Presidents and Prophets

Owing to the recent death of church president Gordon B. Hinckley, supreme ecclesiastical authority in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is currently held by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.[1] The president of the quorum is Thomas S. Monson, who will soon be sustained by the quorum as the 16th President of the Church. He will then organise a new First Presidency, the Mormon church’s highest council.

As J. Stapley has recently reminded us, “prophet” is not a priesthood office in the church. It is true that we have come to sustain the apostles[2] as “prophets, seers, and revelators,” but the office of the president is one of presidency: he is the presiding high priest (after the order of Melchizedek) in the church and all priesthood “keys” in the church (Mormon speak for rights-of-presiding-office) flow from the president, ex cathedra.

As such, President Monson will be the quintessential priest-king, a priest because he directs the religion’s cultic life, and king because he heads its bureaucracy. It is an essential role, but it is not prophetic in the way one would typically define the term.[3]

I see “prophet” as something else. We will call President Monson “the Prophet” because he is the “President”; but he will be a “prophet” for reasons which derive not only from his ecclesiastical office, but also from his own wisdom, his personality, and his attention to the Holy Spirit. The prophet Monson we already know is a man who preaches Christian service and duty. One can only wonder what future gifts of prophecy (a testimony of Jesus that inspires us to a better life) Thomas Spencer Monson will bring to the church.

As we continue to remember the life of Gordon B. Hinckley, I wonder how we see his own prophetic legacy. Some of his achievements seem more obviously those of a president, such as the temple-building boom and his public relations emphasis. One can, of course, speak of the prophetic vision behind such policies, but they rely on massive bureaucratic energy for their implementation (no bad thing, incidentally).

There is another type of prophethood, viz., the personal and noetic touch of God through a man called to prophesy, the type you feel during a General Conference address, or in a book, or during an encounter with the Lord’s anointed. The prophet who recently passed is remembered in my heart as a man who called the Latter-day Saints to escape from their sectarian shell, embrace optimism, live Christian lives, avoid clannishness, and fully engage with the world. I do hope we can remember President Hinckley for more than bricks, mortar, numbers, and the impish wielding of his cane, important and endearing though these things were.


1. Except there are currently 14…

2. Outside of Mormonism one cannot really describe apostles as part of a priesthood. As I’ve said before, Joseph Smith placed new wine in old bottles. Un-systematic theology ensues.

3. In the Old Testament, prophets (spiritual messengers) and priests (cultic civil servants) are separate people, sometimes even in opposition. The church has combined the two roles, a fact true also of the Roman Catholic church, where the Pope is both Pope (father, tutor) and Bishop of Rome (priest).


  1. California Observer says:


    I consider Saturday, October 6, 2001 to be a fascinating, often overlooked, day in President Hinckley’s legacy as President and Prophet of the Church. This is the morning that he announced to the Church and the world (if the world reads LDS conference addresses) the fulfillment of Joel’s, the Old Testament prophet, phrophecy (Joel 2:28-32). This announcement was also in concert with the fulfillment of one of Moroni’s prophecies (Sept 1821) recorded by Joseph Smith that Joel’s prophecy was not yet fulfilled but soon would be. (JS History 1:41)
    (I guess “soon” in this case meant 180 years, give or take a couple of weeks)

    In your definition of the LDS Church Leader’s role, would you characterize this to be an administrative duty or prophetic duty?

  2. Ronan–

    In re: note 1, I’ve been told that once the first presidency is dissolved and its members return to their places in the quorum, the bottom 2 drop out of the quorum temporarily (though obviously retaining their ordination as apostles) so that there are only 12. Then, once the new presidency is organized, they return to the quorum. One can be an apostle but not a member of the quorum of the 12, it seems. I believe that there were individuals with this status for the long term (rather than temporarily) when there were ‘assistants to the 12,’ though they did not automatically enter the quorum.

  3. TMD, what is your source?

  4. Ray, not to take over this conversation, but if my memory is correct, J. Reuben Clark was ordained an apostle and put in the first presidency as a third counselor initially, but not as a member of the 12.

