The Training of a Prophet Part 1: The Quorum of the Twelve

A few years ago, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had the opportunity of seeing a transition of leadership take place. In late January of 2008, President Gordon B. Hinckley passed away. A week later on the third of February, President Thomas S. Monson was sustained as president of the Church—a role he continues to fulfill.

Current President of the Church--Thomas S. Monson

Current President of the Church–Thomas S. Monson

The process by which he was sustained President of the Church was a fairly mechanical one—one that had its beginnings with Brigham Young’s assumption of leadership and that was crystalized by the time Joseph F. Smith became president of the Church in 1901. When the President of the Church dies, the First Presidency is dissolved and the Quorum of the Twelve becomes the ruling body of the Church. The member who has been serving as an apostle for the longest consecutive term is the president of the Quorum of the Twelve and—since that organization is at the head of the Church—is the leader of the Church until the First Presidency is formed again. A meeting of the Quorum of the Twelve is held—usually the Sunday after the previous president’s death—where the question of whether it is time to reorganize the Presidency is discussed. If the decision is made to go ahead with the process, the Quorum of the Twelve unanimously selects the next president, which so far has always been the longest-serving apostle. The First Presidency is organized with counselors and next-longest serving apostle is sustained as the president of the Twelve. The president of the Quorum of the Twelve, along with the rest of the apostles (who all hold the keys of the presidency) sets apart the new president of the Church through a formal laying-on-of-hands.

It’s an orderly process and a sensible one. “No one who has known the order of things speculates on who will be the next President of the Church. It has always been this pattern. There is no aspiring for the position, no avoiding the Lord’s will” wrote President Boyd K. Packer.[1] Responding to those who felt like the process is too formalized and that the Lord should reach down and declare His will each time a prophet passes away, apostle and theologian Elder Bruce R. McConkie stated that: “It was not required, nor was it requisite or needed, that the Lord give any revelation, that any special direction be given. The law was already ordained and established. God does not look down each morning and say, ‘The sun shall rise.’ He has already established the law, he has set the sun in the firmament, and the sun operates in harmony with established law in its rising. And so it was with the transfer of leadership.”[2]

Still, many look to such examples as Moses’s speaking to an angel in the burning bush; Isaiah’s vision involving seraphim and visiting the throne of God; Lehi’s beholding of a pillar of fire; and Joseph Smith seeing the Father and the Son in a pillar of light and wonder why prophets today don’t have experiences like that. We do have a few—such as Lorenzo Snow’s visit with the Savior in the Salt Lake Temple—but most successions are not that exotic or dramatic.[3] They are usually more along the lines of Joshua succeeding Moses or the prophetic mantle of Elijah falling on Elisha.

Prophetic calls. From left: Moses, Isaiah, Joseph Smith

Prophetic calls. From left: Moses, Isaiah, Joseph Smith

While simply passing the mantle on may be less exciting, it is easier and more practical in the end. Why is it more practical? The simple answer is experience and continuity: the Church will always be with a leader, there is no chaos in the transfer of power, and the new president will be trained and experienced. Elder B.H. Roberts taught this by stating that:

When the king of England dies, a herald is sent out to make the announcement, which he does in this form: “The King is dead. Long live the King.” No sooner is the announcement made that the king is dead than it is followed by the other sentence, Long live the king. It is an announcement which means that though the king has just died, yet England has not been an instant without a ruler. In one breath the passing of one monarch is made known, and the all hail given to his immediate successor. That is the theory of the British constitution, that while kings may come and go, the British sovereign always is, and there is no lapse in succession to the throne. In some such way that is true of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also. From the time it was organized by divine appointment of God there has never been a moment when there has not been a President of the Church of Jesus Christ in the earth. And although presidents may come and go in the future, my faith is that there will never be a time when there is not an immediate successor in the presidency. The constitution of the Church makes this provision.[4]

In this approach, it must be understood that prophets are human beings—people, just like you and me. They have not had some sort of mind meld with God and now have all knowledge and all power. We learn that Elijah “was a man subject to like passions as we are” (James 5:17). He operated through the same lines of communication that we do. Similarly, Joseph Smith stated that:

I was … introduced to a man from the east. After hearing my name, he remarked that I was nothing but a man, indicating by this expression, that he had supposed that a person to whom the Lord should see fit to reveal His will, must be something more than a man. … Such is the darkness and ignorance of this generation, that they look upon it as incredible that a man should have any [dealings] with his Maker.”[5]

It cannot be assumed that prophets are anything more than mortal men with the limitations and weaknesses that brings.

