‘The Kingdom of God Will Roll On’: Succession in the Presidency
August 1996

“‘The Kingdom of God Will Roll On’: Succession in the Presidency,” Ensign, Aug. 1996, 22

“The Kingdom of God Will Roll On”:

Succession in the Presidency

Through Joseph Smith, the Lord taught fundamental principles of succession that would be needed following the Prophet’s death.

As the immediate shock and horror accompanying the news of the Martyrdom of Joseph the Prophet and Hyrum the Patriarch subsided and the bodies of the fallen leaders were laid to rest, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was confronted with a challenge unlike any other it had faced before.

The Saints had endured persecution from their enemies—both from within and outside the Church. They had lost their lands and homes and had been driven from place to place. They had witnessed the apostasy of and betrayal by some of the Church’s leading officers. Some of the actions of these apostates helped bring about the infamous Extermination Order by Missouri’s governor Lilburn W. Boggs. Despite these difficult challenges, the Church survived.

Many of the Saints had come to believe they would be able to withstand any assault on the Church as long as the Prophet Joseph stood at their head. Following his death, the Church’s enemies exulted in the prospects of what they considered the certain demise of the Church. Many of the Saints, weighed down with their profound sense of loss, faced deep uncertainty about their future. At the time of the Martyrdom, all but two members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles were serving missions in the eastern United States. Elder Wilford Woodruff and several of these brethren returned to Nauvoo on 6 August 1844. Of this occasion, Elder Woodruff recorded (original spelling and punctuation retained throughout): “When we landed in the City there was a deep gloom seemed to rest over the City of Nauvoo which we never experienced before. … We were recived with gladness by the Saints throughout the City they felt like sheep without a shepherd, as being without a father, as their head had been taken away.”1 But this feeling of gloom would soon be lifted, and the Saints’ concerns about who would lead them would be quickly resolved through the leadership of President Brigham Young and the Twelve.

Thursday, 8 August 1844, stands as one of the most significant days in the history of the restored Church. A special council meeting had been convened a day earlier to hear and consider President Sidney Rigdon’s claim to be the “guardian” of the Church. At the time of the Martyrdom, President Rigdon, First Counselor in the First Presidency to the Prophet Joseph Smith, was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, having gone there contrary to revelation. Upon hearing of the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum, he hurried to Nauvoo. On 7 August he told the Saints about a vision he claimed to have received instructing him that the “church must be built up to Joseph, and that all the blessings we receive must come through him.” Sidney Rigdon further declared: “I have been ordained a spokesman to Joseph, and I must … see that the church is governed in a proper manner. Joseph sustains the same relationship to this church as he has always done. No man can be the successor of Joseph.”2 Following Sidney Rigdon’s lengthy remarks, President Brigham Young briefly addressed the council and announced that a special conference would be held the next day, 8 August, to consider Sidney Rigdon’s claim.

Brigham Young
Sidney Rigdon

Brigham Young Sidney Rigdon

During these meetings two events occurred that dramatically affected the Saints’ perception of this crisis and determined the course the Church would follow. The first was President Young’s statement on 7 August, at the first meeting, wherein he confidently and succinctly outlined who had the authority to appoint a successor to Joseph. “I do not care who leads the church … ,” he proclaimed, “but one thing I must know, and that is what God says about it.” He then boldly declared how God’s will was to be made known. “I have the keys and the means of obtaining the mind of God on the subject.”3 A day later, at an 8 August meeting of the brethren, President Young said that the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles held all the keys of the kingdom of God on earth and therefore constituted the Presidency of the Church:

“Their has been much said about President Rigdon being president of the Church leading the People, being the head, &c. If the People want President Rigdon to lead them, they may have him. But I say unto you that the quorum of The Twelve have the keys of the kingdom of God in all the world. They stand next to Joseph and are the Presidency of the Church, and hold the keys and would have to ordain any man unto that appointment that should be Chosen, ie. if one was to be chosen. You Cannot appoint any man at our head. We should have to ordain him. You Cannot appoint a man at our head. But if you want any other man to lead you, take him, and we will go our way to build up the kingdom in all the world.

“… But who is the head? The Twelve. If one Thousand rise up and say they have the Prophets Joseph shoes I know they are impostures. … Now If you want Rigdon Lyman or Law to lead you or any body else, you may have them. But I tel you in the name of the Lord, that no man Can put another between the Twelve and the Prophet Joseph. Why? Because Joseph was their file leader and he has Committed into there hands the keys of the kingdom for all the world. Dont put a thread between the Priesthood and God.”4

