I was recently discussing the 1844 LDS Succession Crisis with some friends. Although as a second gen Mormon I have no pioneer ancestors, I do sometimes wonder what I would have done had I been there. The Mormon Succession Crisis was truly unplanned, resulting in confusion, bad feelings, and schism.  If you had been in Nauvoo in 1844, which faction would you have followed?

It’s easy to feel complacent about leadership succession in our current structure in the LDS church. There’s literally no room for question as it is entirely based on seniority among the apostles. God chooses successors by default, last man standing–or breathing, if not standing. There’s no voting, no campaigning. There’s not even an election like in Catholicism (and their succession model is pretty steady and predictable, but not as change-averse as our own). There are no coups, no changes to status quo. In an increasingly conservative church, this is maddening to some of us who would like to see more progressive thinking, but at least we don’t have to deal with weird left-field changes or unknown leaders assuming power. Kevin Barney, who was also in that discussion, wrote about the pros and cons of the downstream impacts from the succession crisis at BCC here.

But it could have all been very different. When the church was new, there were a lot of open questions about who should lead, and these questions led to confusion, power plays, accusations, excommunications, and schisms. There were many open questions plaguing church members.

  • Did the First Presidency outrank the Quorum of the Twelve?
  • Was the “prophetic gift” something genetic that occurred in the Smith family specifically?
  • Should one of the quorums lead in Joseph’s absence?
  • Did Joseph choose a prophetic successor based on his own prophetic gift?

The succession crisis was fueled by rumors that Joseph had, at different times, identified all of these potentials as successors (apparently he gave out succession blessings like horehound candy):

Family Members

  • Hyrum Smith. He was not only the current Assistant President of the Church [1] but he was also the Presiding Patriarch. Of course, he couldn’t succeed since he was martyred with his brother.
  • Samuel Smith. According to lineal succession, Smith’s younger brother Samuel was the next in line; however, he died suddenly and unexpectedly (and some felt suspiciously) a month after the martyrdom.
  • William Smith. Next in line after Samuel was the last surviving Smith brother, William. He only claimed the right to succeed as Presiding Patriarch, not church President, but much later revised his claim (and with little success). He also claimed that Brigham Young had poisoned his brother Samuel in his own bid to head the church. There was no evidence of foul play, and Young denied any involvement.
  • Sons of Joseph & Emma Smith. Many had heard Joseph state that his oldest son and namesake would be his successor (in 1834 and 1839), and in April of 1844, he had also prophesied that his unborn child would be named David and would lead the church as “President and King of Israel.”[2] When he died, his oldest son was still only 11 years of age, not yet ready to take on leadership of the church.

Prominent Church Figures

  • Oliver Cowdery. He had been the “Second Elder” of the church from day one and jointly held the keys of the dispensation. He had also been present at all of the major events of the church’s foundation. He was later ordained Assistant President of the Church and had authority to preside over the whole church and officiate in the absence of Joseph, but he had been excommunicated in 1838.
  • David Whitmer. Joseph had blessed him in 1834 to be a successor, but Whitmer had left the church in 1838.

Council Leadership

  • First Presidency. Because the First Presidency was the top leadership body of the church, many members felt that leadership would naturally default to them. Since Sidney Rigdon was the only remaining member of the FP (both Hyrum and Joseph having been killed), he was the obvious choice. He returned from campaigning for the Vice Presidency in Pennsylvania (under Joseph’s instruction), and he claimed he had received a revelation that he was to serve as “guardian” of the church.
  • Quorum of the Twelve. The Q12 were ordained to be traveling ministers originally but in later years had been invested with more of a governing role, and Brigham Young, as leader of the quorum, had become a particularly close confidant to Smith in his final years. Young had often taken charge in Smith’s absence during the last years of Smith’s life.
  • Nauvoo High Council. The President was William Marks, and Emma urged him to succeed her husband, but he deferred to Sidney Rigdon’s superior claim. Marks, as local leader in Nauvoo, called for a conference on August 8th to decide the issue.
  • The Council of Fifty. This was a group of men trusted by Joseph in his presidential bid. Some of them were non-Mormons. Smith had specifically said the Lord was ready to let him rest for a while and it was time for these men to step up. This statement could have caused further confusion, but nobody stepped forward to claim the role.

