Richard Turley: The Cautionary Tales of Church History and the Role Models Worth Emulating
Richard Turley has spent his career facing history head-on because he believes the more we know, the better we can answer questions. When it comes to Church history, there are an abundance of examples worth emulating, but there are also cautionary tales we can learn from. On this week’s episode, Turley looks back on his takeaways from writing books about two dark moments in Church history: the Mark Hofmann trial and the Mountain Meadows Massacre. He then contrasts that to the uplifting lessons he learned from writing a biography about the exemplary life of President Dallin H. Oaks.
We tend to ignore the lessons we can learn from the past and we don’t look very far into the future.
See President Oaks Biography that Brother Turley wrote.
An excerpt from President Oaks biography: "Matchmaking by a fellow Apostle, an unexpected job resignation, and a baseball cap: The story behind President and Sister Oaks's first date"
The trailer for the Mark Hofmann Documentary that interviewed Brother Turley: Murder Among the Mormons | Official Trailer | Netflix
Deseret News articles about Mark Hofmann: "Who is Mark Hofmann and what did he do?" "Looking back at the Mark Hofmann bombings and his life of deceit"
Q&A with 'Murder Among the Mormons' documentary co-director, Jared Hess: "Jared Hess explains his turn to true crime for Netflix series 'Murder Among the Mormons'"
Brother Turley's book about the Mark Hofmann case: Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case
The book Brother Turley co-authored about the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
Saints volume that addresses the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
6:46- Mark Hofmann
13:46- Lingering Misperceptions and What We Should Know
16:30- Mountain Meadows Massacre
21:27- Distinguish Between the Mental and the Spiritual
23:11- Cautionary Tales and Transparency Through the Big Picture
27:18- This Moment in Church History
29:19- A Full Circle Moment
30:45- 'In the Hands of the Lord’
33:34- Documenting Someone Else’s Life
34:44- President Oaks—'A Very Balanced Human Being’
38:48- Work, a Sense of Humor, and Letter Writing
43:08- What Does It Mean To Be All In the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
Morgan Jones 0:00
In his latest book, a biography of President Dallin H. Oaks, Richard Turley writes that President Oak's Secretary, Margie McKnight, pointed out that removing the "D" from "Dallin" spells "all in." She said she didn't know anyone who was more all in than President Oaks. Today we talk with Brother Turley about what he learned from President Oaks about being all in. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we also talk with Brother Turley about two cautionary tales from Church history that he has studied at length, the Mark Hofmann trial and the Mountain Meadows massacre.
Richard Turley has served as the Church's historian and recorder as well as the managing director of Church Public Affairs. He has written multiple books, including his latest, In the Hands of the Lord, the biography of President Dallin H. Oaks.
This is All In, an LDS Living podcast where we ask the question, what does it really mean to be all in the Gospel of Jesus Christ? I'm Morgan Jones, and I am so honored to have Richard Turley on the line with me today, Brother Turley, welcome.
Richard Turley 1:11
Thank you very much, Morgan.
Morgan Jones 1:13
Well, it is a treat for me to have the chance to talk with you. I listened to a bunch of podcasts that you've done–you've done a bunch of them–I listened to a bunch in preparation for this interview. And I want to kind of go through some of the different experiences that you have had leading up to this biography that you've just finished about President Oaks, and so we'll kind of work our way from the past to present but first of all, you became the Assistant Managing Director of the historical department of the Church in a pretty wild way. Can you tell us–I understand you basically were cold called, so can you tell us a little bit about that and how that came to be?
Richard Turley 1:59
Sure. I loved Church history as an avocation, as a hobby, it's something that I picked up when I was 15 years old. Our stake where I was living in Washington had a New Era bowl, and one of the New Era magazines that year had to do with Joseph Smith and so I just devoured it. And I thought, well, this is pretty interesting stuff. And so I began to study Church history far deeper than most teenagers had. And I continued that interest well into my college years.
I did a BYU Honors Program thesis–if you want to call it that–a senior project on a Church history subject. But in those days, I didn't see a lot of people getting jobs with history, particularly Church history. And so I decided to go on to law school and just make Church history my avocation, my hobby, if you will. So I graduated from BYU law school in April of 1985, and in December of that year, I had been at a closing with a client, I came back to my office, I was walking down the hall towards my office, and there were three women in conversation and one of them was my secretary. And as I walked past her, she leaned over and said, “Dallin Oaks called.” Now, Elder Oaks was a new Apostle at that time, having been called to the Quorum of the Twelve in 1984. And I, of course, knew who he was, because I had been a student under him at BYU in the 1970's.
