An Answer to the CES Letter & Mormon Truth Claims
The CES Letter is a popular summary of arguments made by critics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was written by Jeremy Renold’s— originally as an honest request to a CES director for answers to the issues it raises.
The CES letter does a good job of compiling, summarizing and explaining many of the largest issues surrounding LDS theology and more especially LDS history and its conflicts with LDS truth claims. However, this letter does not do a good job of giving any context for the issues it brings up.—and as such it is one sided and biased toward not only loss of faith in all LDS theology, but often departure from God, Christianity and religious participation. It is almost an opposing mirror reflection of the one sided, “faith promoting” (ei. whitewashed) version of history and theology promoted by the church for the last 100 years.
The issues are complicated, and the truths presented shatter many ill-conceived doctrines, mores and cultural beliefs held by most Mormons. But as a whole the letter is akin to dumping a lesson onto a 6 year old which in one sitting breaks their idyllic views of humanity by exposing them for the first time to the harsh realities of moral relativism made evident in human history and the brutality of the human condition. For LDS people, it breaks down the oft-held idyllic “mormon-centric” worldview by exposing members to the imperfect realities of religious prophetic and revelatory mystical experience.
Effectively reconciling the issues in this letter (without becoming angry toward Mormonism) often requires redefining one’s understanding of revelatory and visionary experiences (understanding their subjective nature). It requires redefining many of the LDS church’s exclusive truth claims. It requires a mature understanding of the many shades of grey which exist between the idealized black and white view of right and wrong which is often taught in Sunday school. Here’s a great framework to start evaluating the CES letter from, written by someone I respect a lot…
The CES letter evaluates an “all or nothing” set of church beliefs by using the very same flawed “all or nothing” paradigm.
And when we use such false dichotomies, we typically come to the “nothing” answer, which to my mind is just as false as the “all” answer.
In my impression, the correct conclusion to make after reading the CES letter is not whether the church is true or not, but rather, the entire approach of “all or nothing” thinking is completely bogus, whether being used to defend or destroy the church (or anything else).
Evaluating four or six versions of the first vision, then rejecting the vision because the accounts changed is frankly the wrong answer. Theophanies exist. They happen. I have had at least one, and so have many of you. But to accurately describe one? Impossible. Sure, I don’t know if Joseph had a theophany, but the fact that he described it distinctly over time is more evidence of it than against.
But where is this kind of thoughtful evaluation in the CES letter? It doesn’t exist, because “all or nothing” thinking rejects any possibility of a Middle Way.
Yes, I believe, with others, that our beliefs need to be deconstructed, and for me this meant “complete deconstruction” — I embraced the “nothing” part of the “all or nothing” paradigm. Maybe that was necessary, for a moment in time.
But faith is neither found in the “all”, nor in the “nothing”. Faith is the Middle Way between all and nothing, between knowing and not knowing. Faith is not perfect knowledge or certainty, for as Alma said, when we “know” something, our faith is dormant. Faith is never dormant, it is always exploring, acting, moving, learning, dealing with doubt in constructive, hopeful ways.
If we have faith, we hope for things that are not seen that are true.
For most of the things stated in the CES letter, we can “know” that the certainties of church claims are not certain. In other words, we should come to the conclusion we don’t know what we thought we knew.
That’s great! But what then is the typical response to the CES letter? Another certainty: “the church is not true.”
We trade the “all” certainty for the “nothing” certainty, and we have missed the lesson to be learned here.
If the CES letter is a wake up call toward not knowing, then the answer is twofold: (1) the suspension of judgment, casting aside the “all or nothing” paradigm, and (2) activate our faith, which Alma describes as a process of exploring truth by doing the work necessary to find our own truth. –author requested to be left anonymous
I personally think that it’s good that the CES letter helps people understand that the “church” isn’t true in the ways most people think it is. Everyone, at some point in their faith journey needs to understand that no earthly church is exactly ‘true’ per se. I think that’s a lesson eloquently taught in the LDS endowment, and in the Masonic ideology the endowment is based on. I lay down the obviousness of this in my article ‘Is The LDS Church the Only True Church? Understanding Religion and Truth‘.