Benjamin F. Johnson

Benjamin F. Johnson

In addition to President Young’s powerful and persuasive teachings regarding the authority and leadership of the Twelve, with himself at their head, another event had a profound impact on the Saints. As President Young spoke to the congregation, the Lord manifested in a most miraculous manner that Brigham Young was indeed chosen to lead the Church at that time. Benjamin F. Johnson, a 26-year-old member of the Church who was present that day, later recalled that as President Young spoke, “I jumped upon my feet, for in every possible degree it was Joseph’s voice, and his person, in look, attitude, dress and appearance was Joseph himself, personified; and I knew in a moment the spirit and mantle of Joseph was upon him.”5 Several others who were present bore similar testimonies, including a 17-year-old British convert, George Q. Cannon:

George Q. Cannon

George Q. Cannon

“If Joseph had risen from the dead and again spoken in their hearing, the effect could not have been more startling than it was to many present at that meeting; it was the voice of Joseph himself; and not only was it the voice of Joseph which was heard, but it seemed in the eyes of the people as if it were the very person of Joseph which stood before them. A more wonderful and miraculous event than was wrought that day in the presence of that congregation we never heard of. The Lord gave his people a testimony that left no room for doubt as to who was the man chosen to lead them.”6

Joseph Fielding

Joseph Fielding

Even before this special conference convened, most of the Saints had already accepted the leadership of the Twelve. Others who may have had unresolved questions undoubtedly were influenced by President Young’s powerful discourse and the miraculous transformation that demonstrated that Joseph’s prophetic mantle had fallen upon President Young. Because of that event and the Saints’ awareness of the special relationship between Joseph and the Twelve and the unique roles the Prophet assigned them during his later years, “the Saints soon began to see how things were,” Joseph Fielding reported. They also saw “that the 12 must now hold the Keys of Power and Authority according to the Revelation which says the 12 are equal with the First Presidency. … It was now no hard thing determining who should lead the Church.”7

The Saints overwhelmingly accepted the Twelve, with Brigham Young as President of the Church. The minutes of the special conference recorded that almost every hand was raised when President Young asked: “Does the church want, and is it their only desire to sustain the Twelve as the First Presidency of this people? … All that are in favor of this, … manifest it by holding up the right hand.”8 The cloud of gloom and uncertainty that had been over the Saints was removed, and in its place came confidence, renewed dedication, and almost universal support of the Quorum of the Twelve and President Young as their head.

Principles of Succession Revealed “Line upon Line”

Like many doctrines, as well as much of the structure and organization of the Church, the principles and procedures of succession in the presidency were revealed “line upon line, precept upon precept” (D&C 98:12; D&C 128:21). At the organization of the Church on 6 April 1830 there were no priesthood quorums or First Presidency. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were designated by the Lord and sustained by the Church as Apostles of Jesus Christ and as “first elder” and “second elder,” respectively (see D&C 20:2–3). Less than a year earlier and under the hands of heavenly messengers, they received priesthood authority and the keys of the kingdom essential to the establishment and governance of the kingdom of God on earth (see D&C 13; JS—H 1:68–72).

While there is little historical evidence indicating that Joseph or Oliver had given much thought to who would lead the Church in the case of Joseph’s death, based on the priesthood principles then revealed, Oliver Cowdery could have been considered Joseph’s successor. Oliver was, in fact, the “Assistant President” of the Church and the co-holder of all priesthood keys with Joseph. Even after counselors were called to assist the Prophet Joseph in March 1832 (see D&C 81) and after the formal organization of the First Presidency in March 1833, Oliver continued in his office as “assistant-president to the High and Holy Priesthood”9 until his excommunication from the Church in 1838.

The Lord revealed to Joseph Smith in 1832 that the keys of the kingdom “belong always unto the Presidency of the High Priesthood” (D&C 81:2). A year later the Lord further revealed that the counselors in the First Presidency “are accounted as equal with [Joseph Smith] in holding the keys of this last kingdom” (D&C 90:6). Two years later the Lord stated that these “three Presiding High Priests … form a quorum of the Presidency of the Church” (D&C 107:22).10 Despite these revelations, there seems to have been very little known by the Church about succession in the presidency in these early years. But in his wisdom, the Lord continued to organize the Church, reveal essential doctrines of salvation, and lay the foundational principles of succession that would be needed in subsequent years.

In February 1835, guided by previous revelation (see D&C 18:37–38) and a vision from the Lord, Joseph Smith authorized the Three Witnesses to select and ordain the first Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in this dispensation.11 The role of the Twelve Apostles was clarified to the Church “line upon line.” Initially the Twelve were primarily sent forth as missionaries and to set in order and preside over branches of the Church where there were no local presidencies or “standing high councils” (D&C 107:36).