Because he was a lawyer who went on to do other things and was a faithful Latter-day Saint, I took him as my role model. I had met him once briefly of shaking his hand at a reception when I was a freshman at BYU, but other than that, I had never met him, never really expected to meet him. I knew who he was, but I didn't think he knew who I was. So to have my secretary tell me that he had phoned me just stunned me.
So I went back to my office, I picked up the phone, dialed his office, he wasn't available, he called me a little bit later, and the conversation went something like this. "Brother Turley?" "Yes." "Dallin Oaks calling. How are you?" "Fine." "How's your family?" "Fine." "Say, what are you doing for lunch today?" "Nothing." "Would you like to go to lunch?" "Sure!" "Why don't you come over to the Church office building cafeteria, and I'll buy you a bowl of soup." So I went over to the regular Church office building cafeteria, we walked through the line, each got a bowl of split pea soup, sat down at a table, he pulled out a yellow legal pad and a yellow pencil, which I later learned was sort of his most popular writing utensil. And we sat down across from each other and he started asking me questions.
He asked about my background, he asked about my interest in Church history, he asked me what things I had read to keep myself up to speed on the subject. After 45 minutes, we went up to his office, spent another half hour there, and all he would tell me about the purpose of the interview was that he was looking for people who had a passion for Church history.
So after an hour and 15 minutes, I returned to my law office thinking that was a very unusual interview. New Year's came in the middle of the week. I came back on Friday, the first Friday in January 1986. The phone rang again. "Brother Turley?" "Yes." "Dallin Oaks calling. How are you?" "Fine." "How's your family? Say, I really enjoyed our lunch the other day. In fact, I enjoyed it so much. I was talking to Elder Packer. Can you come and talk with Elder Packer?" So I walked over to the Church administration building and spent 45 minutes with Elder Packer in the same kind of interview, in which he asked me a lot of questions, but didn't tell me much about the purpose of the interview.
Finally, as I stood up to leave, not knowing his subtle deadpan sense of humor, he said to me, "If you never hear from us again, don't worry about it." And I took him seriously. I assumed that I would never hear from them again. Walked back to my law office, I thought, what a privilege for a young man in his late 20's, to meet with two apostles, but I'll never know why it happened. So I walked back to my office, the next thing I knew I had another phone call. And this time it was Elder Dean L. Larsen, who was the senior president of the Seventy and the Church historian and recorder. And he invited me to his office where I went in the afternoon, and long story short, he surprised me by asking if I would direct the Church history department.
In those days, the director of the Church history departments called the assistant managing director, they later dropped the "assistant" term and just called them "managing director." So at age 29, I was offered the keys and combinations and told I would be in charge. You can imagine for someone who is interested in Church history, that was a remarkable offer.
Morgan Jones 6:25
Absolutely. Well, that is, it's such a such a neat story and I think it's inspiring because it seems like you had that interest from when you were a teenager, and that it was able to come to fruition and that the Lord was able to use you in that way I think is super cool.
Brother Turley, you came into the department, when the Church was already heavily involved in the investigation of Mark Hofmann. And I read that your legal training helped the department through that period of the Church's history, and ultimately, you ended up writing a book about the Mark Hofmann case. I hear that the Mark Hofmann case is going to be the subject of a Netflix documentary, and I think it will come out around the same time that this episode comes out. And so I feel like I would be remiss if I didn't ask you, considering the fact that you worked for the Church at the time and wrote the book on the case about this.
When–I feel like listeners may be caught off guard when they hear about Mark Hofmann, if they're not familiar with that story and that period of Church history, and that there may be some misperceptions surrounding that. And so first of all, can you provide just a little background, a little synopsis for listeners that may not be familiar with what happened with that? And then maybe we can talk a little bit about misperceptions surrounding the Mark Hofmann case.
Richard Turley 8:01
Sure. Because the events of the Mark Hofmann case, the major events, occurred between roughly 35 and 40 years ago, those who are under the age of 35 to 40, may not have heard of them. But essentially the high points are this–or the low points. There was a returned missionary named Mark Hofmann, who had lost his faith, and he decided that he wanted to create forgeries, and sell them.
He had three reasons for creating these forgeries. One, he wanted to change the history of the Church by forging documents that would create a different history from the one that we typically learn. Number two, throughout his life, he had learned to hate authority of any kind. And so, because he looked at the Church as an authority, he wanted to tweak the Church by coming up with things that would make Church leaders unhappy. And then finally, three, he had been planning on a medical career, but he figured that if he came up with the right forgeries he could sell them for enough money that he could support himself.
