Latter-day Saint History

Who Was Willard Richards?

He quickly became a close friend and confidante of Joseph Smith.

Willard Richards was an important early Latter-day Saint leader. He kept the journal of Joseph Smith—and may have fulfilled a prophecy by escaping harm in Carthage Jail. The Apostle also practiced polygamy, served in Brigham Young’s First Presidency, and remained faithful his entire life. Some think that his name has less cache than prominent pioneers like Eliza R. Snow, Heber C. Kimball, and George Q. Cannon. However, historian Alex Smith says in this interview that Richards’s critical contributions are widely appreciated by scholars.

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Learn more about Willard Richards’s conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Introduce us to Willard Richards.

Willard Richards was an apostle and member of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A convert from Massachusetts, Richards was sent on a mission to England not long after he joined the church, where he served in the presidency of the British mission for several years.

After moving back to the United States and arriving in Nauvoo, Illinois, Richards quickly became a close friend and confidante of Joseph Smith. He served Joseph from the end of 1841 until the prophet’s death in June 1844 in various offices as scribe, clerk, and historian.

Willard accompanied Joseph Smith to Carthage.

In 1847 he was appointed second counselor to Brigham Young in the church’s First Presidency and was among the first Saints to arrive in the Salt Lake Valley.

He died at his home in Salt Lake City on March 1854 at the age of 49, having been employed in religious and civic service the majority of his adult life.

How did Willard Richards join the church?

In 1836, Willard obtained a copy of the Book of Mormon, and later declared that before reading half a page he was convinced that it was either of God or the devil—that it could not be the work of man.

He read the book twice in about ten days and immediately resolved to journey to Kirtland, Ohio, the current gathering place of church members. He arrived in October and “gave the work an unceasing and untiring investigation until the day of his baptism” by his cousin, Brigham Young, on 31 December 1836.

Learn more about how Willard Richards impacted what we know about the Prophet Joseph Smith.

What did he do for a job?

Willard Richards was trained as a physician in the Thomsonian system of medicine, an alternative method that denounced the traditional “heroic” school in favor of largely herbal remedies.

Although he practiced medicine in Massachusetts for a short time in the mid-1830s and went by the title “Dr. Richards” the entirety of his adult life, his employment was almost exclusively in professional clerking for one organization or another.

What role did Willard Richards play in recording Joseph Smith’s sermons?

Despite documentation of scores of public discourses Joseph Smith is known to have given during the first decade of the church’s existence, there are no extant accounts of his sermons prior to the arrival of the Saints in Illinois.

Documents from the Ohio and Missouri periods of church history sometimes included lines telling what topic Joseph took for a sermon.

Sometimes an outside observer would publish an account of having met with Joseph Smith and remark briefly on what he heard Joseph say in public, but in terms of verbatim quotations—even just excerpts—of discourses we have no surviving accounts.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Joseph never prepared speeches in advance, so we don’t even have notes of what he intended to speak on.

This unfortunate trend shifted after the Saints arrived in Nauvoo, largely through the efforts of scribes and clerks like Willard Richards, Thomas Bullock, William Clayton, Eliza R. Snow, and others. Because of these men and women we have rich accounts of dozens of public speeches the Prophet gave during the last half-decade of his life, including some that were later canonized.

Tell us about Joseph Smith’s prophecy of Willard Richards.

An early account of Joseph Smith’s murder in the hands of employees of the Church Historian’s Office that were working on compiling Joseph Smith’s History of the Church recorded the following about Richards’s miraculous survival in Carthage jail on 27 June 1844:

in the midst of a shower of balls, yet [Richards] stood unscathed, with the exception of a ball which took away the tip end of the lower part of his left ear; which fulfilled literally a prophecy which Joseph made over a year previously, that the time would come that the balls would fly around him like hail, and he should see his friends fall on the right and on the left, but that there should not be a hole in his garment.

Historian’s Office, martyrdom account; handwriting of Jonathan Grimshaw, Leo Hawkins, and Thomas Bullock; 76 pages plus several inserted pages; CHL.

How did Willard Richards end up in Carthage Jail?

