Part 39: CES Letter Testimony/Spiritual Witness Questions [Section C]
by Sarah Allen
When you look over this section of the CES Letter, one of the most common threads is arrogance. Jeremy talks about it, ironically saying how arrogant it is to deny the spiritual experiences of others while simultaneously denying that anyone’s spiritual experiences mean anything at all. He also makes broad generalizations about the hearts and minds of the members of the Church, and then attacks the arrogance his own straw man superimposed on those hearts and minds.
More than that, though, this section of the Letter is permeated with its own kind of arrogance. Brushing off the valid, physical experiences of millions of people as unreliable and unimportant is arrogant. Twisting the words of Apostles of the Lord into pretzels in order to imply they said something they didn’t is arrogant. Questioning the purpose and methods of a member of the Godhead, then declaring God Himself as being inefficient, takes an astounding amount of arrogance. In fact, I don’t think it’s even possible to have more arrogance than to believe that you know better than God does.
That kind of pride can be corrosive. If unchecked, it erodes your ability to feel the Spirit to the point where you can’t feel it anymore. It warps your mind and leads you to make terrible decisions. And all the while, you feel as though you’re the one who’s in the right. Everyone else needs you to rescue them. That’s the face he puts on the CES Letter, one of trying to save others from the Church. And in this section, Jeremy’s trying to “rescue” you from God’s way of communicating with His children. He’s trying to “save” you from returning home to live with God.
Please stand strong against his urgings. Remember, it’s not the Holy Ghost telling you not to pray and to turn away from God.
The Letter picks up with concern #3, which is just a rehash of the #2 that was covered last week:
- If God’s method to revealing truth is through feelings, it is a very ineffective and unreliable method. We have thousands of religions and billions of members of those religions saying that their truth is God’s only truth and everyone else is wrong because they felt God or God’s spirit reveal the truth to them. Each religion has believers who believe that their spiritual experiences are more authentic and powerful than those of the adherents of other religions. They cannot all be right together, if at all.
There’s a lot to address here. First, as we’ve gone over many times, the Spirit does not reveal things to us just through our feelings. It’s also done through our minds. It’s a combination of the two that is wholly unique, a flood of knowledge and peace. Reducing it to just a feeling not only diminishes the Spirit’s power, it allows Jeremy and other critics to write it off as being the same thing as being affected by a commercial, as he did in the opening quotes of this section.
Second, it’s not “a very ineffective and unreliable method.” As Michael Ash points out, “Spiritual things—including the existence of God and the reality of the Resurrection and Atonement—cannot be tested under a microscope. Spiritual things must be spiritually discerned.”
This is a concept we’ve discussed before, as found in 1 Corinthians 2:14:
But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
Our Father is reaching out to us in the very best ways He can without overruling our agency. He’s using His communication with us to teach us His ways, so that we can learn to become more like Him. If He just came down and told us everything He wanted us to know, we’d never truly learn it. We have to put in the work ourselves or we’ll never grow. We can study all we want, but we learn best by doing. That’s why you have to practice, so you can acquire and hone the skills you’re trying to learn.
When I was thinking about how I wanted to begin this post today, the word that immediately leapt to mind was “grace.” And at first, I couldn’t figure out why because grace is a completely different topic than revelation. But when I think of the concept of grace, one of the first things I think of is a fantastic talk by Brad Wilcox called “His Grace is Sufficient.” I pulled it up and reread it, and my brain finally made the connection that the Spirit was trying to get me to make.
The point of grace, of repentance, of the Atonement, is to transform us. It’s to change us into beings who are a few steps closer to becoming more like Christ and our Father than we were before. The more we repent, the more we change. The more we become filled with charity and love, the closer we get to becoming the sons and daughters of God and the more like Him we become. And that requires practice, just like hearing the Spirit does.
