LDS Discussions Blog
FAIR Mormon's New Video War on the CES Letter: LOL Seer Stones Are Awesome
This past Thanksgiving, the FAIR Mormon YouTube channel launched a series of videos that 'declared war on the CES Letter.' The video series features Kwaku, who is a young church apologist from other video series such as Saints Unscripted, and has recently been in the news for holding underground dance parties in Provo, UT during the global pandemic under the name 'Young and Dumb.'
They named the series This Is The Show, which has the acronym TITS. If you don't think that's intentional, just reread the above paragraph and look at the coverage from the 'Young and Dumb' parties. Kwaku has always been someone who wants to entertain, self promote, and build a brand, and this is certainly one way to do it.
The videos are very aggressive and condescending towards those with doubts, which seems to undercut the very point of the channel: To help those with doubts not believe the information in the CES Letter. The tone in many of these videos is one of outright mockery towards those who leave the church, and heavily loaded with attacks on both Jeremy Runnells and the CES Letter itself. They call the CES Letter "trash" in one video and suggest throughout the series that any ideas that come from the ex-Mormon community are somehow not trustworthy, even though many apologists have moved to that community after realizing that the evidence is clear that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not true.
A few people asked if I would do a write-up on these videos and I wasn't planning on doing one, but after listening to 4-5 of them I really thought it would be good to do one as an illustration of how dishonest they are in their attempts to destroy the CES Letter.
One quick note I will make is that the CES Letter is far from perfect and does include what I find to be some areas that contain weak arguments and some specific criticisms that should be taken out of the CES Letter for accuracy's sake. With that said, I think the power of the CES Letter isn't in one person (Jeremy Runnells), but in the simplicity that it was able to achieve in outlining major problems with the church's history that most members had no idea existed.
As a member of record, I converted to the church in the 1990s. I can say with absolute certainty that the problems in the CES Letter were not only never told to me as an investigator, but never told during my years in the church as well. No amount of mockery from apologists can change the shock I had upon learning of some of the bigger problems with church history when I uncovered the CES Letter on the day I finally decided that I needed to know once and for all if my doubts with the church were warranted.
One of those shocks was learning that Joseph Smith used the very same stone that he claimed to see buried treasure with, but never actually found after being paid to dig, to translate the Book of Mormon. To say this was a little different than the story the church told of Joseph Smith studiously translating the gold plates on a table as I was taught as an investigator is an understatement. For that reason I wanted to start with their video titled "The CES Letter LOLOLOL, Seer Stones Are Awesome."
For the video I am going to refer to the hosts as TITS, because that's what they named their series, that's what FAIR Mormon has decided is OK to own the anti-Mormons, and because my Amazon transcription didn't tell me which of the two hosts made each comment. If that bothers you, then your problem is with FAIR Mormon for endorsing and including this video series under their umbrella.
With that introduction out of the way, on to the video:
You know what? I don't get how people act like the seer stone part of the translation process is like the deal breaker. You know what I mean? It starts off with Moroni, an ancient Native American who dies and goes to heaven and comes back as a glowing angel. That's fine, right? Literally an Indian flying through time and space to get to Palmyra in New York is okay, but once you put a rock in a hat, that's where it gets crazy. Let's talk about rocks.
This is the intro to the video, and it really hits the tone of how TITS is going to frame the issue of Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon with a peep/seer stone in a hat. But the reason that it "gets crazy" when we dig into the history of the translation isn't just because it was a rock, but because of where the rock came from and how it was used before the Book of Mormon was composed.
This video never mentions that Joseph Smith used the same stone to look for buried treasure that he used to translate the Book of Mormon. For a video series that is claiming the CES is dishonest, deceptive, and "trash," it is noteworthy that they immediately frame the problem with the "rocks" in a strawman argument, leaving out key reasons that so many members find this to be a real testimony breaker.
