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Mormon Scholars Testify: Ralph C. Hancock

TitleMormon Scholars Testify: Ralph C. Hancock
Publication TypeWeb Article
Year of Publication2010
AuthorsHancock, Ralph C.
Access Date28 March 2018
Last Update DateAugust 2010
PublisherMormon Scholars Testify
KeywordsBook of Mormon; Faith; Philosophy; Reason; Testimony; Truth

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Ralph C. Hancock

I hesitate to advance my testimony as a “scholar” as if it should have more authority than that of someone who wouldn’t claim to be a scholar—say, my sister or my neighbor, faithful and thoughtful people whose testimonies certainly weigh at least as much as mine. But I suppose that, just as soldiers or healthcare-givers or basketball players or any others who share some significant range of experience might benefit from communing on the relation of their work to their religious grounding, so there is no reason why “we scholars” (as Nietzsche refers to us) should not help each other get clearer on the relation of our profession to our confession.

I would not know how to divide my own pursuit of truth into two very distinct parts—say, “faith” and “reason.” Reason would have no purchase on reality if it were not grounded in, or did not arise from, insights or intuitions—including “revelations”—in no way reducible to mere logic or reproducible by some formal and universal method. To live purely by reason, if it means anything, can only mean to be masters and possessors of the meaning of our own existence, and clearly we are not such masters. To live by the light of “science” alone is a non-starter, too, since science, as we moderns understand it, refuses, almost by definition, the question of meaning and purpose. Modern science claims at once to be value-free and to be autonomous or self-governing, and (as Philippe Bénéton has pointed out in Equality by Default) it cannot have it both ways. So the purposes by which we live necessarily exceed our methodical grasp. Philosophy thus cannot dispense entirely with poetry, as Plato well knew, but as many of his successors have forgotten.

At the same time, a truth revealed by a higher power could not be truth for us if it did not address us as rational beings—by which I do not mean philosophers or scientists, but simply speaking beings who make our way in life only by understanding (more or less) the persons and things we deal with as part of some larger whole. Here I agree with Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, notably, as well as with Thomas Aquinas and his followers, that we cannot honor our God-given natures without seeking to know the Truth and to live by it. And to know it is not simply to “feel” it or to obey it (though obedience is essential, is primary), but to understand, to seek articulation, to serve God—how did Thomas More put it in the movie?—“in the tangle of our minds.” We are aware, as rational beings, of being parts of a larger whole that we know somehow to be meaningful but that is always escaping our grasp. The Spirit of Truth that is in us recognizes intimations of truth “out of the best books” as well as in those most weighty words revealed to prophets.

But how can we verify the authority of prophets? If such a problem could be solved by some impersonal formal method, then it would not depend upon the purification of the soul of the seeker. Augustine singled out the Socratic-Platonic school of philosophy for praise because it accepted the obligation implicit in the unity of moral and intellectual purification. The truths of Eternal Life are not such as can be received by any and all regardless of character or intention. The truth is gradually unveiled to us “according to the heed and diligence” that we give to what has already been imparted to us (Alma 12:9). Holy truths are not the kind of data that we can first receive and then afterwards decide whether we find it convenient to live by them. This is to say that, if we refuse to offer our own pride and our own projects as sacrifices on the altar of Truth and demand to receive “information” on our own terms, then we will not truly be able to receive such truths and they will only tend to our damnation.

I cannot neatly separate, in my own imperfect striving towards what is good and true, the confidence that I gain from rational evidence from the promptings of the Spirit. I suppose if I were asked to unpack and organize the foundations of my testimony (as this worthy web project seems to require of me), then I might lay them out as follows: 1- Atheistic materialism is shallow, self-contradictory and false. There is a meaning and order to the way things are that cannot be accounted for by the random action of matter in motion, or whatever is the latest scientific expression of meaningless materialistic necessity. And so we must seek some account of the meaning of things that connects the way things are with human purposes, with love and with agency; 2- Among all philosophies and religions, Christianity (a) is the most compelling account of such meaning (the surprising and yet rationally powerful notion of God who gives himself to save the world) and is (b) well-attested by reliable historical witnesses; 3- Latter-day Saint (a) teaching is the richest (notably in its seamless integration of Law and Grace and its response to universal longings for enduring bonds of kinship) and its (b) Church organization is the wisest and most effective among Christian bodies. Moreover, (c) its divine origins are supremely well-attested by (i) reliable historical witnesses and by (ii) the massive, insuperable fact of the existence of the Book of Mormon.

Each of these points would require explanation and would invite much argumentation, which I will not attempt to address here. Since this last point regarding the simple existence of that substantial text we call the Book of Mormon indicates what seems to me the most striking and accessible evidence available, allow me to quote from a letter I wrote, along with friends Daniel Peterson and Matthew Holland, to First Things magazine a couple of years ago:

