Seminaries and Institutes
Lesson 23: Succession in the Presidency

“Lesson 23: Succession in the Presidency,” Foundations of the Restoration Teacher Manual (2015)

“Lesson 23,” Teacher Manual

Lesson 23

Succession in the Presidency


Near the end of his life, Joseph Smith conferred the priesthood keys of this dispensation on the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. After the Prophet’s martyrdom, at a meeting held on August 8, 1844, many Saints received a spiritual manifestation confirming to them that Brigham Young, who was President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was to lead the Church. As students come to understand the principles associated with succession in the Presidency of the Church, they will have confidence that the Lord has selected and prepared each individual who becomes President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Background Reading

Suggestions for Teaching

Doctrine and Covenants 107:33; 112:30–32

Apostles hold the keys of this dispensation

Ask the following question:

  • How does the process of selecting a new President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints differ from the way leaders might be chosen in other organizations?

Inform students that this lesson will examine the transfer of Church leadership following the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Explain that several years before his death, the Prophet had received revelations concerning the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Ask students to study Doctrine and Covenants 107:33 and 112:30–32 looking for the Lord’s description of the priesthood authority held by the members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve.

  • How did the Lord describe the authority of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles? (Make sure students understand the following principle: The members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles hold the priesthood keys of this dispensation, and the Twelve function under the direction of the First Presidency.)

Foundations of the Restoration Course (Religion 225)

Distribute a copy of the handout found at the end of the lesson to each student. Explain that Joseph Smith spent the last months of his life meeting frequently with members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to prepare them to lead the Church. Have a student read aloud the handout section titled “Meeting with the Twelve Apostles, March 1844.” Tell students that this is a brief account of a meeting held by the Prophet Joseph Smith with the Apostles and other Church leaders, as recounted by President Wilford Woodruff, who was an Apostle at that time. After the reading, ask:

  • How did this conferral of keys on members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles help prepare them for the time when the Prophet Joseph Smith would no longer be with them? (They received the same priesthood keys that were held by the Prophet Joseph.)

  • Why was it important for Joseph Smith to confer these priesthood keys on the Apostles before his death? (At that time, Joseph Smith was the only one who held all the priesthood keys of this dispensation. If he had not conferred these keys on others, then angels would have had to come to earth again to restore them.)

Doctrine and Covenants 124:127–28

Brigham Young succeeded Joseph Smith as Church President

Explain that when the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was first organized in 1835, the order of seniority was determined by age. Thomas B. Marsh, who was believed at the time to be the oldest Apostle, was considered the senior Apostle (it has since been learned that David W. Patten was actually the oldest Apostle).

Ask a student to read Doctrine and Covenants 124:127–28 aloud. Explain that in October 1838, President Marsh apostatized and left the Church and David W. Patten died. Brigham Young then became the senior Apostle, as explained in these verses. Following the initial selection of Apostles and continuing to the present, seniority in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has been determined by date of ordination.

Explain that when Joseph and Hyrum Smith were martyred on June 27, 1844, the Twelve, except for John Taylor and Willard Richards, were in the eastern United States serving missions. Within three weeks, however, all of the Apostles had learned the tragic news and hurriedly returned to Nauvoo. As the Apostles arrived, they found confusion among Church members about who would lead the Church. Some Church members believed the leadership rightly fell to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Over the next months, several men put forth claims that they had the right to lead the Church. Ask two students to read aloud the handout sections titled “Sidney Rigdon’s Claim” and “James Strang’s Claim.” As the class listens, invite them to think about the concerns they might have had about these claims had they been in Nauvoo at the time.

Follow up by asking students:

  • Why were the claims made by these men not legitimate? (You may need to point out that although Sidney Rigdon was a member of the First Presidency, Joseph had not conferred priesthood keys on him.)

Invite a student to read aloud the handout section titled “August 7, 1844.” Discuss the following question with the class:

  • Why was Brigham Young’s testimony of the keys of the apostleship important? (After students respond, write the following doctrine on the board: The Apostles hold all the keys of the priesthood necessary to preside over the Church.)

Invite a student to read aloud the handout section titled “August 8, 1844, 10:00 A.M.”

  • How did the Lord bless the Saints to know whom He had appointed to lead the Church?

