J. Reuben Clark Law Society

Richard Turley - An Unconventional Career: Lawyer and Historian

Doug Bush and Richard Turley at Mid-Atlantic Chapter luncheon.
Richard Turley, the assistant LDS Church Historian, recently spoke at a luncheon for the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the J. Reuben Clark Law Society. This article reports on his presentation and story of starting his career as an attorney and ending up at the Church History Department. As a church historian, Brother Turley travels much because of Section 69 of the Doctrine & Covenants. When he joined the Church History Department, he was studying the scriptures and found some instruction on his responsibilities. He mentioned Section 69 of the Doctrine of Covenants to the brethren and asked whether he should follow the guidance. Verses 7 and 8 provided instructions to John Whitmer, the Church Historian and Recorder in 1831:  

7.  Nevertheless, let my servant John Whitmer travel many times from place to place, and from church to church, that he may the more easily obtain knowledge—
8. Preaching and expounding, writing, copying, selecting, and obtaining all things which shall be for the good of the church, and for the rising generations that shall grow up on the land of Zion, to possess it from generation to generation, forever and ever. Amen.

The response to the question from the brethren was to keep the commandment. Thus, he travels and teaches as part of this job.

Brother Turley told a number of stories to the Mid-Atlantic chapter about how he found his way into law school. Some people go because they think the law is a great cause. Some think it is lucrative. New college students often believe that their plans and classes are focused on pre-law or pre-medical school. Then that changes once they get into the curriculum. Brother Turley came from a family of 7. His father had a PhD in Engineering and was a professor at the University of Utah.  His mother loved to read. 

He once had breakfast alone with his father. His father asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up.  He said, I don’t know. His father said he frequently advised the people at the state capitol a lot, many of whom were lawyers. Because of that experience, Brother Turley’s father counseled him, if you don’t know what you want to do—go to law school! So Brother Turley decided to go because it gave him many options. Brother Turley also desired to teach seminary. 

Brother Turley has always been a man of many interests. As part of the awards ceremony at law school, he got the award for the greatest depth and breadth of interests. He took a graduate seminar on Greek texts and audited other classes while in law school. 

Following graduation he worked at a Chicago firm but kept looking for opportunities that brought him into proximity to the church archives. He ended up as a transactional attorney at a Salt Lake firm in the old Key Bank Tower right next to the temple in downtown Salt Lake City. (He used to be able to see through the assembly room of the temple from his office window.) He was just where he wanted to be-close to the church archives and museum. 

One day, he was at the office of a client for a closing of a transaction when someone said to him that Elder Oaks had called. While he had met Elder Oaks once before, he did not think that Elder Oaks remembered him or knew him. When they finally connected, Elder Oaks said, “Brother Turley, Yes, Dallin Oaks calling, how’s your family? Fine … What are you doing for lunch today? Nothing. Let’s have lunch and I’ll buy you a bowl of soup.

Elder Oaks asked Brother Turley many questions over their bowls of soup. Brother Turley did not know why he was asking these questions. He thought the interview could have been leading to a call to be a mission president. They visited for 45 minutes and then at the office for half an hour. After all that, Elder Oaks said “thanks”!

The phone rang again 5 days later. Elder Oaks opened with, “I enjoyed our lunch, can you come over and talk with Elder Packer.” They went through the same questions for 45 minutes. When he left Elder Packer’s office, Elder Packer said, “If you never hear from us again don’t worry about it.” (Elder Packer certainly had a sense of humor.) Brother Turley felt it was simply an honor to meet with two members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He did not know at this point the reason for the meetings, so he went to his office.

The next call came from Elder Dean L. Larsen, member of presidency of the Quorum of the Seventy. Elder Larsen said, “I understand you are going around talking to people. Can you talk to me?”  Brother Turley went over to his office. Elder Larsen looks off into the corner and said, “You Know, Earl Olsen [then Assistant Church Historian and Recorder] is retiring. We were wondering: would you like to take his place?”

