Part 35: CES Letter Prophet Questions [Section I]
by Sarah Allen
Jeremy’s sneering contempt for the idea of ongoing revelation and modern-day prophets is, I believe, quite telling. Later in the CES Letter, he uses the same method to cast doubt on the idea of personal revelation as well. It speaks to his mindset the same way his sarcastic rebuttals do to anyone who attempts to respond to his concerns. If he was truly seeking answers to questions that were disturbing him to such a great degree, as he consistently claims, you’d think he’d welcome a response rather than lash out with childish insults and playground taunts. And yet, responses containing answers only seem to enrage him.
If we’re speaking about someone’s “modus operandi,” to use one of his favorite terms, Jeremy’s is to treat the things of God and those who try to uphold them with open disdain. There are no genuine questions here. He’s shown clearly that he is not sincerely seeking answers, but rather, actively seeking to destroy the faith of others. He’s like Amalikiah, poisoning people with his venom by degrees until their testimonies wither and die. It’s tragic, and I can only pray that someday, he has his “Alma the Younger moment” and realizes what he’s done before it’s too late.
I feel comfortable saying this because I’ve spent the better part of a year with the CES Letter, going over every word, checking the sources, and putting context and history back into the things he removes from all context. I began writing these weekly posts on Reddit in February. At the time I wrote this one for Reddit, it was early October. A large amount of my time, energy, and focus this year has been put into this series. This Letter has been an unfortunate constant companion in my life, and I’m not done yet. It’ll probably take at least the rest of the year to get through it all, because it just keeps going. It’s like the Energizer Bunny.
Now, I’m not complaining. The blessings that have come to my life because of these posts have been immeasurable. I’ve learned a lot, my testimony has grown, I’ve made new friends, and I’ve been deeply humbled to have received messages and letters from people who’ve said the posts have helped answer their questions. My mod team at Reddit and the volunteers here at FAIR have been incredibly supportive and generous, and those who comment on the posts have been amazing. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.
I say these things about Jeremy, however, because I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt in some places and believe that there were times when maybe he honestly just didn’t know the answers to the questions he was asking. But the deeper into the Letter we go, and the nastier his tone and word choice become, the clearer it is that this was never about getting answers. I said that in my very first post, complete with examples from his own words, and it’s only become that much more obvious. His behavior is proving me right every step of the way, and the rest of this section has some of the worst rhetoric yet.
He is not the innocent, little, lost puppy trying to find his way home that he claims to be. He is a dangerous wolf in sheep’s clothing trying to sneak in and catch you unaware so that he can prey on you. He’s trying to make you question the things you know are true. He’s trying to make you doubt your own spiritual experiences. He’s trying to undermine the prophets, the scriptures, the Holy Spirit, and the restoration of the Gospel. And he’s doing all of that because he’s trying to make you as miserable as he is.
Do not let him win. Do not fall for his tricks. There is real joy in this Gospel. Hang onto it, even if you have questions and doubts. Lean on the Savior to get you through. He’s right there, waiting to help. He will not leave you comfortless. He will come to you. You only have to let Him in.
Anyway, Jeremy’s recap begins here:
I’m told that prophets are just men who are only prophets when acting as such (whatever that means). I’m told that, like all prophets, Brigham Young was a man of his time. For example, I was told that Brigham Young was acting as a man when he taught that “God revealed to [him]” that “Adam is our father and God” and the “only God with whom we have to do.” Never mind that Brigham taught this over the pulpit in not one but two conferences and never mind that he introduced this theology into the endowment ceremony in the Temples.
Never mind that Brigham Young made it clear that he was speaking as a prophet:
“I have never yet preached a sermon and sent it out to the children of men, that they may not call Scripture.” – Journal of Discourses 13:95
Yes, prophets are mortal men who occasionally make mistakes, the way we all do. Brigham Young was a complex individual with a lifetime of experiences, circumstances, and personality traits rubbing off on him that we’ve never experienced. He was highly theatrical when he was speaking and he loved to exaggerate to make a point, as he was surely doing with the scripture comment. The Saints of his day knew that, even if it’s often lost in translation to us today.
Brigham Young taught correct, beautiful, true doctrine 98% of the time, but you don’t see Jeremy pointing any of that out. He was also the prophet for more than 30 years. I guarantee you that in any given 30-year span of time, we’ll all say things that we think are true but that ultimately turn out not to be.
