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.