So with those three motives, he began by creating first of all, a document called "The Anthon transcript." We know that Martin Harris took some characters from the Book of Mormon to a well-known scholar named Charles Anthon, and we have a description from Anthon of what those characters look like. Well, Hofmann basically created a document that matched the description from Charles Anthon. And unbeknownst to people around him, this young man had done a lot of studying of forging, and so he knew how to create a forgery that could essentially be undetected or not detected easily.
So he, he pretended to discover that document in an old Bible that he had purchased that supposedly came from a Joseph Smith relative, Joseph's sister, Katharine, and he opened that in front of his wife and then it was stuck between the pages and he took it to an archivist at Utah State University where he was going to school, the archivist helped him open it. And when the archivist saw it, he immediately identified it as this document that is described in the history of the Church. And so it became a very prominent and an important document.
Eventually, the Church acquired it from him, paid him for it, and so that began his career in forging documents. Now, the first documents that he created went through substantial due diligence. People ran tests, they did things to try to make certain that these were authentic documents, and they passed. And they passed because Hofmann had done such homework on trying to figure out how documents would be tested that he figured out ways around them.
Long story short, from 1980, when he created that first document, and he actually had a history of forgery before then, but that was the first one that really came to public attention. From 1980 to 1985, he made a living forging documents and he created documents that became increasingly uncomfortable for Church members who had studied, you know, Church history in the usual course.
And finally, he got himself into some trouble. He began to overspend. So he would–before he would even create a forgery, he'd spend money and then he figured he could create a forgery that would cover his debt. And his overspending eventually got him to the point where he was getting pressured from debtors and others. And so to buy himself more time, he set two pipe bombs–so these were his worst crimes–he set a pipe bomb that killed Steven Christensen who was a salt lake city businessman in his office, and then he set another pipe bomb in a Salt Lake City neighborhood that killed the wife of Steve Christensen's business associate, Kathy Sheets.
And so those two murders immediately got the attention of the public, not only across the United States, but in other parts of the world as well. Bombs going off in Salt Lake City. A short time later, a third bomb went off, and this one injured Hofmann himself. So initially, people thought he was a third victim. As it turned out, he was a forger, and he was the bomber. The third bomb apparently went off accidentally while he was trying to kill someone else to whom he owed money.
So this investigation of the bombings and forgeries went on for some time. And ultimately, Mark Hoffman was put into prison for five years to life with a recommendation that he never be paroled and that's where he is today in prison. It's a fascinating story. It's a story of great evil. And some Utah filmmakers decided to create a three part miniseries that will appear on Netflix on March the third. I was interviewed by these people for the miniseries. These appear to be very serious filmmakers to me, and artistic filmmakers. So I'm looking forward to the program. And hopefully it will be as good as I think it's going to be.
Morgan Jones 12:50
Well, I hope so too. This story is so fascinating to me. And I think, you know, what you said about . . . that unbeknownst to those around him, he had done all of this research on forgery, so even his wife had no idea that he had this background?
Richard Turley 13:10
That's correct. He had a room in his basement that was off limits to his wife, and he did his forging down there. And over time, he kept studying more and more about forgery. But of course, this is a–forging is–like many, many crimes, you create a mousetrap to catch a forger, and then the mouse creates a bigger thing that a mousetrap won't catch, and then somebody else develops a bigger mousetrap. And over time, after the bombs went off, and his documents began to be investigated, some forensic document analysts found the weaknesses in his method and were able to detect his forgeries.
Morgan Jones 13:44
Hmm, so interesting. So when you decided to–obviously, I feel like Brother Turley if you decide to put the time and effort that writing a book takes, into something, it must be something that you feel passionately about. And so for you, why did you decide to dig into the Mark Hofmann case? And I heard, or read, that one of the reasons was, you felt like there were some lingering misperceptions surrounding this. Can you talk to me a little bit about that?
Richard Turley 14:18
Sure. So I never met Mark Hofmann. I never had any association with him, but the bombs went off in October of 1985. I received a phone call from President Oaks, the first one in December of 1985, and I began working for the Church in January of 1986. So suddenly, I had a front row seat for the investigation. The Church historical department at that time was essentially a crime scene. We had everything but the yellow tape, you know, marking it off. We had investigators there looking at documents asking people questions, and I was able to observe that like a fly on the wall, and as I observed this investigation going on and saw what was unrolling and talked to people, I realized that I had a story to tell that no one else had told before.
Morgan Jones 14:57
Yeah. So when it comes to the way that the Church has approached Church history since Mark Hofmann, how would you say that that the Mark Hofmann case changed that approach?
Richard Turley 15:11
I think it created in Church history people a healthy sense of skepticism, particularly for new and remarkable finds. When something comes out that appears to be extraordinarily remarkable, I think that's the time when you may resist temptation to either accept or reject something, and instead, look carefully at it to answer first the question–is it authentic?
