Cold Read

Among the tricks of faith healers and psychics is the “cold read.” This involves the faith healer or psychic standing in front of a crowd of people and pretending that he or she is receiving psychic information about someone’s specific problem. The healer might say, for example, “I perceive that someone in this audience is suffering from debilitating pain.” In a large audience of people who have come to be healed, chances are good that at least one person is indeed suffering from severe pain. One of such people will invariably stand and say, “Yes, that’s me!” and the healer will hint that he or she knew it all along. And the audience will be amazed. “He knew she needed his help!” they think in wondering awe.

This trick was used to pretty good effect in the MTC. Almost everyone I know who has been to the MTC remembers that at least one meeting, the branch president would announce to the assembled post-pubescent boys that he felt impressed that at least one missionary in the congregation needed to confess a serious sin. A lot of missionaries did have something they hadn’t confessed, and even those of us who didn’t (honest!) wracked our brains to think of something, anything, we might have done that we needed to confess.

A few years ago at a stake priesthood meeting in Texas, the stake president rose to speak, set down his talk, and said, “I had prepared an uplifting talk, but I feel impressed not to give it. The Spirit tells me that someone in this audience is struggling with pornography and masturbation, and I need to talk directly to that person.” The high priests group leader, who was sitting next to me, leaned over and whispered with a laugh, “He’s talking to about half the people here.” Given that the church leadership has been telling us for years that a significant percentage of male church members view pornography (and that usually involves masturbation), the stake president needed no inspiration at all that night. But I could imagine that a whole lot of men and boys in that congregation knew he was talking directly to them.

These cheap parlor tricks are pathetic and would seem funny if people didn’t take them so seriously. People give their life savings to faith healers based on such cold reads. And I’m sure countless LDS men and boys have confessed to their priesthood leaders based on these cold reads.

But now we have an apostle doing the same thing. A month or so ago, a missionary serving in Argentina wrote of a visit from apostle Russell Nelson:

Anyway a few little questions like that were asked and finally he stopped the session and said this, “Ok, enough with those questions. I perceive that someone here has been fasting and praying for two days now that I would answer the question they have. Would you please stand and ask, don’t be shy, I’d love to help you answer it.” There was dead silence, and like a shockwave of the Spirit went through the room. In my mind I thought, HE JUST RECEIVED STRAIGHT REVELATION THAT SOMEONE IS FASTING FOR HIM TO ANSWER THEIR QUESTION!!! Nobody moved…he just stood up there with hands folded and waited. It was one of the most definitive moments in my life; I don’t think I will ever forget it. The Spirit was so strong, finally in the front of the chapel a sweet sister missionary stood up. Elder Nelson smiles, “Ah, there you are.” HOLY SMOKES!!!!!! I’m telling you, I don’t know how to describe how I was feeling in that room. I was with an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the joy I felt was indescribable…spell check that for me…The hermana’s question was that she loves her mission more than anything else, and has no other desire but to serve the short time that is asked of her, but she was born like 30 minutes away in the South mission, and got called to the West mission. So she asked, “The Lord knows I live 30 minutes away, so why did he send me here?”

As the missionary wrote, it would be pretty amazing if an apostle had, by direct revelation, known of such a thing. And he was quite happy to let the missionaries believe it was so. But not long after, another missionary in Chile, on the other side of South America, wrote of another meeting with Elder Nelson:

The conference with Russel M. Nelson was powerful. We got to take a picture with him and all of us got to shake his hand and share a few words. It was awesome. His talk was so powerful and I learned so much. It was pretty crazy though, he got up, starting talking and then stopped. And said that there was a missionary in this room that had been fasting and praying for an answer to his question from one of the 12, so the apostle stopped and gave time for that question to be asked. An elder stood up and said that it was him and that he wanted to know how to show his love and knowledge of the atonement more in his teaching.

So both the sister who wanted to know why she had been called to that particular mission and the elder who wanted to know how to teach the Atonement both came away convinced, as everyone else was, that the apostle had received direct revelation for them. But in reality, it was just a cold read. Peter Popoff would be proud.


