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Introduction in the CES Letter
Brief responses and additional resources, CES Letter sections
Detailed responses, CES Letter sections
Introduction in the CES Letter
The introduction to the CES Letter describes how Jeremy Runnells lost his faith in the Church of Jesus Christ and how he tried to find answers to his questions. Because this section of the letter doesn't describe details in doubts, below is some commentary on parts of the introduction.
The letter states, "Obviously, I'm a disaffected member who lost his testimony so it's no secret which side I'm on at the moment." Anyone approaching Church history and doctrine from this perspective will certainly have trouble accepting any faith-affirming answers because that person is already assuming that the answers are false. In other words, there is no such thing as unbiased research:
There's no such thing as an unbiased person. Just ask researchers Greenwald and Banaji, authors of Blindspot, and their colleagues at Project Implicit. They've discovered that — because of a lifetime of conditioning by social institutions like the media, church, and schools — we harbor unconscious biases that influence our judgments about people's character, ability, and potential. Implicit bias, according to their findings, is inevitable.
When researchers show up to work, we like to think that we leave that personal experience behind. We work hard to collect and analyse data in an unbiased way so that we can draw objective conclusions . . . And yet research involving humans can never be truly objective. Every decision is touched by our subjective experience with the world, or our research positionality: which research questions capture our interest, which papers we read and cite, which methods we consider to be valid, which assumptions we make about those methods and how we interpret what we find.
We will approach any subject with an inclination to either believe or disbelieve, and that will prejudice us for or against the information we receive. This is why President Russell M. Nelson exhorted Latter-day Saints to approach issues of Church history and doctrine with a belief in Jesus Christ and His restored Church:
Choose to believe in Jesus Christ. If you have doubts about God the Father and His Beloved Son or the validity of the Restoration or the veracity of Joseph Smith’s divine calling as a prophet, choose to believe and stay faithful. Take your questions to the Lord and to other faithful sources. Study with the desire to believe rather than with the hope that you can find a flaw in the fabric of a prophet’s life or a discrepancy in the scriptures. Stop increasing your doubts by rehearsing them with other doubters. Allow the Lord to lead you on your journey of spiritual discovery.
The letter describes a period of intense study that led the person to lose his testimony. While some people lose their testimony after studying about Church history and doctrine, many others gain a stronger testimony. Elder Lawrence Corbridge of the Seventy described his experience studying anti-Church material:
As part of an assignment I had as a General Authority a few years ago, I read through a great deal of material antagonistic to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the events of the Restoration. Since that assignment changed, I have not returned to wallow in that mire.
Reading that material always left me with a feeling of gloom, and one day that sense of darkness inspired me to write a partial response to all such antagonistic claims. I would like to share some of the thoughts I recorded that day, and although what I wrote was for my benefit, I hope it will help you as well. . . .
There is a God in heaven who is our Eternal Father. Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world. Joseph Smith was a prophet of God who laid the foundation for the Restoration of the kingdom of God. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the kingdom of God on the earth. I know this by my experience—all of it. I know this by the evidence, and the evidence is overwhelming. I know this by study. And, most surely, I know this by the spirit and power of the Holy Ghost.
Matthew Godfrey, a historian working on the Joseph Smith Papers, describes his experience working with Church history:
Many have asked Matthew Godfrey, a historian and general editor of the project, how working on the Joseph Smith Papers has affected his testimony, assuming it has been harmful to dig deep into Church history.
But for Godfrey, who has worked on the project for 13 years, his experience has been quite the opposite. His faith has been strengthened to see the documents reveal a “sincere” Joseph who cared about others and whose main life goal was to be obedient to God’s commandments.
“To be able to get into who Joseph Smith was as a person, how he came across to people and what he was concerned with has made me admire him even more,” Godfrey said. “When I look at these documents and how Joseph Smith is portrayed in them, he is not someone that comes across to me as an imposter. ... He comes across as someone who truly believes that he has been called of God to be a prophet, that he has been called to restore this Church, and that he is going to do the very best he can to do everything that God has asked him to do.”
The letter references a comment by Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy, who at the time was serving as Church Historian and Recorder. Elder Jensen gave his opinion that "maybe since Kirtland, we've never had a period of - I'll call it apostasy, like we're having now." This comment should be understood in context. Elder Jensen was speaking to a group of individuals about issues in Church history and was making a comment that the number of people leaving the Church due to issues with Church history was higher at that point than in the past. However, the percent of members leaving the Church due to issues with Church history has been and continues to be a small percentage, as noted by Elder Quentin L. Cook: "The percentage of people removing their names from Church records has decreased in each decade since the 1990s. While we want everybody to stay, the number leaving is a small percentage of the annual increases from conversion."
In addition, the percent of Church members who are faithful to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ continues to increase, as noted by Elder Quentin L. Cook: "Youth and young adults are not less active or leaving the Church in higher numbers than in the past, as has been widely circulated. The number of missionaries called to serve has significantly increased. The percentage of church participation for the rising generation shows a continuous upward trend. Moreover, the number of young adults attending institute has also been increasing."
- Kristen Lee, "Can You Escape Bias?", Psychology Today 20 August 2015.
- Alexa Delbosc, "There is no such thing as unbiased research – is there anything we can do about that?" Transport Reviews 43, no. 2 (2023).
- Russell M. Nelson, "Christ Is Risen; Faith in Him Will Move Mountains," April 2021 general conference.
- Lawrence E. Corbridge, "Stand on the Rock of Revelation," Liahona, October 2020.
- Matthew Godfrey, in Trent Toone, "Church leaders, historians reflect on Joseph Smith Papers as project nears its end," Church News, 30 March 2023. See also Matthew Godfrey, in Trent Toone, "What 3 historians learned researching the Joseph Smith Papers," Deseret News, 20 March 2021: "Sometimes I’m asked how working on the Joseph Smith Papers project has affected my testimony. At times, I think the individual asking the question is expecting me to say that it has had a negative impact. But nothing could be further from the truth. As I’ve studied his life, I don’t see a megalomaniac intent on gaining power or a deceptive man who was trying to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes. Instead, I see a man who was doing his best to fulfill his divine calling as a prophet at the same time he was trying to be a husband, a father and a friend to others. Because of Joseph’s humility and willingness to navigate trials with faith, God was able to do a great work through him. Seeing that makes me believe that perhaps God can do a great work through me — despite my own weaknesses and imperfections — if I just do the best I can with what he has asked me to do. Studying Joseph’s life has thus helped me become more confident in myself and in my abilities to do hard things, while also increasing my own testimony of Joseph as a prophet."
- Peter Henderson and Kristina Cooke, "Special Report: Mormonism besieged by the modern age," Reuters, 31 January 2012.
- Quentin L. Cook, "Facing Life and Faith Challenges," November 2023 Worldwide Devotional for Young Adults, footnote 5.
- In June 2023, Elder Cook noted that not only is the number increase, but the percentage is increasing as well. See Scott Taylor, "3 Church leaders talk about the updated ‘Preach My Gospel’ and the robust current state of missionary work," Church News, 22 June 2023.
- Quentin L. Cook, "Facing Life and Faith Challenges," November 2023 Worldwide Devotional for Young Adults.