Part 40: CES Letter Testimony/Spiritual Witness Questions [Section D]
By Sarah Allen
The topic we’re going to cover today is one that I’m passionate about, and that’s personal study: study of the scriptures, study of Church history, study of the prophets, and study of the Gospel. Many if not all of the prophets of the Restoration have encouraged us to do our own studying in addition to the lessons we receive in Sunday School, Seminary, or Institute.
At church the goal is to learn the doctrine. Some history gets thrown in, particularly when we’re talking about the Doctrine and Covenants, but for the most part that isn’t the focus of our lessons. That’s something we’re meant to study on our own time. We’ll skim through the scripture verses we were meant to read that week, and we’ll go over some words of modern prophets that align with those scripture verses, but we don’t really dive in very deeply to most of the topics we cover each year because there are just so many. Many teachers only have time to hit the most important points and skim over the rest.
That’s why personal study is so important. If you’re not doing that, if you’re not making the effort to study the church you belong to and its history and doctrine, then you’re only cheating yourself. That’s what President Nelson was talking about in his bizarrely controversial Conference address entitled “Christ is Risen; Faith in Him Will Move Mountains” when he said the following:
Through your faith, Jesus Christ will increase your ability to move the mountains in your life, even though your personal challenges may loom as large as Mount Everest.
Your mountains may be loneliness, doubt, illness, or other personal problems. Your mountains will vary, and yet the answer to each of your challenges is to increase your faith. That takes work. Lazy learners and lax disciples will always struggle to muster even a particle of faith.
To do anything well requires effort. Becoming a true disciple of Jesus Christ is no exception. Increasing your faith and trust in Him takes effort….
He then offered five suggestions for making that happen: first, to study and become an engaged learner so that we can understand God’s power in our lives; second, to believe in Christ and study with the desire to believe rather than to find flaws, and to stop rehearsing our doubts with other doubters rather than leaning on the Savior; third, act on the faith that we have so that we can receive more faith; fourth, to worthily partake of sacred ordinances in order to unlock God’s power; and fifth, to ask the Father, in the name of His Son, for help to study and increase our faith. Then he says:
Faith takes work. Receiving revelation takes work. But “every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” God knows what will help your faith grow. Ask, and then ask again.
A nonbeliever might say that faith is for the weak. But this assertion overlooks the power of faith. Would the Savior’s Apostles have continued to teach His doctrine after His death, at the peril of their lives, if they had doubted Him? Would Joseph and Hyrum Smith have suffered martyrs’ deaths defending the Restoration of the Lord’s Church unless they had a sure witness that it was true? Would nearly 2,000 Saints have died along the pioneer trail if they did not have faith that the gospel of Jesus Christ had been restored? Truly, faith is the power that enables the unlikely to accomplish the impossible.
A lot of people took exception to the line about “lazy learners and lax disciples” as though President Nelson was personally insulting them, but his point was this: anyone who is surprised to learn that D&C 132 contains a partial list of rules regarding plural marriage or that the scriptures warn repeatedly about Satan’s ability to appear as an angel of light is someone who has not read those scriptures very diligently. Anyone who had no idea that Joseph Smith practiced plural marriage is someone who did not even attempt to study the life of the founder of the religion they belonged to, because that information is widely available on multiple sources including on the Church’s own website, inside the Doctrine and Covenants, and on his Wikipedia page. When you even just Google his name, the very first question in the “People Also Ask” section at the top of the search results is “How Many Wives Joseph Smith Had?”
President Nelson wasn’t laying blame for not knowing about Church history or doctrine. He was pointing out that for some of us, there might be room for improvement. He was saying that if you wanted to increase your faith, you need to put in the work and you need to do your own studying outside of Sunday School. Your teachers can’t possibly teach you everything there is to know about the Gospel or Church history. You have to do some of it on your own, and you have to take the steps necessary to do so, or you won’t have the ability to grow your faith.
Remember, it was the slothful servant who didn’t do any work of his own and just hid his money in the dirt. That servant ultimately had that money taken away because he never even tried to increase its value. He never tried to build it, he never tried to do any work of his own, he just decided he was done and sat back and rested. But that wasn’t what his master wanted from him and in the end, he ended up with nothing.
Heavenly Father wants us to increase our knowledge and faith. He wants us to use our brains and to learn and grow. The glory of God is intelligence, after all. If we don’t even try, we’re failing Him as well as ourselves. And in the end, we may just end up with nothing, too.