“They are the Twelve Apostles, who are called to the office of the Travelling High Council, who are to preside over the churches of the Saints, among the Gentiles, where there is no presidency established; and they are to travel and preach among the Gentiles until the Lord shall command them to go to the Jews,” the Prophet Joseph taught. “They are to hold the keys of this ministry, to unlock the door of the Kingdom of heaven unto all nations, and to preach the Gospel to every creature. This is the power, authority, and virtue of their apostleship.”12

In those early years the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles did not play as prominent a role in Church administration as it does now, nor did the Prophet Joseph rely on the quorum as heavily for counsel as he did other priesthood leaders. There was, in fact, some question in the minds of some as to whether the Twelve Apostles were above the “standing high councils.” A revelation on priesthood had indicated for a period that the “standing high councils” were “equal in authority” with the First Presidency (see D&C 107:36–37).13 But in January 1836 Joseph clarified the authority of the Twelve when he declared that they stood next to the First Presidency in authority “and are not subject to any other than the first presidency.”14

The authority of the Twelve and their relationship to the First Presidency was even more firmly established by revelation received by the Prophet Joseph in 1837. In Doctrine and Covenants 112:30–32 [D&C 112:30–32], the Lord declared:

“For unto you, the Twelve, and those, the First Presidency, who are appointed with you to be your counselors and your leaders, is the power of this priesthood given, for the last days and for the last time, in the which is the dispensation of the fulness of times.

“Which power you hold, in connection with all those who have received a dispensation at any time from the beginning of the creation;

“For verily I say unto you, the keys of the dispensation, which ye have received, have come down from the fathers, and last of all, being sent down from heaven unto you.”

The Twelve began to play a more prominent role in Church administration during the Missouri period, especially during the months of incarceration in Liberty Jail of Joseph, Hyrum Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and other leaders. The three senior members of the Twelve—Thomas B. Marsh, David W. Patten, and Brigham Young—were called to preside over the Church in Missouri after the excommunication of David Whitmer and his counselors in the spring of 1838. Later, several of the Twelve played key roles in leading the Saints during the Missouri persecutions.

The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles 1844

The Twelve were “ordained and anointed to bear … the keys of the Kingdom of God in all the world. … The keys of the Kingdom are with them [the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles], and they can manage the affairs of the Church and direct all things aright,” said President Brigham Young to the Saints on 8 August 1844. At right are the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Orson Hyde, Parley P. Pratt, William Smith, Orson Pratt, John E. Page, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, George Albert Smith, Willard Richards, Lyman Wight

In Nauvoo, Joseph met more frequently in council with the Twelve, especially following the 1840–41 mission of nine of the Twelve in England. There they gained much experience through missionary service and through establishing branches and administering all aspects of the Church in Britain. The shared experiences of these Apostles increased their faith, dependence upon the Lord, and confidence in their leadership abilities. Their experiences also enlarged their view of their sacred office and divine authority.

Their return to Nauvoo in the summer of 1841 came at an important time when the Prophet Joseph especially needed their counsel and assistance in governing the Church. At a time of apostasy and renewed persecution, the Prophet gratefully reported that he now had a quorum upon which he could depend. It was at this time that the Twelve began to receive private instruction and increased authority from the Prophet that not only eased his burdens and blessed the Church but also paved the way for an eventual successor. At a special conference of the Church in 1841, Joseph said that the time had come for the Twelve to “assist to bear off the kingdom victorious to the nations.” Furthermore, the time had come “when the twelve should be called upon to stand in their place next to the first presidency” to administer the affairs of the Church on a general level.15

Parley P. Pratt

Parley P. Pratt

From the summer of 1841 until the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum on 27 June 1844, the Twelve were extensively tutored by the Prophet and heavily involved with the temporal and spiritual governance of the Church. In the months before his death, the Prophet Joseph expressed his forebodings concerning his death. “He often observed that he was laying the foundation, but it would remain for the Twelve to complete the building,” observed Elder Parley P. Pratt. “Said [Joseph]: … I am constrained to hasten my preparations, and to confer upon the Twelve all the ordinances, keys, covenants, endowments, and sealing ordinances of the priesthood, and so set before them a pattern in all things pertaining to the sanctuary and the endowment therein.

“Having done this he rejoiced exceedingly; for, said he, the Lord is about to lay the burden on your shoulders and let me rest awhile; and if they kill me, continued he, the kingdom of God will roll on, as I have now finished the work which was laid upon me, by committing to you all things for the building up of the kingdom according to the heavenly vision, and the pattern shown me from heaven.”16

Wilford Woodruff

Wilford Woodruff

This last charge to the Twelve from Joseph the Prophet included not only instruction and the conferral of priesthood keys and authority to govern the Church, but also essential temple ordinances, including the endowment and the fulness of all priesthood blessings. This was an essential element of the Twelve’s claim to succession inasmuch as others who claimed the leadership of the Church after Joseph and Hyrum’s death had not received these priesthood ordinances and keys. Elder Wilford Woodruff testified that Joseph instructed the Quorum of the Twelve a few months before his death to prepare them for the endowment:

“And when they [the Twelve] received their endowment, and actually received the keys of the kingdom of God, … he [Joseph] exclaimed, ‘upon your shoulders the kingdom rests, and you must round up your shoulders, and bear it; for I have had to do it until now. But now the responsibility rests upon you. It mattereth not what becomes of me.’”17