On the night of 22 June 1844, amid rapidly escalating tensions in the region, Richards accompanied Joseph and Hyrum Smith and Orrin Porter Rockwell across the Mississippi River to Iowa Territory to avoid attempts to capture Joseph and consider plans on a next course of action.

He allowed his religious beliefs to dictate the course of his life.

The following morning after Joseph Smith corresponded with his wife Emma, the men returned to Nauvoo. Warrants had been issued for eighteen Nauvoo men including Joseph Smith and Willard’s brother, Levi Richards, on the charge of riot for destruction of the press that published the Nauvoo Expositor—an opposition paper edited by church dissidents that had printed one issue.

Willard accompanied Joseph Smith and others to the Hancock County seat of Carthage on 24 June 1844. Those accused on the riot charge were released on bail, but Joseph and Hyrum Smith were then immediately charged with treason—a non-bailable offense—for declaring martial law in Nauvoo and for mobilizing the Nauvoo Legion (an independent unit of the Illinois state militia).

Richards and a few others chose to remain in Carthage with the now incarcerated Smith brothers.

Did Willard Richards kill Joseph Smith under the direction of Brigham Young?

Willard Richards and Brigham Young were not complicit in Joseph Smith’s assassination. The corpus of contemporaneous Nauvoo documents and later reminiscences do not support any theory along these lines.

Setting aside the deep personal friendship and loyalty to Joseph evident in hundreds of documents produced by these two men, the simple fact is that no account ever created by either the victims or perpetrators of the attack on the jail mentioned or even remotely hinted at the violent act being the product of a conspiracy by Joseph Smith’s friends and associates.

This was atypical for Richards.

Thomas Sharp was the young editor of the vociferously anti-Mormon Warsaw Signal and one of the men later indicted for Joseph Smith’s murder. In the 10 July 1844 issue of his paper—printed less than two weeks after the event—he ran an editorial titled “The Act and the Apology.”

In this brazen justification of vigilantism (that does not include a whole lot of “apology”), Sharp listed in detail the reasons why his community members had killed the religious leader and his brother, seeking the sympathy of a state and nation critical of the attack.

Presumably Sharp would have loved to have been able to identify some of the Mormon leader’s closest associates as among the people seeking his death. But the reality is that those responsible for Joseph Smith’s death had planned and organized and used an opportunity to murder him—and took ownership of their actions.

Many valuable questions remain surrounding this important and tragic event, but the identity of those responsible is not one of them.

What do we learn about Joseph Smith’s martyrdom from Richards?

Much of what we know about the events in the Carthage jail in Hancock County, Illinois on 27 June 1844 comes directly from Willard Richards.

For a few years Richards had been keeping Joseph Smith’s journal as well as his own personal journal. On the trip to the county seat Richards left Smith’s journal in Nauvoo but brought his own small diary. During the days of the incarceration Richards recorded remarkably detailed notes of events in the jail.

Much of what we know about the death of Joseph Smith comes from the detailed account of Willard Richards, according to Alex Smith.

This was atypical for Richards, whose own journal entries were frequently no more than one or two sentences per day—and those he recorded in Smith’s journal were rarely much longer.

In contrast, during the days of the 25, 26, and 27 June 1844, Richards made separate notes at “8.10 minutes,” “8 ½,” “12 mi[nutes] before 9,” “10 mi[nutes] to 9,” etc.

Not only did he apparently intend to use his journal to serve as an urtext for later entries in Smith’s journal (which concluded with the entry of 22 June 1844 and never was returned to), but he also seemed to have an understanding of the significance of what was occurring in Carthage—and reasons for wanting to keep a detailed account.

Evidence in Richards’s diary suggests that he made notes in the morning on the day of the martyrdom, and that he wrote the later parts the evening of the murders while staying in Artois Hamilton’s hotel with the severely wounded John Taylor.

Because of him we have colorful insights into the Prophet’s character.

After returning to Nauvoo, Richards borrowed language from his journal and added his own memories of events to produce the earliest detailed published account of Joseph Smith’s assassination in an article titled, “Two Minutes in Jail,” that ran in the Times and Seasons, Nauvoo Neighbor, and elsewhere.