But this is what the CES letter does not do. It does not help anyone understand that THERE IS A TRUE CHURCH. The true ‘church’ is in heaven (the higher dimensional levels above us). It is composed of ALL the good people who have lived, and ALL good churches lead people toward it. Life DOES continue after death. And the groups we create here on earth continue after death. And you can usually progress more quickly when part of a group than you can alone. And these groups in the metaphysical realm have more power to help and subtly influence mortals than solitary individuals do. So even though pretty much all earthly church leaders teach more error and ego than truth, churches are often good for both society and individuals (just like political social structures), and there are powerful reasons to unite with them and utilize them to serve your fellow man. And perhaps most importantly, your faith in the unseen, in your fellow man, and in the social structures you join says more about your integrity and personal progression than perhaps any other part of your character. As the prophet Jachanan Ben Kathryn puts it…
0 BEHOLD, the LORD knoweth that thou canst not see him. Nor can thy light reveal his countenance. Therefore is he pleased with faith, and he hath made it as the sure foot of the babe running to his mother’s comfort. He shall hear thy cries, and he shall be quick to comfort.
2 Why should the LORD judge a man by his works? A peaceful time breedeth peaceful men; and the righteous of an easy season could very well be the transgressors in a hard season, at the time of the LORD’s testing, at the moment of decision; and contrarywise he who is a rock in an hard time would be overbearing and an offender in an easy time. When the ax is laid to the stump, could not he who died exalted in a peaceful time, falter in a calamitous time? Therefore are the works of man an uneven weight before the LORD. But faith abideth in any time, and the love of God is a steady weight to weigh faith more precious than gold and more enduring than time, and of more value than flesh. (Book of Ben Kathryn 33:1-3; 60:8)
In addition to that, religion proves to be a powerful tool to teach people about their own selfishness and ego. Churches, like political organizations, nearly always become filled with (often well-meaning) individuals seeking power and control over others. Christianity serves as a powerful metaphor to expose the selfishness in those individuals and lead them to eventual humility and repentance. Much like Judas or the Jewish leaders who killed Jesus seeking to “do god a favor” (John 16:2), the dramas of religious leaders doing harm to the “sheep” or harmless people of the world, in the name of god or the greater good plays out countless times in each generation. As the lambs of the world lay down their lives, or reputations, or happiness to the egos of religious leaders both come closer to exaltation as the lambs prove their selflessness and the leaders eventually see the reality of the pain they caused others they will be given another chance to crucify their egos and truly follow Jesus.
8 Behold why I have made such symbols: that at thy corrupting of them, thy heart may be revealed, and the evil known for what it is, made manifest to all mankind. (Book of Ben Kathryn 33:1-3; 60:8)
Book of Mormon Issues
-Those who have faith in the Book of Mormon, should be prepared for the possibility that all scripture is not objectively true. That the biblical story of creation is symbolic allegory, and the flood may be a symbolic story largely based on ancient oral myth, that Israel’s cultural stories of Abraham and Joseph and Moses are based on records and myths that combine truth with embellishment and even fiction, that the biblical histories are not entirely accurate. That the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price may also be mystical, more than historical writings. One must come to see how the value of these religious books is not in their objective retelling of history, but in the spiritual lessons which are woven into the history. But there are many incredibly intelligent aspects of scripture which can be seen as divine and beyond human ability to consciously create. All must read them and decide which parts are human and which parts are divine. I believe all scripture/channeled literature (Christian or not) come from a place outside conscious thought. The better a mystic is able to channel the divine— the better the scripture. I encourage anyone interested in this to read the following books. Morals and Dogma by Robert Pike. The Gnostic Pearl. Oahspe.
Joseph Smith Character Issues
-One must come to grips with the fact that Joseph Smith was not anything like the idealized prophet hero the church has made him to be. He was visionary and persuasive. From the records available, it seems he was convinced of his divine mission. But his polygamy and power issues are impossible to dismiss. It seems that in the last three years of his life, he became a sex addict and took advantage of many women by using religious coercion to convince them to marry and have sex with him. On the other hand he was not without boundaries and tried to give the women he propositioned ample change to deny him… and respected their denials. Toward the end of his life, he made many enemies as he excommunicated those who threatened his power. He turned himself into a king and acted despotically at times. But he also acted charitably and kindly. He was both good and bad… each individual needs to study his life and decide for themselves whether the good of his life outweighs the bad, or whether the bad makes him unworthy of respect for the good he attempted to accomplish.
