Sunday, May 21, 2017

Answering Letter to A CES Director #6

I am a bit behind in my rebuttal to Letter to A CES Director. Sorry to have gotten behind, I had finals and term papers to attend to. But, that is all over now and I can now focus on the arguments made by Mr. Runnells.

By way of announcement, the next topic that will be dealt with after today will be about the Book of Abraham. While I am well-read in philosophy and theology, I have no training in Egyptology (though neither does Mr. Runnells). So, the next post in this series will be a guest post by good friend Stephen Smoot. Smoot is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Egyptology and has published several articles on the Book of Abraham, so he is well equipped to address the issue in ways that I cannot. Beware however: Smoot is a bit different than I, he tends to be a bit cynical from time to time, while I have a more stoic approach. But, even when his cynicism is at its worst, he is still very objective and proportions his belief to the evidence, so I am sure you will enjoy what he has to say. I know I will.

Now, on to Mr. Runnells. His next argument deals with the first vision, where he correctly points out that there are four known versions of it. He also mentions that he never knew about these stories before he went into the missionary training center, and therefore he feels deceived.

Like I said before in a previous post, the Church is not responsible for your ignorance of an issue, especially when these issues have been addressed multiple times. If Runnells didn't know about these matters, I would ask whether he had ever bothered to look before going to the MTC.

The Church has not, contrary to what some people have said, hid this issue from view. The four versions of the first vision were published together in 1969 in BYU Studies by Dean Jesse, which can be read here. This was decades before Runnells was born, so he cannot say this is a new phenomena. Philosopher and theologian, Truman G. Madsen, discussed this matter thoroughly in his book Joseph Smith the Prophet, published in 1989. Richard L. Bushman also discusses the accounts in his landmark book Rough Stone RollingThe Church has also published an essay on this matter, and Elder Richard J. Maynes recently gave a fireside on the issue. It appears that Runnells had many places to look, but chose not to and now casts blame on the Church for deceiving him. If there were no Church sources available to investigate, Runnells would have a point. But since there are many, he does not.

However, Runnells' main argument is not so much that there was no information available, it is that the versions contradict each other and therefore cannot be valid. So, let's compare each version of the first vision and see if there is validity in this charge.

1832 Version

This version of the first vision was found in an unpublished biography the Prophet wrote in 1832; it is the only version that we have that was written by him. In it, the Prophet mentions that he was weighed down by his sins, and that he could not find a church that conformed to what he read about in the New Testament. He states that he prayed, the Lord (meaning Jesus of Nazareth) appeared to him and forgave him of his sins, telling him to walk uprightly before him. The Prophet states (or rather Fredrick G. Williams clarifies in the text) that he was in his sixteenth year (so he was 15) when this occurred. There is no mention of the Father appearing in this version of the theophany. This version can be read here.

1835 Version

This version comes to us via Warren Parrish, one of the Prophet's scribes, who took it down as the Prophet told his story to a visitor in Kirtland. In this version, the Prophet is 14 years old. He goes to a grove of trees again in this version, and he see two personages. The personages are unidentified in this version, but it can be interpreted that one was the Savior because the Prophet's sins were forgiven. In addition to the two personages, angels are also mentioned as being present. The Prophet mentions for a time he was overcome by an unseen force and was not able to pray for a time. The Prophet also mentions that one of the personages told him that his sins were forgiven, and the account states that the Prophet had another visitation of angels when he was 17 years old. This version can be read here.

1838 Version

This is the version that most people have heard. Published in the Church's periodical Times and Seasons, the Prophet, at age 14, wants to find the correct Church, mentions that he thought the Methodist Church may be the correct one, reads James 1:5, goes into the woods, prays, sees the Father and the Son, and is told to join no Church. This version does not mention forgiveness of sins, and is the one that the Prophet published after there were various accounts about how the Church got started. This version can be read here.

1842 Version

This version was printed in the Chicago Democrat after the Prophet was asked to retell the things that had happened to him. The first vision is mentioned, among other things (the Articles of Faith, information about the characters in the Book of Mormon, etc). Known as the Wentworth Letter, this version of the first vision is identical to the 1838 version and can be read here.

