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 Harold B. Lee (1899–1973) explained: “[The Lord] knows whom he wants to preside over this church, and he will make no mistake. The Lord doesn’t do things by accident. He has never done anything accidentally” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1970, 153; or Improvement Era, Dec. 1970, 127). President Ezra Taft Benson (1899–1994) taught that “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).
Through the Prophet Joseph Smith (1805–44), God declared that He “will give unto the faithful line upon line, precept upon precept” (D&C 98:12; see also D&C 42:61; 128:21). This process of gradually unfolding doctrine and procedure is seen in the inspired development of the principles for succession in the Presidency of the Church.
As you study this chapter, ponder how the process of calling a new Church President differs from the political process of selecting government officials. Understanding how the Lord chooses a new Church President will increase your trust and confidence in the current President of the Church.
“On 5 December 1834 the Prophet Joseph Smith ordained Oliver Cowdery as Assistant President of the Church [see History of the Church, 2:176]. He had been with the Prophet when the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods were restored. When the Church of Jesus Christ was organized in 1830, Oliver as ‘second elder’ stood next to Joseph in authority [see D&C 20:2–3]. Thus, whenever priesthood authority or keys were restored, Oliver was with the Prophet Joseph. ‘It was necessary according to the divine law of witnesses for Joseph Smith to have a companion holding those keys’ [Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. (1954–56), 1:211]. Oliver Cowdery was not only to assist Joseph Smith in presiding over the Church, but he was also to stand with the Prophet as a second witness of the Restoration [see D&C 6:28; see also 2 Corinthians 13:1]. By 1838 Oliver Cowdery had lost his office of Assistant President through apostasy and excommunication, but in 1841 the Lord called Hyrum Smith to fill this office (see D&C 124:94–96). The President and the Assistant President, or the first and second witnesses, would seal their testimonies with their blood at the Carthage Jail” (Church History in the Fulness of Times, 2nd ed. [Church Educational System manual, 2003], 153; emphasis added).
On January 19, 1841, because Oliver did not remain faithful, “the Lord commanded Joseph Smith to ordain Hyrum Smith and confer upon him all the keys, authority, and privileges placed upon the head of Oliver Cowdery, and make him the ‘Second President’ of the Church.”
President Joseph Fielding Smith
President Joseph Fielding Smith (1876–1972) described how the law of witnesses (see 2 Corinthians 13:1) was fulfilled by Oliver Cowdery being present every time priesthood keys were restored: “The Lord called Oliver Cowdery as the second witness to stand at the head of this dispensation assisting the Prophet in holding the keys. The records inform us that every time the Prophet received authority and the keys of the priesthood from the heavens, Oliver Cowdery shared in the conferring of those powers with the Prophet. Had Oliver Cowdery remained faithful and had he survived the Prophet under those conditions, he would have succeeded as President of the Church by virtue of this divine calling ” (Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. [1954–56], 1:213; emphasis added). On January 19, 1841, because Oliver did not remain faithful, “the Lord commanded Joseph Smith to ordain Hyrum Smith and confer upon him all the keys, authority, and privileges placed upon the head of Oliver Cowdery, and make him the ‘Second President’ of the Church” (Doctrines of Salvation, 1:220).
President Brigham Young (1801–77) noted: “If Hyrum had lived he would not have stood between Joseph and the Twelve but he would have stood for Joseph.—Did Joseph ordain any man to take his place? He did. Who was it? It was Hyrum, but, Hyrum fell a martyr before Joseph did. If Hyrum had lived he would have acted for Joseph” (“Conference Minutes,” Times and Seasons, Oct. 15, 1844, 683).
President Joseph Fielding Smith explained why we no longer have an Assistant President in the Church:
“The question is sometimes asked: If Oliver Cowdery was ordained to hold the keys jointly with the Prophet, and after his loss by transgression, this authority was conferred on Hyrum Smith, then why do we not have today in the Church the same order of things, and an Assistant President as well as two counselors in the First Presidency?
“The answer to this is a simple one. It is because the peculiar condition requiring two witnesses to establish the work, is not required after the work is established. Joseph and Hyrum Smith stand at the head of this dispensation, jointly holding the keys, as the two necessary witnesses fulfilling the law as it is set down by our Lord in his answer to the Jews [see Matthew 18:16]. Since the gospel will never again be restored there will be no occasion for this condition to arise again. We all look back to the two special witnesses, called to bear witness in full accord with the divine law” (Doctrines of Salvation, 1:222; emphasis added).
