Harold B. Lee became the eleventh President of the Church at the passing of President Joseph Fielding Smith in July 1972. Soon thereafter, President Lee visited a room in the Salt Lake Temple where portraits of his ten predecessors were hung. “There, in prayerful meditation,” he recalled, “I looked upon the paintings of those men of God—true, pure men, God’s noblemen—who had preceded me in a similar calling.” He contemplated the character and achievements of each of the prophets of this last dispensation and finally came to the last portrait. “President Joseph Fielding Smith was there with his smiling face, my beloved prophet-leader who made no compromise with truth. … He seemed in that brief moment to be passing to me, as it were, a sceptre of righteousness as though to say to me, ‘Go thou and do likewise.’ …
“I know, with a testimony more powerful than sight, that as the Lord declared, ‘The keys of the kingdom of God are committed unto man on the earth [from the Prophet Joseph Smith through his successors down to the present], and from thence shall the gospel roll forth unto the ends of the earth.’” [D&C 65:2.]1
The President of the Church is the only man upon the earth who alone is authorized to exercise all of the keys of the priesthood. A latter-day prophet has taught: “When a President of the Church is ill or not able to function fully in all of the duties of his office, his two Counselors, who with him comprise a Quorum of the First Presidency, carry on the work of the Presidency. Any major questions, policies, programs, or doctrines are prayerfully considered in council by the Counselors in the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. No decision emanates from the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve without total unanimity among all concerned. Following this inspired pattern, the Church will move forward without interruption.”2
As members of the Lord’s Church, we can have complete confidence in the guidance of the living prophet, whom President Lee called the “true messenger” of the Lord. President Lee taught that “if the children of the Lord, which includes all who are upon this earth, regardless of nationality, color, or creed, will heed the call of the true messenger of the gospel of Jesus Christ, … each may in time see the Lord and know that He is.”3
By following the prophet of the Lord, we may arrive safely at our ultimate destination—the presence of our Father in Heaven.
Keep in mind that the head of this church is not the President of the Church. The head of this church is the Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, who reigns and rules. … In all this turmoil we can be sure that He is guiding, lest we forget.4
“[Jesus] is the head of the body, the Church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.” (Colossians 1:18.) It is true, however, that in each dispensation when his gospel has been upon the earth and his Church has been established, the Lord has appointed and has vested authority in one man at a time in each such dispensation who has borne the title of president of the Church, or prophet, seer and revelator to the Church. Such titles, or the conferring of such authority, does not make of one “the Head of the Church,” which title belongs to Jesus Christ. It does make of him, however, God’s mouthpiece and the one who acts in God’s stead and through whom he speaks to his people by way of instruction, to give or to withhold principles and ordinances, or to warn of judgments. …
… The president of the Church is the keeper of the Lord’s House or Kingdom. Into his hands are committed the keys to every part. At the Lord’s direction he gives keys of authority to other members of the Church to baptize, to preach the gospel, to lay hands on the sick, to preside or to teach in various offices. To a few only he gives the authority to officiate in the ordinances of the temples or to perform marriages therein “to bind on earth and in heaven.”5
A prophet is an inspired and divinely appointed revealer and interpreter of God’s mind and will. He has held the keys to the kingdom of God in our day, such as were given to Peter as the earthly head of the Church in his day.6
May I read to you something that has been written [by President J. Reuben Clark Jr.] for another occasion: “We must have in mind … that only the President of the Church, the Presiding High Priest, … has the right to receive revelations for the Church, either new or amendatory, or to give authoritative interpretations of scriptures that shall be binding on the Church. … He is God’s sole mouthpiece on earth for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the only true Church. He alone may declare the mind and will of God to his people. No officer of any other Church in the world has this high right and lofty prerogative.” [Church News, 31 July 1954, 10.]7
The only one authorized to bring forth any new doctrine is the President of the Church, who, when he does, will declare it as a revelation from God, and it will be so accepted by the Council of the Twelve and sustained by the body of the Church.8
To those who ask the question: How is the President of the Church chosen or elected? the correct and simple answer should be a quotation of the fifth article of faith: “We believe that a man must be called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority, to preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof.”
The beginning of the call of one to be President of the Church actually begins when he is called, ordained, and set apart to become a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Such a call by prophecy, or in other words, by the inspiration of the Lord to the one holding the keys of presidency, and the subsequent ordination and setting apart by the laying on of hands by that same authority, places each Apostle in a priesthood quorum of twelve men holding the apostleship.
