“LeGrand Richards: A Marvelous Work and a Wonder,” Ensign, July 1982, 5
When Elder LeGrand Richards stands to speak, a ripple of excitement stirs the audience. Most of them have heard him before and are enthusiastic to hear him again. They delight in his humor, his transparent purity, his ability to illustrate the gospel’s saving power from his own homey anecdotes and stories.
No one among the living General Authorities has had more of life’s experience. None have lived so long.
In fact, on June 19, Elder LeGrand Richards set a record among leaders of the Church. On that date he became the General Authority who has lived on earth the longest in this latter-day dispensation, passing by one day the milestone set by President David O. McKay, who lived to 96 years, 132 days.
Although the years have taken their toll on Elder Richards’ body, he seems to have lost little of his vigor. Witness the voice: he speaks in ringing tones, speaking at a rapid pace so that it holds listeners breathless for him to take his breath!
Every sermon he preaches has a freshness and a vitality that give life to his message. Many times, as he begins to conclude his remarks, he typically interrupts himself, looks back at the presiding or conducting authority, and asks, “Do I have time for one more story?” Or he comments, as he did in the recent April general conference, that he has given one of his Brethren his cane: “We never get talked out,” he said. “That’s why I’ve asked Brother Benson to tap me on the leg when my time is up!” One gets the sense that Elder Richards could speak all day. And the joy that flows from him is such that we almost wish he could!
He is a venerable member of a venerable family: the Richards family has given the Church five Apostles—two of them members of the First Presidency (Willard, Stephen L), two presidents of the Council of the Twelve (Franklin D. and George F.), and now LeGrand; one Assistant to the Twelve (Stayner); and one member of the Quorum of the Seventy (one of the Presidents of the First Quorum of the Seventy—Franklin D.).
At 96, he has spanned well over half of the Church history in this dispensation. He has lived during the administrations of ten Church Presidents—from John Taylor to Spencer W. Kimball.
LeGrand Richards was born in Farmington, Utah, on 6 February 1886. His parents were George F. Richards and Almira Robinson Richards. He was their third child out of fifteen.
His boyhood home was primitive by present standards. There was no indoor plumbing, and water had to be carried for table, bath, and laundry use. Washings were put out by hand at first, then by a hand-turned washer when such machines became available. Weekly baths were taken in a big washtub by the stove, with only a quilt hung to give a measure of privacy. Fruit was bottled in the hundreds of quarts for the large and ever-growing family, and this on the wood-burning stove. Hard work was the order of life, and even the small children had their share in it. Each was taught to do the tasks which were commensurate with his age and level of understanding. He was then encouraged to take hold and perform his work unfailingly.
At age eleven LeGrand was considered old enough to do a man’s work, and because of his great love for his father he enjoyed working with him and profited from his daily instruction and the gospel discussions that were often part of their conversation. He helped hoe weeds from a forty-acre corn patch, plowed the land, ran his father’s twelve-foot header, and hauled hay, lumber, adobe, lime, and wood.
Whatever the task that needed doing, winter made it more difficult. LeGrand tells of going into the canyons with his father to get wood, of frozen gloves, tipped-over loads of cedar stumps, and near-runaways.
Because of his father’s example and his own willing spirit, service came naturally to LeGrand. As deacons quorum president, he served in that office as faithfully as his father served in the stake presidency. Of that experience he recalls: “We had to sweep our meetinghouse each Saturday; chop wood for our two big stoves, carry it in to the wood box, and then go early Sunday morning and dust and make the fires to warm the building. We had to clean the chimneys of our coal oil lamps and fill them. We also had to take care of our meetinghouse grounds.”
LeGrand’s father’s daily teachings so impressed the boy that he took responsibility to safeguard his mind by controlling what he allowed to enter it. He tells how one day “I walked away from the old Co-op corner, where we used to play our first games, and I resolved that no friend of mine would ever be able to accuse me of befouling his mind with dirty stories like I had heard there.” And he has many times repeated the classic statement, “I can go back to the town where I was raised as a boy and can tell parents how to raise their children, and I don’t need to worry about old women my age sitting down in the back saying, ‘Yes, but you should have known him when we knew him as a boy.’”
Determined to prepare himself for the coming of his mission call, he began to study and memorize the scriptures, a practice that has been lifelong. His study also familiarized him with the prophets, so that in a special sense they became his friends. “We can’t all have the most learned companions,” he later said, “but we can have the daily association of the great men of God by becoming acquainted with their lives and labors and teachings, as they have been recorded and handed down to us.”
