Reorganization began new Church era

With the reorganization of the First Presidency in Kanesville, Iowa, in December 1847, Brigham Young and the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles brought to a fitting close a period of spectacularly successful quorum leadership of the Church. That period dated from August 1844 when they stepped forward following the murder of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Not only was the reorganization an appropriate symbolic close to the era, it marked the literal fulfillment of the commission delivered to them by Joseph Smith before his death. They had finished the temple and endowed the Saints, they had moved the Church from Nauvoo, and they had located the promised place of refuge in the West.Moreover, they had done it by the authority of their calling, made all the more powerful by their remarkable unity and harmony. But the fulfillment of their shared commission now brought them to the eve of a new era. As soon as Brigham Young departed the Valley of the Great Salt Lake for Winter Quarters, the Spirit began whispering to him that the time had come to reorganize.

During the trek west, the time, energies, and councils of the Twelve were absorbed by the immediate demands of pioneering. They met together often, of course, around campfires and in more formal councils.

But regular meetings of the Quorum of the Twelve did not resume until they had returned to Winter Quarters and set about preparing the body of the Church for the migration west. The first such council discussed matters that needed immediate attention: How could they arrange to move the poor? Should they sell the Nauvoo Temple?

But with Brigham Young's nudging, the meetings quickly moved to another level of concern: What should be the organization of the priesthood now that a new Zion had been established and the Twelve would soon be scattered on individual assignments? It was time, he urged, to consider organizing a First Presidency, shifting the burden of administration to this Presidency and freeing up the Twelve for their revealed responsibility of traveling throughout the world.

Beginning mid-November 1847, the Twelve began a series of discussions that culminated Dec. 5 when they unanimously agreed to organize a First Presidency under Brigham Young.1

They also agreed that their President had the right to nominate his counselors - men that might come from outside their quorum. President Young indicated his choice of Heber C. Kimball and Willard Richards as counselors, whom the apostles voted to uphold and sustain.

Three weeks later, when the Kanesville Log Tabernacle, a hall large enough to accommodate a public conference, was ready, the Latter-day Saints in Iowa convened to formally sustain this new First Presidency on Dec. 27, 1847.

While the general membership readily sustained the new presidency, within the Quorum of the Twelve, there was initial reluctance - but not for the reasons some have supposed.

Some writers, aware of the lengthy discussions preceding the decision, have written as if some of the Twelve doubted the authority of President Young to preside or his right to reorganize. One inaccurate account, for example, has John Taylor challenging President Young's authority to reorganize, but Elder Taylor, wintering in the Great Basin, was not even present.2

Orson Pratt did serve as a spokesman for those who were slow to embrace President Young's proposal, but his concerns had nothing to do with authority.

None of the apostles doubted that they had the authority to organize a First Presidency, nor was anyone hesitant to acknowledge that Brigham Young, by right, did and must stand at the head. At issue, simply, as Orson Pratt put it, was the "propriety or expediency" of organizing a First Presidency now, when the Church had so prospered under the quorum leadership of the Twelve.

These concerns about changing the arrangement attested to the full participation they had enjoyed under President Young's leadership. The apostles had already acknowledged Elders Young, Kimball, and Richards as an executive committee of the quorum to manage the general affairs of the Church if a quorum were not available, this providing, in effect, for a de facto presidency.

But in practice, from the death of the Prophet until this hour, President Young had never acted without consulting his fellow quorum members. Together they had met every obstacle and were understandably hesitant, at first, about any arrangement that might limit their opportunity for full involvement.

As the amiable George A. Smith put it, "I dont want to see this Quorum divided. We are good fellows . . . if three are picked out there might be jealousies."

Nonetheless, he continued, "I'm perfectly satisfied with President Young's course. I have no objections [to a First Presidency] only my private feelings," [that is, his fears that they might lose the marvelous unity they had shared].

Either way the Kingdom will roll forth "even if it rolls us [individually] out," George A. continued. "I am perfectly ready to act in any place as one of the 12 in any thing that may be necessary," but was it indeed necessary to change the arrangement now?3

Orson Pratt thought not. Citing Joseph Smith's and Brigham Young's frequent counsel to the Twelve to openly state their thoughts, he vigorously pressed his view that the Twelve had functioned as an effective presidency and could continue to do so. President Young countered by noting that he had understood since Joseph's death that a Presidency would one day be required and that the only question was when.

