The Mormon understanding of Satan/Abilities

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The Mormon understanding of Satan: Abilities

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Question: Do Mormons believe that Satan can read our minds?

Church leaders have tended to teach that only God has access to our inner thoughts

Church leaders have tended to teach that only God has access to our inner thoughts. Satan does, however, have extensive experience in observing mortals and this intuiting their thoughts and desires.

We can take comfort, however, in both the protection of the Holy Ghost, and the fact that Satan has no power over us save that which we grant him.

Satan "cannot know our thoughts unless we speak them."
—Elder James E. Faust[1]

The Lord told Oliver Cowdery in D&C 6:16:

Yea, I tell thee, that thou mayest know that there is none else save God that knowest thy thoughts and the intents of thy heart (italics added)

However, as an author in the Ensign observed:

Some have interpreted the statement to mean that God is the only being who can know another’s thoughts....Others suggest that in D&C 6:16 (and D&C 6:24) the Lord may be referring to man’s inability to know another’s thoughts....The question is thus not addressed as to whether or not Satan can directly discern the thoughts and intents of our hearts.[2]

Elder ElRay L. Christiansen observed:

Satan knows all the tricks. He knows where we are susceptible to temptations and how to entice us to do evil. He and his messengers suggest evil, minimize the seriousness of sin, and make evil inviting....Surely then Satan and his followers have some knowledge of our thoughts and tendencies. He has knowledge that is superior to man’s knowledge, but he lacks the wisdom to properly use his knowledge for good purposes. Some people are like that and often find themselves opposing even that which is right and true. Satan is a great deceiver, a liar....Satan and his aides no doubt may know our inclinations, our carnal tastes and desires, but they cannot compel a righteous person to do evil if he seeks help from the Lord. Too many try to blame Satan when in reality the fault lies within themselves because they yield to his enticements.[3]

President Joseph Fielding Smith observed that Satan can spread his message "in the person of a friend or a relative in whom we have confidence. He has power to place thoughts in our minds and to whisper to us in unspoken impressions to entice us to satisfy our appetites or carnal desires and in various ways he plays upon our weaknesses and desires."[4]

The Ensign noted:

it is possible that Satan can at least determine our susceptibility to a particular temptation from our words and actions, which reveal our thoughts....

Satan can see our fruits as well as any person—and we can be certain that he’ll be quick to take advantage of the weaknesses we exhibit.

The question of Satan’s ability to know our thoughts is an interesting one. But in the end, it probably doesn’t make much difference what seeming opportunities Satan has. We’re promised that we won’t be tempted beyond our ability to withstand (see 1 Corinthians 10:13); we can consistently choose to resist all forms of temptation, if that is our desire.[2]

Avoiding the influence of Satan

"Satan cannot seduce us by his enticements unless we in our hearts consent and yield."
—Joseph Smith, Jr.[5]

Elder Gene R. Cook taught:

May I share a few of Satan’s cunning illusions which undermine spirituality. Satan, with an illusion, leads a man to puff himself up with pride to say, “I am my own man. I know the Lord lives, but he expects me to handle this particular matter on my own and not bother him with any details.” Not being familiar with the scriptures, the man may not know that Satan teaches the world there is no God. But to the Saints he simply says, “There is a God, but he is only generally involved in your life. He would not specifically help you today.” Or he teaches the world not to pray, but to the Saints he simply says, “Don’t pray now. You don’t feel like praying right now.” (See 2 Nephi 32:8–9.) The net effect is the same.[6]

"[W]e bind the adversary and his mortal minions only as we bind our appetites.
—Neal A. Maxwell</ref>Neal A. Maxwell, "The Man of Christ," Ensign (May 1975).</ref>

Elder Ian S. Ardern of the Seventy taught:

Satan tempts us at our weakest point. After the Savior had fasted 40 days and 40 nights and “was afterward an hungred,” Satan, seizing the moment, said, “Command that these stones be made bread” (Matthew 4:2–3).

Satan seeks to tempt us when we are feeling weak and at what he perceives to be our weakest points. He will pick away at them in the hope that we will succumb.