Our prophets and apostles have acknowledged the fact that they are mortals that are learning to master the principles of revelation. Elder B.H. Roberts once stated that,

We do not believe that the will of man will control in these matters [of revelation]. From some things that have been said recently relative to revelation one would reach the conclusion that because we have in our midst prophets and apostles, inspired men, God and angels and the Holy Spirit are subject to their beck and call; and because a man is upheld as a prophet of God some people seem to suppose that he may enter the presence of God when he will and talk with Him face to face; or, that by his summons, a prophet may bring angels to his side at his own sweet will! Not so. These divine things are under the control of the Lord Almighty, and He will reveal Himself when and in whatsoever mode seemeth Him good. … The times and modes of revelation are in the hands of God.[6]

President Henry B. Eyering likewise stated in a mission presidents’ seminar that:

Getting revelation is hard. It is not easy. The phrase ‘the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost’ is possible, but oh it is so hard. … They [missionaries] will hit walls … they will come to places where they know they should get revelation and they will not find that it comes, and they will struggle with that, and  you need to know how to help them. Now, I say that because I’ve had that experience. …

[It] seems to be you’d say: ‘isn’t that ridiculous, Brother Eyering—you’re a prophet, you’re a seer, you’re a revelator—surely for you, you wouldn’t be concerned.’ Oh yes, I’m concerned. The things that you’re told to do… are true: that is if you will pray, if you will study the scriptures, those are the things that bring the Holy Ghost, but it is not easy. Even President Kimball, I can remember him saying once that when he felt that the heaven was closed to him, he would go back to the scriptures again. The thought that a prophet of God, you see, would find days when the heavens seem closed to him” would mean that we all will deal with that problem.[7]

This shows that prophets are not so different from us: they are mastering the same methods of communicating with the heavens that we are, and they are given tutors, trainers, and teachers to help them learn to do so. In that same speech, President Eyering went on to say: “Now, I thought I’d give you the little I know about how to help [the missionaries have the gifts of the Spirit].

“I have the best presidents you can imagine. … I will simply tell you the little I’ve learned from how I’ve been trained. Would you believe that they train prophet, seers, and revelators? Oh you bet—Elder Uchtdorf is learning.”[8] Prophets, seers, and revelators need training, and that training comes from other prophet, seers, and revelators.

In looking for Biblical examples of prophetic apprenticeships, we first turn to Elijah and Elisha. Elisha served as Elijah’s disciple and attendant for six or seven years. He had been appointed as Elijah’s successor by the Lord through Elijah at the beginning of that period (see 1 Kings 19:16-21) and was known as being Elijah’s follower after he became the leading prophet in the Northern Kingdom following Elijah’s translation (see 2 Kings 3:11). It could be said that the Lord had called Elisha as an apprentice prophet when he told Elijah to “anoint [Elisha] to be prophet in thy room” (1 Kings 19:16). Though he was in many ways Elijah’s opposite in background, personality, and style, Elisha was accepted as his legitimate successor by the sons of the prophets because of the mantle he had received from his tutor and the miracle he worked (see 2 Kings 2:14-15). He went on to serve as a prophet for over fifty years. The transfer or authority was quick and Elisha had been trained for the role he would fulfill by another prophet—a very practical approach to succession.

The passing on of the prophetic mantle from Elijah to Elisha

The passing on of the prophetic mantle from Elijah to Elisha

In the case of Joshua and Moses, we again see the pattern of preparing a future prophet through association with a prophet. Joshua was born before the exodus and he served as Moses’s servant while he was a young man. He has many experiences close to Moses such as being away from the Camp of Israel with the prophet when he was in the mount to commune with the Lord (see Exodus 24:13; 32:17) or spending time in the tent of meeting around the time Moses spoke with the Lord face to face (see Exodus 33:11). He was appointed as Moses’s successor by revelation (see Exodus 27:18 f.; 34:17; cf. Deut. 1:38; 3:28; 31:3, 23; 34:9). Then, when the time came that Moses’s ministry came to an end, “Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom; for Moses had laid his hands upon him; and the children of Israel hearkened unto him, and did as the Lord commanded Moses” even though “there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses” (Deut 34:9-10). He has been trained by the prophet who had founded the dispensation and carried on his role, leading the Lord’s people to Canaan and upholding the law of Moses all his days.

