How an accidental historian won over critics and shed light on two of Mormonism’s darkest hours

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Richard Turley holds one of Joseph Smith's personal documents during a news conference to announce a release in the "Joseph Smith Papers" project in 2013. Turley recently retired.

It was 1986, a dark time for Mormon historians.

Just months earlier, infamous document collector Mark Hofmann had forged his way into the market for historical pieces relating to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — even fooling church President Spencer W. Kimball and future President Gordon B. Hinckley, with his supposedly fabulous finds — and then killing two innocent members to cover his double-dealing and deceit.

There was also serious mistrust of professional historians among top church leaders, some of whom saw even faithful scholars leaning toward naturalistic explanations of the sacred past.

That’s when a 29-year-old attorney in his first year out of law school, Richard E. Turley Jr., stepped into the role as managing director of the church’s History Department, overseeing its vast holdings.

During his nearly 35 years working for the Utah-based faith, Turley steered the day-to-day collecting, sorting, indexing and digitizing of millions of documents, while at the same time writing several books, including “Massacre at Mountain Meadows: An American Tragedy,” and “Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case.”

Most recently, he served as managing director of the faith’s Public Affairs Department.

He worked to open up the archives to members, scholars and observers, and restore a sense of transparency about the faith’s past, including helping to produce groundbreaking essays that dealt with some of the most controversial aspects of Mormon history — from Book of Mormon translation to polygamy to the former priesthood ban.

At the end of March, Turley retired and, despite the wishes of endless associates eager to celebrate his decades of work, his signing-off party had to be canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Still, Turley received a copy of a laudatory video that would have been shared at the retirement gala as well as scores of accolades from friends, colleagues and admirers.

“Rick’s prudent judgment, encyclopedic knowledge of church history, and good humor have given him a unique capacity to serve the church in many ways for over 30 years,” apostle Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the church’s governing First Presidency, tells The Salt Lake Tribune. “We were blessed to lure him away from his legal employment. It has been an absolute pleasure to have him as a colleague and a close friend.”

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In the retirement video, Marlin K. Jensen, an emeritus general authority who served as official church historian and recorder from 2005 to 2012, called Turley a “polymath,” who knew "a lot about a lot of things…[with] wide knowledge and learning. He never read anything he forgot and could discourse across any field.”

When the story of Latter-day Saint history is written, Jensen says, “the name of Richard E. Turley Jr. will be writ very large.”

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Richard Turley talks about a new exhibit at the Church History Library in 2014. Turley recently retired.

Steven E. Snow, the general authority who replaced Jensen, says in the video that his predecessor had simple advice for him.

“There are five words you have to remember,” Jensen told Snow. “Rick, what do you think?”

Snow, who retired himself in 2019, came to share Jensen’s view of Turley’s indispensability, he says. “Rick has such a calming presence … and his discipline and leadership helped frame” all the department’s work, especially the monumental "Joseph Smith Papers” project.

Nobody in the future “can write about our history,” Snow says, without referring to that project — dubbed the “lunar landing” of Mormon history on which so much else is built.

Longtime friend Curt Bench, owner of Benchmark Books in South Salt Lake, notes what he says is Turley’s “astounding volume of work.”

Bench, a fellow bibliophile, once asked the historian how he was able to research and write so much in addition to the many other duties he had.

Turley’s grin-enshrouded reply: “I don't sleep.”

A passion for history

Turley was drawn to Latter-day Saint history from his teens on, but “history did not seem like a viable way of making a living,” he says in a recent Tribune “Mormon Land” podcast.

After graduating from law school in 1985, he went to work in the Salt Lake City office of a Chicago-based law firm, so he could spend his lunch hours at the nearby church archives.

In late December that year, Turley got a call from Oaks, who invited him to lunch, the retiring historian recounts. The two dined at the Church Office Building’s cafeteria, where the apostle, who the year before had left as a Utah Supreme Court justice for the lifetime church appointment, grilled him about his education and interest in the church’s past, saying nothing about the opening in the History Department after the recent retirement of its managing director.

Days later, Oaks called again and asked Turley if he would speak to apostle Boyd K. Packer, who had strong opinions about history. At the end of that exchange, Packer quipped, “If you never hear from us again, don’t be surprised.”

Next came a call from general authority Dean Larsen, then the church’s official historian, who told the young lawyer of the opening and asked if he would be interested.

“I was floored,” recalls Turley, having no idea he had been interviewing for the job.

Twenty-four hours later, the accidental historian accepted the position — telling his wife that, by abandoning his legal career, they “would never be rich.”

After it was settled, Turley got a call from Hinckley, then the first counselor in the governing First Presidency and an avid history buff, who asked, “Why would a young man like you give up everything you are looking forward to to come work for the church?”

Easy, he told the future church president. It was his passion.

Not long after that, according to the retirement video, a group of professional historians came to the new director and “laid out a list of complaints about him.”

He listened to their litany and then replied, “You are absolutely right, I am not qualified, but they gave me the job, which means I am going to need your help in order for me to do it right and do it well.”

Those early critics eventually became among his closest allies and Turley their professional equal.

All the while, Turley transformed the department into one of the best private collections in the country — as well as opening members’ minds about the complexities of Mormon history.

“People had a sort of a perception of church history based on what they had learned in their seminary class or in their Sunday school class,” Turley says on the podcast. “And the realities of church history are more textured than that, more nuanced than that.”