CES Letter Issues and responses
1 – What are 1769 King James Version edition errors doing in the Book of Mormon? An ancient text? Errors which are unique to the 1769 edition that Joseph Smith owned?
My Conclusion: I think it’s hard to deny that the Isaiah sections of the Book of Mormon were copied directly from the 1769 king James. One must come to grips with possibility that Joseph’s revelations & translation came from his own mind. But one should not dismiss a divinity in these books either. An argument could possibly be made that Joseph Channeled the text from some spiritual sources, and that those spirits passing the information to him, copied the passages from his own culturally accepted KJV. Or perhaps they simply told him to go to the KJV to get those sections (not likely given the evidence). Really there’s a number of possibilities, but the question this fact poses is more important. What do the KJV verses tell us about the translation process, if we are to attempt to maintain faith in the idea that the text is an actual divine translation of some sort? If it is not a translation at all, and is just a divinely influenced mythic or mystical story does that need to destroy our allegiance to the LDS religious community? What if we ask these same questions of the Bible? (especially the old testament myths and stories)
2 – When King James translators were translating the KJV Bible between 1604 and 1611, they would occasionally put in their own words into the text to make the English more readable. We know exactly what these words are because they’re italicized in the KJV Bible. What are these 17th century italicized words doing in the Book of Mormon? Word for word? What does this say about the Book of Mormon being an ancient record?
Conclusions: The idea that Joseph “translated” these sections of Book of Mormon (and possibly most, if not all the text), word for word cannot be upheld. The evidence presented would suggest, that if anything, Joseph “channeled” both the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham through “revelation” (channeling being the more modern term for the work of a revelator). The propagation of errors within Biblical quotes found in the Book of Mormon would suggest they were copied, essentially word for word (but with minor changes here and there) from his 1769 version of the bible. The New Testament quotes and New England christology in the Book of Mormon are perhaps even more alarming.
3- Joseph Smith translated the LDS bible, in which he claims to have fixed errors in other translations of the bible. Why do BOM passages match the KJV 1769 rather than the LDS bible? There seems to be a contradiction here.
-conclusion: It seems evident that the JST is not a “restoration” of the original biblical text written by the ancient prophets, but an attempt by Joseph Smith to clarify, expound upon, or reconcile conflicting ideas and doctrines presented in the passages he chose to address (according to his own beliefs and/or inspiration).
4 – DNA analysis has concluded that Native American Indians do not originate from the Middle East or from Israelites but rather from Asia. Why did the Church change the section of the introduction page in the 2006 edition Book of Mormon, from “are the principal ancestors” to “are among the ancestors” shortly after the DNA results were released?
-conclusion: Obviously church leaders felt that the original claim was too strict, and was likely not supported by the text itself either. Many articles have been written on this, so I’ll just cover this in my explanations on subsequent issues.
-Questions. Just as with the Bible, there are many ambiguities in the Book of Mormon itself which would make genetic testing difficult. These include things like; what was the origin of the “Jaredite” people and were they literally all killed off (or were there tens of thousands living in scattered pockets whom the ancient Jaredite author knew nothing about? Did the Jaredites share a common ancestor with East Asians (such as Mongolians)? If there were many Jaredite remnants how much did they mix with Book of Mormon peoples. Many indigenous groups such as the Navajos, Pacific Northwest peoples and eskimos (the Athabascan language group) are known to have migrated from Alaska during post Book of Mormon times, how do we know which Native American Groups have no part in the Book of Mormon narrative? If the Book of Mormon truly was channeled from ancient North American Indians was what they wrote prone to their own cultural conceptions? Is it possible to find a genetic sample of unmixed pre-Babylonian captivity “Israelites” with which to compare North American DNA samples? Did the Northern Kingdom Israelites exiled into Assyria mix with the Turkish nomads who are the principal ancestors of modern Mongolian and north Asian peoples? Are there reliable control groups available for these types of genetic studies? Is historically known Viking DNA found in North American Indian DNA? How have post Christian era Inuit language group migrations mixed with more southern North American groups (Navajo tribes for example).
5- Horses, cattle, oxen, sheep, swine, goats, elephants, wheels, chariots, wheat, silk, steel, and iron did not exist in pre-Columbian America during Book of Mormon times. Why are these things mentioned in the Book of Mormon as being made available in the Americas between 2200 BC – 421 AD?
