Succession Crisis

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The death of Joseph Smith created a rift in the leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that some have termed the succession crisis. However, the succession process that was achieved through prayer, revelation, and common consent could be called a succession of continuity.

The Death of Joseph Smith

Months before his death, Joseph Smith began preparing the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for the possibility of his death. He also bestowed priesthood keys upon them. When Joseph was martyred on June 27, 1844, the Twelve were scattered primarily throughout the eastern United States serving missions. Because no clear procedure for succession to the office of the president of the Church existed at the time of the Prophet’s death, differing views were expressed. Some of the confusion was based upon statements Joseph had made since 1834, possibly designating his sons, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, as successors to the office of president.[1] In 1844, Joseph had stipulated that “in the event something happened to him, the Twelve were responsible for carrying on the work he had begun.”[2] Brigham Young, as president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles firmly believed that the Twelve should lead the Church after the death of the Prophet. This was based on revelation Joseph had received in 1831 (published in 1835 as Doctrine and Covenants 107), and the Twelve had grown into that role over the years since.

Differing Views on Succession

Some believed in a lineal succession, which would have made the Prophet’s brother Samuel next in line. However, he died suddenly a month after the martyrdom. Next in line was the Joseph’s brother William, but at the time he did not claim the right to succeed. As for the descendants of Joseph and Emma, their eldest son, Joseph Smith III, was only 11 years old at the time of Joseph’s death. (See Community of Christ).

Sidney Rigdon, who had moved to another state as was legally required for him to be Joseph Smith’s running mate in the presidential campaign, considered himself the rightful successor. He returned to Nauvoo on August 3, confident that “his position in the First Presidency entitled him to lead the church.”[3] He claimed that he had received revelation that he was to serve as a guardian of the church.[4]

The issue was further complicated by Emma Smith, who was pushing for the appointment of William Marks, the Nauvoo stake president, as trustee-in-trust for the Church. “Joseph had made extensive legal efforts to separate his family’s property from what belonged to the church, but he had still left behind considerable debts and no will. Unless the church quickly appointed a trustee-in-trust to replace Joseph as manager of the church’s property, Emma feared her family would be left destitute.”[5]

Bishop Newel K. Whitney “strongly opposed the choice, however, because William [Marks] had rejected plural marriage and cared little for the ordinances of the temple. . . . Knowing the church was much more than a corporation with financial holdings and legal obligations, Newel believed the new trustee-in-trust ought to be someone who fully supported what the Lord had revealed to Joseph.”[6] Willard Richards and William Phelps wanted the decision postponed until the Twelve Apostles were able to return from their respective missions.

Of the Twelve Apostles, John Taylor was recovering from his wounds and Willard Richards had been unharmed while both were in the Carthage Jail with the Prophet and Hyrum. Parley P. Pratt and George A. Smith had returned from their respective missions.

After his arrival, “Sidney insisted on assembling the Saints in two days to select a new leader and appoint a trustee-in-trust. Alarmed, Willard and the other apostles called for more time to review Sidney’s claims and await the return of the rest of their quorum.

William Marks compromised and scheduled the meeting for August 8, four days away.”[7] On August 6, Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Orson Pratt, Wilford Woodruff, and Lyman Wight arrived in Nauvoo by steamboat.

After a meeting with the Twelve who were in Nauvoo, Sidney Rigdon, and other councils of the Church on the afternoon of the August 7, Sidney said he wanted a prayer meeting held with the Saints and wanted to postpone a decision about church leadership. But he also continued to insist on his right to lead the Church, saying, “It was shown to me that this church must be built up to Joseph,” he told the councils, “and that all the blessings we receive must come through him.”[8]

“After Sidney finished speaking, Brigham arose and testified that Joseph had conferred all the keys and powers of the apostleship on the Twelve. ‘I do not care who leads the church,’ he said, ‘but one thing I must know, and that is what God says about it.’[9]

The next morning, August 8, instead of Sidney’s prayer meeting in a grove with the Saints, he offered himself as guardian of the Church. He spoke for an hour and expressed the wish that the congregation not vote at that time on the matter. Brigham Young asked the group to gather again that afternoon and they would sustain a new leader of the Church by vote.

Around two o’clock, the priesthood quorums and councils took their seats together on and around the stand. Brigham Young then stood to address the Saints.42 “There has been much said about President Rigdon being president of the church,” he said, “but I say unto you that the Quorum of the Twelve have the keys of the kingdom of God in all the world.”[10]

Brigham told the Saints they could select Sidney Rigdon or anyone else to lead them but affirmed that Joseph had committed into the “hands of Twelve the keys of the kingdom in this last dispensation, for all the world.” When Brigham Young spoke, “his voice and appearance bore a striking resemblance to those of Joseph Smith. Wilford Woodruff, one who was present, later said that if ‘I had not seen him with my own eyes, there is no one that could have convinced me that it was not Joseph Smith.’” Dozens of Saints later added their witness “describing how they saw Joseph’s prophetic mantle fall on Brigham that day.”[11]

When called on to vote, the Saints unanimously sustained the Twelve Apostles as the leaders of the Church.


Although the worst of the crisis was over, some men attempted to divide the Church. Sidney founded the Church of Jesus Christ (also known as the Rigdonites and later the Bickertonites). James Strang claimed to have a letter from Joseph appointing him to be his true successor and a number of the Saints dissented and joined his group known as the Strangites. Some Saints later followed the idea of lineal succession and followed William Smith (he was excommunicated in October 1845). Some left their association with the Church by staying behind in Nauvoo (including Emma Smith) when the body of the Saints emigrated West with Brigham Young in 1847. Other break-off movements also splintered the Saints.

A Pattern for Leadership

“For the next three years [from 1844 to 1847] the Church was governed by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles with Brigham Young as president of the quorum. In December 1847, following the pioneer journey to the Rocky Mountains, the First Presidency was reorganized and Brigham Young was named President of the Church.”[12] After Brigham Young died in 1877, other short periods existed between the death of the president of the Church and the formation of a new First Presidency until Wilford Woodruff instructed Lorenzo Snow that it was “the will of the Lord that the First Presidency should be organized without delay upon the death of the president.” Therefore, Lorenzo Snow “was named President of the Church in a new First Presidency eleven days after President Woodruff's death [in 1898], a precedent of reorganizing the presidency without delay that has since been followed.”[13]

External Sources