Mormon succession geekery

The smooth transition that we all currently take for granted following the death of the President of the Church, has not always been so. Much of the way we do things now has slowly been worked out over time. Consequently (and inspired by Justin’s fine post), I thought a nice potpourri of succession history would be nice.

First up is a figure (PDF here) based on Andrew Ehat’s seminal master’s thesis (see below). This Venn Diagram is a visual condensation of Ehat’s work. Basically of three categories that Ehat saw as necessary for church governance (i.e., membership in the Anointed Quorum, Council of Fifty, and being a general authority), only certain members of the Quorum of the Twelve fit the bill. Some might contest the appellation of “general authorities,” as somewhat question-begging, but I tend to think it works pretty well. I do, however, think that the diagram is missing a circle for polygamists, which was quite important to this time.

Beyond that, the following are the most commonly referred to scholarly treatments on succession of the Church Presidency. For the 1844 succession and in spite of some flaws, I still love Ehat’s work (though it is only available from the BYU, USU and UU special collections). The papers that treat the latter periods are all important and interesting. Enjoy!

D. Michael Quinn, “The Mormon Succession Crisis of 1844,” BYU Studies 16 (Winter 1976): 187-233.

Ronald Esplin, “Joseph, Brigham and the Twelve: a Succession of Continuity,” BYU Studies 21 (Summer 1981): 301-341.

Gary Bergera, “Seniority in the Twelve: The 1875 Realignment of Orson Pratt,” Journal of Mormon History 18 (Spring 1992): 19-58.

Ron Walker “Grant’s Watershed: Succession in the Presidency, 1887-1889,” BYU Studies 43, no. 1 (2004), 195-229.

Todd M. Compton “John Willard Young, Brigham Young, and the Development of Presidential Succession in the LDS Church.” Dialogue 35 (Winter 2002): 111-134.

Steven Heath, “Notes on Apostolic Succession,” Dialogue 20 (Summer 1987): 44-57.

Books and Theses
Andrew F. Ehat, “Joseph Smith’s Introduction of Temple Ordinances and the 1844 Mormon Succession Question” (MA thesis, Brigham Young University, 1982).

D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994), specifically, 143-262.

D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), specifically, 21-65.

Irene Bates and E. Gary Smith, Lost Legacy: The Mormon Office of Presiding Patriarch (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), ch. 4, and pp. 140-3 and 162-5.

Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in transition: a history of the Latter-Day Saints, 1890-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996), 116-7.


  1. Thanks, J. This is great.

  2. Sign me up, J. The “general authority” category in Ehat’s Venn diagram is question-begging and indeed sinks the thing entirely. After all, the concept post-dates the succession and presumes that the 12 had legitimate authority over the whole church — a presumption that was just exactly the issue of debate in 1844. If we assume that the 12 did indeed have “general” authority, then we basically by definition accept them as the legitimate successors to Joseph Smith. There was debate just exactly because it was far from clear that the 12 actually had authority over the church. Our present clarity on that point is based largely on statements by Brigham Young and, to a lesser extent, the other members of the 12 — statements that only have authority themselves because we accept the outcome of the 1844 succession crisis.

    For better or for worse, then, Ehat’s version of the diagram doesn’t get the job done. William Marks in particular, but others as well, end up with as good a succession claim as Brigham Young. What really mattered historically, I think, is the missing circle you mention: polygamy. Young and the 12 were the necessary successors because they were the only claimants with any kind of credible succession claim who were also polygamists. And so they had to win out, or Smith’s close followers who had followed the prophet’s instructions to take plural wives would risk being expelled from the kingdom. This seems historically reasonable as a basis for succession, and a fully legitimate basis for the 12′s action in my view.

  3. JNS, I agree completely in regards to polygamy. I think that you are also right that to project modern “general authority” back to 1844 is mistaken (as it didn’t really exist). However, Joseph Smith in his lifetime does have the Twelve and Seventy manage things like General Conference, which Marks or other local leaders never did. So while I concede that it is somewhat question-begging, I do think that there was some level of generality as indicated by Joseph’s use of them.

  4. Well, it’s tricky, isn’t it? Joseph Smith also had Marks (the stake president of the central stake of Zion, a position that in the Doctrine and Covenants appears roughly comparable to, and arguably superior to, that of the traveling council/12 Apostles) do things the 12 didn’t do. Who was used more than whom depends in part on the historical period; Joseph Smith used the 12 more closely later on at least in part because the 12 were, you guessed it, more supportive of polygamy.