Had the Spirit so indicated they would have formed one earlier. Instead they had obeyed the Spirit by going forth with an imperfect organization, whipping the apostates - those who would draw the Saints off from carrying out "all the measures of Joseph" - with one hand behind their backs, as it were.4

Because he understood the feelings of his brethren and also valued the love and unity they shared, Brigham Young had been unwilling "to broach the subject until I felt it duty," until the Spirit clearly prompted. From the time he left the Great Salt Lake until now, he testified, the Spirit whispered "that the Church ought to be now organized."

When he later described this occasion to the members of the Twelve not present, he added: "I saw the First Presidency must walk out. There were Twelve men shackled. The Twelve Apostles must be cut loose [for] their mission was to all the nations of the Earth where the First Presidency could not go."5

Freeing the Twelve to travel abroad was a primary reason for organizing the presidency without further delay. As President Young phrased the challenge: "We are now commencing a bigger thing then ever you did before," so much so that "what we have done is a mere patching to what we have to do."6

After discussion, the precedent of Joseph Smith's presidency - which included frequent consultations with the Twelve along with their travel assignments - plus the growing conviction of the Twelve that it was the will of the Lord to organize now, prevailed.

Willard Richards best expressed the view adopted. After lengthy discussion and prayerful consideration, the Spirit had "manifest to me clearly & that is an end of all controversy & that is the end of the law to me - I act by that Spirit - it is right there should be a 1st Presidency - the individual who has the right I have no doubt - the necessity of it I have no doubt.- and if we dont organize this Church from this time I feel we shall see a waning in this Church - if we go forward [and complete the organization] we shall prosper as hitherto and [even] more abundantly."7 In addition to uniting the Twelve on the creation, without delay, of a new First Presidency, these discussions clarified principles of Church government.

For example, they discussed how the president or presidency necessarily differed in calling from that of the other apostles - because only one apostle at a time, necessarily the senior apostle, had the unique responsibility of presidency. Brigham Young's most concise statement of how this could be, when all had the same ordination, came slightly more than a year later when he summarized these meetings for John Taylor and Parley Pratt, not present in 1847, and for apostles newly called.

He explained that the Prophet Joseph himself had presided by virtue of his apostleship and that he had also ordained other apostles to the same powers. "Was Joseph and the 12 [then] equal? They were equal in the ordination but not in the calling. He [Joseph] wills and directs and every man has to walk as he wills. The Lord says walk on you have the keys, and they never shall be taken from my servant Joseph in time and all eternity. [See D&C 90:1-4.] Brigham is just the same [as] Joseph but was not so when Joseph lived, and their ordination is the same but there calling is not the same. Where the Presidency cannot be there the 12 go to fill it. Thats as strait as a line."8

It was agreed among them that although all the apostles held the keys of authority alike, that their primary responsibility was not administration unless appointed to do so. Rather, they were to preach the gospel to the nations of the earth. Therefore, once the Twelve and the Church sustained a new First Presidency, the keys would be actively exercised in full only by that Presidency.

Not only for his brethren but also for Brigham Young, brotherhood and love - the unity of the quorum - was of great importance. A Zion society could be built only on such a foundation, and if the apostles were to lead the Saints to Zion they must learn to exemplify those virtues.

"I love my brethren so much that I want to be with them all the time." "I love this Quorum as I love my eyes." "I have loved the 12 more than they have loved each other."9

Such statements for Brigham Young were not formula, but sincere expression of the love he felt for his fellow apostles. No doubt Heber Kimball paid what to Brigham was the highest compliment when he expressed to the quorum his conclusion that there had never been before as much unity in the quorum as they enjoyed under Brigham Young.

For the Quorum of the Twelve, such harmony and unity was also required as a "constitutional" matter. Written revelation described the spirit of brotherly kindness and charity that should characterize their discussions, and legislated that if their deliberations did not lead to a unified position, the decisions of the Quorum were not binding upon the Church.10

"Joseph always wanted [the] Twelve to transact with him as one Council," a unified body, Brigham reminded them. To him the matter was simply "if we are not one we cant suppose we are the Leaders or His Servants."11

For three years they had labored thus united. Now, similarly united in a decision to organize for the challenges ahead, they concluded to again create a Presidency.