Life was not physically easy for LeGrand, even in his youth. He repeatedly suffered from ailments and accidents that tried his mettle—and spiritually toughened him.
While LeGrand was still a very small boy, he was struck on the head with the back of an axe. He sprawled on the ground, stunned and bleeding, but recovered after a priesthood blessing and medical care.
Shortly after this accident, LeGrand was thrown out of a wagon by the horses’ unexpected motion backward. As he hit the ground, the wagon wheel passed over his head. Before he could be pulled away, a quick forward movement of the team caused the wheel to pass over his head a second time. His frightened father gathered the crying boy up into his arms and blessed him. Again he recovered.
At age eight, LeGrand contracted some type of hipbone disease. For nine months he wore a plaster cast on his leg from shoe-top to hip and around his waist, during which time he used crutches and missed a year of school. Later that year, still in the cast, he was attacked by a vicious ram. The animal came at him time and again as he braced against the fence and tried to ward off its attack with his hands. It was the plaster cast around his waist that is thought to have saved LeGrand’s life.
Still on crutches at age nine, he was hit by another misfortune. He again fell under a wagon. “The wheel ran over my arm and broke it. I felt around to find my crutches and then managed to crawl out from under the load. My arm was bent at an awful angle, but I wouldn’t let the doctor set it until my father returned from the Basin Pasture to give me a blessing.”
As a youth, he was stricken with a severe case of scarlet fever and his temperature ran dangerously high for many days.
Finally, at age nineteen, when ready to leave for his mission, LeGrand was again on crutches, this time with a painfully enlarged knee in a cast. He was advised to stay home and take care of himself. Instead, he asked his father to give him a priesthood blessing, and he then left as scheduled with neither cast nor crutch.
From all accidents and maladies, except one, LeGrand was spared permanent disability. The exception was the hip trouble, which resulted in one leg remaining an inch and one half shorter than the other, giving him a lifelong limp and almost constant discomfort and pain.
The physical problems continued into LeGrand’s adulthood. For periods during his first two missions, Elder Richards’ eyes went bad on him. He couldn’t read at all. He recorded, “The feeling is just like seasickness—severe headache, nausea.”
In 1912, married only three years, LeGrand was stricken with the dread disease smallpox. Then, during the deadly influenza epidemic of 1918–1919, he contracted that illness.
In addition to these troubles, Elder Richards has suffered two heart attacks, in 1942 and in 1964. Shortly after the first, the doctor commented that he would not have given “ten cents for his chances of pulling through that first day.” But he did pull through and gradually recovered.
After what seemed to him an interminable convalescence, he met with the First Presidency and his counselors in the Presiding Bishopric and said to them, “Well, I found out what hell is!”
“What is it, Bishop?” asked President J. Reuben Clark.
“To see the other man working and not be able to myself.” He added, “If there is any truth to the words of the song, ‘There’s sweet, sweet rest in heaven,’ then I’m going to ask to be routed in the other direction.”
Bishop Marvin O. Ashton, one of Bishop Richards’ counselors, could not resist a witty rejoinder: “Well, Bishop,” he said, “you may not have to ask for it.”
“Yes, I’ve thought of that too,” replied Brother Richards, who knew he was now comfortably back with the men he loved and in the work which gave him such satisfaction.
From then on he carried his usual work loads, but his associates often saw him walking with a cane. The old hip trouble made him less sure of step, but it didn’t slow him down.
In 1978, after a hernia operation, Elder Richards walked with Elder Boyd K. Packer to their meeting in the temple. Brother Packer, feeling the pressure of weight upon his arm, solicitously inquired, “Are you in constant pain?”
“No more than I can stand,” was the cheerful answer.
On 23 February 1979 Elder Richards was taken to the hospital, where he remained in critical condition for nearly a month. His obituary was written, and the First Presidency and the Twelve were informed that it was only a matter of hours before he’d be gone. But gradually Elder Richards recovered.
At the April Conference following Brother Richards’ release from the hospital, President Spencer W. Kimball announced in the first session that all General Authorities except Elder Richards were present. A stir went through the audience as they took in the situation. Elder Richards had come in and taken his place on the stand, sitting in full view of the congregation, a blanket over his knees, oxygen tube in his nose, and a broad though wan smile on his face. President Kimball turned, saw his beloved associate, and delightedly corrected his previous announcement.
The following week in the meeting of the Twelve, Elder Richards said, “I read in the minutes where you’d received word of my imminent demise, but I fooled you, didn’t I?”
LeGrand’s boyhood rearing, as well as the many trials he experienced in his early life, helped to shape a character that is truly Christlike. From his youth he was honest, diligent, committed to the gospel, filled with faith, grateful to God for his blessings.
