement: ‘The day will come when all that race will be redeemed and possess all the blessings which we now have.’

The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality and that while the details of this principle have not been made known, the mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintain their first estate; and that the worth of the privilege is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps, failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes.

The First Presidency

Once again, something said in ignorance and the belief that you are correct is not the same thing as lying. As we went over during the Prophets section of questions/concerns, they believed it was a commandment from God.

Even Joseph Smith said it was decreed by Jehovah that black people were under a curse of servitude and that people fighting against slavery were fighting against the designs of God. Joseph, Oliver Cowdery, and Warren Parrish all wrote articles for the Messenger and Advocate in April, 1836, giving scriptural defenses of slavery and condemning the abolition movement (Joseph, at least, later changed his mind on the issue).  Brigham Young said repeatedly throughout his tenure as President of the Church that the curse of Cain was declared by God and that no one but God Himself could lift it. He also said the Priesthood ban was the will of God and he could not lift it. He never said whether that was the will of God given directly to him or whether he came to that belief by other means. Remember, Brigham believed that every piece of knowledge gained came by revelation from God regardless of its source.

For a very long time after their deaths, it was believed that this was a commandment from God. We know today that the historical record is pretty murky on that point and we can’t say for certain one way or the other what the source of the restriction was. So, in recent years, the Church has made multiple attempts to make that clear, including the Gospel Topics essay on Race and the Priesthood and the cited header for Official Declaration 2.

It’s not deception to explain that they used to believe something in the past, but now that we know more information, the answers are less clear than they were previously thought to have been. The First Presidency in 1949 was not being dishonest, they were saying what they believed was true. They didn’t know that they were speaking incorrectly. Ignorance is not deception.

Along with the above First Presidency statement, there are many other statements and explanations made by prophets and apostles clearly “justifying” the Church’s racism. So, the 2013 edition Official Declaration 2 Header in the scriptures is not only misleading, it’s dishonest. We do have records — including from the First Presidency itself — with very clear insights on the origins of the ban on the blacks.

First, I have no idea why “justifying” is in scare quotes like that, because he’s not quoting anyone and sarcasm doesn’t make sense in this context. That’s exactly what those quotes were doing, justifying something they believed came from God.

Second, the header in the scriptures is not misleading or dishonest, it’s clarifying the issue. It’s a fact that we don’t know for sure what prompted the Priesthood restriction. It’s also a fact that our early leaders said it came by decree from God and that they could not change it. Whether that’s accurate or not, we don’t know because there’s no official revelation recorded. But many revelations weren’t recorded, so it’s possible they knew something in the past that we don’t know today. It’s not a lie to say that, now that the historical record has become clearer, the true origins of the restrictions have become foggier.

Third, that declaration on the restriction is not an official record of its origins. It’s a statement of the beliefs of the men who wrote it regarding the origin and reasoning behind it. An official record would be a copy of the revelation or a journal entry from Brigham Young detailing a vision or something to that effect. It’s not a statement giving the position of the Church on the restriction dated 97 years after its implementation.

UPDATE: The Church released a Race and the Priesthood essay which contradicts their 2013 Official Declaration 2 Header. In the essay, they point to Brigham Young as the originator of the ban.

The essay and the updated header were written at roughly the same time and both were released in 2013, the chapter heading on March 1 and the Gospel Topics essay on December 6. They were written in conjunction with one another, not to conflict with one another. The essay says the same thing in more detail that the chapter heading does: the origins are unclear.

That the restriction likely began under Brigham Young was not new information. That its origins were unclear was also not new information to many of us. The essay goes deeper into that history than many other Church resources, though, and it’s a great study aid. It’s informative without overloading you with too much information at once. The main difference is that the essay declares that all of the justifications and theories for why the restriction was enacted were incorrect and were often the result of racism. It does not say, however, that the restriction itself was due to racism. It’s very clear that we simply don’t know at this time. Someday, both Heavenly Father and Brigham Young will have to explain it to all of us, but until then, we just don’t know for certain. We all have our theories, but they’re only theories and speculation.

Further, they effectively throw 10 latter-day “Prophets, Seers, and Revelators” under the bus as they “disavow” the “theories” that these ten men taught and justified — for 130 years — as doctrine and revelation for the Church’s institutional and theological racism.