The Assistant President of the Church
“One of the most important events in the restoration of the Savior’s church was the formation of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Even before the Church was organized, the members had anticipated this significant step. … [In June 1829] a revelation directed Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer to search out the twelve who would be ‘called to go into all the world to preach my gospel unto every creature’ [see D&C 18:26–37]. Later Martin Harris was also called to assist in this selection. This meant that the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon, under the direction and consent of the First Presidency, would choose the Twelve Apostles who were to serve as special witnesses of the Savior in this dispensation” (Church History in the Fulness of Times, 153–54). This selection was made during a special conference on February 14, 1835.
“For several years the Lord … carefully prepared the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to assume the leadership of the Church. When the Twelve were first called in 1835, their duties were restricted to areas outside the organized stakes, but in time their responsibilities were broadened to include authority over all the members of the Church. …
“The mission of the Twelve to Great Britain welded them into a united quorum under the direction of Brigham Young. When they returned to America, the Prophet Joseph increased their responsibilities in both temporal and ecclesiastical affairs. … The Twelve were among the first to receive instruction from Joseph Smith on plural marriage and the temple ordinances. Members of the Twelve were given responsibility over Church publishing, they directed the calling, assigning, and instructing of missionaries, they presided over conferences both in the field and in Nauvoo, and they regulated the branches abroad.
“Most importantly, Joseph Smith, feeling that he might soon die, took great care during the last seven months of his life to carefully prepare the Twelve. He met with the quorum almost every day to instruct them and give them additional responsibilities. In an extraordinary council meeting in late March 1844, he solemnly told the Twelve that he could now leave them because his work was done and the foundation was laid so the kingdom of God could be reared” (Church History in the Fulness of Times, 293–94).
President Wilford Woodruff (1807–98) was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1844. He recalled Joseph Smith’s instructions to the Twelve Apostles at that time:
“I am a living witness to the testimony that [Joseph Smith] gave to the Twelve Apostles when all of us received our endowments from under his hands. I remember the last speech that he ever gave us before his death. It was before we started upon our mission to the East. He stood upon his feet some three hours. The room was filled as with consuming fire, his face was as clear as amber, and he was clothed upon by the power of God. He laid before us our duty. He laid before us the fullness of this great work of God; and in his 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.’ …
“‘Now,’ said [Joseph Smith] 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.’”
President Wilford Woodruff
“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’” (Deseret Weekly, Mar. 19, 1892, 406; see also Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff , xxxii).
Elder Parley P. Pratt (1807–57), who was also a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles then, explained that at the same meeting the Prophet Joseph Smith “proceeded to confer on elder [Brigham] Young, the President of the Twelve, the keys of the sealing power. …
“This last key of the priesthood is the most sacred of all, and pertains exclusively to the first presidency of the church” (“Proclamation,” Millennial Star, Mar. 1845, 151).
The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles holds all of the priesthood keys, power, and authority needed to guide the Church (see D&C 107:23–24; 112:14–15). Each member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles is given the keys of the priesthood at the time of his ordination as an Apostle and calling to the Quorum. Only the President of the Church has the authority to exercise all of the keys of the priesthood, but, as President Gordon B. Hinckley (1910–2008) explained, each member of the Quorum of the Twelve “holds the keys of this dispensation in latent reserve. Inherent in that divine residual is the assured ongoing leadership of the Church” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1983, 4; or Ensign, May 1983, 6; emphasis added).
The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
After the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith, there was some confusion as to who should lead the Church. Sidney Rigdon, a member of the First Presidency, was among those who claimed to be Joseph’s successor. On August 8, 1844, the Lord publically manifested to the Saints that Brigham Young, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was chosen to be the new prophet of the Church. President George Q. Cannon (1827–1901), who later served in the First Presidency, described this miraculous manifestation from the Lord:
“After the martyrdom of the Prophet the Twelve soon returned to Nauvoo, and learned of the aspirations of Sidney Rigdon. He had claimed that the Church needed a guardian, and that he was that guardian. He had appointed the day for the guardian to be selected, and of course, was present at the meeting, which was held in the open air. The wind was blowing toward the stand so strongly at the time that an improvised stand was made out of a wagon, which was drawn up at the back part of the congregation, and which he, [William] Marks, and some others occupied. He attempted to speak, but was much embarrassed. He had been the orator of the Church; but, on this occasion, his oratory failed him, and his talk fell very flat. In the meantime President Young and some of his brethren came and entered the stand. The wind by this time had ceased to blow. After Sidney Rigdon had spoken, President Young arose and addressed the congregation, which faced around to see and hear him, turning their backs towards the wagon occupied by Sidney” (Deseret News, Feb. 21, 1883, 67).