While God did use ordinary people for extraordinary things in the stories of the Bible, Joseph Smith took people's money to locate hidden treasure/objects and failed at every instance to find anything. That can not be overstated as he used the very same stone to defraud people out of their money as he did to translate the Book of Mormon. Put another way, if God was preparing Joseph by giving him a seer stone with magical powers to find buried treasure, then why did Joseph Smith never find anything? They know about these problems, but chose to leave them out. I'll let you wonder why that is.
Back to the video:
The CES letter quotes respected, active latter day Saint scholar Richard Bushman who said, "What in the world or the plates for? Why do we need them on the table if they're just wrapped up into a cloth when he looks into a seer stone?" As many know, Joseph Smith used the Urim and Thummim to translate the Book of Mormon. Since Joseph was the prophet of the restoration, he would be spiritually numbered among ancient people, like the priest of the Old Testament, who used the Urim and Thummim, aka magic rocks, to perform the will of God, or even Aaron, who used a magic stick. Joseph used seer stones that would tell him what was written on the golden plates. And this is how the Book of Mormon was translated.
First, we need to address the term Urim and Thummim, because Joseph Smith's seer/peep stone is nothing like the biblical Urim and Thummim. We cover all of this a lot more in-depth in the annotated LDS essay on the Book of Mormon translation, but the Urim and Thummim did not translate anything - they were not "seer stones" in the way Joseph Smith claimed to use them and the church now admits today. They worked more like a magic 8-ball, only giving you answers of yes or no. The black stone translates to 'Yes' and the white stone translates to 'No' for questions the high priests would ask. They did not have the ability to find hidden objects or to project translated words from golden plates that were not even in the room with Joseph at the time he was using the stone in a hat.
Furthermore, the term 'Urim and Thummim' was not even used to describe the "seer stone" or any translation process of the Book of Mormon until WW Phelps used it in 1832 in reference to the Nephite interpreters and not Joseph's seer/peep stone.. Originally Joseph spoke of having Nephite Interpreters, but those were taken when Joseph Smith lost the initial 116 pages. Upon resuming translation, Joseph switched to the stone in a hat for the Book of Mormon as we have it today according to both Emma Smith and David Whitmer. This becomes even more clear when we get to D&C 17, which TITS brings up a bit later.
This is important because TITS wants to equate Joseph Smith's peep/seer stone with the biblical Urim and Thummim, but that term only arose years after the Book of Mormon was written as they looked for biblical parallels to the process. You have to remember that Joseph Smith and the witnesses all came from a very magical worldview where they believed in buried treasure, seer stones, and visions, but a lot of new members knew better and the church began trying to re-frame the magic into biblical terminology, and the conflation of objects was born.
Back to the video:
So why did Richard Bushman act as if there was no need for the plates? Well, he didn't. Jeremy Reynolds and his subreddit herd of flying monkeys are specifically not including a part of the interview where he talks about why the golden plates were necessary. They deliberately left this out to manipulate you. Oh, you don't say. I do say. Here's the quote. "People say that the Book of Mormon certainly isn't inspired and inspiring book. But the back story of the plates in the translation is irrelevant to it. What would we gain and lose [if we abandon the plates]? What we would lose would be a powerful form of the evidence that the Lord gave to Joseph Smith and tow us of the actuality of these experiences and therefore the actuality of the transcendent sphere... that would be gutting some of the most gritty and appealing parts of the Mormon story."
In this case, TITS is either being intentionally dishonest or lazy in their research. The quote from the CES Letter is the full answer to a question - TITS just does not inform the reader of the full, long quote used. I'll do that for them here, because that's what we're supposed to do to be honest, right? Here's the CES Letter's quote from church historian Richard Bushman:
"I will begin by saying that we still have pictures on our Ward bulletin boards of Joseph Smith with the Gold Plates in front of him. That has become an irksome point and I think it is something the church should pay attention to. Because anyone who studies the history knows that is not what happened. There is no church historian who says that is what happened and yet it is being propagated by the church and it feeds into the notion that the church is trying to cover up embarrassing episodes and is sort of prettifying its own history.
