By Lane Thuet
Perhaps the most well known story of prophetic succession in the LDS Church would be that of Brigham Young after the death of Joseph Smith, Jr. Most Mormons are familiar with this miraculous story. A special conference for the church had been called on August 8, 1844 at 10:00 am. Brigham Young believed the 12 apostles should lead the church from that point on. Sidney Rigdon claimed he was to be the next prophet. Each got up to plead his case to the church. When Brigham Young got up, it is said that the mantle of Joseph Smith fell upon him and that he both looked like Joseph Smith and sounded like Joseph Smith as he spoke. Thus, those who witnessed the transfiguration knew Brigham Young had been called by God to lead the church as the next prophet.
But did this really happen? Researcher and scholar D. Michael Quinn wrote, “…not everyone present at the August 1844 conference experienced this manifestation. About twenty people voted against the apostles. Most accepted the calm logic of the apostles without seeing a miraculous transfiguration of Young.” (, p.167). Quinn cites several examples that show the vote was not unanimous in favor of Brigham Young, as most Mormons are led to believe. He even quotes others who were there – including future apostle Ezra T. Benson (b. 1811) – that did not witness this miraculous vision.
There was hard evidence that Joseph Smith, Jr. had already set apart his son, Joseph Smith III, to be the next prophet of the church. This was given in a Patriarchal Blessing. So what was to be done? One of the contenders had a “miraculous manifestation.” Another had physical proof of his calling. There were still others who felt led by the Spirit to be the next leader. Because of these problems, the church membership sidestepped the succession dilemma by leaving it up to the Quorum of Twelve Apostles to decide the matter themselves.
Among quorum members, they could not decide what should be the determining factor. Should it be decided by one’s position in the Council of Fifty (a parapolitical body organized on 10 March 1844, to advance the Kingdom of God in a political sense), or perhaps by the order in which they received their “second anointing” (the highest temple ceremony in the Church – anointing men as Kings and Priests to God). Perhaps the Quorum of Seventy should be the ruling authority, the High Priests group, or the Nauvoo high council.
But if the matter were to be settled by referring to the Council of Fifty, then William Marks would be the next prophet. This council ranked their membership by age, and Marks was the oldest of the group. If the date of second anointing were the determining factor, then Marks was once again in seniority to the other apostles who were in this Quorum of the Anointed.
Brigham Young wanted the office for himself. This was evident by a statement he made to the general conference of the Church on October 6, 1844. He said, “If you don’t know whose right it is to give revelations, I will tell you. It is I.” (History of the Church 7:288).
Young was determined to remove every obstacle to his ascension. Under his direction as president of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, Sidney Rigdon was excommunicated. The Council of Seventy was put in subordination to the Quorum of the Twelve. William Marks was publicly repudiated and only kept from excommunication by the intervention of the other apostles. Young also reduced the powers of the Nauvoo high council. On September 29, 1844, he ordained 63 men to the First Quorum of Seventy, all of them in submission to the current apostles.
By the time of the October general conference that year, the Quorum of Twelve ranked alone as the highest authority for the Church. That same day, Young removed William Marks as president of the Nauvoo Stake. Many high priests, whom the Quorum of Apostles did not have jurisdiction over, were sent on missions or assigned to be presidents over the various branches of the church abroad – thereby forcing them under the control of the apostles (The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power, pp.173-178).
Young was determined that nothing would stand in his way of becoming the next prophet. He even signed a letter on December 5, 1844 as “Priest of the Church of L.D.S.” (Brigham Young to David Rogers, Dec. 5, 1844, Beinecke Library; cited in Quinn, p. 175).
Finally, on April 7, 1845, at a conference of the Church in Nauvoo, Brigham got his wish. The manuscript minutes of that conference show that Young was sustained at that time “as the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to this Church and nation, and all nations, and also as the President of the whole Church of Latter Day Saints.” (Minutes of Conference April 7, 1845; also in Daniel Davis Diary, December 1845 – both in LDS Archives). He must have feared the reaction of those he had sent abroad, however, because when the Conference Report was printed in Times and Seasons 6 (April 15, 1845, p.870), this portion of the meeting was deleted. It was further omitted from the History of the Church as well (7:391-392). Thus, only those who were present at the conference knew that Brigham had been sustained as the next prophet. They found out long after his place had been solidified as the second prophet of the church.
When the facts are examined, the truth becomes evident. Brigham Young’s succession to the presidency of the LDS Church was determined more by shrewd planning and manipulation by Brigham himself than it was by a miraculous manifestation at the special conference.