Skip to content

POST: Russell Hancock on Testimony and The Church

  • by

This is a transcript of unprepared remarks by Russell Hancock
1st Counselor, Menlo Park Stake Presidency

to the Valparaiso Ward Elders Quorum
6 May 2012

I’m grateful for the invitation to speak to your quorum.

My objective today is to tell you about my faith journey and offer up some conclusions and observations. I’m going to speak the only way I know how: honestly and with complete candor, nothing withheld. It means making myself vulnerable in front of group I don’t know well (yet), but we think you have a right to know your new stake presidency. If you sustain me as your leader then you need to know exactly what it is you are sustaining.

So here, for what it’s worth, is my story.

But first: it would appear that there are two types of Mormons, or at least two paths to conversion.

One set of members base their testimony on some sort of sensory encounter which they describe as a burning in the bosom, a witness of the spirit, or some sort of infallible encounter with the Holy Ghost. They might hear a voice, or have a tingling, or find themselves in tears, or some other such sensory experience. Many people that I trust and admire describe their witness in these terms, and I believe them. I absolutely believe them. If I’m being completely truthful I will also tell you there are others who speak of this, and I wonder if they are confusing the Holy Ghost with something else, something emotional or intentional or overwrought. But I have decided never to judge, to accept their claims at face value, and I do not doubt the possibility of such experiences.

The scriptures of course describe this. The most famous instance of it is the promise at the end of Moroni where we’re told to test the gospel and seek a manifestation of the spirit. We’re also taught that the manifestation of the spirit will be the Holy Ghost revealing truth to us.

So that’s one way of ascertaining truth.

Now here’s the true confession: I’ve never had it. This has never come to me. That’s not how I’ve obtained my truth.

Now, for most of my life, especially while praying, this is something that led to the sense that I was alone, and led me to feel like I was a second class Mormon–second rate because I couldn’t accomplish this sensory, infallible encounter with the Holy Ghost. I thought that there was something wrong with me.

It came to a head for me when I was in high school and began asking the big question that looms over the life of a young Mormon male: am I going to serve a mission? And by the way, I was born in the church, “born of goodly parents,” and raised to have faith. And I loved the church–loved everything about it. So as that crucial milestone came in my life where I had to decide whether to go on a mission, I wanted more than anything to serve! I wanted to do this, and yet when I was honest with myself I had to confess I didn’t actually know for myself that the Church was true. I was following my parents’ religion and way of life, and the testimony of family, friends, and ward members.

Here is the next confession that I need to make: I did something I’m not proud of. I began to speak more loudly and in a voice that was more shrill, and I would actually testify. I would stand up in church meetings and say things that I had no right to say, that I didn’t yet know for my own self. But I thought that in the act of saying them–and saying them more loudly–the testimony would come. So there’s another confession for you.

Well, my public speaking notwithstanding, I did what Moroni challenged me to do. I think I was very sincere. I worked very hard to pray and I approached my Heavenly Father in that prescribed way and I asked for a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. And brethren, it didn’t come, I knew that if I was being honest with myself I had to admit I wasn’t feeling any palpable sense of the Holy Spirit.

So what am I to do? Well brethren, here’s the next confession: I served a mission. You could say I caved. But I wanted to serve, and I think I had righteous reasons, but I should also tell you I felt like it was an important rite of passage. I felt all of the pressure that you feel to serve a mission, knew the opportunities I would be foreclosing if I didn’t, so I submitted my papers and received a call.

So I get into the mission field, where it started to trouble me that I was saying things to investigators I thought were true but didn’t know were true. That troubled me. So I thought it was crucial to continue this effort, to find out for myself if the church is in fact everything we’re taught. In fact, I would wait for my companion to fall asleep every night, and when I heard his heavy rhythmic breathing I would get up again and spend the night trying to induce this thing.

Well, it didn’t happen. That manifestation that was promised in Moroni eluded me. So this was a crisis point for me and I actually felt like if I was going to be true and have integrity then I should probably confess these things to my leadership, to my mission president, and also to my parents. So I actually wrote a letter home to my parents saying that I felt I was a fraud: I loved the church, but that I didn’t know it was true through this encounter with the Holy Ghost.