  • How can we know that Church leaders today are called of God? (After students respond, write the following principle on the board: Through the Holy Ghost, we can receive a witness that those who lead the Church have been called of God.)

  • When have you felt the Spirit witnessing to you that the President of the Church today is called of God?

Explain that during the meeting held at 2:00 p.m. on August 8, Brigham Young and other Apostles spoke. Have a student read aloud the handout section titled “August 8, 1844, 2:00 P.M.”

Explain that when Joseph Smith died, Brigham Young, as the senior Apostle, was immediately able to exercise all of the keys of the priesthood. For more than three years following the Prophet’s martyrdom, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles presided over the Church, under the direction of Brigham Young. Then on December 5, 1847, Brigham Young was sustained as President of the Church and the First Presidency was reorganized.

Sidney Rigdon moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and organized a Church of Christ with apostles, prophets, priests, and kings. This church collapsed by 1847. And even though James Strang’s claims to the presidency were false, three of the former Twelve Apostles—William E. McLellin, John E. Page, and William Smith—supported him. Strang was murdered in 1856 by disaffected followers.

To help students understand the process of succession in the Church Presidency today, display the following statement by President Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles about what took place following the death of President Gordon B. Hinckley. Ask a student to read the statement aloud:

Packer, Boyd K.

“There was no question about what would be done, no hesitancy. We knew that the senior Apostle was the President of the Church. And in that sacred meeting, Thomas Spencer Monson was sustained by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as the President of the Church. … Now, as the scriptures provide, he is the only man on the earth who has the right to exercise all of the keys. But we all hold them as Apostles. There is one man among us called and ordained, and he becomes the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (“The Twelve,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2008, 83).

  • Following the death of the President of the Church, who will always become the next President of the Church? (The senior Apostle, who is the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.)

Some students may wonder when the President of the Church receives the keys necessary to preside over the Church. Explain that every Apostle is given all of the keys when he is first ordained as an Apostle. Ask a student to read aloud the following statement by President Gordon B. Hinckley (1910–2008):

Hinckley, Gordon B.

“But authority to exercise those keys is restricted to the President of the Church. At his passing, that authority becomes operative in the senior Apostle, who is then named, set apart, and ordained a prophet and President by his associates of the Council of the Twelve” (“Come and Partake,” Ensign, May 1986, 47).

  • What feelings do you have as you realize that the Lord’s kingdom on earth will move forward with little interruption following the death of a Church President?

You may want to conclude this lesson by testifying that the same priesthood keys and powers that Joseph Smith conferred upon Brigham Young and the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are held today by the President of the Church, his Counselors in the First Presidency, and the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. You might also share how you gained your testimony that Church leaders are called by God. Invite students to prayerfully seek to obtain or strengthen their testimonies of the truths they have discussed today.

Student Readings

Succession in the Presidency of the Church

Foundations of the Restoration—Lesson 23

Meeting with the Twelve Apostles, March 1844

President Wilford Woodruff (1807–98) recalled:

Wilford Woodruff

“I remember the last speech that [Joseph Smith] ever gave us before his death. … He stood upon his feet some three hours. The room was filled as with consuming fire, his face was as clear as amber, and he was clothed upon by the power of God. He laid before us our duty. He laid before us the fullness of this great work of God; and in his remarks to us he said: ‘I have had sealed upon my head every key, every power, every principle of life and salvation that God has ever given to any man who ever lived upon the face of the earth. And these principles and this Priesthood and power belong to this great and last dispensation which the God of Heaven has set His hand to establish in the earth. Now,’ said he, addressing the Twelve, ‘I have sealed upon your heads every key, every power, and every principle which the Lord has sealed upon my head.’ …

“After addressing us in this manner he said: ‘I tell you, the burden of this kingdom now rests upon your shoulders; you have got to bear it off in all the world’” (quoted in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith [2007], 532).

Sidney Rigdon’s Claim

Sidney Rigdon, First Counselor in the First Presidency, arrived in Nauvoo from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on August 3, 1844. He called for a special meeting to be held on Tuesday, August 6, so that Church members could choose a guardian for the Church. It appeared as though Sidney Rigdon tried to hold this meeting so Church members could ratify his position as guardian of the Church before all of the Twelve Apostles would return from their missions to the eastern United States. Fortunately, because of the efforts of Elder Willard Richards and Elder Parley P. Pratt, the meeting was moved to Thursday, August 8, 1844, by which time most of the Apostles had returned to Nauvoo.

