Part 63: CES Letter Other Concerns/Questions [Section E]

by Sarah Allen


I love to learn new things. Ever since I was a child, I’ve enjoyed researching a lot of topics from a wide variety of sources. I come by that honestly: my dad is always reading something new, too, and it’s only fiction about 1/3 of the time. Every Christmas, our gift from him is a small stack of 2-3 nonfiction books, a tradition I always look forward to. That’s why this last topic header from the Other Concerns section—the largest of the four—is one that I feel especially passionate about: “ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM.”

The claim is that the Church targets scholars and intellectuals for punishment and excommunication. You often see the charge being made in connection with discussions on the September Six, for example—a group we’ll be discussing in more detail in a week or two.

While I’m not personally a professional scholar, I do study and read a lot of Church history and theology, among other things. I also occasionally reach out to others who know more than I do and ask them questions. The glory of God is intelligence, after all, and I think that learning is important. And in the 41 years I have been alive, I have never had anyone tell me not to research any Church-related topic or to avoid any critical sources. I have never been in trouble for investigating or sharing my results with members of my ward or class. I have also never been subject to Church discipline for sharing my thoughts online, which I do regularly.

And the reason for that is that I don’t use what I learn to further my own agenda or attack the Church.

I don’t shy away from controversial issues, either. Just in this blog series alone, I’ve delved into the Nauvoo Expositor, Mountain Meadows, the Danites, polygamy, the Book of Abraham, the horribly racist commentary surrounding the Priesthood restriction, and more. I’ve cited sources critical of the Church. I’ve told you that I have unanswered questions and things I do not fully understand.

In my experience, the people making this claim are doing it to scare you away from researching these things for yourself, because when you do, the narrative doesn’t back up their other claims.

Church history is nothing to be afraid of, and these topics do not have to harm our testimonies if we don’t want them to. While I’m pretty unflappable on most of these controversial topics now, that wasn’t something that happened overnight. It took a lot of research to get to this point. I’ve never had any major doubts about the Church, but I’ve always had questions and I’ve wondered sometimes if the Church was wrong on different things. I’ve wondered how some leaders could have made some of the comments or actions they have while still being called of God to do His work. I’ve wondered whether certain doctrines or commandments really did come from God. Many of my questions have satisfactory answers now, but not all of them. Even so, I am not worried about anything in this Letter or any other critical source—least of all, the claims we’ll be talking about in this section.

We have many brilliant, talented, knowledgeable men and women in this Church, and they are not being persecuted or silenced over that knowledge. For a Church that values learning, personal study, and the pursuit of knowledge found in the best books, this claim is an especially strained one in my opinion.

The Letter begins this topic with the following:

Elder Boyd K. Packer gave a talk to Church Educational System Instructors and faculty at a CES Symposium on August 22, 1981 entitled The Mantle Is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect.

Elder Packer said the following:

There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful.”

Yes, he did. This is actually an excellent talk that I’d never read before, so I suppose I should thank Jeremy for citing it. Allow me to put some context back into this quote:

I have come to believe that it is the tendency for many members of the Church who spend a great deal of time in academic research to begin to judge the Church, its doctrine, organization, and leadership, present and past, by the principles of their own profession. Ofttimes this is done unwittingly, and some of it, perhaps, is not harmful.

It is an easy thing for a man with extensive academic training to measure the Church using the principles he has been taught in his professional training as his standard. In my mind it ought to be the other way around. A member of the Church ought always, particularly if he is pursuing extensive academic studies, to judge the professions of man against the revealed word of the Lord. … If we are not careful, very careful, and if we are not wise, very wise, we first leave out of our professional study the things of the Spirit. The next step soon follows: we leave the spiritual things out of our lives.

… There is no such thing as a scholarly, objective study of the office of bishop without consideration of spiritual guidance, of discernment, and of revelation. That is not scholarship. Accordingly, I repeat, there is no such thing as an accurate or objective history of the Church which ignores the Spirit. … If we who research, write, and teach the history of the Church ignore the spiritual on the pretext that the world may not understand it, our work will not be objective. And if, for the same reason, we keep it quite secular, we will produce a history that is not accurate and not scholarly—this, in spite of the extent of research or the nature of the individual statements or the incidents which are included as part of it, and notwithstanding the training or scholarly reputation of the one who writes or teaches it. We would end up with a history with the one most essential ingredient left out.

… There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful. Historians seem to take great pride in publishing something new, particularly if it illustrates a weakness or mistake of a prominent historical figure. … If it related to a living person, it would come under the heading of gossip. History can be as misleading as gossip and much more difficult—often impossible—to verify.

