In the wake of the CES Letter, several other similar “letters” began making the rounds online. None of them have the reach and influence of the CES Letter, but the distant second-most popular letter appears to be the Letter For My Wife by Thomas Faulk. Because of its second-place status, there are virtually no rebuttals to it. The only one I’ve been able to find is the one at FAIR.
This particular letter is favored by two groups. The first is the group who were themselves turned off by the hostility of the CES Letter. They wanted something similar but much more neutral in tone to help explain their faith struggles with their loved ones. That’s a position I can fully respect. The second group, however, is the group who discovers that many believers are put off by the CES Letter’s tone. They prefer something more neutral in order to rope their loved ones into reading it so they start questioning their own testimonies. I don’t have any respect for this position. It’s manipulative, and that’s gross to do to someone you claim to love.
Full disclosure: when FAIR asked me to write this series, I’d only read bits and pieces of the Letter For My Wife. I still haven’t finished a full read-through yet, but it seems pretty straightforward. It’ll be fun to discover the finer details alongside you all, and I’m looking forward to the challenge.
For some quick background, starting around 2009-ish, Faulk began keeping a small list of things he found confusing or unsettling. He also looked for any discrepancies while studying Church history. Eventually, in late 2013, he told his wife he’d lost his testimony and tried to get her to read his list. (Rather than linking to the exmormon subreddit, I’ve provided screenshots of the comments I’m referencing. This was done for the Reddit repostings, as we have an agreement not to brigade each other’s subs.)
Over the next few years, that list grew, and was fleshed out in part by the CES Letter. He eventually put this list in letter form too, explaining his faith journey and hoping that the new format would encourage her to read his list of concerns. It was posted to the exmormon subreddit in 2016 under the title “For My Wife and Children.” The author put his real name to it in 2017 and created a website following its success on the sub. There have been a few revisions over the years, but nothing quite like that major revision the CES Letter underwent in 2017.
Faulk deleted his original Reddit handle, so it’s basically impossible to find any of his commentary from that time period or earlier. For that reason, and because he hasn’t been vocal outside of Reddit, I can’t go into much of a deep dive on the author. He turned down a request from John Dehlin to be interviewed for Mormon Stories, for example. He even told Jeremy Runnells to stop responding to rebuttals and to just walk away, after refusing to respond to FAIR’s rebuttal of his own letter.
From what I have been able to find, he stepped away from Reddit to deal with marital issues stemming from all of this. That’s an effort I respect him making. Unfortunately, it didn’t work and he subsequently created a second username. He’s been semi-active with that one for the past five years. Like Jeremy, he chose a username mocking the Church. However, instead of targeting the Book of Abraham like Jeremy did, he instead targeted Elder Holland. The wife in question did not ever read this letter, and sadly, their marriage ended right before the pandemic hit. In the past, he stated that his wife reading the letter or other similar material and walking away with her testimony intact was both his “biggest worry” and “biggest fear in life.” He’s also made disparaging comments about her refusal to listen to his position. This includes calling her, among other things, a “fingers-in-her-ears TBM.” (For those who don’t know, “TBM” is exmo-shorthand for “totally brainwashed Mormon.”) But for the most part, he’s kept pretty quiet.
The reason I bring up some of his commentary and personal issues like this is because I think context is vitally important to understanding both people and events. When you post online what is ostensibly a private, deeply personal letter to your wife and encourage people to share it with others, you invite in scrutiny and questions of your intentions. I have questions about Thomas Faulk’s intentions in writing and posting this letter. So far to me, it comes across as a mixed bag, sincere in some places and insincere in others.
There’s some condescension in the way he talks about his loved ones who still believe the Church is the true church of Christ. In addition, he continued to push his wife to read the letter despite her refusals, which I’m sure didn’t help the situation. It adds to the impression of a lack of respect for her beliefs. He’s also mocking of the Church as an organization as well as things related to it. This is most clearly demonstrated by his new username and his creation of a Reddit snoo riding a tapir while drinking a beer that has been turned into stickers and other merchandise. This figure was the mascot of a planned event that fell through, charmingly named “TapirFest.”