A few examples:
Honesty. Joseph Cutler discovered LeGrand’s integrity through a personal experience. Joseph drove down from Idaho, seeking to trade his farm for some Salt Lake property. LeGrand was the real estate agent Joseph was dealing with, and LeGrand showed him what his firm determined they could reasonably trade. Joseph asked, “Would you make the deal if you were I?”
LeGrand replied, “Well, you shouldn’t ask me that question, because I’ve never seen your farm and I don’t know what it’s really worth, but you do. You’ve seen both properties, so you ought to make the decision.”
Joseph still said, “Well, I want to know if you’d make the deal.”
Pressed for an answer in this way, LeGrand said, “Now then, you tell me what would be the lowest cash price you’d take if you were selling instead of trading your farm.” When the man gave the figure, LeGrand asked, “You mean it’s actually worth that in cash?”
“Yes,” said Cutler.
“Then I would not make the trade.”
The commission from that transaction would have been an almost-new automobile and several thousand dollars. It made no difference. As LeGrand had earlier told a Dutch friend who questioned whether a man could be honest in real estate, “If I couldn’t be as honest dealing in homes as I could selling either the gospel or shoes, I wouldn’t be in the business.”
Diligence and Commitment. At the beginning of Elder Richards’ first mission to Holland in 1905, he was assigned to work in the mission office. He felt the urgent need to learn the language and often felt hampered because of his lack of proficiency. He pushed to get the office work current so he could study Dutch. Beyond that, the spirit of his mission “rested mightily upon him.” He wrote, “I was so anxious to preach the gospel that I found myself arising before 5:00 A.M. to study Dutch and get my office work done so I could go out tracting in the afternoon.” Day after day he recorded that he distributed 50, 92, 110 tracts a day. His return calls to gather them yielded many gospel conversations, halting and incomplete as they no doubt were at first on his part. The kind of effort he was expending as a “part-time” missionary is made clear by the fact that, in comparison, other missionaries were giving out an average of only 197 tracts per missionary, per month, at the same time.
In 1926, LeGrand responded to President Heber J. Grant’s call for short-term missionaries. Elder Richards left his business and family to serve six months in another part of the country. In 1929 he responded again, when President Grant asked him to sell his home and business and move to California, where he served first as bishop of the Glendale Ward and then as president of the Hollywood Stake. Such a call was quite unusual by this point in Church history, but Elder Richards said when the call was delivered to him by messenger: “Tell the President that I think enough of the Lord, the Church, and him that if this is what he wants, I will go.”
Faith. When Elder Richards left his first mission to go home, the ship’s crossing proved to be rough. As they neared the American shore a terrible storm arose. Gigantic waves rolled about, and everything not attached to the deck was thrown around. A sister returning from Scandinavia said, “Brother Richards, you don’t seem a bit worried.”
He answered, “Well, I don’t know what’s going to happen to you and the rest of the passengers, but I feel just as much at ease as if I were sitting in my mother’s parlor. I had a promise that if I filled an honorable mission I’d return home in safety, and I have had the assurance that my mission was acceptable to the Lord, so I am going home.”
Gratitude. A deep sense of gratitude has been a keynote in Elder Richards’s life. He recalls that while serving in Amsterdam he “used to go over to the little chapel, and kneel down back of the pulpit and thank the Lord for the privilege of being in the mission field, and for the opportunity … to bear witness of the gospel. It seemed such a part of me that my heart would just bubble over.” That joy has continued with him through the years.
The Lord has called Elder Richards into his service an impressive number of times. He has served twice as a full-time missionary and twice as mission president, for a total of nearly ten years. His years as a General Authority total forty-four years—and climbing. Add to that his diligent efforts as branch president in Portland, Oregon, bishop in Salt Lake City (twice), and bishop and stake president in California.
Typical of his forthrightness as a leader is this story from his service as Southern States Mission president. At a conference he attended in one district, the Relief Society served lunch on the lawn between meetings, and this gave the president opportunity to circulate around and visit with the people. He went up to one brother, put his arm around him, called him by name, and said, “How long have you been a member of the Church?”
“Forty years,” the man answered.
The president then asked three questions: “What are you doing in the Church?”
“Do you hold the priesthood?” He did not.
“Have you quit your tobacco?” He had not.
President Richards queried again, “What Church did you belong to before you became a Mormon?”
When the man told him, the president replied, “Why don’t you go back to it? You would make a good member of that church. I don’t see that Mormonism has done a thing for you.” He then proceeded to teach him the parable of the talents and the statement of the Savior, “Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit shall be hewn down and cast into the fire.” (D&C 97:7.) It was a turning point in the brother’s life.
Elder Richards was sustained as the seventh Presiding Bishop of the Church on 6 April 1938. During his fourteen-year tenure, the Presiding Bishopric made many contributions, among which are the following:
• A Church-wide budget system for ward maintenance and needs. (Elder Mark E. Petersen, as a counselor in a stake presidency at the time, witnessed the changeover. He says, “It revolutionized the whole concept of ward and stake financing and was very beneficial to the total Church.”)
• The system where all tithes and contributions, Church-wide, came to the Presiding Bishop’s Office first; then expense monies were dispersed back to the local units of the Church according to their size and needs.
• A general Church membership record (prior to that time, membership records were kept only at the ward level).
• The Individual Award and Group Award programs.
• Helped increase significantly sacrament meeting attendance Churchwide.
• The landscaping and beautification of ward and stake meetinghouse grounds.
As Presiding Bishop in a time when Church membership was much smaller, LeGrand Richards had what Bishop Joseph L. Wirthlin (a counselor) described as an “open-door policy.” Bishop Wirthlin said, “It was inaugurated at the beginning of his term, wherein no one who desired audience with him or his counselors should be denied a hearing. Our office doors remained always open, and the widow, the harassed businessman, the youth with his problem, the immigrant, always received a kind word and assistance from Bishop Richards.”
Bishop Richards was noted for his experience and understanding. Mabel Jones Gabbott, who was Bishop Richards’ secretary, says, that “bishops would come in with their problems and he would seat them across the desk and be so considerate and kind. It was a big step, but he’d been a bishop three times and a stake president and he understood their problems and their needs. He was never hurried. … They would then leave with their fear and apprehension quieted and feeling that, in him, they truly had a friend.”
It was shortly after noon on Sunday, 6 April 1952. The morning session of the 122nd Annual General Conference had just concluded. With no premonition or forewarning, Bishop Richards received word from Elder Henry D. Moyle, who later served as counselor to President David O. McKay, that the President wished to see him at his office. When Bishop Richards arrived there, President McKay told him he had been chosen to fill the vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve occasioned by the death of Elder Joseph F. Merrill on February 3. Recounting the experience, Elder Richards said, “I wept and the President wept, and we hugged each other, and then we went over to the afternoon meeting.”
Elder Richards has served in many capacities in his thirty years as a member of the Council of the Twelve. Aside from missionary effort, from which he is never far removed, some of the areas in which Elder Richards functions as a member of the Council of the Twelve are those of special administrative assignments, various boards, and committee work.
One committee Elder Richards supervises as chairman determines boundary changes—the dividing of wards and branches and the creation of new stakes. He is also chairman of the committee to approve changes of counselors in stake presidencies, bishops of wards, and all temple workers worldwide.
Like most General Authorities, Elder Richards has traveled extensively, lifting his voice in testimony. He has literally traveled the length and breadth of the Church, touring missions and attending conferences. In addition, he has attended area conferences, which have taken many of the General Authorities to people who could never hope to attend general conferences in Salt Lake City.
In 1977, he was elected president of the Orson Hyde Foundation, which had the responsibility of raising a million dollars for a special park in Jerusalem. “I am pleased with this assignment and am enjoying it very much,” he wrote in his journal. With characteristic zeal, Elder Richards got to work, and the money was raised in good time for the dedication of the park. The park, located on the Mount of Olives, shares a part of the gospel message with the multitude of tourists who visit Jerusalem every year.
Elder Richards is held in high esteem by those with whom he serves. Elder Boyd K. Packer notes that “when we approach and wrestle with a problem, [Elder Richards] has seen some version of it three or four times before. It will have been enacted on a different stage and the actors have been changed, but the script is the same as far as the problem is concerned. When you have been through it in 1918, 1937, and 1969, you just aren’t afraid of it. You have both perspective and perception to see what is right and the absolute courage to do what is right.”
Elder Neal A. Maxwell, newest member of the Quorum, says, “He has an innocence concerning the sins of the world and their many aberrations. They are difficulties to be dealt with, but are not part of the focus of his life. He is unspotted. His singlemindedness in serving the Lord is an emancipating thing, for it frees him in so many ways. He is uncluttered by any ego considerations.”
Among all of Elder Richards’ contributions to the Church, there is one that always comes to mind: his first book, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder (he has written three books). In thirty-two years and twenty-three printings (1950–1982), A Marvelous Work and a Wonder sold more copies than any other Church book save the Book of Mormon—the publisher reports one-and-a-half to two million copies printed in the United States, and to this number must be added fifty thousand copies printed in Europe. It has been translated into eighteen languages. Elder Richards has never accepted a penny of royalty on the book, donating it all to the missionary effort of the Church.