“It was the first sound of his voice [Brigham’s] which the people had heard since he had gone east on his mission, and the effect upon them was most wonderful. Who that was present on that occasion can ever forget the impression it made upon them! If Joseph had risen from the dead and again spoken in their hearing, the effect could not have been more startling than it was to many present at that meeting. It was the voice of Joseph himself; and not only was it the voice of Joseph which was heard; but it seemed in the eyes of the people as though it was the very person of Joseph which stood before them. A more wonderful and miraculous event than was wrought that day in the presence of that congregation we never heard of. The Lord gave His people a testimony that left no room for doubt as to who was the man He had chosen to lead them. They both saw and heard with their natural eyes and ears, and then the words which were uttered came, accompanied by the convincing power of God, to their hearts, and they were filled with the Spirit and with great joy. There had been gloom, and, in some hearts probably, doubt and uncertainty; but now it was plain to all that here was the man upon whom the Lord had bestowed the necessary authority to act in their midst in Joseph’s stead” (“Joseph Smith, the Prophet,” Juvenile Instructor, Oct. 29, 1870, 174–75).
Hundreds of Church members witnessed the miracle that Zera Pulsipher (1789–1872) of the Presidency of the Seventy described having taken place at the meeting: “Brigham Young began to speak and at that time I sat with my back towards the stand as did many others. And when Brigham spoke he spoke with the voice of Joseph and we turned around to see Brigham speaking in Joseph’s voice and behold Joseph’s mantle had fallen upon him. The people understood it in the same way. Brigham stood at the head of the Twelve therefore the church turned to him” (in Lynne Watkins Jorgensen and BYU Studies staff, “The Mantle of the Prophet Joseph Passes to Brother Brigham: A Collective Spiritual Witness,” BYU Studies, vol. 36, no. 4 [1996–97], 173; emphasis added).
Drusilla Dorris Hendricks also recorded her experience: “Pres. Brigham Young began to speak. I jumped up to look and see if it was not Brother Joseph for surely it was his voice and gestures. Every Latter Day Saint could easily see upon whom the priesthood descended for Brigham Young held the keys” (in Jorgensen and BYU Studies staff, “The Mantle of the Prophet Joseph,” 163; emphasis added).
Nancy Naomi Alexander Tracy wrote: “I can testify that the mantle of Joseph fell upon Brigham that day as that of Elijah did fall upon Elisha [see 1 Kings 19:19; 2 Kings 2:11–15], for it seemed that his voice, his gestures, and all were Joseph. It seemed that we had him again with us. He was sustained by the voice of the people to be the prophet, seer, and revelator” (in Jorgensen and BYU Studies staff, “The Mantle of the Prophet Joseph,” 177; emphasis added).
“It was the first sound of his voice [Brigham’s] which the people had heard since he had gone east on his mission, and the effect upon them was most wonderful. … It was the voice of Joseph himself; and not only was it the voice of Joseph which was heard; but it seemed in the eyes of the people as though it was the very person of Joseph which stood before them.”
President George Q. Cannon
The Lord Confirmed to the Saints That Brigham Young Was Joseph Smith’s Successor
Important principles of succession from one President to the next were highlighted in a 1996 Ensign article:
“While specific procedures and protocol of various successions in the presidency since the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith differ slightly from one another, the fundamental principles are the same and are founded securely on revelation. Four foundational principles and practices were operative in 1844 and have been manifest in every succession since.