Morgan Jones 15:34
I imagine, Brother Turley, that a lot of people will watch the documentary that's going to be on Netflix, and not just members of the Church, people that are not members of our faith will watch it and then they likely will ask questions of their Latter-day Saint friends and neighbors. What would you say to Church members going into this documentary? And maybe what should we be aware of in terms of–I know that you haven't seen the documentary–but what would you say in terms of how we can best respond to questions from friends or neighbors?
Richard Turley 16:05
My answer would be the same as with any aspect of Church history, the more you know about it, the better you can answer the questions. So I would recommend–I wrote a book, I don't want to recommend this book because I want you to go out and buy it, rather go to the library, check it out and read Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case, it'll tell you all about the inside story from the perspective of the Church employees and Church leaders who were involved.
Morgan Jones 16:28
Perfect. Thank you. Another tough topic in Church history that you have taken on and written about is the Mountain Meadows Massacre. And I think that one thing Brother Turley as I prepared for this interview and researched the things that you've worked on, I really admire your willingness to kind of confront these tough things and dark moments from Church history head on. And so when you decided to write about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, why was that something that was important to you to do?
Richard Turley 17:04
I became deeply interested in Church history in my mid-teens. And by the time I had graduated from high school, I knew far more about Church history than most members of the Church know today. I continued that study through my college days and learned a lot more. And the more I learned about Church history, the more textured it became to me. You know, often we learn about a subject–any subject–physics, literature, anything. And at first, we might get a sort of even tone to what we're reading, and the more we study it, the more detail we see, the more texture it has, the more interest there is in it in many ways, and so I saw Church history as more and more interesting, but I also saw people who, rather than to step back and look at the totality of the picture, like a giant tapestry on the wall, or a giant jigsaw puzzle, they would focus on a single piece.
So imagine having a million piece jigsaw puzzle that you're putting up on the wall one piece at a time, and as you get the various pieces, you can step back and look at the whole picture and see this wonderful tapestry that has some interesting texture to it as well, including some areas that are not as beautiful as others. And then imagine that some people grab one piece of the puzzle and they put it up so close to their eyes that that's all they can see. And before long, everything looks like that one little puzzle piece, and they get a distorted view of reality.
So I wanted to take on the Mountain Meadows Massacre, because to me, it was the most difficult part of Church history. The worst part of Church history. A group of active Latter-day Saints engaged in murder. And you ask yourself, why would they do this? And this book explores that topic. Massacre at Mountain Meadows that I wrote with two co-authors, Ronald W. Walker and Glenn M. Leonard. And then I've gone from there and then done some other books on Mountain Meadows. A documents book with Ron Walker, and then a couple of legal documents, books and then Massacre at Mountain Meadows in the preface said that it was a two part work and there would be a sequel coming out, that sequel should be finished this year, and then it'll come out as well. But the Mountain Meadows Massacre is a terrible event, it's one that people should understand. Gratefully, the Saints volumes deal with the Mountain Meadows Massacre and provide a clearer picture for Church members than they've had in the past with many of the items that they've studied.
Morgan Jones 19:20
Yeah. For those that may not be familiar with the Mountain Meadows Massacre, can you give us a quick synopsis of what happened with that terrible event?
Richard Turley 19:32
In 1857 and 1858, there was in North America a tension called the Utah war. This was a tension between Utah Territory and the federal government. Federal government sent U.S. troops to Utah, and Utah decided to resist those troops with its territorial militia or what today would be called the National Guard. And so this tension occurred and gratefully the tension was resolved before there was all out war. But that doesn't mean it was bloodless. In fact, what happened is during this tension, there were some extra-legal events that occurred–vigilante events, if you want to call it that–in which people were hurt. And the worst of those was the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
A group of California bound pioneers from the lower–what we call the lower Midwest of the United States today–were going through southern Utah, and for reasons that we discuss in the book, they were attacked by southern Utah Church members, and killed. 120 people killed. Men, women and children, mostly women and children. But you hear that on its face, and it just, it's, it's horrible. And the more you study about it the worse you feel about it, because it's a horrific event, it should never have happened.
The reasons for carrying out the event, even in retrospect, if you take them all as true–and they're not true, but if you took them all is true–there's not enough justification there to kill a single person, let alone an entire company. So it's the worst event in the Church's history. But rather than hide such events, I think we need to face them, as people should in all of history, American history, World History, your family history, whatever it happens to be. And as I said, when you look at things as they are, and take them in all their truth, and then put them against this background of the totality and see the entire history, then you get a better view than if you myopically just look at one piece of it.