    However the idea that there can only be 12 members of the quorum of the 12 and that the bottom 2 drop out is news to me. In fact Monson has been a member of the 12, all these years and has always been referred to as the president of the quorum of the 12, with BKP as acting president. If Monson has been the president, he must be a member, and I believe the entire first presidency are members of the quorum of 12.

  5. CW, that’s why I asked for the source. Frankly, I have never heard it and don’t believe it.

  6. Classic stuff, Ronan (loved note 2).

    Clark was made a member of the First Presidency as a High Priest, and was ordained an apostle a year later. There were scores of apostles outside the Q12 in the nineteenth century. In recent memory, there were a handful of unQuormed apostles after McKay’s presidency was dissolved.

    All the talk about acting president and unquormed apostles isn’t all that important. It is all tradition. There is no revelation governing it.

  7. $6, last paragraph – Exactly.

  8. and $6 paragraphs are rare.

  9. #4: When sustained I think we sustain TSM as President of Q12, BKP as acting President of Q12, and as members of the Q12 the 12 apostles (starting at BKP) excluding the members of the 1st Presidency. Therefore, I think we only sustain 12 as members of the Q12.

  10. Great post. Footnote three is interesting; the responsiveness of church bureaucracy to the will of the President of the church and his prophetic utterances is an important issue.

  11. I just received this from my stake president as official church policy (note item 3):

    When the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints passes away, the following events take place:

    1. The First Presidency is automatically dissolved.

    2. The two counselors in the First Presidency revert to their places of seniority in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Seniority is determined by the date on which a person was ordained to the Twelve, not by age.

    3. The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, now numbering 14 and headed by the senior apostle, assumes Church leadership.

    4. The senior apostle presides at a meeting of the Quorum of the Twelve to consider two alternative propositions: i. Should the First Presidency be reorganized at this time? ii. Should the Church continue to function with the Quorum of the Twelve presiding?

    5. After discussion, a formal motion is made and accepted by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

    6. If a motion to reorganize the First Presidency is passed, the Quorum of the Twelve unanimously selects the new president of the Church. The new president chooses two counselors from among the Quorum of the Twelve and the three of them become the new First Presidency. Throughout the history of the Church, the longest-serving apostle has always become the president of the Church when the First Presidency has been reorganized.

    7. Following the reorganization of the First Presidency, the apostle who has served the second longest is sustained as the president of the Quorum of the Twelve. The only exception is when the second-longest-serving apostle has also been called into the First Presidency as a counselor, in which case the third-longest-serving apostle becomes acting president of the Twelve.

    8. The president of the Quorum of the Twelve, along with the rest of the apostles, sets apart the new president of the Church through a formal laying on of hands.

  12. gomez,
    Stapley’s comment shows that #6 is not strictly true, or, better put, not always true.

  13. California,
    Prophetic, I guess.

  14. Just wondering, if the senior member was really sick and incapacitated when the president died, would the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles wait ot reorganize the first presidency. Should they wait for him to pass, before ordaining a new president?

  15. John Taber says:

    My guess is, if he is physically incapable of naming counselors, they would wait.

  16. In regards to #11 and #16 I recieved today from CES a revison to the Session to the Presidency. One word is highlighted that is missing from the document In #6 it reads “The new president chooses two counselors normally from among the Quorum of the Twelve and the tree of them become the new First Presidency.

  17. Since there is no revelation governing the process, what has been shared is the *tradition* that always has been followed thus far. What the 12 (14) “would do” or “might do” in exceptional situations is purely speculation.

  18. Jonovitch says:

    California (1), I remember listening to Pres. Hinckley’s talk in Oct 2001 and perking up when he said “fullfilled” twice in the space of a few seconds.

    I had forgotten about that moment, but I remember thinking how remarkable that was for a prophet to state so plainly that two prophecies had been fulfilled. Wow. I don’t think I’ve heard anything like it in Conference before or since.