Question: What are the standards for prophetic succession in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

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Question: What are the standards for prophetic succession in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

Requirements from the Doctrine and Covenants

Many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other interested parties have wondered what the standards for succession were set in the early days of the Church under the direction of the Prophet Joseph Smith. These standards are important to defend as the perceived legitimacy of the Church can be threatened by offshoot sects of Mormonism or other Mormon Gnostics if the standards are misunderstood.

Standards for authority and/or stewardship in the Church include:

  • No one receives commandments or revelations on behalf of the entire Church except the prophet (D&C 28:2-5).
  • Others can have the authority to declare the commandments and revelations (from the Prophet) with power, and to speak and teach by way of commandment, but when writing should couch it as wisdom instead of commandment (D&C 28:2-5).
  • If the prophet goes astray, to the extent of losing his authority to receive revelations and commandments for the Church, he would still have the ability to appoint his successor. This was very early in the church, before the full organization of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, so we would assume the procedure would change somewhat later. But the principle remains that a fallen church leader does not vacate the church’s authority to perpetuate inspired leadership (D&C 43:2-7). This invalidates claims such as those of James Strang and Denver Snuffer to an angel being the one to have to ordain someone to the presidency in order to continue the prophetic line of authority.
  • Authority to preach and organize the church comes through ordination by someone with authority. Additionally, that ordination must be known by the church to have been ordained in the Church through those priesthood channels (D&C 42:11).
  • Anyone ordained of the Lord will “come in at the gate’’–that is, will be easily recognizable as an authorized messenger, and not have to gain influence by courting popularity and gradual coalition-building etc. There’s a reason we keep pictures of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve in church buildings, so that there’s no confusion about who our leaders are. We can’t be deceived by pretenders (D&C 43:2-7). Coming in at the gate entails that one will receive all ordinances pertaining to salvation including baptism, confirmation/reception of Holy Spirit, initiatory, endowment, and sealing. As worthy men are ordained to apostleship, they will receive keys (different keys will given to different officers [D&C 123:23]) including:
  • Keys of Sealing (D&C 132:7)
  • Keys of the Gathering of Israel (D&C 110:11)
  • Keys of the Dispensation of the Gospel of Abraham (D&C 110:12)
  • Keys of the Powers of the Holy Priesthood (D&C 128:11)
  • Keys of the Kingdom (D&C 81:2)

Other keys are mentioned in the scriptures:

Many types of keys are mentioned in the scriptures of the Church (see MD, pp. 409-13). Jesus Christ holds all the keys. Joseph Smith received the keys pertaining to the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ (D&C 6:25-28;28:7;35:18), and through him the First Presidency holds the "keys of the kingdom," including the sealing ordinances (D&C 81:1-2;90:1-6;110:16;128:20;132:19).

Specific mention of certain keys and those who hold them include the following: The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles exercises the keys "to open the door by the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ" in all the world (D&C 107:35;112:16;124:128). Adam holds "the keys of salvation under the counsel and direction of the Holy One," and "the keys of the universe" (D&C 78:16; TPJS, p. 157); Moses, "the keys of the gathering of Israel" (D&C 110:11); Elias, the keys to bring to pass "the restoration of all things" (D&C 27:6); and Elijah, "the keys of the power of turning the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers" (D&C 27:9). Holders of the Melchizedek Priesthood are said to have "the keys of the Church," "the key of knowledge," and "the keys of all the spiritual blessings of the church" (D&C 42:69;84:19;107:18), while belonging to the Aaronic Priesthood are "the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins" (D&C 13:1;84:26). All these stewardships will eventually be delivered back into the hands of Jesus Christ (TPJS, p. 157).[1]

Now as it regards succession, it is important to reiterate what Doctrine and Covenants states on the matter (D&C 107:22-24):

22 Of the Melchizedek Priesthood, three Presiding High Priests, chosen by the body, appointed and ordained to that office, and upheld by the confidence, faith, and prayer of the church, form a quorum of the Presidency of the Church.
23 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.
24 And they form a quorum, equal in authority and power to the three presidents previously mentioned.

We learn a couple of important things about succession:

  • Three high priests of the Melchizedek Priesthood form the First Presidency. With the death of one, it logically follows that the Quorum is unorganized.
  • With the dissolution of the First Presidency, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve is to take over since they are "equal in power and authority" to the First Presidency.

When the president of the Church dies, the apostles are left in a state called "apostolic interregnum". This was explained by Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles:

The period of time between the death of a prophet and the reorganization of the First Presidency is referred to as an “apostolic interregnum.” During this period, the Quorum of the Twelve, under the leadership of the quorum president, jointly holds the keys to administer the leadership of the Church. President Joseph F. Smith taught, “There is always a head in the Church, and if the Presidency of the Church are removed by death or other cause, then the next head of the Church is the Twelve Apostles, until a presidency is again organized.”[2]


The most recent interregnum period began when President Monson passed away on January 2 and ended 12 days later on Sunday, January 14. On that Sabbath morning, the Quorum of the Twelve met in the upper room of the Salt Lake Temple in a spirit of fasting and prayer, under the presiding direction of President Russell M. Nelson, the senior Apostle and President of the Quorum of the Twelve.

In this sacred and memorable meeting, following a well-established precedent in unity and unanimity, the Brethren were seated by seniority in a semicircle of 13 chairs and raised their hands first to sustain the organization of a First Presidency and then to sustain President Russell Marion Nelson as President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This sustaining was followed by the Quorum of the Twelve gathering in a circle and placing hands upon the head of President Nelson to ordain and set him apart, with the next most-senior Apostle acting as voice.

President Nelson then named his counselors, President Dallin Harris Oaks, President Henry Bennion Eyring, with President Oaks as the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and President Melvin Russell Ballard as the Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Following similar sustaining votes, each of these Brethren was set apart to his respective office by President Nelson. This was a deeply sacred experience, with an outpouring of the Spirit. I offer to you my absolute witness that the will of the Lord, for which we fervently prayed, was powerfully manifest in the activities and events of that day.

With the ordination of President Nelson and the reorganization of the First Presidency, the apostolic interregnum ended, and the newly constituted First Presidency began to operate without, remarkably, even one second of interruption in governing the Lord’s kingdom on the earth.

This morning, this divine process is culminated in accordance with scriptural mandate outlined in the Doctrine and Covenants: “For all things must be done in order, and by common consent in the church, by the prayer of faith,”[3] and “three Presiding High Priests, … upheld by the confidence, faith, and prayer of the church, form a quorum of the Presidency of the Church.”[4][5]

These requirements have been met and this pattern kept in an uninterrupted chain from the Prophet Joseph Smith to the current President of the Church, President Russell M. Nelson.

Notes

  1. Alan K. Parrish, "Keys of the Priesthood" in Encyclopedia of Mormonism 6 vols. ed. Daniel Ludlow (New York: MacMillian, 1992 and 2007) off-site
  2. Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith (1998), 223.
  3. Doctrine and Covenants 28:13.
  4. Doctrine and Covenants 107:22.
  5. Elder Gary E. Stevenson, "The Heart of the Prophet" General Conference (April 2018)