Each Apostle so ordained under the hands of the President of the Church, who holds the keys of the kingdom of God in concert with all other ordained Apostles, has given to him the priesthood authority necessary to hold every position in the Church, even to a position of presidency over the Church if he were called by the presiding authority and sustained by a vote of a constituent assembly of the membership of the Church.
… Immediately following the death of a President, the next ranking body, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, becomes the presiding authority, with the President of the Twelve automatically becoming the acting President of the Church until a President of the Church is officially ordained and sustained in his office. …
All members of the First Presidency and the Twelve are regularly sustained as “prophets, seers, and revelators.” … This means that any one of the Apostles, so chosen and ordained, could preside over the Church if he were “chosen by the body [which has been interpreted to mean the entire Quorum of the Twelve], appointed and ordained to that office, and upheld by the confidence, faith, and prayer of the church,” to quote from a revelation on this subject, on one condition, and that being that he was the senior member, or the President, of that body (see D&C 107:22).9
When I sat in as a younger member of the Council of the Twelve, the first Church reorganization I was permitted to participate in was when President [Heber J.] Grant passed away. … As the [new] President named his counselors and they took their places at the head of the room, down inside me I had a witness that these were the men that the Lord wanted to be the Presidency of the Church. It came to me with a conviction that was as though that truth was being trumpeted in my ears.
… Until the members of this church have that conviction that they are being led in the right way, and they have a conviction that these men of God are men who are inspired and have been properly appointed by the hand of God, they are not truly converted.10
[The Lord] reveals the law and He elects, chooses, or appoints the officers and holds the right to reprove, correct, or even to remove them at His pleasure. Hence the necessity of a constant [communication] by direct revelation between Him and His Church. As a precedent for the foregoing facts, we refer to the examples of all ages as recorded in the scriptures. This order of government began in Eden. God appointed Adam to govern the earth and gave him law. It was perpetuated in a regular succession from Adam to Noah and from Noah to Melchizedek, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Samuel the prophet, John, Jesus, and His Apostles, all and each of which were chosen by the Lord and not by the people.
It is true the people have a voice in the government of the kingdom of God, but they do not confer the authority in the first place, nor can they take it away. For instance: The people did not elect the twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ, nor could they by popular vote deprive them of their apostleship. As the government of the kingdom anciently existed, so is it now restored. The people did not choose the great modern Prophet and Apostle Joseph Smith, but God chose him, in the usual way that He has chosen others before him—namely by open vision and by His own voice from the heavens.11
I have a consciousness as I have thought through this responsibility [as prophet] and have been close enough to the Brethren over the years, that one in this position is under the constant surveillance of Him in whose service we are. Never would He permit one in this position to lead this church astray. You can be sure of that. When I think of the process by which a man comes to leadership position in the Church, I think of my own experience for thirty-one and a half years, and all the circumstances which have come in my own life—what an overwhelming training program! When the change in the First Presidency came, I contrasted it with the way political parties bring a president of the United States to office, or the inauguration of a king, to see how, by the Lord’s plan, these changes are made without rancor, without bickering. The plan is set and the Lord makes no mistakes, so He has told us.12
Now, may this be the day for us to reflect seriously, to remember what the Lord has already told us. His prophet is upon the earth today, and if you want to know the last revelation that has come to this people, you get down the last conference report and read carefully especially what the First Presidency said. … You will have the best and the last word that has been given from our Heavenly Father. We don’t have to depend solely upon what is in the standard Church works. In addition to what the scriptures have told us, we have what the prophets today are telling us here and now, and it is for us if we want to be saved on Zion’s hill, when these perils come, to hear and obey.13
So often today when our brethren do speak authoritatively, we have some who rise up to challenge and say, “Now, just where can I find some authority that you can cite for what you are saying?” We are tempted to say, “You go back and read the speech of the present leader of the Church on this subject, and you have all the authority that you should look for, because this is the Lord’s way. His prophet is here, and revelation is just as needed and is just as much in evidence as it has been in any time in any dispensation of the gospel upon the earth.”14
Now the only safety we have as members of this church is to do exactly what the Lord said to the Church in that day when the Church was organized. We must learn to give heed to the words and commandments that the Lord shall give through His prophet, “as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me; … as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith” (D&C 21:4–5). There will be some things that take patience and faith. You may not like what comes from the authority of the Church. It may contradict your political views. It may contradict your social views. It may interfere with some of your social life. But if you listen to these things, as if from the mouth of the Lord Himself, with patience and faith, the promise is that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against you; yea, and the Lord God will disperse the powers of darkness from before you, and cause the heavens to shake for your good, and his name’s glory” (D&C 21:6).15
To you Latter-day Saints everywhere, that promise [in D&C 21:4–6] will be yours if you will follow the leadership the Lord has placed within the Church, giving heed to their counsel in patience and faith.16
Look to the President of the Church for your instructions. If ever there is a conflict, you keep your eyes on the President if you want to walk in the light.17
If our people want to be safely guided during these [troubled] times of deceit and false rumors, they must follow their leaders and seek for the guidance of the Spirit of the Lord in order to avoid falling prey to clever manipulators who, with cunning sophistry, seek to draw attention and gain a following to serve their own notions and sometimes sinister motives.18
Now there were a lot of people in the days of the Master who did not accept Him as the Son of God. There were some who said, “Oh, He is just the son of Joseph, the carpenter.” Others said, “He is a Prince of Beelzebub,” which means the son of the devil. When He performed some of these miraculous things they said, “He is a winebibber,” meaning he had just been drinking strong wine. There were only a very few who could say, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16.) Why couldn’t everybody see Him as the Son of God?
We sing, “I wish I could have been with Him then, when He took little babes in His arms.” [See “I Think When I Read That Sweet Story,” Children’s Songbook, 56.] A lot of our people would not have accepted Him any more then than they can accept the doctrines that come from the teachers of righteousness inspired by that same Savior. When we cannot accept those who represent Him here, it would not be a bit easier to accept the Master Himself, were He to appear. …
When I was on my mission, a group of us missionaries went with our mission president once to Carthage Jail. Impressed by the atmosphere of the place where the Prophet and his brother Hyrum met their martyrdom, we asked him to recount the incidents that led up to the martyrdom. I was deeply impressed when the mission president said this: “When the Prophet Joseph Smith died, there were many who died spiritually with him. So has it been with every change of administration in the kingdom of God. When Brigham Young died, there were many who died with him spiritually, and so with John Taylor, and the passing of every President of the Church.” …
Sometimes we die spiritually and cut ourselves off from pure spiritual light and forget that today, here and now, we have a prophet.19
The place of these heaven-endowed messengers who represent the Lord in every dispensation of the gospel upon the earth may be illustrated by an incident related by a traveler in northern Europe. Our traveler was leaving by boat from Stockholm, Sweden, traveling out into the Baltic Sea. To do so, the boat had to pass through a thousand or more islands. Standing on the forward deck, the traveler found himself becoming impatient because of what seemed to him to be a careless course. Why not a course near to this island or another and more interesting than the one the pilot had chosen? Almost in exasperation he was saying to himself, “What’s wrong with the old pilot? Has he lost his sense of direction?” Suddenly he was aware of markers along the charted course which appeared as mere broom handles sticking up in the water. Someone had carefully explored these channels and had charted the safest course for ships to take. So it is in life’s course on the way to immortality and eternal life: “God’s engineers,” by following a blueprint made in heaven, have charted the course for safest and happiest passage and have forewarned us of the danger areas.20
The Lord will prompt His servants to lead His church aright. His prophets will receive the inspiration of the Lord to say to the membership of the Church, “This is the way, walk ye in it” (Isaiah 30:21). Even in times of the crises which come in the days in which we live, as have been depicted in modern revelation, the picture the Lord would have us see is one of stability and solidarity. You remember He said to His disciples, “But my disciples shall stand in holy places, and shall not be moved” (D&C 45:32).21
Who is the true Head of the Church? Through whom does the Lord give direction and instruction to His Church?
How is new doctrine brought forth to the Church?
How is the President of the Church prepared for his great responsibilities? How does the Lord direct the choosing of the Presidents of His Church?
What counsel given by the living prophet has particularly blessed your life?
Why do you think that some people honor prophets of the past but fail to honor the living prophet? What are the consequences of failing to heed the words of the living prophet or of challenging his authority?
What promises are made to those who heed the words and commandments of the living prophet?