Pioneer Sketch of Willard Richards

by Amy Amundsen

was born June 24 1804, to Joseph and Rhoda Howe Richards in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, the youngest of 11 children. When he was 11 years old his family moved to Richmond, Massachusetts on a 160 acre plot which his father was given as a bounty for having fought in the Revolutionary War. His parents belonged to the Congregational Church which taught that through Adam’s fall “mankind by nature are dead in trespasses and sin, justly condemned to everlasting punishment.” But through Christ’s atonement and the mediation of a regularly ordained minister a person might be saved if he is one of the fortunate few to whom God had extended grace.

Willard was large for his age, taller than his father when he was just 13, and by his own admission a careless youth in both habit and dress. But as he worked with hoe and shovel, his mind traveled in the paths of the stars, the rain and the clouds. Books consumed his interest- they were made to be read, even on the Sabbath, and if read, to question.

He naturally turned his questions to their learned young minister who was boarding with the Richards family. But because of Willard’s nonconformity, the minister rebuffed him, refusing even his plea for admission to the Richmond Congregational Society. WhenWillard could not turn to his minister for hope of his own salvation, he felt as though he stood with his feet at the brink of hell and his back against the straight wall of Puritanism. Books were his salvation.

He turned his interests to the scientific writings of Franklin and Newton. He wanted to go to the Academy not far away for more advanced schooling, but his parents did not approve, so he had to make the best of what he could get in the local schools. Those completed, he decided to try teaching, and the small town of Chatham, New York, offered him the use of the town hall attic if he could attract his own students. He succeeded in enrolling thirty boys and girls. He taught for several years, but science and experimenting with electricity still fascinated him. He set up some electrical displays with which he barnstormed the country, giving shows advertised as “Philosophical Experiments with Electricity”.

During his tours with the traveling show, he got a copy of Dr. Samuel Thomson‘s book on herbal medicines. He had been disgusted with the methods and medicines used by the doctors who had treated his sisters and this book interested him. He studied some on his own then traveled to Boston to study with Dr. Thomson himself, and after six weeks had the training and certificate to practice as Dr. Richards. He planned to set up his practice near his birthplace in Hopkinton, but while visiting some relatives he happened to see a book lying on a table – the “Book of Mormon.” They scornfully told him that his cousin Brigham Young, had left it a couple of weeks before but they were not about to read it. Willard had heard of this strange sect and was amazed to learn that Brigham was now one of Joe Smith’s apostles.

He opened the book and after reading only a few pages was struck with its teachings.- “Adam fell that man might be, and men are that they might have joy,” everything he had ever been taught, contradicted. He exclaimed to himself,

“Either God or the devil has had a hand in that book for man never wrote it.”

He became completely absorbed in the reading, going through it twice in ten days.

“If this book is true,” he told himself, “God has something greater for me to do than peddle pills.”

The decision he must make – to follow his heart and go to Kirtland, or stay with his medical work tortured him, but the more he studied, the more he was convinced that he had to check its source. Before he could leave, he suffered a stroke and it was over two months before he regained some use of his limbs. As soon as he was able, he went to his parents home in Richmond where he spent the summer overcoming the effects of the stroke.

In September Brigham and Joseph Young came for a visit. Willard felt they were an answer to his prayers, and he thrilled to their testimonies. His brother Levi also was interested and as soon as possible they started the 700 mile journey to Kirtland. They wanted to meet the prophet. On the long difficult trip Willard wrestled with the transition from the old teachings to these new concepts. He stayed with Brigham for three months, spending long evenings talking out all his doubts. Finally on December 31,1836 he was ready for baptism. Heber C. Kimball chopped the ice from the Chagrin River and that evening in the light of a bonfire, surrounded by a group of the faithful, Brigham baptized Willard and Levi. Eight days later at a meeting in the temple, Joseph Smith Sr. blessed Willard for health and a long life of service in the church and conferred upon him the gift of the Holy Ghost. Three months later, to his surprise, he was asked to attend a meeting of the High Priests. He protested that he hadn’t even been ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood.

What right had he at such a meeting? Brigham replied,

“Some men are naturally called upon to go faster than others. Never disparage the appointment of the Lord.”

