Post-1844 Mormonism has been on my mind lately since beginning a documentary history project with fellow-blogger Ben Park on the “Succession Crisis.” The documentary record is rich with history that should be more widely available to scholars interested in the various interpretations of Mormonism following Joseph Smith’s death.
I’ve long paused at the term “Succession Crisis,” hesitating at the term’s capacity to depict the history it attempts to clarify. There is no doubt Mormons faced a tumultuous period following the 1844 death of Joseph Smith and his brother in Carthage, Illinois—some of that difficulty stemming from theological/doctrinal confusion. But to what extent did the church and its members undergo a “crisis” in deciding upon a path of “succession”? In trying to be conscious of the language and terminology we use, I’ve put some of my thoughts to digital paper, attempting to outline some points I think the term “Succession Crisis” reveals not just about the past, but historians’ attempt at explaining that past.
I would argue that initially, few seriously considered the prospect of “succeeding” Joseph Smith and his office in the sense of fully replacing him and his role within the church structure. In fact, current-day observers’ assumptions of a continuity of Mormon leadership (i.e. “succession”) actually cloud the real debate on the ground. The two major claimants in 1844 provide a perfect example of this: Brigham Young as president of the Quorum of the Twelve and Sidney Rigdon as member of the First Presidency of the church. Reading their positions carefully, neither claimed the right to fully succeed Joseph Smith. A blog post won’t allow for a thorough investigation, but a few quotes should suffice. Young, though likely being somewhat rhetorical, hinted that he viewed the First Presidency as dissolved and of no more efficacy upon the earth: “Here is elder Amasa Lyman and elder Sidney Rigdon; they were councillors in the first presidency, and they are councillors to the Twelve still; if they keep their places; but if either wishes to act as ‘spokesman’ for the prophet Joseph, he must go behind the veil where Joseph is.” In addition, he made no attempt to immediately replace the First Presidency or Smith’s role as a prophet. At the beginning of the meeting, Young asked the saints if they wanted “a guardian, a prophet, [or] a spokesman.” According to the printed minutes, “not a hand was raised” as a supporting vote.
Rigdon, though disagreeing with Young on many points, agreed that Joseph Smith was irreplaceable. In his diary, Willard Richards reported Rigdon stating that “no man could be the successor of Joseph.” And Orson Hyde, well after Rigdon’s excommunication from the church, recalled that Rigdon taught that “Joseph had ascended to heaven…[and] that he held the keys of the kingdom and would continue to hold them to all eternity, –that he had received the crown, and the kingdom must be built up unto him, and that no man could ever take his place.” Both claimants felt that Smith’s role in events in this world extended beyond the grave. Thus initially, “succession” was actually more about a replacement of Joseph Smith’s leadership, but apparently not his spiritual authority. The question for me is how well the term “Succession Crisis” explains this nuance and complexity. I’m afraid the term provides a more teleological explanation for those used to, or familiar with the practices of later LDS leadership transitions. Initial debate does not support this assumption.
It’s important to remember that both Young and Rigdon eventually turned from their position and took steps to replace the First Presidency and office of president of the church. In fact, the need to replace Smith may have even been assumed early on. In the September 1844 edition of the Times and Seasons, editors addressed the question head-on: “Great excitement prevails throughout the world to know ‘who shall be the successor of Joseph Smith?’ In reply, we say, be patient, a little, till the proper time comes, and we will tell you all. ‘Great wheels move slow.’ At present, we can say that a special conference of the church was held in Nauvoo on the 8th ult. [Aug.], and it was carried without a discenting voice, that the ‘Twelve’ should preside over the whole church, and when any alteration in the presidency shall be required, seasonable notice will be given.” While the option remained theoretically open, the sermons and actions themselves point to a different immediate position. Is it any wonder that James J. Strang gained such a strong following by arguing so strenuously for the need for a prophet, seer, and revelator?
Clearly, the above skims the surface of the arguments; the point of this post is not to analyze the various reasons of schism following Smith’s death, but simply to explore the use of the term “succession” in discussion of the Mormon past. The prominent LDS precedent of prophetic succession, combined with sociologists’ discussion of charismatic succession of religious leaders has created an academic atmosphere of discussing the “Succession” debate of the LDS Church. But, as I have illustrated above, that terminology can be misleading on certain levels.
