CES Reply: A Pointed Response to a Pointed Response

It seems I am not yet worthy of an official debunking over at the CES Letter site, but in the absence of Jeremy’s promised dismantling of my reply, a helpful Redditor has issued a ” A Pointed Response to Jim Bennett’s “A Faithful Reply to the CES Letter from a Former CES Employee.” Since I appreciate being taken seriously enough to merit replies from all quarters, I thought responding to this response to my response is the most responsive thing I can do.

The pointed response will be quoted with a grey background. My pointed response to the response will be in regular text.

Responding at length, in any depth, to the CES Letter is a herculean task. Bennett’s response, for as sarcastic (and sometimes as demeaning towards Runnells) as it is…

I think we’re off to a bad start when the first criticism is that I’m demeaning toward Jeremy Runnells, when I have repeatedly demonstrated that I am not. This accusation has been repeatedly made as if it’s an axiomatic assertion akin to saying the sky is blue, but it is a charge that does not stand up to scrutiny.

… makes some valid points in its pushback against the CES Letter.

That’s a helpful and understated concession, as this “pointed response” ignores almost the entirety of my reply and focuses on a handful of contested assertions. That is likely because my reply is 150,000 words long, which would make replying to the reply in any comprehensive manner even more Herculean than he credits my efforts as being. Still, if these are the strongest arguments this responder can muster, I choose to assume that those points to which he does not choose to respond, constituting about 95% of the reply, are all valid.

Although some/much of the pushback has been responded to on some level by Runnells in his response to FairMormon, it’s still highly useful to compare how different models deal with the same data (or argue for/against its validity). Bennett should be thanked for his effort and applauded for the book’s merit (and same to Runnells). Furthermore, Bennett recently spent 14 hours discussing truth-claim issues with Bill Reel, and he did a great job of acknowledging the messiness while also working to make room for believing LDS models. Finally, Bennett recently sat down with Runnells for lunch, which shows willingness (on both sides) to treat others with respect and compassion (how we interact with one another seems at least as important as the arguments themselves).

This is all too nice. Let’s get to the pointedness.

One way in which Bennett attempts to undermine Runnells’s points is by suggesting that Runnells simply doesn’t understand the sources or the counter-evidence. However, it’s safe to say that in many cases Bennett himself is overgeneralizing, asserting without justification, or is simply misinformed.

It’s “safe to say?” Why? This is just as unsupported assertion as the idea that all I do is demean Jeremy personally. It’s only “safe to say” because critics think they can get away with saying such things without providing evidence to back it up.

And the validity of many points seems to hinge on the robustness of the details.

Everyone likes robustness in their details.

In pointing out these issues, I’m not suggesting that I personally know the nuances of Church history, on average, better than Bennett (he’s a remarkably well-informed person)—

Well-informed? I thought it was safe to say that I was “simply misinformed.” (See above.)

… these are merely some topics I happen to have studied in some depth.

So, to sum up, I am a remarkably well-informed person who, on average, knows Church history better than a guy who essentially concedes that 95% of what I wrote is valid. Except he has studied some topics in depth, so my reply is… what, exactly?

This is turning about to be a really muddled response that falsely advertised itself as “pointed.”

Ultimately, anyone who wades into the truth-claim data deserves some charity given that each of these topics is far deeper than a person typically appreciates.

Deep, man.

Finally, my “pointed” response focuses on a half-dozen or so issues that jumped out at me on my latest read-through of Bennett’s reply. The reply deserves a complete and detailed response, but this is not it.

It is not, no. But what’s interesting is that, like the prophet Mormon who couldn’t include more than 1/100th of the record of his people in the book that bears his name, this reply has chosen to marshal these half-dozen issues as the strongest case against my reply, and, quite frankly, there’s not much to them. In any case, it could use significantly robuster details.

Errors in the 1769 KJV Bible.

(Quoting me, Jim Bennett, from the second version of my reply) The text choices are acceptable variations that adequately represent the meaning of the original, ancient text. Thus they are no longer defined as “errors,” and they are certainly not errors unique to the 1769 version of the King James Bible. 

Bennett is referring to the change in verbiage of the wikipedia entry on the topic that Runnells references.

