Cover image via LDS.org. 

When it is time to call a new prophet to preside over The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there is often confusion among some Church members about how that process operates. Although many begin to speculate and guess about who the new prophet will be, the pattern is well established and is actually quite simple. It is important that Latter-day Saints everywhere understand this inspired process and the wisdom behind it.

Succession Crisis

The first time that succession in the presidency became a concern was after the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Although several tried to make a case for why they had the right to lead the Church, Brigham Young made a simple, powerful appeal to priesthood keys. He explained, “I do not care who leads the church, … but one thing I must know, and that is what God says about it. I have the keys and the means of obtaining the mind of God on the subject. … Joseph conferred upon our heads [Twelve Apostles] all the keys and powers belonging to the Apostleship which he himself held before he was taken away” (Brigham Young, History of the Church 7:230).

The priesthood keys that Brigham Young referred to was the authority, conferred on the Twelve Apostles by the hand of Joseph Smith, that gave them the right to lead the Church in his absence. Shortly before his death, the Prophet Joseph Smith gathered the Twelve Apostles together and declared, “I have sealed upon your heads every key, every power, and every principle which the Lord has sealed upon my head.” Then he explained that “the burden of this kingdom now rests upon your shoulders; you have got to bear it off in all the world” (see Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff [2004], xxxii). This authority confirmed what Joseph Smith had taught on an earlier occasion, when he stated that “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” (HC 2:374).

With Joseph Smith gone, there was no more First Presidency and the priesthood keys he had given the Twelve Apostles authorized them to preside over the Church. As the senior apostle, Brigham Young was the leader of the Twelve and therefore the leader of the Church. To confirm this to the Latter-day Saints who had never experienced this transition before, the Lord dramatically transfigured Brigham Young to look and sound like the Prophet Joseph Smith as he spoke to a congregation of Church members who were seeking to know who they should follow (for approximately 150 independent accounts of that event see Welch, Opening the Heavens).

The Keys of the Twelve Apostles

The Church Handbook of Instruction explains that “priesthood keys are the authority God has given to priesthood leaders to direct, control, and govern the use of His priesthood on earth… Those who hold priesthood keys have the right to preside over and direct the Church within a jurisdiction. Jesus Christ holds all the keys of the priesthood pertaining to His Church. He has conferred upon each of His Apostles all the keys that pertain to the kingdom of God on earth. The senior living Apostle, the President of the Church, is the only person on earth authorized to exercise all priesthood keys” (Handbook 2: 2.1.1).

As this statement makes clear, priesthood keys are the right or authority to lead and are given to priesthood leaders when they are set apart to their calling. When an Apostle is set apart as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, he is conferred all priesthood keys necessary to lead the Church but he can only exercise all of those keys if he becomes the senior Apostle and therefore the President of the Church. Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained, “Every key is given to each apostle who is set apart a member of the Council of the Twelve. But because keys are the right of presidency, they lie dormant, as it were, in each man unless and until he becomes the senior apostle and is thus in a position of presidency to direct the labors and the work of all others. Therefore succession occurs, as it were, automatically” (McConkie, BYU Speeches, Jan. 8, 1974).

This is what President Harold B. Lee meant when he taught that “the beginning of the call of one to be President of the Church actually begins then he is called, ordained, and set apart to become a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles” (Lee, Conference Report, April 1970). When a man is set apart to serve as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, he is essentially set apart to potentially become the President of the Church if he lives to be the senior Apostle, which is determined not by age but by who has served as an Apostle the longest.

The Ladder of Preparation

When properly understood, the Quorum of the Twelve is like a ladder leading to the Presidency. As an Apostle joins the quorum, he receives all priesthood keys to lead the Church and begins at the bottom of the ladder as a junior Apostle. Over time, he gradually moves up in seniority as faithful men above him pass away. This he does, over decades, until he is polished and refined in the Lord’s service and becomes the Senior Apostle, the man who has served as an Apostle longer than any other living man on earth. He is then authorized to exercise all the priesthood keys he received as a new Apostle and is now prepared to serve as the President of the Church and the Prophet of God on earth. Service in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles is the training ground to prepare future Presidents of the Church.

President Gordon B. Hinckley explained this process: “This transition of authority, in which I have participated a number of times, is beautiful in its simplicity. It is indicative of the way the Lord does things. Under His procedure a man is selected by the prophet to become a member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles. He does not choose this as a career. He is called, as were the Apostles in Jesus’ time, to whom the Lord said, ‘Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you’ (John 15:16).

The years pass. He is schooled and disciplined in the duties of his office. He travels over the earth in fulfilling his apostolic calling. It is a long course of preparation, in which he comes to know the Latter-day Saints wherever they may be, and they come to know him. The Lord tests his heart and his substance. In the natural course of events, vacancies occur in that council and new appointments are made. Under this process a particular man becomes the senior Apostle. Residing latent in him, and in his associate Brethren, given to each at the time of ordination, are all of the keys of the priesthood. But authority to exercise those keys is restricted to the President of the Church. At his passing, that authority becomes operative in the senior Apostle, who is then named, set apart, and ordained a prophet and President by his associates of the Council of the Twelve” (Ensign, May 1986, 46–47).

The Inspired System

Because of this inspired system, the Lord ensures that priesthood keys are never lost from the earth. If only one man held these keys, they could be lost if he died unexpectedly before conferring them on someone else. But because they are held by each and all of the Apostles, they are protected and preserved. Furthermore, because all of the Apostles hold these keys it “provides redundancy and backup. That system provides for prophetic leadership even when the inevitable illnesses and incapacities may come with advancing age” (President Russell M. Nelson, Ensign Nov. 2014). Even if the Prophet becomes incapacitated, there are still 14 other men who can collectively continue to lead the Church as prophets, seers, and revelators holding the priesthood keys to govern the Church.

