Church History
Succession of Church Leadership

“Succession of Church Leadership,” Church History Topics

“Succession of Church Leadership”

Succession of Church Leadership

“Every heart is filled with sorrow, and the very streets of Nauvoo seem to mourn,” Vilate Kimball wrote to her husband, Heber, after the murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith in Carthage Jail on June 27, 1844. 1 At the time, Heber and most of the Apostles were scattered across the eastern United States campaigning for Joseph Smith in the US presidential election. Only John Taylor and Willard Richards, who had been with Joseph at the time of the martyrdom, were in Nauvoo, and Taylor was still recovering from wounds he received when the mob attacked the jail. Sidney Rigdon, Joseph’s former counselor in the First Presidency, had moved to Pittsburgh and was building up a branch of the Church there. As the Saints in Nauvoo grieved, they also worried about the threat of further violence from the Church’s enemies and speculated about what the future would bring.

Outside observers asserted that the Church would fall apart. The New York Herald wrote that Joseph’s death would “seal the fate of Mormonism. They cannot get another Joe Smith.” 2 Despite the shock of the Prophet’s death, most Saints remained committed. “The death of one or a dozen could not destroy the priesthood,” Brigham Young taught shortly after hearing rumors of violence in or near Nauvoo, “nor hinder the work of the Lord from spreading throughout all nations.” 3

The 1844 Succession Debate

This widespread conviction that the work would go on, however, was accompanied by uncertainty about who would lead. Joseph Smith was still relatively young when he died, and he had not announced a clear plan for succession. Many had expected Hyrum would succeed Joseph should the need arise, but Hyrum had been killed along with his brother. Some Saints now looked to the biblical precedent of the Twelve Apostles leading the Church after Jesus’s death and awaited the Apostles’ return. 4 One Church member living near Nauvoo said he heard people advocating for several potential leaders, including Apostles Brigham Young and Parley P. Pratt, Sidney Rigdon, stake president William Marks, 11-year-old Joseph Smith III, or even Stephen Markham, a stalwart Saint who had been wounded by the mob while trying to reach Joseph in Carthage Jail. 5

Many Saints felt a sense of urgency to decide the question. Emma Smith, concerned about her family’s financial position, urged local leaders to select a trustee-in-trust quickly to administer financial affairs. 6 Though Sidney Rigdon, who arrived in Nauvoo on August 3, had initially agreed to wait until the majority of the Twelve had returned to Nauvoo, he began to advocate a quick resolution. “You want a head,” he argued in one meeting, “and unless you unite upon that head you are blown to the four winds.” 7

Rigdon presented himself as a possible leader, a “guardian” for the Church. The four Apostles in Nauvoo at the time (Parley P. Pratt and George A. Smith had returned to join John Taylor and Willard Richards) counseled patience. While they perhaps had not anticipated ever needing to preside over the Church, the Apostles had many reasons to believe they would play a central role in the Church’s future. An 1835 instruction on priesthood included in the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants designated them as a quorum equal in authority to the First Presidency or any of the other presiding councils of the Church and gave them keys to open the doors of nations and establish the Church throughout the world outside its organized stakes. 8 In Nauvoo, Joseph Smith had given them expanded roles in Church administration among the gathered Saints as well, commissioning them to manage the Church’s publications and to help settle the immigrant converts streaming in from the Church’s missions.

Joseph had also shared new revelations and ordinances with the Apostles in confidential meetings before teaching them line upon line to the Saints at large. He had taught members of the quorum about human beings’ divine nature years before he preached publicly on the subject. 9 He had introduced them to plural marriage and involved them in plans to scout out future homes for the Saints farther west. Most importantly, he had entrusted a majority of the Apostles with all the temple ordinances so they could administer them to others. 10 They now held not only the keys to build up the Church in all the world but also those associated with the temple, leaving them uniquely positioned to carry on these vital endeavors after Joseph’s death. Indeed, several Apostles later testified that Joseph, concerned that his life was in peril, told the Twelve in a private council in the months before his death, “I roll the burthen and responsibility of leading this church off from my shoulders on to yours.” 11

Brigham Young and four other Apostles returned to Nauvoo on August 6, 1844. When he had first heard about Joseph and Hyrum Smith’s deaths, Brigham Young later recalled, his head had felt as though it would crack. The disorientation of the loss receded only when the distinct thought came to him that though the Prophet and the patriarch had died, the keys of the kingdom remained with the Apostles. 12 In Nauvoo, he met with the assembled Apostles to counsel together and seek the will of the Lord on the succession question.