Correction: ReferenceD, with emphasis on the D. Jeremy no longer uses this Wikipedia article in the latest version of his letter. The problem, as highlighted in the second version of my reply, is that Runnells had cut and pasted a charge from Wikipedia in the earlier version of the CES Letter. That Wikipedia entry has been changed, so Runnells changed the source without changing the accusation, which resulted in rather sloppy scholarship.

In the quote from my reply referenced above, I say “Thus they are no longer defined as ‘errors,'” and this pointed response seizes on this language as if I were applying a universal truism here that would prevent anyone from calling these errors, when, in the context of my reply, I had a more narrow application. It was clear what I meant was that they were no longer identified as errors in the Wikipedia article that Jeremy no longer references.

Unfortunately, this response’s misreading informs the bulk of its first objection, as seen below:

Still, if a person queries top Hebrew Bible scholars about tranlation errors in verses shared between the Book of Mormon and Bible (without bringing up the Book of Mormon so as not to bias their response), they will call many of them “errors”.

That’s debatable. The link provided leads to a discussion with several scholars who concede that a great many such “errors” aren’t necessarily errors, and the six supposed errors are subject to a great deal of disagreement as to how erroneous they are.

Yet in summary, this link says “At least 6 verses seem—based on scholarly consensus—to contain significant translation errors,” when you can read the supposed scholarly consensus, there’s a great deal of disagreement, and few such errors could be objectively defined as “significant.” The conclusion in that link is trying to tell the reader they didn’t actually read what they just read.

In any case, my reply was in direct response to Jeremy’s assertion and its sources, which do not make the argument Jeremy says they are making.

In one sense the kinds of errors Runnells points to are not unique to the 1769 KJV, and that’s because those particular errors are preserved in the 1611 KJV.

In one sense, yes – i.e. in the sense that Jeremy is wrong.

However, when you examine the verses in question (or the rest of the Book of Mormon, for that matter), it is clear that the BoM follows after the 1769 KJV.

But that’s has no bearing on either Jeremy’s argument or mine. I repeatedly state in my reply that it is clear that Book of Mormon is using KJV language in the Isaiah passages, and that the question ought to be why does KJV language appear at all, not why are there “translation errors.”

If Joseph Smith were performing a direct linguistic translation of ancient texts the way the KJV translators did, there is little likelihood that the text would match the KJV to any degree. Traditional translators use their own language to describe concepts in other languages, which is why there are multiple English translations of the Bible that use very different words without any of these varied translations being in error.

The way Jeremy talks about translation throughout his reply, he seems to be operating under the assumption that there is a one-to-one relationship between the words of text in one language and another, which is why his charge of translation “errors” really doesn’t make any sense.

At no point in my reply do I dispute that the Book of Mormon language of the Isaiah passages corresponds to the KJV. This “pointed response” is responding to points neither I nor Jeremy was making.

Perhaps a better way to phrase the issue is that the Book of Mormon preserves many questionable translation variants in nearly the exact verbiage as the Bible his family owned, the 1769 KJV, and it does not follow the verbiage of other versions.

Except that’s not really true, either. The translation variants highlighted in the no-longer-referenced Wikipedia article from the CES Letter were errors unique to the Book of Mormon. In the link in the pointed response, we don’t get objective evidence of “many questionable translation variants.” This is just a lot of question-begging that assumes both the existence and the import of these variants in relation to how they’re cited in the CES Letter.

By itself, this isn’t really that big a deal.

No, it isn’t, for a great many reasons. And since it’s the first, and presumably strongest, argument in this “pointed response,” that would suggest that the rest of the arguments in the response probably aren’t that big a deal, either.

However, combined with the enormous amount of data suggesting a modern origin for the Book of Mormon, it’s indicative of a serious problem—at every turn when we ask whether the book was merely using verbiage from the early 1800s or was derived from the early 1800s the evidence points towards the latter.

Were I interested, and perhaps someday I will be, I would push against this assertion hard. In fact, if anyone is interested, I recommend my father’s book Leap of Faith: Confronting the Origins of the Book of Mormon, which does not let such a sweeping assertion go unchallenged.

But the problem here is that it’s not accurate to call this a “pointed response” to either Jeremy or to me, as it’s a new argument altogether. There are a great many arguments against the Church that do not appear in the CES Letter, so I did not respond to them in my reply. It is no smear on the integrity of my reply that it does not answer questions that the CES Letter did not ask.