He was ordained a High Priest and immediately called to go with Brigham Young on a mission to the East to secure funds for the Church bank. He had only been back in Kirtland three days, and left again, this time to open the mission in England with Heber C. Kimball, Joseph Fielding and Orson Hyde. Although Heber and Willard had only known each other a few months they had become fast friends. One day as they were walking down the road, Heber picked up an iron ring an inch and a half in diameter. He handed it to Willard and said,

“Brother Willard, let our friendship be as endless as this ring.”

The ring with the sentiment was highly prized by its owner and is still in the possession of the family.

Within ten days after arriving in England Bro. Kimball baptized nine converts. A Reverend John Richards invited him to preach in his church. But when a number of his flock were converted, among them his daughter, he was furious and refused to allow her to attend meetings. Jennetta Richards was baptized by Heber C. Kimball who then wrote to Willard who was working in another district, saying that he had just baptized his wife. Knowing of Heber C. Kimball’s gift of prophecy he was deeply impressed but did not meet the young lady until nine months later. After much work and considerable success Brothers Kimball and Hyde were called home. At the conference to bid them goodbye Willard first met Miss Richards and asked permission to call on her father.

A few days later he received an invitation to dinner. He was at their door at the precise hour, greeted formally by Mrs. Richards and ushered into the Reverend’s study. He acknowledged him as a guest but let him know that he was offended that he was leading Jennetta astray. Nevertheless she indicated to Willard that she was as interested in him as he was in her. They saw each other only briefly during the summer but Jennetta promised that she would come with her trunk even though she knew it would mean breaking with her family. They were married in the registrar’s office September 24, 1838. Willard was thirty-four years old. These were trying times in the mission. There was unrest among the members and some resentment over him marrying a high ranking lady. He received a letter from Heber describing the terrible trials in Missouri and the Saints being driven from Far West. But Willard and Brother Fielding, knowing the importance of their work, labored to help the Saints in England to grow and understand the gospel.

A son was born to Jennetta in July named Heber John. He was a healthy, beautiful child but in December he died of smallpox. Jennetta had been invited back to her parent’s home and had spent some time with them. They too mourned the loss of the child. Jennetta was again pregnant so she stayed most of the time with her parents while Willard traveled around the mission. In January two apostles, Willard Woodruff and John Taylor came to England, the first of a large group that was to come. They had an important message for Willard. Joseph Smith had had a revelation that Willard was to be called as an apostle. Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball arrived in time for April conference. George A. Smith, Parley P. Pratt and Orson Pratt had also come with them making seven apostles in England. On April 14, 1840 this group met and ordained Willard Richards one of their number, bringing the total to eight.

He moved to Manchester to become the temporary editor of the Millennial Star while Parley P. Pratt returned to the States for his family. His second son was born October 11th and named the same as the first, Heber John. They had sent two companies of Saints off to the States. Then in April 1841 all of the members of the quorum of the twelve who had been laboring in Britain, except Parley P. Pratt, accompanied the third group of immigrants. While the others went directly to Nauvoo. Willard took Jennetta to Richmond to meet his family and left her and the baby with his sisters while he went ahead to find a home in Nauvoo, On August 16th Willard got his first glimpse of Nauvoo. Much had transpired the four years he had been in England. Everything was hustle and bustle in this fast growing city. Joseph Smith gave him a warm welcome.

He immediately gave him a writing assignment and this started a close association between the two. During the winter and spring of 1841-42 the two worked together in writing Joseph’s history and in publishing the Times & Seasons. Willard was appointed recorder for the Church and an office was set up for him on the first floor of the new brick store. The Prophet’s private office was on the second floor so every minute he could spare from his own desk, he would help Joseph. At times they would interrupt their work to go out on the riverbank and pull stakes or wrestle, then back to the desk, Joseph dictating, Willard writing. He was made recorder for the temple, since baptisms for the dead were being performed in the basement of the uncompleted building. Willard had been boarding with Brigham Young’s family but in January he moved into the Prophet’s home. Although he had a lot he had not been able to start his house, so Jennetta was still back in Richmond with his family. Whenever he mentioned going back for her, the printing duties and Church business seemed more pressing.

