From the end of 1985, Richard E. Turley Jr. led the Church History Department, early on as managing director and ultimately as assistant Church historian and recorder, until being appointed last September as managing director of the Church Public Affairs Department. Now, he has been honored by the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation with its Junius F. Wells Award.
Brother Turley, known to friends as Rick, received the award Thursday, March 2, at a dinner in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City, attended by five members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, other General Authorities and a host of Brother Turley’s friends, co-workers and family.
The award recognizes individuals who have given extraordinary service in the preservation of Mormon history. Past recipients include President Gordon B. Hinckley, Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Elder Marlin K. Jensen, emeritus General Authority Seventy.
A video tribute created by documentary filmmakers Glenn Rawson and Dennis Lyman for presentation at the awards dinner traced Brother Turley’s life and career, including graduation from law school in 1985.
A brief stint with a law firm, during which he would spend his lunch hours reading materials at the Church archives, was interrupted when he was tapped by Church leadership for what was then called the Church Historical Department.
Among those featured on the video was Elder Steven E. Snow, General Authority Seventy. He said when he was first called as Church historian and recorder, he arranged to meet with Elder Marlin K. Jensen, General Authority Seventy and his immediate predecessor, who said, “Steve, there are only five words you have to remember in this calling.” The five words are “Rick, what do you think?”
“He had so much background, so many years with the department, and there weren’t many things that hadn’t occurred already on his watch, so he was a very, very calming influence as I came into that responsibility.”
On the video, Elder Jensen, now an emeritus General Authority, said that though Brother Turley did not have an academic background in history, he had qualified himself for the position through a lifetime of study and foundational knowledge in Church history.
At age 29, Brother Turley was appointed to the Church History Department in late 1985, just three months after the bombings that culminated the notorious deeds of Mark Hofmann who forged numerous fake documents pertaining to Church history.
“When Rick came aboard, he enhanced what had been done before and helped make certain that we had procedures so that things that were indeed confidential or sacred or private for legal terms or for temple terms, would not be available inappropriately,” said Church history scholar Ronald K. Esplin on the video. “But everything that was possible to be made available would be made available to scholars.”
He said that under Brother Turley’s management, the Church has chosen to make archival materials as broadly accessible as possible “to anybody who comes in the door with the idea of doing good scholarship.”
Elder Snow said on the video, “We talk about collecting and preserving Church history, but we also talk about the importance of sharing it, and I’m not sure that in the past, our history has always been shared enough. Today, we’re really making an effort to try to share it more so it can build the faith of the rising generation.”
Brother Esplin said Brother Turley’s vision was that the Church could do what other entities could not do in fostering the best scholarship while having it vetted by the Church historian. “We could publish it from Salt Lake City under the Church historian in the way that the Latter-day Saints could have confidence that it was good history the Church could stand behind.”
Elder Snow said Brother Turley’s discipline and leadership, along with the talents of many others, have brought about the Joseph Smith Papers project with its rigorous scholarship. As a result, no scholar henceforth can competently speak or write about the Prophet Joseph Smith without referring to the papers, he said.
Brother Esplin remarked that along with Elders Boyd K. Packer, Neal A. Maxwell and Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, he sees Brother Turley “as one of the founding fathers of the Joseph Smith Papers project because he helped create the resources in Salt Lake City and a home for the project to come back to where the doctrines were.”
Elder Jensen said that, while working long hours as an administrator, “he distinguished himself as one of the best historians in Mormonism.”
Brother Turley wrote a “very good book on the Mark Hofmann episode, he co-authored a groundbreaking book on Mountain Meadows and he has published numerous articles and helped produce and compile numerous other books and at the same time has been a mentor because he’s just a fount of knowledge about Mormon history,” Elder Jensen said.
He characterized Brother Turley as a “polymath,” one who has wide knowledge about diverse subjects.
Elder Snow described Brother Turley as “a loyal solider” who “always wants to do what’s best for the Brethren and what’s best for the Church.”
In presenting the award, Kim R. Wilson of the foundation said it recognizes Brother Turley’s “vision and leadership for a quarter-century in the preservation and telling of Church history throughout the world.”
In response, Brother Turley expressed surprise and gratitude for the award. “My coming to Church employment was also a surprise,” he said, describing his astonishment as a young lawyer at receiving a call from Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1985.
“I, of course, knew who he was, but I had no idea he knew I existed. So we got together, and the result was my coming to the Church Historical Department a little over 31 years ago. So I’m eternally grateful to Elder Oaks for making that phone call and inviting me to be here, because my feeling is this award is not for me, this award is for the team.”
The award’s namesake, Junius F. Wells, is known as a father of Church historic site preservation. Among other accomplishments, he purchased under the direction of President Joseph F. Smith 283 acres in Sharon, Vermont, including the Solomon Mack farm where the Prophet Joseph Smith was born. On that site in 1905, Brother Wells oversaw construction of the Joseph Smith Birthplace Memorial.
The Mormon Historic Sites Foundation began in 1992 with an initiative to preserve and beautify Ensign Peak, from where Brigham Young and other Church leaders surveyed the Salt Lake Valley soon after their arrival in 1847. Since then, the foundation has developed many other sites and performed many projects pertaining to Church history.