Mormon Psychology

God’s One and Only

The belief that there is only one truth, and that oneself is in possession of it, is the root of all evil in the world.

– Max Born, Nobel Prize Physicist

Mormonism teaches that it is the “One and only church upon the face of the earth with which God is pleased”.  It teaches that only members of the faith who have obtained certain ordinances will be saved in the best part of heaven.  It is one of only two major American religions who teach that people who are not of their faith cannot achieve salvation.  In part for this reason, when one partner in a relationship leaves the faith, divorce rates are higher than for many mainstream faiths.[1]


The church of Joseph Smith started as an informal organization.  People could preach and cast out devils, and many women were believed to have the power to heal.  Meetings sometimes lasted for several hours or days.  Smith went by “the Prophet Joseph” or more often “Brother Joseph”.  Later, in the Nauvoo period when we had many roles, he preferred the title of “General Smith”.  Joseph saw the need for authority in maintaining order.

Whatever sees of hierarchy Joseph may have planted, Brigham Young was the one who cultivated and exploited them.  He had a nearly dictatorial leadership style and was referred to as “President Young” or “The Lion of the Lord”.

When Joseph F. Smith was made president of the church around 1900, it was required to use his middle initial in order to differentiate him from his uncle, the founder of the movement.  However, what followed was an adoption of the use of the middle initial or middle name by all subsequent leaders of the movement.  This added an element of importance or dignity to them, and further separated them from the members of the movement who are called only by their last names in typical interactions with other members (Brother or Sister Smith).  Sometimes first names are used, especially if the ages of those interacting is similar.

While Joseph may have talked to a large crowd without a lectern of any kind, the construction of the Mormon tabernacle in 1856 included a sizable pulpit.  The use of large pulpits would later become standard throughout the church.  The size of the pulpit is associated with the authority of the speaker[2], and the pulpit at the main church meeting site is significantly larger than those found in local meeting houses.

The size of the pulpits is not uniform throughout the church, though generally they are slightly large in Stake meeting houses than they are in ward meeting houses.  The original pulpit in Kirtland was small and would hold no more than about 2 sheets of 8×10 inch paper.  The modern pulpet in the assembly hall is far larger than those used in the Tabernacle in the 1950s.  The growth of the pulpit seems to have accompanied the growth in the relative importance of new priesthood terms and their usage.

An analysis of the phrases “priesthood authority” and “priesthood power” indicates that they were introduced around the 1950s and have been increasing in usage and popularity among the leaders of the movement.

Having a testimony of “the restored gospel”

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

– Mark Twain

The development of testimony is a key goal within Mormonism and defines ones identity within the group.  Having a strong testimony is gating requirement for full fellowship and is a requirement for many of the positions or callings within the organization, including essentially all leadership positions.

The development and sharing of “testimonies” begins at an early age.  Perhaps 90% of all testimonies shared by those under the age of 10 in weekly worship services start with the words, “I’d like to bear my testimony that I know that this church is true”.  In about half of the testimonies, the next sentence is “and I know that my family loves me”.  The truth of the church is tied to love that one feels as being part of a family or larger church group.

At an early age, the words “know” are used almost exclusively.  The term “believe” is rarely used and when used may be frowned on and seen as less genuine or valued than “knowing”.   An analysis of general conference word usage indicates that roughly 75% of all references to belief use the phrase “I know” rather than “I believe”.


Figure 6 – Ratio of “I know” to “I believe” statements

A “testimony” is meant to be testified or told to others.  Personal belief is not valued in the organization as much as belief which is expressed or shared.  These shared beliefs and the process of sharing forms the basis of the community.  The meeting on first Sunday of each month is reserved for fasting and sharing of testimonies.

In gaining a testimony, members are encouraged to share their feeling whether or not they know that they are true.