Having said all of that, the CES Letter continues with the next point/question/concern:
- As a believing Mormon, I saw a testimony as more than just spiritual experiences and feelings. I saw that we had “evidence” and “logic” on our side based on the correlated narrative I was fed by the Church about its origins. I lost this confidence when I discovered that the gap between what the Church teaches about its origins and what the primary historical documents actually show happened, and between what history shows what happened and what science shows what happened…couldn’t be further apart.
A testimony is more than just spiritual experiences and feelings. Knowledge is an important component of faith. Elder Quentin L. Cook described it like this in April of 2020: “Although [the Spirit’s] impact can be incredibly powerful, it most often comes quietly as a still, small voice. The scriptures include many examples of how the Spirit influences our minds, including speaking peace to our minds, occupying our minds, enlightening our minds, and even sending a voice to our minds.
The Spirit interacts with our hearts, to be sure, but He also interacts with our minds. We need both components to learn from Him. The more we study in faith, using the Holy Ghost as an aid, the more our faith grows. Just ask bloggers Stisa79 and Lord_Wilmore how much their faith has grown as they’ve increased their academic knowledge of the Book of Mormon. The Lord tells us twice, in two different sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, that we need to seek wisdom out of the best books both by study and by faith.
Primary General President Camille Johnson recently gave a devotional about this very topic. The article in the Church Newsroom gives this summary of her words:
To seek learning by study means to put one’s mind to work, President Johnson said. “We read or listen to the required material, we think about it, we practice, we problem solve, we memorize and complete assignments, and through our diligence we learn. It’s rational and logical. It’s generally line upon line.”
To seek learning by faith not only puts one’s mind to work, but also one’s heart. “It is in our hearts and minds that we will feel the manifestations of the Holy Ghost,” President Johnson said. “And we know that the Holy Ghost testifies of truth.”
She counseled students to not stop at learning by study, but to invite the Holy Ghost to help them learn and retain those facts. “Seeking learning by faith is the process by which we engage the Holy Ghost in our learning so we aren’t just learning facts. We are understanding truth.”
… [T]he way to learn truth “is to exercise faith and seek to learn, not just with your head through study, but also with a willing heart through faith,” President Johnson said. “When your heart and mind are aligned and open, it is the Holy Ghost that will testify to you of truth and enhance your learning.”
Effective study, no matter the subject, should always begin with prayer. “Ask for an open mind and an open heart,” she counseled. “Invite the Spirit to your studies. Be worthy of the Spirit’s companionship. I promise that the Holy Ghost is the most committed and devoted of any study companion.
Clearly the Lord values instruction in both secular and spiritual knowledge and education from both academic and scriptural texts. The Book of Mormon likewise emphasizes the importance of secular education as a supplement to well-grounded religious faith. One of the very first things that Nephi, son of Lehi, shared about himself was that he was “taught somewhat in all the learning of [his] father” and that the language of his record consisted of the “learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians” (1 Nephi 1:1, emphasis added).
Brant Gardner has argued that as the fourth son in a wealthy family, Nephi was likely trained in the Israelite scribal tradition of his time. This training would probably have “covered a range of topics, from languages, classic texts, and the interpretation of texts, to public speaking.” Such an educational background potentially explains the sophistication of Nephi’s prophetic writings. Although he often emphasized the “plainness of [his] prophesying,” numerous studies have shown that Nephi creatively wove his plain teachings into a tapestry of poetic parallels, meaningful literary allusions, and extended narrative typologies (2 Nephi 31:2).
It then lists multiple other examples of Book of Mormon prophets who were taught secular knowledge as well as spiritual knowledge, then continues:
From these examples, it can be seen that the Book of Mormon did not simply descend from the heavens as an otherworldly text. Instead, it was written by a succession of intelligent, spiritually-endowed prophets, trained in the learning and languages of their own societies. Drawing upon both their spiritual and secular educations, they conveyed the word of the Lord in all the poetic beauty, literary brilliance, and divine power of their Hebrew ancestors.
No doubt, their experience as leaders in political, judicial, military, and religious settings also contributed to their prophetic callings. They were men of “sound understanding” (Alma 17:2), and their lives admirably demonstrate that “to be learned is good if [one will] hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Nephi 9:29).