Morgan Jones 21:27
Yeah. I think, Brother Turley, one thing that strikes me as I listen to you talk about these things is that, you know, with Mark Hofmann, there were people that said, how would Church leaders not know that these were forgeries? And in this case, you have people that are like, why would active Church members do something so terrible? And I think that there are important lessons for us to learn from these things. For you, how do you research and get so deep into these topics and maintain faith and testimony? And how do you suggest that other people do that as well?
Richard Turley 22:10
I think two answers to that question. One is, I try to maintain an eternal perspective. As I said, I don't get caught up in the, in this intense myopic focus. Instead, I sit back and see things in their totality against the larger background. Number two, I distinguish between what I do academically or mentally and what I do spiritually. I think it's possible to treat those as related, but different areas. So I spend my time seeking to build a relationship with our Father in heaven, and to live the gospel of Jesus Christ as I have learned it over time. And to me, that's not affected by what I study on my academic side, looking at history. Rather, both areas, the academic side and the spiritual side progress for me. I learned more and more mentally about things that happened in the past, and I learn more and more spiritually as I proceed.
Morgan Jones 23:09
That's amazing. I love that. Another thing that has struck me as I've read and listened to things in preparation for this is that I think that as we look at these parts of Church history, we see that there are lessons that we personally can learn. And they say, "If you don't learn from history, then you're doomed to repeat it." And you talked about with the Mountain Meadows Massacre that these Church members were otherwise good people, but that they went down a very slippery slope that ultimately led to this heinous act. How would you say that that happens, and what kind of cautionary tale does that provide for us as Church members and disciples of Jesus Christ today?
Richard Turley 23:55
If we study the scriptures, we see a number of principles that were violated in the process of coming to what was ultimately a heinous, awful, atrocity at Mountain Meadows. One of those things was that some people, Church members did some things that were wrong. And then they tried to cover up what they had done wrong. And when Joseph Smith was in Liberty jail, he wrote a letter that was excerpted to become three sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, and in one of those he cautions against covering our sins, are vain ambition. And down in southern Utah in 1857 some of the people down there trying to cover sins, things that they have done wrong, and all that they did was they created worst sins to cover their earlier sins until they did the unthinkable. And that should be a lesson to all of us.
We should acknowledge our sins and our weaknesses and seek to correct them and seek to make amends for them, not try to cover them when they become worse and worse. The second lesson that we can learn is the importance of councils. We're taught that there is safety in councils, and in fact, when councils got together and made good council decisions in general, the decisions were right. When individuals in those councils later privately tried to go around the decision of the councils, the decisions that they came to were wrong. So the Mountain Meadows Massacre ought to be a lesson to us to listen to collective wisdom and not just our own.
Morgan Jones 25:23
Absolutely. One thing that I know the Church has made very conscious efforts to do in recent years is to be very transparent about our Church's history. And so whether it be the gospel topics essays, or the Joseph Smith Papers and other efforts that have been made, the Church has tried to, kind of, make being more guarded about that past a thing of the past and to be more transparent. I know that that has been an effort on your part and on your department's part, and so why would you say that that is so important for the Church to do moving forward?
Richard Turley 26:09
We're told in the 93rd section of the Doctrine and Covenants, that truth is the knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come. As human beings, we tend to get caught in things as they are. So we tend to make our personal life decisions depending upon what's trendy or popular at the time. And we tend to ignore the lessons that we can gain from the past, and we don't look very far into the future.
I think that studying the history of the Church in its totality, focusing on the good and the bad, and it's largely good. I think, studying the past, thinking about the present. And being able to project into the future helps us really understand the truth. Focusing just on the present, or whatever is trendy at the time is likely to get us in trouble. And studying the past, you come to learn that. When people give in to the pressures of the moment, to the pressures of the time, to whatever is trendy at the time, then they're likely to make bad mistakes. If they look at the past, they look at the present, and they look at the future, they're bound to make better much better decisions.
Morgan Jones 27:18
Brother Turley–speaking of the things in the present–what do you hope that Church members understand about this moment that we're in in Church history?
Richard Turley 27:28
Well, we're in a very interesting moment, in many ways . For one we are becoming a truly global Church over time. When I was born, the Church was largely a United States organization and largely centered along the Wasatch Front, and mostly in Utah. Now the Church is becoming truly global, we have Church members and leaders from around the world. And that, I think, is a good reason why all of us should try to look outside of our own cultures, our own circumstances, our own situations, to see things the way that God sees them, you know.
