Willard Richards is best known for his role in the assassination of Joseph Smith. He was in the same jail as Joseph, but survived the mob attack and hid another injured leader in order to save his life.

Willard Richards was born on June 24, 1804, in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. His family moved to Richmond, Massachusetts, when he was ten years old.

Quote by Willard Richards, "Men cannot fight truth, life or salvation without a medium of communication."Willard’s family was very religious, and he attended many different religious revivals. He selected the Congregational Church for membership, but they disregarded his request to join. He decided he needed to know more about religion before making a decision. After studying, he decided the true church did not exist at that time, but he felt it would soon be restored in its entirety. He chose to wait for that church and so did not join another, although he was vocal about his beliefs.

Book of Mormon

In 1835, Willard’s cousin, Brigham Young (a future Mormon prophet) left a copy of the Book of Mormon at another cousin’s home. Willard Richards began to read that copy and after just a half a page decided that it was not written by man and therefore had to be the work of either the devil or God. He read the entire book twice in ten days and then decided it was true. He made a decision to sell his medical practice and anything that kept him at his home near Boston to travel to Kirtland, Ohio, where the Mormons had settled. However, as soon as he made this decision, he developed palsy.

Willard’s brother Levi was also a doctor and he treated Willard. In 1836, they left together for Kirtland, Ohio, where they stayed with Brigham Young. Willard continued to learn about the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often mistakenly called the “Mormon Church” today) and was baptized on December 31, 1836, by Brigham Young.

This was a difficult time in Mormon history, when many members were leaving for easier paths. However, Willard Richards stayed firm. On March 6, he became an Elder, a level of Mormon priesthood. A few days later he headed east on his first mission. He returned in July and then was sent to England with three other Mormon leaders as a missionary.

Missionary in England

While serving in Preston, England, he was ordained a high priest and became a counselor to Joseph Fielding. Joseph was serving as the president of the British Mission. On July 8, Willard became a Mormon apostle, fulfilling the same role as the ancient apostles of the Bible. In September, he married Jannetta Richards, the daughter of a non-Mormon reverend.  While still in England, he worked in the editorial department of the Millennial Star, a Mormon newspaper.

Willard left England in 1841 and moved to Warsaw, Illinois. He was elected to the city council of the Mormon city of Nauvoo, Illinois, in October and moved there with his family. He was the recorder of the city council and the municipal court clerk. He was appointed recorder for the temple and also became a private secretary to Joseph Smith and kept Joseph’s private journal.

Murder of Joseph Smith

In 1844, a number of Mormon leaders were in jail on trumped-up charges, a common practice designed to cause the downfall of the Church, when a mob attacked. Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were murdered. Willard Richards was also in that prison and survived the attack with only a grazing on his ear from a bullet. John Taylor, who later became a Mormon prophet, was injured and Willard carried him upstairs and hid him under a bed. Willard expected to be killed, but the mob became nervous after killing Joseph Smith and fled, afraid of retribution by the Mormons. It was left to Richards to inform the Church members of the tragedy and the next day he and others accompanied the bodies of the brothers to Nauvoo. Since all other apostles were either traveling or dead, Richards took charge briefly of the local church members.

When the Mormons were forced to flee west, Willard served as Church historian. He left Nauvoo on February 4, 1846, with Brigham Young and others in the first group to leave.

On the first Sunday the Mormons were in the Salt Lake Valley in Utah, two church services were held and Willard Richards spoke at the first session. On December 5, the First Presidency, which leads the Church, was reorganized, with Brigham Young named prophet. Richards was named his second counselor.

In 1850, Willard Richards became the editor of the new Church-owned newspaper, the Deseret News. He died in 1854 in Salt Lake City, Utah.


This article is adapted from Every Person in the Doctrine and Covenants by Lynn F. Price, Cedar Fort, 2007.

About Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.

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