… Teaching some things that are true, prematurely or at the wrong time, can invite sorrow and heartbreak instead of the joy intended to accompany learning. What is true with these two subjects is, if anything, doubly true in the field of religion. The scriptures teach emphatically that we must give milk before meat. The Lord made it very clear that some things are to be taught selectively, and some things are to be given only to those who are worthy. It matters very much not only what we are told but when we are told it. Be careful that you build faith rather than destroy it.

… Some historians write and speak as though the only ones to read or listen are mature, experienced historians. They write and speak to a very narrow audience. Unfortunately, many of the things they tell one another are not uplifting, go far beyond the audience they may have intended, and destroy faith. … That historian or scholar who delights in pointing out the weakness and frailties of present or past leaders destroys faith. A destroyer of faith—particularly one within the Church, and more particularly one who is employed specifically to build faith—places himself in great spiritual jeopardy. He is serving the wrong master, and unless he repents, he will not be among the faithful in the eternities.

One who chooses to follow the tenets of his profession, regardless of how they may injure the Church or destroy the faith of those not ready for “advanced history,” is himself in spiritual jeopardy. If that one is a member of the Church, he has broken his covenants and will be accountable. After all of the tomorrows of mortality have been finished, he will not stand where he might have stood.

In the Church we are not neutral. We are one-sided. There is a war going on, and we are engaged in it. It is the war between good and evil, and we are belligerents defending the good. We are therefore obliged to give preference to and protect all that is represented in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we have made covenants to do it. … We are not obliged as a church, nor are we as members obliged, to accommodate the enemy in this battle. … It is neither expected nor necessary for us to accommodate those who seek to retrieve references from our sources, distort them, and use them against us.

The point of the talk, given to educators in the Church Educational System, was to remind teachers to teach by the Spirit and not to get too bogged down by the idea of academic neutrality. Spend time building up faith with the positive facts before introducing controversial things so that the person’s testimony is strong enough to withstand any hits it might take when focusing on the negative facts. Remember that students are often at the beginning of their journeys, not the middle or end the way the educators might be, and they might need to learn things one step at a time rather than all at once. Elder Packer did not say to avoid controversial topics or facts, but to take care in addressing them properly so that they didn’t overwhelm their students or ignore the guidance of the Spirit.

Jeremy continues with a second quote, this time from President Oaks:

Elder Dallin H. Oaks made a similar comment in the context of Church history at a CES Symposium on August 16, 1985:

The fact that something is true is not always a justification for communicating it.”

Jeremy’s link is down, but it appears to be the same talk we covered in detail in Part 35, “Reading Church History.” Since I’ve already gone through a great deal of this talk, I’m just going to quote the most relevant portion again here:

Satan can even use truth to promote his purposes. Truth can be used unrighteously. True facts, severed from their context, can convey an erroneous impression. Persons who make true statements out of an evil motive, such as those who seek to injure another, use the truth unrighteously. A person who preaches the truths of the gospel “for the sake of riches and honor” (Alma 1:16) commits the sin of priestcraft. Persons who reveal truths that they hold under obligations of confidentiality, such as medical doctors or lawyers, or bishops who have heard confessions, are guilt of wrongdoing. And a person who learns some embarrassing fact and threatens to reveal it unless he is paid off commits a crime we call blackmail, even if the threatened disclosure is true.

The fact that something is true is not always a justification for communicating it. While instructing the Corinthian Saints not to partake of meat offered in sacrifice to idols, the Apostle Paul explained: “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient; all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not” (1 Cor. 10:23).

Just because something is true does not mean it should be aired publicly. President Oaks was referring specifically to the news media in this talk, and we can all probably think of things that might be true but that shouldn’t be shared on the news. Locations of military assets, for example. In fact, the SPJ code of ethics for professional journalists states bluntly that journalists “should balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. … Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast it.”

And, as President Oaks pointed out, this concept also includes true facts removed from all context to convey an incorrect idea. This is a tactic the CES Letter excels at. In fact, this is exactly what Jeremy was doing by sharing this quote in the context he did, as we’ll show in a moment.

First, though, nowhere does President Oaks say not to share true facts. This talk was geared toward teaching members of the Church how to spot bias and half-truths, weigh sources, and use the Spirit for discernment. He was saying that we have to be careful because others might be sharing something that is partially or entirely true for dishonest reasons. Therefore, we have to learn how to assess the situation and evaluate their words.

So, what’s the spin the CES Letter puts on these two quotes?

Joseph using a rock in a hat instead of the gold plates to translate the Book of Mormon is not a useful truth?

