Succession in LDS Leadership

[UPDATED 01/27/08 2125 MST]

This entry is suddenly getting a lot of hits, due undoubtedly to the death earlier today of Pres. Gordon B. Hinckley. With the death of Pres. Hinckley, the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been dissolved; Pres. Thomas S. Monson and Pres. Henry B. Eyring return to the Council of the Twelve Apostles (which now actually has 14 apostles in it); and Pres. Monson resumes his role as President of the Quorum of the Twelve, taking over from Pres. Boyd K. Packer, who has been serving as Acting President of the Twelve.

The Quorum of the Twelve, under the leadership of Pres. Monson, now leads the LDS Church. At some point, most likely within the next week or two, the Quorum of the Twelve will move to reorganize the First Presidency, with Pres. Thomas S. Monson as President of the Church, along with two counselors of his choosing. There’s a good chance (based on tradition) that Pres. Monson will retain Elder Eyring as one of his counselors, but that’s Pres. Monson’s choice, not a requirement.

Also note that this means that a new member of the Quorum of the Twelve will be called, though possibly not until the LDS General Conference in April.

[UPDATED 10/06/07 1034 MDT – Elder Henry B. Eyring has been called and sustained as 2nd Counselor in the First Presidency, while Elder Quentin L. Cook has been called to the Quorum of the Twelve. See here.]

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Peggy Fletcher Stack over in the Salt Lake Tribune writes about the “wild speculation” (her phrase, not mine) regarding whom Pres. Hinckley will call to replace Pres. Faust as 2nd Counselor in the First Presidency. First, in my own experience, the speculation tends to be tame rather than wild, though (in fairness) it’s probably a bit more of a topic of discussion within Utah than outside of it. Second, Stack gives no substantive basis for the specific candidates she mentions; one could as easily list all of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve instead of the few she picks out. Stack does correctly note that counselors have on occasion been chosen from outside of the Quorum of the Twelve, though it’s been roughly half a century since that happened. However, she incorrectly states that the calling as a counselor in the First Presidency is a “lifetime calling”; when the President of the Church dies, his counselors are automatically released and revert back to their positions in (or outside of) the Quorum of the Twelve, and the new President of the Church is free to select whomever he wants as counselors. (I sent Peggy a note on this, and she replied that she inadvertently left out a conditional phrase; easy enough to do with deadlines.)

Those minor quibbles aside, Stack’s article clearly lays out the principles underlying succession at the highest level of the LDS Church. Once you are called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, you are on a very slow-moving track toward being President of the Church — but only if you live long enough (i.e., longer than those called before you). This has always struck me as a very elegant and corruption-free process. There is no voting, no jockeying for position, no way to leapfrog ahead of those called to the Quorum before you. It is, quite literally, in God’s hands.

Furthermore, with the exception of Brigham Young, the gap between being called to the Twelve and becoming President of the Church has always been measured in decades and often in significant fractions of a century: John Taylor: 42 years; Wilford Woodruff: 50 years; Lorenzo Snow: 49 years; Joseph F. Smith: 34 years; Heber J. Grant: 36 years; George A. Smith: 40 years; David O. McKay: 45 years; Joseph Fielding Smith: 60 years; Harold B. Lee: 29 years; Spencer W. Kimball: 30 years; Erza Taft Benson: 42 years; Howard W. Hunter: 35 years; Gordon B. Hinckley: 34 years. (As a side note, Brigham Young, John Taylor and Lorenzo Snow waited 2-3 years after the death of their respective predecessors before formally reorganizing the First Presidency.)

Taken together, this means that by the time a given Apostle becomes President of the Church, he has been serving at the highest levels of the Church for many decades and that all the people responsible for him being there — the President who called him and the Apostles who sustained him — are all dead. He has no ‘constituency’, no one to whom he might somehow ‘owe’ his current position, no senior colleagues to whom he might be inclined to defer. He typically has a very long term view on things — he’s seen the Church’s successes and mistakes — and so can focus on that which he feels is most essential. On the other hand, he still has to persuade his counselors and the Quorum of the Twelve — all of whom have been serving as an Apostle less time than he has — for any significant changes or initiatives. He is, in effect, a fulcrum between the past and the future.

The infographic that accompanies Stack’s article refers to this process of succession as a “long-standing tradition”. That’s fair enough, given that there is no canonized scripture or revelation setting forth the manner of succession. This was the reason for the one major split that occurred in LDS Church history, right after the death of Joseph Smith, resulting in several different “Restoration” churches, most of which have dwindled or disappeared, the main exception being the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints [RLDS], which changed its name to the Community of Christ in 2001 (it claims membership of about 200,000 worldwide as of 2006, down from earlier estimates of 250,000, probably as the result of on-going schisms).

However, that “long-standing tradition” has been followed in the LDS Church for over 160 years and for every succession to the Presidency since Joseph Smith was killed. As noted earlier, when the President of the Church dies, his counselors are automatically released, and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles becomes the sole body running the Church, led by the President of the Quorum of the Twelve — the most senior Apostle. After the deaths of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and John Taylor, the Quorum of the Twelve took over and ran the Church for 2-3 years before the First Presidency was reorganized. Since the death of Lorenzo Snow, however, the First Presidency has typically been reorganized in one to two weeks.

Some time ago, I ran across a posting I made to back in 1995. Our stake (geographical collection of congregations) happen to hold a stake conference (semi-annual meeting for all the member within the stake boundaries) right after the death of Pres. Howard W. Hunter. At the opening of stake conference, there is a sustaining of both general (church-wide) and stake authorities. As I noted in the posting, there was no sustaining of the First Presidency at that conference; merely of the Quorum of the Twelve, with Gordon B. Hinckley as President of the Twelve.

You may also note in that series of USENET posts that one non-LDS poster confuses calendar age of the Apostles with their actual seniority, which is based on length of service in the Quorum. In other words, when the senior Apostle becomes President of the Church, there often are other Apostles who are older than him, but there are none who have served longer in the Quorum. For example, if Pres. Gordon B. Hinckley were to die tomorrow, Pres. Thomas S. Monson would become President of the Church. Three other Apostles — Boyd K. Packer, L. Tom Perry, and Russell M. Nelson — are older than him, but Pres. Monson was called as an Apostle before any of those three (or any other of the current Apostles).

Finally, here’s a first-person account from Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the process that took place when Pres. Harold B. Lee died in 1972 (Elder McConkie was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve by then). What I find interesting are Elder McConkie’s comments about Pres. Lee, who was relatively young (only 70) when he became President of the Church, and in good health; general expectations were that he would have a long and dynamic period as President. So members (myself included) were shocked when he died just 18 months into his presidency. Spencer W. Kimball, who was President of the Twelve and became President of the Church, was actually several years older than Pres. Lee and had health problems for many years; I suspect he was as surprised as anyone to find himself outliving Pres. Lee. And yet Pres. Kimball went on to become one of the most beloved LDS presidents and prophets of this dispensation, rethinking and changing many LDS traditions and practices (including extending the priesthood to blacks), extending the scriptural canon, and setting forth challenges that Latter-day Saints still respond to 30 years later.

In short, I for one am pretty clear that the Lord knows what He’s doing, and the process of succession at the highest levels of the LDS Church work just fine. ..bruce..

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