Guest Post: Biblical Precedent and the Succession Crisis

By February 1, 2008

Robin Scott Jensen is employed by the Church Archives and works as an editor on the Joseph Smith Papers Project, working on Joseph Smith’s 1843-1844 journals and JS’s revelations. Robin received a master’s degree in history at BYU, writing his important thesis on early Strangite missions. He is currently pursuing a Masters of Library Science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He has been published in the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal, BYU Studies, and The Journal of Mormon History. Robin has received many awards for his work, including “Student Researcher of the Year, 2005” for the Joseph Smith Papers.

This recent post regarding the succession crisis got me thinking about the many different contemporary arguments for the various groups/individuals after Joseph Smith’s death. Someone’s position in the church, and knowledge of and involvement in polygamy, temple ordinances, and the council of fifty all seemed to contribute to many claimants and their attempt to lead the church. However, there was one interesting and, upon reflection, obvious argument that probably played into many peoples’ discussion and reasoning over the succession crisis: biblical precedent.

While William Marks, Sidney Rigdon, or James J. Strang all had probable claims for the office of president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (with varying degrees of actual success between the latter two), the twelve apostles, under leadership of Brigham Young found that they could point to the leaders of the early Christian church following Christ’s death as the way in which the current crisis could be resolved. One such example comes from Nauvoo in 1846.

On 7 March 1846, Orson Hyde, then the leader of the saints in Nauvoo, preached a sermon against the newly-arisen prophet James J. Strang. Strang, baptized into the church less than two years previous, had claimed to receive a letter from Joseph Smith shortly before Smith’s death that appointed Strang the successor of the church. An ordination by an angel on 27 June 1844 confirmed this letter’s contents and Strang soon found an ancient set of plates, which he translated. These miraculous events and visions provided Strang the support and following he needed to make an impression on Hyde in Nauvoo. Hyde observed to Brigham Young his feelings of responsibility: “I prayed to the Lord to give me power to preserve his people from wolves.”[1] The 7 March sermon provides a tremendous snapshot of Hyde’s argument of the succession before Brigham Young had officially become president of the church.[2]

As you will see Hyde discusses the keys, knowledge, and death of Joseph Smith by comparing him to Jesus Christ. The keys and knowledge were not only taken up to heaven, but were left on earth with twelve (both modern and ancient) as well. However, no one is to take the martyrs’ place because they still hold the ultimate keys of the church. This doctrine (or should we call it mentality?) seemed to continue throughout Brigham Young’s life-he did not replace Joseph Smith in his calling.

I have provided two transcripts of the same excerpt. The first is a diplomatic transcription with capitalization, spelling, superscription, [HTML won’t let me do this] and insertions (in angle brackets) as originally recorded. The second is a clear text with capitalization and spelling modernized, superscription brought to the line, and insertions silently added to the text.

this morning I shall speak on the organizat<ion of the church – dont you> – recollect J<esus> Christ was the prest<dent> of the Ch<urch> he choose 12 Apost<tles> & they were witnesses, to go to all <the> nations & preach – by & bye the Lord was cru<cified &> asced<nded> to heaven – did he take the <keys> with him or leave them on <the> Earth – he did both – he left knowledge on Earth & took <knowledge> with hi<m>, & Kn<owledge> is power – says he to Peter, I give unto thee the Keys of the K<ingdom> of H<eaven>- when risen from the dd <dead> he sd <he> I am he that was dd & am alive & he held the keys of heaven & hell was J<esus> C<hrist> has any less the presd of the 12 & that distrrn. [three illegible words deleted] after he was crucd as he was bef: – yes! he had <was just as much the Prest. of that church after his ascension as he was before> suppose some man <had> risen up & sd I am to lead you- do you suppose they to wold allow anor prsn to slip in, bet<ween> the Son of G<od> & the 12 apos<tles>. if the Son of God had trans<gressed>d & hurled <down> to hell, anor [?] wid have been <made> president but when he had done his duty no man cold take his place – <as I said on Tuesday> J.C. had gone into the heavens, he is the 1st- hook in the chain – the next, the 12 Apos<tels>, then the whole church – the great god wod. <then> wind up the windlass & draw all upon Jesus s.d, if I be lifted up, I will draw all men after me – no man cod. take his place – you see it in the former times= men have risen up in these last days & try to show that anor. must be put in the place of J<oseph> Smith – they say, ah J S<mith> was a good man; he died <in the faith>, & has gone to receive his sceptre & crown – if he has never lost his place how can anor take it –[3]

