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A definitive review of the calling of new apostles shows that the three vacancies in the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve are unique in church history. Also, how the three new apostles will be called and the ramifications of their ordinations.

SALT LAKE CITY — Last week at a press conference in Philadelphia, Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles drew laughter and empathetic nods from Catholic, Jewish and evangelical leaders with a comment about a late mutual friend.

Many in the room had known Elder L. Tom Perry since at least November, when he attended a major interfaith conference on marriage at the Vatican. He spoke glowingly about the event in his final talk at an LDS general conference in April. He died May 30 after more than four decades in the faith's Quorum of the Twelve. He was 92.

Elder Christofferson had been Elder Perry's colleague in the Twelve for seven years.

"I miss him," Elder Christofferson said during the press conference, "because he always called me one of the 'Little Boys,' and at age 70 I still felt young."

As many as three new "Little Boys" could soon join the quorum because there are that many vacancies in the Twelve due to death for the first time in the 185-year history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Since April's worldwide general conference, Elder Perry and two others — President Boyd K. Packer on July 3 and Elder Richard G. Scott on Sept. 22 — died in a four-month span.

The historic nature of the moment will be amplified if church President Thomas S. Monson fills all three vacancies at once at the general conference that convenes this weekend, it will be just the fourth time as many apostles have been called in a single stroke since the quorum's formation in 1835, and the first time since 1906.

And finally, the next apostles will be 98th, 99th and 100th apostles of what Latter-day Saints call the Restoration — they believe the ancient church and gospel of Jesus Christ, complete with prophets and apostles, was re-established through Joseph Smith in 1830. They believe that for the church to be Christ's church, there must be a Quorum of the Twelve who hold priesthood power to lead it.

"I'm going to be sitting on the edge of my chair," said Orem, Utah's Wilburn Talbot, author of the book "The Acts of the Modern Apostles." "It's so important. Who is called and how they are called may determine who will be a future president of the church and a future president of the Quorum of the Twelve."

All the world

LDS apostles leave Salt Lake City 40-45 weekends a year to lead conferences, reorganize stakes, tour church missions, meet church members and make public affairs visits with leaders of nations, regions and other faiths, Elder Donald L. Hallstrom has said.

Each apostle's travels include two international trips per year, befitting their charge in LDS scripture to be "twelve traveling councilors" and a "traveling presiding high council."

During his 44-year ministry, President Packer visited 81 countries a total of 273 times. He traveled 2.3 million miles, according to his secretary, Luella Thompson.

The members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles serve under the direction of the First Presidency — the church president/prophet and two counselors, themselves apostles called out of the quorum to preside over the church.

The Twelve meet each Thursday morning together and afterward with the First Presidency and share what they've learned from around the globe. The meeting of these two, highest-governing bodies in the church is called the Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve.

The result of their travels, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said recently, is that LDS apostles and auxiliary leaders gather a powerful range of information.

"Never in my personal or professional life," he said, "have I ever associated with any group who are so in touch, who know so profoundly the issues facing us, who look so deeply into the old, stay so open to the new, and weigh so carefully, thoughtfully, and prayerfully everything in between. I testify that the grasp this body of men and women have of moral and societal issues exceeds that of any think tank or brain trust of comparable endeavor of which I know anywhere on the earth."

Modern nets

In the New Testament, an apostle was chosen by Jesus Christ or after his death by the Twelve, as an envoy "who was a witness to Christ's resurrection and carried a missionary obligation to testify to it," according to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. The Greek word "apostellein" means to send forth (as a representative or agent).

Latter-day Saints believe modern apostles are the same as those Christ called in Biblical times. Joseph Smith invited members to refer to the 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve as prophets, seers and revelators. Each holds the priesthood "keys" or authority to lead the church, but those keys are active only for the church president.

Modern LDS apostles are chosen through inspiration by the president of the church. Different presidents have used different procedures, but Elder Christofferson last week shared with the Deseret News part of the process President Monson has employed.

"President Monson, I don't know if this always has been the case, but his practice has been to ask each of his counselors and the members of the Quorum of the Twelve to give him names they would recommend for his consideration, not to discuss with each other but just individually, to give him whatever name or names they feel impressed he ought to look at," Elder Christofferson said.

"What process he goes through exactly, I'm not sure. That's, again, something private he pursues. He then brings back, when he's reached his decision and had the inspiration he needs, the name or names to the council that we have of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to sustain it. That goes forward to general conference."

The new apostles could come from general authorities of the church, or from the church membership at large. Church leaders have discouraged speculation about future apostles.