Two days after Young’s arrival, Sidney Rigdon called a morning prayer meeting in a grove of trees down the hill from the temple site. Young had planned to meet with the Apostles that morning but changed his plans when he heard about Rigdon’s meeting and saw the people gathering. When he saw that Rigdon was pressing the succession question, Young called the Saints to assemble that afternoon to sustain new leaders. “I feel to want to weep for 30 days—& then rise up & tell the people what the Lord wants with them,” he admitted during that afternoon meeting, but given the pressure to make a decision, he organized the Saints as a solemn assembly and asked them to sustain the Twelve Apostles as leaders of the Church. 13 “It was evident to the Saints that the mantle of Joseph had fallen upon him,” Wilford Woodruff wrote in his report of events to the Saints in Britain. 14 Howard Egan told Jesse Little that during his address, Young had sounded strikingly like Joseph Smith. “If a man had been blinded,” he noted, “he would hardly have known if it were not Joseph.” 15 These early accounts of what came to be known as Brigham Young’s transfiguration demonstrate that many Saints assembled at the meeting saw in Young the clear successor to Joseph Smith. Years later, dozens of Saints wrote more elaborate accounts describing a miraculous transformation of Young’s appearance and voice on that occasion. 16

The Saints assembled in that August 8, 1844, meeting had witnessed the faithfulness of the Apostles as missionaries and as leaders in Nauvoo, and they longed for the temple ordinances Joseph Smith had promised. Reassured that Joseph’s mantle had fallen to Brigham Young, they voted overwhelmingly to sustain the Twelve Apostles as the Church’s leaders. During the next three years, Sidney Rigdon, James J. Strang, and other figures formed their own movements, each drawing away some Church members. 17 Most Saints, however, followed the Twelve Apostles, helping to complete the Nauvoo Temple, receiving temple blessings, and participating in the migration west to what is now Utah. The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as a group led the Church under the direction of quorum president Brigham Young until 1847, when Young called counselors and reconstituted the First Presidency.

Establishing a Pattern for Succession

After the deaths of subsequent Church Presidents, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles met in council to determine when and how to reorganize the First Presidency. The president of the quorum directed the council and was nominated to become President of the Church. Orson Pratt and Wilford Woodruff both taught that John Taylor had “the legal right” to succeed Brigham Young because he was the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. 18 Upon Taylor’s death, some members of the quorum suggested sustaining as Church President George Q. Cannon, who was a longtime counselor in the First Presidency but not President of the Quorum of the Twelve. The Twelve decided once again to sustain the quorum president, at that time Wilford Woodruff, firmly establishing the precedent that the senior Apostle would lead the Church. 19

Seniority had determined who served as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles since the quorum was organized in 1835, but the factors for determining seniority changed several times during the 19th century. At first, members of the quorum were ranked by age. When new Apostles were called to fill vacancies in the quorum, seniority began to be determined by the date men were called to the quorum. In 1861 Brigham Young clarified that seniority would be determined based not on the date of calling but the date of ordination, reversing the order of Wilford Woodruff and John Taylor, who were both called on the same day but ordained months apart. In 1875 Brigham Young added that the order would reflect continuous time served as an Apostle, placing John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff ahead of Orson Hyde and Orson Pratt, who had both been removed from the quorum and later reinstated. Under Lorenzo Snow’s leadership in 1900, the Twelve further specified that seniority should be based on continuous time served in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. This was significant because Brigham Young ordained his son Brigham Young Jr. an “Apostle” years before Brigham Jr. entered the Quorum of the Twelve. The change gave seniority in the quorum to Joseph F. Smith, who would succeed Snow as President of the Church. 20

The quorum under Presidents Young, Taylor, and Woodruff each waited about three years after the death of their predecessor before reorganizing the First Presidency. Wilford Woodruff, the fourth President of the Church, had urged the Twelve to not delay in sustaining a new First Presidency after his own death. Lorenzo Snow organized the First Presidency almost immediately, as did each of his successors. 21

While all Presidents of the Church assumed their calling after a formal sustaining vote, the practice of setting apart or ordaining the new President by the laying on of hands began in 1898. In a meeting of the Quorum of the Twelve shortly after the death of Wilford Woodruff, the Apostles voted to sustain Lorenzo Snow as President of the Church and for him to select counselors and organize a new First Presidency. President Snow asked his new First Counselor, George Q. Cannon, to set him apart, and, together with the 13 other assembled Apostles, President Cannon pronounced the blessing. 22 In 1901 Joseph F. Smith requested that his brother and Patriarch to the Church, John Smith, act as voice in setting him apart as President of the Church. 23 All subsequent new Presidents of the Church received their setting apart blessings from the members of the Quorum of the Twelve, with the newly sustained President of the Twelve pronouncing the blessing. 24

During the presidencies of Lorenzo Snow and Joseph F. Smith, Church leaders weighed various nuances of how to “set apart,” “ordain,” or “bless” a newly sustained President of the Church. Joseph F. Smith understood Brigham Young’s teaching that the “circumference of the apostleship” included all the keys of the kingdom, and therefore an Apostle becoming President of the Church did not require the conferral of additional priesthood or keys. 25 President Smith requested to be “set apart,” not “ordained,” to his office. David O. McKay later instructed the Quorum of the Twelve that the blessing of a new President of the Church ought to employ the language of both “setting apart” and “ordaining.” This phrasing continued with President McKay’s successors. 26

The protocols for sustaining a new President of the Church, for that new President organizing a new First Presidency, and for setting apart the new President in his office developed into a pattern by the mid-20th century that the Church continues to follow today.

Related Topics: Quorum of the Twelve, First Presidency, Deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Brigham Young


  1. Vilate M. Kimball letter to Heber C. Kimball, June 30, 1844, typescript, Church History Library, Salt Lake City; spelling standardized.