Prophetic Leader

  • James Strang. He had been baptized only a few months prior to the martyrdom, but he was considered a strong candidate for succession because he claimed a prophetic call and to have visions and commune with angels. He also claimed the gift of translation (having translated ancient plates he found). Brigham Young never claimed to be prophetic instead clarifying to the Saints in the Times & Seasons newspaper: “You no longer have a prophet, but you have apostles.” Strang held a Letter of Appointment allegedly penned by Joseph Smith in the month of his death appointing him as successor. The evidence regarding the letter was inconclusive; Smith did write to Strang at the time noted, the postmark on the letter was confirmed, but some experts claimed the letter was forged. The letter is still in a collection at Yale University. Strang did not have name recognition in Nauvoo as he lived in Wisconsin. He mainly exercised his claim in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin, and at one time had support from members of the Smith family (whose loyalties seemed to change from month to month) as well as Martin Harris. [5]

In Nauvoo, at least, it initially boiled down to Rigdon’s claim vs. Young’s claim, and Young had been more visible to them in recent months due to the presidential bid that had required Rigdon to be out of state. So, like hip hop gangs in the movies, they settled this by competitive street dance off. Well, kind of–Rigdon & Young each campaigned in front of the assembled Saints on August 8, 1844 (at the meeting set up by Marks)–they campaigned the heck out of it in the few days prior. Young rode Joseph Smith’s horse through town, as a demonstration of his replacing the beloved leader (“See? Even his horse likes me! Make Nauvoo great again!”).[4] Rigdon pointed out that he alone was set apart as a “prophet, seer, and revelator” unlike the apostles, and he alone as a member of the First Presidency was a decision maker whereas they were not. He pitched Young and the Quorum of the Twelve as a substantial downgrade: unqualified functionaries, not prophetic leaders like him.

From the Wikipedia page:

After Rigdon spoke for ninety minutes, Young called for a recess of two and a half hours. When the conference resumed, Young spoke, emphasizing the idea that no man could ever replace Joseph Smith. However, he stated that the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles had all the “keys of the priesthood” that Smith had held. He answered Rigdon’s proposal to be named “guardian” by claiming that Rigdon and Smith had become estranged in recent years. Rather than a single guardian, Young proposed that the Quorum of the Twelve be named the church’s leadership. Rigdon declined an offer to rebut Young, asking Phelps to speak for him. Instead Phelps spoke in favor of Young’s proposal. The assembled church members then voted by common consent on whether or not to accept the Twelve as the new leaders over the church. The majority voted in favor of the Twelve. Those who opposed the vote against Young were all later excommunicated from the Nauvoo church.[Link]

There were a lot of excommunications going on at this time in the struggle for a successor. On September 8, the Common Council of the Church under the leadership of Newel K. Whitney (of the infamous tobacco stained upstairs floors) excommunicated Sidney Rigdon in absentia; he, in turn, excommunicated the members of the Quorum of the Twelve.

While exact numbers of church members at that time are not known, there were roughly 25,000. If you took 25 typical Nauvoo Mormons in 1844, here’s where they would have ended up:

  • 10 would have followed Brigham Young and decided to go west in 1847.
  • 1 would have followed Sidney Rigdon who founded the Church of Jesus Christ (aka Rigdonites, later Bickertonites, aka The Church of Jesus Christ).
  • 2 would have followed Strang, possibly relocating to Wisconsin or one of the other areas in the northern midwest.
  • 5 would have stayed behind to pin their hopes on the Smith Family’s leadership waiting for Joseph III to be old enough to take control, under the trust of Marks and other local leaders as well as his mother Emma’s guidance.
  • 7 would have left the church and returned to their old faiths or followed other leaders.

