What is the CES Letter? Is it True/Safe to Read?

The CES Letter is a collection of questions, concerns, and doubts about the Mormon truth claims addressed to a CES Director from Jeremy Runnels. It focuses mainly on issues with the church foundations and Joseph Smith, but also contains concerns about present-day issues. We’ve mentioned the CES letter a few times on the site as it’s considered by many who are unaware of the truth to be anti-Mormon lies, even though many things have been confirmed in the Gospel Topic Essays since its first publication.

CES Letter is one Latter-day Saint's honest quest to get official answers from the LDS Church on its troubling origins, history, and practices. Jeremy Runnells was offered an opportunity to discuss his own doubts with a director of the Church Educational System (CES) and was assured that his doubts could be resolved. After reading Jeremy's letter, the director promised him a response. No response ever came.
The CES Letter is one Latter-day Saint’s honest quest to get official answers from the LDS Church on its troubling origins, history, and practices. Jeremy Runnells was offered an opportunity to discuss his own doubts with a director of the Church Educational System (CES) and was assured that his doubts could be resolved. After reading Jeremy’s letter, the director promised him a response. No response ever came.

Where did the CES letter come from?

It Started With His Personal Questions

Jeremy Runnels, was an honest, active, believing church member with seven generations of family in the church and years of service as a full-time ASL missionary in New York City, followed by a temple marriage. He was struggling with some issues he’d put on his shelf, and was questioning his faith in 2012. He likes to say he experienced an awakening to the church’s truth crisis rather than claim it as his own faith crisis. Which, when you think about it, more accurately reflects reality.

Writing a Letter to a CES Director

The next year he was encouraged by a CES Director to share (privately of course) his questions and concerns. The Church Education System oversees all seminary and institute education for the church as well as the church-owned universities such as BYU. Jeremy took up the opportunity to seek answers from someone who should know, so he began to work on compiling his questions. As he wrote these questions and concerns kept coming. He was able to send the compilation of questions as a letter to a CES Director.

Seeing a glimmer of hope that he might have official answers that were better than the unofficial Mormon apologetic crap I was frustrated with, I took his offer seriously. I wrote a letter to him. I emailed it to him. He read it and stated that it was “very well-written” and that he would give me a response. Days turned to weeks, and weeks turned to months, and months turned to years. I never heard back from him again.

Jeremy Runnels
https://cesletter.org/faqs-common-attacks/#story

The CES Director responded that he read the “very well-written” letter and that he would provide me with a response. No response ever came.

The CES Letter Mic Drop 🖐️🎤

Jeremy also shared the letter online privately. There were many mormons and ex-mormons interested in the format this letter took, and still are to this day. It quickly became known as the CES Letter and Jeremy was “ex-mormon famous” nearly overnight. Discussions were popping up on blogs, sites critical to the church, podcasts, and social media while also apologetic sites wrote their rebuttals.

The CES Letter
The CES Letter

Prior to sending off the letter to the CES Director, I shared my draft in a closed Facebook group as well as on Reddit. I wanted feedback to ensure that it was as accurate as it could be so that I didn’t waste the director’s time or mine. Unbeknownst to me at the time, a lot of people liked it and started sharing it with family and friends. This is how it started going viral on the internet. Next thing I know, the document is promoted on the home page of MormonThink.com and everything went next level. FairMormon began attacking me and the letter a few months later and I found myself pulled into this current that I never sought or wanted.

Jeremy Runnels
https://cesletter.org/faqs-common-attacks/#story

CES Letter Reviews and Responses

The CES Letter continues to be a fairly famous document because it is a solid collection of questions and concerns. It is by no means a complete list of everything, it just reflects what Jeremy had on his shelf. Plus, remember he didn’t write it to burn the church down, he just had questions and the CES Director asked for them. It wasn’t exactly a “takedown” of the church. It doesn’t ask members to leave or make any conclusions about the church for them, it’s just documenting shelf item after shelf item along with research and accompanying images. It brings issues front and center. If each concern and question was a tree, it had the effect of displaying the whole forest of trees at once. Once you see that much and are hit with so much cognitive dissonance it’s hard to reconcile it all. Especially when you know that this CES Director had no answers. Jeremy Runnels does include his personal conclusion that “I desperately searched for answers to all of the problems. To me, the answer eventually came but it was not what I expected…or hoped for.”