Instantly, back comes a letter from my mother. You have to know my mother to fully appreciate this. She doesn’t suffer fools. She can be very stern. So back comes her letter, and she says “Rusty, enough of this nonsense. This is pure foolishness. Stop this at once. Stop praying with your knees, start praying with your feet.” And that was a sweet relief for me. It was complete and total liberation. I took her advice and decided “I’m going to stop doing this thing. I’m going to stop holding a gun to the Lord’s head and insisting on a sign. I’m just going to live my life as if the gospel is true.”

So you must understand: what I did upon reading that letter, was that I made a wager. I decided to bet my entire life that the gospel was true. I decided I would wager my life that the church is everything it claims it is and live out my life accordingly. So that is what I’ve done and what I continue to do.

Now, there’s more I need to tell you on the subject because of course, the story doesn’t just end there. The kicker is that in the course of serving and fulfilling priesthood duty, knowledge does in fact come. But for me it has come in ways that were unbidden. Knowledge for me has not arrived because it was beckoned, or because I said ‘give me a revelation.’ For me it has come in ways I can barely describe, and never on command, and I’m not even sure that they’re sensory or palpable. But I can tell you brethren and sisters that I somehow crossed a threshold into an area that I think we can call something more approaching knowledge. When I speak with conviction about our church it’s not merely with hope and with faith but with something that is approaching knowledge. That I can tell you. But it’s never come on my terms and never come to me on my timetable.

Now here’s what’s striking. Every time I share these experiences I am assailed by people who tell me “that’s my feeling, that’s my experience too.” So I’m starting to draw conclusions that there really do seem to be two sets of Latter-day Saints. The two sets are people for whom these are experiences are forthcoming and those for whom they’re not. That’s a curious outcome, but there it is. I think we can observe it empirically throughout the church.

Now there is a section in the Doctrine and Covenants that speaks to this, and for some reason it doesn’t get the press it deserves, certainly not as much press as Moroni. It’s section 46, and it says:

13 To some it is given by the aHoly Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God… 14 To others it is given to abelieve on their words

That’s me, okay? That’s definitely me. And yet believing on the words of another is described as a spiritual gift–a legitimate spiritual gift. One that we might even seek, to believe on their words. This is me. And today I don’t think that makes me less of a Latter-day Saint, or less of a disciple. Actually I think I can stand before you and make the case that this makes me a gifted Latter-day Saint, and that gift I have is to believe on their words.

Furthermore, long years later, many years later, I encountered the writings and the talks given by a number of general authorities in the church, and if I could only have known this at the time of my mission and when I was very young, it would have saved me so much consternation, self-doubt, and recrimination.

I want to share with you the story of President David O. McKay, which I had never heard! But he stood up in the 1968 General Conference and told a story that turns out to be just like mine. I had never heard this from a church leader. Let me share it with you. This is President McKay:

I am going to tell you what happened to me as a boy upon the hillside near my home in Huntsville. I was yearning, just as you boys are yearning, to know that the vision given to the Prophet Joseph Smith was true, and that this Church was really founded by revelation, as he claimed. I thought that the only way a person could get to know the truth was by having a revelation or experiencing some miraculous event … So one day I was hunting cattle. While climbing a steep hill, I stopped to let my horse rest, and there, once again, an intense desire came over me to receive a manifestation of the truth of the restored gospel. I dismounted, threw my reins over my horse’s head, and there, under a bush, I prayed that God would declare to me the truth of his revelation to Joseph Smith. I am sure that I prayed fervently and sincerely and with as much faith as a young boy could muster.

At the conclusion of the prayer, I arose from my knees, threw the reins over my faithful pony’s head, and got into the saddle. As I started along the trail again, I remember saying to myself: “No spiritual manifestation has come to me. If I am true to myself, I must say I am just the same boy that I was before I prayed.” I prayed again when I crossed Spring Creek, near Huntsville, and again in the evening to milk our cows.