-conclusion: The anachronistic words used by Joseph Smith in the Book of Mormon, once again seem to strongly suggest that if one wants to assert that the text is based on a true historical narrative—then the text must have been largely channeled using his own cultural biases and language instead of translated word for word.
6 -There is absolutely no archaeological evidence to directly support the Book of Mormon or the Nephites/Lamanites who numbered in the millions. This is one of the reasons why unofficial apologists are coming up with the Limited Geography Model (it happened in Central or South America) and that the real Hill Cumorah is not in Palmyra, New York but is elsewhere and possibly somewhere down there instead.
Latter-day Saint Thomas Stuart Ferguson was BYU’s archaeology division (New World Archaeological Funding) founder. NWAF was financed by the Church. NWAF and Ferguson were tasked by BYU and the Church in the 1950s and 1960s to find archaeological evidence to support the Book of Mormon. This is what Ferguson wrote after 17 years of trying to dig up evidence for the Book of Mormon:
“…you can’t set Book of Mormon geography down anywhere – because it is fictional and will never meet the requirements of the dirt-archaeology. I should say – what is in the ground will never conform to what is in the book.”
-conclusion: One assertion can be made from this. Archeological evidence would certainly suggest these battles almost certainly did not occur on or around the modern Hill Cumorah. (That is unless the battles did not include the use of stone weaponry or the weaponry was completely looted, collected and transported by subsequent indigenous groups. That seems unlikely but not impossible.)
Questions regarding the historicity of the Book of Mormon are highly debatable and in many cases impossible to prove or disprove. Using the same logic on known historical documents (especially when legend or myth is concerned) brings similar issues. Numerous battles mentioned in Roman writings, Greek writing, Biblical writings, and Egyptian writings also have produced no archaeological evidence. This does not mean they did not happen. It does not even prove that the historical writings concerning these battles has been exaggerated or mythologized. Sometimes it simply means that archaeological evidence can be hard to find.
Questions: Why did Joseph Smith call the Hill Comoruh such? What real evidence is there that this is the Hill Cumorah from the Book of Mormon and that he was not simply mistaken? Why did He have a vision of a room full of records within the hill (link). Is that vision hearsay? How error prone are such visionary experiences?
7- BOM geography names are strikingly similar to the Great Lakes region where Joseph Smith grew up. There are dozens of place names in BOM which correspond to real places around upstate new york. These include Alma, Boaz, Lehi…
-conclusion: This and similar semantics studies on the book of Mormon text (compared with Prof. Antons encyclopedia for instance) seem to suggest many of the Book of Mormon names may not have been direct “translations” but were at least influenced by Joseph’s cultural experience. It could be coincidence, but seems unlikely.
7b- Off the eastern coast of Mozambique in Africa is an island country called “Comoros.” Prior to its French occupation in 1841, the islands were known by its Arabic name, “Camora.” There is an 1808 map of Africa that refers to the islands as “Camora.” There is an island off the cost of Madagascar called Camorah. Its principle settlement was named Moroni. Joseph Smith was a treasure hunter and fan of pirate fiction. A contemporary source reports that the young Smith was a fan of the Captain William Kid pirate novels, parts of those stories take place on Camorah and in Moroni. The name “Camorah” appeared in the 1830 edition of BOM, but the spelling was changed in later editions.
-conclusion: Same as above.
8 – A fictional book called View of the Hebrews was published in 1825 in Vermont, 5 years before the first edition of BOM. It tells a story that parallels the BOM story in striking similarity, including migrations of Hebrew tribes to America, Jewish origin of Indian language, similar battles, settlements, Indian records recorded on gold leafs and buried in a hill, Urim & Thummim, messiah visits America, quotes entire chapters of Isaiah… Some passages from View of the Hebrews and BOM are word for word identical.
Reverend Ethan Smith was the author of View of the Hebrews. Ethan Smith was a pastor in Poultney, Vermont when he wrote and published the book. Oliver Cowdery – also a Poultney, Vermont resident – was a member of Ethan’s congregation during this time and before he went to New York to join his cousin Joseph Smith.