So, I think we ought to just stop that immediately. I am not sure we need a lot of pictures in our chapels of Joseph looking into his hat, but we certainly should tell our children that is how it worked... It’s weird. It’s a weird picture. It implies it’s like darkening a room when we show slides. It implies that there is an image appearing in that stone and the light would make it more difficult to see that image. So, that implies a translation that’s a reading and so gives us a little clue about the whole translation process. It also raises the strange question, ‘What in the world are the plates for? Why do we need them on the table if they are just wrapped up into a cloth while he looks into a seer stone?’" (FAIR Mormon Podcast, October 2010)
Now you can see why TITS did not want to mention the rest of the quote, because it highlights the problem that they are saying doesn't exist: That the church taught a narrative of the translation that is historically not true.
This interview is a FAIR Mormon podcast from October 2010 - you can listen to it here at the 47:25 mark.
The quote that TITS uses to imply that the CES Letter was somehow being dishonest with the quote in the CES Letter is from a completely separate presentation given a few weeks later where Bushman was responding to a question about taking the Book of Mormon as an inspired text rather than a literal one from gold plates. You can view that presentation here and I've even linked it to the exact moment of this quote.
Put another way, the quote from the CES Letter is 100% legitimate even if Richard Bushman gave a different opinion in the later presentation. The only people cutting off the quote here is TITS, which is because they don't want to admit that the church did teach an incorrect narrative. Bushman in the FAIR Mormon interview is talking about the questions that arise for many when they discover the true method of the Book of Mormon translation, which is absolutely fair game to post because it highlights that the church has hidden this history from its members, which Bushman outlines in the part of the quote that TITS conveniently left off.
I'm not sure what more to say here. It's dishonest to say that Runnells "deliberately left this out to manipulate you" when the quote TITS is using here is from a completely separate presentation in response to a different question. Either TITS knows this and just doesn't care, or they were lazy with their research and just looked up the response from other CES rebuttals and just didn't bother to actually look at the source of the two quotes.
Back to the video:
In the CES Letter, Runnells criticizes Joseph Smith for using a Ouija board to translate the Book of Mormon. The only problem is that the Ouija board wasn't created until 1894 and Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon in 1829. Also know Joseph didn't use a Ouija board to translate the Book of Mormon. If you believe a bogus lie like that, you probably believe Jesse Smollett or that you're gonna win a cruise on an Instagram giveaway. You're not.
This is intentionally dishonest, and it's ironic that it comes in the very next section after TITS accused Runnells of lying about a quote from Bushman (even though they were wrong there as well). This is what the CES Letter says about Ouija boards:
"In other words, Joseph used the same magic device or “Ouija Board” that he used during his treasure hunting days. He put a rock – called a “peep stone” – in his hat and put his face in the hat to tell his customers the location of buried treasure on their property. He also used this same method for translating the Book of Mormon, while the gold plates were covered, placed in another room, or even buried in the woods. The gold plates were not used for the Book of Mormon we have today."
Now you can understand why TITS left out the context - they don't want members to understand that Joseph Smith used the same rock to translate the Book of Mormon that he claimed to see bury treasure with, but in no way is Jeremy Runnells saying that Joseph Smith used a Ouija Bord. He is saying that Joseph Smith is using the same device that he claimed to find buried treasure with (although he never actually found any) that is similar to the power of a Ouija board to translate the Book of Mormon.
Again, that is beyond obvious by a simply reading of this paragraph, which TITS is hoping that members won't actually do because it's more helpful to their cause to take shots at the CES Letter rather than actually attempting to give an honest rebuttal.
Back to the video:
He did use seer stones to translate by the process of logic. It's bizarre that someone would use this as a weapon against the church. Joseph Smith's first divine claim was that God and Jesus appeared to him. If you don't believe in God or Jesus, then you don't believe Joseph's claim.
It's not "bizarre" that most people find it odd and problematic that the same stone that Joseph Smith used to make money as a treasure digger was used to translate the Book of Mormon when we were taught that God preserved ancient interpreters for the very purpose of translating the gold plates. To put simply, if Joseph Smith could never actually find lost treasure with this stone as he claimed he could see, then why in the world should anyone think it would later get divine/supernatural powers later to read text off gold plates that were never actually used? There's nothing logical about this beyond it pointing to the pattern of a fraud, which is why the church continued to teach a false history to converts such as myself.