As we went over a few weeks ago, Brigham believed that all knowledge was revelation from God. This included ideas, inspiration, facts, figures, and actual revelation. He believed everything that was taught to him was a revelation of some kind, given from God through various teachers and people he knew. When he said that God revealed the Adam-God theory to him, he almost certainly was not saying that it came in the form of a vision from God. In fact, he frequently said that Joseph Smith taught it to him, not God Himself. He apparently believed it was revealed by God through Joseph and, likely, also through his very close friend, Heber C. Kimball.
Moreover, both the original quote about Adam-God and the quote about everything he teaches being comparable to scripture are from sermons for which we no longer have the original transcripts. That means we can’t be sure what he actually said. We know he did teach something similar to the Adam-God theory, but we don’t know the exact wording or whether there was further explanation or background commentary that was removed from the final transcript. We don’t know what was removed or inserted by the reporters. We don’t know if there was more to it all that would have shed light on his meaning. We also don’t know if his stroke led to any cognitive side effects that had some bearing on what he taught or the way he openly and frequently contradicted himself in his sermons. We’re left to speculate just as he speculated.
That’s something worth pointing out, as well: sermons were given off-the-cuff, without any notes or preparation. Their talks were rambling, unorganized, occasionally incoherent, and often included as much speculation and opinion as actual doctrine. This included General Conference addresses.
Being taught once or twice over the pulpit a century and a half ago does not make something official, binding doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Remember, Elders Christofferson, Andersen, and Oaks have all spoken in recent years to clarify what is doctrine and what is opinion. Brigham may have believed it was doctrine, but he did not receive a revelation directly from God saying that it was. Just because he hyperbolically said his words were scripture did not actually make them scripture (a comment which was not made in reference to the Adam-God theory, for what it’s worth).
And just because he said and believed a few weird things at different points in his life does not mean he wasn’t a prophet of God. The Lord calls who He needs. He doesn’t call perfect people, and He doesn’t call the person the people would vote for in an election. He calls the ones who would be the most effective in leading the Church at that moment in time. And Brigham was very effective at leading the Church. He was very effective in seeing the Saints settle an unsettled land, grow the Church, and continue to spread the Gospel throughout the world. He was the man who ensured our church did not die along with Joseph. He may not have been perfect, but he did great things for this Church and for spreading the Gospel, and we owe him a lot.
As for it being taught in the temple, that’s actually much more significant than Jeremy seems to realize, which baffles but doesn’t surprise me. You see, Jeremy’s taken out his endowment, so he’s familiar with its content. He should’ve realized the flaw in this argument.
In the very same temple ceremony written by Brigham Young, Adam’s participation in the events of the Creation is laid out and it is made crystal clear that he is not God the Father. Without going into detail, Adam’s role in our Father’s Plan is very clearly delineated. He’s prominent in that ceremony. You can’t miss him. While parts of the endowment have changed over the years, that part has not. It’s stayed the same at least as long as the Church has been headquartered in Utah, and likely since the Nauvoo days.
Brigham wrote both parts of it and obviously saw no conflict between the different parts where Adam was shown not to be God, and then the part where he was stated to be God. That means we must be missing some context regarding Adam-God that didn’t make it into the JoD. If there is no conflict between those two parts of the temple ceremony, then we do not understand what Brigham was trying to teach, simple as that, because to us, there is a clear conflict in those statements.
Why would I want my kids chanting “Follow the Prophet” with such a ridiculous and inconsistent 187-year track record? What credibility do the Brethren have? Why would I want them following the prophet when a prophet is just a man of his time teaching his “theories” that will likely be disavowed by future “Prophets, Seers, and Revelators”? If his moral blueprint is not much better than that of their Sunday School teachers? If, historically speaking, the doctrine he teaches today will likely be tomorrow’s false doctrine?
First, we don’t “chant” “Follow the Prophet.” It’s a song kids sing, which Jeremy knows perfectly well. Do you see how he’s trying to make out like we’re a cult by using imagery like that? The word choice is deliberate, and it’s intended to make you wonder why we teach our kids that the prophet leads the Church in God’s name. This entire section was designed to make you question why we even have prophets in the first place, and this paragraph just doubles down on that.