-conclusion: Once again, it seems obvious from this and the next point that if the book is true, then Joseph’s cultural experience was highly influential in his “channeling” of his texts. Evidence is poor that Joseph copied or plagiarized his works from “View of the Hebrews”, “The Late War” or the “Spaulding manuscript”. But cultural influence on semantics, wording, styling and prose seems likely.
-Question. How does channeling work? Where is the inspiration of all of these works coming from? Did Joseph even read these books? Is there possibly a common source of inspiration for all these works? Are principles of group consciousness at work here? Are the similarities simply a product of the religious culture of the time?
9 – The Late War Between the United States and Great Britain is a children’s text book published 1819. It is written in King James style language, and contains many phrases and passages which appear in BOM. Phrases such as “partly of brass and partly of iron, and were cunningly contrived with curious works, like unto a clock; and as it were a large ball” appear verbatim in both a text book that Smith likely read as a child and BOM.
Same as above.
10 – The First Book of Napoleon was published in 1809. Compare its opening lines to the beginning of BOM:
“The First Book of Napoleon: Condemn not the (writing)…an account…the First Book of Napoleon…upon the face of the earth…it came to pass…the land…their inheritances their gold and silver and…the commandments of the Lord…the foolish imaginations of their hearts…small in stature…Jerusalem…because of the perverse wickedness of the people.
Book of Mormon: Condemn not the (writing)…an account…the First Book of Nephi…upon the face of the earth…it came to pass…the land…his inheritance and his gold and his silver and…the commandments of the Lord…the foolish imaginations of his heart…large in stature…Jerusalem…because of the wickedness of the people.
Same as above.
11- The first 1830 edition of BOM had a trinitarian theology. Many passages that established identity between Father and Son were later changed, as part of over 100,000 changes made after the first edition. For example:
1 Nephi 3 (p.32): These last records…shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people, that the Lamb of God is the Eternal Father and the Savior of the world”, was changed to
“These last records…shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people, that the Lamb of God is the Son of the Eternal Father, and the Savior of the world”
However, there are still some parts of BOM which establish identity between Father and Son. For example : Ether 3:14–15:
“Behold, I am he who was prepared from the foundation of the world to redeem my people. Behold, I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son. In me shall all mankind have life, and that eternally, even they who shall believe on my name; and they shall become my sons and my daughters.”
The changes to later editions show an evolving theology of the Godhead away from the traditional trinitarian view, but by leaving in some passages like the one from Ether above, the BOM now presents a contradictory view of the ontology of the Godhead.
-Conclusions: The fact that both of the earliest accounts of the First Vision speak of just One being really supports the issues in this point.
It would seem that just as with many textual changes in the Bible, LDS “Scribes” (Leaders) felt they were in good faith, clarifying confusing aspects of the text. However, numerous other references within LDS scripture, Biblical scripture, and other channeled texts of the time (see link) seem to suggest that like biblical textual changes, these additions were more a reflection of LDS leader’s lack of knowledge concerning the complexity of the subject of the nature of God. They seem to have sought to make the words in the Book of Mormon accord with their interpretation of God, just as Joseph may well have channeled the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants to accord with his own changing views of the nature of God.
Questions: What makes someone a “prophet”? Are the visionary experiences of “prophets” largely a reflection of their own understanding? Just as “god” speaks according to the language of a visionary individual, does he also speak largely according to their existing cultural and religious understandings? Thus do a prophet’s “visions” of God change with their understanding?
Along with the both Trinitarian and non-Trinitarian views in the Book of Mormon, why does D&C define God in a non-anthropromorphic way? Why do later revelations such as D&C 121 and D&C 132, and the King Follet Discourse promote polytheism? Such questions add a great richness to LDS theology.
Book of Mormon Translation Issues
1 – Peep stone translation. Joseph Smith was not even looking at the gold plates when he “translated” them. He was looking at a rock in his hat. At times the plates were not even in the same building, but were rather hidden in the woods. Why has the church been less than forthcoming about the translation process?
Yes, it would seem the plates were more “channeled” than “translated”.
There is much the church has not been forthcoming about. Are they improving in this area of honesty? Was it on purpose? Was it to protect and bolster their own power? Did they think they were protecting fragile testimonies and achieving “the greater good”? How can we judge intentions when we were not there? Does this affect how much trust we should put in religious hierarchy? Are misconceptions in this area all just honest mistakes?
