Mystery, If We’ll Have It

This material supplements my post on the calling of President Nelson to the First Presidency.

President Nelson tells audience there is 'no mystery' in the succession, at worldwide video conference, announcing new First Presidency.

President Nelson tells audience there is ‘no mystery’ in the succession, at worldwide video conference, announcing new First Presidency.

During yesterday’s press event—and in materials furnished by various Church entities, now and in the past—the narrative advances the idea that there was never any doubt that President Nelson would be President Nelson, that this is just as the Lord wished it, and that this is as it always has been—they even used the phrase “no mystery”. But Church history tells us this claim is incomplete.

Mystery is not a four-letter word.

God, himself, works in mysterious ways, and mystery fills the daily workings of members the world-round, as they seek His will in advancing the Kingdom. Imagine if we did this in our wards and stakes—just let people languish in their callings until they died and then let the next in line fill the position? It would be madness.

Below is the Succession process, as outlined in a write-up on succession in the Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

When the President of the Church 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:
    1. Should the First Presidency be reorganized at this time?
    2. 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 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. When the second-longest-serving apostle has also been called into the First Presidency as a counselor, 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.

So let’s work through this, one point at a time:

  • The First Presidency is automatically dissolved [and t]he two counselors in the First Presidency revert to their places of seniority in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.  No qualms here; when the President of the Church dies, his counselors are released. This follows the order of all presidencies in the Church (with the notable exception of the Presidency of Seventy, since all members of the Presidency of the Seventy are presidents in and of themselves [D&C 107:93–94]).
  • Seniority is determined by the date on which a person was ordained to the Twelve, not by age.  Seniority has not always been thus. Joseph Smith instructed the apostles to arrange their seniority according to birth dates and this was the order of things for almost three decades. In 1861, that changed when President Young reordered the Apostleship, assigning seniority by order of ordination. In 1875, President Young again reordered the Twelve, assigning seniority according to the longest uninterrupted time as an apostle, which affected Orson Hyde, whose time as an apostle had been interrupted by being disfellowshipped.
  • The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, now numbering 14 and headed by the senior apostle, assumes Church leadership.  While this is certainly the current practice, there is nothing in canon dictating this as the order of things. This organizational feature is a direct result of Brigham Young’s ascendancy to the Presidency, in the wake of Joseph Smith’s martyrdom.
  • The senior apostle presides at a meeting of the Quorum of the Twelve to consider two alternative propositions.  No qualms here (assuming we can agree on how seniority is assigned), as this is also how things are done throughout the Church: the senior officer in a meeting presides.
  • Proposition 1: Should the First Presidency be reorganized at this time?  The period between the passing of the President of the Church and the installation of his successor is called an apostolic interregnum, during which (traditionally) the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles manages the affairs of the Church. The first such interregnum (between Joseph Smith and Brigham Young) was 3 years and 5 months (Wilford Woodruff commented in his journal that a revelation was required, but none was forthcoming); the second (between Brigham Young and John Taylor) was 3 years and 1 month; the third (between John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff) was 1 year and 8 months. Since that time, interregnums have lasted mere days—this latest one was a remarkable 12 days in length. At any rate, the answer to “Should it be reorganized at this time?” has varied greatly.
  • Proposition 2: Should the Church continue to function with the Quorum of the Twelve presiding?  This is an odd proposition, unless the question on the table is “Should some other arrangement entirely be employed”, which could certainly give us a different result than what is otherwise laid out as a settled question; it’s either settled, and this question is a vain repetition… or it’s not settled at all.
  • After discussion, a formal motion is made and accepted by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.  This wording would have us believe that the motion is both made and accepted (a fait accompli, if you will), but that’s belied by the next point. So I’m going to give the Newsroom the benefit of the doubt and assume they meant to write “made and seconded”.
  • If a motion to reorganize the First Presidency is passed, the Quorum of the Twelve unanimously selects the new president of the Church.  The wording is spot-on and leaves room for anyone to be selected—not just the most senior apostle.
  • The new president chooses two counselors and the three of them become the new First Presidency.  This is correct, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t mention that more than two counselors can be called and that counselors need not be apostles.
  • 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.  This has been very carefully worded to skirt the issue of the changing face of seniority (which I’ve already commented upon) and the odd story of John Willard Young, one of Brigham Young’s sons, whom Brigham ordained an apostle in 1864 at the tender age of 11 (!), and who served as a counselor in the First Presidency under his father from 1873, until Brigham’s death in 1877. John, for whatever reason, was never a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. In 1900—a year before the death of President Lorenzo Snow—Snow, George Q. Cannon, and Joseph F. Smith changed the seniority policy from “longest serving apostle” to “longest member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles”.
  • 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. When the second-longest-serving apostle has also been called into the First Presidency as a counselor, the third-longest-serving apostle becomes acting president of the Twelve.  This is current practice, yet the history of this position is much, much more complex (see, for example, the notes in list of Presidents of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles).
  • 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.  Straight forward enough, I guess.

