Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Dec. 2020 and has been updated with links to George F. Richards’s recently released journals, from April 1900 to Sep. 1907. All 23 volumes of Richards’ journals will eventually be published.
At age 23, George F. Richards received a letter inquiring about his availability to serve a foreign mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The future apostle copied his response into his journal. He wrote about being a young husband and father of one child, deep in debt, with a meager list of possessions. But if called to serve, he would certainly find a way.
“While I feel that I am poor, I do not wish to let that stand between me and my duties as a Latter-day Saint. That which I have is upon the altar and subject to the direction of those in authority, as is my time and life if necessary,” he wrote, signing off with the words, “Your obedient servant, George F. Richards.”
The short but powerful response has greatly influenced the life of his great-grandson, Elder Kent F. Richards, an emeritus General Authority Seventy.
“That became one of my standards of life. ... I wanted to do those kinds of same things, have that same kind of faith, the same kind of willingness to go and do, even by sacrifice, whatever the Lord asked,” Elder Richards said. “It became a wonderful model for my life.”
Previously unavailable to the public, the full personal writings of George F. Richards, who served as a Latter-day Saint apostle from 1906 to 1950, including the last five years as president of the Quorum of the Twelve, will soon be accessible for all to read.
This week the Church Historian’s Press announced the online publication of more volumes of “The Journal of George F. Richards,” spanning April 1900 to Sept. 1907, on churchhistorianspress.org. The first two of 23 volumes were published in 2019.
Church Historian’s Press will eventually publish all 23 volumes.
Matthew C. Godfrey, the lead historian on the project, said George F. Richards is not a well-known apostle, but his almost daily journal entries from 1880 to 1950 bridge the pioneer and modern periods of church history.
“When you go through these journals, you can really see the changes that are occurring as the church moves into the modern world, the different things they had to deal with, and you get a sense for how it is broadening its membership,” Godfrey said. “I think these journals are important to see the transition the church is making during that time.”
“The Journal of George F. Richards” is the latest in a line of projects produced in the last year by the Church Historian’s Press. During the summer, it published discourses of Eliza R. Snow and the diaries of Emmeline B. Wells, along with “Documents” Volume 10 and Volume 11 of the Joseph Smith Papers in the spring and fall. More than 50 years of Latter-day Saint Apostle George Q. Cannon’s journal were completed in 2018.
Here are some notable facts about the life of George F. Richards:
- He was born in 1861 to Franklin D. Richards and Nanny Longstroth. Franklin was the nephew of Willard Richards, who served as an apostle and was with Joseph Smith in Carthage Jail when the prophet was killed. When Willard Richards died in 1854, Brigham Young asked Franklin to marry four of Willard’s widowed plural wives, including Longstroth. Franklin served as an apostle from 1849 to 1899.
- After graduating from the University of Deseret in 1881, George F. Richards worked for the Utah Central Railroad and married Alice Robinson the following year. The young family eventually made its way to Tooele where he worked as a farmer and served the community.
- In 1890, George F. Richards was called as second counselor in the Tooele Stake Presidency. Three years later he was called as stake patriarch. In 1906, he joined the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
- On April 6, 1892, he witnessed the laying of the Salt Lake Temple capstone.
- From 1916 to 1919, he presided over the church’s European Mission in Liverpool, England, during World War I.
- From 1921 to 1938, he served as president of the Salt Lake Temple and was instrumental in standardizing how temple work is performed.
- He served as acting presiding patriarch of the church from 1937 to 1942.
- George F. Richards’ son, Elder LeGrand Richards, served as an apostle from 1952 to 1983.
In the early 1980s, Elder Kent F. Richards was a newly trained surgeon, young bishop and father of six boys. But he knew he had a rich heritage of Latter-day Saint apostles in his family tree and a desire to learn more about them.
He went to the church archives, navigated the approval process and was allowed to read George F. Richards’ journals and take handwritten notes. He began a transcription of the “interesting things” in the journals. Life got in the way before he could finish, and years later when he resumed the project, the journals had become restricted. Eventually he received permission to continue as long as he didn’t publish anything without the approval of the First Presidency because the journals contained some material of a sacred nature, he said.
In 2013, Elder Kent F. Richards published “A Family of Faith,” a book with excerpts from the journals of Willard Richards, Franklin D. Richards and George F. Richards.
Later on he worked with the church to create a full transcript of George F. Richards’ journal, with some sacred and private parts redacted. This led to its online publication by The Church Historian’s Press.
“The journals provide a marvelous, panoramic view of history and the church, the development of the doctrine, the policies and practices, all those things are wonderful,” Elder Richards said. “I think it’s important to see him as a very humble, genuine person who grew up with some education, but he was never wealthy. And yet he raised a family of 15 kids. He was very tender in the loss of his two daughters. ... He wasn’t pulled out of mainstream living or set apart from the challenges of life. He went through the whole thing with great faith and great humility. He never complained to the Lord about his burdens and suffering. To me, it just shows an awful lot of faith and a pattern for our living.”
Along with providing insight into the life of a rural Utah farmer and a church leader’s travels during this era, readers might be interested to learn that in 1922, one year after becoming the Salt Lake Temple president, George F. Richards spoke to President Heber J. Grant about his wife serving as matron. She was appointed, setting a pattern for future temple presidents serving with their wives as matrons, Godfrey said.
George F. Richards observed events such as the celebration of Utah’s statehood on Jan. 4, 1896, noting that when the proclamation was signed, “bells began ringing” and “guns firing.”
In the midst of a smallpox epidemic in January 1900, George F. Richards wrote to his son and asked him to leave school because of the disease, mentioning that church leaders had also canceled a stake conference.
The journals also feature an increased focus by church leaders in the early 20th century to enforce the Word of Wisdom, the church’s code for healthy living, and continuing efforts to eradicate the practice of plural marriage among church members.
“When you read George F.’s journals you realize that the apostles have been trying for years before 1921 to make sure church leaders, and people working in the temples especially, are obeying the Word of Wisdom,” Godfrey said.
Godfrey’s main role has been to compare the transcript to the original and verify its accuracy. He has also prepared biographies for people mentioned in the journals, one of the supplemental features on the website.
In addition to reading the entries and learning about people mentioned, visitors can view photos and a map of the apostle’s travels, review a timeline of his life, and read or listen to select discourses. There are also two videos, including a short video with footage and audio of him giving his last conference talk and a special tribute by fellow apostle Spencer W. Kimball at the time of his death.
The Church Historian’s Press plans to continue uploading journals each year until the entire collection is complete.
For more on the Journal of George F. Richards, go to churchhistorianspress.org.