Willard Richards’s journal and his article form the basic timeline for almost every chronological narrative of the events published during the past 180 years.

When did he move to Utah?

Willard Richards was among the earliest Saints to arrive in the Salt Lake Valley, in 1847, but then returned to Iowa Territory. He then led a company of Saints to Salt Lake in 1848 where he remained thereafter.

How and when was he called into the First Presidency?

Willard Richards became a member of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when he was appointed Brigham Young’s second counselor on 27 December 1847.

Did Willard Richards practice polygamy?

He practiced plural marriage and was one of relatively few Saints to have a plural marriage officiated directly by Joseph Smith (Richards also performed one of Smith’s plural marriages—to his sister Rhoda Richards).

Willard Richards married his first wife, Jennetta Richards Richards (no relation but sharing the same surname) on 24 September 1838. On 29 May 1843, the day after Emma and Joseph Smith were sealed, Willard and Jennetta were sealed, making them among the first couples sealed for eternity who had already been legally married.

Willard had married his first plural wife by this time, as sealings for eternity to plural spouses predated sealings between those already legally married. Willard apparently married ten women in total.

Did Willard Richards leave the church?

Willard Richards was an active, practicing church member from the time of his baptism by Brigham Young in 1836 to his death in 1854. He served several lengthy missions for the church and was employed professionally by the church and in ecclesiastical leadership callings for the bulk of his life following his conversion.

Do we have any record of his testimony of Jesus Christ?

I can’t think of a better statement of Willard Richards’s devotion to Christ and the gospel than the evidence of his life’s actions. He studied scripture and sought answers to theological questions and enthusiastically joined the church that answered his queries. From that point on he allowed his religious beliefs to dictate the course of his life and made his devotion apparent through living a life of faith and service.

As far as written texts are concerned, his professional and ecclesiastical work for most of his adult life generated numerous accounts of his beliefs.

How did Willard Richards die?

Willard Richards died on 11 March 1854, in his home in Salt Lake City. His obituary in the Deseret News gave “dropsy” (swelling under the skin that is generally referred to today as edema) as the cause of his death. He had been homebound with illness for the past two months, last leaving his house on 20 January 1854 to meet with the Utah Territorial legislature, of which he was a member.

How have the Joseph Smith Papers contributed to our knowledge about Willard Richards?

It might be better to ask how Willard Richards contributed to the Joseph Smith Papers. Much of what we know about the final years of Joseph Smith’s personal life, about the history of the early church in Great Britain, and about the first half of the 1840s in Hancock County, Illinois comes from Willard Richards.

One of the identifying features of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that we are a record-keeping people. Our past is of incredible importance to us, and even some of our doctrines and theology stem from sacred historical events of the Restoration.

Sometimes his handwriting becomes simply illegible.

Willard Richards stands at the forefront of many men and women who left a wealth of writings about their lived experience during the church’s founding era. In the bulk of the Joseph Smith Papers Journals, Documents, and Administrative volumes that consider the Illinois years of the church, Richards’s personal influence is ubiquitous.

But to respond to the question you asked, the Joseph Smith Papers sheds light on Willard Richards in both direct references to his personal activities and subtle hints to his character and motivations.

Our portrait of Joseph Smith during his last years, for example, is filtered by Richards who kept Smith’s journal, but with only infrequent direction or review by the Prophet. So Richards’s content selection—such as frequent humorous anecdotes about Smith—often tells us more about Richards than about his subject.

A few fun examples of this relate to Joseph Smith’s service as judge of the Nauvoo mayor’s court and chief justice of the city’s municipal court.

Richards inscribed in Joseph’s journal entry of 20 February 1843 an event where fighting was heard in the street outside the room where Joseph was presiding over a court case. He described Joseph running outside and interrupting the fight, pulling the boys who had been fighting apart and then chastising the onlookers for not intervening sooner. “No body is allowed to fight in this city but me, said the mayor,” Richards recorded.

It says something about Willard’s character.