As Elder Wilcox teaches:
Scriptures make it clear that no unclean thing can dwell with God (see Alma 40:26), but, brothers and sisters, no unchanged thing will even want to. … The miracle of the Atonement is not just that we can go home but that—miraculously—we can feel at home there. If Christ did not require faith and repentance, then there would be no desire to change. Think of your friends and family members who have chosen to live without faith and without repentance. They don’t want to change. They are not trying to abandon sin and become comfortable with God. Rather, they are trying to abandon God and become comfortable with sin. If Jesus did not require covenants and bestow the gift of the Holy Ghost, then there would be no way to change. We would be left forever with only willpower, with no access to His power. If Jesus did not require endurance to the end, then there would be no internalization of those changes over time. They would forever be surface and cosmetic rather than sinking inside us and becoming part of us—part of who we are.
The Spirit changes us as it teaches us. That’s the connection I wasn’t initially making between grace and the witness of the Spirit. That transformation happens through the Savior’s grace, but it’s done by the power of the Holy Spirit as He teaches us to become more like the Savior, who in turn teaches us to become more like our Father. And that is not inefficient and unreliable. It’s exactly what we need.
Third, many, many religions don’t teach that “their truth is God’s only truth.” We certainly don’t, and neither do most other Christian denominations, for example. There’s a reason why most Protestant religions will accept each other’s baptisms—because while they believe their own interpretation of the scriptures is the most accurate, they believe that other Protestant churches have much of the same truth they do. This is an overly broad assumption that Jeremy is asserting as fact without having done any basic research on other religions.
Fourth, if anyone out there from any religion believes that their spiritual experiences are more authentic and powerful than anyone else’s, that’s insanely arrogant and they need a reality check. That isn’t the way the Holy Ghost works. He testifies of truth wherever it’s found and He doesn’t play favorites. He doesn’t give a Methodist a stronger witness than He gives to a Baptist, and He doesn’t give us a stronger witness than He gives to a Catholic. If the principles we’re praying over are true, He will confirm that to us equally.
The only thing that might dilute our ability to feel the Spirit is our own behavior, which certainly has no bearing on anyone else’s ability to feel the Spirit, just ours.
At various times, Joseph Smith taught each of the following things:
“It is the privilege of the children of God to come to God and get revelation. … God is not a respecter of persons; we all have the same privilege.” [Taken from the notes of Willard Richards, as found in the Willard Richards Pocket Companion]
“No man can receive the Holy Ghost without receiving revelations. The Holy Ghost is a revelator.” Taken from History of the Church, volume 6]
“We believe that we have a right to revelations, visions, and dreams from God, our heavenly Father; and light and intelligence, through the gift of the Holy Ghost, in the name of Jesus Christ, on all subjects pertaining to our spiritual welfare; if it so be that we keep his commandments, so as to render ourselves worthy in his sight.” [Taken from a letter he wrote to Isaac Galland from Liberty Jail]
Everyone is entitled to revelations from God. We all have that same right and privilege. Our religious beliefs have no bearing on that blessing. The only things that do have a bearing is our personal worthiness and our willingness to listen.
Fifth, yes, they can all be right together. Every religion in this world has some measure of the truth. Some have a great deal of it. Those things that are true in each religion are equally true in all of them. They may not all have the same amount of truth in them, but they all have some of it.
The Spirit teaches us according to that truth and understanding that we already have, and then it leads us to more—and that goes for every child of God on this planet, regardless of their religious beliefs.
The scripture that I was led to when I was thinking about this particular topic is D&C 84:45-48:
45 For the word of the Lord is truth, and whatsoever is truth is light, and whatsoever is light is Spirit, even the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
46 And the Spirit giveth light to every man that cometh into the world; and the Spirit enlighteneth every man through the world, that hearkeneth to the voice of the Spirit.
47 And every one that hearkeneth to the voice of the Spirit cometh unto God, even the Father.
48 And the Father teacheth him of the covenant which he has renewed and confirmed upon you, which is confirmed upon you for your sakes, and not for your sakes only, but for the sake of the whole world.
Everyone is entitled to receive revelations from the Spirit. Everyone who listens to those revelations will eventually be led to the truth—the full amount of truth that has currently been revealed to us. And eventually, we’ll all learn even more of that truth together as the children of Christ.