Even after the conference, Brigham Young’s position as President was tenuous as there was no precedent. He was well-known in Nauvoo and seen as a leader, and those whom Joseph had inaugurated into the still secretive doctrine of plural marriage knew that Brigham was also in the know (whereas Rigdon was opposed to it, and James Strang hadn’t been to Nauvoo and wasn’t involved in it). Those who despised polygamy (or who were only aware of Smith’s public denials) were less likely to be happy with Young. Even among the Quorum of the Twelve, there was disagreement about the succession–even three years later!

On December 27, 1847, when Young organized a new First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve only had seven of its twelve members present to represent a council to decide the Presidency. William Smith, John Taylor and Parley P. Pratt were in the Salt Lake Valley and could not have known of the proceedings. This left just seven present, a majority of one meaning Young would have to vote for himself in order to gain a majority quorum vote in favor of his leadership. Young chose two of the other apostles, Heber C. Kimball and Willard Richards, as his counselors in the First Presidency. This left only four members of the Quorum of the Twelve present to vote in favor of creation of the new First Presidency: Orson Hyde, Wilford Woodruff, George A. Smith, and Orson Pratt. The Church of Jesus Christ (founded by Sidney Rigdon) views this action as a violation of church law compromising the authority of Sidney Rigdon without a majority quorum vote.[Link] 

Which brings me back to my original question: what would you have done if you were around in 1844?

  • Would you follow Brigham Young and the twelve to the west, accepting polygamy as part of the bargain?
  • Would you consider Ridgon’s authority superior and followed him to Pennsylvania when he claimed the twelve tried to harm him?
  • Would you believe Strang’s claim to the prophetic mantle was most compelling?
  • Would you stay in Nauvoo, waiting until Joseph’s son reached his age of majority?
  • Would you leave the movement with so much confusion?

Personally, I think I would have found Rigdon’s claim most compelling until he deferred to Phelps at the conference (and Phelps supported Young). At that point I would have given up and been one of the 7 who walked away. How about you?


[1] or was it Assistant TO the President? h/t Dwight Schrute.

[2] David Hyrum Smith was born November 17, 1844 and was active in the RLDS church, but did not lead it. He was a strong opponent of polygamy as was his older brother Joseph III. Joseph & Emma had twins, a male & female, who died in infancy, and an adopted daughter (Julia Murdock Smith) who lived to age 49 but was not considered for succession; her male twin died in infancy due to exposure after the mob attack on the Smith home in 1832. All other Smith children were male.

[3] From my discussion with historian John Hamer: “There’s very little hope of calculating meaningful numbers. The LDS Church today is a very organized, corporate entity that holds deeds to ward houses wherever there are congregations, and which operates a centralized membership database and archives. This is a very different situation than the early church in 1844, which was a largely vernacular, informal, amateur affair, that had no proprietary control over local branches, which were almost universally holding cottage meetings.

The situation in the schism is not that there were suddenly multiple, discrete, corporate entities, which gained custody of different branch and individual membership certificates. The way I see it is that for many years there was still one church that had multiple headquarters organizations. For a local member in Bloomington, Illinois, they may well have thought of the Twelve as the lawful successors for a time, and then perhaps James Strang, and then looked to the New Organization (the proto-RLDS organization) before ultimately setting John E. Page and Granville Hedrick.

Membership numbers in the movement continue to be problematic. Are we counting everyone in all the branches in North America and Europe who had been baptized between 1830 and 1844 and not been either excommunicated by a church court or formally withdrawn their membership to get to the total? If we have a different standard of only counting people who considered themselves Mormon at the time, or people who were actively attending a branch, how could we calculate such a thing? You can probably count the people who immigrated to Utah, but you’d need to subtract anyone who went to Utah but converted after June of 1844.

I think it’s safe to say that a majority of those gathered to Nauvoo followed Brigham Young west and that this represented a minority of those who had been baptized 1830-1844; whether it represents a majority of those who were “really, really active” is difficult to define and the answer is likely, in my view, to remain unclear.”

[4] The well known story about Young’s face taking on the appearance of Smith at the August conference is not recorded in any contemporary accounts but emerged decades later in the Salt Lake valley as individuals looked back on that day.

[5] Shades of Denver Snuffer?