Updated: Jul 31, 2020
Mormons are used to a certain narrative of priesthood and prophets which has sort of become the closer in a sales pitch. 1990's missionaries may remember how discussion 3 (which was on Church organization) always felt that way. It was why you should buy “our car” so to speak. It was exciting because one could tell by then if someone was truly going to buy the product by getting baptized into the LDS Church. By that time hopefully someone would have read the Book of Mormon and gotten a testimony of it. It was time to bring it all home with the following logical syllogism:
a) if the Book of Mormon was true then
b) Joseph Smith was a prophet and therefore
c) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the true Church.
It makes sense in a way. Why would God give such blessings to an unschooled youth only to have him set up something that was nonsense and could fail? This was later reinforced by Gordon B. Hinckley in the 1990’s. He loved to set up that logical syllogism in people’s minds to set forth what was at stake in the LDS Church. From his PBS interview in 2007.
Well, it's either true or false. If it's false, we're engaged in a great fraud. If it's true, it's the most important thing in the world. Now, that's the whole picture. It is either right or wrong, true or false, fraudulent or true. And that's exactly where we stand, with a conviction in our hearts that it is true: that Joseph went into the [Sacred] Grove; that he saw the Father and the Son; that he talked with them; that Moroni came; that the Book of Mormon was translated from the plates; that the priesthood was restored by those who held it anciently. That's our claim. That's where we stand, and that's where we fall, if we fall. But we don't. We just stand secure in that faith.
This statement is at the crux of efforts like the CES Letter. The CES Letter is an answer to Hinckley, but in the reverse. It lays out a serious of questions that are mostly rhetorical, that it WAS a fraud from the beginning, to cast enough doubt, and in some cases, overwhelming doubt, about the nature of the LDS Church. Indeed, most post-Mormon agnostics come to that same reverse conclusion, even digging into the foundations of Christianity. Some may survive with a spirituality that is completely apart from the Western traditions. This is how successful the reverse syllogism has been.
But is it true?
Hinckley repeated his logical syllogism time and time again, as did others LDS Brethren, Jeffrey Holland is an example, and more frequently in the last few decades. Many Latter-day Saints who lean upon every word from the LDS Conference pulpit, and when they were said from such beloved men as Hinckley, it’s hard not to simply ingrain it into your spiritual DNA. Here is the crux of what Hinckley would say:
If the Book of Mormon is TRUE – This is the foundation of the case for and against Mormonism, because it is tangible evidence (one way or the other) of the abilities of Joseph Smith.
Joseph Smith is a TRUE prophet – This has problems with it. For one, he may have been commissioned by God in that one thing, but no other. Indeed, one of his revelations seems to implicate his greatest work would be to translate the Book of Mormon and nothing else. Being a true prophet may never exist. Having a true message may. Nevertheless, let’s say that He proved to have the will and mind of God at least for some of his life. But let’s say he was a “true” prophet his entire life.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only the Church – It is true that Joseph revealed such statements in the Doctrine & Covenants. However, we assume a perpetual statute of limitations on that statement, and we assume we know the organization in statement being the modern LDS Church. We may not be correct in such assumptions. What we have today is a discussion of trademark and size. There are literally hundreds of churches that claim Joseph Smith as their founder, and the Book of Mormon (and some with different parts the Doctrine & Covenants and Pearl of Great Price) as their scripture, mostly beginning with schisms in 1844. It would be like saying because the Bible is true, the Catholic Church is the only true church upon the face of the earth. It is here, drastically, that the syllogism breaks down. It becomes a logical fallacy.
To look at it another way, let’s illustrate the syllogism through the following diagram:
Mormonism’s Doctrinal Domino Theory
Note how the relationships move back and forth on a continuum. One implies the other and vice versa. That way it can be used successfully as a sales tool when a testimony of one aspect or another is developed. However, this can be dangerous on the flip side. If someone has a bad experience with a bishop, a stake president, or a General Authority, it can have the same effect but in the opposite direction. It all falls, or it all stands.
When one is a member of the LDS Church and has orthodox views, they must accept not only Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the Church, but also all the baggage that comes along with its history. Its history must be true as well. There have been efforts large and small, to navigate all of Church History as if every turn was the will of God. To some extent it has worked with some very heavy-handed semantics, polemic research, and proof testing, beginning with BH Roberts and then with Hugh Nibley, but with the advent of widespread Internet and social media sharing, evidence that was once minimized in this great apologetic web, has now infiltrated the narrative, forcing a slew of responses from the LDS Church acknowledging these facts, while still minimizing them on the other hand. The bulwarks then start to fail and cause things like the rise of the CES Letter. Still, the need to maintain the syllogism reigns supreme. So, on one hand, they will state that “mistakes have been made,” but on the other hand preach that “God won’t allow the Church be led astray, or his prophet to lead the Church astray.” All that does is set someone up to either beg questions about how big a mistake must be in order to lead people astray? The fact that fundamentalist Mormonism exists is because the Church taught a keystone doctrine, then reversed that doctrine, thereby creating a tension within orthodoxy and the syllogism itself, showing that indeed, some of these mistakes crossed lines. The doctrine of polygamy all by itself, has been a major strain on the Mormon Truth Continuum, if not the largest one. There have been several attempts to remain true to orthodoxy while explaining its twists and turns. All of them do not work very well because the more one unwinds the facts, the more it breaks the continuum.
