Recent findings suggest the vast majority of Mormons have few doubts about their religion (apparently half have none whatsoever), but there are some working hard to change that. Just in time for Christmas, Jeremy Runnells has released both printed and electronic copies of his CES Letter 2.0 (promising he “softened the tone”). In previous editions of the letter, Runnells covered a controversial theory proposed by Vernal Holley on Book of Mormon geography. I wrote a post about this theory over six months ago, covering arguments from both the CES Letter and apologists, so I was curious how it was handled in this latest edition. Even though Runnells was open in the past about doubting the validity of the Holley maps, it’s becoming clear the effectiveness of those maps in destroying testimonies is just too precious to undermine or give up.
Background on the CES Letter
For those who don’t know, the current publication, CES Letter: My Search for Answers to My Mormon Doubts, is the latest incarnation of an April 2013 document Jeremy Runnells sent to a CES director (hence the original title, Letter to a CES Director: Why I Lost My Testimony). I recommend listening to Mormon Stories Episode 480 where John Dehlin interviewed Jeremy Runnells to get the full story, but here’s a summary. Runnells was raised in the church, went through the typical milestones (even met his spouse at BYU), and, like many others, got blindsided by disturbing church history facts around the age of 30. What sent him down the rabbit hole was a news article (if not this, then something similar) quoting Elder Marlin K. Jensen, Church Historian, about a modern-day apostasy due to church history concerns. Runnells went to Wikipedia for explanations, and from there he hit up both apologetic and critical sources of information about the church. The faith crisis began in February 2012, and by summer his testimony was gone.
In October 2012 he posted to Reddit a sarcastic “Open Letter to Elder Quentin L. Cook” (explaining in the Mormon Stories interview that he was “pissed off” over Cook’s recent general conference remarks). After long conversations with his grandfather, Runnells was offered the opportunity in early 2013 to correspond with a CES Director. The director asked Runnells for his concerns, and Runnells opted to take advantage of an opportunity to get some real, official answers. He compiled a massive PDF (over 80 pages) of pretty much every critique he could think of, and posted it on Reddit to get some feedback before sending it to the director in late April 2013.
The letter spread quickly on Reddit and made it’s way to the MormonThink website, where it then went viral. The publication is credited with starting thousands (if not tens of thousands) of people on journeys out of the church and has inspired other “big list” compilations of arguments discrediting the Mormon church, like Letter For My Wife and Letter to an Apostle.
The Smaller Problem
In this post, we’re focusing on ONE section, Book of Mormon Geography (p. 13-15). I am fully aware there are dozens of other arguments in this 135-page book, but those aren’t what make me angry right now.
In this section, Runnells promotes a theory created by a guy named Vernal Holley that the setting of the Book of Mormon was based on the Great Lakes region. As I explained in my Vernal Holley post last May, the argument goes that Joseph Smith lifted place names from his surroundings and put them in the Book of Mormon. Holley created maps and a list of around 29 place name correlations. In the original 2013 version of the CES Letter, Runnells included Holley’s maps and list, leaving them mostly intact. The only change was removing three towns from the list that had already been debunked by FairMormon (St. Agathe/Ogath, Angola, Tecumseh/Teancum).
It appears that Runnells didn’t feel a need to research any other places on that list, though. When FairMormon debunked the original CES Letter, Runnells suddenly became motivated. He agreed with FairMormon that some connections were weak, or that certain towns really didn’t exist before 1829. But he fought back on other towns, offering his own data. His 2014 and 2015 updates to the CES Letter reflected these changes, and he posted his in-depth response to that FairMormon debunking, covering arguments for each location, on his website here. When people accused him a few months ago (in 2017) of using bad data in the Holley argument, he responded,
This was true in the original CES Letter that I wrote 4 years ago, which I immediately corrected when the errors came to my attention. It is not true for the updated and revised CES Letter today….
I have already done a thorough line-by-line detailed response and rebuttal on this. I have already gone through this with FairMormon and I revised the list based on evidence. You can find my response here: http://cesletter.org/debunking-fairmormon/book-of-mormon.html#8
But Runnells is wrong. It is still true for the updated and revised CES Letter today, because Runnells never bothered to do more research beyond responding to FairMormon’s original 2014 critique. And since FairMormon’s rebuttal was often stupid, like “The name ‘Shiloh’ is a biblical name.” Runnells didn’t have to contend with much,
Again, the fact that the name “Shiloh” is in the Bible is beside the point. The fact that it also existed as a geographical place in Joseph’s time and place and in a setting that Joseph taught early on to be the geographical site of the Book of Mormon is the point.