Jeremy’s point #4 is another long one with several different things cobbled together into one. His numbering is so weird in this Letter: he’ll repeat the exact same question in slightly different words as multiple different questions, but then he’ll lump like, five different things into one ginormous question as if it’s all the same concept when it’s not. I think it’s done so you’ll skip over some of the things he crams in as asides, so you’ll just assume he’s right without looking into it any deeper. It’s the same tactic he pulled with the Expositor, for example, skimming past it with a quick sentence meant to mislead you, then using that same incorrect assertion as evidence to bolster his claims later as if he’d already proven them when he hadn’t. But, just like with the Expositor, when you actually break it down, it’s a very different situation than the one he paints it as.
Because there’s so much in this one, I’m going to take it piece by piece. It begins:
- Joseph Smith received a revelation, through the peep stone in his hat, to send Hiram Page and Oliver Cowdery to Toronto, Canada for the sole purpose of selling the copyright of the Book of Mormon, which is another concern in itself (why would God command to sell the copyright to His word?).
Even just in this first sentence, there’s a lot to go over. First things first, you’ll note his derogatory use of the term “peep stone” instead of “Urim and Thummim” or “seer stone.” He’s emphasizing the weirdness of using a seer stone in today’s culture so that you’ll mistrust the revelations Joseph received while using it, despite Heavenly Father’s lengthy history of using physical objects to help us channel our faith and receive revelation. A seer stone wielded by a prophet of God is no different than the Liahona, and we would never treat such a sacred object as a casual punchline the way Jeremy does with the seer stones.
As for the copyright, this is where we run into the whole, “words are being used incorrectly” thing again. You see, the word “copyright” covers a bunch of different laws, but there’s a distinction between intellectual property rights (which would be the ability to alter the text as the rightsholder sees fit) and the printing rights (the sole right to print a book/pamphlet/script/sheet music/etc. in a given country). Jeremy doesn’t make that distinction and instead, lumps them both together as the same thing when they are not.
To use a simple example to show the differences, J.K. Rowling owns the intellectual property rights to Harry Potter. That means the characters, their stories, their world, etc., belong to her. She sold the printing rights to Scholastic in the US and Bloomsbury in the UK, which means they are the only ones who get to print the books in those countries. They also own the rights to produce the audiobooks in those countries, which is why you can’t buy the Stephen Fry audiobooks in the US without ordering directly from the UK, and why the UK fans can’t buy the Jim Dale versions without ordering directly from the US. They’re different countries, so different publishers own the rights.
Back in 1830, international copyright laws—that is, the rights of the copyright holder to their intellectual property being honored in multiple countries—did not exist. It was common for popular books to be published by unauthorized publishers in different countries without a single penny going to the original author, because they didn’t secure a copyright in those countries. Laws to protect the rights of the author from having their property stolen like that would not be formalized until the Berne Convention of 1886.
As Book of Mormon Central states:
Sometime in early 1830 (probably between January and early March), as the Book of Mormon was at press, Joseph Smith received a revelation instructing him to secure the copyright for the Book of Mormon in Canada. “Like the American copyright [Joseph] Smith had obtained in June 1829, a Canadian copyright would help protect the Book of Mormon from those who sought to illegally reprint it in the British dominion of Canada.” … The purpose for securing and selling a copyright of the Book of Mormon in Canada—rather than the copyright (a subtle but important legal distinction)—was to ensure that if the book were to be republished outside the United States, Joseph Smith, as the legally designated “author and proprietor,” would retain the legal intellectual property in the book and receive appropriate monetary compensation from sales. “Because a popular book [in the early nineteenth century] was usually reprinted in other countries without authorization at any rate in absence of international copyright laws,” selling a copyright to the Book of Mormon for the four provinces of Canada would have “hastened the printing and distribution of the book in that part of the British Empire.”
