Why the First Presidency Dissolves

Back in 2010, John Dehlin interviewed John Hamer on Mormon Stories.  It was a fascinating interview, discussing LDS and RLDS church history.  One of the interesting points that John Hamer made was his discussion on why the LDS Church dissolves the First Presidency after the death of the prophet.  (Incidentally, in the RLDS, the First Presidency does not get dissolved.)

John Hamer

John Hamer is a wonderful historian.  Born and raised LDS, he graduated from BYU (though he did not serve a mission, and doesn’t encourage missions.)  He has a graduate degree from the University of Michigan.  At the time of this interview, he was not affiliated with any specific Mormon group, though he has since joined the RLDS Church.  Since they are both named John, I’ve abbreviated them by their initials.  Without further ado, here’s the discussion on why the First Presidency gets dissolved.

JD, “So, have you thought about—I mean this is just speculation, but I guess in the LDS Church there’s such a clear planned out succession, we tend to sort of think back on history and extrapolate backwards the assumptions that we have at present.  You would think that Joseph would have had some type of legal document where he would have been very clear that ok, the president of the Quorum of Twelve was going to succeed me, so it might be a little bit shocking for people to hear that maybe he intended his children, but maybe he intended Hyrum, maybe he intended James Strang, maybe he intended Sidney Rigdon.  What’s the prevailing sense of whether Joseph Smith just was promising this to a lot of people, or just didn’t know, or God hadn’t told him?  Why the confusion?  Why the uncertainty?”

JH, “Well I think that he was actually busily saying all kinds of different things and so I don’t think that there was anyone besides Hyrum. I don’t think there was any clear path in terms of a successor.  In terms of a legal document, there has been the legal document for the incorporation of the church that has been reviewed and found.  That’s in the Hancock County Court House in Illinois, and that legally for the property of the church and that sort of thing, that says that Joseph Smith’s successors will be members of the First Presidency.  So the people who are still in the First Presidency when he passed away, and that would have been Sidney Rigdon.  But that isn’t canonical, that would be civil law.

In canon law would be scripture.  What does scripture say? Scripture in fact doesn’t say at all who will be the president after the president goes, and even if you go into say scriptural precedent from the Old Testament, or the Book of Mormon or New Testament, there’s not an occasion where, say Moses dies and the next member of the Quorum of Twelve apostles then immediately succeeds Moses.  Moses doesn’t have apostles, that doesn’t happen.  Prophets don’t work like that in either the Old Testament or Book of Mormon, and even in the New Testament, a lot people assume that Peter as the chief apostle takes over for Jesus, but in fact it could easily be read that James the brother of Jesus takes over because when Peter goes to Jerusalem, he actually submits to James’ authority.

So anyway, the argument was made there was modes of succession even in the New Testament.  There are no scriptural precedents.  Joseph didn’t particularly name anybody, and there’s no reason to imagine, there wasn’t reason scripturally or any other reason to imagine that the president of the Quorum of the Twelve would take over upon his death.”

JD, “Did you say there was a civil or legal document specifying the First Presidency as the successors?”

JH, “That would be the civil law, so in civil law, yes.  The church was incorporated in the state of Illinois.  That corporation had in its bylaws that Joseph’s successors would be the First Presidency.  So civilly, in the civil law frankly, in my judgment, just having read a whole bunch, the best successor in terms of an actual legal claim would have been Sidney Rigdon.  And I can kind of say that because nobody really believes in Sidney Rigdon’s claims much.  There’s one church that’s descended from Sidney Rigdon’s people and they also don’t even really claim him too much.  They’re not big fans, so but anyway, I would say that Sidney probably had the best claim, but he wasn’t the best leader.  So that’s where kind of things stood when Joseph died.”

JD, “What about the rumors that there was some letter, or some blessing or prayer on Joseph Smith III?  Is there any truth to either of those, or is that speculation or just outright falsehood, or am I getting it wrong?”

JH, “Well the letter, the actual document was a Hoffman forgery.”

JD, “Ok.”

JH, “So there was a Joseph Smith III blessing that appeared in the 1980s.  It was a forgery. But you know, Hoffman—the reason why he was so successful was because he was a very astute student of Mormon history, and he would make stuff that made sense for Mormon history.  I mean he would be a little off, and he wanted to kind of jab at Mormon claims and all those kind of things, and so he was attacking at the same time but he was also doing stuff that made sense.  So people know that there’s all kinds of people who attested to the fact that these blessings had occurred.  I mean there’s more than one occasion.  So one of them takes place in the upper story of the Red Brick Store in Nauvoo.  Another one apparently took place or supposedly took place in the Liberty Jail.  Joseph Smith III was apparently visiting his father and he gave him a special blessing that apostle Lyman Wight later attested to, so there were a couple occasions like that but there is no text.  We don’t know what it would have been about.

