How are modern day prophets set apart? I know that each member of the First Presidency and members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles hold all the keys, but only the prophet can exercise all priesthood keys. So, when the current prophet dies is the new prophet set apart?
The transition of presidency from Joseph Smith to Brigham Young serves as a good case study for modern prophetic succession. The restored Church of Jesus Christ was organized line upon line, as God “reveal[ed] many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (see Article of Faith 9). At the first meeting of the Church, Joseph Smith was called as the First Elder, and Oliver Cowdery as Second Elder (D&C 20:2-3). This gave these two preeminence in the Church which continued to be recognized with the office of Assistant President – an office Oliver held from its creation December 5, 1834 (History of the Church, 2:176) until his excommunication in 1838. On January 19, 1841, the office was again filled by Hyrum Smith (D&C 124:94-96). Joseph Fielding Smith explained the significance of this position:
“The Lord called Oliver Cowdery as the second witness to stand at the head of this dispensation assisting the Prophet in holding the keys. The records inform us that every time the Prophet received authority and the keys of the priesthood from the heavens, Oliver Cowdery shared in the conferring of those powers with the Prophet. Had Oliver Cowdery remained faithful and had he survived the Prophet under those conditions, he would have succeeded as President of the Church by virtue of this divine calling” (Doctrines of Salvation, 1:213).
By March 1833, the First Presidency was organized and recognized as the highest quorum in the Church (D&C 81:1-2). A few years later (April 1835), with the addition of several high councils and a quorum of 12 apostles, a pecking order was established. The 12 apostles, as a quorum, were “equal in authority and power” to the First Presidency (D&C 107:22-24). For the apostles, this promise became a reality in the winter of 1843-44. Said Joseph at a meeting with the 12:
“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” (in James R. Clark, comp., Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 3:134).
At the death of Joseph Smith, there was an open question of who would lead the Church in his absence. The Assistant President could have claimed it, but had been martyred alongside him. Some suggested that William Marks, as president of the High Council in Zion (see D&C 107:36-37), was the natural successor; however, he didn’t want it. That left Sidney Rigdon, first counselor in the First Presidency, and Brigham Young, President of the Quorum of the 12. Neither claimed to fill Joseph’s shoes as president of the Church. Rather, Sidney would lead as Guardian of Joseph’s legacy, while Brigham would indirectly lead by presiding over the quorum that did in fact have the right to govern.
Sidney Rigdon and Brigham Young came to a head on August 8, 1844 at a conference convened specifically to establish a successor for the Prophet. Sidney Rigdon said: “I have been ordained a spokesman to Joseph, and I must … see that the church is governed in a proper manner. Joseph sustains the same relationship to this church as he has always done. No man can be the successor of Joseph.” Sidney wanted to be appointed as “guardian”, to build up the Church to Joseph.
Brigham said if Sidney’s claim to authority came from being Joseph’s counselor, then “if President Rigdon wants to act as his counselor, he must go beyond the veil where [Joseph] is” (Wilford Woodruff: History of his Life and Labors as Recorded in his Daily Journals, by Matthias F. Cowley, p 218). He then reaffirmed the doctrine that the 12 hold the keys.
More important than the sermon itself was the spiritual confirmation that accompanied it. George Q. Cannon said of that meeting:
“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. … 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). (see also “The Kingdom of God will Roll on”: Succession in the Presidency, by Brent L. Top and Lawrence R. Flake. Ensign, Aug. 1996).
A schism resulted, but those who attended the conference voted to sustain the 12 as the leaders of the Church (I’ve seen some summaries describe the vote as “unanimous”, but the only way I can reconcile that with Sidney’s presence is if he abstained). As the senior apostle, Brigham organized the saints and led the saints west. D&C 136 (Jan 1847) was given to the head of the Quorum of the 12 because that was the governing body over the Church. It wasn’t until Dec 27, 1847, that the First Presidency was once again reorganized with Brigham Young as the President. The Quorum of the Twelve led the Church for a little more than three years following the death of President Brigham Young and for nearly two years following the death of President John Taylor. About 2 weeks after the death of Wilford Woodruff, the 12 met together and each member spoke in favor of reorganizing the First Presidency right away. President Cannon relates, “After hearing their views, President Snow then arose and stated to the brethren that he had, since the death of President Woodruff, felt led to present himself before the Lord, clothed in his priestly robes, in the Temple, and the Lord had revealed to him that the First Presidency should be organized, and also revealed to him who his counselors should be.” (see Succession in the Presidency).
We see these same principles in play today:
- The Prophet is the head of the Church on the earth and holds all the keys of the kingdom.
- The First Presidency is the principal governing body of the Church.
- The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles also holds all the keys of the kingdom, and sits as the second governing body of the Church.
- At the death of the Prophet, the First Presidency is dissolved and the Quorum of the 12 becomes the principal governing body of the Church, exercising the keys of the kingdom.
- The Lord has expressed His will that the Church should have a First Presidency, so the apostles do not wait long to consider the issue.
- The apostles select a new Prophet and President of the Church.
- The apostles set apart the new Prophet.
- A solemn assembly is held where the new Prophet is sustained.
For a modern application of these steps at work, consider President Tanner’s account of the transition at the death of President Lee:
“… Four days after President Lee’s death, President Kimball, the president of the Twelve, called the members of the Twelve together in the upper room of the temple for the purpose of discussing the reorganization of the First Presidency and to take whatever action was decided upon. Those who had been counselors to the President—that is, President Romney and myself—took their respective places in the Quorum of the Twelve.
“President Kimball, upon expressing his great sorrow at the passing of President Lee and his feeling of inadequacy, called upon the members of the Twelve in order of seniority to express themselves individually as to how they felt about reorganizing the presidency of the Church.
“As each member of the Twelve spoke, he expressed himself as feeling that now was the time to reorganize the First Presidency and that President Spencer W. Kimball was the one whom the Lord wanted to preside at this time. The sweet Spirit of the Lord was present in rich abundance and there was complete unity and harmony in the minds and spoken words of the Brethren. The only purpose and desire was to do the will of the Lord, and there was no question in anyone’s mind but what the will of the Lord had been expressed.
“Elder Ezra Taft Benson then made the formal motion that the First Presidency of the Church be reorganized and that Spencer W. Kimball be sustained, ordained, and set apart as the president, prophet, seer, revelator, and as trustee-in-trust of the Church. This motion was seconded and unanimously approved.
“In all humility, President Kimball stepped forward and made his speech of acceptance, praying that the Spirit and blessings of the Lord would attend him that he might be made able to carry out the will of the Lord. …
“He then chose and nominated as his first counselor N. Eldon Tanner and as his second counselor Marion G. Romney, each of whom expressed himself in all humility and pledged himself to support and sustain President Kimball as the president of the Church and to fill his office to the best of his ability, and prayed for the blessings of the Lord to attend him.
“Following this, President Benson was sustained as president of the Council of the Twelve. President Kimball then took his seat in the middle of the room, and as all those present placed their hands upon his head, we felt the Spirit of the Lord was truly with us, and this sweet Spirit filled our hearts. Then, with President Benson being mouth, in a beautiful prayer and blessing, Spencer Woolley Kimball was ordained and set apart as prophet, seer, and revelator and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1974, 121–23; or Ensign, May 1974, 84–85).
As was the case in the days of Brigham Young, we have a church body who have been promised the companionship of the Holy Ghost, who confirms the decision of the governing body. They learned the Lord’s will for who should lead the Church on earth, and we are left without excuse to learn the same in our day.