Also, TITS here claims that Joseph Smith's first divine claim was that God and Jesus appeared to him, but what they don't note is that Joseph Smith's first divine claim was just one being appearing to him in his 1832 First Vision. That story would later to change to both God and Jesus as his theology changed, which we cover in the First Vision Overview page. If they want to claim the CES Letter is playing fast and loose with the facts, then they really need to get these basic facts correct themselves.
Back to the video:
The seer stone divinity is operating under the umbrella of God existing. The CES Letter is atheistic, and examining the seer stone under an umbrella in which there isn't a God is meaningless. If you do believe in God and Jesus that you've opened the door for angels, spirits and all sorts of supernatural things. It's not as if this is technically weirder than those things. If you don't believe in anything supernatural or divine, then obviously you wouldn't believe that God could use objects for divine purposes. So essentially, we're saying who cares?
This is an area that TITS likes to really knock the CES Letter with. It doesn't matter if someone is "atheistic" or from another religion when it comes to Mormon history. This is simply a way to distract from the problems that are outlined not just by the CES Letter, but this site and others as well - and we all come from different beliefs and backgrounds.
And, yes, this absolutely is "weirder" than other things in the Bible. Did anyone ever see Moses using his staff to con people out of their money looking for buried treasure before using it in the Bible to part the Red Sea? The use of Joseph Smith's stone in treasure digging is incredibly important to the Book of Mormon translation, which is why TITS left it completely out of the video.
Back to the video:
The CES Letter is making a claim that nobody knew about seer stones until recently and that the church didn't talk about it. For one, that's nonsense. Because whenever we teach about Joseph Smith, we discussed the Urim and Thummim. In fact, if you Google the words, the first thing you see are magic Jewish rocks from the Old Testament. It's also plainly spoken about in doctrine and covenants Section 17 and 10. It's been referenced throughout church history numerous times now.
Calling something "nonsense" doesn't make it so, and TITS is using a distraction here to make their claim. As we've already discussed above, the Urim and Thummim was always conflated by the church with the "spectacles" or "Nephite interpreters" along with Joseph sitting at the table with the gold plates.
If you "Google the words" what you will find out is that the Urim and Thummim in the Bible is nothing like what Joseph Smith claimed it was. It was effectively a biblical Magic 8 Ball, giving a yes or no answer to questions. The image above literally tells us that - this is not an issue where there is disagreement. In no way did the biblical Urim and Thummim have the ability to find buried treasure, see the gold plates sitting in a log, or translate ancient records, which is why this comparison is disingenuous at best.
Again, the church (and those who are putting this information together here) is well aware of all of these details, but they continue to muddy the water by using the term Urim and Thummim interchangeably, even though the original Urim and Thummim in the Bible has nothing to do with translating ancient text or receiving revelations - it was merely a way to determine a yes or no answer to a question.
As for it being "plainly spoken about in doctrine and covenants Section 17 and 10," I want to point out the following:
D&C 10, Original Manuscript (https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-spring-1829-dc-10/1): "Now, behold, I say unto you, that because you delivered up so many writings, which you had power to translate, into the hands of a wicked man, you have lost them."
D&C 10 with 1835 changes: "Now, behold, I say unto you, that because you delivered up those writings which you had power given unto you to translate by the means of the Urim and Thummim, into the hands of a wicked man, you have lost them."
Notice that the phrase "Urim and Thummim" was retroactively added to the revelation by Joseph Smith when he made many crucial changes to revelations directly from God. Again, that might seem like it is "plainly spoken about" when we look at it today, when you dig into the history the picture looks a lot different.
Now let's look at D&C 17:
D&C 17 with 1835 changes: "Behold, I say unto you, that you must rely upon my word, which if you do with full purpose of heart, you shall have a view of the plates, and also of the breastplate, the sword of Laban, the Urim and Thummim, which were given to the brother of Jared upon the mount, when he talked with the Lord face to face, and the miraculous directors which were given to Lehi while in the wilderness, on the borders of the Red Sea."