I don’t know either of these people. I know nothing about their private relationship, and I respect that Faulk has kept mostly to himself over the years. I’m not saying any of this to attack or insult him. However, looking down on people for having a different opinion; publicly disparaging your spouse behind their back; mocking beliefs others hold as sacred; and refusing to respect the boundaries of your loved ones are all things that lead to strain in relationships. As anyone who has been around ex-Mormon social media circles knows, these are common traits in the more vocal part of the community. Respect is a two-way street, and if those in the ex-Mormon community want us to respect them and their choices, they need to show that same respect for those of us who remain believing members of the Church.
And to me, all of this shows at least the possibility of manipulation. It says to me that Faulk may have used the kinder, gentler tone as a way to persuade his wife down the same path out of the Church that he’d already taken. I’m not saying for certain that’s true. I have no idea what was in his heart and mind, after all. I’m just saying it makes me wonder. Others will surely have a different view. That’s a question each of us will have to judge for ourselves as we go through this letter together.
Having said all of that, this particular letter begins with both a Preface and an Introduction. We’ll go through both today. There’s also a Table of Contents, which breaks Faulk’s concerns into 4 main sections: The Early Church, The Book of Mormon, The Book of Abraham, and The Modern Church. Each section has various subsections, 25 in total plus a Conclusion. A lot of this will be familiar ground, as we’ve already covered much of it in the CES Letter rebuttal.
The titular letter begins in the Preface and ends in the Conclusion. The rest of the document is not addressed to the wife in question. This suggests that packaging it as a letter was a later addition to the document and not the primary goal in putting it all together.
As with the last rebuttal, this letter’s commentary will be in bold italics, while my comments will be in plain text to differentiate them. The Preface begins:
I am writing this letter to explain in detail how I came to the conclusion that the Church is not all it claims to be. I deeply need your understanding and support. You are my whole world.
I won’t comment too much on this portion. But I do find this opening to be somewhat hypocritical, since he was simultaneously making derogatory comments about her and her beliefs on Reddit.
I have been known to get intellectually excited about various subjects on occasion. I tend to investigate every piece of information and exhaust all resources to satisfy my curiosity. One day I came across an Ensign article discussing the new Joseph Smith Papers project that caused my curiosity to extend into Church history. I soon became captivated. I began reading every Church-approved historical resource I could find.
Once more, we have the very common refrain of “Church-approved resources.” There is no such thing as a Church-approved source. The Church does not tell us what we can and can’t study. There is no list of banned books from Salt Lake. The Doctrine and Covenants teaches us in several places to “seek out from the best books words of wisdom” (D&C 88:188; D&C 109:7). We’re also taught to “study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people” (D&C 90:15). However, no list of those “good” or “best books” has ever been given. It’s on us to make that determination for ourselves.
“Church-approved sources” is a phrase that pops up over and over again in anti-LDS online communities today. It’s meant to insinuate that we’re brainwashed, that we can’t think for ourselves, and that we’re shielded from accessing “the truth” by our church-leader overlords. Now, your parents may encourage you to avoid certain material while you’re living under their roof. That’s fine; parents are allowed to determine what media they want their family exposed to. Honor their wishes until you’re out on your own, and then make up your own mind. But no one else forbade you from reading what you want to read and studying what you want to study.
While the Church has provided a list of potential resources for Sunday School, Seminary, and Institute teachers to use while preparing their lessons, that list is not comprehensive, no one is forced to use it, nor are they forbidden from straying from it. It also has no bearing on personal study material. It is not a list of the only resources a person is allowed to study in order to remain in good standing in the Church. When I research these posts, I rely on a wide variety of material with multiple slants and agendas. I’m a firm believer that inoculation is the best defense. When you know how to evaluate sources and study with the Holy Ghost as your companion, there is nothing to fear from material that’s critical of the Church.
What is scary about that kind of thing is that, when it’s all you surround yourself with, it can drive away the Spirit. That absence of the Holy Ghost is what Elder Corbridge described in his excellent talk, “Stand Forever.” He said, “That gloom is not belief bias and it is not the fear of being in error. It is the absence of the Spirit of God. That is what it is. It is the condition of man when ‘left unto himself.’ It is the gloom of darkness and the ‘stupor of thought.’”