Brigham Young here was both fulfilling the commission given him by Joseph Smith and drawing on Joseph's example and teaching. As he told the apostles a year later, in all of this he had a special responsibility to one day "render an account to Joseph": "I have to walk [as if] Joseph is right with me all the time. All I do to build up the Kingdom is just as if Joseph was looking me right in the eye, and our hearts and feelings are one. He would say thats right my boys - and I have not done a thing without knowing that."12

It should be noted that other members of the Twelve shared this view of the responsibility of the apostles to stray not from the path laid out by Joseph Smith.

Parley P. Pratt, for example, in a public proclamation of 1845, explained that Joseph had given the Twelve a "charge to do all things according to the pattern" he had given them, testifying at the same time that Joseph had "often observed that he was laying the foundation, but it would remain for the Twelve to complete the building."13

Fellow apostle George A. Smith later provided eloquent testimony that they had in fact done just that, and that the "work that has been carried out by President Young and his brethren [of the Twelve] has been in accordance with the plans, and designs, and Spirit, and instructions of Joseph Smith, as the Lord lives, unto the present time."

Joseph's principles included the propriety of the Twelve organizing a First Presidency - "Joseph shewed me from the 12 there would be a 1st Presidency," was how President Young phrased it in 1849."15 And thus it was that on Dec. 27, 1847, the Twelve met with the Saints assembled at Kanesville in the newly constructed Log Tabernacle and made formal and public their decision to organize.

Orson Pratt introduced the business, explaining to the congregation that "the time has come when the 12 must have their hands liberated to go to the ends of the Earth," and that they had concluded to organize a First Presidency so that the Twelve "may go abroad among the nations of the Earth."

Following extensive comments by Amasa Lyman and George A. Smith, the new presidency received a unanimous sustaining vote. The Twelve had been faithful to Joseph's charge, implied Brigham Young in his remarks, and had proven "to God, Saints and all manner of sinners and Devils that we can carry the Kingdom off triumphant." Henceforth, he taught, it would be "necessary to keep up a full organization of the church through all time as far as could be . . . so that the devil could take no advantage over us."16

The announcement of the organization of the First Presidency gave great joy and satisfaction to the Saints. And sustained by the Saints assembled, buoyed up by a solemn Hosanna Shout, Brigham Young proclaimed it one of the happiest days of his life.17

With the First Presidency formally organized and set to function again as the chief administrative quorum, the Twelve were freed to accept new assignments. Three would remain at the Missouri River to preside over the Saints there when the Presidency moved to the Valley next spring; others would soon take up assignments in the East, or in Europe, resuming the work of conversion and gathering.

A new era had begun. With the foundation firmly in place, they could now turn attention to constructing the edifice.

Ronald K. Esplin is director of the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History at BYU. He is a member of the Willowcreek 6th Ward, Sandy Utah Willowcreek Stake, where he serves as a gospel doctrine teacher and a stake missionary.


1 Minutes of these November-December 1847 meetings are in the Brigham Young Papers, Church Archives.

2 See the fanciful account in Kingdom or Nothing, pp.133-34.

3 Minutes, Dec. 5, 1847.

4 Minutes, Dec. 5, 1847.

5 Minutes, Dec. 5, 1847 and Feb. 12, 1849, Church Archives.

6 Minutes, Dec. 5, 1847.

7 Minutes, Dec. 5, 1847.

8 Minutes, Feb. 12, 1849.

9 Minutes, Nov. 16, 1847, Dec. 5 1847, and Feb. 12, 1849.

10 D&C 107: 27, 29-32.

11 Minutes, Dec. 5, 1847.

12 Minutes, Feb. 12, 1849.

13 See Parley P. Pratt Proclamation, Jan. 1, 1845, New York Prophet.

14 George A. Smith discourse, Oct. 8, 1866.

15 Minutes, Feb. 12, 1849.

16 Minutes Dec. 27, 1847 and Brigham Young to Orson Spencer, Jan. 23, 1848, Brigham Young Papers; see also diary of Wilford Woodruff, Dec. 27, 1847.

17 See diary of Norton Jacobs and Brigham Young to Orson Spencer, Jan. 23, 1848.

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