Second, “a ridiculous and inconsistent track record”? Why? Because Jeremy disagrees with a few things that included a commandment, a policy that may or may not have been a commandment, two theories that were tossed around a handful of times each 150 years ago and not at all since, and a time when the Church was the victim of fraud alongside countless other organizations and individuals? On the contrary, for a church that believes in continuing revelation and an open canon, I’d actually say the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been remarkably consistent in its teachings.
There’s a bigger issue here, though. Jeremy not agreeing with something that happened over a century ago in a church he doesn’t believe in is fine. He’s entitled to his opinions. But throwing an entire religion out the window because something isn’t exactly what he thinks it ought to have been is both extreme and, to borrow one of Jeremy’s own words, ridiculous. Taking it another step further and trying to destroy it for everyone else is even worse.
Jeremy Runnells is not the Savior, and he is not God the Father. As such, he doesn’t get to set the rules. He doesn’t get to determine the criteria to be a prophet, nor does he get to decide which commandments, doctrines, and policies are valid. He doesn’t have to believe in them or obey them if he doesn’t want to, but he also doesn’t get to tear down your faith as part of his temper tantrum. That’s giving him power he hasn’t earned.
Third, the Brethren are all highly accomplished men who had decades of success in education, medicine, business, the military, and the law. I could write a paragraph for each of them, reciting their many successes, but this would be very long indeed. In addition to their many professional accomplishments, and much more importantly, they have spent their lives in service to the Church and to God. They have credibility—and far more of it than Jeremy does. They spend their time trying to build our testimonies, not destroy them.
Fourth, what does Jeremy have against Sunday School teachers? Is he calling them immoral or saying they don’t teach correct doctrine? I don’t understand the intent of that line at all.
Fifth, the Brethren do far more than just teach “theories,” and are not any more likely than any other man to share disavowed teachings. In fact, they’re far less likely, when 99% of what they teach is backed by scripture and revelation, as well as the confirmation of the Holy Ghost. Jeremy cherry-picked about .05% of the combined teachings of the prophets and apostles and declared it false doctrine. “Historically speaking,” the vast, vast majority of their teachings are things we still hold true today. Moreover, that includes the vast, vast majority of Brigham Young’s teachings, too.
And if we later learn that something the Brethren taught us was incorrect, good. That means that we’re learning more of Heavenly Father’s plan for us. He teaches us all (including the prophets) line upon line and precept upon precept. The Restoration is still ongoing and was not a one-time event, remember? There are still many more things yet to be revealed. If Heavenly Father wants to correct something that was taught in error, not only is that a fulfilment of scripture, but it’s also the way we learn and progress, and it shows that our prophets are attuned to the Spirit.
If Brigham Young was really a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, would it not be unreasonable to expect that God would give him a hint that racism is not okay, sexism is not okay, blood atonement is not okay, and God’s name is not “Adam”?
Sure, that’s one way to look at it. But if you believe that, you have to also accept that maybe the reason God didn’t do that is because Brigham wasn’t so off-base after all.
Maybe God doesn’t consider plural marriage to be sexist. Maybe speculation about eternal laws given in hypothetical theocracies isn’t something God cares enough about to correct. Maybe He did declare the Priesthood restriction to be in effect, or maybe, once it was enacted by men, He allowed it to continue for His own purposes until the time was right was change it. And maybe He didn’t condone the racist statements and attitudes that came along with it, but He didn’t feel the need to single Brigham out for correction. There have been many statements from many prophets and apostles calling out racism, and maybe He felt that was good enough warning that that behavior was unacceptable. Maybe God’s given name is Adam, or maybe He didn’t care that one person made that statement a few times because it didn’t catch on and didn’t lead His church astray.
Maybe God focuses on the big picture, because all He has to work with are imperfect people and He’s used to us making mistakes and getting things wrong all the time, including His prophets on occasion. So maybe, He doesn’t feel the need to nitpick over things that won’t lead the Church into widespread apostasy. Maybe God views things a little differently than Jeremy Runnells does. Maybe He understands that the Atonement is there for each of us, including His prophets, and that through the sacrifice of His Only Begotten Son, we can be made perfect. Maybe He recognizes that mistakes occur because we’re human, and that once we repent, we can be made new again regardless of the things that we’ve done in the past or what callings we happen to hold.