Joseph had told Willard privately about the revelation on plural marriage with instructions that those given it must practice it. This was not easy for him to accept and he knew it would be difficult to explain to Jennetta. On May 4,1842 Willard was one of seven men to meet in the assembly room of the temple to be endowed. Joseph felt the urgency of passing the keys of this ceremony onto those who could carry on if anything happened to him. He was all ready to go for Jennetta when word came that Ex-Governor Boggs of Missouri had been shot and was accusing Joseph Smith of being an accessory with Porter Rockwell the actual criminal and had petitioned the Governor of Illinois for Joseph’s extradition. This complicated all the Church affairs and he felt obliged to stay and help work out some of the legal problems. Finally on July 16th Willard got back to his wife and child who was now two years old.

He appreciated having Jennetta at his side but he failed to get her to accept the law of plural marriage. They returned to Nauvoo and moved into their new home. Willard’s good friends, the Longstreths from England, had stayed in St. Louis. Joseph urged Willard to go down to them before the river froze and ask for their two daughters, Sarah and Nanny. The family traveled back to Nauvoo with Willard so the girls could be sealed to him by the Prophet and Sarah stayed in Nauvoo while Nanny, who was fourteen, went back and lived with her parents for two years. Such was the esteem the Longstreths had for Willard, that they too later asked to be sealed to him to become a part of his eternal family. Polygamy was not yet taught openly so those of the authorities who had obeyed Joseph’s instructions had to do it in secret. This furnished grist for the mills of those who were seeking to destroy the Church.

Willard made two trips to the state capital to try to clear Joseph of the charges against him but Governor Ford insisted that he come before him in person. To satisfy his accusers and against his own good judgement, Joseph went to Carthage and Willard accompanied him. The story of Carthage is familiar to all. The only thing we can point out is that of the four men in the room or cell, Joseph and Hyrum were killed, John Taylor was severely wounded and Willard Richards was unharmed. In assessing the gravity of the situation he realized that he had been spared for a purpose. His special mission was to keep the people calm, retaliation would only make matters worse. He had the entire responsibility of making decisions for several weeks until the rest of the Twelve could be notified and return to Nauvoo. He assured the Governor that the Mormons would not attack, but that they expected redress from the courts. If the government failed them there was a higher power, “Vengeance rests with heaven.”

The Nauvoo story is also well known to all of us. With the return of the other apostles the problems were faced in council and as recorder Willard wrote tirelessly that all would be kept for posterity. Preparations were made to move west. His dear Jennetta died July 9, 1845. He had stayed at her bedside constantly for six weeks but to no avail. They buried her in the garden. The strain of Jennetta’s illness and death took its toll on Willard. He was barely able to leave his bed to take care of urgent duties.

As a member of the Council of Fifty he participated in directing the move out of Nauvoo. Willard’s family had increased. He had chosen a wife from each of the districts in England where he had labored but could not take all of them out on the prairie. Sarah Longstreth and Amelia Pierson shared his wagon along with the children and they crossed the river on February 15th and camped at Sugar Creek where the temperature dropped below zero. Willard was appointed postmaster for this company and also had the responsibility of carrying and protecting the precious history manuscripts. The difficulties and misery of those months are beyond our comprehension. Just two years after Willard had ridden to Carthage with Joseph and Hyrum, they camped at Winter Quarters on a flat close to the Missouri River.

Five hundred log houses were built in two months and at least two hundred other buildings started. Willard helped divide Winter Quarters into twenty-two wards with a bishop and counselor over each. Willard’s was one of the last houses to be finished. It had a wing to be used as a council hall and post office. With the bags of mail coming from the Battalion, the other settlements, members in the east and in England, he had a gigantic task. The winter was bitter cold but with spring came the plans for the first company to start out for the west. On April 16, 1847 Willard started out with the eager band and his family waited for his return to take them out the following year. Sally had given birth to her first son,Willard Brigham, and Amelia and Susannah were helping her and caring for Heber John, Rhoda Ann Jennetta, and Ellen, an adopted daughter.

After his return to Winter Quarters he was chosen second counselor to President Brigham Young. In 1848 he led a large company of saints to this valley as their captain. When the provisional government of the State of Deseret was formed he was elected secretary of state under Governor Brigham Young. He was a member of the territorial legislature and the presiding officer of that body. He was the first editor of the Deseret News and the first postmaster of Salt Lake City. He was the historian and general church recorder from 1842 until his death March 11, 1854.

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This article originally appeared in the July/August 1990 issue of Pioneer Magazine

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