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Crash Course Mormonism: Church Leaders

By Eric Johnson

According to Mormonism, the restored church is supposed to have the same leadership organization as what is described in the Bible. These leaders are supposed to have a direct connection with God, helping them guide the church in truth. Let’s take a look at the top leaders known as general authorities:

Prophet / President

A General Authority who holds the highest office in the LDS Church is called the prophet or president of the church. An apostle becomes president when he is the longest serving member of the Quorum of the Twelve. Thus, when the current president passes away, the apostle with the most seniority takes his place. It is the president’s duty to preside over the whole church. The original founder, Joseph Smith, was the first president. Currently (as of June 2020) President Russell M. Nelson holds the top office.

Tenth President Joseph Fielding Smith explained the role of the president:

The President of the Church holds the keys over all the Church. . . .  In him is concentrated the power of the Priesthood. He holds all the keys of every nature, pertaining to the dispensation of the Fulness of Times. All the keys of former dispensations which have been revealed, are vested in him” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith, 2013, p. 157. Ellipsis in original).

Eleventh President Harold B. Lee explained,

A prophet does not become a spiritual leader by studying books about religion, nor does he become one by attending a theological seminary. . . . One becomes a prophet or a religious leader by actual spiritual contacts. The true spiritual expert thus gets his diploma directly from God (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, 2000, p. 73. Ellipsis in original).

Thirteenth President Ezra Taft Benson said that the prophet could also be trusted, even if what he said went against earthly knowledge:

The prophet is not required to have any particular earthly training or credentials to speak on any subject or act on any matter at any time. Sometimes there are those who feel their earthly knowledge on a certain subject is superior to the heavenly knowledge which God gives to His prophet on the same subject. They feel the prophet must have the same earthly credentials or training which they have had before they will accept anything the prophet has to say that might contradict their earthly schooling. How much earthly schooling did Joseph Smith have? Yet he gave revelations on all kinds of subjects. We haven’t yet had a prophet who earned a doctorate in any subject, but as someone said, “A prophet may not have his Ph.D. but he certainly has his LDS.” We encourage earthly knowledge in many areas, but remember, if there is ever a conflict between earthly knowledge and the words of the prophet, you stand with the prophet, and you will be blessed and time will vindicate you. (“Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet,” in 1980 Devotional Speeches of the Year [Provo: BYU Press, 1981], p. 27.) (Ezra Taft Benson, The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, p. 137).

First Presidency

The prophet and his two chosen counselors make up the First Presidency. These three men have the highest position in Mormonism. Benson taught:

Doctrinal interpretation is the province of the First Presidency. The Lord has given that stewardship to them by revelation. No teacher has the right to interpret doctrine for the members of the Church. If Church members would remember that, we could do away with a number of books which have troubled some of our people (The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, p. 317).

The prophet and the presidency – the living prophet and the First Presidency – follow them and be blessed; reject them and suffer (The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, p. 334).


There are twelve apostles. When one of the members of the First Presidency or an apostle passes away, a new apostle is chosen. Joseph Fielding Smith explained,

STATUS OF THE TWELVE AS REVELATORS FOR CHURCH. The Twelve Apostles have been sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators ever since the time of the dedication of the Kirtland Temple. There is only one man at a time who holds the keys of revelation for the Church. The Twelve Apostles may receive revelation to guide them in their labors and to assist them in setting in order the priesthood and organizations of the Church (Doctrines of Salvation 3:156-157).


According to Doctrine and Covenants 107:34, “The Seventy are to act in the name of the Lord, under the direction of the Twelve or the traveling high council, in building up the church and regulating all the affairs of the same in all nations, first unto the Gentiles and then to the Jews.” There are several different “quorums,” including those who are called “local seventies.”

What does Christianity Teach

According to the Bible, Jesus is the only prophet whom needed by humans. As Hebrews 1:1-2 says,

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.

In addition, Jesus is the only apostle that Christians need. Hebrews 3:1 says, “Therefore, holy brothers you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession.” And there never was an office of “Seventy” in the Bible, even though Jesus did send out the “seventy” to evangelize in Luke 10.

Verses wrongly used by some Latter-day Saints to support the need for “latter-day” leaders include:

Other articles to consider:

Test your Understanding

  1. The top leader of the church is known as the President, or as _________________.

A) The top dog     B) A  Seventy    C) First Counselor     D) Prophet

2. The First Presidency is made up of the president and ___ apostles who are the president’s counselors.

A) 1    B) 2   C) 3   D) Depends on the wishes of the president

3. When the president dies, what determines who will become the next president?

A) The longevity as an apostle (senior apostle is picked)

B) A vote by the apostles

C) The previous president names a successor

D) The First Counselor automatically gets chosen

E) None of the above

4, Which of the following is NOT true of the president of this church?

A) He doesn’t have to have earthly training to speak on any topic

B) He must have biblical training at an LDS college or seminary

C) He should be believed regardless of the Mormon’s personal opinion

D) All are true about the president of the LDS Church

5. According to biblical Christianity, the true prophet for the world today is:

A) The LDS president     B) The Holy Spirit     C) Jesus    D) God the Father

Answers to the quiz

  1. D
  2. B
  3. A
  4. B
  5. C

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