First Vision Issues
1 – First vision inconsistencies. There are four different versions of the first vision in the sacred grove. This is Joseph’s vison that supposedly occurred in 1820. There is no mention of the first vision anywhere until it appears in Smith’s journal in 1832, twelve years after it happened and a few years after the first edition of BOM. The four accounts differ in how old Smith was, why he went out to pray, who appeared to him “a spirit, an angel, two angels, Jesus, many angels, the Father and the Son – are all over the place”.
Conclusion: The church has made great strides in being honest concerning this point as of late (see gospel topics essays). Original scans of these primary-sources for the first vision accounts are available on the churches website. The differences are indeed significant. And although one would expect even large differences in a person’s recollection and storytelling over a period of 30 years, the differences in the accounts do come across as suspicious. I believe this issue is most disturbing because the Church has used the official version of this account as such a central “selling point” of the exclusive truth claims of the LDS gospel.
Questions: What definition of “vision” was Joseph referring to when he described his experience as a “heavenly vision”? Was this a vision as in a true “supernatural apparition”? Or was it a vision as defined in the sense of “an experience of seeing someone or something in a dream or trance”? (see Webster’s dictionary) What is the difference? Did Joseph’s memory of the vision change greatly over time as his ideas of God evolved? D&C 76 is self-described as a vision given “in the Spirit” which multiple parties had at the same time— can the difference of whether a vision is “real” or not, be differentiated by whether a third party can verify the event. Are visions more subjective than reality where the beliefs of the vision participants are projected into the experience like a shared dream?
How much trust should people put in other people’s “visions”? How are drug induced visions, after-death experience visions and unassisted religious visions different from one another? Would Joseph be clinically diagnosed as a schizophrenic by today’s medical standards and is that diagnosis fair considering the social changes he accomplished? Are the biases of today’s secular medical field concerning visions and hallucinations ignorant of spiritual powers latent within the human mind?
Book of Abraham Issues
1 – Book of Abraham. Smith bought a piece of papyrus from a traveling mummy exhibit and claimed that it was a document “written by Abraham with his own hand”. Smith’s translation is now the Book of Abraham. Egytologists later determined that the paper dated to the first century AD, 2000 years after Abraham lived, that the text was a common funeral item called a “breathing permit” issued to a man named “Hor” who was mummified in the first century, and that Smith’s “translation” was completely unrelated to the papyrus.
The book of Abraham presents a Newtonian cosmology which very closely resembles Thomas Dick’s (1830)Philosophy of a Future State, of which Smith owned a copy.
“Much of the book dealt with the infinity of the universe, made up of innumerable stars spread out over immeasurable distances. Dick speculated that many of these stars were peopled by “various orders of intelligences” and that these intelligences were “progressive beings” in various stages of evolution toward perfection. In the Book of Abraham, part of which consists of a treatise on astronomy and cosmology, eternal beings of various orders and stages of development likewise populate numerous stars. They, too, are called “intelligences.” Dick speculated that “the systems of the universe revolve around a common centre…the throne of God.” In the Book of Abraham, one star named Kolob “was nearest unto the throne of God.”
Of course now that we have good telescopes, we know this model of the cosmos is just as false as the geocentric models which preceded it.
-Conclusions: It seems apparent that the idea of Joseph Smith “translating” the Book of Abraham from an Egyptian manuscript may be unviable. It may be more likely that, like the Book of Mormon, Book of Moses, and D&C, the Book of Abraham was channeled. Perhaps the Anthon manuscripts were used as “props” to spur on the desire and need for the channeled material.
It cannot be ruled out that the numerous common elements and glyphs found in The Book of Abraham’s source text, the Book of Dead and other Ptolemaic era Egyptian funerary texts have their cultural roots in a true historical ‘Abraham’. The Kolbrin is worth considering in this discussion.
1-Adultery/polygamy – Joseph Smith had at least 34 wives “11 of them were married women of other living men. Among them being Apostle Orson Hyde who was sent on his mission to dedicate Israel when Joseph secretly married his wife, Marinda Hyde” Another of his wives was a pregnant newlywed.
Pedophilia – 7 of Smith’s wives were teenagers as young as 14.
Incest – Among the women was a mother-daughter set and three sister sets. Several of these women included Joseph’s own foster daughters.