I should note the Bennett may have missed the table of errors that informs the above analyses since it’s sort of tucked below the Stan Larson quote in the appendix to this issue (I missed it on my first pass through that appendix anyway).

Perhaps I did, as the Stan Larson quote in the appendix is making a case that is separate from the one Jeremy is trying to make, yet he substituted that link for the Wikipedia link in his earlier reply. In any case, I have read the “above analyses” and found them largely irrelevant to the point at hand.

“Precisely one of the girls Joseph was sealed to … was 14 years old”

(Quoting me, Jim Bennett, from the second version of my reply) Precisely one of the girls Joseph was sealed to – Helen Mar Kimball – was 14 years old.

Brian Hales writes

While it appears that Nancy Maria Winchester was fourteen or fifteen when she was sealed to Joseph Smith, no documentation exists suggesting that she was sexually involved with the Prophet.

We should note that little documentation exists around these marriage/sealings at all (including potential sexuality, but if Nancy Winchester was sealed to Joseph (most scholars include her in their count) then it was when she was 14 or 15. See Hales for the complete argument for why he includes Nancy Winchester as one of Smith’s wives.

So, Bennett’s statement probably should read: “one, maybe two, girls were sealed to Joseph at 14 years of age”.

We have definitive proof of only one 14-year-old girl sealed to Joseph Smith – Helen Mar Kimball. Nancy Winchester’s sealing is debatable, as is her age at the time of the supposed sealing. My statement was in response to Jeremy’s assertion that “[o]ut of the 34 women, 7 of them were teenage girls as young as 14-years-old.” That implies that those 7 were mostly fourteen-year-olds, when Helen Mar Kimball is the only sealing for which we have irrefutable evidence.

But what’s one or two marriages with 14 year-olds among friends? 

That seems to be the sarcastic point Jeremy is trying to make – i.e. Joseph was a pedophile, so why quibble about the numbers? The point I was making is that, contrary to Jeremy’s insinuations, Joseph’s marriages with young teens were the exception, not the rule, and, in the case of Helen Mar Kimball, this was clearly a sealing and not a marriage in the traditional sense – i.e. no sex.

Our quibbling matters because when a person is familiar with all the details, in resolution, it points to Joseph having a significant number of teenage brides (not merely one or two), several of whom were young-ish (and a couple younger than most people are comfortable with under almost any circumstances).

A “couple younger than most people are comfortable with under almost any circumstances” who were involved in non-sexual sealings with Joseph Smith.

“Teenage brides” is used here as a catchall phrase to equate a 14-year-old bride with the more numerous 19-year-old ones. Joseph’s “teenage brides” were mostly 18 and 19, which was not a scandalously young age for marriage in the 19th Century.

Emily Partridge, another of Joseph’s teenage brides (19) specifically noted in her diary one of the Brethren gaining a testimony after seeing “Joseph surrounded with a number of the most beautiful women that he ever saw in his life and he knew they were his wives.”

Describing Emily Partridge as “another of Joseph’s teenage brides (19)” demonstrates an intent to equate a marriage with an adult woman, albeit a young adult woman, with a non-sexual sealing with a 14-year-old girl. But what’s one or two unsubstantiated accusations of pedophilia among friends?

I don’t understand how the quote about Joseph’s beautiful wives as seen in somebody else’s vision adds anything to the discussion and is evidence of anything with regard to his sexual practices.

Perhaps Joseph was not dis-interested in sex?

Where on earth do I argue that Joseph was “dis-interested in sex?”

His interest in sex was clearly robust enough for him to have fathered children with Emma throughout his life, including one born after his was killed. Yet for all his supposed interest in sex with his bevy of underage beauties, he fathered no children with any of them, even though most went on to have children with their husbands after Joseph’s death. So if this was all about giving Joseph an opportunity to bed as many women as he could, why is he still fathering children with Emma but nobody else?

Perhaps Joseph was not restoring plural marriage because of his interest in sex?

Perhaps younger women were easier to persuade for marriage?