And with that, we’re finally done with the Prophets section. I’d like to cleanse my palate a little by discussing President Oaks’s fantastic talk from 1985, “Reading Church History.” This talk, with few alterations, could have been given at the most recently General Conference and not have been out of place. So much of it is relevant to our day. He focuses mainly on the news media, but these suggestions work well not only for all types of media, but also for sources critical of the Church.
… I have chosen to speak on how Church history should be read, especially the so-called “history” that comes in bits and pieces in the daily or weekly news media. … I will be suggesting general principles for the guidance of Latter-day Saint readers of Church history and biography.
… Some of these general principles should cause readers and viewers to apply the discount of skepticism to media stories about developments in Church history. Other principles apply to all writings on Church history and biography. These general principles concern (1) scientific uncertainties, (2) lack of context, (3) truths and half-truths, (4) bias, (5) balance, and (6) evaluation. … [M]y discussion will also include references to the special help we can receive from the Holy Ghost, whose mission is to give us knowledge (D&C 121:26), to “enlighten [our] mind,” (D&C 11:13) and to “guide [us] unto all truth…” (John 16:13).
After that introduction, it should probably be obvious why this talk resonated with me so strongly. Those are exactly the same things I’ve been trying to share in this series. His first principle is regarding scientific uncertainty:
Some recent news stories about developments in church history rest on scientific assumptions or assertions, such as the authenticity of a letter. Whether experts or amateurs, most of us have a tendency to be quite dogmatic about so-called scientific facts. Since news writers are not immune from this tendency, news stories based on scientific assumptions should be read or viewed with some skepticism.
While this applies strongly to various sections of the CES Letter like the one about Nephite DNA, I think we’ve all seen this past year exactly how good the news media is at twisting science to say whatever they want it to say on any given day. For example, “masks are useless” vs “masks are critical,” or “the vaccines are rushed and dangerous” vs “the vaccines are a miracle that will save lives,” etc. They change their mind depending on who’s in office or what network/outlet you’re viewing. Everyone is saying something different. That makes it difficult to know which sources to trust.
And when it comes to religion, it’s even worse. Our news media tends to treat all religion with skepticism or even disdain. Spiritual experiences are treated as a joke or mental illness more often than not. And when you see even less official sources that—such as Jeremy’s Letter—parroting those same techniques and derisive language, and declaring bad science as proof of his position, it’s important to know how to evaluate your sources.
President Oaks shared an example where the initial news story was very different from the later story that had more facts and evidence. He continues:
This example suggests that the news media—print and electronic—are not reliable sources for historical facts based on scientific uncertainties. This is understandable. Most of the news media go to their readers or viewers on a daily or hourly basis, often under great pressure to scoop their competition. As a result, they frequently cannot obtain irrefutable scientific verification of the facts they will report. Furthermore, limitations of time and space mean that they cannot explain their scientific foundations in sufficient detail for the reader or viewer to understand their implications. The contents of most media stories are dictated not by what is necessary to a full understanding of the subject but by what information is currently available and can be communicated within the limitations of time and space.
As a result, the news media are particularly susceptible to conveying erroneous information about facts, including historical developments that are based on what I have called scientific uncertainties.
He goes on to say why we should be cautious regarding newly discovered documents when we don’t know where they’ve been for the last 150 years, have no idea where they were found, and their authenticity hasn’t yet been proven. Obviously, he was talking about the Salamander Letter and other Hofmann forgeries, but the principle still applies to us today. We shouldn’t believe everything we read if we can’t trust the source completely.
His second principle is lack of context, a big, big problem in the CES Letter:
Another reason why news stories are unsuited to communicate historical understanding is that their format is such that they invariably report such facts out of context. An individual historical fact has meaning only in relation to other events. Outside that context, a single fact is almost certain to convey an erroneous impression.
Like, for example, plural marriage and Joseph’s various wives. Or the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor. Or the Priesthood restriction. Jeremy would have us believe those things occurred in a vacuum, but they didn’t. The scant information he provides is not the only relevant information. Context matters a great deal when you’re talking about the truth.
… Even in matters where context is a prerequisite to understanding, the news media tend to compete in terms of immediacy rather than accuracy. As a result, when the media report historical facts, they may provide information but they rarely provide illumination.
The same goes for material critical of the Church, in my experience. If you want to know the whole story, you have to put in the legwork and you have to do the research. It can take a long time and a lot of effort, but in the end, you’re going to know as much of the truth as you can and you’re going to be able to understand the situation far better than you would have had you not researched it.