So, this copyright they were looking to sell would have let Joseph keep the intellectual property of the Book of Mormon, but allow the Church to make money off the printing in Canada, something that was desperately needed by the early Church. The printing of the Book of Mormon was a staggering cost, and they weren’t selling enough copies of it in the United States yet to offset it. Expanding the copyright to Canada would’ve given them the chance to earn back some of that money and pay down their debts.
The mission failed and the prophet was asked why his revelation was wrong. Joseph decided to inquire of the Lord regarding the question. Book of Mormon witness David Whitmer testified:
“…and behold the following revelation came through the stone: ‘Some revelations are of God; some revelations are of man: and some revelations are of the devil.’ So we see that the revelation to go to Toronto and sell the copy-right was not of God, but was of the devil or of the heart of man.” — An Address to All Believers in Christ, p.31
Okay. So, yes, this statement did come from David Whitmer, but it came in 1887, as you can see on the publication date in Jeremy’s source. That was 57 years after the events he was describing, and 49 years after his excommunication and estrangement from Joseph and the Church. That’s considerably longer than I’ve been alive, and I can guarantee you that things I’ve tried to remember from even half that long ago are not very clear at all in my memory. He also wasn’t involved with the original revelation or the trip to Canada, and had spent most of that 49 years trying to paint Joseph as a fallen prophet. Simply put, he was incorrect about a lot of this, and we know that for a fact.
I’m not going to accuse Whitmer of lying; I don’t know what was going on here. He had a lifelong reputation for honesty and he never denied his testimony of the Book of Mormon or of the visions he received. He got other things wrong at other times that I think had a lot to do with the fact that he was describing them decades later. (He did get a lot of things right, as well.) However, he was also very bitter toward Joseph in particular and at times appeared to be jealous of Joseph’s abilities as a seer. But I don’t know his heart and I don’t know what he was thinking and feeling at the time, so I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that he was simply misremembering the events he was talking about. He died at age 83 the very next year after this was published, so maybe he was just old and trying to remember things that’d happened nearly 60 years before. Or, maybe because he’d spent half a century thinking of Joseph as a fallen prophet, his mind formed new memories to back up that belief. It’s a scientific fact that our brains create false memories, after all.
We actually have the revelation in question, which was published for the first time by the Joseph Smith Papers Project in 2009. On the second page of the revelation, it says, “I grant unto my servant a privilege that he may sell a copyright through you, speaking after the manner of men for the four provinces, if the people harden not their hearts against the enticings of my Spirit and my Word; for behold, it lieth in themselves to their condemnation or their salvation.”
So, right away, we see that the blessing was conditional on the Saints’ worthiness and the people at the printer’s office there in Canada not hardening their hearts against the whispers of the Spirit. That didn’t happen, and they weren’t able to sell the copyright the way they’d hoped. Elder Marlin K. Jensen summed it up like this:
Although we still do not know the whole story, particularly Joseph Smith’s own view of the situation, we do know that calling the divine communication a “failed revelation” is not warranted. The Lord’s directive clearly conditions the successful sale of the copyright on the worthiness of those seeking to make the sale as well as on the spiritual receptivity of the potential purchasers.
And according to FAIR, Hiram Page, one of the people sent on the trip, wrote a letter to William McLellin stating his belief that the trip was a fulfillment of the revelation and that he “for the first time understood how some revelations given to people were not necessarily for their direct benefit.”
They also didn’t go to Toronto, like Whitmer claimed. They were sent to Kingston, according to the revelation, and that’s 163 miles from Toronto. So, Whitmer got a lot of stuff wrong in his summary of the events.
There’s a pretty good article about the entire situation by Stephen Kent Ehat, if anyone’s interested in reading that.
The CES Letter picks up:
How are we supposed to know what revelations are from God, from the devil, or from the heart of man if even the Prophet Joseph Smith couldn’t tell?
There’s no other evidence beyond Whitmer’s single statement that this event—the revelation saying some revelations were from the devil—ever took place. Regardless, the way we can tell whether something is from God or from Satan is through the Spirit. And the way we can tell whether something is from the heart of man or from God is by practice, like we were talking about earlier. When you practice turning to the Spirit for guidance, you get better at hearing His voice. You start to learn how to interpret it more clearly. Practice makes perfect, remember.
