What is the CES Letter?

It's a document written by Jeremy Runnells[BIO] that lists "many serious problematic challenges to [the] foundational truth claims" of the Church.[1]

It is referred to as the CES Letter because it was originally written by Runnells to a Church Educational System (CES) employee.[2]

Timeline of events related to the CES Letter

February 2012

Jeremy Runnells,[BIO] author of the CES Letter, experiences a "faith crisis" while studying the history and doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and by the summer of 2012 he "[doesn't] believe in this anymore."[3]

October 9, 2012

Runnells posts a satirical open letter addressed to Apostle Quentin L. Cook[BIO] stating that Runnell's "testimony was destroyed by falsehoods I found on the evil internetz."[4][5]

November 15, 2012

Runnells asks for advice on the ex-mormon forum on Reddit, saying "I have a TBM ["True Believing Mormon"] wife who still takes kids to church. I want to know the most effective way to save them from Mormonism..."[6]

Early March 2013

Runnells begins writing a document describing his concerns about the history and doctrine of the Church at the request of a Church Educational System (CES) Director. The Director was a friend of Runnells's grandfather and was "just trying to help."[7]

March 26, 2013

Runnells shares an initial draft of the document intended for the CES Director on the ex-mormon forum on Reddit asking for "feedback/advice."[8]

April 12, 2013

Runnells posts the final draft of the document[9] and invites Reddit users on the ex-mormon forum to "personalize it to yourselves to give to your TBM loved ones."[10]

Late April 2013

Runnells sends "Letter to a CES Director: Why I Lost My Testimony" to the unnamed CES Director.[11]

Late April 2013

Tom Phillips[BIO] posts "Letter to a CES Director" on mormonthink.com.[12]

June 2013

FAIRMormon[BIO] begins publishing a series of responses to the issues raised in the CES Letter.[13]

July 30-31, 2013

Runnells "crowdsources" rebuttals to the FAIRMormon response on the ex-mormon forum on Reddit.[14]

August 2013

Runnells launches cesletter.com, which hosts the letter as well as rebuttals against criticisms of the letter.[15]

February 2014

In response to the criticisms from FairMormon, Runnells publishes "Debunking FairMormon" on the CES Letter website, containing "close to 900 pages of content."[16]

June 12, 2014

John Dehlin[BIO] hosts Jeremy Runnells on his podcast Mormon Stories, where Runnells discusses his background, relationship with the Church, and the CES Letter.[17]

February 11, 2015

Runnells crowdsources a new subtitle for the CES Letter on the ex-mormon forum on Reddit because "[Why I Lost My Testimony] might be too scary or off-putting to TBMs."[18] The March 2015 version of the CES Letter was published without a subtitle.[19]

July 26, 2015

Runnells states that the "target audience" for the CES Letter is the "fence sitters" and that "[TBMs] are not my target audience because they're not ready for it. I'm looking for the doubters."[20]

April 1, 2016

Jim Bennett[BIO] publishes A CES Letter Reply: Faithful Answers for Those Who Doubt.[21]

April 17, 2016

Jeremy Runnells is accused of apostasy[22] and a Church disciplinary council is held.[23] Jeremy resigns his membership in the Church during the council meeting and immediately after holds a press briefing to announce his resignation from the Church, stating "Tonight I took back my own power."[24]

October 2016

Runnells speaks on "Restoring Your Own Power and Liberty" at the ExMormon Foundation Conference.[25]

December 3, 2017

The 138-page CES Letter 2.0 is released with the "biggest and most substantial change" being the "softened tone" compared with previous versions.[26]

Expand Timeline

What is the purpose of the CES Letter?

It was originally written to a family friend of Runnells who worked for the Church Educational System, but was also posted to Reddit to be "personalized" by others in order to share it with their "TBM loved ones."[27] The stated purpose has evolved over time.[28]

Who is the intended audience of the CES Letter?

In 2015 Runnells stated that "[TBMs] are not my target audience because they're not ready for it. I'm looking for the doubters"[29] and that "the target audience are the fence sitters."[30]

What's the main point of the CES Letter?