We all have weak points, and mortality is our opportunity to make weak things strong. President Harold B. Lee (1899–1973) declared: “The most important of all the commandments of God is that one that you’re having the most difficulty keeping today. If it’s one of dishonesty, if it’s one of unchastity, … today is the day for you to work on that until you’ve been able to conquer that weakness. Then you start on the next one that’s most difficult for you to keep.”[7]

Richard G. Scott taught:

Some of us at one time or another let the pressures of life or the false teachings of men cloud our vision, but when we see with clarity, the difference between the plan of God and that of Satan is unmistakable. Satan would convert divinely independent spirits into creatures bound by habit, restricted by appetite, and enslaved by transgression. He has never deviated from his intent to enslave and destroy. He would persuade us to improperly use the divine gift of free agency. Through subtle, tempting influence, he encourages us to gratify desire for personal power and influence or to succumb to appetite. He progressively binds those that follow carnal desire. Unless they repent, they are effectively converted into robots who no longer exercise control over their eternal destiny.

He cleverly confuses some until they depict God as an exacting, harsh judge, or as a distant deity, devoted to meticulous scorekeeping. God is neither. He is a loving, patient, understanding Father deeply interested in our personal welfare, anxious for our happiness, and totally committed to our eternal progression.[8]

And:

Neither Satan nor any other power can weaken or destroy your growing character. Only you can do that through disobedience. That is why Satan is so intently focused on tempting you to make decisions that will undermine your character. Satan is an accomplished master at making devastating choices appear attractive, even reasonable. So be careful. At this critical time of life, you will be faced with many choices. The decisions you will make will profoundly affect life now and for eternity. Make them wisely and prayerfully.[9]


Question: Is it true that Mormon missionaries are not allowed to swim because Satan has dominion over the waters?

The connection between missionary policy and the reference to the "destroyer" riding the face of the waters in D&C 61 is a persistent Mormon urban legend

I know I was told in the MTC that missionaries were not to ever swim because Satan had dominion over the waters. So what is the actual Church doctrine on this subject?

The connection between missionary policy and the reference to the "destroyer" riding the face of the waters in D&C 61 is a persistent Mormon urban legend. One must consider that LDS missionaries frequently travel by water to reach remote islands. Before the advent of modern air travel, all overseas missionaries were required to travel by ship to Europe, Asia, and other foreign lands. Missionaries, of course, bathe and perform baptisms in water.

The Church has a general policy prohibiting full-time missionaries from swimming. This is simply a safety precaution to prevent drowning or other water related accidents. There are a number of other mission rules that vary depending upon the mission. For example, some missions prohibit missionaries from playing basketball. Rock climbing is usually a prohibited activity. Mission rules are designed to keep missionaries safe by preventing them from participating in high-risk physical activities.

Background of the revelation

The introduction to D&C section 61 provides background:

On their return trip to Kirtland the Prophet and ten elders had traveled down the Missouri River in canoes. On the third day of the journey many dangers were experienced. Elder William W. Phelps, in daylight vision, saw the destroyer riding in power upon the face of the waters.

The following revelation was then received:

DC 61:13-19

13 And now, behold, for your good I gave unto you a commandment concerning these things; and I, the Lord, will reason with you as with men in days of old.

14 Behold, I, the Lord, in the beginning blessed the waters; but in the last days, by the mouth of my servant John, I cursed the waters.

15 Wherefore, the days will come that no flesh shall be safe upon the waters.

16 And it shall be said in days to come that none is able to go up to the land of Zion upon the waters, but he that is upright in heart.

17 And, as I, the Lord, in the beginning cursed the land, even so in the last days have I blessed it, in its time, for the use of my saints, that they may partake the fatness thereof.

18 And now I give unto you a commandment that what I say unto one I say unto all, that you shall forewarn your brethren concerning these waters, that they come not in journeying upon them, lest their faith fail and they are caught in snares;

19 I, the Lord, have decreed, and the destroyer rideth upon the face thereof, and I revoke not the decree.

What waters is the Lord referring to?