In March 1844 nine members of the Twelve met with the Prophet Joseph and heard him prophetically declare:

“Brethren, the Lord bids me hasten the work in which we are engaged. … Some important scene is near to take place. It may be that my enemies will kill me; and in case they should, and the keys and power which rest on me not be imparted to you, they will be lost from the earth; but if I can only succeed in placing them upon your heads, then let me fall a victim to murderous hands if God will suffer it, and I can go with all pleasure and satisfaction, knowing that my work is done, and the foundation laid on which the kingdom of God is to be reared in this dispensation of the fulness of times. Upon the shoulders of the Twelve must the responsibility of leading this church henceforth rest until you shall appoint others to succeed you.”18

With the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, the Twelve became the presiding quorum of the Church. President Brigham Young heard the news of the Martyrdom while on a mission in the East.

“The first thing which I thought of,” President Young recorded in his journal, “was whether Joseph had taken the keys of the kingdom with him from the earth; brother Orson Pratt sat on my left; we were both leaning back on our chairs. Bringing my hand down on my knee, I said the keys of the kingdom are right here with the Church.”19 Brigham was unwavering in his assurance that the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles had become the Presidency of the Church. With this assurance, Brigham declared to the Saints at the special conference in Nauvoo on 8 August 1844 that the Twelve were “ordained and anointed to bear off the keys of the Kingdom of God in all the world. … If you let the Twelve remain and act in their place the keys of the Kingdom are with them, and they can manage the affairs of the Church and direct all things aright.”20

“Where I Am Not, There Is No First Presidency”

Although Sidney Rigdon claimed, by virtue of his calling as Joseph’s spokesman (see D&C 100:9) and as a counselor in the First Presidency, that he should be sustained as “guardian,” his claim had no validity. The most obvious reason was that Elder Rigdon had virtually left the Church months earlier and had played no significant role in the administration of the spiritual affairs of the Church for a considerable period. In fact, Elder Rigdon had disregarded a revelation from the Lord regarding his calling in the First Presidency when he left Nauvoo and went to Pennsylvania (see D&C 124:108–9).

The Prophet Joseph essentially lost confidence in Elder Rigdon’s leadership, as evidenced by the Prophet’s desire as early as 1843 not to have him as a counselor. After Hyrum pleaded in Elder Rigdon’s behalf and the Church sustained him, Joseph responded, “I have thrown him off my shoulders, and you have put him on me. … You may carry him, but I will not.”21 Perhaps it was Elder Rigdon’s failure to stay faithful in his calling and his lack of loyalty to the Prophet that Brigham Young alluded to when he declared to the Saints in Nauvoo following the Prophet’s death:

“Here is Brigham, have his knees ever faltered? Have his lips ever quivered? Here is Heber and the rest of the Twelve, an independent body who have the keys of the priesthood—the keys of the kingdom of God to deliver to all the world: this is true, so help me God. They stand next to Joseph, and are as the First Presidency of the Church.”22

Brigham Young

Brigham Young

Additionally, Sidney Rigdon (as well as others who claimed the right to succeed Joseph) never received the fulness of priesthood ordinances as had the Twelve. The earlier teaching of Joseph Smith that “where I am not, there is no First Presidency over the Twelve” is of critical importance.23 Under this principle, Sidney Rigdon and Amasa Lyman were automatically released as counselors in the First Presidency upon the death of Joseph Smith and had no rightful claim or authority to lead the Church. During the special conference on 8 August 1844, an understanding of this important principle led President Brigham Young to state:

“I now wish to speak of the organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints; Sidney Rigdon and Amasa Lyman were Counsellors to Joseph. I ask whare is Joseph? He is gone beyond the vail, and for them to act in their office as his Councillors they must go beyond the veil where he is. …

“Elder S. Rigdon Claims to be a spokesman to Joseph. Vary well he is. But can he now act in that office? If he wants now to be a spokesman to the prophet, he must go [to] the other side of the veil for the Prophet is there. But Elder Rigdon is here.”24

Amasa Lyman

Amasa Lyman

After Brigham Young had addressed the Saints, Amasa Lyman spoke briefly and acknowledged the principle taught by President Young and supported him and the Twelve, stating, “If Joseph Smith had any power to bear off the kingdom of God, the Twelve have the same.”25

Heber C. Kimball

Heber C. Kimball

There was perhaps one exception to this principle, even though it did not play a role in the 1844 succession or in any subsequent succession. Hyrum Smith, who was not only the Patriarch of the Church but also a counselor in the First Presidency, had been ordained in 1841 as Assistant President of the Church (see D&C 124:91–96). He, like Oliver Cowdery until his excommunication in 1838, held the keys jointly with the Prophet Joseph and would have been the rightful successor to the Prophet. But such a scenario was moot when Hyrum fell as a martyr with Joseph. With the deaths of both Joseph and Hyrum, there was no “First Presidency over the Twelve.” Of this fact Elder Heber C. Kimball testified:

“Joseph has passed behind the vail and he pulled off his shoes, and some one else puts them on, until he passes the vail to Bro. Joseph. President Young is our president, and our head, and he puts the shoes on first. If Brother Hyrum had remained here, he would have put them on—Hyrum is gone with Joseph and is still his counsellor. The Twelve have received the keys of the kingdom and as long as there is one of them left, he will hold them in preference to any one else.”26

With these principles firmly established and taught to the Saints, there was really no other alternative than for the Twelve to succeed Joseph. Some, including Emma Smith, later advocated that William Marks, president of the Nauvoo Stake and the presiding officer of the “standing high council” in Nauvoo, was the rightful successor. William Marks, however, made no such claim himself and in fact supported Sidney Rigdon’s claim to the presidency. A few months after President Brigham Young and others of the Twelve had addressed the Saints in Nauvoo, William Marks recognized his error and publicly supported Brigham Young and the Twelve as the rightful leaders of the Church.

William Marks

William Marks

“After mature and candid deliberation, I am fully and satisfactorily convinced that Mr. Sidney Rigdon’s claims to the presidency of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, are not founded in truth. I have been deceived by his specious pretences, and now feel to warn every one over whom I may have any influence to beware of him, and his pretended visions and revelations. The Twelve are the proper persons to lead the church.”27

Not all the Saints accepted the leadership of Brigham Young and the Twelve. Several sought the right to lead the Church or established their own churches based on various claims. Tracing their claims and their history, however, one can see the fulfillment of President Young’s prophecy, “All that want to draw away a party from the church after them, let them do it if they can, but they will not prosper.”28

It is a fundamental truth that the Almighty knows the end from the beginning. It is his gospel, his Church, his kingdom. He has foreordained all the prophets from the foundations of the world. These prophets, he said, “I will make my rulers” (Abr. 3:23). The Lord God then tries, tests, and tutors each of his chosen servants. Each is prepared for a specific time and responsibility in carrying on the Lord’s work on earth. Therefore, all speculation relating to various avenues to succession are just that—speculation. The Lord knew who the successor of the Prophet Joseph Smith would be. He knew who the successors to Presidents Young, Taylor, Woodruff, and every other Church President would be.29

Since God is omniscient, it is foolish to suppose that he left his infant Church to flounder without a clear path to succession.

The Principles of Succession in the Church Today

While specific procedures and protocol of various successions in the presidency since the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith differ slightly from one another, the fundamental principles are the same and are founded securely on revelation. Four foundational principles and practices were operative in 1844 and have been manifest in every succession since.

Harold B. Lee

Harold B. Lee

1. Keys of the kingdom given to the Twelve. The first principle or step in succession is the conferral of the keys of the kingdom on every man who is ordained to the holy apostleship and set apart as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (see D&C 27:12–13). “The beginning of the call of one to be President of the Church,” President Harold B. Lee taught, “actually begins when he is called, ordained, and set apart to become a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Such a call by prophecy, or in other words, by the inspiration of the Lord to the one holding the keys of presidency, and the subsequent ordination and setting apart by the laying on of hands by that same authority, places each apostle in a priesthood quorum of twelve men holding the apostleship.

“Each apostle so ordained under the hands of the President of the Church, who holds the keys of the kingdom of God in concert with all other ordained apostles, has given to him the priesthood authority necessary to hold every position in the Church, even to a position of presidency over the Church if he were called by the presiding authority and sustained by a vote of a constituent assembly of the membership of the Church.”30

James E. Faust

James E. Faust

With the Quorum of the Twelve holding the same keys of the kingdom as do the First Presidency, these two presiding quorums work together as the highest council of the Church—the Council of the First Presidency and the Twelve. The revelations also decree that the decisions made by these prophets, seers, and revelators “must be by the unanimous voice of the same; that is, every member in each quorum must be agreed to its decisions, in order to make their decisions of the same power or validity one with the other” (D&C 107:27). This principle of unanimity is a profound blessing to the entire Church. As Elder James E. Faust of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said, it “provides a check on bias and personal idiosyncrasies. It ensures that God rules through the Spirit, not man through majority or compromise. … It guards against the foibles of man.”31

Gordon B. Hinckley

Gordon B. Hinckley

The principles of councils, quorums, keys, and unanimity ensure that the Church will roll forward under the guiding hand of the Lord regardless of the mortal limitations and inadequacies that individual leaders may possess. What happens, however, if, whenever it might be, a Church President is not able to fully function in his office? Is the Church left without prophetic leadership? Even if the President of the Church is slowed in his service or debilitated in any way by advanced age or serious illness, the Lord’s divine system of Church government allows for counselors and councils composed of men sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators endowed with the same keys as the President to continue to direct and lead the kingdom of God on earth. There have been several times in the history of the Church when the President has been incapacitated to some degree and it was expedient that the First Presidency and Twelve continue with the governance of the Church. This should not in any way trouble the membership of the Church, but rather should be a source of inspiration as we witness the Lord’s perfect system of governance in operation as it has been revealed. President Gordon B. Hinckley, who knows from personal experience how these principles operate when the President of the Church is ill and incapacitated, has testified that “God is at the helm” and that He has made provision for the ongoing divine governance of the Church: “[There have been] Presidents of the Church [who] have … been ill or unable to function fully in the closing months or years of their lives. It is possible that this will happen in the future.

