Lesson 146: Succession in the Presidency

Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Seminary Teacher Manual, 2013


Introduction

After the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum on June 27, 1844, some people were confused about who would lead The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But before his death, the Prophet had prepared for this transfer of leadership by conferring all the keys and powers of the priesthood upon the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. When Brigham Young, who was the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, spoke to the Saints on August 8, 1844, many Church members received a spiritual witness that he had been called and prepared by God to lead the Church.

Suggestions for Teaching

After the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, a few people claim the right to lead the Church

Before class, write the following questions on the board:

When the current President of the Church dies, who will become the next President of the Church? How will he be chosen?

How does the President of the Church receive the priesthood authority necessary to preside over the Church?

Invite students to consider how they would answer the questions on the board. Encourage them to listen for answers to these questions today as they learn about the change in the leadership of the Church that occurred after the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum.

Explain that after Joseph and Hyrum Smith were martyred, the Saints experienced deep sadness. Some were also confused about who would lead the Church. In the absence of the President of the Church, some understood that the leadership rightly fell to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. However, a few people put forth spurious claims that they had the right to lead the Church. Among them were Sidney Rigdon and James Strang.

Invite a student to read the following three paragraphs aloud. Ask the class to listen for why Sidney Rigdon, who had been a prominent leader in the Church for many years, thought he should lead the Church.

“Sidney Rigdon, First Counselor in the First Presidency, arrived [in Nauvoo] from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on 3 August 1844. In the year before this time, he had begun taking a course contrary to the counsel of the Prophet Joseph Smith and had become estranged from the Church. He refused to meet with the three members of the Twelve already in Nauvoo and instead spoke to a large group of the Saints assembled for their Sunday worship service” (Our Heritage: A Brief History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints [1996], 66).

Sidney Rigdon called for a special meeting to be held on Tuesday, August 6, so that Church members could choose a guardian for the Church. It appeared as though Sidney Rigdon tried to hold this meeting so Church members could ratify his position as guardian of the Church before all of the Twelve Apostles would return from their missions to the eastern United States. Some Church leaders felt that Brother Rigdon might be plotting to “take advantage of the situation of the saints” (History of the Church, 7:225). Fortunately, because of the efforts of Elder Willard Richards and Elder Parley P. Pratt, the meeting was moved to Thursday, August 8, 1844, by which time most of the Apostles had returned to Nauvoo.

Sidney Rigdon claimed that because he had previously been called and ordained as a spokesman for Joseph Smith (see D&C 100:9), it was his responsibility to “see that the church is governed in a proper manner” (History of the Church, 7:229). He also claimed that he should be “a guardian to the people” and that in fulfilling this responsibility, he was doing what God had commanded him to do (see History of the Church, 7:230).

  • If you had been in Nauvoo at the time, what might you have thought about Sidney Rigdon’s claims? What concerns might you have had about Brother Rigdon?

Invite a student to read the following paragraph aloud. Ask the class to listen for why James Strang said he should lead the Church.

James Strang, who had been baptized in February 1844, was exploring a possible location for the Saints in Wisconsin in the spring of 1844. After the martyrdom, James Strang claimed to have received a letter from Joseph Smith, stating that he had been appointed to be Joseph’s successor. James Strang’s letter, which he showed to members of the Church, appeared to have Joseph Smith’s signature. James Strang claimed to be the next prophet and announced his position at a conference of the Church in Michigan on August 5, 1844.

  • If you had been with the Saints in Michigan, what do you think you might have found convincing in James Strang’s claims? What concerns might you have had about these claims?

Invite a student to read the following five paragraphs aloud. Ask the class to listen for what Brigham Young told other priesthood leaders, including the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who were in Nauvoo, about who should lead the Church:

Elders John Taylor, Willard Richards, and Parley P. Pratt were already in Nauvoo when Sidney Rigdon arrived. Most of the rest of the Apostles, including Brigham Young, returned to Nauvoo on the evening of August 6, 1844. The next day, August 7, the Apostles met in council at the home of John Taylor. Later that afternoon, the Twelve Apostles, the high council, and the high priests met together. President Young asked Sidney Rigdon to state his message to the Saints. Sidney Rigdon boldly declared that he had seen a vision and that no man could succeed Joseph Smith as President of the Church. He then proposed that he be appointed as the guardian of the people.

After Sidney Rigdon concluded his remarks, Brigham Young said:

President Brigham Young

“I do not care who leads the church, … but one thing I must know, and that is what God says about it. I have the keys and the means of obtaining the mind of God on the subject. …

“Joseph conferred upon our heads [referring to the Quorum of the Twelve] all the keys and powers belonging to the Apostleship which he himself held before he was taken away. …

“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’” (in History of the Church, 7:230).