And, still continuing point #4, the Letter states:
Elder Boyd K. Packer said the following:
“Be ever on guard lest you be deceived by inspiration from an unworthy source. You can be given false spiritual messages. There are counterfeit spirits just as there are counterfeit angels. (See Moroni 7:17) Be careful lest you be deceived, for the devil may come disguised as an angel of light.
The spiritual part of us and the emotional part of us are so closely linked that it is possible to mistake an emotional impulse for something spiritual. We occasionally find people who receive what they assume to be spiritual promptings from God, when those promptings are either centered in the emotions or are from the adversary.” — “The Candle of the Lord,” Ensign, January 1983
Hilariously, I can see why Jeremy left off the very next paragraph from his quote:
Avoid like a plague those who claim that some great spiritual experience authorizes them to challenge the constituted priesthood authority in the Church. Do not be unsettled if you cannot explain every insinuation of the apostate or every challenge from the enemies who attack the Lord’s church. And we now face a tidal wave of that. In due time you will be able to confound the wicked and inspire the honest in heart.
That looks like a direct refutation of everything Jeremy’s trying to say in this Letter to me. But yes, we can mistake our own desires for revelation, and yes, we can mistake the whispers of the Devil for the whispers of God.
When he was talking about counterfeit angels, if we’ve read the Doctrine and Covenants, we already know this is a possibility. D&C 129:4-8 gives us instructions for how to detect them:
4 When a messenger comes saying he has a message from God, offer him your hand and request him to shake hands with you.
5 If he be an angel he will do so, and you will feel his hand.
6 If he be the spirit of a just man made perfect he will come in his glory; for that is the only way he can appear—
7 Ask him to shake hands with you, but he will not move, because it is contrary to the order of heaven for a just man to deceive; but he will still deliver his message.
8 If it be the devil as an angel of light, when you ask him to shake hands he will offer you his hand, and you will not feel anything; you may therefore detect him.
Also, don’t forget that Satan appeared to Moses and asked him to worship him, and he appeared to the Savior to tempt him, also asking Him to worship him in return for ruling the world. Eve was deceived the devil in the form of a serpent in the Garden of Eden. And, as Reddit user WooperSlim pointed out, there are other times in our scriptures when he is described as appearing as an angel of light. Paul even warns against Satan’s followers appearing as false Apostles.
This is not new doctrine, here. We’ve been taught since the beginning that there are false spirits who will try to stop the Restoration and that we can be deceived by those false spirits. Remember Hiram Page’s black seer stone? Jeremy’s feigned surprise that this is a possibility rings hollow when it’s something repeated all throughout our scriptures and early Church history like this.
And we all know we can mistake our own wants and desires for revelation. As a personal example, I have multiple piercings in my ears, three in each lobe as well as two helix piercings in my left ear. I’d just gotten my helix piercings about a month before President Hinckley said women should only wear one pair of earrings. And I loved them. I’d had multiple ear piercings since I was 13. I even did some of them myself with a needle and an ice cube. I had plans for more. They were a large part of how I expressed myself. To say I was disappointed by that comment would be an understatement. I was pretty sad about it, actually. But I took them all out like the Prophet asked…and then I got one infection after another in those open holes for the next 16 years. Those holes never closed up, and without earrings in them, they were exposed to hair products, skin and hair oils, dust, etc. They were constantly sore and swollen and oozing, and it was just a bad situation I didn’t enjoy.
Finally, a few years ago, I reread that talk, then I prayed over it and I told Heavenly Father about all of my frustrations over it. And in response, I felt it was okay to put my earrings back in—not that it was necessarily the right thing to do, or the best thing, but that He understood why I wanted to put them back in and that it’d be okay. I felt as though, ultimately, He was more concerned with how I treated my fellow children of God than He was with how many pairs of earrings I wore at once. I did not feel like this response applied to anyone but me, and I’m not advocating that everyone stop listening to President Hinckley.