That gloom is what causes a faith crisis. The way we fight against that feeling is by letting in the light. When you start to feel that darkness he described, reach for your scriptures. Even if you can’t answer any of the other questions tumbling around in your mind, the scriptures will bring you peace and light. They will drive that gloom away. That’s why we’re encouraged to read from the best books, because those books won’t drive away the Spirit. But we’re not forbidden from reaching for any book we want to reach for, and the Church doesn’t give us a list of sources that are acceptable to study from.
I pored over Joseph Smith’s journals, the Journal of Discourses, The History of the Church and early Mormon periodicals. It was all so fascinating. My intent was to learn more about the history and to strengthen my testimony, but every so often I would run across well-known events that did not match the narrative I was taught growing up in the Church. This letter is a collection of these events and other inconsistencies.
And again with the “narrative” from the Church. This is another thing that critics like to pounce on. But the thing is, everyone’s narrative from the Church will be slightly different. Even with a correlated curriculum, different teachers will focus on different aspects of the lesson. They’ll highlight different things, find different things important, and teach the lessons in different ways. People will be paying attention at different rates, and they’ll retain different pieces of information. We don’t all teach the same way, and we don’t all learn the same way, either. Each of us will have different experiences in learning things from the Church.
And we’ll get into the reliability of those different resources he lists later in the letter, I’m sure.
I would like to address something before you continue reading. Much of this information will be new to you; it was to me. It may feel uncomfortable learning things we were never taught in church. We have been told that this feeling is the Spirit warning us; but please consider that any information that seriously challenges our worldview will make us feel this way. My only request is that you read this with an open mind about the possibility that anything is possible in this crazy world.
I’m sure some of the things we read in this letter will be new information to many of us. Some of that information might even be true after we cut through the bias and twisting of words. All of that is okay. Every piece of information that we know was brand new to us at some point. It’s okay to be surprised by something you didn’t know. It’s also okay to pause and take some time to process it and let it sink in. All of that is normal, and as long as you’re studying with the Spirit by your side, there’s nothing to fear about learning something new.
But that feeling he’s talking about, the uncomfortable feeling? What he means but isn’t saying specifically is “cognitive dissonance.” That’s a feeling that comes when you learn something that contradicts what you already believed. It leaves you feeling lost and confused. You become disconnected and your mind scrambles for a way to make sense of the contradictions. It’s a common term in the online ex-Mormon community, nearly as common as “gaslighting.” They use the term frequently to explain away the feelings of gloom Elder Corbridge discussed in that quote I shared earlier.
However, cognitive dissonance is not the same thing as the feelings you get when you’re immersed in anti-religious work that drives away the Holy Ghost. The absence of the Spirit is something else entirely. It is a warning that what we’re doing is spiritually corrosive. When we immerse ourselves in that kind of dreck, it destroys our faith and tears down our testimonies. That heavy, sinking feeling we get is from chasing the Spirit away.
That is not cognitive dissonance. The two are completely different things, and we need to learn the difference between them and how they each feel. When Elder Corbridge was talking about the feelings you get from bias and error, he was also referring to cognitive dissonance. He was explaining that they are not identical feelings, and how to tell the difference between the two.
By contrast, Faulk essentially told his wife to ignore the warnings of the Spirit and to trust him instead. This is already dangerous ground. It’s manipulative, and it starts this letter off on a bad foot.
