Saints without Halos
Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton
George F. Richards: A Link in the Chain
[p.109]The life of George F. Richards spanned pioneer Utah and World War II. He knew Brigham Young, who died when George was sixteen, and Presidents John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, Lorenzo Snow, Joseph F. Smith, and Heber J. Grant. His life illustrates as well as any one life can the course of the Church from the times of horse and buggy to the age of commercial air travel.
George was born on 23 February 1861 in Farmington, Utah, to Franklin D. Richards and Nanny Longstroth. The Richards family had a long tradition of Church service. Franklin D.’s uncle, Willard Richards, had been in Carthage Jail with Joseph and Hyrum Smith when they were martyred. Later, Willard served as a counselor to Brigham Young. As Church Historian he supervised the research and compilation which later resulted in the multi-volume History of the Church.
When Willard Richards died, Brigham Young counseled his nephew and fellow apostle Franklin D. Richards to fulfill the levirate law by marrying his uncle’s widows and assuming responsibility for his families. Franklin D. already had five living wives and many children, but on 6 March 1857 he was sealed for time and eternity to a sixth wife and was sealed for time only to Willard’s four widows. (Two weeks later he also married another wife.) One of the widows was Nanny [p.110]Longstroth, who was to become the mother of George F. Richards and grandmother of LeGrand Richards.
Plural marriage required the greatest cooperation and understanding from all partners and often placed heavy economic burdens on the families. Nanny Longstroth lived in Farmington, fifteen miles north of Franklin D.’s home in Salt Lake City. When George F. was born, his father’s time and attention were necessarily divided among his several families, his duties as a prominent leader in the territorial legislature, and his Church assignments. When George F. was five, his father left on a three-year mission to England, where he presided over the European missions. On his return, Brigham Young assigned him to preside over Weber Stake, and he moved to Ogden, twenty miles north of Farmington.
So at an early age George F. was needed to help provide for his mother, brother and sister. He worked hard, but occasionally when cutting wood in the canyons, he would rise before sunup to be in town in time to play an afternoon baseball game.
In the nineteenth century it was not unusual for children to be baptized at a relatively advanced age. Nor had the age of ordination to the Aaronic Priesthood been fixed. (In fact, most holders of the Aaronic Priesthood were adult men.) Thus, George F. Richards was baptized when he was twelve and apparently never was ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood. Instead, his father ordained him an elder at the age of fifteen. On the same day, he received his endowments in the Endowment House and was soon called on a stake mission.
While he was still a teenager George F. attended the University of Deseret (later the University of Utah) in Salt Lake City and at the age of twenty graduated in English literature. The following year he married Alice Robinson of Farmington. They eventually had fifteen children, thirteen of whom lived to maturity.
In 1885, when George F. was twenty-four, the Richards moved to Fielding, a farming community in northern Utah. Three years later they moved to Uncle Abram Doremus’s ranch in Tooele, west of Salt Lake City. Their four-room house was [p.111]graced with a front porch and included a cellar and attic but no inside toilet facilities. “We used to bathe in a round galvanized tub with water heated on the kitchen stove,” their son Joel remembered.
About the time Utah became a state (1896), George F. bought a house and farmland in Tooele. The two-story adobe house (two rooms upstairs and two rooms downstairs) soon proved inadequate, so the family moved into a shed while it was torn down and a new one built. The new house was one of the finest in Tooele. When running water, electric lights, and indoor toilet facilities were installed, the family was “in our seventh heaven.”
George F. and his sons plowed the land with a handplow and planted grain with a horse-drawn drill. Eventually they purchased a header pulled by four horses, which harvested wheat in a twelve-foot swath. After finishing their own grain, the Richards family worked on their neighbors’ harvest, taking wheat as payment. They cut the alfalfa with a mowing machine, windrowed it with a horse-drawn rake, and, when it was dry, loaded it onto a hayrack to be transported home where it was stacked with a derrick.
George F.’s sons knew what it meant to work. They planted, weeded, and harvested crops, and cut and hauled wood from the canyons. When their father started a lumber and implement business, they loaded and unloaded lumber, kept the books, and waited on customers.
One summer Stephen L. Richards joined his cousin LeGrand and his uncle George F. during the harvest. At noon the three future apostles crawled under the hay rake, ate their lunch, and conversed about the gospel.
George F. made it a point to talk to his sons as they worked side by side. “While we were hoeing weeds out of the corn field,” LeGrand wrote, “Father would ask us questions about the gospel. … I can remember to this day one of his questions: ‘What is the gospel?’ and our discussion of that question has remained with me all these years.”
Not so enjoyable was wash day. “I used to dread wash day every week,” Joel recalled.
[p. 112]It seemed to be my job to help Mother with the washing. … The first washer we had was operated with a handle pushed forward and backward to operate the dolly inside the washer. The next one was a rocker type that was rocked like a cradle, and when I got tired of rocking it by hand I would sit on the porch railing and rock it with my feet. Then someone invented a washer with a wheel that was turned to operate the dolly and we got one. This was an improvement over the others but still it got awful tiresome turning that wheel for all those batches of clothes, and then Mother would have to scrub the clothes on a scrubbing board to get them clean.
Eventually, Joel figured out a way to hook up his bicycle to the washer so he could turn the washer wheel by peddling.