Recognizing that God uses real humans from real places and times to help co-create his scriptures may explain, at least in part, why He encouraged the early Saints to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118). Students of the scriptures can learn much about these sacred texts and the prophets who wrote them by diligently studying the best books of science, history, literature, philosophy, and other fields of knowledge.
Elder Russell M. Nelson described secular education as a “vital component of wisdom.” President N. Eldon Tanner taught that “man should strive all his days to increase his intelligence and learn all the truths he can” and that “the gospel of Jesus Christ embraces all truth wherever it may be found.” By faith-guided study, one can better comprehend what the scriptures mean and why they were written the way they were. By study-guided faith, these important truths can then be deeply planted and diligently applied in the hearts and lives of those who believe.
It may seem a little weird to some of you to pray for the Holy Ghost to help you in your secular studying, but it really does work. I retain knowledge better and it’s easier to understand the source material when I study with His help. If we want more knowledge, whether it’s spiritual knowledge or secular knowledge, we have to act in faith on the knowledge that we already have. Recently on Reddit, I gave someone a list of steps I take when I have a Church-related question I’m looking for the answers to. It works equally well with academic questions, so I’m going to repeat it here.
- The first step I take is to pray. I explain to Heavenly Father what information I’m looking for, and I ask for guidance, clarity, and understanding.
- Second, I open up some browser windows with sites I know will have some solid information (for Church-related questions, the main sites I’ll browse first are the Church’s website, the scripture app, FAIR, the Interpreter, Book of Mormon Central and its offshoots, and Google or another search engine; for secular information, I’ll often search JSTOR and other essay depositories, the Internet Archive, etc.). An open search engine is important, because Heavenly Father will often send me phrases to search to pull up the relevant information I’m looking for. He’ll tell me what words to use and prod me toward certain websites.
- Third, I start typing those phrases that come to mind into all of the different sites I have open. Or, if I remember that a phrase came from a particular book I’ve read, I run a search inside the book if it’s on my e-book tablet or in Google books if I don’t have it on-hand in a searchable format.
- Fourth, I open up all of the sources that look promising and start reading everything I can find on the topic. I never look at just one source. I find as many as I can.
- Fifth, if I know someone personally who knows more about the topic than I do, I ask them questions and see if they have any additional sources they’d strongly recommend.
- And sixth, if I don’t find exactly what I’m looking for, I start over again at number one and ask Heavenly Father for additional help. I get more specific in my questions to Him, and in turn, He gets more specific in His guidance to me.
This formula has worked very well for me over the years. We’re living in an age when we have more knowledge at our fingertips than most scholars of the past could ever have dreamed of, but we still have to put in the work. It’s not just going to fall into our laps. We still have to hunt it down and read it and make sure we’re understanding what we read. I give my sources twice in every one of these posts so people can use them as a jumping-off point if they want to, but also so they can see how much studying is sometimes necessary to get the answers they’re looking for.
Going back to the Letter’s commentary, evidence and logic are some of the pillars of a testimony. We do have that on our side, but we have to know where the evidence is, what it is, and how to use it to support our testimony. Those things have to be used in conjunction with faith.
The phrase “correlated narrative” is a common one among ex-members of the Church. It’s a dig at the correlated curriculum, which, to me, is an incredibly strange thing to attack. The correlated curriculum is just that we use the same manuals and teaching aids all over the world. If we go into any ward or branch anywhere, we’ll be taught from the same materials as anywhere else on the same week, give or take a few weeks depending on stake/ward/branch conferences. Each teacher will put their own personal spin on it and highlight the things they think are important, and teach it in their own way, but all of the lessons are coming from the same source material. That’s a good thing.
Even now, we see some people being taught different things than other people inside the Church. They often end up feeling betrayed that they weren’t taught things that other people were taught. Imagine how much worse that would be if we didn’t have a correlated curriculum at all, and it was just down to the individual teachers in any given area to come up with the lessons and the topics and the doctrines they wanted to teach.
A lot of other religions don’t have a standard curriculum like we do unless they create one for their own individual congregation. You can step into a Baptist congregation, for example, in one place and then go a different Baptist meeting in a neighboring town on the same day and be taught two completely different things. That’s because priests, ministers, and pastors all create their own sermons based on whatever they want to teach that particular week. They’ll pick out a single verse, or a handful of verses, and preach the lesson on those few words and nothing else. Even in a single denomination like the Baptist Church, there are different conventions (or schools of thought) that govern what type of interpretation they’ll give to the exact same verses. Different conventions will teach different interpretations and have very different doctrinal beliefs.