The CES Letter argues that the Church and its leaders are deceptive and inconsistent,[31] that it has an insurmountable number of problems with its truth claims,[32] and that believing in it is either "delusional" or "insane."[33]

So what's in the CES Letter?

The document is a compilation of frequent criticisms of the Church,[34] including the multiple accounts of the First Vision, the Kinderhook Plates, Joseph Smith's polygamy, the Book of Abraham translation, and more.[35]

Is the CES Letter accurate?

Yes and no. It is a mix of facts and misrepresentations[36] written into a narrative based on the premise that the Church is deceptive and therefore cannot be true.[37]

What have reviewers of the CES Letter said about it?

Both Latter-day Saints and former Latter-day Saints have responded to the CES Letter. It is generally condemned by Latter-day Saints as being poor scholarship with an obvious bias, and largely considered accurate and praiseworthy by former Latter-day Saints for bringing important issues to light (see below).

Negative reviews of the CES Letter

Source Comment

David Snell[BIO]

"The CES Letter makes hundreds upon hundreds of claims. Whether intended or not, sometimes what the Letter does is simply overwhelm readers with so much negative information that they’re thrown into a panic before really taking a deep breath and investigating individual claims. . ."

"Some of the information in the Letter is simply true. Some, as far as I can tell, is patently false (and hopefully those are honest mistakes). And I think some information lacks important nuance or leaves out additional relevant information."[38]

C. Randall Nicholson[BIO]

"Like most materials critical of the church, the CES Letter has nothing new to say. . . So why do its acolytes think it's such a big screaming deal and obsessively spam church-related discussions with links to it? I believe it's because, in a particularly egregious example of the "big list" fallacy, it substitutes quantity for quality by compiling so many criticisms into so little space."[39]

Michael Ash[BIO]

"The CES Letter has bamboozled a number of Latter-day Saints. . . .[the Letter] can create heartburn in the spiritual stomachs of some members—this is going to happen when you eat a habanero pepper that you thought was a cherry tomato."[40]

Daniel Peterson[BIO]

"My impression—I will give you the bottom line—is that the author spent too little time and effort looking at these questions, that he “jumped ship” too soon, that there are answers, at least adequate, and in some cases really much more than adequate to just about every issue raised."[41]

Jim Bennett[BIO]

"The CES Letter is bad scholarship making arguments that its own author doesn’t seem to understand, citing sources he hasn’t bothered to read. Overall, its charges do not stand up to scrutiny."[42]

Expand Table

Positive reviews of the CES Letter

Source

Comment

Grant Palmer[BIO]

"Jeremy Runnells’ CES Letter is an excellent summary of the foundational problems of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Given the generous amount of time, energy, and money donated to the LDS Church, members owe it to themselves to take a serious look beyond what is taught in Church meetings."[43]

Hans Mattsson[BIO]

“Runnells’ CES Letter presents many historical issues concerning LDS history, which for many members has been a wake-up call. The letter deserves to be read, both in and out of the LDS community."[44]

John Dehlin[BIO]

“Meticulously researched, this book represents Jeremy’s sincere, heartfelt, and herculean effort to gather and discern the basic evidence regarding LDS church origins. It is an incredible labor of love. . . I know of no other resource—on the Internet or in print—that is more accurate, concise, and yet comprehensive. I highly recommend this book.”[45]

Lindsay Hansen Park[BIO]

"For me, I think the CES letter is a good compilation of the inaccuracies and problems with the LDS church. It’s a great place to go for a bullet list of issues."[46]

Expand Table

Has anyone gone through the CES Letter and made corrections or refutations?

Yes. There are several refutations of the CES Letter which have addressed misrepresentations and distortions of information (see below).

Refutations of the CES Letter

Document

Notes

Bamboozled by the "CES Letter"[47]

This ninety-one-page document was written and published online by Michael Ash[BIO] in 2015. Ash identifies and responds to 93 unique claims in the CES Letter.