See, the thing is, I easily could have misread that response. That could have been Him telling me that He understood and that it wasn’t necessarily guidance I needed to follow, but that He still wanted me to do it anyway. It totally could have been me mistaking my own wants for revelation. It wouldn’t be the first time, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. I’m still learning how to receive revelation just like everyone else is. If I’m wrong, that’s a conversation Heavenly Father and I will have to have someday.
The point is, though, that kind of thing happens to all of us. I’m sure it probably happened to Joseph a few times while he was trying to learn how to receive revelation, too. But in this case, we have the original revelation so we know it came from God.
What kind of a method is this if Heavenly Father allows Satan to interfere with our direct line of communication to Him? Sincerely asking for and seeking answers?
President Packer didn’t say that Satan can interfere with our direct line of communication to God. He said that sometimes, the promptings we get are not promptings of the Spirit, but are our own desires or promptings from Satan and his followers, trying to tempt us away from the path we should be on. Satan can imitate the Father, but he cannot replace Him.
It takes practice to learn to hear the Spirit, and sometimes, we can feel something that we think is from the Spirit but is not because we haven’t learned to tell the difference yet. Just like all a toddler can’t tell yet which dogs are dangerous and which ones are friendly and runs up to pet them regardless, we can’t always tell at first glance which promptings are dangerous and which ones are friendly.
If you’re sincerely asking for and seeking answers from God, you can ask Him for clarification. You can ask Him if that answer really did come from Him. You can ask Him for help in telling the difference. You can ask for understanding when you don’t understand the answer you get. But again, that all takes practice. We have to put in the work in order to stretch and grow.
And, for the very last part of point 4, it says:
Are we now expected to not only figure out when a prophet is speaking as a prophet and not as a man while also trying to figure out whether our answers to prayer are from God, from the devil, or from ourselves?
Prophets don’t stop being men when they’re called to be Prophets, Seers, and Revelators. Gender is eternal, after all. But when a prophet speaks as a prophet, the Spirit makes it clear. When he’s speaking as himself, we all have the ability to pray and seek confirmation that what he’s teaching us is true.
And yes, revelation is a gift, but we still have to learn how to use it. We aren’t completely proficient right out of the gate. We have to practice. We have to experiment upon the word. We have to lean on the Spirit for guidance, and act on the promptings we receive. We have to study, and pray, and trust in God. We have to utilize the Atonement and repent and use the Savior’s grace to transform ourselves into something better than we are. We have to put off the natural man and become the children of light so that we are not caught unaware.
That doesn’t happen overnight. It takes effort. The Lord loves effort, remember? When President Nelson was asked if it was hard to be a prophet, his response was:
“Of course it’s hard. Everything to do with becoming more like the Savior is difficult. For example, when God wanted to give the Ten Commandments to Moses, where did He tell Moses to go? Up on top of a mountain, on the top of Mount Sinai. So Moses had to walk all the way up to the top of that mountain to get the Ten Commandments. Now, Heavenly Father could have said, ‘Moses, you start there, and I’ll start here, and I’ll meet you halfway.’ No, the Lord loves effort, because effort brings rewards that can’t come without it. … What happens if you don’t practice? … [Y]ou don’t progress, do you? So the answer is yes…. It takes effort, a lot of hard work, a lot of study, and there’s never an end. That’s good! That’s good, because we’re always progressing. Even in the next life we’re making progress.”
So, let us put in the effort it takes to learn how to receive revelation. Let us put in the effort to learn how to tell the difference between a prompting that comes from God and one that comes from the devil, or from our own desires. Let us put in the effort it takes to transform ourselves through His grace so that we can all embody Ephesians 5:8:
For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light.
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.
Thanks for these posts. I’m really loving them. My favorite part is that I don’t just think “ha! That CES letter is so bad and wrong!” (though I do think that too…) but I actually feel uplifted and energized to live the gospel better myself after I read your words. Thank you.