Joseph Smith had, it seems, considered various plans for succession in the presidency of the church. (It’s apparent, from his preserved statements, that he didn’t expect to live into old age.) Thus, there was uncertainty among the Saints in the aftermath of his assassination about the future of the church and who would lead it.
Even the Quorum of the Twelve was initially unsure. This shouldn’t surprise us: According to the New Testament gospels, the ancient Twelve failed to grasp the Savior’s repeated predictions of his own death, resurrection and departure. These loyal disciples found the idea of being without their dominant, charismatic, life-transforming leader unthinkable.
But it’s clear in retrospect that the modern Twelve were being prepared to assume leadership after Joseph’s death. For example, amidst the crises and apostasy in 1837, Joseph testified, "God revealed to me that something new must be done for the salvation of His Church.” And that “something new” was the dispatch of Heber C. Kimball, one of the Twelve, to introduce Mormonism into England. Intimidated to near panic by the assignment, Elder Kimball went nonetheless, and, finding spectacular success, gained the confidence he had lacked. Later, he would serve as a first counselor in the First Presidency.
Following an initial period of instability and multiple apostasies, the quorum had gained a new leader, Brigham Young. And, he had risen to the occasion. While Joseph languished in Liberty Jail during the winter of 1838-39, Brigham and the Twelve oversaw the flight of oppressed Latter-day Saints from Missouri to Illinois, thus gaining vital experience for the later, much larger, emigration that they would be called to lead westward from Illinois to the Great Basin.
Next, in 1839, Joseph Smith directed the entire Quorum of the Twelve — by then, plainly his most trusted and indispensable lieutenants — across the North Atlantic to the British Isles, where, again, they gained invaluable experience and achieved enormous success. Forced to lead the church there without Joseph’s day-to-day direction, they preached, created church units, printed the Book of Mormon, launched and edited a newspaper, organized emigrant companies, and developed close relationships both with the Holy Spirit and with thousands of Latter-day Saint converts. Thus, when the English Saints came to North America and soon constituted a substantial proportion of the membership of the church, they already recognized and venerated the Twelve as leaders.
Moreover, the mission of the Twelve to Britain cemented apostolic unity. Never again would their ranks be seriously riven by dissent and apostasy. The 10 who accepted the call to go overseas served until their deaths. The two who didn’t, William Smith and John Page, fell away within a few years. Plainly, the apostles’ mission to Britain was a transformative experience.
Brigham Young was traveling in the eastern states when he learned of Joseph’s death. Horrified, he struck his leg in dismay — not just at the murder of his friend and prophet, but at the loss of Joseph’s priesthood keys. He felt, he later recalled, “as though my head would crack.” But suddenly he understood that Joseph had actually prepared for this day: “it came like a clap — the keys of the Kingdom are here.” They rested with the Twelve.
So, on that fateful day in August of 1844 when Sidney Rigdon returned from estranged exile in Pennsylvania to assert his claim to the “guardianship” of the church before a large audience in Nauvoo, the Twelve, confident, faithful, and experienced, were well positioned to contest that claim. Rigdon spoke first, but, although he was probably the finest orator in the church, when Brigham arose his defeat was swift and decisive.
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