There is a Better Way - Break the Continuum
You can find it in Moroni 7 (12-15).
12 Wherefore, all things which are good cometh of God; and that which is evil cometh of the devil; for the devil is an enemy unto God, and fighteth against him continually, and inviteth and enticeth to sin, and to do that which is evil continually.
13 But behold, that which is of God inviteth and enticeth to do good continually; wherefore, everything which inviteth and enticeth to do good, and to love God, and to serve him, is inspired of God.
14 Wherefore, take heed, my beloved brethren, that ye do not judge that which is evil to be of God, or that which is good and of God to be of the devil.
15 For behold, my brethren, it is given unto you to judge, that ye may know good from evil; and the way to judge is as plain, that ye may know with a perfect knowledge, as the daylight is from the dark night.
Moroni spends a good portion of this chapter fleshing out how to discern the character of a man. He sets up a test. On the surface it seems fairly simple:
If a man does good works, he is a servant of Christ. If he does bad works, he is a servant of the devil.
The problem with this test, as one can imagine, is that no one is perfect but Christ. In the greater scheme of things, even a good man will do some bad things and a bad man will do some good things. In the Bible, most of the great prophets do some things that are implicitly or explicitly counted as “bad.” Abraham tosses away Hagar. Moses says he brought forth water from his own power. David lusts and murders. Jonah refuses to obey God. Samson gets tempted by a woman. Peter denies Christ and gets strung out by the laws of circumcision. On the flip side . . . Hitler provided health care for all.
The intended way to read this test is not to generalize it to a person’s character but drill it down to individual messages and deeds. A man is only good when he is doing good, including teaching truth. When he is doing evil, he serves the adversary.
So, what is “good?” While Plato to Hume to Nietzsche have all philosophized on this concept, to the point where the post-modern mind has largely given up on it, one can find a unifying thread, call it a golden thread, that weaves through most esoteric belief systems.
Good things bring people to love, truth, God, a higher power, to seek for such things, and embrace them, to meditate on them, to pray to them
Good things cause people to put others ahead of their own desires.
This is a foundation, call them universal truths, that one can test any idea against. And it's right there in Moroni 7:13. But it’s only a start. Christianity and Mormonism have other tests. Other faiths may also have tests. For Mormonism you have:
Burning in the bosom, a powerful warmth that can envelope your body (not the emotion, but something that proceeds an emotion)
Enlightening the mind, it should be intellectually delicious, but also, you can receive a burning in your head as well, right behind the eyes (the third) eye as another witness In the mind and in the heart.
Now that we have a rudimentary foundation of what is good, one that is fairly universal, and we apply Moroni, we find that the Mormon Truth Continuum doesn’t work all that well. Joseph Smith was reprimanded by the Lord in his own revelations several times. He let vanity and anger often get the best of him. He trusted people he shouldn’t have. Then we have polygamy and secrecy, probably the largest can of worms. Yet Joseph admitted his mistakes quite often. Brigham Young, on the other hand, was cold, abrasive, and power-hungry. He didn’t need to be perfect because he was only a caretaker and shepherd, as he often stated. People at the time understood in many ways how to interpret Brigham Young's benefit to the Church. But as Church power grew, the need to set up the stakes of a continuum to show how “good” the Church was, overwhelmed the mistakes people and leaders made in the Church, in order to help in converting the mission field and baptizing every child of record. As soon as 1890, an un-erring march of goodness started to be pitched all the way from the First Vision to the latest temple foundation laid. There has been very little effort to acknowledge and repent for all the proverbial and literal dead bodies that lie in the rear-view mirror of the LDS Church. And this is the number one reason why the CES Letter is so powerful. It only has to breathe gently on one or two of those dead bodies, and the entire foundation collapses.
In abandoning the Mormon Truth Continuum as our foundation for discovering religious truth, one can discover another way:
In this way everyone is in charge of understanding truth for themselves, in line with Joseph Smith’s teaching and sermon referencing Ezekiel 14.
President Joseph Smith read the 14th chapter of Ezekiel–said the Lord had declared by the Prophet, that the people should each one stand for himself, and depend on no man or men in that state of corruption of the Jewish church–that righteous persons could only deliver their own souls–applied it to the present state of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints–said if the people departed from the Lord, they must fall–that they were depending on the Prophet, hence were darkened in their minds…
With that foundation laid, we can now carefully look at the events in Church history individually to use this rubric to line up what is good and true, and what went wrong.
 Note the oft-quoted “fruits of the Spirit,” the feelings of love, peace, joy, etc were not mentioned. Feelings themselves can be highly manipulated. They often are fruits of truth, but they can also be fruits for vanity, security, pride, etc. They probably shouldn't be trusted solely on their own, but are lagging indicators.