This actually proves my point which is that the Urim and Thummim was never taught as Joseph Smith's stone that he used for treasure digging. To be clear, this revelation by Joseph Smith is explicit that the Urim and Thummim was given to the brother of Jared in the Book of Mormon which means that it is not the stone Joseph Smith used for either treasure digging or dictating the Book of Mormon.
Again, a simple reading of this revelation would show that, which makes me wonder why TITS decided to use D&C 17 as proof that the church has always taught that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon with a rock in a hat. Again, if the Urim and Thummim was Joseph's stone, then why did the witnesses need to have a full purpose of heart to see it? We can all see it today in photos on the church website - this is not an item that can only be seen in a visionary state like the sword of Laban, Nephite interpreters, and gold plates.
Not only did the church not "plainly" speak of the Urim and Thummim, they actively taught an incorrect history. In the image below, we put the South Park depiction of the translation from 2003 against the official church depiction of the translation in the Joseph Smith movie shown at visitors centers released in 2005.
When South Park is telling a more honest history of the translation than the church, you cannot claim the church was being upfront about their history. In 2005, two years after South Park made an episode about how the Book of Mormon was translated, the church filmed a new movie that continued the dishonest translation narrative for visitors who might be interested in the church to see. That was an intentionally dishonest decision to teach visitors an incorrect history, and there is no way to rationalize it any other way.
More to the point, here is what Prophet Joseph F. Smith had to say about the use of a peep/seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon:
"While the statement has been made by some writers that the Prophet Joseph Smith used a seer stone part of the time in his translating of the record, and information points to the fact that he did have in his possession such a stone, yet there is no authentic statement in the history of the Church which states that the use of such a stone was made in that translation. The information is all hearsay, and personally, I do not believe that this stone was used for this purpose. The reason I give for this conclusion is found in the statement of the Lord to the Brother of Jared as recorded in Ether 3:22-24
These stones, the Urim and Thummim which were given to the Brother of Jared, were preserved for this very purpose of translating the record, both of the Jaredites and the Nephites. Then again the Prophet was impressed by Moroni with the fact that these stones were given for that very purpose. It hardly seems reasonable to suppose that the Prophet would substitute something evidently inferior under these circumstances. It may have been so, but it is so easy for a story of this kind to be circulated due to the fact that the Prophet did possess a seer stone, which he may have used for some other purposes." (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 3:225)
Joseph F. Smith is making a point we made earlier about the reference to D&C 17, which is that we are to believe that God prepared these stones for the brother of Jared and preserved them for thousands of years so that Joseph could translate the gold plates by using the Nephite interpreters, only to then allow Joseph to use a treasure seeking rock instead for convenience. In that regard, Joseph F. Smith is correct - it "hardly seems reasonable" to believe that is possible, which is why the church lied to members about their history until the Internet made it impossible to continue.
Back to the video:
Obviously, we don't spend Sunday school talking about the rocks of Joseph or the staff of Moses or the Rod of Aaron. Jesus is more important. However, this lack of attention doesn't mean the church was maliciously withholding anything.
Now the CES Letter goes on for a long time about how Joseph Smith put the rock and a hat that was to block out light. So essentially, God was using the stones as a device to show letters, words, and/or images sort of like an iPhone or a Samsung if you don't want her to text you back.
Yes, the church doesn't spend Sunday school talking about Joseph Smith's rocks, which is because it's embarrassing. They talk about the translation and Joseph Smith's history, but they tend to leave out the problems such as treasure digging, polygamy, polyandry, and Joseph's failed revelations.
But when I was a convert to the church, they absolutely talked about the translation by showing me images of Joseph Smith sitting at a table translating the Book of Mormon with the "Nephite interpreters" that were originally spoken of both in D&C 17 and supposedly buried with the plates.
Apologists love to use a phone analogy here, but the reality again is that the biblical Urim and Thummim was a yes or no device that would have no need to have light hidden. If they want to keep making this assertion, then saying that Joseph Smith's peep/seer stone functioned like an iPhone is like saying that you found a Magic 8 Ball that can project words and images.
