Rick Turley, 35 Years of LDS Church History (Part 1 & 2, Reissued)

Date: December 2, 2019 (Season 1, Episode 4 – Part 1: 31 min. & 18 sec. long and Part 2: 20 min. & 0 sec. long). Click here for the BuzzSprout Part 1 and Click here for BuzzSprout Part 2 of this episode. The above photograph is of the Church History Library (15 E. No. Temple St, SLC) completed and opened in 2009, courtesy of MHTN Architects. Are you interested in other episodes of Speak Your Piece?  Click Here. This episode was co-produced by Brad Westwood and Chelsey Zamir, with help (sound engineering and post-production editing) from Conner Sorenson (Studio Underground) and Jason Powers (Utah State Library Recording Studio).

This reissued SYP episode is an interview with Richard E. Turley Jr., former Assistant Church Historian of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, with SYP host Brad Westwood in 2019. Turley discusses his thirty-five-year long career in Mormon history including the creation of the Joseph Smith Papers Project. In this near decade quest, Turley and the Church History Department (hereafter CHD) tracked down every known and newly discovered historical source (books, manuscripts, letters, government documents, etc.) about the church founder, in every conceivable location, and then digitized them, ensuring instant digital availability to anyone around the world. During Turley’s tenure the church also created regional history centers across the globe, and digitized millions of other manuscripts, photographs and historical records. To see the church’s vast holdings on-line, without a paywall, click on digital holdings.

Podcast Content:

Part One of Two:

Part Two of Two:

In 1986, Turley was appointed first as “assistant managing director” of the then called LDS Church Historical Department (now Church History Department). Since that time, there has been a constant growth and change regarding this history agency’s role, its responsibilities, and its impact, on the church’s membership, and on the broader historical community and how the world understands the church’s history. Another top priority for Turley and the CHD, was moving into a safer dedicated facility, focusing on ultimate climate control, conservation and earthquake preparation, for the church’s expanding history collection. This occurred in 2009.

Another priority for Turley, was the creation for the church’s own imprint or publishing company; thus, controlling its own scholarly apparatus and products. No small task, as this included sorting out material development, multiple levels of editing, design, marketing, and distribution. To this end Turley and the department created the Church’s Historian Press. In reaching this goal, the church received near universal approval from the Académie and from the publishing establishment.

Why invest so much time into putting this Church history out into the world? From Turley’s perspective, there is a theological reason included in the book of scripture called The Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, that defines the truth, meaning if you’re considering a subject only in its immediate context then you’re not seeing the whole picture. Turley adds, “looking at the past can help you understand the present and project to the future with more accuracy.”

“Looking at the past can help you understand the present and project to the future with more accuracy.”

Turley summarized the Church History Department’s mantra as “collect, preserve, and share.” For collections, people were hired to collect items and artifacts relevant to the LDS Church’s history. A number of fantastic items were acquired under his tenure, including the Book of Mormon Printer’s Manuscript, one of the most significant items in the church’s collection.

Some of the items in the church’s collection today, which interest so many people, are about the church’s most well-known 19th century controversy, the Mountain Meadows Massacre. After the publication of Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows by Will Bagley in 2002, the CHD pursued a multiyear and multi-million-dollar project to gather, better understand and refute Bagley’s primary historical assumption, that is, that Brigham Young knew full well about and sanctioned the massacre, of over 120 immigrants traveling to California. Turley and the CHD met this goal in refuting Bagley’s central charge: a preponderance of evidence and the verdict among a vast majority of historians, is that Young did not sanction the massacre. However Young and the church’s duplicitous involvement in obstructing justice for decades regarding all the perpetrators and allowing the church’s membership to believe (and in some quarters even today) that the horrendous act was largely the act of Native Americans, remains in dire need of response. Turley’s and Barbara Jones Brown’s book Vengeance Is Mine: The Mountain Meadows Massacre and Its Aftermath, to be released by Oxford Press in March 2023, aspires to answer this need.

Turley and Brown were guests on Speak Your Piece: A Podcast About Utah’s History released February 2023. Find that episode here.

Turley concludes Part 1 of this episode with another story brought to the forefront of history. Turley and SYP host Brad Westwood sought to memorialize the Circleville Massacre, which occurred during the Black Hawk War (1865-1872), where approximately thirty Native Americans were killed by Mormon settlers. Turley, Westwood, and team found that many native peoples wanted this story to be better well-known by the public; and so, a monument was erected to memorialize the massacre victims, an event nearly erased from the public memory. The monument was a combined effort of the Paiute Nation tribe, the Utah Division of State History, the LDS Church and the town of Circleville (with over a dozen additional private donors). The monument is Utah’s first monument that tells the story from the perspective of the victims, with its message prepared by representatives of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah. A first among Utah’s hundreds and hundreds of historical monuments.

“Seeing real objects and seeing real places, places where things occurred, moves people. There’s a spirit to a place and to an artifact.”

What is in Part 2 of this episode? The LDS Church has such a broad footprint across the world, how is this history sorted out for the world, beyond Utah? At the time Turley started his position with the Church Historical Department, it was a single destination location to both see and donate LDS Church-related items in Utah. His job made traveling around the world to see artifacts possible, and so Turley became increasingly uncomfortable with the concept of purchasing and moving artifacts and documents away from their original places of origin to a facility in the US. For instance, Turley notes, many documents are written in the local language and bringing them to Utah where users wouldn’t even understand the document didn’t make much sense. Instead, Turley decided to create a series of record repositories around the world where donations could be made and the items could be kept in, or near, their original locations. This effort also allowed for digitization of donated items, making the materials widely available to the world.

Bio: Richard E. Turley, former Assistant Church Historian (and before this, Executive Director) of the Church History Department. Among other works, Turley co-authored in 2008 Massacre at Mountain Meadows: An American Tragedy with Ronald W. Walker and Glen M. Leonard, and in 1992 Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case.

Additional Resources & Readings:

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