Examples in the Book of Mormon exist too, but space will note permit discussion of these. Turning, however, to our dispensation, Joseph Smith was the restorer who was called by the Father and visited by angels. His successor, Brigham Young, was trained by the prophet and prepared for the role. Brigham Young grew up close to Manchester, NY and heard about the Church in its early days. After looking into the issue for over a year-and-a-half, he was baptized in April 1832. A year later, he met Joseph Smith. Later on he would say that: “I know how I received the knowledge that I have got,” and went on to relate that “when I first saw Joseph, I had but one prayer, and I offered that all the time. And that was that I might be permited to hear Joseph speak on doctrine, and see his mind reach out untramelled to grasp the deep things of God.” He maintained that “an angel never watched him closer” and that he “would constantly watch him and if possible learn doctrine and principle beyond that which he expressed.”

It required several years of this close attention to the Prophet, he declared with some exaggeration, ‘before I pretended to open my mouth to speak at all.’[9] Brigham Young took care to never ‘let an opportunity pass of getting with the Prophet Joseph and of hearing him speak in public or in private, so that I might draw understanding from the fountain from which he spoke.’ ‘This,’ he insisted, ‘is the secret of the success of your humble servant.’[10][11]

Brigham Young would later recall that during the Kirtland period: “I always took the opportunity, whenever possible, to attend High Council meetings [though he was not a member of that council] that I might learn principle and wisdom from the mouth of the Prophet.”[12] He consistently tried to follow the prophet’s advice, including enlisting in what has become known as Zion’s Camp.

The camp was an important part of Brigham Young’s training. When talking to some who criticized the effort, he related that: “I told those brethren that I was well paid—paid with heavy interest—yea that my measure was filled to overflowing with the knowledge that I had received by traveling with the Prophet.”[13] Much of the knowledge he gained on the 1,000 mile march was put to use later on when he had to organize the Saints and lead them on an exodus of similar length to the Rockies.

Joseph Smith trained Brigham Young.

Joseph Smith trained Brigham Young.

Soon after that experience, during 1835, Brigham Young was among those selected to serve in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. It was in this role that he would receive further training and experience in Church leadership. Since seniority in the quorum was initially determined by age, Brigham Young was third in order, with Thomas B. Marsh as president of the group. With President Marsh’s excommunication and David Patten’s death in 1838, Brigham Young became president of the Quorum. In this capacity, he led the exodus out of Missouri while Joseph Smith was in Liberty Jail, and then led Twelve on a mission to Great Britain in 1839. This latter event was important for a number of reasons in the future—it helped forge a stronger sense of unity in the Quorum of the Twelve, forced them to grow in their leadership abilities, and created a support base of converts familiar with leadership from President Young and that group. It was while they were in England that Brigham Young was sustained as president of the Twelve. This quorum would serve as the training ground for all future presidents of the Church.

The training Brigham Young and the other apostles went through with Joseph Smith wasn’t always easy. According to Truman G. Madsen, there is a story in Young family lore that

says that in a meeting the Prophet rebuked Brigham Young from his head to his feet for something he had done, or something he was supposed to have done but hadn’t—the detail is unclear. And it may well have been that the Prophet was deliberately putting Brigham Young to a test. When he had finished the rebuke, everyone in the room waited for the response. … In a voice everyone could tell was sincere, he said simply, “Joseph, what do you want me to do?” And the story says that the Prophet burst into tears, came down from the stand, threw his arms around Brigham, and said, in effect, “Brother Brigham, you passed.”[14]

Joseph could be a very stern man and wanted to make sure that the brethren were prepared for the role they would take on in the Church and wasn’t afraid to rebuke them because of it.

Being moved upon by the Spirit, Joseph Smith took care to give the Twelve special instruction and power during the last few months of his life. Wilford Woodruff—who (along with John Taylor) had been ordained to the Quorum by this time—recalled that Joseph Smith “spent the last winter of his life, some three or four months, with the quorum of the Twelve teaching them. It was not merely a few hours of ministering to them the ordinances of the gospel; but he spent day after day, week after week and month after month, teaching them and a few others the things of the kingdom of God.”[15]  “You give us no rest,” Orson Pratt said. “The Spirit urges me,” Joseph replied.[16] Joseph worked to summarize and instruct them all in his teachings.

