Lesson 9: Succession in the Presidency

"Lesson 9: Succession in the Presidency," The Presidents of the Church: Teacher’s Manual, (1996)


To help class members understand how the President of the Church is chosen.


  1. 1.

    Prepare to show the pictures of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young in the color section.

  2. 2.

    Obtain pictures of the current First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve from the meetinghouse library or the last conference issue of the Ensign.

  3. 3.

    On the chalkboard or a prepared poster, show the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve as they exist on the day you teach this lesson.

Suggested Lesson Development



When the Prophet Joseph Smith was killed in June of 1844, it was a terrible blow to the members of the Church. Not only had they lost their beloved Prophet but also they had never known a time when Joseph was not the Prophet and President of the Church. They had never been through a change in the Church Presidency. Most of them had probably never even thought about how a new President would be chosen.

  • How is a new Church President chosen?

Scripture discussion

Read Isaiah 55:8. Explain that the Lord chooses the man who will be the President of the Church. The Lord has established an orderly method for changing the leadership in the Church.

Read Jeremiah 1:5. Explain to the class that in the premortal existence God chose Jeremiah to be a prophet even before Jeremiah was born. God chose and ordained all the prophets before they were born. All the Presidents of the Church were chosen by the Lord to be President of the Church before they were born. (See also Abraham 3:22–23 and D&C 138:53–56.)

The First Presidency

Read Doctrine and Covenants 107:22. Explain that this Presidency of the Church is called the First Presidency and consists of the President, who is the prophet, and his two counselors. (Occasionally more counselors are called.)

  • Who presides over the Church when the President of the Church dies?

Read Doctrine and Covenants 107:23–24. Explain that when the President of the Church dies, the First Presidency is dissolved, the counselors return to the Quorum of the Twelve according to their ordination dates, and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles then presides over the Church until a new President and First Presidency are chosen.

Each Apostle Is a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator


Show the pictures of the current First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. Explain that each man who is ordained an Apostle is ordained as a prophet, seer, and revelator. We sustain them in conference as prophets, seers, and revelators. Explain that each Apostle because of his ordination as an Apostle holds the keys to be the President of the Church. However, he cannot exercise them until he becomes the senior living Apostle (senior in terms of time in office). At the death of the prophet, he presides over the Church as President of the Council of the Twelve until the First Presidency is reorganized. At that time he becomes the new President and prophet of the Church.

Whenever the President of the Church has died, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has presided over the Church. Sometimes they have presided for several years before a new President has been chosen. When Wilford Woodruff was President of the Church, however, he told the Apostles that in the future the Lord wanted the Quorum of the Twelve to choose a new President immediately after the death of the Church’s President.


  • If the President of the Church died today, who would be the next President of the Church? (Explain that the senior living Apostle would be the next President. This is the established procedure, and only a direct revelation from the Lord can change it. Tell them the name of this member of the Quorum of the Twelve and explain that this Apostle is the man who has been an Apostle the longest, next to the current President of the Church. Remind them that on the death of a President his counselors return to the Quorum of the Twelve according to the dates of their ordination to Apostleship.)

When a member of the Quorum dies, those whose ordination dates come after the one who has died move up; thus the twelfth one would become the eleventh and so on. When a new man is chosen to be an Apostle, his ordination date gives him a designated place in the Quorum of the Twelve. The new Apostle would then become the twelfth member of the Quorum.

Explain that the Lord knows all the men who will be Presidents of the Church. The Lord calls them to be Apostles, and then when he is ready for them to be the President of the Church they are already serving as senior Apostle in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Before he became President of the Church, Spencer W. Kimball said, “Full provision has been made by our Lord for changes. Today there are fourteen apostles holding the keys in suspension, the twelve and the two counselors to the President, to be brought into use if and when circumstances allow, all ordained to leadership in their turn as they move forward in seniority.

“There have been some eighty apostles so endowed 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, p. 29; or Ensign, Jan. 1973, p. 34).

The Mantle of the Prophet


After the Prophet Joseph Smith was killed, the Twelve Apostles presided over the Church. Many members of the Church did not know how a new President of the Church would be chosen.

Sidney Rigdon had been a counselor to President Joseph Smith for eleven years and had helped Joseph in many ways. Sidney Rigdon thought he should be the next President of the Church. He did not agree that the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles should preside over the Church and wanted to be chosen by the people to be the President.

Sidney Rigdon called for a meeting so the people could decide who would preside over the Church. When Brigham Young, the senior Apostle, and other Apostles returned from their missions later in August 1844, six weeks after the Prophet Joseph Smith had been killed, the meeting was held in Nauvoo. Sidney Rigdon and Brigham Young both spoke in the meeting.

Another meeting was called for 10:00 a.m. the next day. A marvelous thing happened in that meeting. When Brigham Young stood up to speak, for a short time he looked and sounded like Joseph Smith.


