“First Presidency,” Church History Topics
When Joseph Smith organized the Church in April 1830, a revelation designated him “a seer, and Translator, and Prophet, an Apostle of Jesus Christ, an Elder of the Church.”1 Accordingly, Church members sustained Joseph as first elder and Oliver Cowdery as second elder, the earliest titles for leaders of the Church. In November 1831, another revelation to Joseph Smith established the office of the “president of the high priesthood.” This president would “be like unto Moses” and would “be a Seer, a revelator, a translator, and a prophet, having all the gifts of God which he bestoweth upon the head of the church.”2 At a conference on January 25, 1832, Joseph Smith was appointed president of the high priesthood.3
About six weeks after Joseph Smith’s appointment, he selected two men—Jesse Gause and Sidney Rigdon—as his counselors in “the ministry of the presidency of the high Priesthood.”4 Gause continued as a counselor until December 1832, when he was excommunicated from the Church for unspecified reasons.5 In January 1833, Frederick G. Williams replaced Gause in the presidency.
Two months after Williams’s appointment, Joseph Smith received a revelation stating that Rigdon and Williams were “equal” with him “in holding the keys of this Last Kingdom.”6 Accordingly, at a council of high priests in Kirtland, Ohio, on March 18, 1833, Joseph ordained Rigdon and Williams “to be equal with him in holding the Keys of the Kingdom and also to the Presidency of the high Priest hood.”7 The three men were referred to as the presidency of the high priesthood and acted under Joseph Smith’s direction. Another revelation instructed that, as a presidency, they had the “authority to preside … over all the Concerns of the church.”8
When Joseph Smith set up high councils in Kirtland, Ohio, and Clay County, Missouri, in 1834, each high council had a presidency. The presidency in Kirtland consisted of Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and Frederick G. Williams, the same members as the presidency of the high priesthood. The presidency in Missouri consisted of David Whitmer, William W. Phelps, and John Whitmer. To differentiate between these two high council presidencies, Church leaders and members began referring to the presidency of the high priesthood as the “First Presidency.” The first written reference to the body as the First Presidency came in a revelation published in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants.9
Although a priesthood instruction given by Joseph Smith in 1835 stated that “three presiding high priests” formed “a quorum of the presidency of the church,” there have been times when more than three individuals have been in the First Presidency.10 In December 1834, for example, Oliver Cowdery was ordained “to the office of assistant President of the High and Holy Priesthood,” and the following day, Hyrum Smith and Joseph Smith Sr. were ordained “to the office of Presidency of the high priesthood.”11 Brigham Young, David O. McKay, and Spencer W. Kimball also had more than two counselors at a time during their presidencies.
After Joseph Smith’s martyrdom in June 1844, the First Presidency was dissolved and leadership of the Church fell to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, with Brigham Young as President.12 On December 27, 1847, more than three years after the death of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young reorganized the First Presidency, with Heber C. Kimball and Willard Richards as his counselors. Similarly, John Taylor waited more than three years after the death of his predecessor to reorganize the First Presidency, and Wilford Woodruff waited almost two years. Both men led the Church in the interim as President of the Quorum of the Twelve. Beginning with Lorenzo Snow in 1898, new Church Presidents have generally reorganized the First Presidency quickly after the death of the previous prophet.