“The principles and procedures which the Lord has put in place for the governance of His church make provision for any such circumstance. It is important … that there be no doubts or concerns about the governance of the Church and the exercise of the prophetic gifts, including the right to inspiration and revelation in administering the affairs and programs of the Church, when the President may be ill or is not able to function fully.

“The First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles, called and ordained to hold the keys of the priesthood, have the authority and responsibility to govern the Church, to administer its ordinances, to expound its doctrine, and to establish and maintain its practices. Each man who is ordained an Apostle and sustained a member of the Council of the Twelve is sustained as a prophet, seer, and revelator. … Therefore, all incumbent members of the Quorum of the First Presidency and of the Council of the Twelve have been recipients of the keys, rights, and authority pertaining to the holy apostleship. …

“When the President is ill or not able to function fully in all of the duties of his office, his two Counselors together comprise a Quorum of the First Presidency. They carry on with the day-to-day work of the Presidency. In exceptional circumstances, when only one may be able to function, he may act in the authority of the office of the Presidency as set forth in the Doctrine and Covenants, section 102, verses 10–11. …

“[After a new President of the Church is ordained and set apart and the First Presidency is reorganized and his Counselors are set apart, the President signs] with his own hand powers of agency giving each of his Counselors the authority to direct the business of the Church.

“Under these specific and plenary delegations of authority, the Counselors in the First Presidency carry on with the regular work of this office. But any major questions of policy, procedures, programs, or doctrine are considered deliberately and prayerfully by the First Presidency and the Twelve together. …

“This procedure obtains even in the absence of the President of the Church. I hasten to add, however, that the Brethren would not be inclined to do anything which they feel would be out of harmony with the attitude, feelings, and position of their beloved leader, the prophet of the Lord.

“It must be recognized that the President, when he became the senior Apostle, had moved up through the ranks of seniority over a period of many years of service in the Quorum of the Twelve. During this time, his Brethren came to know him well. During the years of his ministry, he expressed himself on the many issues that came before that quorum. His views became well known. Those who love him, respect him, sustain and honor him as President of the Church and prophet, seer, and revelator of the Lord would not be disposed to go beyond what they recognize his position would be on any issue under consideration.

“I repeat for emphasis that all who have been ordained to the holy apostleship have had bestowed upon them the keys and the authority of this most high and sacred office. In this authority reside the powers of governance of the Church and kingdom of God in the earth. There is order in the exercise of that authority. It is specifically set forth in the revelations of the Lord. It is known to all of the Brethren and is observed by all.”32

2. Seniority: a governing principle of presidency. The factor that determines who presides among the Twelve and who may actively exercise all the keys of the kingdom at the death of the President of the Church is the principle of seniority. In 1835, when the first Quorum of the Twelve was called, seniority was arranged by age. Since then, seniority has been determined by the date of ordination into the Quorum of the Twelve.

Spencer W. Kimball

Spencer W. Kimball

“The matter of seniority is basic in the first quorums of the Church,” President Spencer W. Kimball explained. “All the apostles understand this perfectly, and all well-trained members of the Church are conversant with this perfect succession program.”33

In addition to determining presidency, the principles of seniority provide rich, practical blessings in Church administration—wisdom, knowledge, and inspiration that have been acquired and tempered through plentiful experience. The omniscience of the Lord is always manifest in the preparation of his chosen prophets through their many assignments and responsibilities in the Twelve.

John A. Widtsoe

John A. Widtsoe

“This is a wise procedure,” Elder John A. Widtsoe said. “It places at the head of the Church the apostle who has been longest in service. He is known well to the people and trusted by them. He himself knows the procedure of Church affairs. He is no novice to be trained for the position.”34

3. At the President’s death there is no First Presidency over the Twelve. Following the principles taught by the Prophet Joseph Smith, when the President of the Church dies, the quorum of the First Presidency is automatically dissolved and the counselors, if they previously had been in the Quorum of the Twelve, return to their respective places of seniority in that quorum. The senior Apostle, as President of the Twelve, automatically, by virtue of that seniority, becomes the “Presiding High Priest” of the Church and, as such, actively holds and exercises all the keys of the kingdom and “preside[s] over the whole church” (see D&C 107:65–66, 91). “Equal in authority” to the First Presidency, this presiding quorum of Twelve Apostles is as much a Presidency of the Church as the First Presidency is when it is fully organized and operative (see D&C 107:23–24). Likewise, the President of the Twelve at that time is as much the President of the Church in function and authority as when he becomes sustained as such in a newly organized First Presidency.