Joseph instructs the Twelve

Joseph instructs the Twelve

Then, during March of 1844, he gave the Twelve the keys of the kingdom. Wilford Woodruff later said:

I remember the last speech that [Joseph Smith] ever gave us before his death. … 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 God of Heaven has set His hand to establish on 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.”[17]

Shortly before his death, Joseph had taught the Twelve, prepared them to assume leadership in the Church, and put them in positions of power so they could lead after he would be gone. Even with the preparation that he had given the Quorum and various things that he had said to or about Brigham Young, Joseph left no clear successor in the eyes of the people. The prophet’s public and private statements between 1834 and 1844 suggested at least eight different methods for succession, each pointing to different successors with some claims to validity.[18] In the crisis that followed, Brigham Young and the Twelve won over the majority of the Saints to their cause. Though the story of a transfiguration of Brigham Young to look and sound like Joseph Smith at a public meeting may be more myth than fact,[19] it was commented in a contemporary newspaper that the mantle of the Prophet rested upon him and, “the same spirit which inspired our beloved bro. Joseph Smith, now inspires Pres. Young.”[20] The Quorum of the Twelve assumed leadership of the Church after the death of Joseph Smith, and when the First Presidency was organized a few years later, Brigham Young assumed the same role that Joseph Smith had filled in leading the Church. Within that capacity, Brigham carried out most successfully the vision for Mormonism that Joseph taught during the Nauvoo era. Even Young’s rival, Sidney Rigdon admitted that Mormonism had changed in Nauvoo and, while he did not agree with the changes, “in 1840… its history tended in a different direction and found its level in the order of things which now exist in Utah.”[21]

From the time of Brigham Young onwards, all future presidents of the Church came from the Quorum of the Twelve. This gave them experience that prepared them for leadership of the Church as a whole—ranging from 9 years of apostolic experience (Brigham Young) to sixty years (Joseph Fielding Smith).  Changeover is gradual in the Quorum of the Twelve—the most members being ordained in one year after the initial organization being four (1849), and the average years of service in the quorum being about twenty seven years–giving ample opportunity for training and teaching to be passed on. President Boyd K. Packer—current president of the Twelve—recalled in a newspaper interview that when he was first called as an assistant to the Twelve:

“I had quite a schooling as I learned from the senior Brethren,” President Packer said. “I learned to be taught.

“It’s one thing to study the gospel and another to study men who have given their lives to it,” he said of the Brethren with whom he served in the early years as a General Authority and who since have passed away. “President McKay had a great influence on me. Elder Marion G. Romney, Elder N. Eldon Tanner and Elder Kimball were my mentors.

"Elder Marion G. Romney, Elder N. Eldon Tanner and Elder Kimball were my mentors."

“Elder Marion G. Romney, Elder N. Eldon Tanner and Elder Kimball were my mentors.”

“Elder LeGrand Richards (born in 1886) was my history book. I learned in those early days to associate with the older Brethren. I would walk back from meetings in the temple with Elder Richards. He walked very slowly because he had a crippled leg. The other Brethren would say, ‘Oh, you’re so kind.’ I thought, ‘You don’t know how selfish I am.’ I would ask Elder Richards questions. He knew everything.”

President Packer spoke of his associations with Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, who on Jan. 23, 1970, became the 10th president of the Church. “He was a wonderful man. I liked to be around him and just listen to him and study him.” Elder Packer worked closely with Elder Harold B. Lee, who became the 11th Church president on July 7, 1972, and Elder Mark E. Petersen.

He spoke with admiration of Elder Bruce R. McConkie, who “was regarded as very rigid and staid, but he had more humor than many of the others. He was very pleasant to be around.”