    Marks was seen as a credible succession candidate by people at the time, as evidenced by the treatment of him by Emma and indeed the 12 during the period after Smith’s martyrdom. I don’t have any brief for the guy, and obviously am governed by LDS leadership and not the RLDS/CoC leadership that eventually incorporated Marks. But I bring this up to show that calling him clearly less authoritative or general than the 12 is projecting the results of the succession crisis back to the beginnings.

  5. Hm. I don’t necessarily think it is that cut and dry. The D&C state the geographic authority of a High Council, and then give the Twelve everything else. It would be hard to make any argument about the generality of a High Council, and Joseph didn’t appear to use them when under “general” auspices. However, I see Joseph as using the twelve under general “auspices,” and I do think that you are correct that he was simply more intimate with the Twelve as seen in their primacy in Temple rites and polygamy.

  6. Thanks for a nice set of references and links.

  7. J., I was thinking about D&C 107:37, which says:

    The high council in Zion form a quorum equal in authority in the affairs of the church, in all their decisions, to the councils of the Twelve at the stakes of Zion.

    But the jurisdictional issue is also important; the 12 aren’t given “everything else,” they’re given authority over teaching the gospel and setting up branches among “Gentiles” and “Jews.” That’s perhaps “general” authority outside the church, but arguably not inside it.

  8. I’m not remembering now where I read this, but I seem to remember reading something that made nearly the opposite argument — namely, that at this time, the High Council had more authority, both in geographic scope and in real power, than did the 12.

    Would obviously help if I could remember where that came from . . . .

  9. Note that the twelve are given authority “to build up the church, and regulate all the affairs of the same,” but you are correct that there is an emphasis in scripture and in their charge by Joseph in the Kirtland High Council Minute Book to evangelize.

    Again, this only applies to their level of “generality.” The real reason that they succeeded to govern the Church was because they had the keys of the Temple.

  10. And by opposite, I obviously mean opposite to J’s #5, not JNS’s #7.

  11. J., not only that, but the revelation also takes pains to point out that the 12′s calling is different from all the other callings, including those of the First Presidency — specifically in terms of having authority only outside Zion. Obviously, this evolved, but my point here is that the evolution was driven by concerns about polygamy and about personal reliability, not by institutional factors. The 12 had authority to take lead of the church, certainly, but it might have been because they’d been true to Joseph Smith, not because they had callings that distinguished them from other claimants.

  12. Fwiw, on a very simplistic level, I think the ascendancy of the Q12 over the High Councils of the stakes was inevitable – if only in anticipation (God’s foreknowledge) of the number of stakes that eventually would exist. Given that reality, it is a bit intuitive that the succession would be settled in favor of the Pres. of the Q12 over the SP. Yes, that’s projecting the results back to the beginning, but I’m comfortable doing that from my modern perspective.

    #7 – J, you hit exactly how I feel about it, I think. I see two very different kinds of authority, matching two very different roles. In a very real sense, we are part of two very distinct Churches: 1) the global Church, headed by the FP and Q12; and 2) our own local stake, headed by the SP and HC – with a caveat that the “real” Church to which we “belong” might better be defined as our own ward, since the vast majority of members gain more of their practical understanding of what the “church” is at that level than at any other. Those in small branches and groups, otoh, often are connected more directly to the stake, since they receive constant and direct support from it in the form of unit leadership and Sunday speakers.

  13. Randy, I think that’s essentially Mike Quinn’s argument in Mo. Hierarchy.

  14. Kristine, I think you’re right. Origins of Power, I believe.

  15. Staples, you left off a wonderfully rich primary source, the T&S publication of the Sidney Rigdon trial (it’s vol 5, someone i’m sure has the URL if needed). Aside from some character assassination (which frankly is easily traced back to Smith himself–it took an NDE to bring Rigdon back into the “fold” in Nauvoo), the testimony highlights Marks’s uncertainty about succession and most critically the access to the temple rites. If Samuel had survived and William weren’t unsteady, or if JSIII had been of age to be inducted into temple rites, then the succession story may have been different, but I think as events unfolded the 12 really were JSJ’s heirs as of 1844, even recognizing how uncertain (beyond Hyrum, who of course also died) the mechanics of succession were then.

    If you read the 1840s as the story of the ascendancy of the temple rites, which I think is quite reasonable, you really can’t have anyone but the Twelve run the church. They were the only quorum that had something resembling coherent access to the temple.

    In your Venn diagram, I would probably add “control over the press/the prophet’s pen” Parley Pratt, John Taylor, and William Phelps were high in that category, and all three supported the Twelve. Both JT and WP appear to have ghostwritten for or assisted the prophet with public statements.

    Another thing to consider in your Venn is evangelization of church membership. As the lynchpin of the British mission, the Twelve were responsible for a large number of the converted membership of the church.

