Nauvoo era(ish) succession

A friend asked me about succession after the Gospel Doctrine lesson and wondered if I could help find more detail about what was going on. So just thinking about the immediate years after JS’s death I responded as follows:

When JS died it was not obvious who would run the church. It was not something that was provided for in the Doctrine and Covenants, for example. It was pretty clear that JS wanted Hyrum, and then Samuel Smith to lead the church after him, but Hyrum died with JS, and Samuel died soon after.

The main “factions” were:

The Quorum of the Twelve
One of the biggest deals was that the Q12 sort of ran the temple. They were the only group that had received all of the temple “ordinances,” and could give them to others. They also were participants in JS’s other Nauvoo projects (polygamy and the Council of Fifty). The Q12 also had the backing of the British Converts (within a few years there were more Mormons in Britain than in the US), and ran the local Newspaper.

Sidney Rigdon
Member of the First Presidency. JS tried to remove him from the FP, but the church members voted to keep him. He was living outside of Nauvoo when JS died, mostly because he wasn’t getting along with JS. He had not received all of the Temple ordinances, but tried to make his own. That didn’t go over well with those who had participated in the complete liturgy.

Emma Smith/William Marks
Emma Smith was actively and publicly fighting polygamy when JS died, and even though she had received all of the temple ordinances, didn’t participate in the Temple “quorum” after JS’s death, likely because of the Q12, who were supporters of polygamy. William Marks was the Nauvoo Stake President, who was also anti-polygamy. Major hard feelings between these guys and the polygamists. Decades later, Emma and William, with JS III, became the heart of the Reorganized Church. Lesser known fact: the current D&C states that JS ecclesiastical office was lineal.

James Strang
Strang produced a letter indicating that JS wanted him to run the church. He also recovered some buried plates and translated them. He got several church leaders and many members.

William Smith
William was in the Q12, and was ordained Church Patriarch. He ultimately felt like he should run the church, but the Q12 excommunicated him. He really was sort of off his rocker. He floated around various groups but landed in the Reorganization.

There were other groups as well that emerged over the next couple of years (Lyman White’s group in Texas, and Alpheus Cutler’s group, both of which were focused on the Council of Fifty and the Temple).

If you really want to grapple with succession, I recommend the following book chapters:

John Turner, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, ch. 4-6
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A House Full of Females, ch. 4-5

John’s book is a bit hard hitting as a first entry into Mormon scholarship (though I came like BY more, especially in the early years), but his treatment of succession is excellent. And Laurel’s is great because it takes it from the perspective a female believer on the ground. Very moving. Here are some write-ups about those sections of the books:

Succession within the Utah church certainly wasn’t entirely formalized until Heber J. Grant, I’d say, and there is a nice body of literature that approaches some of those issues. But that seems like a different question.


  1. The sustaining vote had a lot more teeth then. Can you imagine the membership of the church today overruling the President of the Church on a decision to remove a member of the First Presidency?

  2. Do we have any idea of how many people picked the “none-of-the-above” option and either ended up staying in Nauvoo or moving away from other groups of saints? It seems that many of my ancestors’ siblings left the church at this point, although often it’s impossible to know the exact timeline.

  3. J. Stapley says:

    Seriously, JKC.

    Tim, Angela took a swipe at that question recently in this post:

  4. JKC, can you imagine a president trying to remove a member of the FP? Current practice seems to be to add more members to the quorum when current ones begin to fail. Hinckley was what? Fourth counselor when he was originally called?

  5. Tim, the Nauvoo Community Project at BYU will eventually answer that question (along with many others). They are tracking all the Mormon-era Nauvoo (and surrounding areas) people across their entire lifespans. It has a genealogical component, but it is also meant to answer questions about the demographics of Nauvoo

  6. JKC, I doubt there would even be a vote in such a situation today. It would just be presented as, “President Counselor has been released as a counselor. All those who would like to show appreciation, do so by the uplifted hand.” No chance would be given for people to show dissent.

  7. That’s true. Current practice is that releases call for a vote of thanks only.

  8. What do you mean that Turner’s book is a “bit hard hitting as a first entry into Mormon scholarship”? Do you mean it was too critical, too blunt?

    I thoroughly enjoyed “BY Pioneer Prophet” and I agree that his treatment of the succession crisis was excellent. One of my favorite episodes is when Brigham tried to reconstitute the first presidency in December 1847 during a meeting with the other members of the Q12 in Iowa. Young received a lot of push back from several members of the quorum (especially Orson Pratt) who argued that the apostles as a group had effectively governed the church and that he (Brigham) had no divine authorization to alter the status quo. According to Turner: “As the discussion proceeded, Young grew animated and ‘full of Spirit & Shout,’ interspersing his arguments with shouting, singing and hollering.” [p. 173] His invective was even laced with profanity, which I will not quote here for fear of incurring the wrath of the BCC censors. Good stuff.

  9. Great post, J! Quick question: when you say, ” Lesser known fact: the current D&C states that JS ecclesiastical office was lineal”, which Section/verse(s) are you referring to?

  10. J. Stapley says:

    FarSide, it is an excellent bio, but if all you have ever had is Correlated BY, it is a bit shocking. That isn’t a bad thing.

    Hunter, Section 113.

  11. Great resources. Another, which takes into account to some extent the Council of 50 minutes is the opening chapters of Brent Rogers Unpopular Sovereignty. Reading Turner side by side is useful.

  12. Pioneer Prophet had Navuoo-era sources for the ‘mantle’ stories which I always assumed came from the late Utah period.

  13. Pioneer Prophet had Navuoo-era sources for the ‘mantle’ stories which I always assumed came from the late Utah period.

%d bloggers like this: