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?

Main article: Mormonism and church leadership/Succession in the Presidency of the Church

Introduction to Question

Many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other interested parties have wondered what the standards for presidential succession are in the Church and how they were set up under the direction of the Prophet Joseph Smith. These standards are important to document as the perceived legitimacy of the Church as God's "only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth" (Doctrine and Covenants 1:30) can be threatened by offshoot sects of Mormonism or other Mormon Gnostics if the standards are misunderstood.

This article will seek to do just that.

Response to Question

There are two scenarios when the seat of President of the Church must be filled. The first of these is when the President of the Church dies and the other is when the President of the Church becomes a fallen prophet or is excommunicated from the Church. We will review requirements for both scenarios.

The Scope and Origin of the Authority of the President of the Church

First, it might be helpful to review the scriptures that touch on what scope of authority the President of the Church has and where that authority comes from.[2] The Doctrine and Covenants declares that:

  1. No one receives commandments or revelations on behalf of the entire Church except the prophet (Doctrine and Covenants 28:2).
  2. 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 (Doctrine and Covenants 28:3-5).
  3. 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 (Doctrine and Covenants 42:11).
  4. 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 (Doctrine and Covenants 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 including:

Regarding the organization of the First Presidency specifically, the Doctrine and Covenants declares:

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, the Quorum of the Twelve is to take over since they are "equal in power and authority" to the First Presidency.

Principles of Succession if the Prophet Merely Loses Authority Without Dying

Now we review the different standards laid out by the Doctrine and Covenants for succession. The first scenario for when the seat of President of the Church must be filled is when the Prophet loses his authority upon being excommunicated for the Church. There is a procedure for trying the President of the Church for excommunication in the Doctrine and Covenants (Doctrine and Covenants 107:82-84).

The Doctrine and Covenants then makes clear that 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 (Doctrine and Coveanants 43:2-7).

Principles of Succession if the Prophet Dies

With the death of the President of the Church, the First Presidency is then dissolved since it contains three high priests per Doctrine and Covenants 107:22-24 above. Authority to guide the Church then falls to the Twelve since they are equal in authority to the First Presidency. One of the high priests of the Church must be appointed to receive revelations on behalf of the whole Church (Doctrine and Covenants 28:2, 7). The Twelve can govern as a body administratively, but they cannot guide the Church spiritually. Thus, the Twelve almost always choose to reorganize the First Presidency. By tradition, the person chosen as the President of the Church out of the body of High Priests has almost always been the most senior apostle of the Quorum of the Twelve: the one that has served the longest.

Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained more:

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.

Angelic Ordination Necessary for Prophetic Succession?

It is a common claim among those that associate themselves with the Snufferite or Strangite offshoot groups of the Church that angelic visitation and ordination is required to make a claim to prophetic succession legitimate. For instance, consider the claims of James Strang in The Diamond, a missionary tract for the Strangite church written by Strang in 1848:

The question returns, Who can ordain? God has answered it. In February, 1831, God said, “He that is ordained of me (God) shall come in at the gate (be appointed by revelation, for that is the gate or lawful place of coming in), and be ordained as I have told you (Joseph) before.” (D. & C., sec. 43:2 or 43:7). So if we can learn what God told Joseph before on this subject, the answer is perfect. In September, 1830, five months before, and only five months after the organization of the church, God said: “I have sent unto you Peter, James, and John (angels), by whom I have ordained you,” etc. (D. & C., sec. 26:3, or 27:12, 13.) Most clear and true, therefore, is it that a prophet of this dispensation cannot be either elected or ordained of man, but must be chosen by revelation and ordained by angels.[7]

Strang conveniently ignores key texts that contradict his interpretation. Consider for instance verse 11 of Doctrine & Covenants 42 which was received/revealed on 9 February 1831 and published the same month as section 43. The author suspects that this may even be the one to which the Lord refers to in 43 since a) it is so near to Doctrine and Covenants 43, b) the revelation clearly outlines a procedure for how an ordination is to be performed instead of merely saying, like the scriptures Strange cites, that an angelic ordination happened, and c) Doctrine & Covenants 42 was received so early in the month of February. We don't know exactly when Doctrine & Covenants 43 was received other than the month of February 1831. 42, as mentioned, was received in 9 February. The revelation in 42:11 states:

11 Again I say unto you, that it shall not be given to any one to go forth to preach my gospel, or to build up my church, except he be ordained by some one who has authority, and it is known to the church that he has authority and has been regularly ordained by the heads of the church.

So, even if Joseph falls and someone else has to be called to build up the Church, that person will be ordained by someone with known authority; "regularly ordained" by the heads of the Church. These heads are further defined in sections 104 and 107, whose principles for succession we’ve outlined above. Strang claims in The Diamond that these aren’t revelations, but as one reads the text of the sections themselves, it becomes clear that Strang is wrong: they are revelations and their language clearly evinces that fact.

This clearly demonstrates that angelic ordination is not necessary to be a valid prophetic successor of Joseph Smith.


It is the hope of the author that this article will serve as a helpful tool for clearing doubts about who the legitimate succesor of Joseph Smith is and thus the rightful custodian of all keys pertaining to the direction of God's Kingdom on Earth: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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


  1. Anointed Quorum (‘Holy Order’),” Church History Topics.
  2. Much of this material is gathered and adapted from Cassandra Hedelius, "A house of order, a house of God: Recycled challenges to the legitimacy of the church," (presentation, FAIR Conference 2015, Provo, UT).
  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. Gary E. Stevenson, "The Heart of the Prophet" Ensign 48, no. 5 (May 2018): 18–19.
  7. James Strang, The Diamond (Voree, WI: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints at Voree, Wisconsin, 1848). Online at