Succession Crisis

The days following the assassination of the Mormon prophet were filled with confusion. Despite the growing inevitability of his untimely death, Joseph Smith had not established a clear succession plan. Many, including Smith’s widow, believed that the president of the High Council, William Marks, was to preside over the church, but this was complicated by several factors. Many claimed that Joseph had pronounced a blessing upon his eldest son, Joseph III, weeks before his death in which he had prophesied that the young man (eleven years-old at the time) would someday lead the church. For those who advocated lineal succession, the pressing question was who would govern the church until Joseph III matured.

Sydney Rigdon, still technically a member of the First Presidency, felt that it was his duty to act as guardian of the church. There were also those participants in the secret Council of Fifty, such as apostle Lyman Wight, who felt that the “Political Kingdom of God” had been created for the purpose of church government. Similarly, Brigham Young and many of the Twelve Apostles, a body on equal footing with the High Council, argued that Smith had entrusted to the Quorum “sacred keys” (referring to celestial marriage, temple rites, and the political kingdom) to govern the church as a collective body. Finally, the recently-converted and highly charismatic James Strang, who claimed angelic visions and the gift of translation, began to attract a sizeable following from Wisconsin as he vied for church leadership on the basis of a suspect “Letter of Appointment” that he claimed was penned by Smith. After Rigdon sparred publicly with Brigham Young in what turned into two heated debates, the Twelve Apostles won nearly unanimous support. Among their first acts was the removal William Marks, who had supported Rigdon’s bid, from the High Council. Marks departed Nauvoo shortly after.