President Brigham Young Leads the Saints

The last time we met as a class, we learned about the assassination of the Prophet Joseph and the Patriarch Hyrum on Thursday, June 27, 1844 by a vigilante mob of between 100 and 200 men who cowardly had their faces painted with wet gunpowder to disguise their identities. Only five of the murderers were indicted for the killings and all five were quickly acquitted at their jury trial.

Joseph was the president of the church and Hyrum was the associate president of the church. As associate president, Hyrum had been sustained as a prophet, seer and revelator (D&C 124:91-96). Oliver Cowdery was the original associate president, but he had been excommunicated six years earlier. If Hyrum had survived, historians believe he may very well may have been the next president of the church. But he was killed, and the Quorum of the First Presidency was dissolved.

Lucy Mack Smith

Before talking more about that, I want to take a quick human-interest break. While the wonderful wives of Joseph and Hyrum certainly had broken hearts at that time, we should also consider the heart of Joseph and Hyrum’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith.

When I think about Lucy, I can’t help but see a reflection of the magnificent Mary, the mother of Jesus. In fact, the Smith family is a type and shadow of the Savior’s family, which also consisted of church leaders and martyrs.

Just like Mary who had lost her spouse Joseph, Lucy had also lost her spouse Joseph senior. He had died almost four years earlier. He was one of the Eight Witnesses, and had been a member of the First Presidency (an assistant counselor), and the first Patriarch of the Church.

Shortly after that, Don Carlos Smith, her youngest son, the first president of the high priest’s quorum of the church, the first Stake President, died of Malaria in Nauvoo at age 25.

She had also lost her first living son, Alvin at age 25 as well. He had died of mercury poisoning in a misguided attempt to cure his gall bladder attack.

Now, on June 28, 1844, when the first saw the dead bodies of her second and third sons, Hyrum and Joseph, she cried out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken this family!” She then heard a gentle voice saying, “I have taken them to myself, that they might have rest.” (Scot F. Proctor and Maurine Jensen Proctor, eds., “History of Joseph Smith by His Mother,” 457)

Then, just one month after the martyrdom, Samuel Smith died as well, who according to his mother, became ill because of the fatigue and shock of the experience of the death of his brothers and his own narrow escape from mobocrats who were targeting the Smith family.

These three brothers saw the Angel Moroni and were designated as witnesses of the Book of Mormon. These three men were half of the original six members of the church.

The only son she now had left was the erratic William, one of the original 12 apostles, who would soon be the church patriarch for about a year. Sadly, he was excommunicated in 1845 on the grounds of apostasy when he declared he should be the president of the church because he was the last surviving Smith brother.

So when you think you’ve got it rough, think of Lucy Mack Smith and her 11 children, of whom she buried 7—and then think again.

The Succession of Church Leadership

Now let’s move on to the main topic of today, which is what happens when the president of the church dies? If President Monson were to pass away today, who would be the next president of the church?

Today we know the answer to that question because we’ve seen the pattern repeated 15 times. It would be the president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Russell Nelson. Unless, of course, he then receives revelation that someone else should be president.

But in the summer of 1844, the answer wasn’t so clear. Besides still grieving over the loss of the Smith brothers, many saints also experienced fear of the future. They weren’t certain who had the next highest authority, or who held the keys of the kingdom, and who would lead them next.

The Twelve Apostles knew, but only because Joseph had been teaching them throughout the spring of that year about how they held the keys to the priesthood, the ordinances, and the leadership of the church. But these had been taught in private meetings, and were not known to the general public.

The rank-and-file members of the church also didn’t know about the endowment, eternal marriage, plural marriage, and the fulness of priesthood power associated with having your calling and election made sure. In fact, only 36 men and 29 women received the endowment ordinances during Joseph’s lifetime.

Nor did most members know about the parapolitical Council of Fifty and the role it would play in building up the literal Kingdom of God on earth—a replacement for the imperfect governments of man.

Composed of the Quorum of the Twelve and 38 others, including three non-members, the Council of 50 had received a mandate for the summer of 1844 to (1) explore places to the west and southwest of the United States to live (the Mexican territories and the Republic of Texas), (2) to appeal to the federal government for redress of the grievances suffered in Missouri, and (3) campaign for the US presidential candidacy of Joseph Smith.