This morning I shall speak on the organization of the church. Don’t you recollect Jesus Christ was the president of the Church? He chose 12 Apostles & they were witnesses, to go to all the nations & preach. By and by the Lord was crucified & ascended to heaven. Did he take the keys with him or leave them on the Earth? He did both. He left knowledge on Earth & took knowledge with him; & Knowledge is power. Says he to Peter, “I give unto thee the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.” When risen from the dead said he: I am he that was dead & am alive; & he held the keys of heaven & hell. Was Jesus Christ any less the president of the 12 [in] that distance after he was crucified as he was before? Yes! He was just as much the President of that church after his ascension as he was before. Suppose some man had risen up & said “I am to lead you.” Do you suppose they would allow another person to slip in between the Son of God & the 12 apostles? If the Son of God had transgressed & [was] hurled down to hell, another[?] would have been made president; but when he had done his duty no man could take his place. As I said on Tuesday, Jesus Christ had gone into the heavens. He is the 1st hook in the chain; the next [are] the 12 Apostles; then the whole church. The great God would then wind up the windlass & draw all upon Jesus. [Jesus] said “if I be lifted up, I will draw all men after me.” No man could take his place. You see it in the former times. Men have risen up in these last days & try to show that another must be put in the place of Joseph Smith. They say, “ah Joseph Smith was a good man; he died in the faith, & has gone to receive his scepter & crown.” If he has never lost his place how can another take it?


[1] Orson Hyde to Brigham Young, 16 March 1846, Brigham Young Collection, LDS Archives.

[2] For the development of BY’s self-perceptions as a prophet, and the perceptions of others of him being a prophet, see Josh Probert’s Bushman Seminar paper, summarized at BCC.

[3] Sermon of 7 March 1846, General Minutes Collection, LDS Church Archives.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks for contributing this post, Robin. This is fascinating insight, I think, into how Latter-day Saints have negotiated their identity with a mixture of alluding to biblical precedent and stressing the miraculous and reality of revelation.

    Comment by Christopher — February 1, 2008 @ 3:44 pm

  2. Very interesting work Robin. If you don’t mind me asking, where are you doing your MLS?

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 1, 2008 @ 3:46 pm

  3. I’m almost done with my MLIS at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. I’ve just got to finish up a thesis on the development of Mormon record keeping.

    I should add, This sermon was taken by Bullock. It was clearly taken at the time of the sermon and the insertions were added (by Bullock) at a later time–presumably shortly after recording the sermon.

    Comment by Robin Jensen — February 1, 2008 @ 3:52 pm

  4. Robin: This is fascinating. I think it provides an interesting window into the variant ways in which the early Saints established continuity with the primitive church. By connecting themselves to the early apostles, the latter-day apostles were able to imagine their community as old, to use Benedict Anderson’s language, and thereby establish legitimacy, and cast other claimants as being outside of the true community.

    Comment by David G. — February 1, 2008 @ 3:56 pm

  5. David,

    I also see this throughout the early church. They were constantly showing how their organization was a continuation (or restoration) of the ancient church.

    Interestingly, this only worked so far. The Strangites continually commented early on that the church should be led by a prophet. They loved to quote the hymn written by Parley P. Pratt before Smith’s death: “[a] church without a Prophet, is not the church for me / It has not head to lead it, in it I would not be.” Many Mormons felt that their church should be led by a prophet–not by a group of 12 men.

    Comment by Robin Jensen — February 1, 2008 @ 4:11 pm

  6. Would you say Robin that the Prophet model was more of an OT model, whereas the 12 model was more NT? Basically, what kind of community did the Strangites imagine?

    Comment by David G. — February 1, 2008 @ 4:14 pm

  7. I would imagine the Strangites felt they were following the Joseph Smith model which was following the OT and the NT model. Joseph Smith, after all was the prophet (OT) who called 12 (NT) and 70 (OT? and NT).