  • Why was Brigham Young’s testimony regarding the keys of the priesthood important? (After students respond, write the following truth on the board: The Apostles hold all the keys of the priesthood necessary to preside over the Church.)

Explain that when an Apostle is ordained, he is given all of the necessary keys of the priesthood on the earth (see D&C 112:30–32), but the authority to exercise those keys is restricted to the senior Apostle, the President of the Church.

Read aloud the following instruction given by the Prophet Joseph Smith to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in January 1836, more than eight years before he died:

Joseph Smith

“The Twelve are not subject to any other than the first Presidency, … ‘and where I am not, there is no First Presidency over the Twelve’” (in History of the Church, 2:374).

  • Based on this statement, what happens to the First Presidency when the President of the Church dies? Who leads the Church? (After students respond, write the following doctrine on the board: When the President of the Church dies, the First Presidency is dissolved and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles becomes the presiding quorum.)

Explain that when the President of the Church dies, the counselors in the First Presidency take their places once again as members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, based on their seniority in the Quorum. When the Quorum was first formed in 1835, seniority was decided by age. Now seniority is determined by the date a man becomes a member of the Quorum of the Twelve.

Invite a student to read Doctrine and Covenants 124:127–128 aloud, and ask the class to look for who was the senior Apostle and President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at the time of Joseph Smith’s death. Ask them to report what they learn.

  • Based on what you have learned, why might you have been willing to follow Brigham Young after the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith?

Complete the doctrine on the board by adding the underlined portion: When the President of the Church dies, the First Presidency is dissolved and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles becomes the presiding quorum under the direction of the senior Apostle.

Many Saints receive a witness that Brigham Young should lead the Church

Explain that on August 8, 1844, the Saints in Nauvoo gathered at 10:00 a.m. to hear Sidney Rigdon make his claims as guardian of the Church. Because the wind was blowing toward the stand, Sidney Rigdon took his position in a wagon behind the assembled congregation so the people could better hear his voice. The congregation turned around so they could see Sidney Rigdon as he preached. He spoke to the thousands of assembled Saints for an hour and a half, explaining why he should be guardian of the Church. Several people described his speech as uninspiring.

President Brigham Young and other Church leaders came and sat on the stand opposite where Sidney Rigdon was speaking. The wind had died down by this point. After Sidney Rigdon had finished, President Brigham Young spoke. The audience turned around to hear Brigham Young speak and turned their backs toward the wagon occupied by Sidney Rigdon. (See George Q. Cannon, “Discourse,” Deseret News, Feb. 21, 1883, 67.) Brigham Young spoke briefly and said that he would have preferred to come back to Nauvoo to mourn for the Prophet than to have to appoint a new leader. He announced that an assembly of leaders and members would be held later that day at 2:00 p.m. Several members of the Church later testified that as Brigham Young spoke, they saw his appearance change and heard his voice change, and he took on the appearance and voice of the Prophet Joseph Smith. This miraculous event helped many of the Saints know that the Lord wanted Brigham Young to lead the Church.

Invite a student to read aloud the following examples of what many Saints saw and heard:

Benjamin F. Johnson recalled, “As soon as he [Brigham Young] spoke I jumped upon my feet, for in every possible degree it was Joseph’s voice, and his person, in look, attitude, dress and appearance was Joseph himself, personified; and I knew in a moment the spirit and mantle of Joseph was upon him” (My Life’s Review, 104, as quoted in Church History in the Fulness of Times Student Manual, 2nd ed. [Church Educational System manual, 2003], 291).

William C. Staines described Brigham Young as speaking in a “voice like the voice of the Prophet Joseph. I thought it was he, and so did thousands who heard it” (in History of the Church, 7:236).

President Wilford Woodruff

Wilford Woodruff wrote, “If I had not seen him with my own eyes, there is no one that could have convinced me that it was not Joseph Smith, and anyone can testify to this who was acquainted with these two men” (in History of the Church, 7:236).

Explain that during the meeting held later that day at 2:00 p.m., Brigham Young and other members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles spoke. Many others commented that Brigham Young looked and sounded like Joseph Smith as he spoke that afternoon. George Q. Cannon, who was 17 at the time, remembered, “It was the voice of Joseph himself. … It seemed in the eyes of the people as if it were the very person of Joseph which stood before them” (in History of the Church, 7:236; see also Edward William Tullidge, Life of Brigham Young [1877], 115). In addition to this miracle, many of the Saints also felt the Holy Ghost witness to them that Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve were called by God to lead the Church. At the conclusion of this meeting, the Saints in Nauvoo voted unanimously to sustain the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, with Brigham Young at their head, to lead the Church. However, not all the members of the Church ultimately chose to follow the Apostles. Some of the people chose instead to follow individuals such as Sidney Rigdon and James Strang, who formed their own churches.

