CES Reply: Zombies!

This is part of the continuing serialization of “A Faithful Reply to the CES Letter from a Former CES Employee.”  You can download the whole PDF here, and you can also participate in the Latter-day Saint Survey Project by joining or creating one of the Canonizer camps in the links at the bottom of this post.

This is a line-by-line response to Jeremy Runnells’s October 2017 iteration of the CES Letter. Jeremy’s original text appears in green, the color of life. My response text appears in black, the color of darkness.


I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to address the issue of Vernal Holley, Daniel Peterson, and Solomon Spaulding. (Also zombies.)

The maps you use in Question #7 come from Book of Mormon Authorship: A Closer Look by Vernal Holley. In that 1983 treatise, Holley argues that the Book of Mormon was plagiarized from a manuscript by Solomon Spaulding. The problem, of course, is that he’s wrong.

For any not familiar with the Spaulding Theory, I turn again to my father’s Leap of Faith book, with words again taken from his digital manuscript:

Sometime prior to 1829, a former Presbyterian Minister named Solomon Spaulding was known to have written a novel called “The Manuscript Found,” in which a fictional Indian describes events that took place in America before Columbus. Joseph’s detractors focused on the similarity between this plot line and the story of The Book of Mormon and insisted that Joseph was a simple plagiarist. Somehow, they say, he had come across the Spaulding book and pilfered it for his own purposes.

The theory started in 1834 and grew in scope and detail over the years. Its final version was laid out in the book, New Light on Mormonism, by Mrs. Ellen E. Dickinson. In the Preface, to establish her credentials, Mrs. Dickinson reports that “the Rev. Solomon Spaulding, the author of the romance called ‘The Manuscript Found,’ from which the ‘Book of Mormon’ was formulated, was my mother’s uncle by marriage.” I assume she is telling her readers that she is a credible source because she is family.

She talks of visiting Spaulding’s daughter and only child, who “made a sworn statement as to her father’s authorship of the work which has been used with such disastrous effect by crafty men.” Her book, she says, “is the only attempt of the Rev. S. Spaulding’s relatives to set this matter in its proper light.”

In her first chapter she describes Spaulding’s novel as “an account of the peopling of America by the lost tribes of Israel, the tribes and their leaders having very singular names; among them Mormon, Moroni, Lamenite and Nephi – names found nowhere else in literature. So much interest was awakened by this romance, and it was such a distinction, at the time, to write a book, that he determined to publish it.” 

She tells how Spaulding took his novel to a publisher named Patterson. “A young printer, named Sidney Rigdon, was in Mr. Patterson’s printing house. . . . he had followed Mr. Spaulding from Conneaut . . . and having heard him read ‘The Manuscript Found,’ . . . devised a treachery toward both author and publisher, which the world has reason to remember. This same Sidney Rigdon figured prominently twenty years later as a preacher among the Mormons.”

That’s the theory and it has a grain of truth in it – Sidney Rigdon was in fact once employed as a printer. In 1829, he was a minister in another faith, but he converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the first year of its organization and brought a good portion of his congregation with him. He quickly became Joseph’s trusted counselor.

If the entire scheme had been pre-arranged between the two of them, it is logical that Sidney would have wanted to wait on the sidelines to see if the book would catch on before associating himself with it. That way, if it failed, it would not embarrass him. However, if it succeeded, he could show up as a convert and then, later on, maybe even supplant the unlearned Joseph as the head of a successful new Church. That he was ambitious for Church position is demonstrated by the fact that he contested the succession issue in the Church after Joseph was killed…It is easy to understand why the Spaulding theory was accepted as the final word on the issue by critics for nearly half a century, appearing as the settled explanation for the book’s origin in an article in Encyclopedia Americana.

No more. Spaulding’s actual manuscript turned up after all, and ruined everything. In 1884 it was found and placed in the library at Oberlin College, Ohio, where it is still available for examination; it has been circulated in printed form and I have gone through it. It bears no resemblance to Book of Mormon at all, with none of the Book of Mormon names in it, as Mrs. Dickenson had claimed, and no religious content whatsoever. The Spaulding theory, once the staple of all commentary on the book offered from outside of the Church, never comes up anymore.