He ends his Preface with a quote:
“In general it is true that nothing which cannot stand up under discussion and criticism is worth defending.” (Elder James E. Talmage, Improvement Era, January 1920)
This quote is actually not from Elder Talmage. Talmage quoted an editorial from a local Pittsburgh paper called the Leader. He attended a Christian conference in Pittsburgh that November called the “Third World’s Christian Citizenship Conference.” Talmage discussed that conference in generally favorable terms. However, there was a less-than-favorable presentation on our church titled the “Conference on Mormonism.” It was full of anti-LDS rhetoric and distortions, which Talmage outlines in his Improvement Era article. He had a few minutes to rebut the inflammatory claims, and the crowd treated him terribly. Another man from Salt Lake City also spoke. He was not a member of the Church, but felt he had to speak out against the unkindness he heard. He was verbally abused as well. The editorial in the Leader spoke about how shameful the crowd’s behavior was toward those of our faith. Talmage quoted a passage from the editorial, which is found on pages 203-204 of the January 1920 Improvement Era. This quote came from that passage.
So, we’re already off to a less-than-great start, with a misattributed quote and some subtle manipulation by Faulk. Hopefully, though, we won’t see the blatant, egregious twisting of words we saw in the CES Letter.
The Table of Contents comes next in the Letter for My Wife (going forward, I’ll mostly just use LFMW). After that, the Introduction begins with even more quotes. This is apparently a stylistic choice Faulk borrowed from Jeremy Runnells, just like the letter format.
Church Historian, Elder Steven E. Snow, was interviewed by BYU’s Religious Educator program about the Church’s recent increasing openness with regard to history. He stated,
“My view is that being open about our history solves a whole lot more problems than it creates. We might not have all the answers, but if we are open – and we now have pretty remarkable transparency – then I think in the long run that will serve us well. I think in the past there was a tendency to keep a lot of the records closed or at least not give access to information. But the world has changed in the last generation—with the access to information on the Internet, we can’t continue that pattern; I think we need to continue to be more open.” (Steven E. Snow, Start With Faith: A Conversation with Elder Steven E. Snow, Religious Educator 14, no.3, 2013. http://rsc.byu.edu/tre)
This quote is talking about access to the Church archives and the materials found inside. Faulk positions this as if Elder Snow was talking about the Church hiding information, but he wasn’t. To put the quote in context, the question from the interviewer was, “Some scholars have wondered why they don’t call an academic as Church historian. Is there any sense that there is a distrust of academic historians and scholars, or is that not on the radar?”
This was Snow’s reply:
I don’t know if it’s distrust; I think it’s more of tradition. If you go back to Willard Richards, George A. Smith, and Anthon Lund, they were all either members of the Twelve or members of the First Presidency who were historians. They had an office of assistants and clerks, Andrew Jenson being one of the most well-known Assistant Church Historians. Elder Joseph Fielding Smith obviously had a great influence over the office, with the many decades he was involved as Church Historian. It was much more restricted than we find it today. All the collections were in the old Church Administration Building, so it was different. I think when Elder Howard W. Hunter became Church Historian in 1970, he wasn’t really comfortable with the call. That is when it was decided to bring in Dr. Leonard Arrington from Utah State University as Church Historian. He had a remarkable decade. But there was a downside as well. I think that led to a time where there was a lot of scrutiny and questioning about what we should do in the future. Following Dr. Arrington, there were a couple of historians called, but there was a gap of about sixteen years when there was technically not a Church Historian. Elder Marlin K. Jensen had a vision of where it could and should go and gave great leadership in a very difficult time. He was here at a good time, because this facility [the Church History Library] was started and completed. It is a remarkable facility for Church history….
Part of my challenge is to make certain that I understand that if the Brethren have questions, we get to them and answer them quickly. We have an opportunity to defend positions with them and to state our case, but ultimately if we are given specific direction by the Brethren, we take it. My view is that being open about our history solves a whole lot more problems than it creates. We might not have all the answers, but if we are open (and we now have pretty remarkable transparency), then I think in the long run that will serve us well. I think in the past there was a tendency to keep a lot of the records closed or at least not give access to information. But the world has changed in the last generation—with the access to information on the Internet, we can’t continue that pattern; I think we need to continue to be more open.
Clearly, he meant the historical collections. They used to be housed elsewhere, making them more difficult to access. They were also restricted to serious students of history and those who could be trusted not to use them against the Church—which is why you often saw the Tanners complaining that they weren’t granted access, for example. Things began changing under Leonard Arrington. Then, under Marlin Jensen, the Church took advantage of the internet and began digitizing all of the records, making them widely available.