Joseph Fielding Smith

Joseph Fielding Smith

“There is no mystery about the choosing of the successor to the President of the Church,” President Joseph Fielding Smith confirmed. “The Lord settled this a long time ago, and the senior apostle automatically becomes the presiding officer of the Church, and he is so sustained by the Council of the Twelve which becomes the presiding body of the Church when there is no First Presidency.”35

4. Reorganization of the First Presidency. As the presiding officer of the Church, the President of the Twelve has the prerogative to receive revelation regarding when to reorganize the First Presidency. This decision is made in consultation with and through the unanimous support of the Quorum of the Twelve. President Gordon B. Hinckley explained how this process worked upon the death of President Howard W. Hunter:

“With President Hunter’s passing, the First Presidency was dissolved. Brother Monson and I, who had served as his counselors, took our places in the Quorum of the Twelve, which became the presiding authority of the Church.

“[On Sunday, 12 March 1995] all of the living ordained Apostles gathered in a spirit of fasting and prayer in the upper room of the temple. Here we sang a sacred hymn and prayed together. We partook of the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, renewing in that sacred, symbolic testament our covenants and our relationship with Him who is our divine Redeemer.

“The presidency was then reorganized, following a precedent well established through generations of the past.

“There was no campaigning, no contest, no ambition for office. It was quiet, peaceful, simple, and sacred. It was done after the pattern which the Lord himself had put in place.”36

The new President is ordained and set apart as the President of the Church by the members of the Quorum of the Twelve. He then selects his counselors and sets them apart in the First Presidency. When the First Presidency is reorganized, it once again assumes its revealed role as the “highest council of the church” (D&C 107:80). The Twelve return to their roles as councilors serving under the direction of the First Presidency. The second senior Apostle is always sustained as the new President of the Quorum of the Twelve. If he is called as a counselor in the newly organized First Presidency, then the next senior member of the Twelve not in the First Presidency is set apart as the Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. With these actions completed, the pattern and precedents followed, the leading quorums of the Church are again fully organized and operative.

Quorum of the Twelve Apostles March 1995

The application of the principle of seniority in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as a governing principle of presidency is seen here in the order of members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at the dissolution of the First Presidency upon the death of President Howard W. Hunter in March 1995.

God’s earthly kingdom is a “house of order” and is governed in an orderly and systematic way. “What a divine plan!” declared President Spencer W. Kimball. “How wise our Lord, to organize so perfectly beyond the weakness of frail, grasping humans.”37 Today, members of the Church need no dramatic sign from heaven like the transfiguration of Brigham Young in 1844, for the principles have been clearly taught and the precedents firmly established. We need no special revelation to know that the Lord has selected whom he desires to lead the Church. But as we observe this inspired process of succession, we can see Divine Providence in operation. As we raise our arms to sustain a new prophet in solemn assembly, we can know within our hearts, by the power of the Holy Ghost, that the Lord has indeed spoken. It is through this inspired system of succession that the kingdom of God rolls on.

The First Presidency

The First Presidency, left to right: President Thomas S. Monson, First Counselor, President Gordon B. Hinckley; and President James E. Faust, Second Counselor.

Howard W. Hunter

Howard W. Hunter

On the day that President Howard W. Hunter was sustained as President of the Church, he testified:

“Each man who is ordained an Apostle and set apart as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve is sustained as a prophet, seer, and revelator. The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, called and ordained to hold the keys of the priesthood, have the authority and responsibility to govern the Church, to administer its ordinances, to teach its doctrine, and to establish and maintain its practices.

“When a President of the Church is ill or not able to function fully in all of the duties of his office, his two Counselors, who, with him, comprise a Quorum of the First Presidency, carry on the work of the Presidency. Any major questions, policies, programs, or doctrines are prayerfully considered in council by the Counselors in the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. No decision emanates from the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve without total unanimity among all concerned.

“Following this inspired pattern, the Church will move forward without interruption. The governance of the Church and the exercise of the prophetic gifts will always be vested in those apostolic authorities who hold and exercise all of the keys of the priesthood.”38


  1. Journal of Wilford Woodruff, 6–7 Aug. 1844, Historical Dept., Archives Division, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City; hereafter cited as LDS Church Archives. In quoted matter throughout this article, original spelling, punctuation, and capitalization have been preserved.

  2. History of the Church, 7:229.

  3. History of the Church, 7:230.

  4. Quoted in Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 2:436, 37.

  5. Benjamin F. Johnson, My Life’s Review (1947), 104.

  6. History of the Church, 7:236n.

  7. Quoted in Andrew F. Ehat, “‘They Might Have Known That He Was Not a Fallen Prophet’—The Nauvoo Journal of Joseph Fielding,” Brigham Young University Studies 19 (winter 1979): 155.