A Catalyst for Leaving the Church

Jeremy Runnells published a letter he’d written to Church Educational System (CES) outlining his doubts about the Church’s teachings, it tore through communities. Almost every former Mormon I spoke to cited Runnells’ letter as a catalyst for their departure.

https://www.theverge.com/2019/7/1/18759587/mormon-church-quitmormon-exmormon-jesus-christ-internet-seo-lds

1,700 Mormons and former believers who responded to The Salt Lake Tribune’s outreach to those grappling with a faith crisis. They hailed from across the nation and other countries. Nearly a third have left the LDS Church, many citing a blend of triggers from historical anomalies to contemporary concerns. Even more no longer are practicing Mormons. Dozens cited Jeremy Runnells’ 2013 “Letter to a CES [Church Educational System] Director,” which outlined numerous questions about Mormonism’s past and present.

https://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=3527240&itype=CMSID

The CES Letter even made an appearance in the Amazing Spiderman comic book. Though it was reissued once the publishers discovered the artist was making a personal statement in the pages.

The amazing Spiderman wearing a CES Letter sticker was removed from the comic book.
Even Spider-Man Has Left the Church

Folks would come upon the CES Letter knowing about a handful of the issues, but when confronted with so many and it being well-researched with references, their shelf would collapse.

The document was updated a few times for cleaning things up and was set up as a website as well at cesletter.org where you can download the pdf, read it online or even order a paperback version.

“Runnells’ CES Letter presents many historical issues concerning LDS history, which for many members has been a wake-up call. The letter deserves to be read, both in and out of the LDS community. Read with an open mind and you will understand why many members are asking questions.”

Hans H. Mattsson
Former Area Authority Seventy, LDS Church

“Jeremy Runnells’ CES Letter is an excellent summary of the foundational problems of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Given the generous amount of time, energy, and money donated to the LDS Church, members owe it to themselves to take a serious look beyond what is taught in Church meetings. I would begin with CES Letter.”

Grant H. Palmer
CES director and educator of 34 years.
Author of An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins

“Meticulously researched, this book represents Jeremy’s sincere, heartfelt, and herculean effort to gather and discern the basic evidence regarding LDS church origins. It is an incredible labor of love … for truth. Mormon apologists have tried—and failed—to discredit CES Letter. If you want to quickly learn the main historical and scientific issues with LDS church truth claims, I know of no other resource—on the Internet or in print—that is more accurate, concise, and yet comprehensive. I highly recommend this book.”

John P. Dehlin, Ph.D
Founder of MormonStories.org

Mormon Stories Episodes

Jeremy has been a guest on the popular Mormon Stories podcast and interviewed by John Dehlin in the following series:

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nMadctXvMg
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YVsBWpn8eBU
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GjJJ9Rl-9_Y

Apologist Rebuttals and Supposed Debunkings

The “CES Letter” challenges literal/infallible McConkie-like worldviews. Those who read it may find themselves compelled to shift to a new paradigm like those of Jim Bennett, Richard Bushman, the symbolic worldview, or faithlessness. The “CES Letter” is essential reading for those who want to make Mormonism survive throughout the internet age of the 21st century.

https://medium.com/@BrandonLy1/why-the-ces-letter-a05254bc3950

Many responses to the CES Letter have come from the Mormon apologist community where they do their darndest to support a faith-promoting conclusion of the letter. That is the definition of apologist work, to support your preset and faithful conclusion with facts and points where possible, and dismiss anything that doesn’t fit into your narrative. They stutter trying to hold up the church’s truth claims though and resort to ad hominem baseless attacks in many instances.

The reason the CES Letter has enjoyed any success is that most Latter-day Saints have never been exposed to some of the more complex matters in early Mormon history. On average, the typical Latter-day Saint has never needed to think outside of the box on Mormon-related philosophical, historical, or scholarly issues.

Mike Ash
Bamboozled by the “CES Letter”

They then analyze the Mormon space that inevitably created the CES Letter and dismisses the letter since they believe in a Mormonism that should or could exist rather than a Mormon church that is, while agreeing with the “basic notion” but still not allowing it to sway their conclusion.

The CES Letter [formally, “Letter to a CES Director,” which he cited as one of the online sources he had read] is emblematic of this all-or-nothing approach to religion. . . . The letter is nearly a perfect inverse of the version of Mormonism it is reacting to. Jeremy Runnels may have written the letter, but it was actually an inevitability—someone, sometime, somewhere was going to write that letter, because it was the obvious response to a certain style, tone, and mode of Mormonism that culminated in the highly doctrinaire, no-retreat-no-surrender positions taken by certain church leaders and members especially in the second half of the twentieth century. I would actually agree with the CES letter’s basic notion, that the Mormonism it is responding to is unsustainable. Where I disagree is that I don’t think the Mormonism it is responding to is actually the real, only, or inevitable Mormonism. Certainly, that was some people’s Mormonism, but it’s not my Mormonism, and I don’t think it’s the Mormonism that is going to endure in future decades and centuries.