Sidney Rigdon claimed that because he had previously been called and ordained as a spokesman for Joseph Smith (see D&C 100:9), it was his responsibility to “see that the church is governed in a proper manner” (in History of the Church, 7:229).

James Strang’s Claim

After Joseph Smith’s death, James Strang, who had been baptized in February 1844, claimed to have received a letter from Joseph Smith stating that Joseph had appointed Strang as his successor. The letter was a forgery, but it appeared to include Joseph Smith’s signature, and it deceived some members of the Church when Strang showed it to them. Strang also said that he had been visited by an angel, who had given him keys.

August 7, 1844

Elders John Taylor, Willard Richards, Parley P. Pratt, and George A. Smith were already in Nauvoo when Sidney Rigdon arrived. Most of the rest of the Apostles, including Brigham Young, returned to Nauvoo on the evening of August 6, 1844. The next day, August 7, the Apostles met in council at the home of John Taylor. Later that afternoon, the Twelve Apostles, the high council, and the high priests met together. President Young asked Sidney Rigdon to state his message to the Saints. Sidney Rigdon boldly declared that he had seen a vision and that no man could succeed Joseph Smith as President of the Church. He then proposed that he be appointed as the guardian of the people.

After Sidney Rigdon concluded his remarks, Brigham Young (1801–77) said:

Brigham Young

“I do not care who leads the church, … but one thing I must know, and that is what God says about it. I have the keys and the means of obtaining the mind of God on the subject. …

“Joseph conferred upon our heads all the keys and powers belonging to the Apostleship which he himself held before he was taken away, and no man or set of men can get between Joseph and the Twelve in this world or in the world to come.

“How often has Joseph said to the Twelve, ‘I have laid the foundation and you must build thereon, for upon your shoulders the kingdom rests’” (in History of the Church, 7:230).

August 8, 1844, 10:00 A.M.

On August 8, 1844, the Saints in Nauvoo gathered at 10:00 a.m. to hear Sidney Rigdon make his claims as guardian of the Church. He spoke to the thousands of assembled Saints for an hour and a half, explaining why he should be guardian of the Church. Several people described his speech as uninspiring.

President Brigham Young spoke briefly and said that he would have preferred to come back to Nauvoo to mourn for the Prophet than to have to appoint a new leader. He announced that an assembly of leaders and members would be held later that day at 2:00 p.m. Several members of the Church later testified that as Brigham Young spoke, they saw his appearance change and heard his voice change, and he took on the appearance and voice of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Emily Smith Hoyt remembered: “The manner of reasoning, the expression of the countenance, the sound of the voice thrilled my whole soul. … I knew that Joseph was dead. And yet I often startled and involuntarily looked at the stand to see if it was not Joseph. It was not, it was Brigham Young” (quoted in Lynne Watkins Jorgensen, “The Mantle of the Prophet Joseph Passes to Brother Brigham: A Collective Spiritual Witness,” BYU Studies, vol. 36, no. 4 [1996–97], 142).

Wilford Woodruff wrote, “If I had not seen him with my own eyes, there is no one that could have convinced me that it was not Joseph Smith, and anyone can testify to this who was acquainted with these two men” (in History of the Church, 7:236).

August 8, 1844, 2:00 P.M.

At 2:00 p.m., thousands of Saints gathered for what they knew would be a significant meeting. Brigham Young spoke frankly about the proposed guardianship of Sidney Rigdon and his alienation from Joseph Smith during the previous two years and then said:

“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.

“The Twelve are appointed by the finger of God. Here is Brigham, have his knees ever faltered? Have his lips ever quivered? Here is Heber [C. Kimball] 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” (in History of the Church, 7:233).

Many Saints commented that Brigham Young looked and sounded like Joseph Smith as he spoke that afternoon. In addition to this miracle, many of the Saints also felt the Holy Ghost witness to them that Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve were called by God to lead the Church. At the conclusion of this meeting, the Saints in Nauvoo voted unanimously to sustain the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, with Brigham Young at their head, to lead the Church. However, not all the members of the Church ultimately chose to follow the Apostles. Some of the people chose instead to follow individuals such as Sidney Rigdon and James Strang, who formed their own churches.