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

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

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.[1] 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). 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.

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.”[2]


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,”[3] and “three Presiding High Priests, … upheld by the confidence, faith, and prayer of the church, form a quorum of the Presidency of the Church.”[4][5]

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.

Conclusion

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.

Notes

  1. 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).
  2. Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith (1998), 223.
  3. Doctrine and Covenants 28:13
  4. Doctrine and Covenants 107:22
  5. Gary E. Stevenson, "The Heart of the Prophet" Ensign 48, no. 5 (May 2018): 18–19.