NB: I want to thank Justin Browne, a recent graduate of BYU (History, with honors!), whose comments on a couple recent Daily Universe articles outlined several of the points I make above.

Comments

  1. This comment to the original post applies better here: I am sorry for your pain, and appreciate your optimism and effort to be thoughtful about this matter. It seems that to agree with your argument that President Nelson is the wrong man and did not need to be selected, then one has to accept that the 13 Apostles involved in the process were not doing God’s will in selecting President Nelson. If they were doing God’s will, then President Nelson is the right man. If they were not doing God’s will, then they were not inspired of God — a proposition that undermines foundational doctrine and the Church’s claim to authority and legitimacy. Is there any middle ground between those alternatives?

  2. I am sorry for your pain, and appreciate your optimism and effort to be thoughtful about this matter. It seems that to agree with your argument that President Nelson is the wrong man and did not need to be selected, then one has to accept that the 13 Apostles involved in the process were not doing God’s will in selecting President Nelson. If they were doing God’s will, then President Nelson is the right man. If they were not doing God’s will, then they were not inspired of God — a proposition that undermines foundational doctrine and the Church’s claim to authority and legitimacy. Is there any middle ground between those alternatives?

  3. “‘Should the Church continue to function with the Quorum of the Twelve presiding?’ This is an odd proposition…”

    Since your post yesterday, I think I’ve figured out why I found this statement so curious. I’m reading Propositions 1 and 2 as different sides of the same coin: should the first presidency be reorganized, or should we just have the the Twelve continue to manage the church for a while? (Which, as you note, has happened several times in our history.) In other words, whatever answer you give to Proposition 1, Proposition 2 must have the opposite answer.

    Meanwhile, I think you read Proposition 2 to present the possibility of another, unstated option altogether–i.e., should we have some other body now preside instead of the Twelve. I’ll admit this is not an unreasonable reading of the Proposition in the abstract, since it lends itself to ambiguity. But I don’t think it has to (or even should) be read that way.

  4. D Christian Harrison says:

    @JimBob… I think it could be either meaning. But I just think the first meaning is just sloppy. The first meaning could be answered with just the first proposition.

  5. The Apostles talk about this in terms of it rooting out politicking, etc. But I really don’t like that reasoning. It would be great if they said “We had a meeting last Thursday, and Jesus showed up pointes to one of them and said “I want you to be the next President.” That would be awesome.
    I get that might be unrealistic. But a case of “We had to pray about it for a few weeks before receiving revelation on who it will be.” Would be great too.
    It’s rather uninspiring to hear “Oh we’d fight over this if there wasn’t a clear rule, and we can’t even point to a revelation of that rule.”

  6. It’s good that the Newsroom’s description of this procedure includes the ambiguities that the OP identifies. Right now it serves leaders’ purposes to talk about the conclusion as foregone and settled—and I’m sure it is entirely settled in their own minds—but at some point in the future the process will need to change. We don’t know how the need will arise or whether that time will be next year or a hundred years from now, but change always comes eventually. It is good to have a procedure that allows for the possibility of adaptation, even though the procedure seems to include pointless recitations as it is currently practiced.

    An aspect of leadership to consider is the ability of a leader to recognize possibilities for radical adaptation in existing organizations. I’d guess that it’s pretty rare in any organization to find someone who has a vision of those possibilities balanced with a realistic understanding of the organization’s capacity to adapt.

  7. jader3rd, do the apostles really talk about this process in terms of managing politics? Observers talk about it like that all the time. I think that’s an accurate, if incomplete, way of looking at it. But I think the general authorities are pretty careful about not getting into the weeds of explanation about where these practices come from.

  8. Looks like fairly standard ternary logic to me. Don’t understand the fuss.

  9. Left Field says:

    I don’t know what the ambiguity is. They’re specifically identified as “alternative propositions.”

    Should I…
    1. …get a haircut today; or
    2. …not get a haircut today?

  10. I think you mean Orson Pratt not Orson Hyde. And he was excommunicated not disfellowshipped. Although many think his doctrinal disagreements with Brigham contributed to reorganizing seniority due to his being out of the church.

    I’m kind of surprised in the above you don’t address why the time before reorganizing the First Presidency is so short. Steven Heath’s Dialog article “Notes on Apostolic Succession” is worth reading here.

    First there was thoughts that Joseph F. Smith, not Woodruff, should succeed John Taylor due to a prophecy of Woodruff. (Which came true anyway) Woodruff felts strongly the order established should be followed. This was a period of severe division among the Apostles partially over what to do with Apostles not in the Quorum. Woodruff wrote Snow a letter strongly advising there not be the long delays, partially due to the turmoil at Taylor’s death. With Snow we have the President being ordains with the Apostles symbolically giving their keys to the President. With Snow we also have the final decisions on succession basically resolving the issue unless specific revelation is given. But such revelation would require the President so it’s extremely unlikely to change after a death of the President but before a new one is called.