“1. Keys of the kingdom given to the Twelve. The first principle or step in succession is the conferral of the keys of the kingdom on every man who is ordained to the holy apostleship and set apart as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (see D&C 27:12–13). …
“2. Seniority: a governing principle of presidency. The factor that determines who presides among the Twelve and who may actively exercise all the keys of the kingdom at the death of the President of the Church is the principle of seniority. In 1835, when the first Quorum of the Twelve was called, seniority was arranged by age. Since then, seniority has been determined by the date of ordination into the Quorum of the Twelve. …
“3. At the President’s death there is no First Presidency over the Twelve. Following the principles taught by the Prophet Joseph Smith, when the President of the Church dies, the quorum of the First Presidency is automatically dissolved and the counselors, if they previously had been in the Quorum of the Twelve, return to their respective places of seniority in that quorum. The senior Apostle, as President of the Twelve, automatically, by virtue of that seniority, becomes the ‘Presiding High Priest’ of the Church and, as such, actively holds and exercises all the keys of the kingdom and ‘preside[s] over the whole church’ (see D&C 107:65–66, 91). ‘Equal in authority’ to the First Presidency, this presiding quorum of Twelve Apostles is as much a Presidency of the Church as the First Presidency is when it is fully organized and operative (see D&C 107:23–24). Likewise, the President of the Twelve at that time is as much the President of the Church in function and authority as when he becomes sustained as such in a newly organized First Presidency. …
“4. Reorganization of the First Presidency. As the presiding officer of the Church, the President of the Twelve has the prerogative to receive revelation regarding when to reorganize the First Presidency. This decision is made in consultation with and through the unanimous support of the Quorum of the Twelve. …
“On the day that President Howard W. Hunter [1907–95] was sustained as President of the Church, he testified:
“‘Each man who is ordained an Apostle and set apart as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve is sustained as a prophet, seer, and revelator. The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, called and ordained to hold the keys of the priesthood, have the authority and responsibility to govern the Church, to administer its ordinances, to teach its doctrine, and to establish and maintain its practices.
“‘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. The governance of the Church and the exercise of the prophetic gifts will always be vested in those apostolic authorities who hold and exercise all of the keys of the priesthood’ [in Conference Report, Oct. 1994, 6–7; or Ensign, Nov. 1994, 7]” (Brent L. Top and Lawrence R. Flake, “‘The Kingdom of God Will Roll On’: Succession in the Presidency,” Ensign, Aug. 1996, 29, 31–34).
“Following this inspired pattern, the Church will move forward without interruption. The governance of the Church and the exercise of the prophetic gifts will always be vested in those apostolic authorities who hold and exercise all of the keys of the priesthood.”
President Howard W. Hunter
Important Principles of Succession
When Harold B. Lee was sustained as President of the Church after the death of President Joseph Fielding Smith, President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) noted God’s role in the appointment of a President of the Church:
“It is reassuring to know that President Lee was not elected through committees and conventions with all their conflicts, criticisms, and by the vote of men, but was called of God and then sustained by the people. …
“The pattern divine allows for no errors, no conflicts, no ambitions, no ulterior motives. The Lord has reserved for himself the calling of his leaders over his church” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1972, 28; or Ensign, Jan. 1973, 33; emphasis added).
Soon after President Gordon B. Hinckley became the President of the Church, he explained the sacred pattern instituted by the Lord:
“With President Hunter’s passing, the First Presidency was dissolved. Brother Monson and I, who had served as his counselors, took our places in the Quorum of the Twelve, which became the presiding authority of the Church.
“Three weeks ago today all of the living ordained Apostles gathered in a spirit of fasting and prayer in the upper room of the temple. Here we sang a sacred hymn and prayed together. We partook of the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, renewing in that sacred, symbolic testament our covenants and our relationship with Him who is our divine Redeemer. The Presidency was then reorganized, following a precedent well established through generations of the past. There was no campaigning, no contest, no ambition for office. It was quiet, peaceful, simple, and sacred. It was done after the pattern which the Lord Himself had put in place” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1995, 92; or Ensign, May 1995, 69; emphasis added).
“Under [the Lord’s] procedure a man is selected by the prophet to become a member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles. … He is called, as were the Apostles in Jesus’ time, to whom the Lord said, ‘Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you’ (John 15:16).”
President Gordon B. Hinckley
President Harold B. Lee suggested that speculating on the succession of the Presidency is “not pleasing in the sight of the Lord.” He said that “those who try to guess ahead of time as to who is going to be the next President of the Church are just gambling as they might be on a horse race, because only the Lord has the time table” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1972, 129; or Ensign, Jan. 1973, 107).
