Church News - The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

History devotee has Church's chronicles under his watchcare

Published: Saturday, Oct. 17, 1992

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      As a student seminary officer in Salt Lake City in the early 1970s, Richard E. Turley Jr. wrote questions for the district "Seminary Bowl" tournament based on Church history, a subject in which he had intense interest.

      Today, at age 36, he could be considered an official caretaker of the very history he studied and read so avidly in his youth. Since 1986 he has been managing director of the Church Historical Department.With a bachelor's degree in English and a law degree - both from BYU - Brother Turley is a case study in achievement through an appropriate mix of focused determination, talent, a general curiosity, diligence and parental support.

      "I have a clipping from our high school newspaper in which a reporter asked what my career objectives were," he recalled. "I had very broad interests when I was in high school, but I told this reporter I would like to do two things: become a lawyer and be a Church institute of religion teacher."

      One of the objectives resulted from a conversation with his father, Richard Sr., who asked him about his life's goals.

      "Because of my broad interests, I wasn't certain what I wanted to do. He said to me he knew a lot of lawyers who were in many different professions, and he felt that law offered tremendous flexibility."

      The other career objective - institute teacher - emanated from his keen interest in Church history and doctrine.

      As things turned out, he graduated from law school in April 1985, took the Utah State Bar examination in the summer, was sworn in as an attorney in September, practiced law for a few months and came to work for the Church in January, replacing Earl Olson, who retired.

      Though he never became an institute teacher, he is serving where his heart lies.

      "Not everyone can have a profession that reflects his greatest interest, and I have that," he mused. "Although I very much enjoyed practicing law, it's unlikely I would have spent a great deal of my free time reading law books for pleasure. I do spend a lot of my free time reading Church history books for pleasure."

      Family ties likely account for much of that pleasure.

      "The Turley family came into the Church in the 1830s, in the same wave of conversions that brought John Taylor and others into the Church in Canada," he recounted. "My mother's side of the family came into the Church in the Midwest. Her parents were converts."

      The Turleys were among Church members who eventually formed colonies in Mexico. During the Mexican revolution, Brother Turley's grandfather fled to Texas. That is where his father was born and raised, and where he was born on Feb. 18, 1956, in Fort Worth, the second of seven children, to Richard and Betty Jean Nickle Turley.

      His father's employment took the family to Salt Lake City and later Draper, Utah, where he was exposed to Pioneer Day parades and other observances of the Church's past. The family then moved to Iowa, where the Church district they lived in cared for the Mt. Pisgah Cemetery, burial place of many of the pioneers. Young Richard had the opportunity at that time to visit Nauvoo, Ill.

      "We later moved to Washington State, where our stake sponsored what we called a New Era Bowl," he said. "It was a lot like Seminary Bowl. And that particular year, the New Era focused a great deal on Church history. I can recall opening those copies of the New Era and just devouring them. When the competition came, our team won the stake finals by a considerable margin because I had all the facts at my disposal and could answer the questions very easily."

      He lists his Church history avocation as a factor in the early development of his testimony of the gospel, along with scripture study, Church attendance and the parental example.

      As a high school student in Salt Lake City, he was involved in varied activities - literary magazine, debate team, senior choir, barbershop group, student government. But it was through history that he became acquainted with his future wife, Shirley Swensen. They were classmates in a world history class.

      After his service in the Japan Tokyo Mission from 1975-77, they were married in the Salt Lake Temple. They now have six children.

      Brother Turley joined the Church Historical Department in the immediate aftermath of one of the most bizarre chapters in Church history.

      Mark W. Hofmann, well known among LDS intellectuals as a collector of rare documents, had engineered a vast forgery scheme. Many of his fake documents - such as letters purportedly from Martin Harris and Lucy Mack Smith - related to Church history. Some cast a cloud over accepted accounts pertaining to the origin of the Church.

      Through sales or trades, many of the forgeries ended up in the Church archives.

      At length, the scheme began to unravel. The affair culminated in the murders by pipe bomb of two Church members in an effort to prevent the scheme from being revealed. Hofmann eventually confessed to the forgeries and the killings.

      "In January of 1986, when I came aboard, the investigation was fully under way, and the investigators were only a couple of weeks away from charging Hofmann with his crimes," Brother Turley recalled. "Although I didn't have any direct involvement with the case, I watched it unfold from that point on."

      As the case excited the public imagination, much was written and published about it, including three books with varying degrees of accuracy.

      "It became apparent to me," Brother Turley said, "that there was still one aspect of the story that had not been adequately told, and that was the inside story."

      He set out to tell that story. The result is his book, Victims, published last month by the University of Illinois Press.

      In the preface, Brother Turley posed the question, "Why one more book?" and answered it as follows:

      "First, no book has adequately approached the case from a victim's view. Besides the criminal, no one has been closer to the crimes than the victims. Tragically, two victims in this case did not survive to tell their stories. Their memory in part has been eclipsed by the media's focus on another victim: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. . . . This book helps fill a historical gap by relating the experiences and feelings of the church leaders and employees most involved in the case."

      A second purpose, he wrote, is to correct misconceptions about the Hofmann case that arose from the pressure and competition of news reporting and law enforcement. Some of the speculation incorrectly ascribed dishonorable motives to Church leaders who were among Hofmann's victims. Although later research has undermined much of the speculation, it remains a part of the media record and in the future could be regarded as fact if not corrected, he pointed out.

      "And unlike previous books," he added, "[This bookT provides readers with detailed source notes to help them understand and evaluate the evidence on which the narrative rests."

      Predictably perhaps, his objectivity has been questioned because of his Church employment. But in writing the book, he took pains to preserve his independence as an author.

      "There is a process that a work goes through before it becomes an official work of the Church," he told the Church News, "and this book did not go through that process."

      Perhaps because of the trust he had earned, Church leaders supported his undertaking.

      "They provided the fullest cooperation," he said. "They went to great lengths to provide information over a long period of time; they granted interviews, they made available diaries, journals, memoranda, a vast amount of material."

      What conclusion does he as a historian draw from the Hofmann affair?

      "Some people may wish to base their faith on historical evidence," he reflected. "While historical information can be useful, interesting and can provide insights to individuals, I don't think that it's the sure foundation of faith. The sure foundation of faith is spiritual and not physical."

      Can studying history shake one's faith in the gospel?

      "My personal opinion," he responded, "is that the more an individual learns about the history of the Church, the greater that individual's understanding will be of the overall picture. Thus, every piece of evidence will be viewed against the total picture. Otherwise, people who do not have much knowledge of Church history may find themselves being tossed to and fro by tidbits from the past."