The appointment of a new president of the Church happens in an orderly way that avoids any trace of internal lobbying for position or rank. It is a divinely revealed process, it is devoid of electioneering, both behind the scenes and in public.
President Harold B. Lee (1899–1973) explained: “[The Lord] knows whom he wants to preside over this church, and he will make no mistake. The Lord doesn’t do things by accident. He has never done anything accidentally” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1970, 153; or Improvement Era, Dec. 1970, 127).
President Ezra Taft Benson (1899–1994) taught that “God knows all things, the end from the beginning, and no man becomes president of the church of Jesus Christ by accident, or remains there by chance, or is called home by happenstance” (“Jesus Christ—Gifts and Expectations,” New Era, May 1975, 16–17).
Dissolution of the First Presidency
Following the principles taught by the Prophet Joseph Smith, when the President of the Church dies, the quorum of the First Presidency is automatically dissolved and the counselors, if they previously had been in the Quorum of the Twelve, return to their respective places of seniority in that quorum. The senior Apostle, as President of the Twelve, automatically, by virtue of that seniority, becomes the ‘Presiding High Priest’ of the Church and, as such, actively holds and exercises all the keys of the kingdom and ‘preside[s] over the whole church’ (see D&C 107:65–66, 91). ‘Equal in authority’ to the First Presidency, this presiding quorum of Twelve Apostles is as much a Presidency of the Church as the First Presidency is when it is fully organized and operative (see D&C 107:23–24). Likewise, the President of the Twelve at that time is as much the President of the Church in function and authority as when he becomes sustained as such in a newly organized First Presidency.
The Principle of Seniority
The factor that determines who presides among the Twelve and who may actively exercise all the keys of the kingdom at the death of the President of the Church is the principle of seniority. In 1835, when the first Quorum of the Twelve was called, seniority was arranged by age. Since then, seniority has been determined by the date of ordination into the Quorum of the Twelve.
Who is the senior Apostle today? Elder Russell M. Nelson. He is the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Who Has All the Priesthood Keys? How does the new Prophet get them?
How will he get the Priesthood Keys to preside over the Church? He already has them. All of the Apostles have them. But only one Apostle, the senior Apostle, can EXERCISE all of the Priesthood Keys. Thus, if all of the Apostles were somehow killed at the same time except one, the Keys of the Priesthood would remain on the earth. All of them, including the sealing power. Have you ever noticed at General Conference that we never see ALL of the Apostles in the same room? This is why. We never want all of the Apostles in one place where the Keys would not be on the earth any longer if they were all killed. The only place they all meet is in their Thursday morning meeting in the Salt Lake Temple.
Events of the Succession
When the president of the Church passes away, the following events take place:
- The First Presidency is automatically dissolved.
- 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.
- The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, now numbering 14 and headed by the senior apostle, assumes Church leadership.
- The senior apostle presides at a meeting of the Quorum of the Twelve to consider two alternative propositions:
- Should the First Presidency be reorganized at this time?
- Should the Church continue to function with the Quorum of the Twelve presiding?
- After discussion, a formal motion is made and accepted by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Confusion during the First Succession, Joseph Smith to Brigham Young
After the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith, there was some confusion as to who should lead the Church. Sidney Rigdon, a member of the First Presidency, was among those who claimed to be Joseph’s successor. On August 8, 1844, the Lord publically manifested to the Saints that Brigham Young, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was chosen to be the new prophet of the Church. President George Q. Cannon (1827–1901), who later served in the First Presidency, described this miraculous manifestation from the Lord:
“After the martyrdom of the Prophet the Twelve soon returned to Nauvoo, and learned of the aspirations of Sidney Rigdon. He had claimed that the Church needed a guardian, and that he was that guardian. He had appointed the day for the guardian to be selected, and of course, was present at the meeting, which was held in the open air. The wind was blowing toward the stand so strongly at the time that an improvised stand was made out of a wagon, which was drawn up at the back part of the congregation, and which he, [William] Marks, and some others occupied. He attempted to speak, but was much embarrassed. He had been the orator of the Church; but, on this occasion, his oratory failed him, and his talk fell very flat. In the meantime President Young and some of his brethren came and entered the stand. The wind by this time had ceased to blow. After Sidney Rigdon had spoken, President Young arose and addressed the congregation, which faced around to see and hear him, turning their backs towards the wagon occupied by Sidney” (Deseret News, Feb. 21, 1883, 67).
“It was the first sound of his voice [Brigham’s] which the people had heard since he had gone east on his mission, and the effect upon them was most wonderful. Who that was present on that occasion can ever forget the impression it made upon them! If Joseph had risen from the dead and again spoken in their hearing, the effect could not have been more startling than it was to many present at that meeting. It was the voice of Joseph himself; and not only was it the voice of Joseph which was heard; but it seemed in the eyes of the people as though it was the very person of Joseph which stood before them. A more wonderful and miraculous event than was wrought that day in the presence of that congregation we never heard of. The Lord gave His people a testimony that left no room for doubt as to who was the man He had chosen to lead them. They both saw and heard with their natural eyes and ears, and then the words which were uttered came, accompanied by the convincing power of God, to their hearts, and they were filled with the Spirit and with great joy. There had been gloom, and, in some hearts probably, doubt and uncertainty; but now it was plain to all that here was the man upon whom the Lord had bestowed the necessary authority to act in their midst in Joseph’s stead” (“Joseph Smith, the Prophet,” Juvenile Instructor,Oct. 29, 1870, 174–75).
Passing of the Mantle, Heartbeat to Heartbeat
From Elder Bruce R. McConkie, describing President Harold B. Lee’s passing: “When President Lee passed he was attended by President Marion G. Romney, his second counselor, and President Spencer W. Kimball, the President of the Council of the Twelve. President N. Eldon Tanner was in Arizona at the time. Brother Romney, as the representative of and counselor to President Lee, was in complete and total charge at the hospital. He gave President Lee a blessing. He felt the spirit of peace and satisfaction, the calm assurance that whatever eventuated would be right. He did not promise President Lee that he would be healed. The President had become ill very rapidly, just in a matter of hours or moments. Shortly after this blessing, he passed away. At the moment he passed, Brother Romney, in harmony with the system and the established tradition and custom of the Church, stepped aside, and President Spencer W. Kimball was then in complete charge and had total direction. President Kimball was at that moment the senior apostle of God on earth. And as the last heartbeat of President Lee ceased, the mantle of leadership passed to President Kimball, whose next heartbeat was that of the living oracle and presiding authority of God on earth. From that moment the Church continued under the direction of President Kimball.”