Summary: Based on the authority bestowed by God and historical precedence, the senior apostle becomes the next prophet and president of the LDS Church when the current prophet dies.
If the President of the LDS Church were to die, how is the next prophet chosen? This is an important doctrinal question and one that many missionaries will likely face in the course of their daily missionary work. Let’s discuss it.
Confusion at the Death of Joseph Smith
The first time the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had to face the issue of succession in the presidency was at the martyrdom of the prophet Joseph Smith. Joseph was the founder and president of the Church from its formation (see the revelation from the Lord in D&C section 20). After the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith, there was some confusion as to who should lead the Church. Sidney Rigdon, who had been a member of the First Presidency with Joseph Smith, was among those who claimed to be the next leader of the Church. Parley P. Pratt, an original member of the Quorum of the 12 Apostles, spoke of this time in his autobiography.
“I had loved Joseph with a warmth of affection indescribable for about fourteen years. …But now he was gone to the invisible world, and we and the Church of the Saints were left to mourn in sorrow and without the presence of our beloved founder and Prophet.” With many questions in his mind, Parley was making his way back to Nauvoo when “On a sudden the Spirit of God came upon me, and filled my heart with joy and gladness indescribable… The Spirit said unto me: ‘Lift up your head and rejoice; for behold! it is well with my servants Joseph and Hyrum….Go and say unto my people in Nauvoo, that they shall continue to pursue their daily duties and take care of themselves, and make no movement in Church government to reorganize or alter anything until the return of the remainder of the Quorum of the Twelve. But exhort them that they continue to build the House of the Lord which I have commanded them to build in Nauvoo.”
The Lord Chose Brigham Young to Be Joseph Smith’s Successor
Soon the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles did return to Nauvoo, and on August 8, 1844, the Lord showed to a gathering of the saints that Brigham Young, the president of that Quorum, was to be the new prophet and president of the Church. After Sidney Rigdon had spoken and made his case to be “guardian” of the Church, Brigham Young arose and addressed the congregation. George Q. Cannon described how in this moment, Brigham Young appeared and sounded like Joseph Smith in a miraculous manifestation from the Lord:
“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).
Doctrinal Basis of Church Leadership
Upon the death of Joseph Smith, the First Presidency, which consisted of president of the Church and his two counselors, was dissolved, but priesthood authority was not lost. Brigham Young, as president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, held the keys of the priesthood and had the authority necessary to lead the Church. In D&C 107: 23-24, a revelation given to Joseph Smith, the Lord explained that the Quorum of the 12 held the same authority as the First Presidency: “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. And they form a quorum, equal in authority and power to the three presidents previously mentioned.” (See also D&C 112:14–15, regarding the keys of the Quorum of the Twelve.)
In another revelation, the Lord affirmed that the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles holds the priesthood keys, the same as the Savior’s apostles of old, to direct the Church: “And also with Peter, and James, and John, whom I have sent unto you, by whom I have ordained you and confirmed you to be apostles, and especial witnesses of my name, and bear the keys of your ministry and of the same things which I revealed unto them; Unto whom I have committed the keys of my kingdom, and a dispensation of the gospel for the last times; and for the fulness of times, in the which I will gather together in one all things, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth” (D&C 27: 12-13).
Brigham Young, as president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, began leading the Church from the time of the martyrdom of Joseph Smith. In time, the First Presidency was reorganized under that authority, and new apostles were called to fill the vacancies in the Quorum of the 12. And so it is today, if the prophet dies, the First Presidency is dissolved. Presiding authority to lead the Church remains with the Quorum of the 12 and the senior apostle becomes the new Church President.
Succession in the Presidency of the LDS Church
Since the time of the Brigham Young, the choosing of the next prophet and president of the Church has happened in a similar fashion. Here is the process, in more detail, as outlined in the Mormon Newsroom article called Succession in the Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: “When the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 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, … 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…
- 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.
The Lord Is In Charge of Who Leads the Church as Prophet
In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we believe the the Lord Jesus Christ is at the head of our church and is firmly in charge of who leads it on the earth. The authority exists to provide continuous priesthood keys on the earth, and an orderly pattern has been established. We believe that with the Lord in charge, He will not let the wrong person become our Church President. Here is the testimony of some of our modern prophets on the Lord being in charge of who becomes the next prophet:
- President Harold B. Lee, 11th president of the Church, 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, 13th president of the Church, 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).
- President Gordon B. Hinckley, 15th president of the Church, explained that each member of the Quorum of the Twelve “holds the keys of this dispensation in latent reserve. Inherent in that divine residual is the assured ongoing leadership of the Church” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1983, 4; or Ensign, May 1983, 6).
Though we often refer to the president of the Church as “The Prophet”, it is important to remember that we sustain all the apostles in the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve as prophets, seers, and revelators. I know that these brethren have been called by God and have the priesthood authority necessary to lead the Lord’s Church. It is a beautiful process to see how smooth the transition is from one president of the church to the next. It is a process ordained by God and guided by Him.
For much more information on this subject, see the Foundations of the Restoration Teacher Manual, 2015, Chapter 23: Succession in the Presidency.