    Interestingly the questions you raise were raised by Harold B. Lee when he was President.

    “Occasionally the question is asked as to whether or not one other than the senior member of the Twelve could become President. Some thought on this matter would suggest that any other than the senior member could become President of the church only if the Lord reveals to that President of the Twelve that someone other than himself could be selected.” (Lee 1970, 28)

  11. Cantsleeprightnow says:

    Christian your comment on point 3 is perhaps overstated, DC 107 22-24. The 12, as a quorum, is a body equal to the first presidency in power and authority.

  12. cantsleep is right, and not only is the 12 equal in power to the first presidency, but the 70 is a body also equal in power, and if you want to keep going (sorry I don’t have the reference but it’s close to the one cantsleep mentioned), the combined stake high councils of the church form another equal body, so there’s always someone to be in charge, although the last body seems a bit unwieldy to me

  13. @Loursat. From Elder Christofferson’s remarks Tuesday morning, as part of the announcement he said “Throughout our history the senior apostle has always become the successor President of the church. This system precludes any posturing or campaigning for position; and provides continuity and seasoned experience and extensive preparation for the one who becomes President.”
    I was pulling my previous comment from the “posturing or campaigning for position” part of that “talk?”.

  14. ” It seems that to agree with your argument that President Nelson is the wrong man and did not need to be selected, then one has to accept that the 13 Apostles involved in the process were not doing God’s will in selecting President Nelson. If they were doing God’s will, then President Nelson is the right man. If they were not doing God’s will, then they were not inspired of God — a proposition that undermines foundational doctrine and the Church’s claim to authority and legitimacy. Is there any middle ground between those alternatives?”

    I think there is potentially some middle ground. This dichotomy assumes that God’s will is only that one specific man be the president of the church. That may not be true. It may be that there are multiple qualified men that could serve, any one of which fall within the range of what is acceptable according to God’s will, and that the apostles are supposed to exercise their own agency to select one. If so, it’s possible to believe that a particular man is not the best man for the job, but still that he is within the range of acceptable alternatives according to God’s will.

  15. It’s a good thing that church history isn’t the foundation for the church.

  16. He is too old.

  17. No doubt mystery in religion is a good thing, but I wonder if you haven’t missed the point in their explanation of “no mystery.” “No mystery” was another way of saying, “the process is transparent and clear.” I feel bad for our leaders. A favorite criticism of them is that they are not transparent, and then when they try to be especially transparent, you criticize them for being uncomfortable with obscurity and mystery.

  18. Cantsleeprightnow: You’re correct, but 107 also says that the Twelve are under the direction of the First Presidency. Also, the Seventy form a quorum equal in authority to the Twelve, but they are under the direction of the Twelve. (There’s also reference to the collective stake high councils of the church forming a quorum equal in authority to both the First Presidency and to the Twelve, but the context, and the question of who directs them, isn’t as clearly stated as in the case of the First Presidency, Twelve, or Seventy.)

  19. “Proposition 2: Should the Church continue to function with the Quorum of the Twelve presiding? This is an odd proposition, unless the question on the table is ‘Should some other arrangement entirely be employed,’ which could certainly give us a different result than what is otherwise laid out as a settled question; it’s either settled, and this question is a vain repetition… or it’s not settled at all.”

    1) I don’t think this question is independent of the preceding question. 2) The question is poorly (unclearly) written. Your apparent interpretation—understandable, as the question is poorly written—is that we might not only not form a new First Presidency, we might just scrap the Quorum of the Twelve. I would add one more clarifying clause to the question: Should the Church continue to function with the Quorum of the Twelve presiding, and postpone the reorganization of the First Presidency to a later date?

  20. jader3rd, thank you for pointing that out.

  21. Since the method of selecting the president is not in the D&C, it is not out of the question that an alternative method: taking nominations for president, then taking as many votes for president as there are nominations and eliminating the least attractive. It would seem that this method would give a wider range for the spirit to operate. This method would open up the process to politicking.

    But to that point, the church, actually any church, requires that any office be guarded against entrenched power, because entrenched power may be abused. Churches seem to be particularly prone to becoming the breeding grounds for unrighteous dominion. There are many egregious examples starting in the Arizona strip, the Branch Davidians, and the Koolaid. (I am fairly sure that some of the apostles may have tried to assemble a cult of personality, which is dangerous enough, and easy enough, given religious dynamics.)

    Thus bishops, stake presidents, and regular 70s have delimited terms, usually fairly short, to keep them from establishing entrenched power. Only apostles are not hedged about to keep them from entrenching their powers. Maybe that is why strict succession rules apply, to keep secret combinations at bay and to remove at least one of the sources of a power struggle.

  22. I am late to the party, but just one quibble. Beginning by 1841 (and possibly earlier, in 1839–it is unclear because lists of the apostles from this period did not always follow the same seniority) seniority in the 12 was no longer determined (solely) by age, but rather by some combination of their period of ordination and their age. (See for example https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V35N04_125.pdf)