    As for general authorities, JNS, I think that the groups that wrote epistles/encyclicals to the church at large are a reasonable fit here, and that basically is FP, 12, and Nauvoo High Council. That is not back-projection.

  16. Sam, I generally agree. Rigdon’s trial in the T&S is simply excellent material. I only listed secondary sources in the post, mostly because gathering all the primary material would be overwhelming. Still, Rigdon’s trial is very, very important. Your points about the press and converts is also frequently overlooked, but also very important.

  17. Sam’s point about the Church in England and the role of the Q12 there is also critical, I think. There is a very real sense in which the center of gravity for the Church shifted to Britain in the wake of the deaths of JSJ and Hyrum.

    The first inklings of doctrinal systematization begin in Britain in the form of printed missionizing tracts. I think Voice of Warning and the Catechism both date to the mid 1840s and both were printed/distributed in England. Printed material was a key component of Church governance, and the importance of GB in this regard continued well into the early Utah period, due to paper shortages, among other things. It is not a coincidence that the JD was printed in Liverpool.

    The Q12 ran the show in GB and thus exerted real control over this key element of Mormonism. Later, printing in GB would even exert important influence on canonization of LDS scripture via the assembling, printing, and distribution of the Pearl of Great Price.

    The importance of England during the post-martyrdom period and well into Young’s presidency can hardly be overstated, and it was the Q12 that ran the Church in England.

  18. Sam, your list of groups that wrote to the church at large is totally satisfactory to me. Indeed, that’s basically the list I’ve argued for above. Good way of systematizing it.

  19. Aha, so if i were to read posts more closely i would have more information. i agree “the 70″ were not GAs at the time. the only other individual to add was church patriarch.

  20. There are no individual, earth-bound “general authorities” (except perhaps Joseph Smith) described in the D&C. On the contrary, the general authorities of the church are the following quorums themselves:

    1. The First Presidency
    2. The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
    3. The Seventy
    4. The joint quorum of the members of all standing high councils

    If there is any dispute between these quorums, the matter is to be brought before a general assembly of the several quorums. There is no ranking of the quorums themselves.

  21. The succession rule prescribed in the D&C is that the Presiding High Priests should be “chosen by the body [of the Melchizedek Priesthood]“. Not the FP, not the Q12, but rather “the body”.

    No legitimate succession can occur without the sustaining vote of this body. Hence the advent of solemn assemblies.

    Sidney Rigdon or William Marks (or practically anyone else for that matter) could easily have succeeded Joseph Smith. All they would need was the sustaining vote of the body of Melchizedek Priesthood holders.

    Indeed, “chosen” implies some minimal degree of deliberation. If a sustaining vote were refused for any other serious candidate (i.e. one with a prayer of being sustained), that would be a violation of D&C 107:22.

  22. I still love Ehat’s work (though it is only available from the BYU, USU and UU special collections).

    It’s been widely distributed as a PDF though. You’re right that it has a few big flaws though.

  23. Yeah, notably the polygamy lacuna. There are other smaller things like the points Sam and Brad point out and the Hoffman forgeries. As his title points out though, his main focus was on the temple.

  24. The question is simply one of keys: those of the Aaronic priesthood–keys of the ministering of angels, of repentance, and of water baptism–and those of the Melchizedek priesthood–keys of bestowing the gift of the Holy Ghost; keys of the endowment (Moses), and of eternal marriage (Elias), and of the sealing power (Elijah); and the keys of the Kingdom of God (Peter, James & John). Who had the keys the moment Joseph and Hyrum were killed?

    Ehat’s use of the label “general authorities” is not anachronistic: “The latter [the traveling high council composed of the Twelve Apostles] can only be called in question by the general authorities of the church in case of transgression” (D&C 102:32). But even if it were, it could be taken merely as a label that modern-day readers of his thesis could readily understand. The fact remains that whatever appelations one uses and whatever groups one thinks should be added to the Venn diagram, there was only one governing body of the Church in which a quorum of its members had received all of the keys restored through Joseph Smith: the Quorum of the Twelve. No other body at the moment of Joseph’s death–not the First Presidency, nor the Nauvoo Stake Presidency, nor the Nauvoo High Council, nor even the Kingdom of God (Council of Fifty)–had a quorum of members who held all priesthood keys, and only 9 of the Twelve had them all.

    The polygamy angle is practically a moot point when critiquing the Venn diagram as Joseph did not give the fulness of the priesthood (the inner-most circle in the Venn diagram) to anyone who was opposed to polygamy in theory or practice. In other words, only those who were either practicing polygamists or who at that time (1843-1844) ascented to the doctrine were given the fulness of the priesthood by ordinance. Ehat’s thesis covers pretty thoroughly the topic of plural marriage as it relates to who was given what ordinances.

    As far as the hierarchical relationship of the Quorum of the Twelve to the Nauvoo High Council, the revelations make clear that the Quorum of the Twelve is higher:

    “There is a distinction between the high council of travelling high priests abroad, and the travelling high council composed of the twelve apostles, in their decisions: From the decision of the former there can be an appeal, but from the decision of the latter [Quorum of the Twelve] there cannot” (recorded 17 Feb 1834, D&C 5:13, 1835 edition; cf. D&C 102:30-31 in current edition)

    “The … twelve apostles … form a quorum, equal in authority and power to the three presidents, previously mentioned [First Presidency]. The seventy … form a quorum equal in authority to that of the twelve especial witnesses or apostles, just named. …The standing high councils, at the stakes of Zion [which in 1844 would have included the Nauvoo Stake High Council], form a quorum equal in authority, in the affairs of the church, in all their decisions, to the quorum of the presidency, or to the travelling high council” (recorded 28 March 1843, from D&C 3:11 and 14, 1835 edition; cf. D&C 107:23-26 and 36, current edition)

    “The twelve are a travelling, presiding high council, to officiate in the name of the Lord, under the direction of the presidency of the church, agreeably to the institution of heaven; to build up the church, and regulate all the affairs of the same, in all nations: first unto the Gentiles, and secondly unto the Jews” (from D&C 3:12, 1835 edition; cf. D&C 107:33, current edition)

    “It is the duty of the twelve, also, to ordain and set in order all the other officers of the church…” (from D&C 3:30, 1835 edition; cf. D&C 107:58, current edition)

    There is plenty of evidence to show that the Twelve were intended–at least by the Lord, and I think a very compelling case can be made that Joseph also intended–to be the governing body of the Church in case the First Presidency could not function. That Joseph Smith’s counselors did not hold all the keys at the moment of his death should answer the question as to the possiblity of succession by a surviving First Presidency counselor. The President of the Church, by decree of heaven, must be one who holds all keys: “it must needs be that one be appointed, of the high priesthood, to preside over the priesthood; and he shall be called president of the high priesthood of the church, or, in other words, the presiding high priest over the high priesthood of the church. From the same comes the administering of ordinances and blessings upon the church, by the laying on of the hands” (D&C 3:31, 1835 edition; cf. D&C 107:65-67, current edition). The only possible individual successor who met that requirement was William Marks, be he was not an Apostle and did not have authority (keys of the Apostleship) to “regulate all the affairs of the [Church]” and “ordain and set in order all the other officers of the church.”

    Even though the succession question appeared unclear to some, Brigham knew it almost immediately: “The first thing which I thought of was, whether Joseph had taken the keys of the kingdom with him from the earth; brother Orson Pratt sat on my left; we were both leaning back on our chairs. Bringing my hand down on my knee, I said the keys of the kingdom are right here with the Church” (Manuscript History of Brigham Young: 1801–1844, 170-71). He knew and immediately claimed upon his return to Nauvoo that he and the Twelve were the possessors and custodians of the keys and no other person or body was.

  25. Me, I think most people her have agreed that of the Quorums delineated in the Canon, the Twelve were the only ones with access to the gates of the Temple. One might argue that the Anointed Quorum, might also function in that custodial duty, but really, the Q12 was managing it (I believe).

    I think your use of the term “keys” is a bit anachronistic, though. Still, the Twelve did have the ability to ordain Patriarchs, which came into play.

    As to the legal recourse of appeal, I’m not so certain how indicative that is, especially considering the equal authority language.

    Did all the members of the anointed quorum embrace polygamy, or as you say, those that received the Fullness of the Priesthood? I don’t believe that Marks did, at least.

    As to the keys of the apostolate, that is also a bit sketchy. You have Brigham later teaching that as the Seventy were apostles, they could ordain new members to the twelve in the case that the entire twelve met an untimely end. Then you have the idea of the “Fullness of the Priesthood.” What is the fullness unless it is a fullness?

    But all in all, while I think it is a bit more complicate, I think that we are in general agreement.

  26. I’d be interested to know why you think the concept of “keys” is anachronistic and how you think I am using the term.

  27. Joseph and his contemporaries used the term “keys” in several different ways (wasn’t there a Dialogue article on this last year or before?). Anyway, the idea you employ is valid even if I am being overly (needlessly?) picky.

  28. see John Taylor in T&S 5, near the end of the volume. He gives a reasonably contemporary definition, pretty heavily saturated with temple imagery.

    [John Taylor], “Keys,” Times and Seasons 5, no. 23 (December 15, 1844): 748-9.


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