President Oaks then quotes President Hinckley:
“We have those critics who appear to wish to cull out of a vast panorama of information those items which demean and belittle some of the men and women of the past who worked so hard in laying the foundation of this great cause. They find readers of their works who seem to delight in picking up these tidbits, and in chewing them over and relishing them. In so doing they are savoring a pickle, rather than eating a delicious and satisfying dinner of several courses.
“We recognize that our forebears were human. They doubtless made mistakes. … But the mistakes were minor, when compared with the marvelous work which they accomplished. To highlight the mistakes and gloss over the greater good is to draw a caricature. Caricatures are amusing, but they are often ugly and dishonest.
“… I do not fear truth. I welcome it. But I wish all of my facts in their proper context, with emphasis on those elements which explain the great growth and power of this organization.”
In my opinion, that’s a very apt description of our critics. That’s what Jeremy is doing, and what many other works antithetical to the restored Church do as well. Like President Hinckley, I don’t fear the truth. History doesn’t scare me. There’s nothing in our Church’s history or in anything Jeremy has to say that could change the truth that Joseph Smith knelt in a grove of trees, said a prayer, saw God the Father and the Savior, and eventually helped to restore the Priesthood power to the Earth. Not one single thing in this Letter changes that.
The third principle is truths and half-truths, another of Jeremy’s favorite tricks:
Satan is the great deceiver, the father of lies. This is not because Satan tells only lies. His most effective lies are half-truths or lies accompanied by the truth. A lie is most effective when it can travel incognito in good company, or when it can be so intermarried with the truth that we cannot determine its lineage. As the Lord revealed in the Doctrine and Covenants, truth is a “knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come; And whatsoever is more or less than this is the spirit of that wicked one who was a liar from the beginning” (D&C 93:24-25).
Suppose, for example, we referred to Paul as “an apostle who went about to destroy the Church.” Or suppose we refer to King David as a “prophet who was an adulterer.” As students of the Bible we can recognize the elements of truth in each statement. Yet we know that each statement by itself conveys a lie. This example shows how easily a deceiver can discredit an individual by mingling events from different periods in his life. None of us is immune from that kind of deception. … In this manner, the deceiver can attempt to undercut the repentance and forgiveness made possible by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In this manner, the adversary can attempt to discredit the principle of eternal progress that is central to the Gospel plan.
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.
We’ve seen examples of this over and over again throughout the CES Letter. The statements we just went over regarding Brigham Young are some of them. Are Adam-God, Blood Atonement, and the Priesthood ban the sum of his teachings? Are they only notable things about him or the things he accomplished? Of course not. And yet, that’s what he’s reduced to in the CES Letter. So, how do we tell truth from fiction, or even half-truth? President Oaks gives us the answer to that, as well:
… Any contest between deception and truth pits Satan against the Holy Ghost. The scriptures teach us that “Satan hath sought to deceive you that he might overthrow you” (D&C 50:3), whereas, “the Holy Ghost … will show you all things that ye should do” (2 Nephi 32:5). “And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5).
As members of the Church, we have the Gift of the Holy Ghost. If we will use our spiritual powers of discernment, we will not be misled by the lies and half-truths Satan will circulate in his attempts to deceive us and to thwart the work of God.
This is what discernment truly is. It’s the whispers of the Spirit that help you sense Gospel truth. It’s not a warning light that flashes every time someone starts to lie. It takes practice to learn, and as President Oaks said in another talk, sometimes Church leaders have to learn how to tune it out in order to be effective in their callings.
The fourth principle he names is bias:
Readers and viewers also need to be sensitive to the bias of the writer or the publisher. That bias may be religious or irreligious, believing, skeptical, or hostile. … The bias of a partially committed Latter-day Saint author can be particularly misleading to LDS readers, especially if the author bills himself as LDS. Yet, a spiritually sensitive Latter-day Saint can discern such bias.
There’s a reason why all of the most prominent voices of the internet “exmosphere” initially billed themselves as believing Latter-day Saints who were struggling: because our natural inclination is to try to help them. We listen to their concerns, we give them space and time to air their grievances, and then we get sucked in and find ourselves in the same boat they are. If they’d come out as bitter, antagonistic ex-members right from the start, people wouldn’t listen to them. That’s why Jeremy changed his initial letter to the new version and crowdsourced a new subtitle, because the old ones were driving people away instead of drawing them in. All of those voices kept up that charade until they either were excommunicated or resigned when they were about to be excommunicated.