He doesn't see them from just within a single culture, a single geographical culture. He sees the entire world and He sees how people function. My wife and I lived in Japan, where I had also spent a couple of years as a missionary. And we learned that there were some things that the Japanese did that were better than the way we did them as Americans. And you know, if you're ethnocentric, if you're basically focused on your own culture, then you think that you're superior to everybody else. I think there's a great deal of humility that comes when we begin to think globally. There's also a great deal in terms of gospel growth that we can have if we think globally. If we think globally, we stop thinking about other people as the "other" and begin to think of us all collectively as human beings, and to exercise charity, instead of jumping to quick conclusions based on our prejudices of the moment.
Morgan Jones 28:59
For sure, I think that that is something that's a lesson that all of us are continually striving to learn, and it definitely helps as we broaden our perspective. I want to now talk about your newest project, which is this biography of President Oaks. And I, I want to start, I guess, because you've already told us a little bit about your background with President Oaks, this is kind of a full circle moment for you. So how did you end up taking on this project to do President Oaks biography?
Richard Turley 29:36
So I first met President Oaks, seriously, as I mentioned, I'd shaken hands with him briefly earlier, but I first met him seriously in that interview I mentioned earlier in this podcast, and I came to work with him. It turned out that he was one of two Quorum of the Twelve advisors to the Church history department. So when I accepted this new role, I accepted also the opportunity to work closely with him. And I've worked with him now for nearly three and a half decades. And as I say in the preface to the book, the biography is as much a product of my observation as it is a product of my research, which was intensive.
So I came to know President Oaks firsthand as a work associate, as a friend and as a Church leader, and I've written a biography that reflects how I see him. How did I actually come to write it? Well, a little over four years ago, he invited me up to his office and said that he was considering having a biography written and he wanted me to think about whether I might not want to write it. He didn't want to pressure me into it, and he wanted me to be able to say no, if I wanted to say no, but I didn't want to say no. I looked at this as a wonderful opportunity, and I jumped at it.
Morgan Jones 30:46
I love the title of the book In the Hands of the Lord, how did you choose that title?
Richard Turley 30:53
To me, it was a wonderful phrase that came out of his answer to the call of President Gordon B. Hinckley, to become a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. It was an interesting set of circumstances. It was general conference time, but President Oaks had other responsibilities that took him somewhere else–took him to Arizona, and he was at a . . . he was serving as a moot court judge, and after the competition, he was at a Mexican restaurant. And it was quite noisy. There was a mariachi band playing in the background, and he got called to a telephone near the cash register. And the person on the end of the line was president Gordon B. Hinckley.
And President Hinckley asked him where he was, and then just said, "Well, call me when you get back to your hotel." So he called him and President Hinckley, who was famous for not taking a lot of time or beating around the bush but going directly to the point, President Hinckley called him to be a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. And you can imagine that Elder Oaks, then Justice Oaks, was shocked. He had a career in the law, he was expecting to spend the rest of his working life as a lawyer, and suddenly he's called to be a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. And he responds to President Hinckley by basically saying that his life and his future was in the hands of the Lord and the Lord's leaders. So to me, that response that totally committed, all in-response was an ideal title for the book, which reflects his life.
Morgan Jones 32:31
Absolutely. I wanted to ask you, I've heard some people say that due to the unlikely route that you just alluded to, that President Oaks took to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, I've heard some people say that he likely would be on the Supreme Court right now, if he wasn't in the Quorum of the Twelve. Do you think that that's true?
Richard Turley 32:52
I remember as a young lawyer, and as a law student watching the national media, as they speculate–as media members speculated about who would be on the Supreme Court from time to time, and certainly his name was on the list, not just once, but repeatedly. So I think there's a substantial possibility that had he not decided to make the decisions he did that led him to become a member of the Quorum of the Twelve he might be on the Supreme Court. As a matter of fact, as you'll see in the book, he had a colleague to whom he gave an opportunity that could have been his, to serve on an appeals court, and that colleague later went on to become a member of the Supreme Court.
Morgan Jones 33:31
Oh, wow. That's amazing. Brother Turley, when you initially start a project like this, and you are trying to document someone's entire life up to this point, what is your initial approach? Where do you even start?
Richard Turley 33:48
Well, first of all, I try to begin with what I know, and make an outline, and then I read voraciously. I'm a very, very active reader. And I read as much as I can. I have to prioritize, of course, sometimes when you're dealing with a subject, there's so much information, you have to do a little bit of triage, decide what's most important and go to that first and prioritize. So that's what I do, I prioritize. And then as I read, I continue to outline. And I basically create my outline before I start my actual writing, because if I don't do that, I end up over-writing. So as a book writer, you can end up writing twice as much or three times as much as can be published, then you have to sort of chop it down. And so I didn't want to do that in the case of President Oaks, so I gave myself a certain number of words or pages for each chapter that I had outlined. And then I just systematically, week by week, wrote the chapters.