Another way to seek a testimony seems astonishing when compared with the methods of obtaining other knowledge. We gain or strengthen a testimony by bearing it. Someone even suggested that some testimonies are better gained on the feet bearing them than on the knees praying for them.[5]

To the youth listening today or reading these words in the days ahead, I give a specific challenge: Gain a personal witness of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Let your voice help fulfill Moroni’s prophetic words to speak good of the Prophet. Here are two ideas: First, find scriptures in the Book of Mormon that you feel and know are absolutely true. Then share them with family and friends in family home evening, seminary, and your Young Men and Young Women classes, acknowledging that Joseph was an instrument in God’s hands. Next, read the testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith in the Pearl of Great Price or in this pamphlet, now in 158 languages. You can find it online at or with the missionaries. This is Joseph’s own testimony of what actually occurred. Read it often. Consider recording the testimony of Joseph Smith in your own voice, listening to it regularly, and sharing it with friends. Listening to the Prophet’s testimony in your own voice will help bring the witness you seek.[6]

When seeking a marriage partner, individuals are encouraged to find an individual with a strong testimony of the movement.  Members are highly discouraged from marrying outside of the faith.  Testimony, the way in which a person lives their life (especially their perceived level of honesty), their attitude, and their willingness to help those in need or those in authority who request help are the primary ways that members are judged within the movement.


In the 1970s, Arrington as the church historian introduced the concept of inoculation.  Tidbits of church history such as the use of the brown seer stone to produce the book of Mormon was included in the children’s monthly magazine.  The theory behind this was discussed by believing historian and BYU professor Michael Quinn in 1981:

…believing Mormon historians like myself seek to write candid church history in a context of perspective in order to inoculate the Saints against historical “disease germs” that apostates and anti-Mormons thrust upon them.[7]

Elder Ballard repeated the concept, this time with the full backing of the first presidency in 2016:

The effort for gospel transparency and spiritual inoculation through a thoughtful study of doctrine and history, coupled with a burning testimony, is the best antidote we have to help students avoid and/or deal with questions, doubt, or faith crises they may face in this information age.[8]

Steven Snow also reiterated that the purpose of the Gospel Topics essays was to provide an inoculation to members regarding troubled historical facts and practices of the church.[9]

A Religion that makes you feel good

The feeling of certainty, especially absolute certain, which is often associated with belief in matters of faith and politics is addictive and provides a chemical high to the brain.[10]

A study conducted at the University of Utah and published in 2016[11] shows that the members experience the spirit most strongly, their brains light up in certain characteristic patterns.  At least 3 areas of the brain light up, including the reward centers in a pattern similar to those when a person experiences love, sex, gambling addictions, or certain pleasurable drugs.

Another finding of the study was that when presented with various stimulus (personal prayer, familiar scriptures, church videos, etc., that respondents had the highest incidence of feeling the spirit when they were watching the church produced videos. Since at least the 1960s, the church has been involved in producing a number of videos which it uses for proselyting and to help its members gain and maintain faith.  These videos are effective in helping people to have an emotional experience which they describe as feeling the spirit.  These early productions were often written and produced via Brigham Young University (owned and operated by the LDS church).

Thought terminating clichés

According to Wikipedia:

Thought-terminating clichés, also known as thought-stoppers, are words or phrases that discourage critical thought and meaningful discussion about a given topic. They are typically short, generic truisms that offer seemingly simple answers to complex questions or that distract attention away from other lines of thought.  They are often sayings that have been embedded in a culture’s folk wisdom and are tempting to say because they often sound true or good or like the right thing to say. Some examples are: “Stop thinking so much”, “here we go again”…

The term was popularized by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton in his 1961 book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China. Lifton wrote, “The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis”.

Sometimes they are used in a deliberate attempt to shut down debate, manipulate others to think a certain way, or dismiss dissent. However, some people repeat them, even to themselves, out of habit, conditioning or as a defense mechanism.[12]

The use of thought terminating clichés is rife within Mormonism.  Those that are repeated most often and held in highest regard are those that are attributed to church leaders.  Some of the more prominent ones include:

Table 1 – Thought terminating clichés

Cliché Implication or meaning
They (apostates) can leave the church, but they can’t leave it alone One doesn’t need to consider any of the concerns of those who have left because they are necessarily wrong.
Wickedness never was happiness. Those who do not believe and act in the same way that Mormons do are by definition unhappy, regardless of how they feel or appear.
I’ve had too many spiritual experiences to ever deny that the Church is true. My subjective feelings are more important than any facts or information which may be contrary to my feelings.
Follow the prophet/Sustain the brethren One doesn’t need to critically analyze direction from church leaders, because they are always right.
It is not pertinent to your salvation. Historical and doctrinal issues that lie outside of the central core doctrines can be ignored without repercussion or discussion.
The gospel is perfect, the members are not The church is still perceived to be perfect even though the leaders lie or do other things which are immoral.  The idea is that the church is a separate entity from all of the leaders who choose what the church should be and how it operates.
Doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith[13]. Trust the institution and choose to believe rather than to critically examine elements of the faith which may be harmful or false.