We don’t have that in our church. If someone starts teaching different interpretations of the doctrine that veer too far off from the official doctrine, they’re subject to church discipline. If they persist, they’re removed from the body of the Church and can no longer claim membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They become their own denomination, no longer affiliated with ours. We don’t have an umbrella denomination with multiple subsets. We have one single denomination. If your teachings consistently don’t align and you refuse to humble yourselves and seek God’s guidance to change your heart, you need to leave until you’re ready to make a change, because at that point, you’ve created your own denomination.
The way that some ex-members will spin it, however, is that it’s a “narrative” they’re “being fed” that is somehow different than the truth, and that it was done on purpose to manipulate them into believing in a Gospel that doesn’t exist. Neither of those things are true, and neither is the claim that history, science, and the primary source documents prove the Church wrong in what it teaches.
We’ve seen just how badly Jeremy has twisted the things he provides as evidence for his claims thus far in the Letter. Clearly, his idea of the Church’s “narrative” is very, very different from what the Church actually teaches about its history and doctrine.
The idea that the Church is hiding its history is laughable. In a minute, I’ll provide some links to show just how open they’re being. To begin with, though, in a lay ministry, you’re going to have some people who know more than others. You can’t teach what you don’t know, and different people are going to put emphasis on different things because we all have a different idea of what’s important to learn. That’s *why* we’re encouraged to study on our own in the first place.
It’s true that the Church wasn’t always as transparent as it is now, and there are reasons for that. A lot of things simply weren’t well-known enough to be shared. They sometimes find things in the archives that they never knew existed that changes the way we view an event. We just talked about one last week, the revelation directing Hiram Page and others to try to sell the Book of Mormon copyright in Canada. We talked about others during the Mark Hofmann stuff, where they found some of those McLellin papers already in their possession.
Additionally, with the advent of the internet, it is much, much easier to bring together all of those disparate sources and see patterns and new information in ways that was virtually impossible before. Things that were long believed to be rumors or hearsay suddenly now have primary sources backing them up.
And people will believe what they want to believe, and then share that information as fact rather than opinion. Many of us have passed along information that we thought was true, only to later discover that it wasn’t. That doesn’t mean we were lying or deliberately trying to manipulate the truth, it just means that we were mistaken. That happened in our history, too.
Joseph using his seer stone in his hat during the translation is a prime example of this. For a long time, the only two broadly known accounts of this were from David Whitmer and Emma Smith decades after the fact when both were known to be bitter toward either Joseph or the Church or both. We know David Whitmer got some things wrong (maybe deliberately, maybe not) and we know that Emma did deliberately lie about some things. Many people felt their accounts weren’t trustworthy, so they didn’t believe them. They thought they were making up stories, not giving honest accounts of the translation process.
There were other accounts out there, but they weren’t common knowledge. Historians knew about those other sources backing them up and were writing papers and articles about it, but they weren’t getting much traction. Those sources also weren’t gathered into one single place until after the Hofmann forgeries came to light and people really started going through the archives with the intent to see what was there. Once they realized how many sources backed up that part of the story, Church leaders started to see that they’d been wrong in believing the accounts were dishonest. The “narrative” began to change because new information had come to light and they realized they’d been mistaken.
But even now, there are still plenty of people who don’t believe that part of the translation account. A lot of people still do think it was a mistake because they were taught it was for so long, and they still sometimes teach others the same thing. It takes time for those kinds of things to be fully embraced in a worldwide church.
With the internet making those sources widely available, the Church has responded in kind and made their historical documents widely available, too. As Brian Hales points out, the Church is being very open with their resources. He states:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not hiding its past or its archival documents.
The alleged gap between what the Church teaches about its origins versus what the primary historical documents actually show happened is an illusion. Elder Snow, then Church Historian, explained: “The Internet allows the Church to do many things it could not before. Transparency is important.” Thousands of primary documents are being uploaded to the Internet. If there is a gap, then it should become obvious as these documents are becoming more available, but The CES Letter only makes the accusation.