Morgan Jones 34:43
I am curious as you worked on this book, and as you have gotten to know President Oaks personally, I think a lot of people only see President Oaks in general conference and I–really quickly, I have had two very brief interactions with President Oaks in my life. One, I was interning for Church public affairs in college and he came to our office, and I remember us being nervous because some other Church leaders had come and had been kind of tough on us. And President Oaks could not have been more kind. And that was my biggest takeaway from that experience was, I was like, "This man is so kind."
But he also–during that trip, he testified before Congress about taxation on charitable donations, and I was able to see him in that setting. And it was like watching someone 100% in their element. And I remember thinking, he is the real deal when it comes to testifying before a court of law of any kind. And then the other experience that I had, when I was at Desert News, we were working on these birthday quizzes for general authorities. And two of them, President Oaks being one of them, asked me to come and meet with him in his office. And again, I was struck by the fact that I think that sometimes in general conference, we become caught up in, you know, the message that they're trying to deliver, and that's their responsibility, is to give us counsel as leaders of the Church. But when I sat with him, he was just a man who cared about what I was doing, and could not have been more kind. And so for you, as you've worked on this book, what do you hope that people see, that maybe they don't see from behind the pulpit?
Richard Turley 36:42
He's a very balanced human being. You mentioned seeing him in his element as a lawyer. And certainly he is an intellectual tour de force. And he was the editor in chief of the University of Chicago Law Review as a student, graduated near the top of his class went on to become a US Supreme Court clerk, and became a big firm lawyer, than a professor at the University of Chicago Law School–one of the top law schools in the country–and was given important administrative responsibilities there, then became the executive director of the American Bar Foundation, president of BYU, Justice of the Utah Supreme Court, all of those things suggest someone who is a an intellectual giant, and he is.
We as Church members also know him as a spiritual giant. The President Oaks that we see is mostly across the pulpit in general conference. And because he takes his calling so seriously, we will see him in his most serious state, when he speaks at general conference, because he wants us to take seriously what he has to say. But he's also physically rather imposing. He's not a giant of a man, physically, I mean, he's not extremely tall or extremely large. But when you're in his presence, he feels big. Because just the force of his personality. But then there's an emotional side to him that most people never see and that's the side that you were describing.
He is warm, he is friendly. He's gregarious, and he's incredibly funny. Rarely do I have a meeting with him, a conversation, in which he doesn't crack some type of joke. Maybe it's a funny story he pulls up from the past, maybe it's a limerick he recalls that seems apropos for the moment, but he's a genuinely funny person. And that's the person that his children and grandchildren know. They know Grandpa who has a tremendous sense of humor, and they kid him a lot about the fact that when he's in general conference speaking, that seems to disappear temporarily. And they want people to know the real person, the balanced person, and I think you'll find that in the biography.
Morgan Jones 38:49
If you had to pick a few things as you worked on the biography that made an impression on you, and you had had years of experience with him, what would you say those things would be? And was there anything that surprised you?
Richard Turley 39:03
There were many things that surprised me. Even though I'd known him for three decades at the time I began writing it, I knew a little bit about his background, but I learned a lot more about his childhood. When he was very young, his father passed away–his father was a medical doctor and likely contracted tuberculosis from a patient that eventually died of tuberculosis–that left his mother a widow. The pressure of losing her husband, taking care of small children, so forth led to a breakdown on her part, which essentially took her out of the home to recover for some period of time.
His grandparents took him in, but you can imagine suddenly being deprived of the presence of both parents can be very difficult on a small child. So when he was in elementary school, he struggled. And he was taunted for not being very good at school. And to be able to see someone who was struggling in school, bounce back from that to become the academic scholar and achiever that he was is remarkable. And it speaks to his work ethic.
Hard work, I think has been one of the most defining aspects of his life. He has learned that when you confront something that's difficult, maybe even seemingly impossible, you just go to work. And eventually, somehow you get through it all. That's one of the things I learned. Another thing I learned, was, again, how funny he was. In almost every stage of his life he's saying or doing things that are funny, and much of his humor is self-deprecating. He tends to poke fun at himself.
So for example, when he's in the Philippines, a lot of the wives of general authorities had been assigned there in the past had light hair, his wife had dark hair, and one of the Filipino women said, "We like you because of your hair color, which is more like ours." President Oaks told that story at a conference and he said, "What about me?" He has a hairdo much like mine, so much of his humor is self-deprecating.
But I've also learned something I didn't know, and that is that before he became a member of the First Presidency and it became impractical, he had a quiet mission of letter writing. You know, we become aware of the quiet personal ministries of general authorities. We know that President Thomas S. Monson had a lifelong ministry to widows that he'd come to know over time, President Oaks has written thousands of letters over the years to comfort and console and counsel people whom he felt needed that and couldn't get what they needed from their local authorities.