Given that Helen Mar Kimball is the only 14-year-old girl we are certain was sealed to Joseph Smith, it seems appropriate that her case be used as the best evidence of how he “persuaded” such girls. In this instance, the sealing was arranged entirely by Helen’s parents with no documented persuasion whatsoever on Joseph’s part.

Perhaps it would be wise to review what actually happened instead of assuming the worst?

Perhaps Joseph was a sexual predator?

Those who want to believe that Joseph was a sexual predator are welcome to do so, but the evidence does not compel them to do so, and, indeed, offers many compelling reasons to believe otherwise.

The link in the question above, for instance, repeats the spurious charge that Joseph told women they needed to marry him or an angel with a drawn sword would kill him. I address that at length in my CES Letter reply, but that is something that never happened. It’s exhausting to see that yanked out of context time and time again in order to smear Joseph Smith in the worst way possible.

There is no question that plural marriage created a whole host of problems and has given critics of the Church a great deal of ammunition, especially since there is so little primary source material about how it was initially practiced and so speculation fills the gaps. However, what data we have strongly suggests that Joseph was more interested in sealing families together than he was in giving himself license for sexual adventurism.

Regardless, it is remarkable under any theory that Joseph was so concerned with the eternal salvation of younger women. 

Remarkable only that this is an assertion that is presumed to be true on its face when it is not. Joseph married a great many women who were his own age or older, sometimes much older.

This infallible Wikipedia article lists all of Joseph Smith’s wives and the ages at which they were married and/or sealed to him. Just for fun, I took all the ages provided in the article and put them into Excel determine the average age of Joseph Smith’s plural wives, which turns out to be about 30.1 years old. (Ah, the Power of Math!)

I don’t think the data lends itself readily to the interpretation that he was more preoccupied with the salvation of younger women than he was with the salvation of anybody else.

It seems that Joseph was far less concerned with dynastic sealings for others than himself (e.g., consider William Holmes Walker and Henry Jacobs). 

I’m not quite sure what conclusion to draw from either of those links. Neither has anything to do with dynastic sealings.

And if it was really all about the dynasty, one wonders why Emma was so opposed to polygamy and why she ended up the ~20th wife sealed to Joseph.

A lot of unquestioned assumptions in that statement. At no point, for instance, do I argue that dynasty was the only consideration and that Joseph therefore did not have sex with any of his plural wives. The argument, rather, is that not all, or perhaps not even most, of the marriages were sexual, and in the case of Helen Mar Kimball, the evidence strongly suggests a dynastic sealing that would have been markedly different from a consummated marriage.

It’s also frustrating when anyone assumes they understand the dynamic between Joseph and Emma with regard to plural marriage. Emma clearly knew of some other sealings before she was sealed to Joseph, so wouldn’t the fact that she was 22nd wife sealed to him suggest she had accepted it to some degree? After all, if she was “so opposed to polygamy,” why accept any sealing at all?

Other than a sparse handful of inferences, we simply do not know anything at all about Joseph’s relationship with Emma with regard to plural marriage. Critics simply assume she was adamantly and unyieldingly opposed throughout the entire episode, but there are clearly moments when she came to accept it. What was going on between Joseph and Emma through all of this is impossible to determine. We do know that Emma was entirely devoted to Joseph, not just until the end of his life, but until the end of hers. That ought to inform our hindsight and view both Joseph and Emma more charitably than critics often do.

Why all the fuss over these innocuous sealing ceremonies?

Who said they were innocuous? These ceremonies bound people together for all of eternity. They didn’t always involve sex, but they were far from innocuous. They were extraordinarily ocuous.

And, regardless of any sexuality involved, how should we view the undue influence used to facilitate these arrangements?

We should view them by challenging the assumptions that are misrepresented in the above link. I did that in my reply, and I see no need to repeat myself here.

Finally, even if Joseph never had sex with a single woman, polygamy was either a theological mess or implementation disaster.

Again, I addressed all of those issues in my reply. Just reasserting them in a new link doesn’t really constitute some kind of “pointed response.”

Helen Mar Kimball

(Quoting me, Jim Bennett, from the second version of my reply) And the evidence strongly suggests that the sealing to Helen Mar Kimball was a sealing only, not a marriage. She continued to live with her parents, who approved the sealing, and Joseph was dead a year later. No sex.

