The Biography of Dallin H. Oaks by Richard Turley

Sponsored by BYU Studies — Richard Turley is the author of the biography of Dallin H. Oaks, In the Hands of the Lord: The Life of Dallin H. Oaks.

How were you chosen to be the biographer of Dallin H. Oaks?

Richard Turley: More than four years ago before he had become a member of the First Presidency, Elder Oaks invited me to his office one day and asked if I would consider writing his biography. He didn’t want me to answer immediately, I think because he didn’t want me to feel any pressure. He suggested that I think about the suggestion and respond later. 

But I knew from the moment he asked that it was something I wanted to do. He was in many ways a biographer’s dream: someone who lived a fine life and had kept remarkable records.

What kinds of sources did you have to work with? How would you characterize Dallin H. Oaks’s private journals?

Richard Turley: He is one of the most documented Church leaders in history. I used his personal history, his journals, his correspondence, his talks, and a host of other materials ranging from newspaper articles to photographs. 

I would characterize his journals as being among the best ever kept by a Church leader.

Why is Dallin H. Oaks’s personality more apparent in his biography than his public speeches?

Richard Turley: Two reasons. 

First, when he speaks in formal settings, he seeks to fulfill his calling and takes his responsibilities very seriously. When I read Jacob 1 in the Book of Mormon—especially verses 7, 17, and 19—I can hear his voice. 

Second, he is extraordinarily well-rounded as a person, and yet most people see only the side he presents at the pulpit. I tried in the biography to capture the whole person.

You’ve known President Oaks for a long time. What most surprised you by the time you completed his biography?

Richard Turley: Although I have known him for most of my life, I did not know him in his youth and childhood. I was deeply impressed to learn how difficult those periods were for him and how he overcame challenges through hard work and determination.

People sometimes think Church leaders are born with all the mature characteristics they exhibit in their senior years. But that is not true. Like the Savior, we all must grow from “grace to grace” (Doctrine and Covenants 93:13, 20). 

What was Dallin H. Oaks’ schedule like when he accepted a call to serve in his stake mission that required 40+ hours per month? 

Richard Turley: Arguably, his life was fully occupied at that time, and he could easily have rationalized that his work would not allow him to accept or fulfill that new responsibility.

Instead, he exercised faith that God would provide a way for him to fulfill his new calling without neglecting his family or his work.

Dallin and June Oaks posing for a family picture with their four children in 1961.
Oaks family with newest addition, Dallin D., on June’s lap, spring 1961. Courtesy of the Oaks family.

His faith preceded miraculous blessings that made it possible for him to fulfill his calling and be a good family man and worker. It also started him down a path leading to where he is today.

What did Edward Levi say was the one thing that stood in the way of Dallin H. Oaks getting a seat on the Supreme Court?

Richard Turley: At the time, Edward Levi, his longtime mentor and friend, was serving as U.S. Attorney General and did not specify what it was.

Later, Elder Oaks learned that President Gerald Ford did not want to appoint a Latter-day Saint, fearing opposition from civil rights groups because of perceived concerns about race and gender.

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What professional positions were realistic opportunities at the time of Dallin H. Oaks’s call to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles? 

Richard Turley: If he had wanted it, he could have been appointed to U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, a position seen as a stepping stone to becoming a member of the U.S. Supreme Court. His name ended up on lists of potential Supreme Court appointees. He let his friend Antonin Scalia take one such opportunity that might have been his, and Scalia was later appointed to the Supreme Court.

What did Dallin H. Oaks see as the difference between being a judge and lawyer who had been called to be an Apostle—and an Apostle who used to be a judge and lawyer?

Richard Turley: He did not serve a full-time mission as a young man because of the Korean War. And although he had served as a member of a stake presidency and as a regional representative, he lacked some of the Church experiences that many general authorities had. He had never been a bishop, a stake president, a mission president, or a seventy. 

Dallin H. Oaks as a newly called member of the Twelve. Courtesy of the Oaks family.

Most of his professional experience was as a lawyer, including time as a judge.

Lacking deep Church experience, he could have remained in his comfortable legal cocoon, attempting to fulfill his new calling from there. But he knew that fulfilling his responsibility well meant leaving his comfort zone and starting up a steep learning curve that would be very uncomfortable at times.

That is what he chose to do, and over time, he succeeded.

In what context did Dallin H. Oaks say that doubt can be a virtue?

Richard Turley: Doubt can lead to questions that lead to revelation. If we handle doubt that way, it can be a blessing. Most of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants came in response to a question. So did the First Vision.

How was Dallin H. Oaks selected as a counselor in the First Presidency?

Richard Turley: President Nelson took the unprecedented step of interviewing all the living apostles and seeking their input before praying and selecting his counselors as he felt inspired to do. 

Dallin H. Oaks  at a press conference with the First Presidency.
Dallin H. Oaks at a press conference with the First Presidency: Presidents Oaks, Nelson, and Eyring. Courtesy of the Oaks family.

How might your life have been different if Dallin H. Oaks didn’t act on a spiritual impression to bring you into the Church History Department? 

Richard Turley: Following his impression made it possible for me to serve in Church departments where I was able to join with Church leaders, staff, and missionaries in pushing forward the work of the Lord.

I look back with fondness on the decades of coordinated effort that brought us the new Church History Library, the Joseph Smith Papers, the Church Historian’s Press, a worldwide Church history presence, a strong historic sites program, FamilySearch, FamilySearch Indexing, the Be One celebration, the production of Saints, and many other projects in which I was privileged to participate.

Had he not followed his spiritual impression, I might have missed those opportunities.

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