In addition to farming and business activities, George F. also had civic and church responsibilities. He represented Tooele one term in the Utah Legislature and also served as chairman of the board for the local school district and irrigation company. In 1890 he was set apart as a counselor in the Tooele Stake presidency, and three years later, at the age of thirty-nine, he was ordained a patriarch.
In 1905, to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the birth of Joseph Smith, the Church erected a tall granite monument at Sharon, Vermont. George F. and Alice were invited to accompany President Joseph F. Smith and about twenty-five others on the train to Vermont. They attended the dedication services on December 23 and visited Manchester, Palmyra, Kirtland, and Omaha (Winter Quarters) on the return trip.
Following general conference in April 1906, President Smith called George F. to fill a vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Two other apostles, Orson F. Whitney and David O. McKay, were called at the same time.
George F. promptly sold his land and business interests in Tooele, moved his family to Salt Lake City, and immersed himself in his responsibilities. Between that conference and the next one in October, George F. attended an average of three stake conferences a month.
George F. Richards was not noted for his oratory but quickly gained the respect of the Saints for his sound counsel and quiet spirituality, qualities that had made him an [p.113]outstanding father. His first opportunity to address the Saints at conference came in October 1907, eighteen months after his call. He noted the generous outpouring of the Spirit during the conference and the uplifting talks that had been presented. Then he observed, “We have also been edified by the thoughts which have arisen in our minds, as a result of what we have heard. … I firmly believe that one of the most fruitful sources of spiritual education lies in the thoughts which arise in our own hearts, perhaps apart and independent of that which we are listening to. We are fed upon the bread of life by the Spirit of the Lord, and I feel that we have been so fed at this conference.”
The years of George F. Richards’s apostleship, from 1906 to 1950, were years of transition. As he traveled to stake conferences Elder Richards found that some priesthood holders did not belong to a quorum. In 1910 the general priesthood committee on which he served recommended, among other things, scheduling priesthood meetings on Sunday mornings instead of Monday evenings. Three years later the change was approved along with a comprehensive reorganization of the Aaronic Priesthood: ages were established for ordination to deacon, teacher, and priest; their responsibilities were clarified; and courses of study prepared. George F. helped shape the pattern of priesthood activity familiar to most of us today.
George F. inherited an intense interest in Church history from his father. He participated in the discussions which led to the improvement of Temple Square as a center for visitors, the purchase of historic sites in New York, and the commissioning of two sculptures—the Mormon Battalion Monument on the State Capitol grounds and the “This Is the Place Monument” at the mouth of Emigration Canyon.
At the height of World War I Elder Richards was called to preside over the British and European missions. After he told his wife and children they could not go with him, he wrote in his diary, “It broke up my wife’s feelings and the children cried with her. My true feelings are that I would naturally shrink from such responsibility and having to leave home and loved [p.114]ones for such a time as this mission will mean, but having put my hand to the plow there is for me no turning back. “LeGrand had just returned from presiding over the Netherlands Mission, but fortunately his son George F., Jr. and his daughter-in-law were able to accompany Elder Richards to his post in Liverpool. It was a traumatic situation for a mission president. The number of missionaries had been drastically reduced and proselyting virtually ceased until the end of the war.
When George F. returned to Salt Lake City in the spring of 1919, Heber J. Grant was the new President of the Church. Joseph F. Smith had died on 19 November 1918, just eight days after the armistice had been signed. Elder Richards was given his first office, a room in the new Church Administration Building, which had been completed just before his departure in 1916. Symbolic of the expanded organization of the Church, the building at 47 East South Temple became the scene of Elder Richards’s daily work for more than thirty years.
In 1921 Elder Richards and his wife Alice were called to be president and matron of the Salt Lake Temple. During his sixteen-year tenure as president, Elder Richards instituted regular night sessions, witnessed the cessation of earlier practices such as baptism for health and administering to the sick in the temple, and led the weekly temple meeting of the prayer circle once presided over by President John Taylor. (Such prayer circle organizations were formally disbanded in 1978.)
In 1957 Elder Richards was released as temple president and sustained as acting patriarch to the Church, filling a vacancy that had lasted more than five years. Elder Richards provided that service for five years. His sons, George F., Jr., and Joel, became stake patriarchs. His son LeGrand served four missions, was bishop of three wards, president of a stake, and presiding bishop from 1938 until his call to the Council of the Twelve in 1959.
One of the most appealing characteristics of George F. Richards was the close love he manifested towards his family. George F., Jr., remembered when his father, nearing ninety, [p.115]put an arm around him and said, “Son, it almost seems that we have grown up as boys together.”
This warmth extended to others as well. When one of the authors was an Aaronic Priesthood quorum president, Elder Richards called him out of the congregation to speak at stake conference, placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder, and said, “The future of the Church rests with stalwart young brethren like this.”
Elder George F. Richards died in 1950. When he was born, eighty thousand Latter-day Saints resided in four stakes and seven missions. When he died, more than a million Saints lived in one hundred and eighty stakes and forty-three missions. During the forty-four years of his apostleship, Church membership had tripled. Improved priesthood and auxiliary programs, expansion of the missionary force, temple-building, and other developments were part of his experience as a General Authority. In him the dedicated Richards family had a strong link in generations of devoted service.