Your October Conference Prep: Textual Origins of LDS Priesthood Organization, Part XVI. Discipline and Succession – Written and Unwritten Rules.

One of the interesting issues raised by the history of Doctrine and Covenants section 107 is the question of a transgressing President of the Church. The November 11 revelation (second half of D&C 107) introduced a church court system (see parts 2 and 3 in the series). The two leading offices in the early (1831) church were the bishop and the president of the high priesthood. The revelation defined a way for each officer to be disciplined, should the need arise. This was to work by using each of the court systems attached to these officers to judge the other.

As the church matured, there continued to be only one president of the high priesthood over the entire church, but the number of bishoprics gradually increased. Since the original revelation left open what should happen in that event, some clarification was needed. The revelations mentioned in part 15 of this post made some regulation to substitute for the early method. But those revelations, while subjected to canonical vote, did not provide a lasting answer to the question: how to deal with a transgressing church president. Moreover, it was clear that people in the know saw the November 11 revelation applying to each member of the church presidency even though it could not have done so when delivered.

The Twelve Apostles had no defined role in the problem partly because they didn’t exist in November 1831. The front portion of D&C 107 defines the role of the 12, but does not give them overt disciplinary responsibilities with regard to the church presidency, and in the question of Joseph Smith’s trial in Kirtland, they made no appearance (unless you count a plaintiff). The April 1835 revelation set up a kind of general court consisting of all the church authorities (107:32). Truly an unwieldy beast and not clearly applicable to this case anyway, though it does expand the judicial horizon of the November revelation (there is an appeals process beyond the presidency).

The 1838 revelations made it clear that the November 1831 revelation was deprecated and was to be discarded with reference to this discipline issue. But another office was in store in Nauvoo. A presiding bishop. This bishop presided over other bishops. While revealed in Nauvoo, it was never occupied during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. A naive reading of D&C 107 has led some commentators to suppose that the presiding bishop would be the judge of a church president. (If you have questions here, I suggest a reading of the bishopric series of posts at last April Conference.)

In a sense, the problem disappeared with the death of Joseph Smith. Of course it was Sidney Rigdon’s position that he was a president of the high priesthood and that (in essence) based on policies like those found in D&C 102, he should lead the church. A small segment of the church believed him. When the apostles assumed leadership, they weren’t presidents of the high priesthood. Indeed, Brigham Young would come to describe his office as superior to the high priesthood (for example see his sermon of April 6, 1853). When the First Presidency was re-formed in 1847, there was no mention of the high priesthood either in the stormy private discussions preceding that, or the public announcements that followed. Historically, the identification of the First Presidency and the Presidency of the High Priesthood was merely a convenient renaming process. With the desire to elevate the office of apostle, the old title was left behind. It’s worth noting that Brigham’s point of view would not stick. As I noted previously, Joseph F. Smith would read D&C 107 in a different way from Brigham. Apostles like George Albert Smith who were not high priests prior to coming into the Q12 would be ordained high priests as well since JFS believed they could not preside without being high priests (a similar practice was adopted with the First Council of the Seventy decades later– for the Seventy, see last year’s series on the Seventy). Brigham would have blanched, at least superficially perhaps.

Still, an analogous problem existed with Brigham’s new First Presidency in 1848. How would a member of the First Presidency be dealt with? By the 1890s it seemed like the presidency was not accountable to anyone. The apostles were uncomfortable with some of George Q. Cannon’s activities, and only learning of some of them by rumor made it worse (it is a fact that the Raid had damped all sorts of communication even among church leaders). Some apostles felt Cannon should be dropped. The idea angered Woodruff, but the apostles asserted themselves, partly based on D&C 107 and perhaps also because of Brigham’s occasional expression that he was merely an apostle with a different assignment.

The resolution of the tiff put the two bodies on a more even footing.[1] The idea that a member of the presidency could be dropped was not without precedence. It had happened twice in 1832 and twice again in 1837 (Joseph Smith attempted to drop Rigdon in 1843, but failed—technically, Rigdon was dropped in 1832 for a while and of course there’s Jesse Gause and John Bennett—Bennett was probably not a pres. of the hp, while Gause’s status is not exactly clear—but these give some precedence to Cowdery and Williams) Cannon was not dropped but reined in a bit. However, it is difficult to believe that a church president could be dropped. Instead, President Wilford Woodruff offered another resolution: if a church president went haywire, God would take him out of the mortal shell (See D&C OD1). The discipline would come from above, not below, and it would be rather permanent. Fears of prelate despotism or error and the ability to deal with that were confronted by Woodruff with a rather different approach than Joseph Smith or Brigham Young.

As a side note, John Taylor seems to have identified the First Presidency with the presidency of the high priesthood. For example, see JD 21:364 and Orson Pratt in JD 22:35. By the 1940s, some reference to the President of the High Priesthood (as church president) began to reappear in general conferences. But as we have seen already in a previous post, “high priesthood” by this time had morphed into a synonym for “Melchizedek Priesthood.” Hence the question of applying D&C 107 becomes somewhat muddled on this issue.

The finale appears to be that no formal method exists for recalling a church president. The Woodruff solution remains.

The recall of a president has low probability though, for other reasons. The system of leadership presently in place in the church makes is unlikely that a young vigorous man will rise to the senior tranche. Although President Gordon B. Hinckley, while elderly, had great vigor. Much of the well-known headline changes over the last 15 years have been attributed in part to that vigor. Spencer W. Kimball was a vigorous leader in his first decade (1973-1981 or so). But even in the case of a vigorous leader gone “astray” (whatever that might mean) the present system is capable of dealing with any extreme moves. Given the embedded bureaucracy in the church, and the consensus driven approval process for big moves (something suggested by D&C 107 itself), it would be nearly impossible for the untoward to get past it. But what about speech? Could an off the reservation Church President be muzzled? It’s clear that presidents who have been less functional can be isolated. That happened with Ezra Taft Benson and Spencer Kimball.

This suggests that a presidential recall would be unnecessary except for a vigorous president who began to *speak* what was judged as the heterodox. The ugly head of schism rises in this case, but it seems clear that since the apostles have been king makers since Brigham Young (even if in a perfunctory way) they would have to act as a quorum to depose the president – the common council is really a dead issue unless the presiding bishop was officially inserted in the November 11 reading (the January 1838 revelations would only come into play in some worst case outcome). There are all kinds of nightmare scenarios here, each as unlikely as the next.

Sidney Rigdon argued for succession based in part on the ideas of the November 11 portion of D&C 107. Brigham Young argued for succession in part based on the April 28 portion of D&C 107. Could Rigdon have made a stronger case? Perhaps, but the insiders in Nauvoo knew Rigdon had problems with Joseph Smith’s innovations like polygamy and unlike Young he never had any cachet in the “sealing” or “fullness of the priesthood” enterprise. Rigdon might have cited the July 1837 revelation (now D&C 112) as clearly marking out the territory of the First Presidency as superior to the Twelve. On the other hand, the same revelation suggests that Joseph would hand the “keys” to Thomas B. Marsh and the Twelve (and hence Brigham Young and Twelve?). The apostles did try to reinforce their position vis-a-vis this revelation by publishing a modified version of a statement assigned to Joseph Smith to the effect that when he wasn’t around, there was no First Presidency over the Twelve. (And while that statement was a fabrication, it plays into the recall question in a way.)

Finally, I regard the recall provisions of the November 11 revelation as not only temporary in fact, but temporary in need. They responded to the old Protestant fear of Catholic tyranny. Some analogous fear is still occasionally voiced in Mormonism and I think a recall is still possible in several ways. Is it likely that anything like that would ever come up? Absolutely not, in my opinion. The narrative of tried and true leadership over decades of steady service is a convincing one and combined with the Woodruff doctrine and isolation in the case of mental aberration or disability it is pretty complete in theory. But whatever the case, the second half of D&C 107 is unlikely to ever play a role in deposing a church president.

And now, you are nearly prepared. Two more to go.

[1] See the John Henry Smith journal for instance.


  1. If there was a Mormon equivelent to cannon law (who knows perhaps there eventually will be) , you would be the founding doctor. Also, RE: John Taylor, I’ve got this nebulous thesis that he conciously tried to refocus the church towards JS-era ideas/liturgy/beliefs.

  2. WVS, I am intrigued by this statement: “The apostles did try to reinforce their position vis-a-vis this revelation by publishing a modified version of a statement assigned to Joseph Smith to the effect that when he wasn’t around, there was no First Presidency over the Twelve.”

    What is the reference on that?

  3. J., I agree on Taylor. As for your counterfactual, I don’t know whether to be frightened or flattered or worried. (Grin)

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