What is the evidence which strongly suggests “No sex”? What is the evidence that HMK’s relationship to Joseph “was a sealing only, not a marriage”? I’m not aware of any. 

Then there must not be any. Either that, or the writer of the response hasn’t read Helen Mar Kimball’s poem she wrote about her feelings about the sealing, which begins as follows:

 I thought through this life my time will be my own
     The step I now am taking’s for eternity alone…

I would think “for eternity alone” is pretty strong evidence that this sealing was “for eternity alone.” There’s no denying the poem is heartbreakingly sad, as she apparently thought she could be sealed and then go about her life relatively unchanged. But as she recounts all the slights she receives at the hands of her contemporaries because of the sealing, she laments that even sealings “for eternity alone” are anything but innocuous.

Some people, like Brian Hales, interpret Helen’s 1881 autobiographical account as implying a sealing only, but that is only one way to read the document. 

Yes, and it’s the way to read the document that best fits the evidence.

Sexuality is not at all discounted by the letter, and sexuality makes better sense of much of the letter.

The “for eternity alone” poem discounts sexuality by implication, and the idea that “sexuality makes better sense of much of the letter” is an entirely unsupported assertion.

For instance, if Helen was merely distressing about some missed dances, why would Helen characterize her mother’s feelings like this:

“She had witnessed the sufferings of others, who were older & who better understood the step they were taking, & to see her child, who had scarcely seen her fifteenth summer, following in the same thorny path, in her mind she saw the misery which was as sure to come as the sun was to rise and set; but it was all hidden from me.”

This, like other material in this “pointed response,” is presented as if it’s self-evidently obvious what I ought to take away from it. For the life of me, I have no idea how this in any way implies sexuality or negates the “for eternity alone” reference in the poem.

It seems consistent with the poem, actually – that there are eternal and significant consequences to this, which Helen herself may not have understood because she thought an eternity-alone sealing wouldn’t be a big deal.

Bennett similarlly asserts:

“Joseph was sealed in a dynastic union to Helen Mar Kimball, not married in the shocking – i.e. sexual – sense.”

“He never lived with her[HMK], and he never slept with her”

What is the evidence that Joseph never slept with HMK?

That she continued to live with her parents, not with Joseph as his wife, and she wrote a poem explicitly stating that the sealing was “for eternity alone.”

Because HMK never lived with him? 

Yes. That is evidence that she never slept with him. But not the only evidence.

There is evidence suggesting that Joseph had Sarah Ann Whitney brought to him for a sexual liason by her parents. 

No, there really isn’t. From the letter in question:

and <​if you​> three would come and see me in this my lonely retreat, it would afford me great relief, of mind, if those with whom I am alied, do love me, now is the time to afford me succour, in the days of exile, for you know I foretold you of these things.

There’s no mention of sex and no mention of the parents leaving Sarah Ann. He wanted all three of them to come visit, as he says twice in his letter. So whatever was happening, it was going to happen in the presence of Sara Ann’s parents. That strongly suggests that a sexual liaison was probably the least likely item on the agenda.

And if Joseph wrote a similar letter to the Kimball parents and they actually followed the instructions to burn the communication, what evidence would that have left?

That’s a bizarre comparison. We have a record of the sealing arrangements between the Kimballs and Joseph that included no instructions to burn anything. If we found a letter in which Joseph asks Helen and her parents to come visit him, I don’t think the first assumption ought to be that Joseph was asking to have sex with Helen in front of her parents.

So, we need not assume that because they did not live together that sex did not happen, especially when examples of such arrangements exist.

Again, the living arrangements, which suggest no sex, are not the only or even the best evidence that Helen’s sealing to Joseph was “for eternity alone.” Helen’s own statement that the sealing was “for eternity alone” is, in my mind, the best evidence.

(see also Why did Joseph not sire children from polygamous wives?)

Again, that’s a new argument, not one that was included in the CES Letter. It’s also largely nonsense. If John C. Bennett was performing abortions for all of Joseph’s babies, it would have been nearly impossible to keep it quiet, and many of the women would have been left sterile as a result, which they demonstrably were not. (Also, I’m really, really not related to him. At all.)

Enough for today. I’ll finish the rest of the “pointed reply” in a future post. In the meantime, you can participate in the conversation by joining one of the Canonizer threads below – or creating one of your own!