Section 3: The Church Survives Its Prophet

The Church Survives Its Prophet

The story by no means ends with Joseph Smith's death.

Joseph Smith's death was, indeed, intended to put an abrupt end to this "upstart" religion. This was also the intention of the Jewish leaders who instigated the murder of Christ. If Joseph Smith's personality had been the reason for his converts, this would have been the end of the Church.

Brigham Young, president of the Council of the Twelve Apostles, quickly assumed command and led many believers on a perilous journey to the Great Salt Lake valley in Utah, where the Mormon headquarters are to this day.

Let us fine-tune these details a little. For one, these comments make it sound as though Brigham Young jumped in and took over leadership of the Church. In reality, he was already the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The Twelve are equal in authority to the prophet, so the leadership of the Church naturally fell to them, with Brigham Young at their head. At that time, however, there was no precedent for replacing a prophet. There were a few men who believed, for various reasons, that they should assume the position. These men addressed the Church and a vote was taken, deciding to follow the Twelve. It was more than three years before Brother Brigham would be sustained as the next prophet.

[In] August 1841 [Joseph Smith said] “that the time had come when the Twelve should be called upon to stand in their place next to the First Presidency” (HC, 4:403). The Twelve were given greater responsibilities, including preaching the gospel, settling immigrants, purchasing land, and building the Nauvoo Temple.

Before the temple was completed, Joseph Smith privately introduced President Young and other members of the Twelve to temple ordinances, including baptism for the dead, the temple endowment, and family sealings, anticipating that the Twelve would teach these ordinances to the members of the Church. The Prophet met with the Twelve in the spring of 1844 to confer on them all of the keys and authority necessary to carry forward the work of the kingdom. “I roll the burthen [burden] and responsibility of leading this Church off from my shoulders on to yours,” the Prophet proclaimed. “Now, round up your shoulders and stand under it like men; for the Lord is going to let me rest a while” (undated Certificate of the Twelve, BYP).

Within three months the Prophet Joseph Smith was dead. While President Young was serving a summer mission in the Boston area, he learned that Joseph and Hyrum Smith had been murdered by a mob at Carthage, Illinois. Upon hearing the news, he asked himself “whether Joseph had taken the keys of the kingdom with him from the earth,” but he immediately felt assured that the keys of the kingdom rested with the Twelve (MHBY-1, 171). Returning at once to Nauvoo, he found that Joseph’s First Counselor, Sidney Rigdon, had offered to take over leadership of the Church, and a general assembly of Saints had already been called to sustain a new leader. President Young spoke to the gathering of Saints with forceful plainness:

“For the first time in my life, for the first time in your lives, for the first time in the kingdom of God in the 19th century, without a Prophet at our head, do I step forth to act in my calling in connection with the Quorum of the Twelve, as Apostles of Jesus Christ unto this generation—Apostles whom God has called by revelation through the Prophet Joseph, who are ordained and anointed to bear off the keys of the kingdom of God in all the world.

“… Now, if you want Sidney Rigdon or William Law to lead you, or anybody else, you are welcome to them; but I tell you, in the name of the Lord that no man can put another between the Twelve and the Prophet Joseph. Why? Because Joseph was their file leader, and he has committed into their hands the keys of the kingdom in this last dispensation, for all the world” (HC, 7:232, 235).

Many witnesses noted that President Young looked and sounded like the Prophet Joseph as he spoke, a powerful manifestation of divine approval. The nearly 5,000 Saints assembled sustained the Twelve as the governing quorum of the Church1.

[Footnote: There are various groups that have broken away from the LDS, who also call themselves Mormons. Principal among them is the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with headquarters in Independence, Missouri.]

On April 6, 2001, the RLDS church officially changed its name to Community of Christ, and are not referred to as Mormon.

The church founded by Joseph Smith continues to attract converts, with, according to LDS sources, some nine million members worldwide.

During the Saturday morning session of General Conference, in October, 2013,

President Thomas S. Monson announced that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints now number more than 15 million worldwide.

This means that Church membership has increased by roughly 66% since this article was published.

It has spread far beyond its cradle in New York State to places as diverse as Italy, the Philippines, Uruguay, and Zaire. Despite continued antagonism, the remarkable Mormon Church has prospered. Is it, indeed, the restoration of the true Christianity for which men of faith have waited?

We believe it is! Please see the Suggested Readings section for more information.


  1. Chapter 1: The Ministry of Brigham Young, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, (1997), viii–13. (