Mormonism and church leadership/Succession in the Presidency of the Church

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Succession in the Presidency of the Church

Summary: There was much contention regarding who Joseph Smith's successor was supposed to be after his death. Some claim that Joseph Smith designated his son Joseph III as his successor.

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Question: Did Brigham promise that Joseph Smith III would eventually take over the Church?

Brigham was referring to being "ready to receive" any of Joseph's children into the Church

The Wikipedia article "Joseph Smith, Jr." makes this rather interesting assertion:

Indeed, as late as 1860, Brigham Young assured the bulk of Smith's followers that young Joseph would eventually take his father's place. (Journal of Discourses, 8:69.)

The source provided does not support the assertion that Brigham stated that "young Joseph would eventually take his father's place." Brigham said,

What of Joseph Smith's family? What of his boys? I have prayed from the beginning for sister Emma and for the whole family. There is not a man in this Church that has entertained better feelings towards them. Joseph said to me, "God will take care of my children when I am taken." They are in the hands of God, and when they make their appearance before this people, full of his power, there are none but what will say—"Amen! we are ready to receive you."

The brethren testify that brother Brigham is brother Joseph's legal successor. You never heard me say so. I say that I am a good hand to keep the dogs and wolves out of the flock. I do not care a groat who rises up. I do not think anything about being Joseph's successor. (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 8:69.)

Brigham's comment "we are ready to receive you" applied to all of Joseph's children, not just Joseph Smith III.

Mark Hofmann forged a document known as the The Joseph Smith III blessing, which falsely represented itself as a father’s blessing given by the Prophet Joseph Smith on 17 January 1844 to his son, Joseph Smith III, to the effect that this son was his appointed successor. (See Ensign, May 1981.) off-site

Question: What indications were there that Brigham Young would be Joseph Smith's successor?

Statements indicating that Brigham would be Joseph's successor

Below are statements from contemporaries that indicate Brigham's place as rightful successor to Joseph Smith. In addition to these, one should see the 100+ statements that John Welch has compiled in Opening the Heavens that indicate Brigham's rightful place as successor to Joseph Smith.

Receiving All Ordinances as Member of the Quorum of the Anointed

From Church History Topics, “Anointed Quorum (‘Holy Order’)”:

On May 4, 1842, Joseph Smith introduced the temple endowment to a group of nine close associates in an upper room of his Nauvoo store. Over the next two years, Joseph administered this ordinance to more than 50 additional men and women. This group received a ceremonial washing and anointing as part of the endowment, and were later called the “anointed Quorum,” “the Quorum,” the “council,” or the “Holy Order.”

An 1841 revelation to Joseph Smith taught that the endowment was to be given to Church members in the completed Nauvoo Temple. But according to Orson Hyde, Joseph explained, “I don’t know what it is, but the Lord bids me to hasten and give you your endowment before the temple is finished.” He selected men and women whom he trusted would treat the sacred ordinances of the temple with reverence and confidentiality. Heber C. Kimball, one of the original members of the Anointed Quorum, explained that Joseph “got a small company” that “he can open his bosom to and feel himself safe.”

[. . .]

After Joseph Smith’s martyrdom, participation in the Anointed Quorum figured prominently in the debate over who would succeed the Prophet. One powerful aspect of the case made by the Quorum of the Twelve in the weeks following Joseph’s death was that they, unlike rival claimant Sidney Rigdon, had received all the temple ordinances and had been authorized by Joseph Smith to give them to others.[1]

Rocky Mountain Prophecy

Shortly before his death, Joseph Smith prophesied that the Saints would move west. This prophecy has become known as the Rocky Mountain Prophecy. This validates the claim of Brigham Young to be the true successor of Joseph.

Benjamin Franklin Johnson

“Of Brigham Young as President of the Church, I will again bear this as a faithful testimony that I do know and bear record that upon the head of Brigham Young as chief, with the Apostleship in full, was by the voice of the Prophet Joseph in my hearing, laid the full responsibility of bearing of[f] the kingdom of God to all the world . . . . [When Brigham Young first met Joseph Smith and spoke in tongues in the Adamic languaue the Prophet] at that time, made the prediction upon the head of Brigham Young that ‘at some period he would become the leader of the Church, and that there would be one danger to beset him, and that would be his love of wealth.’ These things were told to me by [Lyman R.] Sherman [i.e., Johnson’s brother-in-law] at near the time of their occurrence” (E. Dale LeBaron, Benjamin Franklin Johnson: Friend to the Prophets [Provo, Utah: Grandin Book Co., 1997], 232, 233).

Brigham Young

“I can say of a truth that Joseph told me not three months before he was killed, and I did not seek the information he gave me—we were talking upon counseling, governing and controlling—that ‘if I am moved out of the way, you are the only man living on this earth who can counsel and direct the affairs of the kingdom of God on the earth’” ("Remarks by President Brigham Young at the Semi Annual Conference, Great Salt Lake City, Oct. 8, 1866," LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah. Spelling, punctuation, and grammar modernized).

William Nelson

“I have heard the Prophet speak in public on many occasions. In one meeting I heard him say, ‘I will give you a key that will never rust. If you will stay with the majority of the Twelve Apostles, and the records of the Church, you will never be led astray’” (Young Woman’s Journal, December 1906, 542–43).

Oliver Cowdery

“There was no salvation but in the valley and through the priesthood there.” (Letter, Phineas Young to Brigham Young, April 25, 1850, Brigham Young Collection, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Martin Harris

"Brigham is governor" (----------).

Mosiah Hancock

"When the Prophet had his hand upon my father's head, I said to myself, 'I trust that I will be as true to young Joseph, the Prophet's son, as my father is to his father.' Afterwards at home, I told my father of my thoughts, and he said, 'No, Mosiah, for God has shown to Brother Joseph that his son, Joseph, will be the means of drawing many people away from this Church after him. Brother Joseph gave us to understand that it was our duty to follow the Twelve. The majority of this people will be right" (Amy E. Baird, Victoria H. Jackson, and Laura L. Wassell, comp., "Autobiography of Mosiah Hancock (1834-1865)," typescript copy, BYU Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Provo, Utah, 27-29.

Joseph Smith

“where I am not, there is no First Presidency over the Twelve” [TPJS, 106]. (ftnt. #23): 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. (Brent L. Top and Lawrence R. Flake, Ensign, August 1996)

Further Reading

  • D. Michael Quinn has done excellent work on the succession Crisis through BYU Studies which can be found here.
  • Also see this video from LDS Truth Claims that explains all criticisms in detail and points to additional sources for learning.
  • Video from Brian Jensen of the Church History Department

Question: What are the standards for prophetic succession in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

Requirements from the Doctrine and Covenants

Many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other interested parties have wondered what the standards for succession were set in the early days of the Church under the direction of the Prophet Joseph Smith. These standards are important to defend as the perceived legitimacy of the Church can be threatened by offshoot sects of Mormonism or other Mormon Gnostics if the standards are misunderstood.

Standards for authority and/or stewardship in the Church include:

  • No one receives commandments or revelations on behalf of the entire Church except the prophet (D&C 28:2-5).
  • Others can have the authority to declare the commandments and revelations (from the Prophet) with power, and to speak and teach by way of commandment, but when writing should couch it as wisdom instead of commandment (D&C 28:2-5).
  • If the prophet goes astray, to the extent of losing his authority to receive revelations and commandments for the Church, he would still have the ability to appoint his successor. This was very early in the church, before the full organization of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, so we would assume the procedure would change somewhat later. But the principle remains that a fallen church leader does not vacate the church’s authority to perpetuate inspired leadership (D&C 43:2-7). This invalidates claims such as those of James Strang and Denver Snuffer to an angel being the one to have to ordain someone to the presidency in order to continue the prophetic line of authority.
  • Authority to preach and organize the church comes through ordination by someone with authority. Additionally, that ordination must be known by the church to have been ordained in the Church through those priesthood channels (D&C 42:11).
  • Anyone ordained of the Lord will “come in at the gate’’–that is, will be easily recognizable as an authorized messenger, and not have to gain influence by courting popularity and gradual coalition-building etc. There’s a reason we keep pictures of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve in church buildings, so that there’s no confusion about who our leaders are. We can’t be deceived by pretenders (D&C 43:2-7). Coming in at the gate entails that one will receive all ordinances pertaining to salvation including baptism, confirmation/reception of Holy Spirit, initiatory, endowment, and sealing. As worthy men are ordained to apostleship, they will receive keys (different keys will given to different officers [D&C 123:23]) including:
  • Keys of Sealing (D&C 132:7)
  • Keys of the Gathering of Israel (D&C 110:11)
  • Keys of the Dispensation of the Gospel of Abraham (D&C 110:12)
  • Keys of the Powers of the Holy Priesthood (D&C 128:11)
  • Keys of the Kingdom (D&C 81:2)

Other keys are mentioned in the scriptures:

Many types of keys are mentioned in the scriptures of the Church (see MD, pp. 409-13). Jesus Christ holds all the keys. Joseph Smith received the keys pertaining to the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ (D&C 6:25-28;28:7;35:18), and through him the First Presidency holds the "keys of the kingdom," including the sealing ordinances (D&C 81:1-2;90:1-6;110:16;128:20;132:19).

Specific mention of certain keys and those who hold them include the following: The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles exercises the keys "to open the door by the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ" in all the world (D&C 107:35;112:16;124:128). Adam holds "the keys of salvation under the counsel and direction of the Holy One," and "the keys of the universe" (D&C 78:16; TPJS, p. 157); Moses, "the keys of the gathering of Israel" (D&C 110:11); Elias, the keys to bring to pass "the restoration of all things" (D&C 27:6); and Elijah, "the keys of the power of turning the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers" (D&C 27:9). Holders of the Melchizedek Priesthood are said to have "the keys of the Church," "the key of knowledge," and "the keys of all the spiritual blessings of the church" (D&C 42:69;84:19;107:18), while belonging to the Aaronic Priesthood are "the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins" (D&C 13:1;84:26). All these stewardships will eventually be delivered back into the hands of Jesus Christ (TPJS, p. 157).[2]

Now as it regards succession, it is important to reiterate what Doctrine and Covenants states on the matter (D&C 107:22-24):

22 Of the Melchizedek Priesthood, three Presiding High Priests, chosen by the body, appointed and ordained to that office, and upheld by the confidence, faith, and prayer of the church, form a quorum of the Presidency of the Church.
23 The twelve traveling councilors are called to be the Twelve Apostles, or special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world—thus differing from other officers in the church in the duties of their calling.
24 And they form a quorum, equal in authority and power to the three presidents previously mentioned.

We learn a couple of important things about succession:

  • Three high priests of the Melchizedek Priesthood form the First Presidency. With the death of one, it logically follows that the Quorum is unorganized.
  • With the dissolution of the First Presidency, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve is to take over since they are "equal in power and authority" to the First Presidency.

When the president of the Church dies, the apostles are left in a state called "apostolic interregnum". This was explained by Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles:

The period of time between the death of a prophet and the reorganization of the First Presidency is referred to as an “apostolic interregnum.” During this period, the Quorum of the Twelve, under the leadership of the quorum president, jointly holds the keys to administer the leadership of the Church. President Joseph F. Smith taught, “There is always a head in the Church, and if the Presidency of the Church are removed by death or other cause, then the next head of the Church is the Twelve Apostles, until a presidency is again organized.”[3]

The most recent interregnum period began when President Monson passed away on January 2 and ended 12 days later on Sunday, January 14. On that Sabbath morning, the Quorum of the Twelve met in the upper room of the Salt Lake Temple in a spirit of fasting and prayer, under the presiding direction of President Russell M. Nelson, the senior Apostle and President of the Quorum of the Twelve.

In this sacred and memorable meeting, following a well-established precedent in unity and unanimity, the Brethren were seated by seniority in a semicircle of 13 chairs and raised their hands first to sustain the organization of a First Presidency and then to sustain President Russell Marion Nelson as President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This sustaining was followed by the Quorum of the Twelve gathering in a circle and placing hands upon the head of President Nelson to ordain and set him apart, with the next most-senior Apostle acting as voice.

President Nelson then named his counselors, President Dallin Harris Oaks, President Henry Bennion Eyring, with President Oaks as the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and President Melvin Russell Ballard as the Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Following similar sustaining votes, each of these Brethren was set apart to his respective office by President Nelson. This was a deeply sacred experience, with an outpouring of the Spirit. I offer to you my absolute witness that the will of the Lord, for which we fervently prayed, was powerfully manifest in the activities and events of that day.

With the ordination of President Nelson and the reorganization of the First Presidency, the apostolic interregnum ended, and the newly constituted First Presidency began to operate without, remarkably, even one second of interruption in governing the Lord’s kingdom on the earth.

This morning, this divine process is culminated in accordance with scriptural mandate outlined in the Doctrine and Covenants: “For all things must be done in order, and by common consent in the church, by the prayer of faith,”[4] and “three Presiding High Priests, … upheld by the confidence, faith, and prayer of the church, form a quorum of the Presidency of the Church.”[5][6]

These requirements have been met and this pattern kept in an uninterrupted chain from the Prophet Joseph Smith to the current President of the Church, President Russell M. Nelson.

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here


  1. Anointed Quorum (‘Holy Order’),” Church History Topics.
  2. Alan K. Parrish, "Keys of the Priesthood" in Encyclopedia of Mormonism 6 vols. ed. Daniel Ludlow (New York: MacMillian, 1992 and 2007) off-site
  3. Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith (1998), 223.
  4. Doctrine and Covenants 28:13.
  5. Doctrine and Covenants 107:22.
  6. Elder Gary E. Stevenson, "The Heart of the Prophet" General Conference (April 2018)