That was the first sense that Brother Turley had even been involved in a job interview, although he had the idea that at some point he would change careers. Brother Turley responded to Elder Larsen that he would be interested. Elder Larsen said, “Go talk to your wife, and get back with us next week.” Brother Turley talked with his wife about this new opportunity. He wanted to make the change and she supported him. 

His responsibility became the east wing of the church office building. He was also responsible for the church history museum. He arrived in the office right after the Mark Hoffman bombings and basically started working in a crime scene watching all the investigations happen. When he saw that the full details of the story were not being told, he wrote a book about it called The LDS Church and the Mark Hoffman Case. His book tells a story relevant to both U.S. history as well as Mormon history because of list of forged names—including George and Martha Washington, Betsy Ross, and others—found by authorities in Hoffman’s mattress. 

Brother Turley continued by recalling some of the overall evolution of the Church History Department. George A. Smith was one of the first church historians. He built a home on South Temple facing north. The Church attached an office to his home that became the first church history department. In 1894, Franklin Richards organized a new group called the Genealogical Society of Utah, with church history staff as it principles. 

When Brother Turley began his responsibilities in the Church History Department, he soon also got an appointment over the Family History Department. He managed both departments for 4 years and in the process became a family historian. 

Brother Turley also has participated in numerous public affairs events where he has presented church history or family history principles. For example, in March 1999, he went on the Today Show when they wanted him to do a segment on genealogy. Another Today Show event related to the rollout of familysearch.com. The Church had a problem with temple work in that for some deceased people, the ordinance work was done over and over. Getting the database of temple ordinances online was critical so that everyone was working on the same records.  Familysearch.com was launched so that such duplication would be drastically reduced. When the website was rolled it out in Washington, D.C., the Today Show wanted him to come at the last minute to participate in a segment in New York. He went from D.C. to New York that night and found himself in Studio A1 talking about the launch of the new website with Katie Couric. Because in part on that Today Show segment, the website experienced 100,000,000 hits on that first day of launch, turning into the largest crowdsourcing project in the world. 

One of Brother Turley’s experiences involved a shooting at the Family History Library. On April 15, 1999, a man with mental health issues came to the library and started shooting people. It was a horrible day. The gunman killed a patron from California and a security guard. An 80 year old sister missionary at the front door was shot in the face. Other people were injured. The one bright side from the event is that the 80 year old woman survived. The doctors told her granddaughters that she would never be the same, yet this woman was treated and went back to her post at the Family History Library. This woman is in Brother Turley’s ward. She is now 96 and doing great. She wants to be the first 100 year old serving missionary. 

Another of Brother Turley’s experiences relates to the tornado that came through Salt Lake City on August 11, 1999. He was at his aunt’s home in City Creek. He walked out on the balcony and found himself in the middle of the tornado. He saw the tornado tear off the roof of building below him. After it passed by him he went over the church office building and up the elevator.  He literally felt a breeze when he got off the elevator. When he went into to a nearby office he saw a large piece of concrete that had smashed through the window. 

One of his other media events was being on The View on July 31, 2001. The Family History department prepared Barbara Walters’ genealogy. He was scheduled to be last on the program and the earlier segments were all on pop culture and were irreverent. He doesn’t know about pop culture and he was very worried about the tone and the atmosphere for his segment on Family History. But, as his segment began, Barbara Walters, calmed everyone down. The segment was very positive and she said some very good things. After the show, she stopped by and said thank you to Brother Turley for the family history and his participation on the show. 

As part of his work, he decided to tackle the worst event in church history and write about the Mountain Meadows massacre. He worked for 7 years on a first book focusing on the crime portion of the event.  Following good reviews, Brother Turley is currently preparing another book on the punishment portion of the massacre story, which will include many legal matters. 

Brother Turley is a “self-conscious generalist.” His father said about education, “We learn more and more about less and less until we know everything about nothing.” He did not want to be isolated down to knowing a great deal about something insignificant. He is the generalist in the Church History Department and loves his work. 

By Tom Isaacson, Media Committee Chair

Posted: August 28, 2015