What a great opportunity to engage with the scriptures we have this week in Sunday School! Three verses of the scriptures, to be specific. The only scriptural content for this week’s lesson is D&C 107: 22-24. Here, let me do you a favor:
Of the Melchizedek Priesthood, three Presiding High Priests, chosen by the body, appointed and ordained to that office, and upheld by the confidence, faith, and prayer of the church, form a quorum of the Presidency of the Church. The twelve traveling councilors are called to be the Twelve Apostles, or special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world –— thus differing from other officers in the church in the duties of their calling. And they form a quorum, equal in authority and power to the three presidents previously mentioned. (D&C 107: 22-24)
Now, if the teacher in your Gospel Doctrine class asks whether you did the reading for this week, you can answer in all honesty in the affirmative.
This brief snippet of text is intended, of course, as a kind of legal basis for the claim that Brigham Young was Joseph Smith’s rightful successor as leader of the Latter-day Saints. One might have asked for somewhat clearer guidance. It would certainly have been convenient had a revelation existed in something like the following words:
When the President of the Church dies, he is to be succeeded by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
But we can’t, I suppose, have everything. In actual fact, when it comes to finding a legalistic basis for succession claims, what Section 107 gives us is pretty nearly nothing. The section has, in my view, two major deficiencies as an argument in favor of apostolic succession. First, it doesn’t give the Twelve Apostles any claim to the succession that it doesn’t also give to the Seventy. Second, if we read the section as authorizing the Apostles to run the church when there is no First Presidency, we probably ought to also read it as authorizing the Apostles to run the church when there is a First Presidency.
On the first point: the verses immediately after the excerpt chosen for this week’s lesson give the Seventy as a quorum equal standing to the Twelve Apostles and the First Presidency. That’s the word the revelation uses: equal. Specifically, it says that the Seventy
…form a quorum, equal in authority to that of the Twelve special witnesses or Apostles just named. (D&C 107: 26)
This doesn’t say that the Seventy have all the power and authority necessary to succeed in the unlikely case that the First Presidency and the Twelve are all killed; it isn’t a hypothetical or conditional equality. Instead, the section simply and flatly declares the two groups to be of equal authority in the church. If the Twelve have power over the Seventy, and not the other way around, this is something that we know from some other source than what is written in the scriptures.
Turning to the second point, the section doesn’t say that the Twelve Apostles have all the authority necessary to fill in for the First Presidency when it dissolves. Instead, it simply says that the Twelve are equal in authority and power to the First Presidency. Full stop, with no conditions. If we take this to mean that the Twelve have the right to legitimately control the church when there is no First Presidency, we ought for the sake of consistency to conclude that they also have that right when there is a First Presidency. The First Presidency clearly also would have that right, as would the Seventy. So the church would have three equally powerful and independent governments.
An alternative is to view this section as not being an organization chart or a handbook regarding succession. The power and authority discussed here may not entail the right and responsibility to lead the church; it may be power and authority of another sort — although I’m not completely sure what in particular would be involved. Ideas?
A broader point: I seem unable to find a legalistic argument for Brigham Young’s succession that I find convincing. My reading of the history of the succession period persuades me that, out of Joseph Smith’s circle of confidantes and subordinate leaders, Brigham Young and the Twelve saw themselves as having to assume leadership primarily to assure that plural marriage would not be discarded as a doctrine and practice. I think this is an honorable motive, both because many of these men were convinced that it was God’s will and because many of them had polygamous wives that the presumably didn’t want to abandon. Loyalty to polygamy and, by extension, to the priesthood and temple rituals that had developed in the wake of the practice, seems to have been the decisive issue of succession for people “in the know.” I don’t think this should be a source of any special concern, even though it probably is not entirely satisfactory as an argument for why contemporary Latter Day Saints should belong to the Utah church as opposed to, say, the Community of Christ.
For that latter task, I think we have much more powerful resources than an appeal to legalism. Why did so many of the Saints of the time accept Brigham Young’s leadership? I am persuaded by the many records of how they, at least, explained this choice. They felt God’s power confirming Young’s leadership role. Why do members of the contemporary LDS church belong to this organization rather than some competing Restoration church? I think the only really acceptable answer has to be the same: we feel God’s power here.
If the scriptures really don’t spell out a leadership succession system, and I think they maybe don’t, that shouldn’t matter. To see this, let’s play a counterfactual game. Suppose that the scriptures did explicitly proclaim a succession system, but the power of God clearly and undeniably manifested support for some other alternative at the moment of Joseph’s death and in perpetuity thereafter. What would be the right succession choice in this case? What the scriptures say, or what God endorses by direct action? If God speaks by power and the Holy Ghost, why should we care if we don’t have a rigorous legal argument in favor of our preferred succession alternative?