Nobody said it wasn’t a useful truth or was otherwise unimportant at any point in either of these talks. And, because Joseph did use the gold plates as part of the translation process—albeit not in the way that Jeremy envisioned—this is not a true statement. As President Oaks said in his talk, we should be careful about believing anyone’s words or intentions when they straw man to such a degree.

The fact that there are multiple conflicting first vision accounts is not a useful truth?

They don’t conflict with one another, any more than the Four Gospels do. They highlight different things and place different emphasis on different parts, and some include information that others do not, but they do not contradict one another. So, no, this is not a useful accusation, nor is it the truth.

The fact that Joseph Smith was involved in polyandry while hiding it from Emma, when D&C 132:61 condemns it as “adultery” is not a useful truth?

D&C 132:61 does not “condemn it as adultery.” The verse is actually clarifying that plural marriage, when enacted under the law of the Priesthood, is not adultery. It says, in full:

And again, as pertaining to the law of the priesthood—if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else.

Additionally, D&C 132:64-65 specifically says that when a man has been commanded to enter into plural marriage the way that Joseph Smith was and his wife does not accept it, he does not have to obtain her permission first. Emma struggled considerably with plural marriage and accepted it at times and rejected it at other times. She rejected it so forcefully, she tore up a copy of the revelation and tried to run some of Joseph’s wives out of town after first making Joseph break off contact with them. Therefore, Joseph was exempt from getting her permission and his behavior was not “condemned as adultery,” as Jeremy claims it was. Again, this is not a truth, useful or otherwise.

Elder Packer continues:

“That historian or scholar who delights in pointing out the weaknesses and frailties of present or past leaders destroys faith. A destroyer of faith – particularly one within the Church, and more particularly one who is employed specifically to build faith – places himself in great spiritual jeopardy.”

Yep, I already quoted that in context above. The very next line is, “He is serving the wrong master, and unless he repents, he will not be among the faithful in the eternities.”

Sometimes, our actions have unintended consequences, that’s very true. That isn’t what’s being discussed here. Note President Packer’s words: “That historian or scholar who delights in pointing out the weaknesses and frailties of present or past leaders destroys faith.” He’s not talking about inserting a neutral comment about the mistakes of Church leaders. He’s not even talking about offering an opinion on what you think one of those mistakes might be. He’s talking about people who focus specifically on the faults in order to tear these leaders down in someone else’s eyes. He’s talking about what Jeremy did in the Prophets section, where he only highlighted perceived flaws of previous leaders, especially Brigham Young, and ignored all of the good, righteous things those men had also said and done. You don’t explain how the overwhelming majority of things said or done by these leaders are good, righteous things. You don’t balance it out with the good. That’s actively destroying the faith of others, and yes, there are eternal consequences for doing that without remorse. If you don’t believe that, just reread Alma 36.

If facts and truths can destroy faith…what does it say about faith?

Neither of these men said that facts and truths can destroy faith. They said that improper framing and overloading students with negative information before they have the capacity to understand the nuances can destroy faith.

If prophets of the Church conducted themselves in such a way that it can destroy faith, what does this say about the prophets?

It says that prophets are human beings, not divine ones, and sometimes they fall short. Sometimes they misspeak, or say things they later regret. Sometimes they aren’t always as kind as they normally strive to be. Sometimes they lose their tempers or misunderstand the situation. Sometimes they mess up.

When we reduce their lives and teachings down to a handful of their very worst possible moments, we ignore all of the good they do. We ignore all of the times they not only lived up to their covenants, but went the extra mile and exceeded them. We ignore all of the times they changed lives for the better.

Take Brigham Young, for example. When you reduce him down to only negative takes on the Adam-God and Blood Atonement theories, the way he practiced plural marriage, and the Priesthood restriction, you ignore the facts that he did everything he could to keep the Church together, to care for the Saints, to lead them, and to show them the way back home to God. You ignore the countless minutes of pure, correct doctrine he taught and expounded upon. You ignore the overwhelming majority of times when he got it right. When you focus on the inaccurate, arrogant, dictatorial caricature of him shown in the heavily altered Journal of Discourses, you lose the humble, pleading, caring man his original words show him to be.

What’s interesting about Elder Packer’s above quote is that he’s focusing on history from the point of view that a historian is only interested in the “weaknesses and frailties of present and past leaders.”

No, that isn’t at all what he’s saying, as anyone who actually read the talk knows perfectly well. He said that to ignore the Spirit while teaching Church history is to ignore a large portion of the history itself, leaving your version of history fundamentally flawed, and that some historians delight in focusing on the flaws of our leaders instead of their triumphs. In no portion of the talk did he lump in every historian or educator into that group. He repeatedly clarified that it’s only a certain segment of historians that he was talking about. In fact, Boyd K. Packer was himself an educator and CES employee who taught Church history along with other Gospel-related truths—again, something that he clarifies in the talk on more than one occasion.