The Lord did not see fit to give me an answer on that occasion, it wasn’t until I had been appointed president of the Scottish Mission, that the spiritual manifestation for which I had prayed as a boy came. And it simply came as a natural sequence to the performance of duty.

So that is President McKay. That’s interesting! And I want to read to you this quote from Elder Oaks, which was interesting:

I have met persons who told me they have never had a witness from the Holy Ghost because they have never felt their bosom “burn within” them. What does a “burning in the bosom” mean? Does it need to be a feeling of caloric heat, like the burning produced by combustion? If that is the meaning, then I have never had a burning in the bosom.

That was Elder Oaks. Interesting, right? Now here’s Elder Packer:

Some have been misled by expecting revelations too frequently. I have learned that strong, impressive spiritual experiences do not come to us very frequently. Revelations from God—the teachings and directions of the Spirit—are not constant. We believe in continuing revelation, not continuous revelation. We are often left to work out problems without the dictation or specific direction of the Spirit. That is part of the experience we must have in mortality. The people I have found most confused in this Church are those who seek personal revelations on everything.

Let me read you another one, this from Elder McConkie:

Some people postpone acknowledging their testimony until they have experienced a miraculous event. They fail to realize that with most people—especially those raised in the Church—gaining a testimony is not an event but a process. Being born again is a gradual thing, except in a few isolated instances that are so miraculous that they get written up in the scriptures. As far as the generality of the members of the Church are concerned, conversion is a process; and it goes step by step, degree by degree, level by level, from a lower state to a higher, from grace to grace, until the time that the individual is wholly turned to the cause of righteousness.

Boy, that’s me! That describes my experience precisely. I wanted to share that for what it’s worth.

Now, I also want to point out that the Book of Mormon actually proposes actually two different models for obtaining faith and testimony. This is very important. The one model we’ve covered and everybody knows because it gets all the press, and that model is Moroni 10:4: Ask and have a witness be delivered unto you. That’s a legitimate model; it’s scriptural, I believe that it’s true and that it can take place exactly as described. And yet there’s another model laid out very clearly in the same book, which we must also take as scripture and therefore literal and therefore equally valid. It describes an entirely different path to faith and testimony and it is found in Alma 32, where the gospel is likened unto a seed. It uses an agricultural metaphor.. That one really resonates with me. It describes my own life experience. Here we’re not asked to have this dramatic confrontation with Deity, to seek out something bordering on mystical  and to have it delivered on the spot. Instead, we’re asked to do something altogether different, which is to cultivate a seed, to nurture it through our actions. It’s the horticultural approach, where a testimony is a thing to be carefully planted, cultivated, watered, tested. And what do you test? You test the fruits, right? To me the fruits of the gospel are delicious. They pass my taste test.

I find that a curiosity why missionaries don’t actually lead with that. I would lead with that if I had it to do over again. This is what I would be asking my investigators to do. I would say “just plant the seed, test it. Try it. You might have to try it over a lifetime, but take a look at this seed and then make your own decision on the merits, whether it is good or not. That’s been my experience. To me the fruits are so beautiful and so good that I’ve been willing to bet my entire life upon it.

So there’s my story, and we your stake presidency feel that you have a right to know us in this way. You have a right to understand our spiritual journeys, how we come by the things that we  say. And I will make you a promise right here, that you will never hear me say anything over the pulpit or in a church setting that is beyond my knowledge. If you listen carefully you will hear me choosing words like “believe” as in “I believe this is true” or “I trust this is true” or “I have accumulated enough evidence to persuade me this is the better path.” I’ll be using words very carefully.

Now having shared my story, I want to make five observations for all of us here in the Menlo Park Stake, each on our own faith journeys. Indulge me in five observations. Here they are;

First, and I want to say this very clearly: if you happen to be somebody who wonders; if you happen to be somebody who is experiencing doubt about the church or about the gospel or any of the great existential questions, if you happen to be a person who wonders I say: Marvelous! How marvelous that is! This is your home. You belong here with us, and you are badly wanted. I want to be very clear about this, the Stake Presidency wants to have a community of saints who are probing, who are discovering, who are testing, who are faith testing, and who are making serious, critical investigation. We’re not trying to cultivate a stake of passive believers, mouthing platitudes. We are trying to cultivate active seekers. This is the kind of stake that we seek to lead. So that’s the first thing I want to make clear,  that if you are finding doubts or asking questions, this is a safe and appropriate place to do that. And I can say that because my own Hosanna have passed through the crucible of doubt.

