“Quorum of the Twelve,” Church History Topics
Quorum of the Twelve
The book of Ephesians taught that the New Testament church was “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.”1 Apostles also serve as part of the foundation of the restored Church in the last days. In June 1829, Joseph Smith received a revelation that Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer should seek out twelve men who would be the Lord’s disciples and who would “declare my gospel, both unto Gentile and unto Jew.”2 For the next few years, Cowdery’s and Whitmer’s minds were “on a constant stretch to find who these Twelve were,” and they periodically “sought the Lord by fasting and prayer” to know.3
In February 1835, Joseph Smith and the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon—Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris—selected twelve men to serve as Apostles in the Church. Although the title Apostle had earlier been given to some individuals who played a proselytizing role in the early Church, including Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer,4 the Twelve Apostles, as defined in the 1829 revelation, were not called until 1835.
On February 14, 1835, Joseph Smith convened a meeting in Kirtland, Ohio, to recognize individuals who had participated in the Camp of Israel (Zion’s Camp) in 1834.5 At this meeting, he directed Cowdery, Whitmer, and Harris to “choose twelve men from the church as Apostles to go to all nations, kindreds, tongues and people.”6 After the presidency of the high priesthood blessed the Three Witnesses, the Three Witnesses (apparently in consultation with Joseph Smith) selected the following men as Apostles: Lyman Johnson, Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Orson Hyde, David W. Patten, Luke Johnson, William E. McLellin, John F. Boynton, Orson Pratt, William Smith, Thomas B. Marsh, and Parley P. Pratt. Eight of the twelve had accompanied Joseph on the Camp of Israel expedition; all had preached extensively as missionaries.
Over the next several weeks, the Twelve received ordination blessings and a charge from Oliver Cowdery. Joseph Smith also taught them about their calling. In a meeting held February 27, 1835, Joseph said the Apostles would “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.” They would be known as a “traveling high council,” which would “preside over all the churches of the Saints among the Gentiles, where there is no presidency established.”7 This meant the Twelve would be responsible for Church congregations outside the main Church centers in Kirtland and Missouri.
Sometime between March 1 and May 1, 1835, Joseph Smith also prepared an instruction on priesthood that discussed the Twelve’s role and responsibilities. This document reiterated that the Twelve had jurisdiction over branches outside of Kirtland and Missouri and stated that they were to act “under the direction of the presidency of the church.” The Twelve were “equal in authority” to the First Presidency and would serve as “special witnesses of the name of Christ, in all the world.”8
Initially the Twelve carried a heavy proselytizing load, preaching and governing the congregations of Latter-day Saints in the eastern United States during the summer of 1835 and then preaching the gospel in England beginning in 1837. By 1841 many of the Apostles had returned from England, and at an August conference of the Church, the Quorum of the Twelve was directed “to stand in their place next to the first Presidency,”9 being given the responsibility “to assist in managing the affairs of the kingdom,” not only in the missions but in Nauvoo.10
According to Orson Hyde, sometime in the first part of 1844, Joseph Smith told the Twelve that the Lord had directed him “to hasten and give” the Apostles the endowment. Joseph then “conducted us through every ordinance of the holy priesthood.” As he finished, he declared, “Now if they kill me you have got all the keys, and all the ordinances.” The Prophet continued, “On your shoulders will the responsibility of leading this people rest, for the Lord is going to let me rest a while.”11
After Joseph Smith’s martyrdom, the vast majority of the Saints in Nauvoo sustained Brigham Young as President of the Quorum of the Twelve to lead the Church. Under his direction, the Saints completed the Nauvoo Temple before their exodus to the Great Basin. Brigham Young’s succession established the precedent that when the President of the Church died, the Quorum of the Twelve had the authority to lead under the direction of its president. In December 1847, Brigham Young reorganized the First Presidency, but the Twelve Apostles maintained a critical role in Church governance.12
Upon the deaths of Brigham Young and John Taylor, the Twelve Apostles governed the Church for a few years before the First Presidency was reorganized. However, President Wilford Woodruff counseled senior Apostle Lorenzo Snow to reorganize the First Presidency without delay. Upon Woodruff’s death, Snow organized the First Presidency within a week. President Snow likewise urged Joseph F. Smith, who was next in line to become President of the Church, to “proceed at once” upon his death in reorganizing the First Presidency.13 The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has followed this pattern ever since, with the senior Apostle or President of the Twelve becoming the President of the Church.
Since 1835, when the Quorum of the Twelve was organized, more than one hundred men have served as Apostles. Today the Twelve continue to serve as special witnesses of Jesus Christ, oversee the Church’s missionary efforts throughout the world, and counsel with the First Presidency to direct the affairs of the Church.