So, there seems to be a common thread through all of these versions. Jesus of Nazareth appears in all of them, the Prophet is in his early teen years, an important message was given, and while there are some minor variations, none of them are major.

The Father is not mentioned in the 1832 account, and this has caused some people to state that the Prophet embellished his story from one of personal forgiveness to a divine commission to be the St. Peter of our age. It should be remembered that the 1832 account is one that was written in the Prophet's journal and was not meant for publication, neither was the 1835 account. The 1838 account and 1842 accounts had to deal with how the Church got founded, and thus were different than the journalistic accounts.

Also, it is very possible that even in 1832 the Prophet did not understand the full implications of the vision. The early message of the Church was about gathering and building Zion, which was a different message than what missionaries are now teaching. The prophet, as Bushman points out, grew in his calling and his understanding of his visions grew also.

Suffice it to say, after reading all four of the versions, there is no reason to make as much of a fuss about them as Runnells is. But, I will allow the reader to make up their own mind about the matter.

Suggested readings: First Vision Accounts, Joseph Smith the Prophet by Truman G. Madsen, Rough Stone Rolling by Richard L. Bushman, The Earliest Documented Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision by Dean C. Jesse


  1. Okay, let me try to state your point of view. It isn't the church's fault that Jeremy Runnell is upset because he felt lied to, correct? It is a lack of research that is to blame, correct? Yes, there are so many references to the multiple first vision accounts, pardon my sarcasm. I appreciate your listing of a few obscure sources. Where are the official church sources for the accounts? A 1969 BYU studies publication, seriously? Rough Stone Rolling, a recent biography, sold in Deseret Book? Come on, I don't buy the "blame the victim" mentality. Are these multiple accounts being taught by the missionaries? Jeremy Runnells is justified in his experience, just like you are entitled to your beliefs. Why is there such a dislike of the CES letter? Is there not truth in it? Why is Jeremy blamed for the church's mistakes? The recent essays are the church's recent attempt to be "transparent". I would suggest that if it weren't for the internet, these accounts would still be buried in the vault.

  2. David,

    First of all, it is an individuals responsibility to get the information they are looking for. The Church is not to blame because Jeremy didn't know about something. And Jeremy can't claim something was hidden if the Church published it in the 1970 version of the Improvement Era. As a convert of nearly a decade, I knew about all these issues before I joined. If Jeremy didn't know about theses issues, its probably because he wasn't interested. You can baby him, but I will not.

    As for the CES Letter, it claims to be original and it isn't. These questions have been answered countless times. If Jeremy finds the answers unacceptable, that is fine. But he cannot claim the Church is hiding things when we have empirical evidence that it is not.

    The accounts were published in a BYU peer reviewed magazine and in the Improvement Era before Jeremy was born. So, your point about the vault is frivolous.

    1. Tarik,

      One of my daughters is currently a senior at university studying Engineering. She is on a full-tuition scholarship. She served an 18-month mission for the Church. She had nearly a straight A record in high school and graduated from Seminary. She's always been a devout believing Mormon, and I hope I've established that she's no intellectual slouch. When she was still in high school we were talking about the Book of Mormon translation. I told her how the Book of Mormon was translated (seer stone in hat). She was visibly shocked. She said something to the effect of, "That's, that's just voodoo!" (She still believes, but according to her devout Mormon mother, she's struggling to maintain that belief.)

      I get that it's an individual's responsibility to study, but how on earth was my daughter supposed to know that this was even a thing she should be looking into? Why is it that the essays generally referred to as the gospel topic essays are not being promoted in general conference, and only somewhat rarely in local congregations? I mean, when the Church really wants to promote something, they are great at it. Do you think my wife's bishop would allow a survey (even one he vetted) of his congregation regarding the ward members' knowledge of some of these lesser known Mormon issues?