The Lord Established the Order of Succession in the Presidency of the Church
The President of the Church is the Apostle with the most seniority. The Apostle who is next in seniority is the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, unless he is serving in the First Presidency, in which case the Apostle next in seniority serves as the Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Seniority among the Apostles is determined not by age but by the date and order of their ordination as Apostles. For example, Spencer W. Kimball and Ezra Taft Benson were both ordained Apostles on October 7, 1943, with Spencer W. Kimball being ordained first. Because of this, President Kimball became President of the Church in 1973 when Harold B. Lee died.
President Spencer W. Kimball explained that because succession in the Presidency is based on seniority, the Lord alone controls the order of succession: “There have been some eighty apostles [by 1972] so endowed [with the keys of authority] since Joseph Smith, though only eleven have occupied the place of the President of the Church, death having intervened; and since the death of his servants is in the power and control of the Lord, he permits to come to the first place only the one who is destined to take that leadership. Death and life become the controlling factors. Each new apostle in turn is chosen by the Lord and revealed to the then living prophet who ordains him” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1972, 29; or Ensign, Jan. 1973, 34; emphasis added).
President Gordon B. Hinckley described the process of seniority and succession that begins when a man is called to the Quorum of the Twelve: “This transition of authority, in which I have participated a number of times, is beautiful in its simplicity. It is indicative of the way the Lord does things. Under His procedure a man is selected by the prophet to become a member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles. He does not choose this as a career. He is called, as were the Apostles in Jesus’ time, to whom the Lord said, ‘Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you’ (John 15:16). The years pass. He is schooled and disciplined in the duties of his office. He travels over the earth in fulfilling his apostolic calling. It is a long course of preparation, in which he comes to know the Latter-day Saints wherever they may be, and they come to know him. The Lord tests his heart and his substance. In the natural course of events, vacancies occur in that council and new appointments are made. Under this process a particular man becomes the senior Apostle. Residing latent in him, and in his associate Brethren, given to each at the time of ordination, are all of the keys of the priesthood. But authority to exercise those keys is restricted to the President of the Church. At his passing, that authority becomes operative in the senior Apostle, who is then named, set apart, and ordained a prophet and President by his associates of the Council of the Twelve” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1986, 61–62; or Ensign, May 1986, 46–47).
President Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles spoke of the certainty of the senior Apostle becoming the President of the Church: “Shortly after the death of President Gordon B. Hinckley, the 14 men, Apostles, who had had conferred upon them the keys of the kingdom, gathered together in the upper room of the temple in order to reorganize the First Presidency of the Church. There was no question about what would be done, no hesitancy. We knew that the senior Apostle was the President of the Church. And in that sacred meeting, Thomas Spencer Monson was sustained by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as the President of the Church” (in Conference Report, Apr. 2008, 81; or Ensign, May 2008, 83; emphasis added).
Seniority in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
President Spencer W. Kimball explained the transition of authority to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles after the death of the current prophet:
“The work of the Lord is endless. Even when a powerful leader dies, not for a single instant is the Church without leadership, thanks to the kind Providence who gave his kingdom continuity and perpetuity. …
“The moment life passes from a President of the Church, a body of men become the composite leader—these men already seasoned with experience and training. The appointments have long been made, the authority given, the keys delivered. … The kingdom moves forward under this already authorized council. No ‘running’ for position, no electioneering, no stump speeches. What a divine plan! How wise our Lord, to organize so perfectly beyond the weakness of frail, grasping humans” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1970, 118; or Improvement Era, June 1970, 92).
“As the presiding officer of the Church, the President of the Twelve has the prerogative to receive revelation regarding when to reorganize the First Presidency. This decision is made in consultation with and through the unanimous support of the Quorum of the Twelve” (Top and Flake, “The Kingdom of God,” 33). After the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles led the Church for three and one-half years before the First Presidency was reorganized. The Quorum of the Twelve led the Church for a little more than three years following the death of President Brigham Young and for nearly two years following the death of President John Taylor. More recently, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has led the Church typically for only a few days before the First Presidency is reorganized and a new President is set apart.