The two senior members of the Quorum of the Twelve were not general authorities when they became apostles.

Quorum President Russell M. Nelson was making rounds at the hospital where he was a heart surgeon when he received a call to visit the office of the First Presidency. Elder Dallin H. Oaks was a justice of the Utah Supreme Court.

"The living Twelve are welded together in the ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ," President Packer once said. "When the call came, each has put down his nets, so to speak, and followed the Lord."

After the church president calls a new apostle, he is sustained by the church membership at a general conference and ordained. Ordination involves members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve laying their hands on the new apostle's head and bestowing specific "keys of the priesthood" that include "all the keys, all the gifts, all the endowments and everything preparatory to entering into the presence of the Father and of the Son," according to Brigham Young, who served as second president of the church.

Apostles serve the church full time and hold the office for the duration of their lives.

Seniority in the quorum is determined by order of ordination. The senior apostle is the president of the church, and the second-most senior apostle is the president of the Twelve.

That is why Talbot says it is important how the next three are called.

Important order

"How these three are called may determine whether they become president of the Twelve or president of the church," he said.

If the three vacancies aren't filled all at once, or if the three new apostles are ordained at separate times, it will affect their seniority in the quorum. If they are ordained on the same day, the longstanding precedent is that they will be done by order of age, he said.

"If two or three are called at the same time, they are ordained by age," Talbot said. "That's been the procedure for more than 100 years, but the Lord can do anything he wants.

Talbot said an apostolic assignment is both "administrative and ministrative."

Their work, as Talbot pointed out in his book, is impacted by sociological, political and economic pressures as they help guide a worldwide church with more than 15 million members, a global educational system including universities and colleges, international charities and humanitarian efforts and church-owned businesses as investments for rainy-day funds.

So they lead and participate in numerous church committees and evaluate and give direction. They determine where church missionaries will serve.

But their ministry is their core function.

"An apostle is a missionary and a special witness of the name of Christ," said Elder David A. Bednar, one of the Twelve since 2004, in a 2011 interview with the Religious Educator. "The 'name of Christ' refers to the totality of the Savior’s mission, death, and resurrection — his authority, his doctrine, and his unique qualifications as the Son of God to be our Redeemer and our Savior. As special witnesses of the name of Christ, we bear testimony of the reality, divinity and resurrection of Jesus Christ, his infinite and eternal Atonement, and his gospel."

Rare moment

The first 12 modern apostles were called in the spring of 1835. Since then, filling three simultaneous vacancies is a rare occurrence.

In 1849, four apostles were called at the same time under unique circumstances, Talbot said. After the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, the Twelve led the church without a First Presidency. After Brigham Young became the church president and re-formed a First Presidency at the end of 1847, one apostle was excommunicated, leaving eight in the quorum.

On Feb. 12, 1849, four were ordained — Charles C. Rich, Lorenzo Snow, Erastus Snow and Franklin D. Richards.

A similar event actually happened after the death of President John Taylor in 1887. Again the Twelve led the church. Elder Erastus Snow died in 1888, leaving the quorum with 12 members. When Wilford Woodruff became church president in 1889, the new First Presidency left three vacancies in the quorum that were filled on Oct. 7, 1889 by Marriner W. Merrill, Anthon H. Lund and Abraham H. Cannon.

The last time three apostles were called at once was in 1906. Those vacancies were caused by one death, that of Elder Marriner W. Merrill, and the resignation of Elder John W. Taylor and Matthias F. Cowley. They stepped down to protest the decision of the First Presidency and Twelve that what sometimes is known as the second manifesto forbidding plural or polygamous marriages applied internationally.

Taylor later was excommunicated, though his "former priesthood and blessings" were posthumously restored in 1965. Church leaders suspended Cowley's priesthood in 1911 but restored it in 1936.

The new apostles will be trained by President Nelson. Many of their 97 predecessors have said they felt a heavy weight.

"The change from sitting in the audience in general conference to sitting on the stand among the Brethren is overwhelming and indescribable," Elder Bednar told the Religious Educator. He said senior quorum members have patterns for easing the transition.

"Everyone is invited and expected to express opinions and share observations," he said. "For example, when I was the junior member, I frequently would be called upon to speak first in meetings of the Council of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. When an Apostle who has served decades longer than I speaks first, I certainly am willing to express a different perspective or propose an alternative course of action, but I would be foolish not to recognize that he knows much more than I do about the matter before the council. I might, therefore, be strongly influenced by his opinion; thus the presiding officer often chooses not to call on a senior member to speak first. By using that simple pattern in council, all can be edified of all."