With the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, enemies of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints thought the Church would dissolve into disarray. However, this did not happen. The members of the Church greatly mourned the prophet, and a pall of sadness hung over the Saints. However, sensing his own approaching death, the Prophet had bestowed all of the priesthood keys of the kingdom upon the twelve apostles of the Church, who quickly returned from their missions in the east to lead the Church.
Wilford Woodruff later recalled those days of 1844:
“I am a living witness to the testimony that he [Joseph Smith] gave to the Twelve Apostles when all of us received our endowments from under his hands. I remember the last speech that he ever gave us before his death. It was before we started upon our mission to the East. He stood upon his feet some three hours. The room was filled as with consuming fire, his face was as clear as amber, and he was clothed upon by the power of God. He laid before us our duty. He laid before us the fullness of this great work of God; and in his remarks to us he said: ‘I have had sealed upon my head every key, every power, every principle of life and salvation that God has ever given to any man who ever lived upon the face of the earth. And these principles and this Priesthood and power belong to this great and last dispensation which the God of Heaven has set His hand to establish in the earth. ‘Now,’ said he addressing the Twelve, ‘I have sealed upon your heads every key, every power, and every principle which the Lord has sealed upon my head.’ . . .
“After addressing us in this manner he said: ‘I tell you, the burden of this kingdom now rests upon your shoulders; you have got to bear it off in all the world, and if you don’t do it you will be damned.’”
“On this same occasion, Joseph conferred the keys of the sealing power on Brigham Young, President of the Twelve. Brigham later explained that ‘this last key of the priesthood is the most sacred of all, and pertains exclusively to the first presidency of the Church.’”
Sidney Rigdon, who had become disaffected, tried to claim the position of “guardian of the Church.” He was a great orator and a charismatic man. He and Brigham Young spoke before the people, and many in the congregation saw Brigham Young take on the image of Joseph Smith. They knew that God had chosen Brigham Young as the next prophet. They also sustained the twelve apostles as the presiding quorum of the Church. Brigham Young led the Church as its senior apostle until named as prophet in Utah.
“William W. Phelps—Church publisher, city councilman, and scribe to the Prophet—helped immeasurably in keeping order in the city. Since his return to the Church in 1842, Elder Phelps had indefatigably sought to build up the kingdom and had helped the Prophet with a number of important projects, such as the publishing of the book of Abraham and the campaign for the presidency. He was the principal speaker at the funeral services of Joseph and Hyrum. Now he helped Elders Taylor and Richards during this critical interim period. As a poet, he memorialized the Prophet in lines which later became a favorite Church hymn:
Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah!
Jesus anointed that Prophet and Seer.
Blessed to open the last dispensation,
Kings shall extol him, and nations revere.
Hail to the Prophet, ascended to heaven!
Traitors and tyrants now fight him in vain.
Mingling with Gods, he can plan for his brethren;
Death cannot conquer the hero again.”
“Parley P. Pratt was the first Apostle outside of Nauvoo to learn of the Martyrdom. He was on a steamboat headed across the Great Lakes toward Chicago. At a landing in Wisconsin, boarding passengers brought news of the Carthage murders. There was great excitement on board, and many passengers taunted him, asking what the Mormons would do now. He replied that “they would continue their mission and spread the work he [Joseph Smith] had restored, in all the world. Observing that nearly all the prophets and Apostles who were before him had been killed, and also the Saviour of the world, and yet their death did not alter the truth nor hinder its final triumph.”
“In sorrow Elder Pratt walked 105 miles across the plains of Illinois, hardly able to eat or sleep, wondering how he should ‘meet the entire community bowed down with grief and unutterable sorrow.’ He prayed for assistance. ‘On a sudden the Spirit of God came upon me, and filled my heart with joy and gladness indescribable; and while the spirit of revelation glowed in my bosom with as visible a warmth and gladness as if it were fire. The Spirit said unto me: . . . “Go and say unto my people in Nauvoo, that they shall continue to pursue their daily duties and take care of themselves, and make no movement in Church government to reorganize or alter anything until the return of the remainder of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. But exhort them that they continue to build the House of the Lord which I have commanded them to build in Nauvoo.” Arriving in Nauvoo on 8 July, Parley helped Elders Richards and Taylor keep order in the stricken community.'”
Both Sidney Rigdon and James Strang rebelled against the Twelve and formed apostate splinter groups, the Rigdonites and the Strangites, which remained very small as the main body of the Church swelled with new members and continued to be led by revelation. Within thirty years the Rigdonites had dissolved. In 1856 Strang was murdered by disaffected followers and his movement virtually collapsed.
Some of Joseph Smith’s own family did not follow the Twelve. The Prophet’s widow, Emma, could not be reconciled with the Twelve on economic and theological matters. She became embittered and influenced her children against following the direction of the Twelve. When the Saints made their exodus to the West, Emma and her family stayed in Nauvoo and Emma eventually remarried. When William Smith belatedly returned to Nauvoo from the East, he was ordained Church Patriarch to replace Hyrum. After a few months, he advanced his own claims to be Church leader. He was consequently excommunicated. Following a short association with Strang, William taught that Joseph Smith’s eldest son should, by right of lineage, inherit the presidency and that he, William, was to be guardian and president pro tem until Joseph III was of age.
There were others who refused to follow the leadership of Brigham Young and the Twelve. A few members were disaffected over plural marriage; some isolated branches did not go west and became confused as to what course they should take. During the 1850s a “new organization” gradually emerged. In 1860 leaders of the new organization (among them William Marks) formed the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and succeeded in naming Joseph Smith III to be its president. Eventually it established its headquarters in Independence, Missouri.
The Reorganized Church still exists under the name “Community of Christ.” With about 250,000 members it has become more like any Protestant congregation and has lately struggled both for funds and for membership.
The apostolic succession in 1844 established the principles and set the pattern for future reorganizations of the Presidency of the Church. Following the death of each President, the keys of the kingdom, which have been conferred upon each Apostle at his ordination, reside with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as a body (see D&C 107:23–24;112:15).
Elder Spencer W. Kimball, in a general conference address in 1970, explained the process: “The moment life passes from a President of the Church, a body of men become the composite leader—these men already seasoned with experience and training. The appointments have long been made, the authority given, the keys delivered. . . . the kingdom moves forward under this already authorized council. No ‘running’ for position, no electioneering, no stump speeches. What a divine plan! How wise our Lord, to organize so perfectly beyond the weakness of frail, grasping humans.”
The Lord controls succession in his church. President Ezra Taft Benson explained, “God knows all things, the end from the beginning, and no man becomes President of the church of Jesus Christ by accident, nor remains there by chance, nor is called home by happenstance.”
*Parts of this article have been adapted from the LDS Institute Church History Manual.