On September 18, 1898, President George Q. Cannon spoke about the organization of the First Presidency after the death of President Wilford Woodruff on September 2: “On September 13th, at a meeting of the Apostles, while discussing the necessity for the appointment of a trustee-in-trust for the Church, the necessity also of organizing the First Presidency appeared clear to the brethren, and one after another of the Twelve spoke in favor of such action being taken at that time. After hearing their views, President Snow then arose and stated to the brethren that he had, since the death of President Woodruff, felt led to present himself before the Lord, clothed in his priestly robes, in the Temple, and the Lord had revealed to him that the First Presidency should be organized, and also revealed to him who his counselors should be. He did not give any expression to this, however, until after the Apostles had spoken on the subject. This statement of President Snow was evidence to them that the Spirit of God had inspired the remarks which they had made, and approved of the work which they had proposed to do, and it caused them to rejoice greatly. For myself it was very unexpected to me for action to be taken at that time, though I was heartily in favor of it, and have always felt that the First Presidency should be organized as quickly as possible or as soon as the Lord would inspire such action” (Deseret News, Oct. 8, 1898, 514).
Leadership by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the Timing of the Succession
In 1974, President N. Eldon Tanner (1898–1982) of the First Presidency described the transition of authority and the procedure in which a new President of the Church is sustained by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the First Presidency is reorganized by recounting events that preceded and followed the death of President Harold B. Lee:
“It is significant to note just what took place at the time of the passing of President Harold B. Lee. President Romney had been called to the hospital and as they talked, President Lee, realizing that he might be incapacitated for some time, said to President Romney: ‘President Tanner is away, and I want you to take over and carry on the affairs of the Church.’ President Kimball, who came in later, offered his services to President Romney. However, immediately upon the announcement of President Lee’s passing, President Romney turned to President Kimball and said: ‘You, as the president of the Quorum of the Twelve, are now in charge. I am at your disposal and prepared to do anything I can to help.’
“This was entirely in keeping with the order of the Church and is a great example of how the Church is never left without a presidency and how smoothly it passes from one to another. Immediately President Kimball, as president of the Twelve, became the presiding authority of the Church.
“I should like to outline the procedures followed at the time of his appointment and ordination as president of the Church. …
“… Four days after President Lee’s death, President Kimball, the president of the Twelve, called the members of the Twelve together in the upper room of the temple for the purpose of discussing the reorganization of the First Presidency and to take whatever action was decided upon. Those who had been counselors to the President—that is, President Romney and myself—took their respective places in the Quorum of the Twelve.
“President Kimball, upon expressing his great sorrow at the passing of President Lee and his feeling of inadequacy, called upon the members of the Twelve in order of seniority to express themselves individually as to how they felt about reorganizing the presidency of the Church.
“As each member of the Twelve spoke, he expressed himself as feeling that now was the time to reorganize the First Presidency and that President Spencer W. Kimball was the one whom the Lord wanted to preside at this time. The sweet Spirit of the Lord was present in rich abundance and there was complete unity and harmony in the minds and spoken words of the Brethren. The only purpose and desire was to do the will of the Lord, and there was no question in anyone’s mind but what the will of the Lord had been expressed.
“Elder Ezra Taft Benson then made the formal motion that the First Presidency of the Church be reorganized and that Spencer W. Kimball be sustained, ordained, and set apart as the president, prophet, seer, revelator, and as trustee-in-trust of the Church. This motion was seconded and unanimously approved.
“In all humility, President Kimball stepped forward and made his speech of acceptance, praying that the Spirit and blessings of the Lord would attend him that he might be made able to carry out the will of the Lord. He said he had always prayed for President Lee’s health and strength and vigor and for the blessings of the Lord to attend him as he carried on as the president of the Church. He emphasized the fact that he had prayed sincerely with his lovely wife, Camilla, that this position would never come to him and that he felt sure that President Lee would certainly outlive him. …
“He then chose and nominated as his first counselor N. Eldon Tanner and as his second counselor Marion G. Romney, each of whom expressed himself in all humility and pledged himself to support and sustain President Kimball as the president of the Church and to fill his office to the best of his ability, and prayed for the blessings of the Lord to attend him.
“Following this, President Benson was sustained as president of the Council of the Twelve. President Kimball then took his seat in the middle of the room, and as all those present placed their hands upon his head, we felt the Spirit of the Lord was truly with us, and this sweet Spirit filled our hearts. Then, with President Benson being mouth, in a beautiful prayer and blessing, Spencer Woolley Kimball was ordained and set apart as prophet, seer, and revelator and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1974, 121–23; or Ensign, May 1974, 84–85).