    Strang quickly discouraged the calling of the “Brighamites” the “twelveites”. The name “twelveites”, after all, would fit the Strangites, which also had twelve apostles. In fact, Strang probably duplicated Joseph Smith’s organization better than any other Mormon group before Brigham Young became the president–not that there were that many before late 1847.

    Comment by Robin Jensen — February 1, 2008 @ 4:29 pm

  8. Good point about JS’s model being a hybrid.

    Comment by David G. — February 1, 2008 @ 4:34 pm

  9. This really is a great insight. Thanks for taking the time to share it. I can see how this would be a natural argument, but as has been noted, the idea of a presiding successor was also quite puissant and compelling. I love all the various thoughts and tracks that the Saints worked their way through during this time.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 1, 2008 @ 5:46 pm

  10. Robin: Very interesting. I wonder if this line of thinking caused any problems a few years later when Brigham decided to reorganize the First Presidency.

    Comment by Ben — February 1, 2008 @ 6:12 pm

  11. Ben, while I don’t have it front of me, Bergera’s book Conflict in the Quorum discusses the various difficulties surrounding Brigham Young’s appointment–certainly worth the read. Ron Esplin has also done some work on this.

    Comment by Robin Jensen — February 1, 2008 @ 6:18 pm

  12. Robin, Bergera’s book is mainly just quotations with unfortunately little really in depth analysis. He really doesn’t get much into the succession crisis much either.

    The big problem is that there are a lot of theological issues at play and those tend to get neglected a tad too much. (IMO) I’m not saying all historians neglect theological assertions. However the way a historian approaches such matter and the way a philosopher, lawyer or theologian does often is quite different. (And I think Bergera’s book, which tends to provide lots of quote but with little theological analysis is an example of this)

    Comment by Clark — February 1, 2008 @ 7:52 pm

  13. To be fair though, one problem is that most of the theological issues weren’t resolved. What happened tended to create theology as much as anything. So I’m certainly not suggesting the historian’s approach is incorrect. I do think more treatment of the ideas could be useful.

    There’s still a lot of work to do on the succession crisis (IMO).

    Comment by Clark — February 1, 2008 @ 7:53 pm

  14. Clark, I absolutely agree that there is plenty of work to be done on the succession crisis. An intellectual historian (or theologian, as you indicate) could really sink her or his teeth into this, and many other topics–the field in Mormon intellectual history is, to borrow from a scriptural term, white and ready to harvest.

    You make an important point about Bergera’s work. More analysis would have improved his work (although I think a book full of quotations from primary sources is better than some of the other material out there). Unfortunately, his is one of the few works dealing with this issue (the discussion among the quorum of the twelve in December 1847), so I will have to continue to direct people to his work.

    Comment by Robin Jensen — February 1, 2008 @ 11:16 pm

  15. “I would imagine the Strangites felt they were following the Joseph Smith model which was following the OT and the NT model. Joseph Smith, after all was the prophet (OT) who called 12 (NT) and 70 (OT? and NT).”

    This is a strange comment considering some modern studies of the New Testament. According to these studies, Jesus was setting up an Old Testament pattern similar to Moses. His “prophetood” was, using the Sermon on the Mount as an example, as a new lawgiver. His calling of the Twelve was a reflection of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, with the Seventy as a sort of assistant to the Twelve similar to the same organization Moses set up. In other words, the Latter-day Saints were to the NT as Jesus was to the OT pattern identification.

    By the way, Hyde’s explanation might explain why there was arguably never a First Presidency in the NT. Jesus was the head of the Church in a way that Joseph Smith never was. It begs the question, if there never was a Great Apostacy then would there ever have been a prophet position? Joseph’s position in the Latter Days vs. Jesus’ in the Meridian might explain why monumental revelation hasn’t been part of the current office. Just as Jesus was the Great Master and Finisher of our faith, Joseph Smith was the great Restorer and Seer that prepared the way for Jesus’ evenatual return. They represent a Nexis that those who follow simply support. Perhaps there was somthing to Rigdon’s argument that there would be a “gaurdian” rather than a prophetic mantle for the leadership after Joseph Smith’s death. On the other hand, I think G-d might have allowed for several directions the leadership organization could have gone to keep the Falling Away from happeninf again.

    Just some thoughts and conjectures.

    Comment by Jettboy — February 2, 2008 @ 10:03 am


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