Morgan Jones 41:35
I was just visiting on Saturday with Ardeth Kapp who has become a dear friend of mine, and she was showing me, she went to high school with President Oaks, and she has the entry that he put in her yearbook. And then she has a letter that they exchanged back and forth about how he said, "You were you must have been prophetic. You wrote in my yearbook, that I would be a great leader." And she said, "Well, then I was curious and I went and looked at what he had written in mine." And I said, 'You were an old man then, what teenage boy says, 'You have a wonderful soul' or–'a beautiful soul.'" And I think that, you know, she even said that he recently, that President and Sister Oaks had called to check on her and see how she was doing. And I think that he does a lot of things that people, likely again, don't see. Because they just see him in general conference.
Brother Turley, this book, obviously a little bit different than some others that you have worked on, how would you say that that working on this project has blessed your life?
Richard Turley 42:43
Because I have spent so much of my career unintentionally, but just as it happened, on subjects that are really quite terrible, you know, murder, forgery, crime, apostasy, those kinds of things, it was really wonderful for me to work with such a powerful and wonderful subject I've been able to observe firsthand for three and a half decades.
Morgan Jones 43:06
Absolutely. Brother Turley, as you worked on this book, what do you think that President Oaks teaches us about being all in the gospel of Jesus Christ? And then I'll ask you what it means to you to be all in. But first of all, what do you think President Oaks example teaches us about that?
Richard Turley 43:25
He decided to be all in very early in his life. And all of us go through a sort of conversion process where we grow and mature to that point of total dedication. He got there early, and then there was no question, he was uncompromising. As he raised his children, he would point to examples of people who were not all in and counseled his children about the things they were doing wrong and say to them, I hope that you don't follow that bad example, but instead go the right direction.
He was meticulously honest in everything that he did. He was meticulous in making sure that everything he did was above reproach, that there was no appearance of evil in any way, and that there weren't any things that he did that could be misinterpreted. And so as I say, in the preface, the person that you see privately is warmer and funnier than you see from the pulpit. But the person you see from the pulpit is the person he is in terms of his dedication. He is truly all in.
And as far as my own commitment, that age of 15–that I mentioned, the age in which I became interested in Church history–was also the age in which I decided to be all in. A series of events happened, I don't have time to recount right now, but essentially, I went from being focused on the things that most teenagers focus on to suddenly recognizing that the most important thing was the state of my soul. This is somewhat like Joseph Smith experience when he was preparing himself to go into the grove.
I began to think about what would happen if I died. I had a sort of experience when I could have died, and I began thinking, are you ready? And I thought to myself, no, I'm not. And at the same time, I went to a conference at BYU where I heard a number of Church leaders speak and the Spirit spoke to my soul. And I began to recognize that there were far more important things, then those things I wish I had focused. And so I committed myself at that time to live according to the principles that I had been taught, to have faith, to repent when I do things wrong, to make and keep covenants, and to exercise charity towards all people. Treating kindly those who treat me unkindly, being kind to those who might not, you know, reach out to me. And so I found that there's greater happiness, greater peace, greater satisfaction in reaching out and helping others than there is in trying to satisfy our personal desires.
Morgan Jones 45:58
I love that, Brother Turley, and I, actually, just last night, I was studying in President Nelson, Teachings of President Nelson book about personal revelation, and I was struck by a quote about Joseph Smith that I believe comes from the first volume of the Joseph Smith Papers. And in it, President Nelson says, "This access to revelation is not limited to Presidents, Prophets and Apostles. All of God's children are invited to receive personal revelation. Joseph Smith became great because of revelation. Without revelation, Joseph would merely have been just Joseph. Gratefully, we too can become greater than we otherwise would be by receiving and responding to personal revelation."
And I've been thinking about how, you know, as youth, we have decisions to make about directions that we go and what we're going to focus on and I think your example is such a great example of choosing to commit your life to the Lord at a young age, and seeing the way that the Lord is able to use us when we turn our lives over to him and that because of him, we can be more than we otherwise would be. And so, thank you so much for that example, and also for sharing so many wonderful things about the example of President Oaks, I'm excited to read the whole biography. I've read bits and pieces, and what I've read has been amazing. So, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today, and we'll look forward to reading the book.
Richard Turley 47:32
Thank you very much, Morgan.
Morgan Jones 47:36
We are so grateful to Richard Turley for joining us on this week's episode. You can find In the Hands of the Lord on DeseretBook.com or in Deseret Book stores now. A big thank you to Derek Campbell of Mix at Six studios, and as always, thank you for spending your very valuable time with us.