What about “crisis”? What exactly was the “crisis” in 1844? Was it a crisis in finding a successor? Attendees of the 8 August 1844 meeting did not seem to think there was much of a crisis in finding and supporting a leader (the vote was essentially unanimous for Brigham Young and the twelve with Rigdon withdrawing his name from consideration). Was it the threat of a crisis on the church if an appropriate successor wasn’t found? Perhaps the collapse or division of the church? Was it the individual members’ crisis of faith after Smith’s death? While I believe all of these question are worth fleshing out (not in a small blog post, of course), the very existence of so many interpretations about “crisis” makes my point: the term itself is problematic and confusing, if not misleading in describing the past.
One difficulty that I have with the term in question is the inherent institutional approach to Mormon history “succession crisis” conveys with little thought towards the lived religion and understood doctrine of the early Latter-day Saints and their experience following the death of their leader. So often, Mormon history narrates the “survival” of the church following the death of Smith (largely ignoring the role schisms played), and attempts to explain how leadership facilitated that survival. But in looking at lived religion, an additional question should also demand our attention: how did the tumultuous time of 1844 affect the average member and how they lived and approached their religion? What role did Joseph Smith play in an individual’s faith and how did his death influence that faith? How much of a “crisis” were these years to individuals’ concept of Mormonism? How much did the average Latter Day Saint continue on with her religious faith? Did Smith’s death prevent congregants from joining together to worship? Did it stop the studying of scripture? The meaning and partaking of the sacrament? Missionary work? In other words, how much of one’s faith and lived religion died along with Joseph Smith?
Unfortunately, the state of Mormon studies can’t easily answer these questions. We need more on-the-ground studies of how members lived and saw their religion in order to truly understand what, if any, “crisis” followed the death of Joseph Smith. For example, was there a perceived theological or doctrinal difference in those living in Nauvoo and those outside the Mormon headquarters? If so, how much of a role did Joseph Smith play in members’ day-to-day religious activity with their branch, family, or circle of fellow-worshippers? What about what they saw as institutional church membership? When members heard of Smith’s death, it appears many continued to attend local meetings and maintain relationships with fellow-Mormons, but did they question the long-term direction of the church? Was there a difference in local leadership and church-wide leadership that was reflected in some people’s faith? Again, answering these questions is not the purpose of the post, but my final question to you is this: How well does the term “succession crisis” highlight these questions and provide the framework in which to raise and answer these and other similar questions?
Calling the period following late June 1844 the period of “succession crisis,” is, in my opinion, too neat, too packaged, and ignores history’s multiplicity, both at an institutional level and at a personal level. I wish I could offer a better suggestion. I’m fairly confident that any other term suggested would equally fail to provoke new types of questions and describe the difficulties and opportunities of the church and individuals following Smith’s death (though I hold no objection for anyone trying). And quite frankly, one blog post isn’t going to change a historical term that has been in use for decades. But I would hope that as writers and consumers of history, we will think more carefully about the words and terms we use to describe the past. For I believe the better we think about and understand the words we use to describe the past, the better we will understand that past.
 Times and Seasons, 2 September 1844, p. 638. Amasa Lyman, in the same meeting, stated that “I have been at the back of Joseph Smith, and will be at the back of the Twelve for everlasting, and then we will be saved[.] there is no need of a President, we have a head here, the apostles are the head, this is the power that turns the key to bestow salvation through all the Land, in the way that Joseph Smith commenced it- the first one called to do the same in all the world, if Joseph Smith had any power to bear off the Kingdom of God, the Twelve have it now! I could not advocate a chosing of a President and myself a candidate; so then you know the place I occupy, is to stand to the 12 the same as I did to Brother Joseph.”
 Times and Seasons, 2 September 1844, p. 637 (emphasis added)
 Times and Seasons, 2 September 1844, p. 637.
 Willard Richards Diary, 7 Aug. 1844, CHL.
 “Speech of Elder Orson Hyde, Delivered Before the High Priests’ Quorum, in Nauvoo, April 27th 1845,” (Liverpool: James and Woodburn, 1845): 12. By the time Rigdon had formed his own church, Rigdon published an article in the newspaper that stated that Smith had transgressed by preaching the doctrine of spiritual wives, and that Rigdon was to take his place. Epistle of Samuel Bennett to the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, as published in The Latter Day Saint’s Messenger and Advocate, vol. 1 no. 2 (1 Nov. 1844): 9–12.
 Times and Seasons, 2 September 1844, p. 632.