Many who have been spiritually touched and/or converted through the book have told of its effect on them, and their stories come from all over the world, from people of all ages, and from those in all walks of life. Scarcely a day goes by but what letters or people come to Elder Richards’ office to tell him about his book and to thank him for writing it.
Elder Richards considers A Marvelous Work and a Wonder to be his most significant contribution to the building of the Lord’s kingdom in our day. “I think there are thousands of men and women in the world who have been good enough to be members of the Church all the time,” he said, but few “stopped long enough to fit the truths together so they can understand. This my book is doing.”
Through all of his public service, Elder Richards has had a firm anchor in his family. He was deeply devoted to his wife, Ina (she died in 1977), and to each of their eight children. That family union began in May 1909, when he and Ina were married.
Their marriage started off with excellent priorities. When LeGrand proposed to Ina Jane Ashton, he talked of the great spiritual impact his mission had on him and how he had committed himself to putting the Lord first in his life. Ina understood his feelings, and in the years that followed the two sustained each other completely in their devotion to the Lord and his work.
Elder Richards always tried to be attentive to Ina’s needs. He says matter-of-factly: “While the children were babies, I don’t think my wife ever got up at night unless they were sick. I figured that if she took care of the kiddies in the day (and it is a wrestle to keep them happy), and I just had book work to do, that I could afford to spell her off at night. So, if a baby cried, I’d be out of bed in a hurry; if it was a bottle they needed, I’d get it; or I’d change their pants. As long as they weren’t sick, I relieved her of the responsibility of caring for them at night.”
Though he claims not to have helped when the children were sick, the record is to the contrary, for each child tells of his gentle care in time of illness—how he tucked them in and soothed them; how he rubbed aching legs; and how he blessed them. His love for them all has been deep, sure, and ever-present.
On their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary (1944), LeGrand said to Ina, “Mommy, what do you think we’ll be doing thirty-five million years from today?”
With typical spunk she answered, “Where’d you get such an idea? It makes me tired to think of it.”
“Well,” he said, “you believe in eternal life. We’re told that time is measured only to man, and that with God there is no such thing as time. It’s one eternal round; there’s no beginning and there’s no end. Now, Mother, if you believe that, you and I ought to be pretty well acquainted with each other thirty-five million years from today.”
While this was spoken in fun, such was Brother Richards’s faith, and Ina’s, in the eternity for which they were working to prepare themselves.
In May 1959, LeGrand and Ina celebrated their golden wedding anniversary. As they looked back over fifty years, the trials, joys, losses, and gains were distilled and summarized in Ina’s brief statement: “Nobody could have a better, sweeter life than we’ve had.”
After Ina died, Elder Richards said to his children, “I’m grateful I’ll have her forever. She is as good as any of the angels she will meet on the other side, so she’ll be able to feel at home with them.”
Elder Richards’ down-to-earth attitudes appeal to people worldwide; he is an Apostle, beloved by all. Characteristically, before and after his sermons, he seeks to be available to his listeners, sharing his love, his warmth, his sincerity. He often says, “Long after they’ve forgotten what we say, the people will remember that a General Authority shook hands with them.”
Perhaps that’s what we’ll most remember Elder LeGrand Richards for—his personal touch. But before it’s time to remember him, we’ll be able to enjoy him, and to learn from him. At 96, he may be here for some time to come. When President N. Eldon Tanner asked him at his ninetieth birthday celebration, “Have you lived all your life in the United States?” Elder Richards had a ready answer:
“Not yet!” he said.
Feb. 6, 1886—Born, Farmington, Utah
1902–1903—Attends Salt Lake Business College
1905–1908—Mission to the Netherlands
1909–1910—Serves as branch president, Portland, Oregon
1909—Marries Ina Jane Ashton
1913–1916—Serves as president of the Netherlands Mission
1916—Forms LeGrand Richards Realty Company
1919–1925—Serves as bishop of Sugar House Ward
1926—Serves a short-term mission in Eastern States Mission
1930–1931—Serves as bishop of Glendale Ward, California
1931–1933—Serves as president of Hollywood Stake, California
1933–1937—Serves as president of Southern States Mission
1938—Serves for ten months as bishop of University Ward, Salt Lake City
1938–1952—Serves as seventh Presiding Bishop of the Church
1950—A Marvelous Work and a Wonder is published
1952—Called as an Apostle at age 66
1977—Wife, Ina, dies after 68 years of marriage