Tim Ballard appears to believe in psychics and reincarnation. Here’s what the LDS Church teaches.

The anti-trafficking activist broke with Latter-day Saint leaders on psychics and possibly reincarnation. He’s hardly alone.

(Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons) Tim Ballard speaking with attendees at the 2023 Turning Point Action Conference at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Fla., in July. Allegations in a recent lawsuit indicate Ballard's beliefs and practices went outside the bounds of Latter-day Saint teachings.

Psychic visions and stories of past lives are just some of the unconventional tactics Operation Underground Railroad founder Tim Ballard employed as part of his undercover missions aimed at rescuing trafficked minors, according to a new lawsuit accusing the activist of sexual assault. They are also evidence of just how far outside of current, official Latter-day Saint teachings Ballard and his inner circle fell.

Indeed, many of Ballard’s Latter-day Saint beliefs and practices appear plucked from the world of Chad and Lori Daybell. This subculture, while very much alive within the ranks of U.S-based members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to experts, remains in the minority within the broader church and strongly discouraged by faith leaders.

Latter-day Saint beliefs regarding psychics

The new lawsuit and reporting by The Salt Lake Tribune indicate that Ballard relied on a woman named Janet Russon and her supposed psychic powers to look for a missing child in Haiti. According to two individuals who participated in an OUR expedition, the psychic would put herself in a trance and begin scribbling lines back and forth and then identify geographic features where operators needed to go to find the child, who remains missing to this day.

Russon did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But in her now-archived business site, she calls herself a “Mormon Medium” and lists her abilities as “clairaudience (hearing), clairvoyance (seeing), clairsentience (feeling), telepathy, precognition and dreams.” For $300, Russon would provide individual readings, recorded and transcribed, with loved ones who had passed on.

By adopting these terms and charging for money, the professional psychic situated herself outside the mainstream of her faith, said anthropologist David Knowlton. This is despite the fact that Russon described her abilities on the site using language many church members would be familiar with, including the term “veil” to refer to the dividing line between the living and the dead.

The church teaches that every individual is able to access direction from God regarding one’s life through prayer. In Sunday school and other worship services, believers will often share stories of a thought suddenly entering one’s mind to call a friend in need, or a time when a verse of scripture suddenly seems to jump out of the page in answer to a prayer.

In times of need, the faithful may also ask for a “blessing,” in which a male member who has been formally authorized to use the priesthood, or God’s power and authority, places his hands on the recipient’s head and dictates a message from God. Male priesthood holders can also administer healing blessings to those who are sick or otherwise in need of physical comfort.

These examples of seemingly supernatural experience all fit within orthodox ideas of Mormonism and are broadly accepted.

In contrast, the church officially discourages any tampering with what it calls in its General Handbook, given to bishops and other lay faith leaders, as “the occult.”

Included under this term are any “mystical activities that are not in harmony with the gospel of Jesus Christ,” such as “fortune-telling, curses, and healing practices that are imitations of the priesthood power of God.”

Such guidance isn’t new. As far back as 1921, apostle Orson Whitney cautioned fellow Latter-day Saints against consulting a “‘medium’” and other “spiritualist” practices, warning that those who do make themselves vulnerable to “designing spirits, who thus gain an ascendancy over their victims, leading them into mazes of delusion, and often into depths of despair.”

Latter-day Saint beliefs in past lives

Ballard has spoken publicly about his practice of the “couples ruse” he would engage in with female volunteers on undercover missions, asserting it is necessary to catch sex traffickers in his snare. But, according to five women suing Ballard, these engagements amounted to sexual assault, which he would justify by telling the women that they had been married in a past life.

If Ballard did make this argument, he is again coloring outside the lines of current official Latter-day Saint teachings.

Quotes attributed to Joseph Smith cite the faith’s founder as describing belief in reincarnation as “of the devil” and “hellish.” More recently, the 1992 Encyclopedia of Mormonism, edited by Brigham Young University professors and published with the faith’s approval, puts it even more simply: “This theory [of reincarnation] is rejected by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

Instead, the faith teaches that all individuals lived with God before they were born in a “pre-earth life” as spirits.

“Throughout our premortal life, we developed our identity and increased our spiritual capabilities,” the church’s website states. “Blessed with the gift of agency, we made important decisions, such as the decision to follow Heavenly Father’s plan.”

‘Going outside the bounds’

Just because today’s church leaders don’t teach reincarnation or discourage the use of psychics doesn’t mean everyday members aren’t invested in these and other culturally related beliefs.

“It’s on the ‘woo’ edge of Mormonism, but it’s there,” Knowlton said. “I’ve talked to quite a number of Mormons who participate in these New Age practices.”

Cristina Rosetti, an assistant humanities professor at Utah Tech University who has written about the history of Mormon fundamentalism, agreed.

“While the official church and LDS leadership don’t support these practices,” Rosetti said, “there’s a long history of regular members going outside the bounds. This is no different.”

Through her research, she has seen “many people, mostly women,” within the Latter-day Saint faith who seek out or are themselves psychics. Importantly, however, “most do not use this language,” she explained, “but frame their ‘gifts’ in LDS language.’”

As for past lives, Rosetti said the idea of “multiple mortal probations” refers to the belief that people are reborn but, unlike reincarnation, always return as a human and as the same sex.

“MMP,” as it is known among those who believe in it, “remains commonly discussed in Mormon fundamentalism,” Rosetti explained, “and has gained increased attention in LDS circles.”

Finding the fringe

Journalist Leah Sottile said she wasn’t surprised when she learned that Ballard, according to the new lawsuit, allegedly told the women he’s accused of assaulting that he had been married to them in a past life. The author of “When the Moon Turns to Blood” about Lori Vallow and Chad Daybell said Daybell used the same line when justifying his extramarital affair with Vallow.

Ballard, she said, appears to have found his way into the same Latter-day Saint communities that allowed Daybell and Vallow to meet.

In particular, she pointed to conferences targeting conservative Latter-day Saints held in places like St. George and the Wasatch Front featuring speakers on topics ranging from astrology to preparing for the end times.

“It’s a blend of constitutionalists,” she said, “psychics and people who believe in the Heartland theory of the Book of Mormon.”

In 2023, Ballard not only attended one such event, hosted by the FIRM Foundation, but also was a featured speaker alongside presenters on energy healing and the coming of the Antichrist.

In the past when Sottile has attended some of these events, she said she would talk to attendees about what had drawn them there in the first place.

“They would all talk about this desire to level up their faith,” she said, “and hear about taboo topics that LDS Church leadership doesn’t talk about but that they’re really curious about.”

Correction • Thursday, 8:30 a.m., Oct. 12, 2023: This story has been updated to correct a reference to Chad and Lori Daybell.

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