  2. The Murder of Joe Smith, the Mormon Prophet,” New York Herald, July 8, 1844, 2.

  3. Brigham Young, in History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1966), 7:185; Journal History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, July 9 and 14, 1844, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

  4. John Hardy, “Mormonism,” Boston Weekly Messenger, Aug. 7, 1844, 1.

  5. James Blakeslee letter to Jacob Scott, Aug. 16, 1844, in Heman C. Smith, “Succession in the Presidency,” Journal of History, vol. 2, no. 1 (Jan. 1909), 3–4. Blakeslee wrote before learning of the meetings on August 8.

  6. James B. Allen, No Toil nor Labor Fear: The Story of William Clayton (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 2002), 156–57.

  7. Sidney Rigdon, in History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7:226.

  8. Instruction on Priesthood, between circa 1 March and circa 4 May 1835 [D&C 107],” 84–85,; see also “Revelation, 23 July 1837 [D&C 112],” 73,

  9. Wilford Woodruff book of revelations, entry on Jan. 30, 1842, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

  10. Ronald W. Walker, “Six Days in August: Brigham Young and the Succession Crisis of 1844,” in David J. Whittaker and Arnold K. Garr, eds., A Firm Foundation: Church Organization and Administration (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2011), 161–96.

  11. Orson Hyde, Statement about Quorum of the Twelve, circa Late March 1845,” For more on the context of this statement, see Matthew J. Grow, Ronald K. Esplin, Mark Ashurst-McGee, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, and Jeffrey D. Mahas, eds., Administrative Records: Council of Fifty, Minutes, March 1844–January 1846. Vol. 1 of the Administrative Records series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Ronald K. Esplin, Matthew J. Grow, and Matthew C. Godfrey (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2016), 65–66, 378–80.

  12. Historian’s Office general Church minutes, 1839–1877, Feb. 12, 1849, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

  13. Minutes, Nauvoo, Illinois, stand, Aug. 8, 1844, Historian’s Office general Church minutes, 1839–1877, Church History Library, Salt Lake City; spelling standardized.

  14. Wilford Woodruff, “To the Officers and Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the British Islands,” Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, vol. 5, no. 9 (Feb. 1845), 138.

  15. Jesse C. Little letter to Brigham Young, Dec. 8, 1844, Brigham Young Office Files. William Burton similarly recalled in 1845 that “the spirit of Joseph appeared to rest upon Brigham” (Lynne Watkins Jorgensen, “The Mantle of the Prophet Joseph Passes to Brother Brigham: One Hundred Twenty-one Testimonies of a Collective Spiritual Witness,” in John W. Welch, ed., Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844 [Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 2005], 412).

  16. To read these accounts, see Jorgensen, “Mantle of the Prophet Joseph,” 408–77.

  17. For a discussion of other movements that emerged in the wake of Joseph Smith’s death, see Topic: Other Latter Day Saint Movements.

  18. Reed C. Durham Jr. and Steven H. Heath, Succession in the Church (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1970), 91–92.

  19. Ronald W. Walker, “Grant’s Watershed: Succession in the Presidency, 1887–1889,” BYU Studies, vol. 43, no. 1 (2004), 195–229.

  20. For more on seniority in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, see Durham and Heath, Succession in the Church, 62–67, 73–77, 111–16; see also Edward Leo Lyman, “Succession by Seniority: The Development of Procedural Precedents in the LDS Church,” Journal of Mormon History, vol. 40, no. 2 (Spring 2014), 92–158.

  21. See Topics: Quorum of the Twelve, First Presidency.

  22. Franklin D. Richards, Journal, Oct. 10, 1898, Selected Collections from the Archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Intellectual Reserve, 2002), disc 35, vol. 48.

  23. Between 1837 and 1979, a Patriarch over the whole Church was regularly called by the First Presidency and set apart to perform patriarchal blessings and serve alongside the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as a “prophet, seer, and revelator.” See Topic: Patriarchal Blessings.

  24. Patrick A. Bishop, “The Apostolic Succession of Joseph F. Smith,” chap. 14 in Craig K. Manscill, Brian D. Reeves, Guy L. Dorius, and J. B. Haws, eds., Joseph F. Smith: Reflections on the Man and His Times (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, 2013), 256–58.

  25. Bishop, “Apostolic Succession,” 257–58; Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 12:70.

  26. Bishop, “Apostolic Succession,” 257–58; N. Eldon Tanner, “The Administration of the Church,” general conference, Oct. 1979; David B. Haight, “A Prophet Chosen of the Lord,” general conference, Apr. 1986; First Presidency, Announcement (press conference, Mar. 13, 1995), Church History Library, Salt Lake City; Public Affairs Department, News Release, Mar. 13, 1995; “Succession in the Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” News Release, Jan. 27, 2008; First Presidency, Announcement (press conference, Feb. 4, 2008); Thomas S. Monson, “Principles from Prophets” (Brigham Young University devotional, Sept. 15, 2009),; Gary E. Stevenson, “A Legacy of Succession” (Brigham Young University–Idaho devotional, Jan. 12, 2018),