So, you’d think that Runnells would confirm that the town Shiloh, Pennsylvania, existed in Joseph’s time and place, right? Except he didn’t. And it didn’t. That’s the problem. And since Runnells didn’t update anything for his most current CES Letter 2.0, any apologist can still attack his list and claim that several towns did not, in fact, exist in 1829. How do I know? Because over 6 months ago I posted data for people to do exactly that. Places on his current list like Alma, Antioch, Boaz, Noah Lakes, and Shiloh DON’T WORK for 1829 plagiarism. (Incidentally, I also included data in that post that could help someone make a Vernal Holley argument with real, legitimate pre-1829 place names and location.)
But it’s not just what Runnells didn’t bother to research. In at least one situation, Runnells withheld pertinent information from a source he was very clear about consulting. On his website, Runnells makes an important argument that for a settlement’s name, you need to look deeper than when it was incorporated. Often places will be known by a moniker for many years before it’s official. This is a valid point (and it totally works for the town Mantua, Ohio, on his list). But Runnells uses a bad example to apply the principle.
FairMormon claimed that Jerusalem, Ohio does not show up on a 1822 map. If one searches on the internet for when Jerusalem was first settled, they won’t find any information. So, the logical conclusion would be to assume that Jerusalem wasn’t established before the publication of the Book of Mormon. However, this would be incorrect as there is evidence that the first house in Jerusalem, Ohio was built in 1825. I was able to locate a resident who volunteered to go to the Monroe County Public Library in Woodsfield, Ohio and search for the information. She found it an offline book entitled Monroe County, Ohio: A History.
So the hard-to-find book said the first house was built in 1825. Cool. Guess when the second house was built in that community? 1838. Yep, thirteen years later, and nine years after the Book of Mormon was published. How do I know? Because it’s in the very next sentence of that hard-to-find book. You know what’s in the following paragraph? The fact that town was most likely named after a church built in the northeastern part of the town. So, do you think a church was built to service a single house standing in 1829?
The frustrating thing is that Runnells didn’t even have to depend on Jerusalem, Ohio, for his argument. There are better locations named Jerusalem that fit the right time period.
The Bigger Problem
I’m sure Runnells will have no problem fixing those mistakes. After all,
I have no problem whatsoever admitting my mistakes and errors. I care more about the information being correct and accurate than I do about my ego.
So what’s the bigger problem, why I actually wrote this post? Because of this, what Runnells wrote to the Reddit community in August 2015.
I’m about 90-95% on removing the entire Book of Mormon Geography/Vernal Holley Maps out of the CES Letter but I wanted to gather your thoughts and assessment.
In the original CES Letter, there were errors contained in Holley’s maps that I fixed and revised in a later version of the CES Letter. Here’s my back and forth on the maps with FairMormon: http://cesletter.com/debunking-fairmormon/book-of-mormon.html#8
Even though the maps and list have been updated and corrected, I believe that it’s the weakest part of the CES Letter. The evidence, to me, is meh and not strong enough for my taste.
The only way I’d probably keep it in the CES Letter is with a disclaimer of some sort basically saying something to the effect of, “Vernal Holley’s maps and parallels are controversial. This information is not incorrect but it’s not strong either. Here are resources for further research.”
My current plan is to remove it and in the CES Letter Updates page explain this removal and why I removed it.
Thoughts? Keep? Remove? Why?
Two years ago, Runnells considered the Holley maps/Book of Mormon geography argument the weakest part of the CES Letter. If kept, he felt it should be relegated to an appendix or at least have some sort of disclaimer. (Notably, neither the copycats Letter to my Wife nor Letter to an Apostle include the Holley maps in their list of grievances.)
So what can we find in the CES Letter 2.0 today? The exact same Book of Mormon geography argument and a link to the exact same online evidence. No appendix. No disclaimer. The section even retained it’s place toward the beginning of the document, primed for maximum impact. So what gives?
Based on what people told Runnells in that August 2015 Reddit forum, the Holley maps are effective.
- “When I read the CES letter this part actually blew my mind! I was sure you were wrong and researched it. This is what kept me reading the letter.”
- “Reword it, asterisk it, push it to the appendix, whatever you need to do to help you feel it has the proper level of integrity, but please don’t just delete it.”
- “Going down a list of names and seeing place after place after place in common was really a “wow” moment for me, and it’s one of the most memorable sections of the CES Letter in my opinion.”
- “That’s the part that helped my wife consider that the church isn’t true.”
- “When my husband and I read the letter together in July seeing the maps is what actually pushed him over the edge.”
Makes sense. If the Holley maps are that effective, why would Runnells care if they hold up to objective scrutiny? After all, not everything useful has to be true.