After the existing presidential candidates failed to declare that they would protect the first-amendment rights of the Saints, the Latter-day Saints formed a new political party, the Reform Party, and held a nominating convention on May 17th that included delegates from all 26 states. The delegates unanimously voted Joseph as their presidential candidate and Sidney Rigdon, an “official” resident of Pennsylvania, as their vice-presidential candidate. Their platform included these planks:

  • To sell some public lands and use the proceeds to purchase the freedom of slaves to finally end slavery
  • To reduce the size of Congress
  • To re-establish a national bank
  • To annex Texas, California and Oregon
  • To reform prisons
  • To authorize the federal government to protect the liberties of Mormons and other minorities.

By the way, Joseph would become the first American presidential candidate to be assassinated. Would he have won? It is hard to tell, but chances were very good that he would have carried the battleground state of Illinois. A fact that wasn’t lost on those conspiring to take his life.

So there was a lot was going on that summer. Between constructing homes, raising children, growing crops, taking care of the poor and needy, serving on missions, campaigning, building the temple and other civic buildings—all while vigilantly looking for anti-Mormon mobs and traitors—the members of the church were very, very busy.

But this was also the time that 38-year old Joseph truly felt that the end of his life was approaching. He had prophesied earlier that he wouldn’t see his 40th birthday (Brigham Young, Aug. 1, 1852, in Salt Lake City, Utah; in Historian’s Office, Reports of Speeches ca. 1845–85.)

And so he began delivering the final doctrines, ordinances, and organizations that had been revealed to him over the years, but had been previously untaught. Some of these he taught in public, like the King Follett discourse about the once mortal Father in Heaven and the opportunity we have to follow his path of eternal progression.

But some things he taught in private to a small group of trusted friends, which included the Twelve Apostles and the Council of Fifty. In fact, there was about 70 trusted people in this group, which mainly consisted of the men and woman to whom he had administered the temple ordinances. These endowed members called themselves the “Quorum of the Anointed”, or more often, just “the Quorum”, and normally met at least twice a week to learn and to pray in a holy manner on behalf of the members of the church and the kingdom of God.

Joseph had always intended to share these things with all worthy saints, but couldn’t do so until after the temple was built. Which meant the 15,000 Saints in the region would just need to wait a little longer. Meanwhile, they had to rely on faith and the occasional rumor—some of which were true, while others were perniciously false.

But first, it appears that the Lord wasn’t done testing their faith. There was still more refining to be done. And for many, one test occurred when the prophet and the patriarch were murdered.

Methods of Succession

At the time of the martyrdom, nearly all of the Quorum of the Twelve and the Council of Fifty were out of state on various assignments. Sensing that things were starting to turn badly, Joseph had written to the Twelve that they should immediately come home—but most wouldn’t receive those letters until after the martyrdom.

The only two apostles around were John Taylor and Willard Richards who were also at Carthage. Because Elder Taylor had been seriously injured, Elder Richards took the helm and most looked to him for leadership until he was joined by more senior apostles.

However, at that time there was no explicit outline of presidential succession in print. To complicate matters, over the past 14 years, Joseph had advocated eight possible methods of succession:

  1. By a counselor in the First Presidency
  2. By a special appointment
  3. Through the office of Associate President (Hyrum)
  4. By the Presiding Patriarch (Hyrum)
  5. By the Council of Fifty
  6. By the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
  7. By three Priesthood Councils (Quorum of Twelve, First Quorum of Seventy, High Council in Zion)
  8. By a descendant of Joseph Smith, Jr. In fact, in January of that year, Joseph had blessed his 11-year-old son that he would one day preside over the church—if he was true and faithful.

In fact, all eight of these methods were advocated by different people that summer, and in decades to come, eventually leading to the formation of over 100 schismatic sects that were formed by disaffected members of the church—members who wanted to pick and choose which teachings they wanted to follow. But in time, all but one of these major claimants were invalidated by their personal circumstances or the insufficiency of their claims.

Let me give you a few examples.

Emma Smith. She felt that the next officer below the President should assume the Presidency. That office was President of the High Council in Nauvoo, William Marks. She felt that the Twelve only had authority among the branches of the world, not in the stakes—an idea that comes from an older revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants. 16 years later, her oldest son, Joseph the Third, accepted the position of president in the Reorganized Church, now known as the Community of Christ.

Bishop George Miller and Alexander Badlam contended that the Council of Fifty should convene and organize the church anew. However, the revelation that defined the Council explained that it would be the child of its mother—and the mother was the church. The Council simply did not have the authority to reorganize the Church.

