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

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1844 Succession to Joseph Smith

Summary: There was much contention regarding who Joseph Smith's successor was supposed to be after his death.



Video published by the Church History Department.


In the early 1800s, God called Joseph Smith to restore the true Church of Christ and to serve as its first leader (see Doctrine and Covenants 20:2). God also provided a plan of succession: that the next Church leader would be appointed by Joseph Smith and would not serve until after Joseph was gone (see Doctrine and Covenants 43:3–4). Before he died, Joseph Smith appointed his successor, but "he had not announced a clear plan for succession [to Church members]. . . . One Church member living near Nauvoo said he heard people advocating for several potential leaders."[1]

Possible Successors

Some individuals who were put forth as possible successors included:

  • Brigham Young. As President of the Quorum of the Twelve, Brigham Young was a leading figure among the Latter-day Saints, and had been so since the Twelve's mission to England in 1840.[2] Further, the Quorum of the Twelve had risen in prominence from their establishment in 1835 until Joseph's death in 1844, and since 1841 they had "[stood] in their place next to the First Presidency."[3]
  • Sidney Rigdon. As First Counselor in the First Presidency, Sidney Rigdon had been a leading figure among the Latter-day Saints almost since the Church's founding. He had been Joseph's counselor since the First Presidency was organized in 1832.[4] However, by the time of Joseph's death in 1844, Sidney had fallen out of favor with Joseph and many of the Latter-day Saints.[5]
  • James Strang. Having been baptized into the Church around February 1844, James Strang was a recent convert to the Church. He had been baptized in Nauvoo but very soon left for Wisconsin, where there were many Church members, either living or working for lumber. He was relatively unknown to Church members outside of his branch in Wisconsin.[6]
  • William Marks. As president of the Nauvoo Stake, William Marks was a leading figure among the Saints in Nauvoo. He had served as president since the stake was organized in 1839. He was also close friend to Emma Smith and agreed with her views on many important aspects of Church teachings, including opposing plural marriage.[7]
  • Joseph Smith III. As the oldest living son of Joseph Smith, Joseph Smith III was a possible successor because of lineage. However, at only 11 years old when Joseph died, Joseph III was not widely considered as an immediate successor but rather as someone who might eventually become the Church's leader.[8]

August 8, 1844

Almost immediately after Joseph Smith's death on June 27, 1844, conflict arose among local Church leaders and others about who would succeed Joseph Smith. Throughout July 1844 local leaders met together and with Emma Smith to discuss possible succession options. They agreed to wait to make a decision until a majority of the Twelve Apostles returned to Nauvoo.[9] (The Twelve had been out on missions for Joseph Smith's campaign for President of the United States of America.) However, Sidney Rigdon (who had also been away from Nauvoo for the campaign) returned to Nauvoo on August 3 and immediately began advocating that the Saints appoint him as Joseph's successor. Sidney gained William Marks as a supporter, and William appointed a general assembly of the Church for August 8 to decide the question who would succeed Joseph Smith. Two days before the assembly, Brigham Young and several of the Twelve Apostles returned to Nauvoo, so that a majority of the Quorum was now in Nauvoo.[10]

On August 8, Church members met to decide who should lead the Church. In a morning meeting, Sidney Rigdon gave an impassioned speech that the authority to lead the Church was still on the earth and that he would be the spokesman for Joseph Smith. Brigham Young arose and lamented that there was such a hurry to appoint a successor but that he would call a meeting of priesthood quorums and general membership that afternoon to resolve the issue. When the Saints gathered in the afternoon, Brigham Young and others addressed the congregation, explaining the authority of the Twelve Apostles to lead the Church since Joseph had died.[11]

Many reported that, in both the morning and afternoon meetings, "Brigham sounded and appeared remarkably like Joseph Smith; others simply say that the 'mantle of Joseph' or the 'mantle of the prophets' rested on Brigham Young; and others state that they were given a witness 'by the spirit' that Brigham was to lead the Church."[12] One hundred and twenty-nine people bore witness of this manifestation. Just a few are included here:[13]

  • Henry and Catherine Brooke, 15 November 1844: "The loss of Br. Joseph and Hyrum has been greatly felt but we have the twelve apostles to preside in their stead. Br. Brigham Young is president of the twelve and stands as prophet, seer, and revelator to the Church. He is an excellent man, and favours Br. Joseph, both in person, and manner of speaking, more than any person ever you saw looks like another."
  • Howard Egan, 8 December 1844: "Jesse C. Little quoted Howard Egan’s words in his letter to Brigham Young dated December 8, 1844: 'I rec[eive]d a Letter from Bro Egan at the time of the Conference he said if a man had been blinded he would hardly have known if it were not Joseph.'"
  • Wilford Woodruff, February 1845: "Met in a special conference, all the quorums, authorities, and members of the Church, that could assemble in Nauvoo. They were addressed by elder Brigham Young, the president of the quorum of the twelve. It was evident to the Saints that the mantle of Joseph had fallen upon him."

Quorum of the Twelve as Successors

These divine witnesses helped Church members to know that Brigham Young and the Twelve Apostles had been given the authority to lead the Church after Joseph died. Orson Hyde wrote that Joseph, shortly before his death, met with the Twelve to confer upon them keys and authority and declared, "Upon the shoulders of the Twelve must the responsibility of leading this church hence forth rest until you shall appoint others to succeed you."[14] Other Apostles shared similar testimonies of Joseph conferring upon them the authority to lead the Church:[15]

  • Parley P. Pratt: Said [Joseph], ‘I know not why; but for some reason I am constrained to hasten my preparations, and to confer upon the Twelve all the ordinances, keys, covenants, endowments, and sealing ordinances of the priesthood, and so set before them a pattern in all things pertaining to the sanctuary [the temple] and the endowment therein.’ Having done this, he rejoiced exceedingly; for, said he, the Lord is about to lay the burden on your shoulders and let me rest awhile."
  • Wilford Woodruff: "In his [Joseph's] 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, and if you don’t do it you will be damned.’”
  • Brigham Young: "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.’"

Other individuals also added their testimony that the keys and authority to lead the Church were with the Twelve. Recounting his experience of the August 8 meetings, Joseph Fielding wrote, "The Saints soon began to see how things were and that the 12 must now hold the Keys of Power and Authority according to the Revelation which says the 12 are equal with the first Presidency . . . it was also shewn that Joseph had told the 12 after he had instructed them in all things that on them would rest the Responsibility and the Care of the Church in Case he should be taken away."[16] Benjamin F. Johnson later recalled, "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 in [sic] my hearing laid the full Responsability of bearing of the kingdom of God to all the world."[17]

By studying the testimonies and experiences of those who were present in 1844, and then seeking our own testimony, we can also know that Brigham Young was the divinely authorized successor to Joseph Smith.

Dissenting Groups

Not all of the Saints accepted the Twelve as the divinely authorized successors to Joseph Smith. In the time immediately after the Twelve assumed leadership, many individuals (including Sidney Rigdon, James Strang, and others) led groups of dissenting Saints, though these movements quickly disbanded. Later, Joseph Smith III, with the assistant of William Marks, assumed leadership of another group of dissenting Saints. This movement endured and became known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (now called the Community of Christ).[18]

Some Saints believed that the Church led by Brigham Young would eventually be led by Joseph Smith III, or another of Joseph Smith Jr.'s sons. Though Brigham Young himself hoped that Joseph's sons would one day become leaders in the Church, he acknowledged they had to do so "if that person conformed to the revelation of God and received that office humbly through the constituted apostolic authority that directed it at present."[19]

Video published by Saints Unscripted.


Further Reading

Notes

  1. "Succession of Church Leadership," Church History Topics in Gospel Library.
  2. Ronald C. Esplin, The Emergence of Brigham Young and the Twelve to Mormon Leadership, 1830–1841 (BYU Studies, 2011).
  3. Joseph Smith, Discourse, 16 August 1841, as Published in Times and Seasons, josephsmithpapers.org, capitalization modernized.
  4. "Note, 8 March 1832," josephsmithpapers.org.
  5. D. Michael Quinn, "The Mormon Succession Crisis of 1844," BYU Studies 16:2.
  6. David L. Clark, "The Mormons of the Wisconsin Territory, 1835–1848," BYU Studies 37:2.
  7. "Marks, William," biographical entry on josephsmithpapers.org; James B. Allen, No Toil Nor Labor Fear: The Story of William Clayton (Brigham Young University Press, 2002), 157.
  8. D. Michael Quinn, "The Mormon Succession Crisis of 1844," BYU Studies 16:2.
  9. James B. Allen, No Toil Nor Labor Fear: The Story of William Clayton (Brigham Young University Press, 2002), 156–158.
  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).
  11. LaJean Purcell Carruth and Robin Scott Jensen, "Sidney Rigdon’s Plea to the Saints: Transcription of Thomas Bullock’s Shorthand Notes from the August 8, 1844, Morning Meeting," BYU Studies Quarterly 53:2. Lynne W. Jorgensen, "The Mantle of the Prophet Joseph Passes to Brother Brigham: One Hundred Twenty-nine Testimonies of a Collective Spiritual Witness," in John W. Welch, ed., Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844 (Second Edition) (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press).
  12. Lynn W. Jorgensen, "The Mantle of the Prophet Joseph Passes to Brother Brigham: One Hundred Twenty-nine Testimonies of a Collective Spiritual Witness," in John W. Welch, ed., Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844 (Second Edition) (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press).
  13. Lynne W. Jorgensen, "Documents of Testimonies of the Mantle Experience," in John W. Welch, ed., Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844 (Second Edition) (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press). The documents included are document 7 (Brooke), document 19 (Egan), and document 68A (Woodruff).
  14. "Appendix 3: Orson Hyde, Statement about Quorum of the Twelve, circa Late March 1845," josephsmithpapers.org.
  15. In the section "Before his death, Joseph Smith conferred upon the Twelve Apostles every priesthood key and power that the Lord had sealed upon him", in "Chapter 46: The Martyrdom: The Prophet Seals His Testimony with His Blood," Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith.
  16. Andrew F. Ehat, "'They Might Have Known That He Was Not a Fallen Prophet'—The Nauvoo Journal of Joseph Fielding," BYU Studies 19:2, 155.
  17. Lynne W. Jorgensen, "Documents of Testimonies of the Mantle Experience," in John W. Welch, ed., Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844 (Second Edition) (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press), document 38A.
  18. Russell R. Rich, Nineteenth-Century Break-offs, Ensign, September 1979.
  19. D. Michael Quinn, "The Mormon Succession Crisis of 1844," BYU Studies 16:2.