      I'm no longer a member of the Church, in part because the Church did not offer full disclosure when I was taught by the missionaries or in any meeting I attended, and I attended for more than a year before joining. (Lest anyone go off on "there's no way they could disclose everything," full disclosure means to disclose honest and accurate information regarding relevant issues.) As an investigator, I was discouraged by the bishop of the ward I attended and by Mormon friends from reading anything but Church sources regarding controversial Church issues. Those essays I mentioned hardly begin to scratch the surface of what I consider relevant issues.

      Richard Bushman said, "The dominant narrative [of the Church] is not true." I know he's not a Church GA, but he's a respected scholar and devout member, so why does he indicate the dominant narrative isn't true and needs to change?

      Elder Ballard said, "Gone are the days when a student asked an honest question and a teacher responded, 'Don't worry about it!' Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue." Doesn't this imply that it used to be the standard MO in the Church to avoid these issues?

      Speaking about Church history, Elder Steven Snow said, "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." What do you make of that?


    2. Zach,

      I am sorry to hear that about your daughter, there are sadly many like her who were not aware of these issues.

      As to your question about the gospel topic essays, my answer is I do not know why the Church does not mention the gospel topic essays more. Some of those essays are well-done, some are not.

      As a convert myself, I investigated these issues beforehand, so when Jeremy Runnells brings them up I was informed beforehand. Perhaps the missionaries would not have been able to answer your questions if they were asked, many missionaries have not studies these issues before they go into the mission field. Scarily, some have not even read the Book of Mormon prior to going on a mission.

      As far as Elder Ballard's comment, none of my institute teachers ever dodged a question, whether inside of class or not. Elder Snow, who is now Church Historian, should know better. Plenty of people have published books and articles on these issues for years. The real problem is that many Mormons are uninterested in these issues until they are confronted with them, and that usually comes by way of the internet.

      Bushman is a hero of mine, and he is quite right that the dominant narrative (what I would call the reductionist narrative) is untrue. But, he has published an essay about that as well, so it is not what John Dehlin and Runnells make it out to be.

  3. Thanks for you quick response...I have a few more points. I agree that it is the individual's responsibility to find the information. Jeremy did that, and guess what, the CES Letter was created. You are entitled to you perspective of blaming the member, but are entitled to complain when he/she comes to a different viewpoint. I think one can attack the CES Letter but don't attack Jeremy, that he is lazy, not interested, etc.... I left the church a few years ago, prior to the CES Letter. I felt exactly as Jeremy. I am an RM, BYU grad, taught at the MTC for two years, temple marriage (went through before the 1990 endowment change of the Masonic Blood oaths), served in various leadership positions including a bishopric. All I have is my perspective, and I can tell you I wasn't taught these things in church and I didn't teach missionaries the multiple accounts of the first vision. I also still stand by that there are few sources out there that address them. They are obscure and I know these multiple accounts still aren't being taught by the missionaries, in church lessons in general, and by the standard teaching manuals. In fact I was taught to only stick to the church approved manuals, ensign, scriptures, etc.. How is one suppose to find one article from 1970 when the doesn't even have that one listed on their website? I think you are being intellictually dishonest in claiming the information was freely available. I was like Jeremy, I researched the various sources, FAIR, Daniel Peterson, Mormonthink, reddit, etc...nothing was off limits. I came to the conclusion that the amount of mental gymnastics to sustain my belief was exhausting. I felt betrayed, and angry. Why should I follow an organization that requires 100% honesty when it hasn't been completely honest with me? Lying by omission is still lying. I concluded the answers by apologists are clouded and compartmentalized, and when all the dots are connected the picture of the church is not favorable. I was I won't argue this point, you have you position and I have mine.

    Also, as far as these answers have been addressed "countless times", I would push back and ask, by whom? By the Leaders of the church? No, by their theories and answers aren't church doctrine, only their perspective and opinions. And "countless" is a large number, in an infinity amount. In closing, in my opinion, if members would view the church as just a belief system like all other churches, many of these issues would go away. People would just live and let live.