Response to "Letter to a CES Director: Why I Lost My Testimony (CES Letter: My Search for Answers to my Mormon Doubts) and "Debunking FAIR's Debunking"(Debunking FairMormon)[48]

Published on the FAIR[BIO] website, this refutation consists of thousands of pages responding to the CES Letter as well as Runnells's "debunking FairMormon" article, which was published on the CES Letter website.

dice1899's CES Letter Rebuttal[49]

Sarah Allen[BIO] is the author of this seventy-part series published on Reddit from 2021–2022.

Eye of the Beholder, Law of the Harvest: Observations on the Inevitable Consequences of the Different Investigative Approaches of Jeremy Runnells and Jeff Lindsay[50]

This essay by Kevin Christensen[BIO] was published in 2014 in the Interpreter journal and is a meta-analysis of the CES Letter and Jeff Lindsay's rebuttal to it.[BIO]

A CES Letter Reply: Faithful Answers for Those Who Doubt[51]

This 372-page refutation by Jim Bennett was updated in 2018. It is a line-by-line response to the CES Letter in book format.

CES Letter: A Closer Look[52]

This anonymous refutation goes claim-by-claim through the CES Letter, overlaying the original text with commentary and links to relevant sources with detailed examinations.

Expand Table

What is Jeremy Runnells's personal background?

Runnells was raised in the Church, served a mission, attended BYU, married in the temple,[53] and has three children.[54]

Was Jeremy Runnells excommunicated from the Church?

No. Jeremy Runnells voluntarily resigned his membership on April 17, 2016 in the middle of a Church council held for apostasy.[55] Immediately after, Runnells held a press conference outside the chapel building and said "I have excommunicated the LDS Church."[56]

Has the Church responded to the CES Letter?

No, but the Church has issued general cautions about how to evaluate information.[57]

The Facts

  • The CES Letter is a list of issues or problems with the truth claims of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

  • The document attempts to persuade readers that the Church is deceitful and that maintaining membership in it is insane.

  • Several organizations and individuals have written detailed responses to the claims made in the CES Letter.

  • The Church has not directly responded to the CES Letter.

Our Take

If you have encountered material critical to the Church online, there's a good chance that it was a link or reference to the CES Letter. For those that have read it, the long list of issues related to the Church can feel overwhelming and discouraging. Some might come away asking: has the Church lied to me? Are there so many problems that it must be untrue? Should I leave the Church?

The CES Letter argues that it is "delusional" and "insane" to have faith in the restored gospel and the Church and that a rational, intelligent person would have no part in it. It presents a very long list of common criticisms against the Church and packages them in a way that is designed to provoke negative emotional and intellectual responses in the reader. It does this by mixing selective facts with distortions about the Church and guiding the reader down a path that manipulates them into feelings of anger, shame, and betrayal.

Latter-day Saints have been encouraged to "Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith" (D&C 88:118). In the age of information, seeking learning "by study" includes searching out responsible sources, fact-checking, and recognizing and engaging with the bias of all sources of information. Educated and rational thought can coexist with belief, and many Latter-day Saints maintain their relationship with Jesus Christ as they carefully study these issues.

When diligent study is paired with faith, the pursuit of truth and light can be an invigorating, uplifting experience that broadens our perspectives, strengthens our empathy, bolsters our faith in Jesus Christ, and renews our understanding of His restored gospel.

What's Your Take?

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These takes are curated for a general audience and may contain minor edits when posted.
  • Alice O
    I totally get the urge to question church history. I just want to do that for myself and not someone else telling me what I should think about my religion.
  • Pete G
    Is it okay if I don't feel compelled to read the CES letter? I've heard about a lot of these things and I'm just okay not debating it with anybody. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
  • Jordan W
    Encountering the CES Letter without a deep grasp of church history or a prior familiarity with common criticisms of it can be sickening. Subjected to the most basic fact-checking, though, the letter is revealed the grossly misleading product of some exceptionally sloppy research.
  • Jason
    I really like the ending concluding paragraph of this page. I’ve read that D&C 88:118 message a few times, but it was new hearing that reading articles or hearing accounts that may be against to your belief with the spirit as your guide can turn those into uplifting experiences.
Footnotes