Questions and Questioning

Early church leaders were generally not opposed to investigation, perhaps believing that they had the ultimate truth.  This attitude seems to have peaked with some intellectuals in the church in the 1930, but continued into the 1950s and 1960s when it was believed that true science would ultimately prove the truthfulness of the church[14].  Researchers were sent to South America to try to prove the historicity of the Book of Mormon[15].  An early leader boldly proclaimed:

If a faith will not bear to be investigated; if its preachers and professors are afraid to have it examined, their foundation must be very weak.[16]

Starting around the 1970s, there appears to have been a change in attitude[17].  Certain questions are difficult for church leaders to answer and these questions are typically not addressed[18].  On rare occasions, firesides have been held to address difficult questions of members.[19]  Often the questions are limited to friendly sources and pre-screened with answers prepared in advance.

We don’t have to question anything in the church, don’t get off into that. Just stay in the Book of Mormon. Just stay in the Doctrine and Covenants. Just listen to the prophets. Just listen to the apostles. We won’t lead you astray, we cannot lead you astray.[20]

Figure 7 – Usage of various terms in General Conference per decade


Mormons may feel that they have been persecuted throughout their history and that they continue to be persecuted.  This feeling of being unfairly treated by society is similar to the persecution complex enjoyed by other religions including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientologists.  The higher level of persecution towards JWs and Scientologists may be correlated to their being further from mainstream society and beliefs.

In the 19th and early part of the 20th century, the emphasis on polygamy and differing views regarding fundamental doctrines[21], Mormons were well outside of mainstream American culture and the perceived level of persecution was high.  This may have reached a peak during the crackdown on polygamy (1885-1890) or during the Smoot hearings shortly thereafter[22].  During the 1960s-80s, Mormons fit much better into a conservative American movement and they experience high levels of growth and less perceived persecution.  After about 2008, the increasing emphasis on the sinfulness of homosexuality combined with a societal acceptance of homosexuals and equal marital rights has caused Mormonism to drift away from mainstream culture, and the sense of being persecuted may be on the rise.[23]

Persecution of the perception of persecution often stimulates an automatic response to shut out or fight the perceived cause of the persecution.  Leaders of the movement use this to effectively label members who left the faith as Gentiles, anti-mormons, apostates, etc. and teach that these people are inspired by the devil to persecute true believers.


Mormons are encouraged to pray to find answers to their questions and concerns.  Prayer is the ultimate tool in confirming the truthfulness of the church.  At the same time, they are discouraged from praying about things do not align with the church’s teachings/doctrines.  The following instruction in a recent manual is insightful:

Before concluding the lesson, it may be wise to tell students that some people who have apostatized from the Church are practicing plural marriage today. They urge people to pray and ponder about whether it is right to practice plural marriage today. We should not seek to receive revelation that is contrary to what the Lord has revealed through His prophets.[24]

The only ones in the church who are authorized to pray about things which are contrary to what the Lord has revealed through his prophets are the prophets themselves, as in the case of Official Declarations 1 and 2.  Even suggesting that church leaders out to pray about something (as in the case of those in the Ordain Women initiative) can result in excommunication.


The practice of shunning, or removing people from your life who have left the faith, is not practiced among Mormons in the same way that it is among the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Scientologists (disconnection).  However, in some cases it has been encouraged, particularly in the 1960s-1980s.  In some cases, terminating contact with apostates has been encouraged.  This may include encouraging divorce:

.. Avoid those who would tear down your faith. Faith-killers are to be shunned. The seeds which they plant in the minds and hearts of men grow like cancer and eat away the Spirit.[25]

A member of the quorum of the 12 added in 2014:

the admonition to prefer Christ above all others, even our closest family members, applies also to those who may have been born in the covenant. Many of us became members of the Church without opposition, perhaps as children. The challenge we may confront is remaining loyal to the Savior and His Church in the face of parents, in-laws, brothers or sisters, or even our children whose conduct, beliefs, or choices make it impossible to support both Him and them. It is not a question of love. We can and must love one another as Jesus loves us…But, the Lord reminds us, “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” So although familial love continues, relationships may be interrupted and, according to the circumstances, even support or tolerance at times suspended for the sake of our higher love.