  8. History of the Church, 7:240; see also Heber C. Kimball Diary, 8 Aug. 1844; William Clayton Diary, 8 Aug. 1844, LDS Church Archives. The term unanimous in these accounts meant overwhelming, because other records indicate that there were a few dissenters.

  9. History of the Church, 2:176; see also Joseph Fielding Smith’s discussion of Oliver’s office of Assistant President of the Church in Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. (1954–56), 1:211–13.

  10. Elder John A. Widtsoe explained how the counselors in the First Presidency are “equal” to the President: “The Counsellors do not possess the power of the President and cannot act in Church matters without direction and consent of the President” (quoted in Roy W. Doxey, comp., Latter-day Prophets and the Doctrine and Covenants, 4 vols. [1978], 3:247).

  11. History of the Church, 2:186–87n.

  12. Kirtland Council Minute Book, 88; quoted in Hoyt W. Brewster Jr., Prophets, Priesthood Keys, and Succession (1991), 41–42.

  13. The Prophet Joseph also spoke of the importance of the organization of the High Council in governing the Church if he “should now be taken away” (see History of the Church, 2:124).

  14. Joseph Smith Diary, 16 Jan. 1836; quoted in Ronald K. Esplin, “Joseph, Brigham and the Twelve: A Succession of Continuity,” BYU Studies 21 (summer 1981): 308.

  15. Times and Seasons, 1 Sept. 1841, 521–22; for a more extensive discussion of the role of the Twelve before and after their mission to the British Isles, see Ronald K. Esplin, “Joseph, Brigham and the Twelve,” 308–20.

  16. Millennial Star, March 1845, 151.

  17. Times and Seasons, 1 Nov. 1844, 698.

  18. Draft declaration of the Twelve Apostles, reporting March 1844 meeting of Twelve, Brigham Young Papers, LDS Church Archives; quoted by President Boyd K. Packer in Ensign, May 1995, 7.

  19. Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 1801–1844, comp. Elden Jay Watson (1968), 171, LDS Church Archives.

  20. Minutes of 8 Aug. 1844 Nauvoo meeting, LDS Church Archives; quoted in Ronald K. Esplin, “Joseph, Brigham and the Twelve,” 324.

  21. Quoted in B. H. Roberts, Succession in the Presidency of the Church, 2d ed. (1900), 9.

  22. History of the Church, 7:233.

  23. Teachings, 106. Some recent historians have asserted that this statement is not found in the original minutes of the 1836 meeting. Even so, the insertion in the Joseph Smith history in the 1850s can still be accepted as valid, for the compilers of that history, Wilford Woodruff and George A. Smith, were contemporaries of the Prophet and “were eye and ear witnesses of nearly all the transactions recorded … , and, where they were not personally present, they have had access to those who were” (quoted in Dean C. Jessee, “The Writing of Joseph Smith’s History,” BYU Studies 11 (summer 1971): 473). President Brigham Young understood this concept, as have all other Church Presidents who have authoritatively used this statement as a key principle in succession to the presidency.

  24. Quoted in Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 2:436–37.

  25. History of the Church, 7:237. After Amasa Lyman’s automatic release from the First Presidency upon the death of Joseph Smith, he was returned to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on 12 August 1844.

  26. Times and Seasons, 1 Oct. 1844, 664.

  27. Times and Seasons, 15 Dec. 1844, 742. William Marks did not stay true to the Twelve and was excommunicated in 1845. For several years thereafter, he moved from one splinter group to another. He later joined the movement that became the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and helped ordain Joseph Smith III as its first president and served in the RLDS First Presidency until his death in 1872.

  28. History of the Church, 7:232. For a more in-depth discussion of the claims and histories of these splinter groups, see Hoyt W. Brewster Jr., Prophets, Priesthood Keys, and Succession, 50–75.

  29. See Ensign, May 1974, 72, 84.

  30. In Conference Report, Apr. 1970, 123.

  31. Ensign, Nov. 1989, 10.

  32. Ensign, May 1994, 54, 59.

  33. In Conference Report, Oct. 1972, 29.

  34. Evidences and Reconciliations, 3 vols. in 1, arr. G. Homer Durham (1960), 264.

  35. Doctrines of Salvation, 3:156.

  36. Ensign, May 1995, 69.

  37. In Conference Report, Apr. 1970, 118.

  38. Ensign, Nov. 1994, 7.

  • Brent L. Top is an associate professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.

  • Lawrence R. Flake is an associate professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.

Illustrated by Gary Smith

Illustrated by Robert T. Barrett

Background: View from Temple Hill, by Gary Smith; left: Joseph Smith, by Dale Kilbourne

Background: Nauvoo, by John Schroder

Illustrated by Robert T. Barrett

Background: Jesus Christ, by Harry Anderson