Oh, for heaven’s sake. Nobody is being thrown under the bus, and Jeremy’s sarcastic quotes are obnoxious. Yet again, prophets are not omniscient and they are not perfect. Anyone reading the scriptures would know that inside of the first few chapters of Genesis.

When Heavenly Father does not clarify something, it’s human nature to speculate as to the reasoning behind His commandments. He often does not give them to us, so we’re left to wonder why, for example, we’ve been commanded not to drink coffee or tea. The Priesthood restriction was another such example, albeit a much more serious one. People didn’t understand it, especially as time went on and societal values shifted. In a well-meaning effort to explain something that they didn’t understand, they reached for any explanation they could find. Many of those explanations were incorrect and, by today’s standards, offensive.

It could be that the reason Heavenly Father didn’t clarify this issue is because He never commanded it in the first place. But then, one wonders why He didn’t command its immediate reversal, and why He told David O. McKay that He would not lift the restriction under his tenure and to stop asking for it. Or maybe President McKay was wrong. Or it could also be that God did command it for reasons we can’t see yet. We just don’t know.

Was it wrong for past leaders to speculate and share their speculation publicly when they knew that Church members often took their words as statements of fact rather than opinion? In my opinion, yeah. They all should have been more clear that it was their belief leading them to those conclusions, not their knowledge. It’s why our leaders today are so quick to point out the differences between opinion and doctrine. But we can’t assert that the restriction was purely down to racism when we don’t know the origins of the ban and we can’t read their hearts and minds.

Finally, they denounce the idea that God punishes individuals with black skin or that God withholds blessings based on the color of one’s skin while completely ignoring the contradiction of the keystone Book of Mormon teaching exactly this.

There are a few points I want to make about this. The first is that when people say the Book of Mormon is the keystone of our religion, they mean its doctrine, its testament of Christ. They do not mean Nephite idioms or cultural complexities. Which should be obvious, but apparently not.

Second, the Book of Mormon title page, a page that was included on the Golden Plates, says quite plainly that there may be human error in the text:

And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.

Nephi simply could have been wrong about the curse and the resulting change in skin color. He was human, like the rest of us, and he made mistakes occasionally. This might have been one of them.

Third, I don’t actually believe those things are in contradiction at all. In an excerpt from his book Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Volume 2, Brant Gardner posits that it’s largely metaphorical, and I agree with his assessment:

Colors also have social meanings that are quite separate from describing the eye’s perception of light waves. Humans tend to make binary-opposed sets, of which black and white form a classic set. The two “colors” are considered to be opposites of each other. To each of them a social value is attached, with white representing good and black representing bad (with good/bad being similar binary oppositions). Thus, someone may have a “black heart,” but this descriptor is of a quality, not a pigment.

There are many ways in which color may be associated with a person. The Book of Mormon makes those associations, and the question is what the text means when it makes those associations. The possibilities range from simple description to metaphorical value judgments. We should not presume that their meanings are our meanings. We must understand how the text sees those statements.

… The curse is expressed in two antithetically parallel phrases: “as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them” (2 Ne. 5:21). The phrases describe a previous condition and its succeeding condition, pivoting upon causation. Yahweh changed the Lamanites from what they had been to what they had become. The before/after relationship is “fair and delightsome”/”skin of blackness.” Both conditions are structural opposites.

… Douglas Campbell, a professor of computer science at Brigham Young University, examined the textual uses of “white” in the Book of Mormon and concludes that the term is used metaphorically for purity and/or cleanliness. The metaphorical use of color terms echoes that of the Bible. … [Hugh] Nibley observes: “This amazing coincidentia oppositorum is the clash of black and white. With the Arabs, to be white of countenance is to be blessed and to be black of countenance is to be cursed; there are parallel expressions in Hebrew and Egyptian.” … Malina and Neyrey continue: “When considering a person, the ancients thought that there was really nothing inside that did not register on the outside.” In this conception of humanity, the skin or face would be the logical location for spiritual characteristics to register. Even metaphorically, the skin and face were legitimate locations for the “display” of these spiritual characteristics.

