If you talk about faith with a Latter-day Saint, the “CES Letter” will come up sooner or later. What is it? And how can you use it? Let’s answer those questions and more Q/A style.
What does CES stand for?
CES is an acronym for “Church Educational System,” the massive educational wing of the LDS Church. The CES has 50,000 academic staff and 700,000 students. The CES letter was originally written to an unnamed CES Director.
Who wrote the letter and why?
Jeremy Runnells, a 7th generation Mormon, returned missionary, and graduate of BYU began to doubt his LDS faith in 2012 while attending an LDS Fireside. Instead of burying the doubts (as many Mormons do), he began researching his questions in LDS-approved literature. As Jeremy’s internal concerns sharpened, he was given an opportunity to share them with that unnamed CES Director. Jeremy turned his research into an 84-page document now known as the CES Letter.
How did a private letter become public?
According to Jeremy, the CES Director responded kindly to the letter and promised a reply which never came. A year or so later, Jeremy posted the letter to a closed Facebook group and to Reddit. From there, the letter began to circulate quickly. Soon, the CES Letter became an LDS-household name.
What happened after the letter became public?
It’s been about a decade since the letter became public and its effect has been polarizing (to say the least). Many defenders of the LDS faith question Jeremy’s motives and accuse him of evil intent. For my part, I’m going to take Jeremy at his word. Since the letter’s release, Jeremy withdrew his membership from the LDS Church, became a “non-denominational Christian for a while,” and currently identifies “as an agnostic atheist.”1 After the letter’s explosion in popularity, it was put into print. Also, “The CES Letter Foundation” was formed, a non-profit with the mission to “liberate and empower doubting LDS individuals and mixed-faith marriages.”
Why is the CES Letter so popular?
My answer to this question is subjective, and others may have differing perspectives. Nevertheless, I think a wide variety of factors have contributed to its popularity. First, Jeremy has an exceptional ability to synthesize wide-ranging research into a succinct argument. The issues he raises are well known, yet not a single resource better summarizes the totality of Mormon angst.
Second, the CES Letter is extremely rigorous. Having been a student of LDS theology and history for more than a decade, I can tell you that his Mormon scholarship is unassailable. Jeremy’s letter substantiates each claim with well-documented research; he quotes at length original sources that are not easy to find. I have done much of the same historical work and can assure you that his letter represents thousands of hours of hard thought and mostly mind-numbing reading (not to mention thorough record-keeping). Jeremy has doggedly slogged through the interminable myriad of Mormon literature to create a document that is lucid, accurate, and straightforward. His tone may be sharp at times, but his logic is clear. And that clarity contrasts brightly against the morass that is the BYU style of apologetics.
Third, because Jeremy uses LDS-approved resources so thoroughly, his argument packs a powerful punch. In clear and decisive language, Jeremy uses Mormon reasoning and Mormon resources to defeat Mormonism. As such, the letter isn’t an attack from an outside foe, but a well-crafted description of how Mormon truth-claims cause the structure of Mormonism to implode.
How should born-again Christians use the CES Letter?
First, born-again Christians need only be aware of it. If they have the time and inclination to read it, great. But the CES Letter is an LDS conversation that born-again Christians haven’t been invited into. I would encourage time-crunched believers to focus their energies on the Bible and consult the CES Letter if needed.
Second, when my LDS friends bring up the CES Letter, I try to bridge the conversation to a general discussion about truth. As Jeremy emphasizes over and over again, the primary question is truth. And if I ever get the chance to sit down with Jeremy (and I would gladly accept any invitation to talk), I will speak with him the same way I’ve spoken to many of his readers – Where do you find the truth? How would you confirm it if you did? Why is the truth so important to us? What does God say about truth?
If you’re a born-again Chirstian just dipping your toes into the abstract field of truth, I would suggest Francis Schaeffer’s well-known trilogy: The God Who is There, Escape from Reason, and He is There and He is not Silent. Another great resource is J. Gresham Machen’s classic, Christianity and Liberalism.