Historians are also interested in things like how the Book of Mormon got translated or how many accounts Joseph gave about the foundational first vision or whether the Book of Abraham even matches the papyri and facsimiles.

Yes, they are. And honest ones will be able to put aside their biases and examine the evidence for what it truly shows: that the historical record does not in any way contradict the Church’s historical narrative. There are some conflicting sources and there are also things the historical record can’t yet corroborate, but the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Furthermore, none of those things are what President Packer was talking about. He does not mention any of them in his talk. Once again, Jeremy is straw-manning.

Besides, it matters in the religious context what past and present leaders “weaknesses and frailties” are.

It does, and President Packer never said otherwise. He was specifically talking about people who solely focus on those weaknesses and frailties above all else, and take joy in harping on them. He was not talking about honest scholarship such as Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, which does discuss some of Joseph Smith’s flaws, but also his strengths, influence, and victories. Rather, he was talking about work such as Grant Palmer’s An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins or Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, which focus entirely on the flaws and heavily distort the overall picture in the name of furthering their agenda.

If Joseph’s public position was that adultery and polygamy are morally wrong and condemned by God, what does it say about him and his character that he did exactly that in the dark while lying to Emma and everyone else about it? How is this not a useful truth?

Joseph’s public—and private—position was that adultery was morally wrong and condemned by God, sure. He also said that plural marriage that was not commanded by God was morally wrong, especially as taught and practiced by people like John C Bennett. He never said that all plural marriage was wrong under every circumstance. As for “doing exactly that,” Joseph did not commit adultery, nor do we know that he lied to Emma about anything. Emma, for all her other strengths, is not a trustworthy source on this topic because we know for a fact that she lied about it for decades. We don’t know when he first discussed it with her, but know that she was aware of it.

We also know that Joseph tried on at least one occasion to preach the doctrine to the Saints at large, and they rejected it. So, it was then taught to an inner circle while Joseph was trying his best to quell the angry mobs that were trying to attack Nauvoo over the practice. The Warsaw Signal was openly calling for every Latter-day Saint in Illinois to be slaughtered.

This is exactly what President Oaks was talking about, removing objective facts from all context in order to put a negative spin on them. You can accuse Joseph of lying about plural marriage, or you can acknowledge that he was in a difficult, deadly position and did what he thought was right in order to protect the thousands of citizens of Nauvoo against the angry mobs intent on murdering them. One is focusing on his flaws, and the other is pointing out that actually, the situation was a lot more complicated than what was presented in the CES Letter.

A relevant hypothetical example to further illustrate this point: The prophet or one of the apostles gets caught with child pornography on his hard drive.

Right, because that isn’t a highly biased and unlikely hypothetical at all. But okay, sure. Let’s suppose that actually happens someday.

This matters, especially in light of his current position, status, and teachings on morality.

Of course it’d matter. Anyone in that position should be arrested and tried to the fullest extent of the law. He’d deserve a millstone around his neck, and nobody would deny that or try to shield the facts from coming to light. Yet again, this is not what either President Packer or President Oaks was talking about.

Just because a leader wears a religious hat does not follow that they’re exempt from history and accountability from others.

Oh, for heaven’s sake.  A) Nobody but Jeremy ever made the argument that they would be exempt or unaccountable in any way; B) General Authorities and even Apostles have been excommunicated before, including Elder Amasa Lyman and most recently, Elder James Hamula; and C) what the heck does it mean to be “exempt from history,” anyway? This isn’t a science fiction movie. We can’t jump outside of time or erase ourselves from existence. That’s not how this works.

Further, testimonies are acquired in part by the recitation of a historical narrative.

A small part of  a solid testimony, sure. I’ll grant that. I believe the historical narrative and I do feel the Spirit when I read Church history. It’s not the basis of my testimony by any means, and I’ve never received a spiritual confirmation that history happened exactly as I believe it did. However, I have had confirmation that the First Vision really happened and that the events of the Book of Mormon really did take place, even if we perhaps don’t know the full story in either case.

Missionaries recite the narrative about Joseph Smith searching and praying for answers, about acquiring the gold plates and translating the Book of Mormon, about the Priesthood being restored along with other foundational narratives.

Yep. No arguments here. Why wouldn’t they? Investigators are going to be curious about where the Book of Mormon came from and why we believe what we do. It’s only natural.

Again, though, this has nothing whatsoever to do with what either President Packer or President Oaks was talking about, as a simple read-through of their talks would prove.