This inspired system also ensures that there is never a moment when the Church is without a leader at its head. That leader is always the senior Apostle. This is because the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles is always the next most senior Apostle after the Prophet. When the President of the Church dies, the First Presidency is dissolved and the authority to lead the Church transfers to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and automatically falls on the President of that Quorum who is now the senior Apostle on the earth (D&C 107:22-24). As President Harold B. Lee explained, “Immediately following the death of a President, the next ranking body, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, becomes the presiding authority, with the President of the Twelve automatically becoming the acting President of the Church until a President of the Church is officially ordained and sustained in his office” (CR April 1970).

President Wilford Woodruff further explained, “when the President of the Church dies, who then is the Presiding Authority of the Church? It is the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (ordained and organized by the revelations of God and none else). Then while these Twelve Apostles preside over the Church, who is the President of the Church [?] It is the President of the Twelve Apostles. And he is virtually as much the President of the Church while presiding over Twelve men as he is when organized as the Presidency of the Church, and presiding over two men” (March 28, 1887 letter quoted by Harold B. Lee, CR April 1970). This is how the Lord ensures that His Church is never without a prophet leader, the senior Apostle, at its head.

The Peaceful Transition

Because of this inspired system the transition from one prophet to the next is peaceful and simple, without the campaigning and vain ambition that attends the transition of power in man-made systems of leadership. President Gordon B. Hinckley explained, “With President Hunter’s passing, the First Presidency was dissolved. Brother Monson and I, who had served as his counselors, took our places in the Quorum of the Twelve, which became the presiding authority of the Church. Three weeks ago today all of the living ordained Apostles gathered in a spirit of fasting and prayer in the upper room of the temple. Here we sang a sacred hymn and prayed together. We partook of the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, renewing in that sacred, symbolic testament our covenants and our relationship with Him who is our divine Redeemer. The Presidency was then reorganized, following a precedent well established through generations of the past. There was no campaigning, no contest, no ambition for office. It was quiet, peaceful, simple, and sacred. It was done after the pattern which the Lord Himself had put in place” (Ensign, May 1995, 69).

President Boyd K. Packer shared a similar experience at the sustaining of President Thomas S. Monson. He explained, “Shortly after the death of President Gordon B. Hinckley, the 14 men, Apostles, who had had conferred upon them the keys of the kingdom, gathered together in the upper room of the temple in order to reorganize the First Presidency of the Church. There was no question about what would be done, no hesitancy. We knew that the senior Apostle was the President of the Church. And in that sacred meeting, Thomas Spencer Monson was sustained by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as the President of the Church” (Ensign, May 2008, 83).

Some Church members expect some new or special revelation to identify the new prophet, but this is not necessary. Shortly after the sustaining of President Spencer W. Kimball, Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained, “It was not required, nor was it requisite or needed, that the Lord give any revelation, that any special direction be given. The law was already ordained and established. God does not look down each morning and say, ‘The sun shall rise.’ He has already established the law, he has set the sun in the firmament, and the sun operates in harmony with established law in its rising. And so it was with the transfer of leadership from President Lee to President Kimball” (BYU Speeches, Jan. 8, 1974).

Those who are bothered by this process assume that it lacks inspiration because of its automatic nature. However, they fail to see that inspiration has been part of the process all along the way! It is inspiration that calls a new Apostle. It is inspiration that guides his development as he serves in that calling for decades. It is inspiration that preserves and protects his life allowing him to live to become the senior Apostle. And it is inspiration that finally calls him home after his faithful service is complete. God’s hand is in it all, from beginning to end.

This is exactly what President Spencer W. Kimball taught when he explained that “each new apostle in turn is chosen by the Lord” and “since the death of his servants is in the power and control of the Lord, he permits to come to the first place [i.e. senior Apostle] only the one who is destined to take that leadership. Death and life become the controlling factors” (Kimball, Ensign Jan. 1973). The Lord is in complete control of who becomes the Prophet because no one else can determine when an Apostle is called or how long he lives. As President Russell M. Nelson, now our senior Apostle, soberly explained, “We know that the Lord Himself can call any of us home anytime He chooses” (Nelson, Ensign Nov. 2014 footnote 17).

Conclusion

The power of this sacred transition is beautifully captured in the following story. President Harold B. Lee was unexpectedly taken ill and rushed to the hospital just after Christmas in 1973. Two Apostles were available to rush to be by his side. The first was his counselor in the First Presidency, Marion G. Romney. The second was the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Spencer W. Kimball, who was the next most senior Apostle after Harold B. Lee. As a member of the First Presidency, Marion G. Romney presided and Spencer W. Kimball respectfully deferred to him as he made decisions about what to do. Then, suddenly, Harold B. Lee died. In that moment, Marion G. Romney stepped aside and turned to Spencer W. Kimball and said, “You are in charge now” (see N. Eldon Tanner, Ensign Nov. 1979).

What President Romney tenderly recognized was that at the death of Harold B. Lee, the First Presidency was dissolved and the leadership of the Church fell upon the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. As the President of that Quorum, Spencer W. Kimball was the automatic leader of the Church. At that moment, he had become the senior apostle of God on the earth. “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” (Elder Bruce R. McConkie, BYU Speeches, Jan. 8, 1974). And so it has continued ever since, under the direction of the Lord Jesus Christ, through a series of prophetic successors who are always the senior living Apostles on the earth.