I think we can imagine that there would have been a patriarchal style blessing where a father asserts that his son would someday fill his shoes, that kind of thing and people remembered that sort of thing.  We don’t know—that doesn’t constitute a legal claim.  In any event Joseph Smith III would have been, I think was 12 when his father was killed so it was completely impossible for him to succeed.  Although several leaders said that well one day he would; in fact even Brigham Young said that to several of his followers according to some of the witnesses we have. “

JD, “Ok, so one last question before we move on to Brigham Young and Sidney Rigdon.  Is there anything in LDS scripture today that specifies the succession? Like did that get added to the LDS Church at some point, the way that it happens now which is that the most senior apostle?”

JH, “No, No.”

JD, “So that’s just sort of like the cloture, the filibuster rule in the Senate.  It’s not really official, it’s just kind of evolved into church policy.”

JH, “It’s a practice, so there is nothing.  In fact I would call it a ritual, which is the reason why when the president of the LDS church dies, the reason the First Presidency, is immediately dissolved, and the LDS Church makes a big point of that.  So in other words, the counselors go back to the quorum, and now there’s 14 apostles instead of just 12, is because they ritually, the LDS church is ritually delegitimizes Sidney Rigdon’s claims.

So what they’re saying every single time there’s a succession , they’re saying Brigham Young was the successor, Sidney Rigdon had no claim.  But there’s no reason to imagine based on anything in the D&C or anything else that the First Presidency would dissolve when one of the members died, and indeed in the Community of Christ it doesn’t dissolve.  It simply, just what it does in the LDS Church, because that justifies the Brigham Young succession.”

What do you think of Hamer’s explanation?

8 comments on “Why the First Presidency Dissolves

  1. I think nobody disputes that Hyrum was the natural successor, and then probably Samuel H. Smith. But both of them died, I don’t really think that Joseph thought that far ahead. He wasn’t thinking that he, Hyrum, and Samuel would all die around the same time.

    So ultimately I think what it comes down to is the fact that Brigham Young was the most able and charismatic leader available at the time. Though I agree that Rigdon had a very good claim on a purely legalistic basis, probably better than Young, it was obvious that Young was a far better candidate. From an LDS Mormon perspective, you could say that despite the possibly superior legal claim of Rigdon, God could work through the body of the church as a whole to choose the most able leader, despite his arguably-inferior legal claim.

  2. All things considered, I agree that had he lived Hyrum would have succeeded Joseph. What’s truly interesting to me is that Brigham, despite a substantial ego, never claimed to be Joseph’s successor. His only assertion was that the Twelve had the authority. Of course, as president of the Twelve, he knew he would be the leader, but he did not actually become president of the church for almost 3 1/2 years after Joseph’s death.

  3. For those that might be unfamiliar, the RLDS (Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints)changed it’s name to Community of Christ in 2001.

  4. For some reason after thinking about all of this, I am reminded of the story of Jacob and Esau. Why didn’t God just have Jacob be born first instead of have this whole birthright for a mess of pottage thing? In the end God approves whom He approves.

  5. Chris, interesting comments about Sam Smith. It seems very little is known about him. I know there have been claims he was poisoned. Do you have any info on that?

  6. Dissolved? Like the wicked witch of the west? No wonder BYU banned water balloon sling shots.

  7. @Mh
    Samuel’s claim to the presidency came from the idea of lineal succession and from an apparent statement by Smith, just before or at his imprisonment at Carthage, that said Samuel would be next in line if both he and Hyrum were killed.

    I think the best treatment of the allegations that Samuel was poisoned by Hosea Stout are in Quinn’s Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power. Stout, one of the Danites, was Samuel’s nurse, and had been administering to him a white powder until his death. William Smith did some investigating and claimed that Willard Richards had instructed Stout to kill Samuel. Ironically, Stout made a death threat against Richards on some other issue, and Richards was scared enough that he asked Brigham Young to let him leave Nauvoo in the first pioneer company. I don’t doubt that Stout was not beyond the capacity to carry out what he thought was a “righteous killing,” but it’s hard for me to imagine that he would take it upon himself to intentionally kill Samuel under these circumstances. And I can’t imagine Willard Richards directing such a momentous act either, especially without consulting Brigham Young (who was traveling).

  8. I remember reading allegations of poisoning Sam in Quinn’s book, but I wondered if they were accurate. William Smith isn’t the most reliable witness, IMO, so I would question the allegation. I didn’t remember Quinn saying anything about Sam leading the church if both Joseph and Hyrum died.

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