10 Responses to Cold Read

  1. Saganist says:

    This is a cheap trick, and it has to be on purpose. There’s no way he could be saying, “I perceive…” without intending people to believe he just stopped his remarks short because he got a call on the cosmic batphone. This is exactly what “so-called psychics” do. And it almost doesn’t matter what he says – as long as people remember that he said something he couldn’t possibly have known(!) and he was right, their faith in the leaders’ direct inspiration is greatly solidified. What a great example of lying for the Lord.

  2. This sort of thing makes me so incredibly angry!

  3. Lamanite says:

    Not sure what to think of this John??? I’ve got questions, as always. Let me get back to you after I formulate something halfway intelligent.


  4. I don’t think this is on purpose. Having been involved myself in a kind of evangelical spirituality that makes use of spiritual “impressions” of this sort, I can honestly say I think many cold-readers are entirely sincere in their belief that their intuition is from God. It is astonishingly simple to deceive oneself in this manner when one inhabits a universe in which such impressions are common and expected.

  5. runtu says:


    I also doubt it’s purposeful. But that is what he’s doing. Self-deception is a huge part of this kind of belief, if you ask me. We believe so much that we see inspiration and the hand of God in even the smallest of things.

  6. Ray Agostini says:

    If it was really this simple, what happened in the case of the Hofmann documents? An anti-Mormon named Jerald Tanner was the one who called Hofmann out, and I quote, “Jerald Tanner had, by early 1984, concluded there was significant doubt as to the Salamander Letter’s authenticity, and ‘to the astonishment of a community of scholars, historians and students, published an attack on the so-called Salamander Letter'”.

    What is really astonishing is that none of the “prophets and seers” ever discerned it.

    Over to you, Lamanite.

  7. Lamanite says:

    Thanks for the mic check….testing 1.2 testing 1.2. Is thing thing on?

    Yeah, Turley’s book was pretty clear on Tanner’s astute mistrust of Hoffman. I wonder if any of the authorities ever prayed about it? I don’t know, it doesn’t much matter really.

    Now the “cold read” thing, I just don’t know. I’m honest enough to say I can’t reconcile it at this point. I trod on, with a question placed upon the alter of uncertainty.

    Big UP- Lamanite

    Back to you Ray

  8. Ray Agostini says:

    According to Alma 10:

    16 And it came to pass that they began to question Amulek, that thereby they might make him cross his words, or contradict the words which he should speak.
    17 Now they knew not that Amulek could know of their designs. But it came to pass as they began to question him, he perceived their thoughts, and he said unto them: O ye wicked and perverse generation, ye lawyers and hypocrites, for ye are laying the foundations of the devil; for ye are laying traps and snares to catch the holy ones of God.

    Reality check:

    The Joseph Smith III Blessing:

    A scramble to acquire the Blessing then occurred, and Hofmann, posing as a faithful Utah Mormon, presented it to his church in exchange for items worth more than $20,000.

  9. Bull says:

    The human ability for self-deception is amazing. I can see this going both ways as being either sincere or intentional deception. However, what you DON’T hear about, and what I suspect actually happens, are cases where he feels the impression, but no one stands up. As old and experienced at this as Nelson is, it has to have happened. In that case it goes beyond self-deception to continue to believe that your impressions are revelation. Then it starts to morph into intentional deceit to continue pretending to have revelation when you know it’s just your gut feel.

    I guess nothing conclusive, but I’ve been in that state of mind in the past and don’t necessarily see anything sinister here.

  10. rebecca says:

    I’m sure that when no one stands up he says something about how he knows the person is too timid to ask the question, but the Lord will answer it if they keep praying. Or whatever. And he also probably gives some “impromptu” talk because he is being “prompted” that it will answer someone’s question.

    (Sorry for the sarcastic quote marks – I just CANNOT bring myself to leave them off in this case.)

    I remember when I was about 15 or 16 I went to a multi-stake fireside. There had to have been…I don’t know, probably at least 500 youth there. At the time I was a pretty conservative, super Molly girl. The speaker stopped and said that the spirit was telling him that there was one girl in the room who felt so bad about herself that she couldn’t even talk about how bad she felt because she didn’t think she was worth it.

    And even as a super (SUPER) gullible, follow-without-questioning Molly, I remember thinking, “That’s got to apply to half the girls here.” And I felt kind of pissed at about it.

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