  • How did the Lord bless the Saints to know whom He had appointed to lead the Church?

  • How can we know that Church leaders today are called of God? (After students respond, write the following principle on the board: Through the Holy Ghost, we can receive a witness that those who lead the Church have been called of God.)

  • Why do you think it is important to receive a testimony that our Church leaders are called of God?

  • When have you received a witness that a leader of the Church was called of God? What did you do to receive that witness?

Explain that when Joseph Smith died, the senior Apostle (Brigham Young) was immediately able to exercise all of the keys of the priesthood. He had the right to receive revelation concerning when to organize a new First Presidency. In 1847—more than two years after the martyrdom—Brigham Young was inspired to reorganize the First Presidency rather than continue to lead the Church as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Display pictures of the current First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. To give students an opportunity to summarize what they have learned, ask them to explain what happens to the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles when the President of the Church dies. Also ask them to identify who would be the President of the Church or senior Apostle if the current President of the Church were to die today.

You may want to conclude this lesson by testifying that the same priesthood keys and powers that Joseph Smith conferred upon Brigham Young and the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are held today by the President of the Church, his Counselors in the First Presidency, and the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. You might also share how you have gained your testimony that the leaders of the Church are called by God. Invite students to prayerfully seek to obtain or strengthen their testimony of the truths they have discussed today.

Commentary and Background Information

Timeline of the succession in the Presidency after the martyrdom of Joseph Smith

Date

June 27, 1844

Joseph and Hyrum Smith are martyred.

June 29, 1844

Public viewing of the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum Smith.

June 27–July 7, 1844

Willard Richards and the injured John Taylor are the only Apostles in Nauvoo.

July 8, 1844

Parley P. Pratt returns to Nauvoo and helps Willard Richards and John Taylor keep order in the Church.

August 3, 1844

Sidney Rigdon arrives in Nauvoo from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

August 4, 1844

Sidney Rigdon tells a group of Saints that he should be the guardian of the Church and wants a special meeting to be called on August 6 to ratify his appointment. The meeting is actually held on Thursday, August 8.

August 6, 1844

Most of the rest of the Apostles, including Brigham Young, return to Nauvoo from their missions.

August 7, 1844

In the morning, the Apostles meet together in the home of the injured John Taylor.

At an afternoon meeting of the Apostles, high council, and high priests, Sidney Rigdon again claims he should be the guardian of the Church. Brigham Young states that he [Brigham Young] holds the keys and wants to do the Lord’s will in the matter.

August 8, 1844

During a 10:00 a.m. meeting, Sidney Rigdon speaks for an hour and a half to thousands of assembled Saints explaining why he should be the guardian. Brigham Young also speaks and calls for the Saints to gather again for a meeting at 2:00 p.m. During both meetings, many Saints witness Brigham Young appear and sound like Joseph Smith.

During the 2:00 p.m. meeting, the Saints sustain Brigham Young and the Twelve Apostles as the Church’s leaders. Many members of the Church witness the mantle of the Prophet Joseph Smith fall upon Brigham Young, who temporarily appears and sounds like Joseph Smith.

The succession in the Presidency of the Church has been established by the Lord

Succession in the Presidency of the Church has been established by the Lord. The Church is never without inspired leadership, and there is no reason for speculation or controversy over who will become the next President of the Church.

President Ezra Taft Benson taught, “God knows all things, the end from the beginning, and no man becomes president of the church of Jesus Christ by accident, or remains there by chance, or is called home by happenstance” (“Jesus Christ—Gifts and Expectations,” New Era, May 1975, 16–17).

Joseph Smith’s conferral of the keys of the kingdom upon the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles

Wilford Woodruff, who was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, recorded what happened in March 1844 before Joseph Smith was killed:

“He stood for some three hours in a room delivering to us his last lecture. The room was filled as with consuming fire. His face was as clear as amber; his words were like vivid lightning to us. They penetrated every part of our bodies from the crown of our head to the soles of our feet. He said, ‘Brethren, the Lord Almighty has sealed upon my head every Priesthood, every key, every power, every principle that belongs to the last dispensation of the fulness of times, and to the building up of the kingdom of God. I have sealed upon your heads all those principles, Priesthood, apostleship, and keys of the kingdom of God, and now you have got to round up your shoulders and bear off this kingdom or you will be damned’” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff [2004], xxxii).