Patrick Mason
2016 FairMormon Conference

But even among apologists, they know that something like the CES letter was inevitable in the information age we live in today. They will defend the church that created the environment that made the CES letter inevitable and then perform mental gymnastics in their apologetics to make things work, but none of the rebuttals seem to hold much sway when members already struggling with a shelf full of questions come upon the facts they find in the CES letter.

Jeremy Runnels has even now addressed The CES letter debunking with more debunking. We’ve now gotten into inception-level debunking. The CES letter could be said to be debunking the Mormon church’s truth claims, then places like FAIR claim to be debunking the CES Letter, and finally Jeremy debunks the FAIR debunking (among many many others). This proves a point, the CES letter has been effective at calling attention to the church’s truth crisis. If the CES letter was as easily dismissed as the leaders and apologists like to claim, why does it need so much debunking? There are many many who have left that credit the CES letter for either bringing the issues to their attention or compiling them into a single format where they can’t miss the forest for the trees. There are countless Reddit threads discussing this very fact, so while there are no hard statistics there is ample anecdotal evidence.

Contributors to this site alone credit the CES Letter as something “on their shelf” and include it in their story many many times. They mark it on their shelf or simply mention it in their story.

So, is the CES Letter Safe?

The CES letter isn’t dangeroud, and it doesn’t contain any anti-mormon lies, but it does ask some questions that many church members share. These questions were asked of a CES Director, but to this day have still received no response. These are questions the church has no answers for. These are questions many members have had on their shelves for years and years. It is one member’s honest quest to get official answers from the church on its troubling origins, history, and practices. The questions it asks are valid and the concerns it contains are true and even include references for further research.

The letter is a well-written summation of a typical Mormon shelf. If your shelf is at capacity or stressed with the weight of your own questions, reading the questions and discussing your doubts is not what a General Authority would suggest. But there are members who read the CES Letter and remain active and committed to the church and their personal relationship with God. So the CES Letter is an honest series of questions with valid concerns regarding the Mormon church and is not meant to destroy a testimony. Some say reading it and trying to stay committed to the church is like squeezing a tube of toothpaste and then trying to get the paste back into the tube. Once you know the forest of trees which are questions and concerns, you can’t unknow them. It is a disorienting step for many, but nearly all are happier on the other site.

What does the CES Letter Say?

Enough talk about the CES Letter and where it’s from and what it meant to struggling members and what it’s done to apologists and the Mormon community as a whole, what does the document actually contain? The CES Letter lists inconsistent findings with church history, things like Book of Mormon anachronisms, and the lack of archeologic or DNA evidence of the Nephite and Lamanite civilizations, issues with the Book of Mormon translation, Joseph’s multiple first vision accounts, the Book of Abraham vs the papyrus, etc etc etc.

Here’s an outline of the CES Letter. Each listing links directly into that section of the online format.

CES Letter Outline

Some CES Letter Points

Seer Stone for Book of Mormon translation

Unlike the story I’ve been taught in Sunday School, Priesthood, General Conferences, Seminary, EFY, Ensigns, Church history tour, Missionary Training Center, and BYU… Joseph Smith used a rock in a hat for translating the Book of Mormon.

In other words, Joseph used the same magic device or “Ouija Board” that he used during his treasure hunting days. He put a rock – called a “peep stone” – in his hat and put his face in the hat to tell his customers the location of buried treasure on their property. He also used this same method for translating the Book of Mormon, while the gold plates were covered, placed in another room, or even buried in the woods. The gold plates were not used for the Book of Mormon we have today.

BOOK OF MORMON TRANSLATION THAT THE CHURCH PORTRAYED AND STILL PORTRAYS TO ITS MEMBERS
BOOK OF MORMON TRANSLATION AS IT ACTUALLY HAPPENED

Since learning this disturbing new information and feeling betrayed, I have been attacked and gaslighted by revisionist Mormon apologists claiming that it’s my fault and the fault of anyone else for not knowing this. “The information was there all along,” they say. “You should’ve known this,” they claim.

Jeremy Runnels
CES Letter, Book of Mormon Translation

First Vision – Late Appearance

No one – including Joseph Smith’s family members and the Saints – had ever heard about the first vision from twelve to twenty-two years after it supposedly occurred. The first and earliest written account of the first vision in Joseph Smith’s journal was 12 years after the spring of 1820. There is absolutely no record of any claimed “first vision” prior to this 1832 account.