It was also during that time, between Arrington and Jensen, that they really began going through the archives to see what was there. In large part, this was spurred on by Mark Hofmann’s forgeries. They wanted to make sure they didn’t have any more of them in their archives. While sifting through everything, they found other collections they didn’t know existed, such as the fabled McLellin Collection that is now hosted online at the Church History Catalog.
The current ease of sharing documents online for free means that it’s much, much easier to compile and disseminate information than it was the past. You don’t have to pay the publishing and marketing expenses, then hope people can afford to buy the book if they’re only interested in a single document or anecdote. Now, you just have to pay for the website itself and everyone can find what they’re looking for with just a few taps on their keyboard.
Our church’s membership was also much smaller back in the days of Joseph Fielding Smith’s tenure as Church historian. There were far fewer people clamoring for the minute details found in obscure accounts than there are today. It’s vital the official records be immediately accessible when antagonists can widely publish edited quotes removed from all context. The internet really did change our entire society in a myriad of ways, and this was one of them.
What pattern can’t they continue?
The context of the quote makes that answer obvious: they can’t continue restricting documents on a person-by-person basis. The new Church History Library and the internet gave them the ability to publicly share these documents. So, that’s exactly what they’re doing. Additionally, the internet gave critics a forum to publish and spread their distortions to a much broader audience than ever before. It’s critical that people be able to find the truth just as easily. Life was very different back in the days of The God Makers or Spalding’s attack on the Book of Abraham, when the reach of such works was limited.
Professor of history emeritus at BYU, D. Michael Quinn, recounts a conversation with Elder Boy K. Packer regarding historical issues of the Church,
“I have a hard time with historians because they idolize the truth. The truth is not uplifting; it destroys…Historians should tell only that part of the truth that is inspiring and uplifting.” (D. Michael Quinn quoting Boyd K. Packer, Pillars of My Faith, Sunstone Symposium, Salt Lake City, August 19, 1994)
There are a lot of issues with this portion. First, yes, D. Michael Quinn was an emeritus professor of history at BYU. He was also excommunicated as one of the September Six for apostasy and violations of the law of chastity. He then wrote several volumes attacking the LDS Church and its leaders after his excommunication.
Quinn’s work as an historian was noted for the solid bibliographies to his various works. Unfortunately, he was also known for his tendency to personally attack those he disagreed with, and to play fast and loose with the connections he made between the factual record and its supposed meaning. He also seemed to have a clear dislike of President Packer. This means that you can’t always trust his quotations and sourcing to be accurate.
The alleged quote itself is also problematic in that there is no actual record of President Packer ever having said or written these words. It’s a secondhand recounting of a private conversation held years earlier by a fairly hostile critic who was known to stretch his sources past all reasonable interpretations. It is entirely possible that this quote is incorrect. It may also be missing large portions of context that would entirely change its meaning. Both of those are errors that Quinn was prone to making in his work.
Now, it’s true that President Packer believed in laying a groundwork for a testimony rather than dumping all of the unflattering facts on the table at once. That does not mean that he believed in lying or hiding the truth. It just means that he believed in the scriptural adage of giving people milk before meat. That is not the same thing as saying that all historians destroy faith.
There is good reason to be skeptical of this quote. There is even better reason to be skeptical of the spin Faulk puts on it:
Elder Packer counsels that not all truth should be shared, but what determines which should be shared and which should be censored? At what point do partial truths become lies?
No, D. Michael Quinn claimed without providing any supporting evidence whatsoever that President Packer gave that counsel. Anyone can make a claim without having to back it up. I can claim that Quinn told me privately before his death that he made the entire thing up. That doesn’t mean the claim is true, and it doesn’t mean that Quinn’s claim is true, either.
Elder Packer’s caution and Elder Snow’s reveal shows that the brethren have regularly suppressed information about the Church’s troublesome history.
This is another bold claim without anything to back it up. The full context of Elder Snow’s comment shows that isn’t what he was saying at all, and we can’t verify a single word of President Packer’s alleged “caution.”