The recent date of the appearance of this record [The Book of Mormon] seems to [some] to detract from its authority in comparison with “manuscripts containing one or more gospels that date to within just a few centuries” of Jesus’ time, and “some evidence … that goes back to within just a few decades … of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.” But . . . the Book of Mormon . . . is a substantial text (500+ pages) whose internal complexity and coherence are rarely appreciated, even by Latter-day Saints. It includes a dozen or so distinct prophetic voices, interweaves many diverse historical strands, richly depicts a foreign civilization (or two or three of them) including diverse cultural and other features (detailed geography, sophisticated warfare, a complex monetary system, etc.), contains a powerful and many-faceted Christian teaching that is consonant with but not simply identical to teachings of the Bible or of the Christian tradition, and often does so in surpassingly beautiful language—and all this in a volume of English prose of determinate content that no one doubts came into existence during a brief and definite period not quite 180 years ago. The book exists—a brute fact—and is easily available for anyone’s inspection. Mark Twain dismissed it as “chloroform in print,” but of course it was not written for Twain’s entertainment, and the fact that what he looked at in it bored him does little to account for its existence, even if we set aside the compelling quality of its teachings. Anyone with a stake in the veracity of Christ’s message and the reality of his mission might consider the significance of the sheer existence of this text: For if, by any chance, it is what it claims to be, then we are indeed in possession of “another witness of Christ” that truly assures us, independent of doubts arising out of the long, complex, and clouded history of the biblical manuscripts or from the distance of the events they narrate, of the reality of the living Christ.

[Some] pass over . . . the direct and well-attested statements [of 11 witnesses], never renounced even in the face of powerful incentives. . . . Would such testimony in favor of Luke’s gospel not be welcome, even if two thousand years old? [Would we] so easily dismiss the eleven faithful apostolic witnesses to the resurrection of Christ? But we refer readers again to the text itself. How is one to account for it? The more one knows about it, the harder it is to accept any of the alternative theories of its inauthentic production, if indeed there is even a serious contender left in this field. Anyone is free to read the book, to study it prayerfully, and perhaps to begin to appreciate the rich articulation of its parts within a consistent whole, and then, if so inclined, to propose some theory of its origins. Indeed, any reader who is at all open to the possibility of God’s intervention in human affairs in modern as well as ancient times is free to consider the possibility that we, today, have been given a powerful and beautiful new witness of Christ’s reality for all people of all climes and all epochs—that is, the possibility that he holds in his hands an ancient text translated by an unlearned young man by the gift and power of God.

But again, evidence of the kind represented by the brute fact of the existence of the Book of Mormon can only open the door to the kind of knowledge that can guide our lives and eventually exalt us. We have to walk through that door, and then through the next, and then all the others that God opens for us as we seek the kind of knowledge that cannot be separated from the keeping of sacred covenants.

My confidence in the Restored Gospel is thus rooted in an ongoing, unfolding experience that is both spiritual and intellectual: I find that my heart and my mind expand as I keep covenants and seek knowledge by inviting the Lord to strip me of vanity. “Here’s my heart, oh, take it, seal it!” While still a teenager I remember reading in section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants this testimony of Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon: “That he lives! For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father.” It occurred to me then that this was a true testimony and that this changed everything, that this was a truth that claimed my existence. This conviction has not impeded my wide-ranging reflections on the great questions of the Western philosophical tradition, but on the contrary has nourished them and, in ways I’m still learning to articulate, has been nourished by them. I have experienced what the prophet Alma promises as the fruit of faith in Jesus Christ: “. . . is not this real? I say unto you, Yea, because it is light, and whatsoever is light, is good because it is discernible . . . ” (Alma 32: 34; my emphasis).

How grateful I am for the real and discernible goods to which the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has opened my heart, mind, and soul! Though “my heart groaneth because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted . . . Oh Lord, I have trusted in thee and I will trust in thee forever. I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh; for I know that cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh” (2 Nephi 4: 19, 34).


Ralph C. Hancock earned his B.A. (summa cum laude) from Brigham Young University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University, all in political science. Prior to joining the faculty at Brigham Young University, where he is now a professor of political science, he taught at Hillsdale College in Michigan (1982-1986) and the University of Idaho (1986-1987). He has also been a visiting professor in the law faculty at the University of Rennes, in France (during the spring of 1991 and 1999), and a visiting scholar at Liberty Fund, Inc., in Indianapolis, Indiana (2001-2002).

Among Professor Hancock’s numerous publications are Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics (Cornell University Press, 1989); The Legacy of the French Revolution (Rowman & Littlefield, 1996; edited, with Gary Lambert); Just and Holy Principles (Simon & Schuster, 1998; edited); America, the West, and Liberal Education (Rowman & Littlefield, 1999; edited); Philippe Bénéton, Equality by Default: An Essay on Modernity as Confinement (ISI Books, 2004; translated); Alain Besançon, A Century of Horrors: On Communism, Nazism, and the Uniqueness of the Shoah (ISI Books, 2007; translated, with Nathanael Hancock); chapters in a number of books; and reviews, translations, and articles, in both English and French, in Perspectives on Political ScienceCity JournalPensée PolitiqueConfluencesPolitical Science ReviewerPolicy ReviewModern AgeReview of PoliticsFirst Things, and Claremont Review.

Dr. Hancock is the founder and director of the John Adams Center for the Study of Faith, Philosophy, and Public Affairs ( He is also a founder of the LDS Web journal SquareTwo ( and a member of its editorial board. His current focus is on meaning and the limits of philosophy in relation to politics, ethics, and religion, as well as on the thought of Alexis de Tocqueville, Martin Heidegger, Leo Strauss, and Emmanuel Levinas. His The Responsibility of Reason: Theory and Practice in a Liberal-Democratic Age, which examines the meaning and the limits of reason, will be published later this year by Rowman & Littlefield.

Posted August 2010