A disciplinary council for Jeremy Runnells, author of the CES Letter and founder of the non-profit CES Letter Foundation, was held yesterday on charges of apostasy. Leading up to this disciplinary council, which was moved three times, there was some controversy regarding his stake leadership’s unwillingness to accommodate an interpreter due to Jeremy’s hearing impairment (he is legally deaf). When I first came across this news, I will admit that I responded with skepticism, as I have seen Jeremy speak at public events, including a press conference that was hosted by John Dehlin, without any interpretive assistance. I was wrong to make that charge, as it was later confirmed that Jeremy’s hearing had, in fact, further declined since that event; and that an interpreter was also sought for his press conference, and while none could be secured in time, accommodations were made to assist Jeremy. I made an apology to Jeremy both publicly and privately for assuming the worst, although I am still critical of a meme Jeremy generated in connection with his request for accommodation being denied. I feel his meme was opportunistic, particularly given the prominent placement of his CES Letter Foundation logo, and I have expressed as much directly to him.
The conclusion of Jeremy’s church trial was that he, rather than sit through the trial process, elected to resign his membership (or, as he termed it, “I have excommunicated the church.”) I respect Jeremy’s decision to go this route, and think that it was probably the best way to handle the situation. It is obvious that the verdict against him had already been reached and, given his physical discomfort in attending the hearing, there was no reason to belabor the proceeding. In fact, I wish that more severances would happen this way between members who, for whatever reason, have reached a point of impasse with the church.
I have been an open critic of Jeremy’s methods, although I understand that he never set out to be a historian or educator. I have sympathy for the questions that he had about church history and doctrine. I do think that there are satisfactory answers for the majority of his questions, and I do not believe that any of the issues he raised are a “smoking gun” that inevitably leads to the conclusion that the church is false. However, I do not blame Jeremy for having or expressing historical questions. I only wish that he would have spend more time studying the available body of scholarly literature rather than ex-Mormon Reddit, followed by a public tit-for-tat with Mormon apologists, which rarely ends in a change of perspective for either party involved.
I think Jeremy would have been surprised just to see how many of the questions he had have been addressed by historians over the past half-century (for example, the archives to Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought are free and available online, offering over fifty years of thoughtful scholarship). That the CES director he wrote to, who is likely as unaware as most members of the body of scholarly literature, seemingly made no attempt to respond only further pushed Jeremy into the world of apologetic and ex-Mormon debates. However, Jeremy’s insistence to church leaders to simply “show him where his information is wrong” is a false dichotomy. As most who are engaged with Mormon history know, the questions he raises are indeed very real. However, the conclusions he reaches are far from inevitable and his persistent assumption that no satisfactory answers to his questions exist is not well-grounded. His insistence, then, should not be on showing him where his questions are in error, but on where his conclusions about his questions can be challenged, which several have attempted to do (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, for a few examples). As I have advised readers of my own work: “Do not let any one particular book, website, blog post, or podcast form your final conclusion on any topic, but remain critically aware that there is probably more to say on any subject of inquiry.”
CES Letter was a compiled document of critical propaganda (this is not to assert that faithful propaganda does not also exist) with no effort to look beyond the prevalent attacks from the ex-Mormon and anti-Mormon circles. This was, from what I understand, a crowd-sourced document where those who have perfected the art of telling one side of the story contributed their “water-tight” criticisms against the claims of the LDS Church. A lack of historical context or exploration of diverse scholarship on any issue makes the CES Letter not only a poor representation of these issues, but also a dangerous one, particularly when members of the church are introduced to it before they have any real grounding in historical issues and suddenly find themselves lead along to Runnell’s conclusion that the church simply cannot be what it claims to be. Many who are critical of Jeremy’s work have also taken issue with his formation of a non-profit organization and his solicitation of funds to continue his exposé work. Many, including myself, took issue with his agreement to hold a press conference regarding his pending excommunication. These efforts are seen as grandstanding, capitalizing, and opportunistic; and they make it difficult to maintain sympathy for Jeremy as “a guy who had some honest question.” What may have began as honest questions has turned into a campaign.
Do I think Jeremy is evil? No. I think he began as a sincerely troubled soul who was quickly swept up in the momentum, championed as a hero by the vocal post-Mormon community in podcasts, blogs, and Facebook groups (and who have organized two vigils in his honor). From the brief interactions that we have had, I actually think Jeremy is a pretty decent fellow and I hold no ill will towards him. I feel for him and think that things may have resolved differently had the CES Director he initially wrote to responded kindly, even if he had no satisfactory answers to offer. My hope is that we can all learn from Jeremy’s story. How can we who are intimately familiar with the historical record be of better service to members? How can we be better at disseminating our research to the public, rather than keeping it within an insular community of scholars and academics? The church has taken some bold measures as of recent to improve the instruction in their Seminary and Institutes. As Elder Ballard recently implored, Seminary and Institute educators no longer have a free pass of not answering historical questions. “Gone are the days,” Ballard observed, “when a student asked an honest question and a teacher responded, ‘Don’t worry about it!'”