Doctrine & Covenants 132 – This scripture sets out specific rules as to how polygamy can be practiced. It gives a man a right to “destroy” his first wife if she does not consent to further plural marriages, but she must at least be given an opportunity to consent. Smith did not follow the rules set out in D&C 132, secretly marrying women behind his first wife’s back, and marrying women who were not virgins. Moreover, “Plural marriages are rooted in the notion of “sealing” for both time and eternity. The “sealing” power was not restored until April 3, 1836 when Elijah appeared to Joseph in the Kirtland Temple and conferred the sealing keys upon him. So, Joseph’s marriage to Fanny Alger in 1833 was illegal under both the laws of the land and under any theory of divine authority”.
Predatory threats and promises – Smith promised salvation to a girl’s entire family if she would mary him. To another teenage girl, he threatened that an angel with a flaming sword would kill him if she did not consent to marriage.
Smith lied about his sexual activity – when publicly questioned about it shortly before his death he said “What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one. I am the same man, and as innocent as I was fourteen years ago; and I can prove them all perjurers.”
The 1835 edition of D&C bans polygamy, but as smith was receiving and teaching these “revelations” he continued to marry new wives.
Soliciting perjury – In an attempt to abate public rumors of his secret polygamy, Joseph got 31 witnesses to sign an affidavit published in the LDS October 1, 1842 Times and Seasons stating that Joseph did not practice polygamy.
“…we know of no other rule or system of marriage than the one published in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants.”
One of the signers of this affidavit, was Joseph Smith’s plural wife. Joseph and Eliza were married 3 months earlier on June 29, 1842. Two Apostles and future prophets, John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff, were very aware of Joseph’s polygamy behind the scenes when they signed. Another signer, Bishop Whitney, had personally married his daughter Sarah Ann Whitney to Joseph as a plural wife a few months earlier on July 27, 1842; Whitney’s wife and Sarah’s mother Elizabeth (also a signer) witnessed the ceremony.
Reconciling Joseph Smith’s behavior with the idyllic view of “chastity” promoted by the LDS church for the last 100+ years is difficult to uphold given his behavior.
Questions: How many of these relationships were sexual? Why would Emma be so upset unless some of them were sexual? Why did all but 2 of them occur in the last 4 years of his life? How was Joseph’s polygamy different than Brigham Young’s or later church leaders who publicly lied about their sexual behavior. How fallible are “prophets” or those with the gift of prophesy. At what point does their behavior constitute a fall from grace? Was Joseph allowed to be killed because of his moral transgressions? At what point of “unrighteousness” is a priesthood holder’s authority invalidated? Is the LDS view of sexual morality based more on tradition than revelation? Did Judah’s sexual encounter with a temple prostitute and incest with his daughter-in-law invalidate his patriarchal priesthood authority? Is it hypocrisy for the LDS church to promote such a strict sexual morality when the Church’s founder had such lose sexual morality? Is God’s moral standard based on what secures the greatest happiness for all involved? (see Joseph’s marriage proposal to Nancy Rigdon). Is “God” OK with non-traditional sexual relationships as long as they are consensual, secure the greater good and religiously institutionalized? Does current LDS attitudes toward polygamy and sexuality make it more difficult for members to know about Joseph’s polygamy and sexuality and still maintain a testimony of the church’s exclusive truth claims?
Prophet Concerns and Questions
1-Adam-God – Brigham Young taught that Adam was heavenly father descended to earth in human flesh. The Adam-God doctrine was condemned by a later prophet.
In my opinion this is not much of an issue to anyone who’s studied much of global religious traditions or religious esotericism in general.
Response: How does this doctrine relate to Joseph’s doctrine of plural gods as taught in the King Follet discourse? Was Brigham talking as a prophet or as a man? How does anybody tell the difference? Was Brigham referring to the “Most High God” or simply saying Adam is the primary God of this world under the Patriarchal priesthood? Did Brigham Young’s statement that Adam was “the only god of which we have anything to do”, infer that Adam was higher than Christ or Christ’s father? Was he talking about literal father’s or figurative fathers in the priesthood? If D&C 76:xx and numerous other scriptures teach that all celestial beings are “equal in power and authority”, then why is this even an issue?