Put up the pictures of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.

Wilford Woodruff, who later became President of the Church, said: “I have heard two or three of the brethren testify about brother Young in Nauvoo. Every man and every woman in that assembly, which perhaps might number thousands, could bear the same testimony. I was there, the Twelve were there, and a good many others, and all can bear the same testimony. The question might be asked, why was the appearance of Joseph Smith given to Brigham Young? Because here was Sidney Rigdon and other men rising up and claiming to be the leaders of the Church, and men stood, as it were, on a pivot, not knowing which way to turn. But just as quick as Brigham Young rose in that assembly, his face was that of Joseph Smith—the mantle of Joseph had fallen upon him, the power of God that was upon Joseph Smith was upon him, he had the voice of Joseph, and it was the voice of the shepherd. There was not a person in that assembly, Rigdon, himself, not excepted, but was satisfied in his own mind that Brigham was the proper leader of the people, for he would not have his name presented, by his own consent, after that sermon was delivered. There was a reason for this in the mind of God; it convinced the people. They saw and heard for themselves, and it was by the power of God” (in Journal of Discourses, 15:81).

Emmeline B. Wells was at that meeting also. She said: “I was standing in a wagon box on wheels, so I did not have to rise, but those who were seated arose and made that exclamation. I could see very well, and every one of them thought it was really the Prophet Joseph risen from the dead. But after Brigham Young had spoken a few words, the tumult subsided and the people really knew that it was not the Prophet Joseph, but the President of the quorum of the Twelve Apostles. It was the most wonderful manifestation, I think, that I have ever known or seen, and I have seen a very great number” (Emmeline B. Wells, “My Testimony,” in Preston Nibley, comp., Faith-Promoting Stories [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1943], p. 137).

The Lord showed the people that Brigham Young, the senior Apostle of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, would be the next President of the Church.

Change in Leadership Is Orderly


The Church today is following the system established by the Lord for orderly change in leadership.

  • Have you watched or observed the changes that take place in the Presidency of the Church at the death of the President?

Read President N. Eldon Tanner’s account of how President Spencer W. Kimball was called to be the President of the Church and the prophet of the Lord. “Following President Lee’s funeral, President Kimball [then President of the Council of the Twelve] called a meeting of all the Apostles for Sunday, December 30, at 3 p.m. in the Salt Lake Temple Council Room. President Romney and I [who had been in the First Presidency] had taken our respective places of seniority in the council, so there were fourteen of us present.

“Following a song, and prayer by President Romney, President Kimball, in deep humility, expressed his feelings to us. He said that he had spent Friday in the temple talking to the Lord, and had shed many tears as he prayed for guidance in assuming his new responsibilities and in choosing his counselors.

“Dressed in the robes of the holy priesthood, we held a prayer circle; President Kimball asked me to conduct it and Elder Thomas S. Monson to offer the prayer. Following this, President Kimball explained the purpose of the meeting and called on each member of the quorum in order of seniority, starting with Elder Ezra Taft Benson, to express his feelings as to whether the First Presidency should be organized that day or whether we should carry on as the Council of the Twelve. Each said, ‘We should organize now,’ and many complimentary things were spoken about President Kimball and his work with the Twelve.

“Then Elder Ezra Taft Benson nominated Spencer W. Kimball to be the President of the Church. This was seconded by Elder Mark E. Petersen and unanimously approved. President Kimball then nominated N. Eldon Tanner as First Counselor and Marion G. Romney as Second Counselor, each of whom expressed a willingness to accept the position and devote his whole time and energy in serving in that capacity.

“They were unanimously approved. Then Elder Mark E. Petersen, second in seniority in the Twelve, nominated Ezra Taft Benson, the senior member of the Twelve, as President of the Quorum of the Twelve. This was unanimously approved.

“At this point all the members present laid their hands upon the head of Spencer W. Kimball, and President Ezra Taft Benson was voice in blessing, ordaining, and setting apart Spencer W. Kimball as the twelfth President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1979, pp. 62–63; or Ensign, Nov. 1979, pp. 43–44).

Chalkboard or poster and discussion

Display the prepared poster or on the chalkboard list the current First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve in their correct order. (To help with this exercise, obtain a current pictorial chart of all current General Authorities. This is usually published once a year in either the Ensign or Church News. The Church almanac can also help.) Explain how the present order in the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve came to be.


We each have a responsibility when a new President of the Church is chosen and announced. We must seek a testimony that the President, the prophet of the Lord, was chosen by the Lord.

Testimony and Challenge

  • How can we gain that testimony? (Allow the class to respond.)

Challenge the class to come to know for themselves that the Lord’s chosen servant, the prophet, has been put in place by the revealed process.

Bear your testimony that the Presidents of the Church have each been God’s anointed prophets, chosen by him to lead the Church. Bear your testimony of the prophet and President of the Church today.