In reality, the best way to help those we love—the best way to love them—is to continue to put the Savior first. If we cast ourselves adrift from the Lord out of sympathy for loved ones who are suffering or distressed, then we lose the means by which we might have helped them. If, however, we remain firmly rooted in faith in Christ, we are in a position both to receive and to offer divine help. If (or I should say when) the moment comes that a beloved family member wants desperately to turn to the only true and lasting source of help, he or she will know whom to trust as a guide and a companion. In the meantime, with the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide, we can perform a steady ministry to lessen the pain of poor choices and bind up the wounds insofar as we are permitted. Otherwise, we serve neither those we love nor ourselves.[26]

The following comments were made at the BYU commencement address in 2016:

A few of you may have run into some who have ceased to hold fast to the iron rod, have wandered off the strait and narrow path, and have become lost. They started sometimes with online tours of the territory of the faithless. This indiscretion is often accompanied by failing to earnestly study the Book of Mormon every day and by the companion problem of gradually becoming lax in keeping other commandments. This sometimes leads to listening and then hearkening to those who mock the Church, its leaders, or its history.

The faithless often promote themselves as the wise who can rescue the rest of us from our naïveté. One does not need to listen to assertive apostates for long to see the parallels between them and the Korihors, Nehors, and Sherems of the Book of Mormon. We should disconnect, immediately and completely, from listening to the proselytizing efforts of those who have lost their faith and instead reconnect promptly with the Holy Spirit.[27]

Situational Ethics

Joseph Smith stated:

Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God. But we cannot keep all the commandments without first knowing them, and we cannot expect to know all, or more than we now know unless we comply with or keep those we have already received. That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another.

God said, “Thou shalt not kill;” at another time He said, “Thou shalt utterly destroy.” This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.

If we seek first the kingdom of God, all good things will be added. So with Solomon: first he asked wisdom, and God gave it him, and with it every desire of his heart, even things which might be considered ABOMINABLE to all who understand the order of heaven only in part, but which in reality were right because God gave and sanctioned by special revelation.”[28]

Based on the reference to Solomon, it appears that Joseph Smith was justifying Polygamy as a commandment from God and explaining why it was actually right (for him to marry teenagers and other men’s wives, etc).

Mormon missionaries in Europe routinely lied about the practice of polygamy through at least the 1850s.  This includes John Taylor who had 5-6 wives at the time.[29]  Many members who joined in Europe first learned about polygamy when they arrived in Salt Lake.  Some left as a result.


[1] Divorce rate for mixed faith marriages are much higher for JWs and Mormons than other US faiths.  See and In Faith and In Doubt.

[2] The Nazis understood this well, as it evident from their propaganda videos.  Another movements which use pulpits and staging to show power effective is the Scientologists.


[4] Data extracted from

[5] Dallin Oaks, April 2008

[6] Neal Andersen, October 2014

[7] D. Michael Quinn, 1981. On being a Mormon historian   Quinn was excommunicated in 1992 for his efforts to inoculate.






[13] Made famous by Deiter Uchdorf in 2013  Derived from a quote by  F.F. Bosworth, a Pentecostal Pastor and faith healer who stated, “The evidences for faith are so much stronger than those for doubting. Don’t doubt your faith; doubt your doubts, for they are unreliable.”  He went on to write, “Some have been miraculously healed while reading the next sermon in this book” on the same page.  See

[14] See the improvement era, Sept 1962:

[15] Most of the research in Central America trying to prove the Book of Mormon was done between 1948 and 1970.  See:

[16] George A. Smith (Journal Of Discourses, Volume: 14, Chapter: 4, Page: 217

[17] This may have been in part a reaction to the discovery of the papyruses that formed the source material for the Book of Abraham.


[19] Known as the Swedish Rescue:  See

[20] Address by Ballard, M. Russell Ballard at YSA Devotional, Provo, October 2015.  Available here:

[21] The Mormon conception of the godhead/trinity, the afterlife, and the concept of Grace differ from main-stream Christianity.

[22] The Reed Smoot hearings occurred between 1904 and 1907.  See:

[23] This is largely a societal drift to the left, rather than a change in Mormonism per se.  This might be similar to the view of racism within Mormonism, which was first an issue raised by the greater society as society became less racist in the 1950s and 1960s.



[26] CES fireside by D. Christofferson (Quorum of 12 apostles) Sept 2014.


[28] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith pp. 255-256.

[29] See Ann Eliza Webb Young’s “Wife No. 19” pp 328-332.