Several claimed they had received a secret ordination or appointment from the Prophet. These included James J. Strang, Lyman Wight, Alpheus Cutler, and Joseph Smith III.

And then there was Sidney Rigdon. When he arrived in Nauvoo from Pittsburgh, he offered himself as guardian to the Church and claimed that there could be no successor to the dead prophet.

Sidney had been a member of the First Presidency since it was first organized and was a brilliant orator. Some of his sermons would last for hours—and more impressively—people would stay in their seats for hours.

But Joseph had lost confidence in him a number of times over the years, and had even recommended at a general conference that Sidney be released from the First Presidency, but the people voted to retain him in office.

What was revealing, however, was that Joseph didn’t include him in his inner circle of trusted friends—the group he had administered temple ordinances to in the upper rooms of some of the Nauvoo building. While Sidney was endowed shortly before the martyrdom, he hadn’t been invited to do so by the prophet.

And then there was Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve.

The Quorum of the Twelve

For the past couple of years, the Twelve had taken a more active role in general church leadership. Originally, it seems that their mission was to travel from church headquarters to provide leadership and guidance to the emerging church. But lately since the exodus from Missouri, while Joseph was in prison, he had placed more and more responsibilities on their shoulders.

He announced in Nauvoo in August 1841, “that the time had come when the Twelve should be called upon to stand in their place next to the First Presidency.”

The scriptural foundation for this is found in D&C 107:22-24, which says:

D&C 107:22–24

22 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.

23 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.

24 And they form a quorum, equal in authority and power to the three presidents previously mentioned.

The quorum of the Twelve is equal in power and authority to the quorum of the First Presidency. All fifteen leaders had been ordained with either prophetic or apostolic authority.

It is interesting to note that members of the First Presidency didn’t (and still don’t) need to be apostles first. And it also appears that you can be an apostle and not be a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, but those are tangential topic for another time. The important takeaway is that the First Presidency is called to preside and provide direction and interpret doctrine.

Together, these 15 men constitute the Council of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and take final action on all matters that affect the Church, striving for unanimity as directed by D&C 107:27.

D&C 107:27

And every decision made by either of these quorums must be by the unanimous voice of the same; that is, every member in each quorum must be agreed to its decisions, in order to make their decisions of the same power or validity one with the other—

However, as Joseph had taught as early as January 26, 1836:

The Twelve are not subject to any other than the First Presidency … and where I am not, there is no First Presidency over the Twelve. [in History of the Church, 2:374].

In other words when the president of the church dies, his counselors do not possess the power of the president and cannot act in church matters without direction and consent of the president. Thus, the presidency is dissolved.

Brigham Young said as much to the Saints when they were trying to decide who should lead the church. On August 8, 1844, Brigham said:

Here is President Rigdon, who was counselor to Joseph. I ask, where are Joseph and Hyrum? They are gone beyond the veil; and if Elder Rigdon wants to act as his counselor, he must go beyond the veil where he is. If the people want President Rigdon to lead them they may have him: but I say unto you that the Quorum of the Twelve have the keys of the kingdom of God in all the world. (History of the Church, 7:233.

The Last Charge

Three months before his death, on March 26, 1844, the Prophet met with the Twelve and the Council of Fifty and conferred all the keys and authority necessary to carry forward the work of the kingdom. This is what he said to the apostles:

Now, brethren, I thank God I have lived to see the day that I have been enabled to give you your endowments, and I have now sealed upon your heads all the powers of the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods and Apostleship, with all the keys and powers thereof, which God has sealed upon me; and I now roll off all the labor, burden and care of this Church and Kingdom of God upon your shoulders, and I now command you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to round up your shoulders, and bear off this Church and Kingdom of God before heaven and earth, and before God, angels and men. (James R. Clark, comp., Messages of the First Presidency, Saints, 6 vols. [1965–75], 3:134)

The next month, most of these brethren left Nauvoo and headed out on the three-fold assignments that I mentioned earlier. Brigham went to Boston.

When Brigham first heard of the death of Joseph, he couldn’t wrap his head around it. Joseph had indicated that his days were numbered, but all of the apostles couldn’t believe it.

This was reminiscent of the behavior of the Savior’s twelve apostles. When they heard Jesus speak of his impending death, they also didn’t know what to make of it. They seemed to dismiss it because they knew he had the power over life and death. Just weeks before they saw him raise Lazarus from the dead. Just days before they saw him curse the unproductive fig tree and it withered up and died. While Jesus certainly had the power over life and death, they didn’t fully understand that he was going to willingly offer up his life as an atoning sacrifice to meet the demands of justice and mercy so that you and I could repent and return to the presence of God.