Despite the emphasis placed on it now, the first vision does not appear to have been widely taught to members of the Church until the 1840s, more than a decade after the Church was founded, and 20 years after it allegedly occurred…

As with the rock in the hat story, I did not know there are multiple first vision accounts. I did not know of their contradictions or that the Church members did not know about a first vision until 12-22 years after it supposedly happened. I was unaware of these omissions in the mission field, as I was never taught or trained in the Missionary Training Center to teach investigators these facts.

Jeremy Runnels
CES Letter, First Vision Late Appearance and other Problems

Book of Abraham Papyrus Found and is a Common Funerary Text

Originally, Joseph claimed that this record was written by Abraham “by his own hand, upon papyrus” – a claim still prominent in the heading of the Book of Abraham. This claim could not be evaluated for decades as many thought the papyri were lost in a fire. The original papyrus Joseph translated has since been found and, as stated in the Church’s July 2014 Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham essay, “scholars have identified the papyrus fragments as parts of standard funerary texts…[that] date to between the third century B.C.E. and the first century C.E., long after Abraham lived.”

We know this is the papyrus that Joseph used for translation because the hieroglyphics match in chronological order to the hieroglyphics in Joseph’s Kirtland Egyptian Papers, which contains his Grammar & Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL). Additionally, the papyrus were pasted onto paper which have drawings of a temple and maps of the Kirtland, Ohio area on the back and they were companied by an affidavit by Emma Smith verifying they had been in the possession of Joseph Smith.

Egyptologists have also since translated the source material for the Book of Abraham and have found it to be nothing more than a common pagan Egyptian funerary text for a deceased man named “Hor” around first century C.E. In other words, it was a common Breathing Permit that the Egyptians buried with their dead. It has nothing to do with Abraham or anything Joseph claimed in his translation for the Book of Abraham. The Church admits this in its essay.

Jeremy Runnels
CES Letter, Book of Abraham, Papyrus Found

Book of Mormon Witnesses, Their Magical Worldview, Second-Sight WItnesses and No Actual Signed Document Exists

The testimony of the Three and Eight Witnesses to the Book of Mormon is a key part to the testimonies of many members of the Church. Some even base their testimony of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon on these 11 witnesses and their claims. As a missionary, I was instructed to teach investigators about the testimonies of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon as part of boosting the book’s credibility.

There are several critical problems for relying and betting on these 19th century men as credible witnesses.

In order to truly understand the Book of Mormon witnesses and the issues with their claims, one must understand the magical worldview of many people in early 19th century New England. These are people who believed in folk magic, divining rods, visions, second sight, peep stones in hats, treasure hunting (money digging or glass looking), and so on.

They are 11 witnesses to the Book of Mormon: Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, Hiram Page, David Whitmer, John Whitmer, Christian Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, Peter Whitmer Jr., Hyrum Smith, Samuel Smith, and Joseph Smith Sr. – who all shared a common worldview of second sight, magic, and treasure digging – which is what drew them together in 1829…

If these witnesses literally really saw the plates like everyone else on the planet sees tangible objects…why strange statements like, “I never saw them only as I see a city through a mountain”? What does that even mean? I have never seen a city through a mountain. Have you?

Why all these bizarre statements from the witnesses if the plates were real and the event literal?

Why would you need a vision or supernatural power to see real physical plates that Joseph said were in a box that he carried around? When Martin Harris was asked, “But did you see them [plates] with your natural, your bodily eyes, just as you see this pencil-case in my hand? Now say no or yes to this.” Martin answered, “I did not see them as I do that pencil-case, yet I saw them with the eye of faith; I saw them just as distinctly as I see anything around me, though at the time they were covered over with a cloth.” – Origin and History of the Mormonites, p.406

When I was a missionary, my understanding and impression from looking at the testimony of the Three and Eight Witnesses in the Book of Mormon was that the signatures and statements were legally binding documents in which the names represented signatures on the original document similar to those you would see on the original US Declaration of Independence. This is how I presented the testimonies to investigators. According to the above manuscript that Oliver took to the printer for the Book of Mormon, they were not signatures. Since there is no document or evidence of any document whatsoever with the actual signatures of all of the witnesses, the only real testimonies we have from the witnesses are later interviews given by them and eyewitness accounts/affidavits made by others, some of which are shown previously.

From a legal perspective, the statements of the testimonies of the Three and Eight witnesses hold no credibility or weight in a court of law as there are a) no signatures of any of the witnesses except Oliver, b) no specific dates, c) no specific locations, and d) some of the witnesses made statements after the fact that contradict and cast doubt on the specific claims made in the statements contained in the preface of the Book of Mormon.

Jeremy Runnels
CES Letter, Witnesses, Magical Worldview, Second Sight, No Document

Church’s Dishonesty, Censorship, and Whitewashing Over Its History

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

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.

OFFICIAL DECLARATION 2 HEADER

In sharp contrast to the above statement:

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…  There is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes.

The First Presidency
1949 FIRST PRESIDENCY STATEMENT

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.

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. 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. 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.

Jeremy Runnels
CES Letter, Church’s Dishonesty, Censorship, and Whitewashing Over Its History

Conclusion

These are just a small handful of cherry-picked examples from the 138-page letter. If you haven’t yet, please go read the CES Letter today. Some even go as far as writing cesletter.org into the cover page in the free Book of Mormons that can be found in Marriot hotels worldwide or purchasing the paperback and sending it to others for research and information purposes!

CES Letter Conclusions

Jeremy expresses the betrayal and loss of hope in the letter’s conclusion. He shares that learning and confirming these things online was a painful path. He is surprised the church wasn’t more upfront all along. He even states that reading the apologetic responses to his issues was what really made him lose his testimony. He’s not trying to get anyone to join him, though that is a common result.

When I first discovered that gold plates were not used to translate the Book of Mormon, that Joseph Smith started polygamy and disturbingly practiced it in ways I never could have imagined, and that Joseph’s Book of Abraham translations and claims are gibberish…I went into a panic. I desperately needed answers and I needed them immediately. Among the first sources I looked to for answers were official Church sources such as Mormon.org and LDS.org. I couldn’t find them.

I then went to FairMormon and Neal A. Maxwell Institute (formerly FARMS).

FairMormon and these unofficial apologists have done more to destroy my testimony than any “anti-Mormon” source ever could. I find their version of Mormonism to be alien and foreign to the Chapel Mormonism that I grew up in attending Church, seminary, reading scriptures, General Conferences, EFY, Church history tour, mission, and BYU. It frustrates me that apologists use so many words in their attempts to redefine words and their meanings. Their pet theories, claims, and philosophies of men mingled with scripture are not only contradictory to the scriptures and Church teachings I learned through correlated Mormonism…they’re truly bizarre.

I am amazed to learn that, according to these unofficial apologists, translate doesn’t really mean translate, horses aren’t really horses (they’re tapirs), chariots aren’t really chariots (since tapirs can’t pull chariots without wheels), steel isn’t really steel, the Hill Cumorah isn’t really in New York (it’s possibly in Mesoamerica), Lamanites aren’t really the principal ancestors of the Native American Indians, marriage isn’t really marriage (if they’re Joseph’s plural marriages? They’re mostly non-sexual spiritual sealings), and yesterday’s prophets weren’t really prophets when they taught today’s false doctrine.

Why is it that I had to first discover all of this – from the internet – at 31-years-old after over 20 years of high activity in the Church? I wasn’t just a seat warmer at Church. I’ve read the scriptures several times. I’ve read hundreds of “approved” Church books. I was an extremely dedicated missionary who voluntarily asked to stay longer in the mission field. I was very interested in and dedicated to the Gospel.

How am I supposed to feel about learning about these disturbing facts at 31-years-old? After making critical life decisions based on trust and faith that the Church was telling me the complete truth about its origins and history? After many books, seminary, EFY, Church history tour, mission, BYU, General Conferences, scriptures, Ensigns, and regular Church attendance?

So, putting aside the absolute shock and feeling of betrayal in learning about all of this information that has been kept concealed and hidden from me by the Church my entire life, I am now expected to go back to the drawing board. Somehow, I am supposed to rebuild my testimony on newly discovered information that is not only bizarre and alien to the Chapel Mormonism I had a testimony of; it’s almost comical…

The past year was the worst year of my life. I experienced a betrayal, loss, and sadness unlike anything I’ve ever known. “Do what is right; let the consequence follow” now holds a completely different meaning for me. I desperately searched for answers to all of the problems. To me, the answer eventually came but it was not what I expected…or hoped for.

Jeremy Runnels
CES Letter, Conclusion

What Do You Think?

What do you think? Was he right to write this letter? Did you know the CES letter before now? What was your experience when you read the CES Letter? Was it confirming your decision to leave the church or did it crack your resolve to stay? Let us know by sharing your own story on this site today. You can even answer these very questions on your profile and be added to the directory.


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