Unfortunately, Dad was incorrect. Almost exactly a century after the Spaulding theory was authoritatively debunked by the appearance of the actual manuscript, it came up again in the form of Vernal Holley’s book. The quasi-official apologists at FARMS reviewed the book back in 1989, and they said the following:

When Mormon scholar Lester Bush wrote his historical survey of the Spaulding Theory eleven years ago, he made a comment at the tail end of his paper which bears repeating: “One therefore can reasonably expect that new variants [of the Spaulding theory] will, like the influenza, reemerge every now and then.”1 Vernal Holley’s 1983 booklet, Book of Mormon Authorship: A Closer Look, is one of the more recent strains of this particular virus.

This same viral metaphor may well have colored Daniel Peterson’s 2014 presentation about the CES Letter, which has been the main source of ire over on your site in your “debunking” section.

Here’s the offending passage from Dr. Peterson’s speech:

This is his fourth objection: Book of Mormon Geography, and he uses Vernal Holley, who relied on the Solomon Spalding theory of the Book of Mormon, which has been exploded, detonated so many times that it’s exasperating to see it keep coming back. I’ve mentioned, I think, here before that Bill Hamblin and I have wanted to do a film that we call tentatively, “Bill and Dan’s Excellent Adventure in Anti-Mormon Zombie Hell.” The idea is that these just keep coming back. I mean, you shoot them between the eyes and they don’t stop because there’s no brain in there, right? And, to see the Spalding manuscript theory just keep coming and coming…

And here’s how you characterize these remarks:

Another reference was made about followers of the ‘CES Letter’ being Zombies or Zombie-like…Peterson compares me and CES Letter supporters who support and push information such as the Vernal Holley maps to zombies with no brains… Peterson’s ad hominem attack… Unfortunately, Peterson’s above ad hominem provides zero substance… I do not welcome outrageous personal ad hominem attacks…

Lest anyone miss what ad hominem attack you’re talking about, you titled your piece “A Zombie’s Reflections on That Mormon Apologist’s Reflections.” You also include a goofy picture of the man you derisively call “Tapir Dan” running alongside his favorite non-horse animal away from a horde of the undead, with the caption “CES Letter Zombies.”

Ha ha! It’s funny because it’s wrong. (And aren’t those unofficial apologists mean?)

If anyone needed a clear demonstration of how sloppy you are with your scholarship, they need look no further than this insulting post.

Words mean things, and Dr. Peterson’s message here is not hard to decipher. The antecedent to “zombie” in Dr. Peterson’s speech is the “Solomon Spalding [sic] theory of the Book of Mormon.” It’s “exasperating to see it keep coming back,” he says, “it” being the Spaulding theory, not you or your supporters. When he mentions his zombie movie, he talks about it being appropriate because “these just keep coming back,” with “these” being variations of the Spaulding theory that have been “exploded, detonated so many times,” yet, still, all the different permutations of “the Spalding manuscript theory just keep coming and coming…”

So unless either you or your supporters are the living embodiment of the Solomon Spaulding theory of Book of Mormon authorship, at no point did he call you, or any CES Letter supporters, zombies or zombie-like. Indeed, you do not mention the Spaulding theory in your letter, so there is no possible way this reference could apply to you. Yet your article responding to this supposedly egregious example of name-calling runs almost as long as the entire CES Letter, and its central premise is predicated on a blatant misreading of what Dr. Peterson actually said.

In addition, all your complaints about how viciously we unofficial apologists have treated you ring hollow as you take to message boards to demean and insult everyone who disagrees with you, including ol’ “Danny Boy” and, of course, me. (Lest anyone forget, I’m “suffocatingly conceited,” and my family hates me.)

You rewrote the CES Letter to get rid of the “tone problems” that included a great deal of insulting language. Perhaps it’s time you revisited your “Debunking” section with the same purpose.

Tomorrow, we head off to Cumorah! In the meantime, take a look at the Canonizer camps below. If you think I’m completely wrong, you can join a camp that says so – or create one of your own!