While Brigham was sitting back in his chair wondering what the church was going to do next, he suddenly remembered Joseph’s last charge and remembered that the Quorum of the Twelve held the keys and authority to preside in Joseph’s absence. He brought his hand down suddenly on his knee and exclaimed to fellow apostle Orson Pratt, “The keys of the kingdom are right here with the Church.” (Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 1801-184, 170-71.)

He, and the other members of the Quorum then hurriedly made their way back Nauvoo. They arrived on August 6. Which was just in time, because Sidney Rigdon was pressuring the Saints in Nauvoo to declare him their guardian. In fact, Nauvoo Stake President William Marks had scheduled a church meeting at 10:00 AM on Sunday, August 8 to do just that.

It was a cold and wet day. After the crowd of thousands gathered in the grove east of the temple, Sidney spoke for 90 minutes and presented his claim to the Presidency. Then Brigham Young spoke briefly, comforting the Saints, explaining that they would meet again that afternoon to decide the question, but this time the meeting would be held under the direction of the Twelve and the congregation would be properly seated by quorums to take the proper vote.

Many Saints testified that as Brigham Young spoke, he was transfigured into the likeness of Joseph Smith. Benjamin Johnson, who attended that meeting, recalled that as soon as Brigham Young started to speak:

I jumped upon my feet, for in every possible degree it was Joseph’s voice, and his person, in look, attitude, dress and appearance was Joseph himself, personified; and I knew in a moment the spirit and mantle of Joseph was upon him. . . . I saw in the transfiguration of Brigham Young, the tall, straight and portly form of the Prophet Joseph Smith, clothed in a sheen of light, covering him to his feet; and I heard the real and perfect voice of the Prophet, even to the whistle, as in years past caused by the loss of a tooth said to have been broken out by the mob at Hyrum. (Benjamin F. Johnson, My Life’s Review)

Many others who gathered in the east grove on that occasion shared similar experiences. Over 100 independent accounts have been written indicating that Brigham Young’s “voice” and “gestures” were like Joseph’s. For many Latter-day Saints, this experience resolved any questions they might have had regarding Brigham Young’s divine calling.

In the afternoon meeting, Brigham Young spoke for about two hours on the subject of Church government and succession in the Presidency. One theme that he emphasized in that discussion was his unwavering loyalty to the Prophet Joseph Smith and his earnest desire to continue the program Joseph had restored, especially the completion of the Nauvoo temple so that the teaching and ordinances and blessings he received from Joseph could be shared with as many saints as possible.

Then the vote was taken. As is the case with solemn assemblies, first a general vote would be taken and then a vote by each of the various quorums and groups. However, because the general vote appeared to be nearly unanimous in favor of the apostles, with only about 20 people voting for Sidney, the other votes were not needed, and the meeting was adjourned, and the Saints now knew to whom they should look for leadership.

They looked to the Lord. He is at the head of this church. And as the scriptures have repeatedly taught us, he personally communicates with special witnesses that he has chosen–his twelve apostles. These are men who who know without a doubt that he is a resurrected being and is a separate being than God the Father.  These are they hold the keys to the priesthood, including the keys to the temple and its sacred ordinances, where we can receive the training and instructions and blessings that truly empower us with everything we need to return to the presence of God.

There’s a lot more to this story, and the stories that accompanied the reorganization of the church leadership,  and I would encourage you to dig a little deeper on your own. What I found as I’ve read through historical documents available through the Church History Department, as well as scholarly research out of BYU, that I have learned more about these early Saints and their trials and testimonies. This research allows you to peer deeply into why people of that period did what they did. Understanding their motives, and not just their behaviors, reveals many characteristics and traits that are worthy of emulation. You will also see some of the flaws and failings that are inherent in our progenitors, just like they are in us, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll walk away with a profound respect and admiration for all of the things they tried to do to improve themselves and their society–all because of their faith in God.

I am so thankful for the early Saints and their devotion to the Lord. They teach us that exercising faith is always better than fading with fear, and if we stick close to the Lord’s prophets–we will always be blessed with the strength to not only survive, but thrive through life’s myriad challenges.


Additional Reading

If you’re interested in reading more about the events surrounding this transitional period of time, here are two sources that I found interesting.


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