2-Blood-Atonement – Brigham Young taught that Jesus’s atonement was not sufficient to cover all sins, and that some people needed to be killed in order to atone for their sins with their own blood. “I know, when you hear my brethren telling about cutting people off from the earth, that you consider it is strong doctrine; but it is to save them, not to destroy them…” Brigham young gave himself the right to kill people under the guise of saving them from their sins.
Conclusion: Brigham Young was an autocratic political and religious leader, leading a large population during a period of great social instability. Like most people in similar circumstances he did and said a lot of things that are very questionable to modern standards.
Questions: Priesthood holders have a responsibility to maintain social stability, but how much power and authority should one give them over our personal lives? Was this simply a religious justification for capital punishment? Did Brigham ever use this form of capital punishment on apostates (or sedition in political terms)? Same question applies to Joseph Smith in relation to his use of Porter Rockwell and the Danites. What’s the difference between a revered empire builder like Alexander the Great or Queen Victoria and a vilified empire builder like Mao Tse Tung or Stalin? Doesn’t history show they often use the same tactics and kill the same percentages of people in their endeavors?
3-Polygamy necessary for salvation – Brigham Young said “The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy.”
Conclusion: This is one of the least, of the many contradictory and obviously false things LDS church leaders have said. Questions surrounding whether Brigham Young’s was directly involved in the Mountains Meadows massacre (like Robert E. Lee accused him of being at his execution confession) are far more pressing when deciding how much power one should give religious leaders over their personal lives.
Questions: Just because someone does and says contradictory or morally wrong things, does this mean they don’t deserve their authority? Does the very fact that they hold social power prove that God approves of them? How does the Chinese philosophy of the “Mandate of Heaven” apply to religious leaders? When does speaking out concerning perceived wrongs done by leaders turn into anarchy and end up causing more harm than good?
4-No Blacks Allowed – Joseph Smith gave the priesthood to black men, but Brigham Young prohibited it and denied black people access to the temple. Every prophet from Young until the seventies upheld the racist ban on blacks in the temple. How can true prophets disagree on a matter such as this? “The same God who “denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female” is the same God who denied blacks from the saving ordinances of the Temple for 130 years. Yet, He changed His mind again in 1978 about black people.”
These doctrines were later declared false by future prophets and apostles. “Yesterday’s doctrine is today’s false doctrine. Yesterday’s prophet is today’s heretic.”
Same questions as above apply.
Falsifiable claims – Smith claimed that he could translate ancient texts – this is a falsifiable claim.
Kinderhook plates – Joseph smith gave partial translation of these plates, claiming they were from a descendent of Ham. The plates were later revealed to be a hoax. This and the Book of Abraham mistranslation show that Smith could not translate ancient texts. His claim was both falsifiable and twice falsified.
I believe the best way to approach these issues is like a scientist—an unbiased truth seeker. One who wades through the facts not trying to prove or disprove truth claims, but one who starting from scratch wishes to use this information to learn truths concerning ideas like:
-how does the scriptural idea of revelation and “the gift of prophesy” really work?
-what is the nature of a “prophet”. How subjective vs. objective are visionary experiences, and how much control is it prudent to give another over our own lives as a result of material revealed in their visionary experiences?
-are there better physiological explanations for visionary experiences and channeled material which account for the subjective and often contradictory information contained in them, while at the same time accounting for the supernatural aspects of them?
-when does the end justify the means? Is it OK to lie, exaggerate or even kill someone if you perceive it will save someone else’s life or accomplish some greater good (killing in perceived self-defense for example, or killing/doing “bad” for a noble cause)?
-what really is the nature of God, and how involved is this being in the experiences of supposed “prophets”? For example is God an anthropomorphic being who whispers in a “prophets” ears everything he should do, say or write or is “God” more like a computer database which prophets & mystics look into and get the answers, that they want, need or are ready for? Answers which are interpreted through the cultural bias of the observer?
-if God, gods or extra dimensional beings really do exist, what is our relationship to them, what is their relationship to each other and why should we even care if they exist or what they have to say?
I was googling CES Letter today to see if there were any new posts I hadn’t seen. I like your article here. Very similar to the approach I took. http://www.churchistrue.com/blog/ces-letter/ Some of the responses have been tried to fight the CES Letter on literal claims. I’m afraid that’s a losing battle. I hope more people can be open to the nuanced approach I see you offering here.