Why should investigators and members not learn the correct and candid version of that historical narrative, for better or for worse? Are members and investigators not entitled to a truthful accounting of the real origins of Mormonism?

Of course they should learn correct history, and of course they’re entitled to the truth. Nobody except Jeremy ever suggested otherwise. This entire section so far is one giant straw man. Jeremy set up inaccurate positions that Presidents Packer and Oaks never took and is using those to bludgeon the reader into believing his skewed narrative instead of the facts. Don’t take my word for it and definitely don’t take his word. Read the talks yourself and see what they actually said. They don’t bear even the slightest resemblance to the arguments he claims they made.

The only thing President Packer said that is even remotely connected to this current argument is that it’s better to teach things progressively. As in, don’t dump 200 years of Church history on someone before they learn what it means to feel the Spirit, or get into the weeds on what really happened at Mountain Meadows or with the Nauvoo Expositor before they learn about the Plan of Salvation. Take it one step at a time. Don’t overwhelm people with an info dump—especially a critical one—when you can slow down and go through it all methodically, the way we’ve done with all of these topics so far.

We talked about this concept in the very beginning of this series. There’s a German word, dokumentenschock, or “document shock,” that describes how it feels when you are so bombarded with information that your brain simply stops processing it because there’s just too much to take in. This is exactly the phenomenon I’m describing when I tell people that “my brain is fried” after an especially difficult day at work. Unfortunately, when the excessive information is negative and highly critical, it can lead to a loss of faith. It’s what documents like the CES Letter are attempting to do: back you into a corner and overwhelm you to the point where your faith crumbles and you start to spiral. President Packer spent part of his talk telling CES employees not to inadvertantly do that to their students.

As Michael Ash explains:

I’m a big fan of inoculation and the need to teach all of the potentially troubling topics to Church members. It’s a fact that for many people the source and tone in which troubling information is presented has an influence on how that information is received. Members will either learn this stuff in a faithful setting or on an anti-Mormon blog on the Internet. … I agree that some truths aren’t useful, and I believe we have to be careful not to teach difficult topics in a way that paint a caricature of reality (focusing on the ugly warts rather than the beautiful eyes)—or to disclose difficult topics for their shock-value instead of using the information as a real teaching moment. I do believe, however, that we need to teach the painful truths because they become less painful if first served as inoculation–compared to first exposure as a deadly virus.

That’s the way I’ve always viewed it, too. History is not inherently scary on its own. But, as with all things, the presentation of new information matters. When your first exposure to the things in the CES Letter is the CES Letter itself, with its hyper-critical tone and disparaging commentary, some of this information is going to make you reel. But when you first read the same information from the latest volume of Saints or maybe some old Ensign articles, where it’s laid out simply from a faithful perspective, it’s not faith-damaging. It gives you the chance to process it in a safe way, and allows the Spirit the opportunity to teach you something new.

The question should not be whether it’s faith promoting or not to share ugly but truthful facts.

Again, nobody but Jeremy ever claimed that was the question. Presidents Packer and Oaks certainly didn’t. Neither of them ever had a reputation for shying away from difficult truths. If you think either of them was prone to sugarcoating reality, you haven’t read any of their talks. They tell it like it is.

The question should be: Is it the honest thing to do?

It’s mind-boggling to me that this lecture is coming from Jeremy after all of the countless lies, distortions, and manipulations in this Letter. It’s so incredibly hypocritical, and this post is a prime example of why. There was not one single argument from Jeremy today that was made in good faith. Everything was twisted.

At no point did either President Packer or President Oaks say to lie or hide true information. At no point did either of them suggest that Church leaders should not be subject to scrutiny or held accountable for their decisions. President Packer’s talk was about teaching by the Spirit and taking care not to damage students’ testimonies by focusing disproportionately on critical matters. President Oaks spoke about evaluating sources and learning how to spot bias in the media. Both of them warned about the very tactics Jeremy uses throughout this entire Letter.

This entire portion today was one straw man attack after another. He never once argued over the actual content of the talks he was quoting from. All he did was snip a few lines completely out of context, twist them into something that was never intended, and harp on his imaginary argument ad nauseum. Please do not fall for this kind of thing. It’s base-level trolling.

Anyway, I’m going to wrap this one up here today. This is the largest of the four topic headers, as I said earlier, and there will be at least another 2-3 more weeks of anti-intellectualism to wade through before we reach the conclusion. In the meantime, read President Packer’s entire talk! It’s an excellent one that I would go through in even more detail if I had time to. I may take an extra week to do that at the end of this section, the way I did with President Oaks’s talk already. It’s really a good one that is well worth the read.


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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