Reorganizing the First Presidency
Though President Thomas S. Monson became President of the Church on February 3, 2008, after the death of President Gordon B. Hinckley, it was during the Saturday morning session of the April 2008 general conference, designated as a solemn assembly, that members of the Church, by quorums and groups throughout the world, sustained him as prophet, seer, and revelator and President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (see Conference Report, Apr. 2008, 2–4; or Ensign, May 2008, 4–6).
During an earlier solemn assembly, Elder David B. Haight (1906–2004) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles talked about what a solemn assembly is and the sacredness of such a momentous gathering:
“Today we are witnesses to and participants in a most sacred occasion—a solemn assembly to act upon heavenly things. As in olden times, there has been much fasting and prayer offered by the Saints throughout the world that they may receive an outpouring of the Spirit of the Lord, which is so much in evidence here on this occasion this morning.
“A solemn assembly, as the name implies, denotes a sacred, sober, and reverent occasion when the Saints assemble under the direction of the First Presidency. Solemn assemblies are used for three purposes: the dedication of temples, special instruction to priesthood leaders, and sustaining a new President of the Church. This conference session today is a solemn assembly for the purpose of sustaining a newly called Church President and other officers of the Church.
“There is a pattern to solemn assemblies that distinguishes them from other general Church meetings where we sustain officers of the Church. That pattern, which was established by the Prophet Joseph Smith, is that the priesthood quorums, commencing with the First Presidency, stand and manifest by the uplifted right hand their willingness to sustain the President of the Church as a prophet, seer, and revelator, and uphold him by their confidence, faith, and prayers. The priesthood quorums of the Church so manifest by their vote. Then the general body of all the Saints stand and signify their willingness to do the same. The other leaders of the Church are similarly sustained in their offices and callings.
“When we sustain the President of the Church by our uplifted hand, it not only signifies that we acknowledge before God that he is the rightful possessor of all the priesthood keys; it also means that we covenant with God that we will abide by the direction and the counsel that come through His prophet. It is a solemn covenant.
“On the day the Church was organized, the Lord gave this commandment to the Church:
“‘For his [the Church president’s] word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.
“‘For by doing these things 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.
“‘For thus saith the Lord God: Him have I inspired to move the cause of Zion in mighty power for good’ (D&C 21:5–7).
“The first solemn assembly was held in the Kirtland Temple on 27 March 1836. Following the voting procedure that I described, the Prophet Joseph Smith recorded, ‘I prophesied to all, that inasmuch as they would uphold these men in their several stations, … the Lord would bless them; … in the name of [Jesus] Christ, the blessings of heaven should be theirs’ (History of the Church, 2:418).
“Today, by exercising the principle of common consent, we have expressed our will. How sacred is this privilege and responsibility? So sacred that in the great priesthood revelation, the Lord said that these matters ‘may be brought before a general assembly of the several quorums, which constitute the spiritual authorities of the church’ (D&C 107:32; italics added)” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1994, 16–17; or Ensign, Nov. 1994, 14–15; emphasis added).
What Is a Solemn Assembly?
At the conclusion of the solemn assembly during which Thomas S. Monson was sustained as the 16th President of the Church, President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency spoke of the great blessing we have and the promise we make when we raise our hand to sustain our leaders:
“God’s people have not always been worthy of the marvelous experience we have shared today. The Apostles, after the Ascension of Christ, continued to exercise the keys He left with them. But because of disobedience and loss of faith by the members, the Apostles died without the keys being passed on to successors. We call that tragic episode ‘the Apostasy.’ Had the members of the Church in those days had the opportunity and the will to exercise faith as you have today, the Lord would not have taken the keys of the priesthood from the earth. So this is a day of historical significance and of eternal importance in the history of the world and to the children of our Heavenly Father.
“Now our obligation is to remain worthy of the faith necessary for us to fulfill our promise to sustain those who have been called. … For us to sustain those who have been called today, we must examine our lives, repent as necessary, pledge to keep the Lord’s commandments, and follow His servants. The Lord warns us that if we do not do those things, the Holy Ghost will be withdrawn, we will lose the light which we have received, and we will not be able to keep the pledge we have made today to sustain the Lord’s servants in His true Church” (in Conference Report, Apr. 2008, 20; or Ensign, May 2008, 21; emphasis added).