President Oaks then quotes Joseph Smith, from a letter he wrote to W.W. Phelps in 1832:
“… [I]t is in vain to try to hide a bad spirit from the eyes of them who are spiritual, for it will [show] itself in speaking and in writing as well as all our other conduct. It is also useless to make great pretentions when the heart is not right before God, for God looks at the heart, and where the heart is not right, the Lord will expose it to the view of his faithful saints.”
He then goes on to say:
Bias can also be exercised in decisions on what news stories to publish and what to omit. This kind of bias is difficult to detect, but it can be discerned over a period of time. For example, it is striking that we read so many stories in the media about the discovery of letters or historical facts that supposedly contradict or discredit early leaders of the Church, but no news accounts of letters that support those leaders. … Have you ever seen an article in a national news magazine about someone who has joined the Church or been strengthened in their faith by some publication or spiritual experience? Or, have you ever seen a national news magazine report a disclosure—scientific or otherwise—that has strengthened faith in the Church? There are such disclosures. … Isn’t there more than a suggestion of bias in the fact that the news media have ignored all of these, and then expended so many lines on supposedly negative disclosures?
And he has a point. The news media loves to report on supposed controversies in the Church, or things that they think will be damaging to its credibility, or all of the things they think the Church is doing wrong, rather than on the Church’s successes. The New York Times, for example, famously gave a more neutral, even approving obituary of Fidel Castro than it did of President Monson, and Church members were not the only ones who noticed.
The fifth principle is balance:
Balance is telling both sides. This is not the mission of official Church literature or avowedly anti-Mormon literature. Neither has any responsibility to present both sides. But when supposedly objective news media or periodicals run a feature or an article on the Church or its doctrines, it ought to be balanced. So should a book-length history or biography. Readers of supposedly objective authors and publishers have a right to expect balance in writing about the Church or its doctrines. Some such writing is balanced, but much is not. In this arena, readers should beware of writings that imply balance but do not deliver it.
Back during the Book of Abraham section, I wrote an entire post pointing out that Jeremy’s supposedly neutral sources were highly biased against the Church. This is what President Oaks is talking about, sources that pretend to be neutral but are far from it.
Balance needs to be guided by relevance, especially in the narrow confines of a newscast or a newspaper article. … [M]ilitary triumphs are not properly balanced by negatives irrelevant to military prowess, such as the fact that the subject was arrested for shoplifting as a youth. Balance for the sake of complete understanding is justifiable; balance for the sake of matching positives with negatives is not. That kind of news reporting is too common.
I know you’ve all seen articles that are about one thing, and then in the very last paragraph, the journalist tacks on something completely unrelated—and usually negative—as if they’re connected when they aren’t. That’s not balance. Conversely, when I posted that paper of the alternate theory that Joseph Smith did institute the Priesthood restriction in Nauvoo before his death, that was relevant to the discussion. It was showing an opposing view of the actual situation in question, so it was giving the topic some balance.
His sixth principle is evaluation:
… [Evaluation] has two dimensions, intellectual and spiritual.
In terms of the intellectual, readers and viewers clearly need to be more sophisticated in evaluating what is communicated to them. For example, we often hear it said that when two witnesses give two different accounts of the same event, “one has to be lying.” Not so. It is rare for two witnesses to observe the same event from exactly the same point of observation at exactly the same time. This fact accounts for some differences in testimony. But even assuming identity of time and place in observation, different accounts of what happened can be attributable to at least five reasons other than the fact that (1) one witness might be lying: (2) both are lying; (3) one perceived incorrectly; (4) both perceived incorrectly; (5) one remembered incorrectly; or (6) both remembered incorrectly.
Another source of differences in the accounts of different witnesses is the different meanings that different persons attach to words.
To me, his point is well-made. We need to look at things from multiple angles, not just the most obvious one, if we want to truly understand it. And people do use words differently. Just look at our vocabulary compared to that of mainstream Christians. We use the same words to mean different concepts and different words to mean the same concepts. It’s one of the big reasons we talk past each other so often. This is the part of the talk where he goes into the alternate definition of “salamander,” to illustrate his point that words can have multiple meanings and we need to consider that kind of thing when trying to judge the truthfulness of something we hear or read.
