By Kedrik Hamblin
After the death of President Howard W. Hunter, Elder Gordon B. Hinckley became the 15th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He, like the presidents before him, followed a specific pattern of succession.
Brent Top, a professor of Church history at BYU, has studied succession extensively. “To me it”s really a wonderful evidence of the order of God”s kingdom,” Top said.
Succession in the church is a unique doctrine and history dating back to the beginning of the church. Top and Professor Lawrence Flake, in their article, “The Kingdom of God Will Roll On,” note that the authority and leadership roles of the church came like many teachings and revelations — line upon line.
When the church was first organized in 1830, Joseph Smith was called and ordained to be an apostle of Jesus Christ and to be the “first elder” of the church. Over a period of seven years, Joseph received various revelations detailing the calling of and responsibilities for the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Prior to the Prophet Joseph”s death, he gave all the priesthood keys to the Twelve. “Where I am not, there is no First Presidency over the Twelve,” Joseph said at one point. This meant that when the Prophet Joseph was gone, the First Presidency was released back into the Quorum.
When the Prophet Joseph was martyred, some confusion resulted. Sidney Rigdon claimed to be the next leader. In their article, Top and Flake note Rigdon”s claim but state that as a member of the First Presidency, Rigdon had been released and no longer had authority over the Twelve. The Quorum of the Twelve firmly announced that Joseph had given them all the keys necessary to lead the church. Later Brigham Young, the senior apostle, was ordained to be the President of the Church.
Professor Top related that since then, seniority has been key. “Everything is done in seniority,” Top said. The First Presidency and Quorum operate under seniority when they meet and speak together. If three members of the Quorum go to a meeting, Top said, the senior apostle presides. Seniority is also the principle of succession for presidents of the church.
The next in seniority to the President of the Church is the President of the Twelve, who is currently President Thomas S. Monson. As being a member of the First Presidency requires a lot of time and effort, Elder Boyd K. Packer was called as Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve.
Many wonder if one besides the President of the Quorum of the Twelve could be called to be the next president of the church. President Joseph Fielding Smith answered this in “Doctrines of Salvation.”
“There is no mystery about the choosing of the successor to the President of the Church,” President Smith wrote. “The Lord settled this a long time ago, and the senior apostle automatically becomes the presiding officer of the Church, and he is so sustained by the Council of the Twelve, which becomes the presiding body of the Church when there is no First Presidency.”
Top noted that some members speculate and worry about who will be the next prophet. “But in the minds of the prophets, seers, and revelators there is no question,” he said. “The Lord has given a pattern so the kingdom can roll forth. There”s not even a hiccup.”
President Hinckley related, in the April 1995 conference, the events that transpired after President Hunter”s passing.
“With President Hunter”s passing, the First Presidency was dissolved.,” President Hinckley said. “Brother Monson and I, who had served as his counselors, took our places in the Quorum of the Twelve, which became the presiding authority of the Church.
“Three weeks ago today all of the living ordained Apostles gathered in a spirit of fasting and prayer in the upper room of the temple. Here we sang a sacred hymn and prayed together. We partook of the sacrament of the Lord”s supper, renewing in that sacred, symbolic testament our covenants and our relationship with Him who is our divine Redeemer.”
The presidency was then reorganized, following a precedent well established through generations of the past.
“There was no campaigning, no contest, no ambition for office,” President Hinckley said. “It was quiet, peaceful, simple, and sacred. It was done after the pattern which the Lord Himself had put in place.”