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Choosing a Prophet
After a Mormon prophet's death, the process of choosing the next prophet is known as the Order of Succession. The Lord Himself chooses who will be the president of His church. He does so in a revealed, orderly fashion through the line of succession.
In the Lord's plan, the senior apostle, the one who has been in the quorum the longest, stands next in line to become president. In this way, the president will be a man who has served many years in the leading councils of the Church, knows the responsibilities associated with the office, and is thoroughly prepared to lead the Church when the Lord calls him. Prior to his call to serve as President of the Church, for example, Gordon B. Hinckley served in the First Presidency for 14 years. In addition, he served extensively and faithfully as an apostle for 20 years previous to his capacities in the First Presidency.
When a prophet dies, the First Presidency is dissolved and the counselors take their places (according to seniority) in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, which becomes the leading council of the Church. All of the members of the Quorum meet together in a solemn assembly to reorganize the First Presidency. As revelation dictates, the new president will be sustained and then ordained by the apostles, and the new president will choose his counselors. Later, another apostle will be called to fill the vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Usually, this is done at the first General Conference of the Church when the new prophet is sustained. Customarily, and out of respect for the deceased, the Apostles wait until after the funeral is held before they meet to reorganize the First Presidency. The lack of a prophet and president for the Church for a short duration is of no import, since the Twelve hold the keys to govern the Church and are themselves revelators.
At General Conference, a solemn assembly is held as one of the sessions, during which time the entire congregation receives the opportunity to raise their right hand to sustain each member of the newly organized First Presidency.
In the early days of the Church, Joseph Smith conferred all of the keys, powers, and authority upon the Twelve. Relieved to have done so, in order that the Lord's authority remain without lapse upon the earth, and while spiritually sensing that his death was imminent, Joseph remarked:
- Now, if they kill me, you have all the keys and all the ordinances and you can confer them upon others, and the powers of Satan will not be able to tear down the kingdom as fast as you will be able to build it up, and upon your shoulders will the responsibility of leading this people rest. (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56], 1:259).
For an in-depth look at the Order of Succession see Brent L. Top and Lawrence R. Flake's article “‘The Kingdom of God Will Roll On’: Succession in the Presidency,” from the Aug. 1996 Ensign.
The Lord's Hand in the Order of Succession
It is truly the Lord who calls a man to be prophet and President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Lord controls who His president will be in the following ways:
- The Lord determines who is called to be an apostle and when they will be called. This includes who will be ordained first if two men are called at the same time (For instance, Spencer W. Kimball and Ezra Taft Benson were ordained apostles on the same day. Because Pres. Kimball was ordained first, he became prophet after the death of Harold B. Lee. If Pres. Benson had been ordained first, Pres. Kimball would never have become the prophet).
- The Lord can choose when an apostle will die, thus altering seniority.
- The Lord, through revelation, established the system.