And one of his first challenges was to tackle the Hofmann forgeries and how Latter-day Saint leaders had been so tricked.

Unlimited access and governing principles

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Historian Richard E. Turley Jr. examines a document from the "Joseph Smith Papers."

To fully explore the faith’s involvement with the murderer, Turley needed access to private journals — including Oaks’ and Hinckley’s — and all relevant church documents.

He also needed church leaders to sign off on his guiding principles: that he would go where the facts led him and have final editorial control.

Turley’s final product on the Hofmann bombings was not the full story — there were several other volumes that delved into various aspects and views of it — but it was an evenhanded account of how the church perceived the man and their dealings with him.

“I was one he interviewed for the book,” Bench recalls, “and I found him to be very professional, concerned, fair and accurate.”

Jan Shipps, a prominent non-Mormon historian and author of “Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition,” knew all about the Hofmann “finds” of rare and controversial documents but had never heard of Turley.

“As it turned out, his 1992 book ‘Victims’ was excellent,” she says. “It dealt with a major scandal in a straightforward way.”

For Sarah Barringer Gordon, professor of constitutional law and history at the University of Pennsylvania, “Victims” was her introduction to Turley.

“I have been impressed equally by his commitment to digitization of records in the Mountain Meadows work that he undertook,” Gordon says. “His respect for scholars and scholarship shows in all Rick does, and I found his energy and seriousness were matched by his good humor and patience on a bus tour to Mountain Meadows.”

That tour, she says, “set a standard for in-depth engagement” and on a wrenching, terrible topic.

‘The worst incident in church history’

(Beth Hall | AP file photo) Richard Turley, left, then the assistant church historian for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, answers a question as Marlin Jensen, center, historian for the church, and Patty Norris, president of the Mountain Meadows Massacre Descendants, listen during a 2008 news conference in Carrollton, Ark.

The heinous events of Sept. 11, 1857 — during which a group of Mormons slaughtered 120 Arkansas emigrants crossing through southern Utah, including men, women and children — have been the subject of multiple books and documentaries.

But until Turley and his co-authors, Glen Leonard and the late Ronald W. Walker, no book had been written with the church’s express approval and cooperation.

Turley wanted to tackle it because it was, he says in the podcast, “the worst incident in church history.” But he couldn’t — and wouldn’t — do it without total access to all church documents.

That resulted, he says, in a high-level, high-stakes meeting, led by Hinckley, by then the church’s president, in which he spelled out Turley’s requests for complete candor and access. Hinckley then went around the room and asked each man how he felt about it.

All eyes were on apostle David B Haight, who was the grandnephew of Isaac Haight, one of the principal participants in the massacre.

Haight said, Turley recalls, “When I was a child, my mother told me never to talk about that subject. But I think we ought to face our history.”

So he, like all the apostles, voted yes.

The historian then examined the details “in the full light of day and in every particular,” Turley says. “What I saw was terrible.”

But he insisted his account of it needed to be without fear or favor.

“Our feeling was we couldn't change the past,” he says, “but we were responsible with how we dealt with the past.”

With that book, says Richard Bushman, emeritus history professor at Columbia University, Turley “proved that the church is willing to face up to its own darkest hour — with an unflinching gaze.”

Beyond that volume, says Bushman, author of the acclaimed Joseph Smith biography “Rough Stone Rolling,” the recent effort to emphasize transparency in Mormon history “is in large part his doing.”

The scholar points to Turley’s efforts to launch a real and readable look at the faith’s history in the ambitious four-volume work “Saints” — the first two of which have been published.

“Rick had a vision of a history,” Bushman says, “that was rigorous, accurate and accessible to members of the church everywhere and at every level.”

From past to present

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) "Saints: The Standard of Truth" is the first of a planned four-volume history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

No one was more surprised than Turley when he was plucked in 2016 from the History Department to manage the church’s media efforts.

But Cathy Stokes, a former public health professional who joined the church in Chicago in 1979 and now lives in Utah, believes it was “a brilliant move.”

The historian brought his knowledge of the past, with its complexities and twists, into navigating the present.

“Rick has eased a lot of tensions for segments of the church who usually feel disenfranchised,” Stokes says. “It’s the best thing that has happened to church operations in a long time.”

In that regard, Turley says, one of the highlights of his time in public affairs was 2018’s “Be One” event, sponsored by the First Presidency in the Conference Center, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the 1978 end of the so-called priesthood ban for black members.

(Rachel Molenda | Tribune file photo) Gladys Knight directs the Be One Choir at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 1, 2018. The First Presidency sponsored "Be One," an event to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1978 change that allowed black men and boys to hold the priesthood and black women and girls to enter temples.

One assignment he really enjoyed, he says, “was traveling around the world, both with church leaders and on my own, visiting the various areas of the church.”

His department created a series of local record systems around the world to document what has been happening as the church builds up in various areas, he says, “and then, through the marvels of digital preservation, we've been able to take digital images and share those globally with other people.”

Bench, his book-loving buddy, says Turley has loved more than just collecting records.

“He has never met an exotic dish he wasn't willing to at least try, including alligator, snake and other unusual ‘delicacies’ of almost every animal part you can think of,” the bookseller says. “He told me he only got sick once.”

Now that Turley is retired, he is back to writing books.

And what’s on the menu? History, of course.