He then points out that the Gospel Topics essays cover every major controversial topic in our history and are available on the Church’s website; thousands of documents are available online at the Church History Library; thousands more documents are available at the Joseph Smith Papers Project; and, with the aid of FAIR, Hales himself has uploaded his entire polygamy database to MormonPolygamyDocuments.org.
In addition to those great resources, I’d also like to point out a few more: the shorthand transcripts of every sermon we have available from Brigham Young and others from his day, some of which are included in edited form in the Journal of Discourses and some of which are not; the rest of the collections and documents there at the Church History Catalog; Saints, volumes 1: The Standard of Truth and 2: No Unhallowed Hand; the Church History Topics section of the Church website, as well as the one with Answers to Church History Questions; the entire Church History landing page; the Gospel Study Resources page; the Scholars Archive at BYU; though not an official website of the Church, FAIR, who has the entire Journal of Discourses hosted on its site along with many other sources, articles, podcasts, videos, and transcripts; and, while also not an official website of the Church, Book of Mormon Central additionally hosts a vast archive of papers and documents. Reddit user WooperSlim also recommended BYU’s Digital Collections.
Ours is not a church that is hiding or obscuring its history. It’s posting as much of it as possible online for you to research. There are a lot of amazing resources out there if you just take the initiative and start looking.
Jeremy describes losing his faith as he studied more of our Church’s history. Funnily enough, as I’ve studied Church history my faith has increased, and I can point to a number of people who have all had the same experience. The key difference seems to be that we were studying with the Holy Ghost’s help the way Presidents Nelson and Johnson encouraged us to do, while Jeremy apparently dismissed Him as nothing more than a simple feeling identical to any you’d get while watching an effective commercial. I could be wrong on that; I can’t speak for Jeremy Runnells. All I can do is go off of his own words, and that’s the impression he’s left.
His point #5 continues:
I read an experience that explains this in another way:
“I resigned from the LDS Church and informed my bishop that the reasons had to do with discovering the real history of the Church. When I was done, he asked about the spiritual witness I had surely received as a missionary. I agreed that I had felt a sure witness, as strong as he currently felt. I gave him the analogy of Santa; I believed in Santa until I was 12. I refused to listen to reason from my friends who had discovered the truth much earlier…I just knew. However, once I learned the facts, feelings changed. I told him that Mormons have to re-define faith in order to believe; traditionally, faith is an instrument to bridge that gap between where science, history and logic end, and what you hope to be true. Mormonism re-defines faith as embracing what you hope to be true in spite of science, fact, and history.”
As I said above, my own experience has been entirely the opposite. I don’t see any conflict between science, history, logic, and faith. I haven’t needed to “re-define faith in order to believe” because I don’t think the Gospel contracts science, fact, and history. I also don’t think maintaining a belief in Santa Claus without any evidence is akin to believing in the Gospel of Jesus Christ when there is a wealth of evidence to support its truth. The witness of the Holy Ghost is a large part of that evidence for any believer, and no, that’s not as obviously tangible as video or photographic evidence. But it is very real, and any one of us can find that out for ourselves.
I also guarantee you that this unnamed source Jeremy’s quoting here never received a witness from the Holy Ghost that Santa Claus was real. It’s a false equivalence. And as Jim Bennett points out, this is a testimony he’s giving us:
I cannot second-guess someone else’s experience. What’s interesting, though, is how critical you are of those who bear their testimonies when confronted with difficult information, yet that’s exactly what you’re doing here. This person is bearing their testimony of the untruthfulness of the Gospel. It’s impossible to argue with a testimony, which may be why so many people, when backed into a corner, toss that out as the best they can do.
That’s a curious bit of irony, isn’t it? Jeremy is using a testimony to refute the very idea of testimonies. Personally, I think that demonstrates just how wrong he is to claim that there’s no power in a testimony.
Anyway, this point took much longer to respond to than I was expecting, so I’m going to wrap this post up here. Just remember, we’ve been promised that we can learn the mysteries of God in full if we don’t harden our hearts against His Spirit. He stands ready to give us blessing after blessing, but if we metaphorically bury our knowledge in the ground instead of trying to multiply it the way the unrighteous servant did with his talent, He will take it away from us. We need to listen to President Nelson’s advice and take charge of our own spiritual education. We need to put in the effort and study His words, and we need to do with the assistance of the Holy Ghost. That way, like President Johnson said, we won’t just learn. We’ll understand.
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.