President Packer said, “If we look at the past, we can know where we’re going. The footprints are there, marching in a line. We need to take a thought for where we’ve been and where we’re heading.”[22]

One can see the influence and training from other members of the Quorum of the Twelve has had on President Packer—influence he now passes on to other members called to that same body of priesthood, just as President Eyring spoke of. Harold B. Lee likewise had J. Reuben Clark as a mentor, who affectionately called young Elder Lee “the kid.”[23] President Monson, when he succeeded President Hinckley as president of the Church, declared that after 40 years of working with the former prophet that “It is inevitable that our thinking would be similar. Therefore there will be no abrupt change from the courses we have been pursuing.”[24] Because of the closeness he had to the prior prophet, he was on the same page as him to carry on the work much as his predecessor had (though in his own particular style). He had been trained by the previous president of the Church.

In seeing such influence being passed on, the quorum has a strong link back to the time of its beginning and initial training from Joseph Smith. Interestingly enough, the link back to Joseph Smith’s time is shorter than one might suppose. President Packer and President Monson were ordained as general authorities during the time of President David O. McKay and while President Joseph Fielding Smith was serving as president of the Quorum of the Twelve. Both of those presidents were ordained while Joseph F. Smith was President of the Church. At that point, President Smith and three other apostles serving had been ordained during Elder Orson Pratt’s ministry—one of the original members of the Quorum of the Twelve in this dispensation. In addition to Elder Pratt, Joseph F. Smith had served as an apostle alongside Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Orson Hyde, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff—all members of the Quorum of the Twelve during Joseph’s lifetime.  Thus over the course of four steps—President Monson & President Packer to President McKay & President Joseph Fielding Smith to Joseph F. Smith to Brigham Young, Orson Pratt, Heber C. Kimball, and Orson Hyde—members of the current Quorum of the Twelve are linked to the original Twelve with other overlaps occurring in other apostles. That overlap gives plenty of years for training and passing of apostolic legacy on.

Apostolic Continuity from the time of Joseph Smith

Apostolic Continuity from the time of Joseph Smith

So we may see that prophets and apostles can have their training from other prophets and apostles. In the Bible, we see such examples of prophetic apprenticeships in the stories of Joshua with Moses and Elisha with Elijah. In modern times, an outstanding example is the training Brigham Young went through with Joseph Smith. All of today’s prophets and apostles can trace their training back to the original Quorum of the Twelve, who were in turn trained by Joseph Smith. That is why the system we have for succession in the Church works well. The questions, however, then become, “how was Joseph Smith trained?” and “how exacting was that training compared to the Quorum of the Twelve?” For more reading on that subject, click here.


[1] “The Gentle Prophet,” Ensign March 2008

[2] Bruce R. McConkie, “Succession in the Presidency” BYU Speeches 8 January 1974

[3] For a record of the Lorenzo Snow calling, see Church History in the Fullness of Times [2003], 452-453

[4] G.C., June 1919, 20-21

[5] Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith [2007], 521-22

[6] B.H. Roberts, G.C. Report, April 1905, 43-44.

[7] Henry B. Eyring, Mission Presidents’ seminar, emphasis added. Audio copy in possession of author.

[8] Eyring, Mission Presidents’ seminar

[9] Brigham Young, 8 October 1866, general conference address, Historian’s Office Reports of Speeches, LDS Church Archives

[10] Brigham Young, JD 12:269–70 [16 August 1868]

[11] James E. Faust, “Brigham Young: a Bold Prophet,” BYU Speeches 21 August 2001

[12] See Brigham Young to Joseph Young, 2 Aug. 1877, Brigham Young Letterbooks, Brigham Young Papers, LDS Church Archives

[13] Deseret News Weekly, 3 Dec. 1862, 177.

[14] Truman G. Madsen, Joseph Smith the Prophet [Salt Lake City, Bookcraft, 1989], 87-88

[15] Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith [2007], 532.

[16] Journal of Wandle Mace, p. 168

[17] TotPotC: Joseph Smith, 532

[18] See D. Michael Quinn, “The Mormon Succession Crisis of 1844,”BYU Studies 16 [Winter 1976]: 187-233.

[19] See Richard S. Van Wagoner, “The Making of a Mormon Myth: The 1844 Transfiguration of Brigham Young,”

[20] 15 October 1844 Times and Seasons (5:675)

[21] Rigdon to William H. Payne, 9 July 1858, Sidney Rigdon Papers, Church Archives.

[22] Gerry Avant, “President Packer is at half-century milestone of service,” Church News October 1, 2011.

[23] Truman G. Madsen, The Presidents of the Church (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2004), 306.

[24] “Maintaining the Course,” Ensign, April 2008;

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