    1. David,

      I am a person who believes in personal responsibility. If books (long available in Deseret Book), peer reviewed journal articles, church magazines, and lectures all brought up these issues before Jeremy was born, lets ask a simple question of probability : Did the Church hide these issues or was Jeremy through his own ignorance unaware of them? Answer, the latter. It is no ones fault but Jeremy's that he was unaware of these issues. As I mentioned before, I was aware of them before joining the Church, so lifelong members have no excuse. Sorry if that hurts your feelings, but that is the truth.

      I did say countless, I should have said many. More than enough that Jeremy can't say there were none.

      You are entitled to your own opinion. If Runnells and yourself do not want to be members of the Church, that is your right. No one is harassing Runnells because he left. We are countering his ideas that he presented in his pdf.

      Of course the Church is a belief system like other beliefs, what else would it be? You are simply stating the obvious.

      Since B.H. Roberts and Elder Maynes were or are members of the Presidency of the Seventy and addressed issues such as the First Vision, it seems that leaders have addressed the issue.

  4. Well thank you for your concern about my feelings , but I have been told worse things by my friends and fellow members so I won't shed too many tears. To say it is the members fault is your right but don't complain when holes are found in the foundation of the church. You can buy the answers I didn't and don't. I feel the apologist's answers are a desperate attempt to keep their belief together. Yes you can push back against Jeremy's document, but don't say he was lazy. Laziness isn't the problem. Coming to a different conclusion than yours is the real issue. Of course mormonism is a belief system, but my point is it is no more special than any other. No more connected to God than the next....I still stand by my opinion, the correlation of the church material during David O McKay's reign is where the problems started and thing we're brushed aside, taken out of circulation and hidden. Again why aren't investigators being taught the ugly warts of mormonism up front? And for sure B.H Roberts, arguably​ the only true theologian besides Bruce R. or John Widsoe, addressed some of the concerns. Be he hardly counts as an apostle, seer and revelator. A general leader but not an apostle. And lastly, I would push back and say I am sure there were some issues found in the CES letter that even you didn't know. So to brush the whole document aside claiming you knew everything in there is a bold claim. And if you did know all the issues and still hats off to you. This organization has serious problems.

  5. David,

    I agree with you that these issues should be taught to investigators, but as you know I have no say in that.

    As far as your belief, what we believe is a choice. You have as much of a right to your beliefs as I do to mine. However, none of these issues are new; anti-Mormon books have written on these points for decades. This one is notable because it was written by a former Mormon who was young, which is original.

  6. So you are seriously saying that Jeremy and others like him should have waded through BYU research papers and editions of the New Era published years before they were born looking for scraps of information about different First Vision accounts even though they did not know they were there to go looking for them....that's completely illogical! If something is not clearly featured in the current curriculum of lesson manuals, members are NEVER encouraged to go hunting for more obscure information, and they are highly unlikely to hear about it.

    The big emphasis since the 'back to basics' campaign and course correction of the late 1980's has been to focus on Christ and stop speculating about 'deeper doctrines' and history. That is the Mormon world Jeremy grew up in.

    And I would suggest that the killer blow to your arguments that obscure references in obscure or very out-dated Church magazines, or even mainstream ones, should be enough for the Church to be considered completely open about the different First Vision accounts all along and noone should have an excuse for not finding out about stuff, is that NOONE in this thread has noticed or mentioned that the Ensign in 1985 had a whole article dedicated to the 4 First Vision accounts. Could it be because it was published before you were born, young Padawan apologists, like the things you expect Jeremy to have read? MIKE DROP! LOL!

    Which also goes to show that if you want to bury bad news, put it in a huge article in the Ensign! Noone will notice it. Seer stone photos in the Ensign? Not a word at Church about it and loads of members still don't know about them. Joseph Smith holding a chocolate pebble to translate the Book of Mormon with in The Friend Magazine this year? Most of their parents haven't even noticed. It takes a lot more than some obscure articles to justify claiming something has been taught openly in our Church, even if to members of a very small set of well read academics that seems impossible.

    1. Peter,

      It is your responsibility to be an educated member. If there are resources out there that you can take advantage of, don't cry about how there were not any.