Note that the Lord specifies these waters. Joseph Fielding Smith provides some additional clarification:

These brethren while encamped at McIlwaine's Bend on the Missouri, beheld the power of the destroyer as he rode upon the storm. One of that number saw him in all his fearful majesty, and the Lord revealed to the entire group something of the power of this evil personage. It may seem strange to us, but it is the fact that Satan exercises dominion and has some control over the elements . . . Paul speaks of Satan as the "prince of the power of the air. " (Eph.2:2) The Lord revealed to these brethren some of the power of the adversary of mankind and how he rides upon the storm, as a means of affording them protection. They were commanded to use judgment as they traveled upon these waters, and the saints coming to Zion were instructed to travel by land on their way up to Zion. Moreover, notwithstanding the great power of Satan upon the waters, the Lord still held command and he could protect his people whether on land or by water as they journeyed.[10]

B.H. Roberts indicates that this refers specifically to the waters of western Missouri:

After three days upon the river they reached McIlwaine's Bend where they camped for the night, and here an important revelation was given relative to their own movements and also in relation to the "destroyer" that should ride upon those western waters, and the danger thereafter of journeying upon them. Shortly after landing, and before night fell upon the scene, William W. Phelps beheld in open vision the "destroyer" in his most horrible power ride upon the face of the waters. "Others," continues the Prophet in his narrative, "heard the noise but saw not the vision." "Behold there are many dangers upon the waters," said the revelation, "and more especially hereafter; for I, the Lord, have declared in mine anger, many destructions upon the waters; yea, and especially upon these waters [i. e. of western Missouri]. * * * And now, behold, for your good, I give unto you a commandment concerning these things." Then follows instructions to the saints who shall hereafter journey to the land of Zion, not to go upon the river, but by land, "pitching their tents by the way."[11]


Question: Why is Joseph Smith's struggle with Satan not mentioned in the 1832 account of the First Vision?

Joseph Smith says in the official Church history account of the First Vision that directly before the theophany occurred he had a struggle with Satan, but this struggle is not mentioned in his 1832 recital of the experience

Is this evidence that this visionary tale evolved over time by becoming more dramatic and elaborate?

The 'struggle' motif is absent from the first known self-written account of the Prophet's visionary experience (1832) but it is also absent from his self-written Wentworth Letter account (1842). It is clear from the available documentary evidence that the Prophet did not feel constrained by the arbitrary rule of his modern critics that he must include every aspect of his First Vision story in every single retelling of it, and no reasonable person should be bothered that he doesn't.

The following timeline displays the 'struggle' material found in First Vision recitals that were produced during the Prophet's lifetime. The corresponding text from the 1832 document is also provided for purposes of comparison.

It is obvious that Joseph Smith did not mention the 'struggle' element of the First Vision story every time he rehearsed it

Several observations about the information presented below may prove useful.

  • It is obvious that Joseph Smith did not mention the 'struggle' element of the First Vision story every time he rehearsed it - even after the official Church history account was written down (1838) and published (1842). He opted not to speak about that aspect of the story in the Wentworth Letter (1842), in a speech given before the Saints at the Nauvoo Temple (1843), and also when he conducted an interview with a non-Mormon newspaper editor (1843). Yet, he did briefly refer to that part of the story in a subsequent private conversation with a convert (1844).
  • A careful comparison of texts indicates that the Prophet's Wentworth Letter was likely constructed by utilizing the content of Orson Pratt’s Interesting Account pamphlet.[12] But even though Elder Pratt’s account refers directly to the 'struggle' theme, Joseph Smith chose not to include it within the Wentworth Letter.
  • Even after Joseph Smith revealed details about his 'struggle' with the Adversary he did not include some of them in subsequent accounts. For instance, in 1835 he told of hearing somebody walking up behind him but this detail didn't ever appear again in the known recitals. Gathering darkness and the dread of sudden destruction are mentioned in the official 1838 rendering of events but then it disappears and is not seen in any later sources which were produced during the Prophet's lifetime.

September–November 1832

I cried unto the Lord for mercy. . . and while in the attitude of calling upon the Lord . . . a pillar of fire [or] light above the brightness of the sun at noonday came down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the Spirit of God.