For Latter-day Saints, evaluation also has a spiritual dimension. This is because of our belief in Moroni’s declaration that “by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.” That promise assures spiritually sensitive readers a power of discernment that will help them evaluate the meaning of what they learn.
In connection with our spiritual powers of evaluation, we need to remember that the Spirit of the Lord will not guide us if our own attitude is one of fault-finding. That principle applies to readers and writes. The scriptures abound with the commandment that Christians should abstain from evil-speaking (see Eph. 4:31; 1 Peter 2:1; D&C 20:54; D&C 136:23). We should stress the positive, and seek to strengthen one another in all our communications (see D&C 108:7).
He again quotes President Hinckley:
“We live in a society that feeds on criticism. Faultfinding is the substance of columnists and commentators, and there is too much of this among our own people. It is so easy to find fault, and to resist doing so requires much of discipline. But if as a people we will build and sustain one another, the Lord will bless us with the strength to weather every storm and continue to move forward through every adversity.”
We just had an excellent talk about this very thing by Elder Renlund recently at Conference. We need to stop looking for things to criticize about one another and start looking for things to praise—and that goes double when it comes to the Lord’s chosen representatives. President Oaks then says:
Criticism is particularly objectionable when it is directed toward Church authorities. … Evil-speaking of the Lord’s anointed is in a class by itself. It is one thing to depreciate a person who exercises corporate power or even government power. It is quite another thing to criticize or depreciate a person for the performance of an office to which he or she has been called of God. It does not matter if the criticism is true.
… The Holy Ghost will not guide or confirm criticism of the Lord’s anointed, or of Church leaders, local or general. This reality should be part of the spiritual evaluation that LDS readers and viewers apply to those things written about our history and those who made it.
The Holy Ghost will not confirm things like Jeremy’s attacks on the prophets. It simply won’t happen. If you’re feeling that you’re getting that confirmation, it’s not coming from the Spirit. It’s coming from the Adversary. We have to give them the benefit of the doubt in all cases of uncertainty. These men were called of God and are doing their best to lead us in righteousness. Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, they’ll get it right. Occasionally, they may stumble a little, but that does not mean they aren’t prophets of God. When we criticize them, we take away their ability to do their job effectively.
As Nephi taught his people:
Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man, or maketh flesh his arm, or shall hearken unto the precepts of men, save their precepts shall be given by the power of the Holy Ghost (2 Nephi 28:31).
Our individual, personal testimonies are based on the witness of the Spirit, not on any combination or accumulation of historical facts. If we are so grounded, no alteration of historical facts can shake our testimonies. Our Heavenly Father gave us powers of reason, and we are expected to use them to the fullest. But he also gave us the Comforter which he said would lead us into truth, and by whose power we may know the truth of all things. That is the ultimate guide for Latter-day Saints who are worthy and willing to rely on it. By the same token, we know that we are not saved by our own powers or by any earthly force or favor. Salvation and exaltation come by the precious blood of Christ, by the mercy of God by the plan He has prescribed, and by the priesthood He has restored. May we have the faith necessary to lay hold on that atonement and work out our exaltation under that plan, as preached by this, His only true Church, is my humble prayer, which I offer as I bear testimony to you of the reality of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ and of the restoration of the fulness of His gospel in these latter days.
I just want to add my testimony to his. We have been blessed with reason, and we’ve been blessed to live in a day and age where this information is right at our fingertips. There are countless available books, transcripts, articles, bodies of scholarship, and the original words of the people we’re studying. We do not have to take anyone else’s word about what they say. We can and should research it all for ourselves. That’s what I’ve done, and I’ve found a lot of evidence that supports my testimony. You’ll find a lot that supports yours, if you put in the work.
But all the studying in the world can only get you so far if you’re not also relying on the Holy Ghost. We need the Spirit to help guide our efforts. We need to be turning to our Father in prayer and humbly asking for His help as we try to evaluate these issues. If we don’t do it with His aid, we’ll be left to our own flawed, human understanding. You need the Spirit with you. The only way we can gain and feed our testimony is through His voice. If you don’t have it, you need to fix whatever is wrong in your life and do what is necessary to get it back. It’s vital if we’re going to properly navigate all of the noise we have to wade through in order to find the truth. I hope and pray we can all learn how to recognize that guiding voice.
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.