Home / Testimonies / Stephen D. Ricks

I am a child of Mormon pioneer stock, but I still I had to receive a personal witness of the truth of the gospel by myself. My father (who will be celebrating his hundredth birthday this September) was born in Rexburg, but moved to California by way of Salt Lake City at age of twelve. He met my mother (who was herself from Salt Lake City and who died a few years ago) when he was studying at the University of California at Davis and married her shortly thereafter. After completing a Ph.D. and an M.D. and serving in the military, he set up a medical practice in Berkeley, California. I was born in the middle of the “baby boomer” generation. I attended church with my parents and other members of my family from the time that I was a small child. I had always had a testimony of the gospel, but began to experience a developing sense of commitment to the church as a young man.

I first became acquainted with Hugh Nibley’s writings when I was thirteen. At that time I read Nibley’s The World and the Prophets, which relates in simple, straightforward, yet eloquent language the effects of the loss of authority in the early Christian church. As clearly as anything, Nibley makes the case for the triumph of the philosophers and the loss of apostolic authority. The ideas in The World and the Prophets set my mind on fire. Nibley became my academic idol and has remained so to this day. Nibley’s example of serious scholarship in the service of the kingdom made me want to become an academic as well. Though the academic path I have followed has been somewhat different—I began as a classics student, then completed my doctorate in ancient Near Eastern Languages and Religions—he blazed the trail for me.

Before entering Brigham Young University as a freshman, I decided to read the Book of Mormon again. While reading 1 Nephi chapter 17, where Nephi, building a ship to transport Lehi’s family to the land of promise, relates the account of the faith of the Israelites to his brothers, I felt an overwhelming personal witness about the truth of the Book of Mormon. It was a feeling that lasted not just a few hours, or a day, but days. I have studied the historical, cultural, and linguistic background of the Book of Mormon; I am currently working with a group that is studying proper names in the Book of Mormon, all of which have powerfully enhanced for me my sense of the probability of the Book of Mormon’s historical authenticity, but it has been cast in the shade by the witness that I had received of the Book of Mormon as a young man.

When I came to Brigham Young University as an undergraduate student I felt as though I were coming home. As a young man I loved studying there; now I love teaching and researching there. I have been to countless other university campuses across the country and around the world. In none do I feel so comfortable and at home as I do at BYU. I hope, in my own way, to be able to do my part to enhance the quality of the university and to help it to achieve its destiny.

While a proselyting missionary in German-speaking Switzerland, I enjoyed a measure of success there. More than anything, though, I came to appreciate the vital importance of missionary work to realizing the destiny of the church. In his now-famous letter to newspaper editor John Wentworth, Joseph Smith wrote about the church’s duty and destiny in preaching the gospel, something that for many missionaries is material that deserves memorizing: “The Standard of Truth has been erected; no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done” (HC 4:540).

I have felt the hand of the Lord in my life and I have experienced His love. I have also felt God’s power to influence the direction and shape the destiny of His church. Joseph Smith spoke about the magnificent destiny of the church in 1834, when he called a priesthood meeting in Kirtland, Ohio, in a fourteen-by-fourteen-foot log schoolhouse for those men who had gathered as volunteers for “Zion’s Camp” to assist the beleaguered Saints in Misssouri. “When we got together,” Wilford Woodruff wrote of the meeting, “the Prophet called upon the elders of Israel with him to bear testimony of this work. . . . When they got through the Prophet said, ‘Brethren, I have been very much edified and instructed in your testimonies here tonight, but I want to say to you before the Lord, that you know no more concerning the destinies of this Church and kingdom than a babe upon its mother’s lap. You don’t comprehend it.’ . . . [Joseph said], ‘It is only a little handful of priesthood you see here tonight, but this Church will fill North and South America—it will fill the world.’” The late President Hunter said that the day will come when there will be a hundred million members of the church. I hope for a day when the membership of the church will be substantially greater than that, when it will be a force for good to be seriously reckoned with.

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Stephen D. Ricks was born in Berkeley, California, “when it was a peaceful university community.” He completed his B.A. in Ancient Greek and M.A. in the Classics at Brigham Young University, then received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union. While completing his doctoral work he spent two years studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is now professor of Hebrew and Cognate Learning at Brigham Young University where he has been a member of the faculty for nearly thirty years.

His academic work includes research and publication on the Book of Mormon, the Old Testament, Hebrew, and the temple, including studies on the ritual use of creation texts in the ancient world, temple-building motifs, enthronement ceremonies in history, and the garment of Adam in the ancient world. Professor Ricks has also done research on Isra’iliyyat, Arabic literature dealing with biblical figures.

He is the author or editor of twenty books, including A Lexicon of Inscriptional Qatabanian (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1989); (with William M. Brinner) Studies in Islamic and Judaic Traditions II (Decatur, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1989); Western Language Literature on Pre-Islamic Central Arabia (Denver: American Institute for Islamic Studies, 1991); (with Donald W. Parry and John W. Welch) A Bibliography on Temples of the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean World (Lewiston ME: Edwin Mellen Press, 1991); and Developments on the Dead Sea Scrolls: Conference on the texts from the Judean Desert, Jerusalem, 30 April, 1995 (New York: Brill, 1996). He is also the author of more than eighty articles on the temple, the Old Testament, the ancient Near East, and the Book of Mormon. Among these are “The Prophetic Literality of Tribal Reconstruction,” in A. Gileadi, ed., Israel’s Apostasy and Restoration: Essays in Honor of Roland K. Harrison (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988); the entries on “Abortion in Antiquity,” “Queen of Sheba,” and “Sheba” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1992); “Kinship Bars to Marriage in Islamic Law,” Proceedings of the XXXII International Congress for Asian and North African Studies, Hamburg 25th-30th August 1986 (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1992); “Magic in the Old and New Testaments: The Tradition of the Outsider,” in Marvin Meyer and Paul Mirecki, eds., Ritual Power and Magic in the Ancient World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995); and “The Garment of Adam in Jewish, Muslim, and Christian Tradition” in Benamin H. Hary, John L. Hayes and Fred Astern, eds., Judaism and Islam, Communication and Interaction: Essays in Honor of William M. Brinner (Leiden: Brill, 2000).

From 1988 to 1991, he was the president of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS, now the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship). From 1991 to 1997, he served as the chairman of FARMS board of directors. He was the founding editor of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, serving as editor from 1992 to 1997. From 1992 to 1996, he also served as the associate dean of general education and honors at BYU.

Professor Ricks has used his reading knowledge of more than twenty languages in his research, and is an expert in Biblical Hebrew. For many years he has worked toward promoting positive relations between the LDS Church and Jewish groups. He and his wife Shirley are the parents of six children and the grandparents of eight.

See, additionally, Professor Ricks’ chapter in Expressions of Faith: Testimonies of Latter-day Saint Scholars.

Posted February 2010