What can we say about how the “skin of blackness” was perceived by those who wrote our Book of Mormon? Armand Mauss, a professor emeritus of sociology and religion at Washington State University, discusses the assumption of those who are critical of the Book of Mormon:

“Although Joseph Smith presented the Book of Mormon to the world as his translation of an ancient document, it is generally regarded by non-Mormons as a nineteeth-century product, whether or not it was divinely inspired. Accordingly, passages like those excerpted above [concerning dark skin] are taken as simply reflections of nineteenth-century American racist understandings about the origins of various peoples of color. Such conventional wisdom seems justified both by the mysterious provenance of the Book of Mormon itself and by the meanings that Mormons themselves have traditionally attributed to such passages. Yet it is not entirely certain that Joseph Smith himself or even most others of his immediate family and contemporaries would have understood these passages in quite the same literal sense that modern readers have….”

The “skin of blackness” was certainly intended to be a pejorative term, but it was not a physical description….

This goes along very well with something I’ve been studying recently, the Hebrew concept of a “skin of light.” The Hebrew word for “light” (אוֹר [aleph, vav, resh]) and the word for “skin” (עוֹר [ahyin, vav, resh]) only have one letter of difference between the two.

Ancient Hebrew thought, found in the Zohar and the Midrash Rabbah among other places, says that Adam and Eve had bodies of light or bodies clothed with light, depending on the source, before the Fall. There are descriptions of garments made of celestial light, or saying that their skin was luminous with divine light and they constantly glowed, the way that Moses’s face shone after he was transfigured.

I don’t know the name of the author of this particular post from, but I thought it was fascinating. S/he says:

1) Most people are aware that each Hebrew character has a numerical value. Thus, Aleph (t) = 1, Bet (c) = 2, etc. up to Tav (,) = 400  (1-9, 10-90, 100-400).  Each letter can be combined together with other letters to represent a larger number (i.e. Mem + Gimel  dn  together equal 43, 40 + 3).

2)  What is little known about Hebrew is that the ancient form of each letter represented a pictograph, or word picture.  So, for example, Aleph represents an ox or bull, Bet represents a house, etc.  More information about this can be obtained from two sources: “The Hebrew Letters – Channels of Creative Consciousness” by Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh  and “Hebrew Word Pictures” by Frank T. Seekins.

Now, here is where it gets even more interesting. The only difference between the Hebrew words for light and skin is one letter: Aleph (t) for light and Ayin (g) for skin.  Numerically, Aleph = 1 and Ayin = 70.  The difference between them is 69, represented by the Hebrew letters Samech (x) and Tet (y) or yx.  The pictograph of Samech is a prop, meaning, to support.  The pictograph of Tet is a snake.   Putting the two together, yx means, to support the snake!  In other words, by supporting the snake (supporting or going along with the snake’s arguments/ways) Adam and Chava (Eve) lost their skins of light and had to be given skins of flesh.  And so it is that whenever we support or go along with the snake’s arguments/ways we lose some of God’s radiance in our lives and become more animalistic and debase in our nature.

But wait, there’s more!  As mentioned earlier, the letter Aleph represents an ox or bull, and means strength, leader, or first.  The letter Ayin is represented by an eye and means to see, know, or experience!  Thus, when Adam and Chava (the first people on Earth) ate the forbidden fruit their eyes were opened and they began to know and experience good and evil.

So, extrapolating a little on this concept, if Adam and Eve were clothed in skins of light while they were obeying God and lost that light when they transgressed, it would stand to reason that someone who was following Satan would be clothed in skins of blackness.

Nephi, someone who loved symbolism to the point where he thought that Isaiah was plain and easy to understand, might use some of that symbolism to explain something a difficult concept to articulate: the falling away of his family members and their sharp turn toward the Dark Side. In my opinion, he was using cultural shorthand to say that one group, the Nephites, followed God and one group, the Lamanites, followed the devil. One was good, one was bad. One was righteous, one was blasphemous. Etc. He used the metaphors of “white” and “black” to make that point more starkly, showing that the groups were opposite of one another.

But again, I’m far from an expert and this is purely opinion. You may come to a different conclusion, and that’s okay. At any rate, I am out of room and this particular point is at an end, so I’m going to wrap this one up here. We’ll try to get through the rest of the points under this topic heading next week, and then go from there.



Sources in this entry:


Sarah Allen is brand new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. A voracious reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises and began sharing what she learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.

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