And Faulk doesn’t give any details of the Church’s supposedly “troublesome history” at this point. I assume those are coming later, but for now, he leaves it dangling. You can’t assert something as fact without being able to support your assertion.
Yet now they see the need to finally be truthful due to the Internet’s free flow of information.
That isn’t what they said, and it’s not what I said, either. I said that due to the ability of dishonest critics to use the internet to make whatever distorted claims about the Church they’d like to, it’s equally important for the Church to use the internet in order to set the record straight. There wasn’t the need to do that in the same way before. Those critics had a much smaller reach 40-50 years ago. Books and articles were often sufficient to counter them. We should all be glad the Church is updating its policies with the times.
I feel that a true church should not have a troublesome past to hide and be open to full disclosure if there is any. Let’s take a closer look at what Elder Snow says have been kept closed all these years.
Between the Church History Catalog and the Joseph Smith Papers Project, there are now thousands upon thousands of digitized documents available for anyone to read. This is what Snow meant by saying they now have “pretty remarkable transparency.” Very few organizations—especially churches—have so many of their founding/historical documents so readily available. There are journals, letters, revelations, court transcripts, sermons, meeting minutes, etc. You can now access them for free with just a few words typed into a search engine.
Again, Elder Snow did not say that the true history of the Church was “kept closed all these years.” He said that the historical collections at the Church History Library were available only on a restricted basis. Those are very different things. As this series will hopefully show, this information was widely available even before the internet was around. You just had to know where to look.
As for the Church’s “troublesome past,” I said in the CES Letter series that these supposed historical controversies become a lot less controversial when you put the quotes and events back into their proper context. That is what the Church is trying to do by posting all of their documents online, and writing things like Saints and the Gospel Topics Essays. That’s what this series will try to do as well.
However, history is messy and people aren’t perfect. Mistakes were made along the way, and that’s to be expected. There are gaps in the historical record, and that’s to be expected, too. But, as Elder Holland once taught, “[W]hen you see imperfection, remember that the limitation is not in the divinity of the work.” The limitation is in us, because we’re fallen, mortal beings who occasionally stumble even while trying our best.
Next week, we’ll start on Faulk’s first section, “The Early Church.” His first subsection is on the First Vision, which is a topic near and dear to my heart. If his Preface and Intro are anything to go by, we’re in for some slanted rhetoric coming up. That should be interesting. I can’t anticipate how long this letter will take to go through, but I’m looking forward to the challenge. I hope you all are, too.
Sarah Allen is relatively new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. An avid reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her friends lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises. That’s when she began sharing what she’d 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.
Michael Towns says
Looking forward to this series. Thank you for doing all the hard work of sifting, analyzing, and contextualizing.
Sarah Allen says
Thanks, Michael. Hopefully it turns out okay! 🙂
Even with digitization the Church archives still hold some fairly amazing things that don’t translate well to the internet. For example, my mission president told us once that he was looking for something and opened a random folder with a piece of cloth in it. The label said it was from the shirt Joseph Smith was wearing in Carthage. No one knew it was there. For the curious, it was yellow.
STW, that’s fascinating! I didn’t know they had that. Thanks for sharing!
Bob Ainsworth says
Looking forward to your research. Your commentary on the CES letter was brilliant. If your commentary on this letter is half as good, it will be terrific!
Sarah Allen says
Thank you, Bob! I really appreciate that. That’s very kind of you.
Sasha Kwapinski says
I also greatly enjoyed your work on the CES letter; very informative and worth while reading it. I’m certainly looking forward to this series.
Sarah Allen says
Thank you, Sasha!
Joel Winter says
Keep up the good work. I’m sure it takes a lot of time and energy. I’ll say no more because I always remember what President Hinckley once said about adulation. It’s poison. (hehe, I’m sure you’ll likely discover that he was quoting someone else so I gave no cite or quotation markings!) But every Sherem and Korihor suffers from it and always will.
But a little thanks can go a long way. So, thank you.
Jo Ann McVey Okelberry says
Thank you for all the research you have done and also for the sources of your information. I read your CES responses and was amazed at how well you documented and presented your views.