There's a reason the church taught an incorrect story until the 'Google era' allowed members to find this information so easily, and it's because the idea of a rock in a hat with words appearing on it is weird, and it also opens up a whole slew of problems for the Book of Mormon's translation as well.
Back to the video:
This begs the question. Why did Joseph need the golden plates? If the translation process was largely without plates at all, I think it's because the plates are a literal testimony of God. They contained the written testimonies of ancient prophets, and they themselves are a divine physical miracle. Joseph had to guard them from robbers. Sometimes he even had to fight people. He had to keep the plates, a literal testimony, safe. I believe this is the Lord's way of training Joseph for what was to come. It was a physical representation of Joseph's dedication to God of his willingness to fight for the testimony of the gospel, to fight for the church and to defend even until the end.
I really don't have much to add here. There's no evidence the gold plates existed beyond the witness statements, which are contradictory. It's also pretty difficult to believe Joseph Smith was running with heavy metal plates while also being able to fight people off, but that's a story that built up the legend of Joseph Smith much like the Transfiguration of Brigham Young was used to give Brigham more credibility as the next prophet of God, even though we know it never happened.
I'm also not sure what having gold plates that were never actually used accomplishes as a "way of training Joseph for what was to come," but that's the same problem I have with the idea that Joseph Smith using the stone to take money to look for treasure he never located with God preparing him for what was to come as Richard Bushman suggested.
On to the final part of the video:
That's funny. People who are like 'Oh, use seer stone to translate.' Half the country believes that Jesus walked on water and that a virgin gave birth. That a virgin gave birth. You believe that you do the Joseph can't you seer stones? Alright, my gosh. You guys watch WWE and you believed it. Oh, yeah, but seer stones, that's where you draw the line.
Again TITS is attempting to belittle legitimate concerns about Joseph Smith using a stone in a hat to translate the Book of Mormon by trying to equate it with biblical stories and the WWE. While that might sound comforting to those who want a reason to brush this issue aside, it's just a bad comparison when you understand the history of the stone Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Mormon.
This was one of their shorter videos, but I thought it would be good to outline how they are doing all of the things they attack the CES Letter for. The bottom line is that attacking members who have problems with church history might feel good to those who are 'all in' with the church, but it will absolutely turn off those who are struggling as they learn about church history.
And FAIR Mormon allowing a series with the acronym TITS to 'declare war' on the CES Letter shows that they have no ability to win back the youth who have more access to this information than any generation before them, and they are throwing the kitchen sink at the problems that this information is creating for the church.
I also realize that by writing about this video, it is giving TITS the attention they wanted, but I also believe that outlining just how dishonest they can be in a 5 minute video is important to those who might be watching the videos and feeling like they were lied to from both the CES Letter and websites like ours.
The problem for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints isn't that you can't prove that the church is true, but that you can prove it is false. If the church was true, as the leaders and apologists claim, they would be asking every member to research their claims for themselves and take the church for a test drive. Instead, we have a constant stream of talks and videos from both leaders and apologists mocking those with doubts, demonizing those who leave, or telling members not to research beyond correlated, church approved sources.
Not only has this new TITS series deleted comments where viewers corrected their misinformation, they have disabled comments completely at times since they were released. This series by FAIR Mormon is not about having an honest dialogue about what is true in the church - this series is about shouting down the CES Letter and anyone who reads it so that they can present their view and only their view. While that might work for those who feel a need to believe, it will ultimately cause many shelves to come crashing down once they are open to digging into these sources just a little bit more.
And that tells you everything you need to know, and no amount of misleading TITS videos will change that. (Again, if you found my use of TITS to be vulger or beneath me, just ask yourself why FAIR Mormon decided to endorse and highlight them within their YouTube channel.)
Thanks for reading this, and I hope it was at least helpful in outlining how dishonest this video was from the early framing of the stone in a hat to the arguments against those who have a problem with it. If you found it helpful, please let us know on Twitter or Facebook and we'll review another TITS video soon.