9 November 1835

I called on the Lord for the first time in the place above stated, or in other words, I made a fruitless attempt to pray. My tongue seemed to be swollen in my mouth, so that I could not utter. I heard a noise behind me like some one walking towards me. I strove again to pray, but could not. The noise of walking seemed to draw nearer. I sprang upon my feet and looked round, but saw no person or thing that was calculated to produce the noise of walking. I kneeled again, my mouth was opened and my tongue loosed. I called on the Lord in mighty prayer. A pillar of fire appeared above my head, which presently rested down upon me and filled me with unspeakable joy.

2 May 1838

I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God, I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me and had such astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction. But exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction, not to an imaginary ruin but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world who had such a marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being, just at this moment of great alarm I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound.

September 1840

He therefore, retired to a secret place in a grove, but a short distance from his father's house, and knelt down, and began to call upon the Lord. At first, he was severely tempted by the powers of darkness, which endeavored to overcome him; but he continued to seek for deliverance, until darkness gave way from his mind, and he was enabled to pray in feverency of the spirit, and in faith. And while thus pouring out his soul, anxiously desiring an answer from God, he at length, saw a very bright and glorious light in the heavens above; which, at first, seemed to be a considerable distance. He continued praying, while the light appeared to be gradually descending towards him.

June 1841

He, therefore, retired to a secret place, in a grove, but a short distance from his father's house, and knelt down and began to call upon the Lord. At first, he was severely tempted by the powers of darkness, which endeavored to overcome him. The adversary benighted his mind with doubts, and brought to his soul all kinds of improper pictures and tried to hinder him in his efforts and the accomplishment of his goal. However, the overflowing mercy of God came to buoy him up, and gave new impulse and momentum to his dwindling strength. Soon the dark clouds disappeared, and light and peace filled his troubled heart. And again he called upon the Lord with renewed faith and spiritual strength. At this sacred moment his mind was caught away from the natural objects with which he was surrounded, and he was enwrapped in a heavenly vision.

1 March 1842

I retired to a secret place in a grove and began to call upon the Lord, while fervently engaged in supplication my mind was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded, and I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision.

11 June 1843

he went into the grove & enquired of the Lord which of all the sects were right.

29 August 1843

I kneeled down, and prayed, saying, O Lord, what Church shall I join? Directly I saw a light.

24 May 1844

Went into the Wood to pray, kneels himself down, his tongue was close[d,] cleave[t]h to his roof—could utter not a word, felt easier after awhile—saw a fire toward heaven came near and nearer. . . . the fire drew nigher, rested upon the tree, enveloped him[, and] comforted [him].

  1. James E. Faust, "The Great Imitator," Ensign (November 1987).
  2. 2.0 2.1 Lawrence R. Peterson, Jr., "Questions and Answers," Ensign (July 1984).
  3. ElRay L. Christiansen, "Q&A: Questions and Answers," New Era (July 1975).
  4. Joseph Fielding Smith, Melchizedek Priesthood Course of Study, 1972–73, 298.
  5. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of Joseph Smith, 2nd Edition, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1996), 65.
  6. Gene R. Cook, "Spiritual Guides for Teachers of Righteousness," Ensign (May 1982).
  7. Ian S. Ardern, "[https://www.lds.org/ensign/2014/02/shunning-temptation-a-key-to-receiving-revelation.p25 Shunning Temptation: A Key to Receiving Revelation," Ensign (February 2014).
  8. Richard G. Scott, "The Plan for Happiness and Exaltation," Ensign (November 1981).
  9. Richard G. Scott, "[https://www.lds.org/ensign/2014/02/living-a-life-of-peace-joy-and-purpose.p18 Living A Life of Peace, Joy, and Purpose," Ensign (February 2014).
  10. Joseph Fielding Smith, Church History and Modern Revelation (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Co., 1947), 1:207.
  11. Brigham H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1965), 1:262. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  12. Orson Pratt, An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions (Edinburgh, Scotland: Ballantyne and Hughes, 1840), 1–31. off-site off-site Full title GL direct link