The scriptures make it perfectly clear that there is a place for doubt and for skepticism and that this is part of the journey. Remember in the book of Mark when the man seizes upon the Savior and says “Lord I believe, help thou mine unbelief,” and how the Savior looked especially kindly upon him. Count me as one of those.

Observation number two is to issue a challenge to those who are feeling comfortable, or those who are feeling complacent in the faith. We want to root out complacency. We don’t think there’s a place for that in the church. Forgive me, but I think there are a few too many Mormons who have decided that because the church is true, we therefore have all the answers to all of the questions, all of the theological questions that have plagued scholars and theologians for centuries. Disciples have been breaking their heads open over these questions for centuries, but because we have the gospel, we know every answer and there’s nothing left for us to do but to be perfunctory Mormons. We don’t think this stake should be a place where people can be smug. Nobody is excused from this lifelong journey of probing and questioning. An unexamined faith is not worth having.

Not only that, there is yet so much truth that need to be revealed, that needs to be discovered. Remember we believe in continuing revelation. So there is a great deal more for us to do. I fear that many of us confuse faith with depth, and this we must never do. So the second observation I wanted to make is that all of us have a duty to examine our faith, and to be breaking open our heads all over the great questions that our theology poses. It’s breathtaking if you allow yourself to participate in that kind of an exercise.

Here’s the third observation that I would like to make. The church is a dynamic organization. By dynamic I mean it changes. The gospel is timeless but the Church is not. I have lived long enough to witness the Church make many great and significant changes in my lifetime. Significant things, things like doctrines, teachings, or practices about women, about priesthood, about the garments we wear, among others. So this is significant. We should all understand that the church is a dynamic thing, and one that will grow and change and mature, and we will witness it in our lifetimes.

Here’s my fourth observation. I want to suggest that we have a role to play in that evolution. We should be agents in helping discover truth, agents in helping the church grow and increase and improve as an institution. Now we make distinctions of course between the gospel and the church right? There was a great talk in this past conference about that, the difference between the church and the gospel. Read that and apply it to our stake as well. Over the 9 years of our stake presidency I’m sure you’ll see many things come and go, changes made. We want you to be enlisted in the change. We want you to feel like you are agents in this. We want you to be innovative with us, and entrepreneurial and creative. We want you to bring your best thinking and we want you to help us.

Here’s the last observation I’d like to make. It’s an invitation to the members of our stake. We hope that you’ll pray with your knees and also pray with your feet. We want you to pray on your knees, we rejoice in those prayers. We seek those prayers, but we also want the stake full of people who are caught up in the work. It’s a work of compassion. It’s a work of saving, one person at a time. It’s a work of sweat and equity in this place where we’re trying to build a portion of the kingdom. And it’s our experience (it’s certainly my experience) that in the act of service, in the act of fulfilling our duty, this is where the greater knowledge comes, the greater light and knowledge. So we want encourage that among all of us.

Well, we’re living in an exciting time, when the church (I think) is asking more and more, asking more of us, asking us to be more like Ammon who served the king, who was willing to serve all his days. The church is asking us to be more like Ammon. The church is asking us to be less like Samuel the Lamanite: declarative, standing on the wall, shouting the truth. There’s a place and time for that, of course, and in stake conference I’m going to speak on this subject. But the church here locally is trying to be a bit more like Ammon, praying with our feet, ministering to the people around us. It’s really exciting, to be a part of this. Our mission, for example, has stopped all tracting, on a pilot basis. Right now we’re not tracting! We’re working with members, and seeking out service opportunities for our missionaries. We’re going to take that very seriously, and it’s a way that we’ll be doing that praying with our feet. So that’s the invitation that we want to make to all of our members.

Thanks again for inviting me. I would love to answer questions and make this a dialogue now, instead of a monologue.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *