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Standards for prophetic succession
Characteristics of Church Leaders
Succession of the President of the Church
Criticisms related to Church leaders
Standards for prophetic succession
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 & 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. The Doctrine & Covenants declares that:
- No one receives commandments or revelations on behalf of the entire Church except the prophet (Doctrine & Covenants 28:2).
- 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 & Covenants 28:3–5).
- 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 & Covenants 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 (Doctrine & 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:
- Keys of Sealing (Doctrine & Covenants 132:7)
- Keys of the Gathering of Israel (Doctrine & Covenants 110:11)
- Keys of the Dispensation of the Gospel of Abraham (Doctrine & Covenants 110:12)
- Keys of the Powers of the Holy Priesthood (Doctrine & Covenants 128:11)
- Keys of the Kingdom (Doctrine & Covenants 81:2)
Regarding the organization of the First Presidency specifically, Doctrine & Covenants 107:22–24 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 & 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 from the Church. There is a procedure for trying the President of the Church for excommunication in the Doctrine & Covenants (Doctrine & Covenants 107:82–84).
The Doctrine & 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 & Covenants 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 & 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 & 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.”
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,” and “three Presiding High Priests, … upheld by the confidence, faith, and prayer of the church, form a quorum of the Presidency of the Church.”
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.
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 & 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 104 and 107 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.
- 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).
- Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith (1998), 223.
- Doctrine & Covenants 28:13
- Doctrine & Covenants 107:22
- Gary E. Stevenson, "The Heart of the Prophet" Ensign 48, no. 5 (May 2018): 18–19.
- James Strang, The Diamond (Voree, WI: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints at Voree, Wisconsin, 1848). Online at https://www.ldsstrangite.com/the-diamond.html.