On Willard Richards

I’ve written previously about the reality that many of the counselors in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have a huge impact on the Church, but they may not always be remembered by the general membership after a generation or two. I made that remark specifically with George Q. Cannon in mind, but Willard Richards is another example that was recently explored in an interview with Alex Smith at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview.

To start off, Alex Smith explained who Willard Richards was:

Willard Richards was an apostle and member of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A convert from Massachusetts, Richards was sent on a mission to England not long after he joined the church, where he served in the presidency of the British mission for several years.

After moving back to the United States and arriving in Nauvoo, Illinois, Richards quickly became a close friend and confidante of Joseph Smith. He served Joseph from the end of 1841 until the prophet’s death in June 1844 in various offices as scribe, clerk, and historian.

In 1847 he was appointed second counselor to Brigham Young in the church’s First Presidency and was among the first Saints to arrive in the Salt Lake Valley.

He died at his home in Salt Lake City on March 1854 at the age of 49, having been employed in religious and civic service the majority of his adult life.

His conversion story was one that focused on the Book of Mormon:

In 1836, Willard obtained a copy of the Book of Mormon, and later declared that before reading half a page he was convinced that it was either of God or the devil—that it could not be the work of man.

He read the book twice in about ten days and immediately resolved to journey to Kirtland, Ohio, the current gathering place of church members. He arrived in October and “gave the work an unceasing and untiring investigation until the day of his baptism” by his cousin, Brigham Young, on 31 December 1836.

That story might ring a bell for some readers, since Tad Callister referenced it in his 2011 general conference address, “The Book of Mormon—a Book from God” as a story about his great-great-grandfather.

The area where President Richards had the most influence on the Church was in recording and editing the history of Joseph Smith:

Much of what we know about the final years of Joseph Smith’s personal life, about the history of the early church in Great Britain, and about the first half of the 1840s in Hancock County, Illinois comes from Willard Richards. …

Willard Richards stands at the forefront of many men and women who left a wealth of writings about their lived experience during the church’s founding era. In the bulk of the Joseph Smith Papers Journals, Documents, and Administrative volumes that consider the Illinois years of the church, Richards’s personal influence is ubiquitous. …

Willard Richards enjoys some prominence and is (fairly) valued among scholars of Mormon history.

Those early Saints who left correspondence and diaries and minutes of organizations and reminiscences inevitably shape our understanding of history.

Outside of a very limited few historical actors who accomplished great public acts or held the leadership positions that so much of our history has previously focused on, it is people like Willard Richards, Eliza R. Snow, William Clayton, and Lucy Mack Smith that we come to know the most intimately because of the texts they created for us.

He recorded Joseph Smith’s official journal as one of his clerks during the 1840s and was present at the Martyrdom. As a result, “Much of what we know about the events in the Carthage jail in Hancock County, Illinois on 27 June 1844 comes directly from Willard Richards.” He was a Church historian and served as the chief editor of what is known today as the Documentary History of the Church 1841 until 1854, shaping much of how we view Joseph Smith and his teachings through that effort.

One great insight that Alex Smith mentioned is how Richards liked to capture Joseph Smith’s wit and humor in his records:

Our portrait of Joseph Smith during his last years, for example, is filtered by Richards who kept Smith’s journal, but with only infrequent direction or review by the Prophet. So Richards’s content selection—such as frequent humorous anecdotes about Smith—often tells us more about Richards than about his subject.

A few fun examples of this relate to Joseph Smith’s service as judge of the Nauvoo mayor’s court and chief justice of the city’s municipal court.

Richards inscribed in Joseph’s journal entry of 20 February 1843 an event where fighting was heard in the street outside the room where Joseph was presiding over a court case. He described Joseph running outside and interrupting the fight, pulling the boys who had been fighting apart and then chastising the onlookers for not intervening sooner. “No body is allowed to fight in this city but me, said the mayor,” Richards recorded.

In an entry the following month Richards told that after answering correspondence and other business Joseph

laid down on the writing table back of the head on law books, saying write & tell the world I acknowledge myself a very great lawyer. I am going to study the law & this is the way I study. And fell asleep & went to snoring.

Joseph Smith, Journal, 18 Mar. 1843; spelling and punctuation standardized.

It’s an aspect of Joseph Smith that I appreciate and enjoy, so I am grateful Richards recorded that.

For more on Willard Richards, head on over to the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk to read the full interview with Alex Smith.

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