In an entry the following month Richards told that after answering correspondence and other business Joseph

laid down on the writing table back of the head on law books, saying write & tell the world I acknowledge myself a very great lawyer. I am going to study the law & this is the way I study. And fell asleep & went to snoring.

Joseph Smith, Journal, 18 Mar. 1843; spelling and punctuation standardized.

It seems extremely unlikely to me that had Joseph Smith been keeping his own journal that he would have recorded these things about himself. But because Willard Richards captured them we have wonderfully colorful insights into the Prophet’s character.

What is his handwriting like?

We joke that Willard Richards was a physician and wrote like most doctors. The truth is that he was capable of quite clean and precise penmanship, but only employed that skill when inscribing more formal texts for public audiences or important correspondence.

When writing in his personal journal—or Joseph Smith’s that he kept the majority of the time from December 1841 through June 1844—he wrote quickly, omitting letters in almost every word (even his own surname).

He saw record-keeping as a work of spiritual significance.

Sometimes his handwriting becomes simply illegible and those of us transcribing his documents are forced to try to divine characters in a nearly flat line meant to represent words or phrases.

An example of this is his rushed account of federal judge Nathaniel Pope’s decision in Joseph Smith’s January 1843 habeas corpus hearing in Springfield. Pope used Richards’s notes in Joseph Smith’s journal to form the basis of his official published decision, and it is only with the aid of the expanded published account that some of Richards’s scribbles can be deciphered.

A sample of Willard Richards's handwriting from the Joseph Smith Papers.
A sample of Willard Richards’s handwriting from Joseph Smith’s journal. Historian Alex Smith says that Richards’s penmanship is sometimes difficult to decipher.

These criticisms notwithstanding, Richards may have left a greater amount of information on the Restoration era of the church than any other single person. He accomplished this through his roles as secretary for Joseph, church historian, Nauvoo city clerk, mayor’s and municipal court clerk, temple building committee recorder, Council of Fifty secretary, and diarist, and more.

And for this monumental contribution to Mormon history, I’m very grateful.

Why might Willard Richards not be especially familiar to church members when he played such a large role?

My inappropriately self-serving response to this question is that scribes, clerks, and historians like Willard Richards are clearly the unsung heroes of our past. But humor aside, my perception is that Willard Richards enjoys some prominence and is (fairly) valued among scholars of Mormon history.

Those early Saints who left correspondence and diaries and minutes of organizations and reminiscences inevitably shape our understanding of history.

Outside of a very limited few historical actors who accomplished great public acts or held the leadership positions that so much of our history has previously focused on, it is people like Willard Richards, Eliza R. Snow, William Clayton, and Lucy Mack Smith that we come to know the most intimately because of the texts they created for us.

What’s one of your favorite lesser-known Willard Richards stories?

On 4 March 1843, during one of the rare occasions when Joseph Smith reviewed the journal that Willard Richards was keeping for him, the Prophet said, “Dr Richards there is one thing you fail in as historian the naming or noticing of surrounding objects, weather &c.”

That Richards archived this friendly criticism in Smith’s journal for others to read later says something about Willard’s character.

But perhaps even more revealing was the way Richards chose to implement the feedback. The most cursory review of Joseph Smith’s journal shows that Richards did not subsequently become more observant or descriptive in his journal-keeping generally. But he closed nearly every entry thereafter with a word or two about the weather: “cloudy” or “clear and cold” or “pleasant day.”

The one specific example that Joseph Smith had given for improvement Richards adopted with gusto. To me, this silly anecdote embodies the preeminent chronicler of early Mormonism. He saw record-keeping as a work of spiritual significance and was indomitable in carrying out his responsibilities.

About the interview participant

Alex D. Smith is a historian with the Church History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He served as a volume editor of six volumes in the Journals and Documents series of the Joseph Smith Papers. He currently leads the William Clayton Nauvoo journals project and is working on a book that explores the causes of Joseph Smith’s assassination.

Further reading

Willard Richards Resources

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

2 replies on “Who Was Willard Richards?”

The sunstone article referenced is a heartbreaking story. Jeannetta had a hard life and died very young.

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