Some Interesting Notes on Succession at Nauvoo in 1844

© 1997 by H. Michael Marquardt. All rights reserved.

It has been 152 years since the question of who was going to take the place of Joseph Smith as leader of the Mormons was raised. As we look back to the events that occurred in 1844 we realize that the events themselves can never be recovered. But through records kept at the time and interviews with persons who were living at Nauvoo in 1844 we can better understand some of the thoughts and questions that relate to the succession issue.

The leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints with headquarters in Nauvoo, Illinois consisted of the First Presidency of the church (Joseph Smith the prophet-president; his counselors Sidney Rigdon and William Law); the Patriarch to the church (Hyrum Smith, Joseph's brother); the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (Brigham Young, president of the Quorum; and members Heber C. Kimball, Orson Hyde, Parley P. Pratt, William Smith, Orson Pratt, John E. Page, Willard Richards, Wilford Woodruff, John Taylor, George A. Smith and Lyman Wight).1 At the beginning of the year 1844 Hyrum Smith was acting as counselor to Joseph Smith as well as holding the office of Patriarch to the church.

In 1844, exact date currently unknown, in the council room on the second floor of Joseph Smith's red brick store a meeting was held at which Joseph Smith and Hyrum Smith were present. This important meeting was attended by two of the apostles, Willard Richards (secretary to the church president and church historian), John Taylor (editor of the Times and Seasons), together with Bishop Newel K. Whitney, Alpheus Cutler, William W. Phelps, John Bernhisel and George J. Adams.

Joseph Smith gave his eleven year old son Joseph Smith III a blessing. A number of persons heard about this blessing including Emma Smith, wife of Joseph Smith, and James Whitehead a clerk in the church under the charge of William Clayton. Whitehead became an assistant to Clayton on 11 June 1842.

Twenty years later Whitehead was interviewed by Alexander Hale Smith (son of Joseph Smith, born 2 June 1838). The following is from A. H. Smith's diary for 14 May 1864:

May Saturday the 14th . . . then went to see Old Bro Whitehead stayed all night with him he gave me some useful information told me some things that I did not know and can not understand [other unrelated items; then one page torn out of diary] Bishop Whitney held the horn and po[u]red the oil John Taylor Wil[l]ard Richards, Alpheus Cutler W. W. Phelps Dr Bernheisel, R Cahoon Word of my Father Bretheren I am no longer your Prophet This is your prophet (Laying his hand on his son Joseph[']s head) I am going to rest2

The next year, 1865, William W. Blair visited Emma Smith Bidamon (widow of Joseph Smith) and also Alexander Smith. He recorded for 17 May 1865, "Wednesday 17 Sister Bidamon and Alex gave us that, found on the opposite page." Blair's diary on that opposite page recorded:

Sister E. Bidamon Said in Spring of 1844 G. J Adams rejoiced that the the matter was now Settled - they now knew that who Joseph[']s Successor would, - it was little Joseph - he had just seen him ordained Bro Whitehead told Alex Smith, that in the Spring of 1844 just before Joseph[']s death, Young Jos[eph] was ordd [ordained] in a Council by his father, John Taylor Willard Richards Alph[us] Cutler, W W Phelps. Dr. Bernhisel &c Bishop Whitney were present. Bishop W[hitney] held the horn of oil & Jos[eph] afterward Stated on the public Stand that he was no longer their prophet, putting his hand on young Jos[eph] head he said this is your prophet - I am going to rest.3

Nine years later, in 1874, Blair again met and talked to James Whitehead. To make the diary passage clearer than the few letters intended for words in Blair's diary, we have included brackets for those words in the following portion of the diary entry of 17 June 1874:

[Whitehead] Says J[oseph] did te[ach]- p[olygamy]- and pr[actice]- too. That E[mma]- knows it too that She put h[a]nd of Wives in Jos[eph] ha[n]d W[hitehead]. Says Alex H Smith asked him when sleeping with him at his house in Alton [14 May 1864], if J[oseph] - did p[ractice] & tea[ch]. p[olygamy], and he, W[hitehead]. told him he did. W[hitehead]- Says Wm Marks and Hyrum by command of God ordained Joseph King & priest [Whitehead] Says D[avid] [Smith] will yet be a Prince so it was predicted by J[oseph] S[mith].4

Blair wrote for 14 June 1874 "Met Bro. James Whitehead, in the hall, and when I grasped his hand the holy spirit fell upon me, and witnessed to me that he was indeed a bro. in the Son." On 16 June William Blair visited with Whitehead, he recorded the following important entry in his diary under the date of 17 June 1874:

Yesterday Bro. Whitehead told me that in the winter or spring of 1843-44. Joseph organized the Kingdom of Danl. with 50 Councillors; and that on the Sunday following he brought Young Josep[h] on the Stand, in the public meeting, and, putting his hand on his head, said, "Bro & Srs., I am no longer your prophet, - this is your prophet. I have finished my work, and am going to rest." Bro. W[hitehead]. Said Young Joseph was ordained by Joseph & Hyrum, in the Council room in the Brick Store; and that Hyrum was appointed his guardian till he should become of age. He said he was Joseph Clerk at this time and after, that he did not see the ordination take place, but heard it freely talked over in the office. Bro. W[hitehead]. says he heard Joseph say in public, that if B. Young had the lead of the church he would lead it to ruin. (or to hell) Says J did te- p- and pr- too. That E- knows it too that She put hnd of Wives in Jos hnd W. Says Alex H. Smith asked him when sleeping with him at his house in Atlon, if J- did p & tea. p, and he, W. told him he did. W- Says Wm Marks and Hyrum by command of God ordained Joseph King & priest Says Dd will yet be a Prince so it was predicted by J.S.5

This diary entry, in addition to the succession question includes short comments on the Council of Fifty with Joseph Smith's ordination as King,6 Hyrum Smith as guardian for Joseph Smith III until he becomes of age, 7 plural marriage at Nauvoo, 8 and the promise that Joseph Smith's unborn child who was to be named David would become a prince.9

James Whitehead mentioned that this blessing of Joseph Smith III was public knowledge in the lifetime of Joseph Smith.10

After the death of Joseph and Hyrum Smith on 27 June 1844 many questions were asked about a successor to the office of Prophet-President and Patriarch to the church. For those at Nauvoo like Lucy Mack Smith, mother of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, the question was who is to succeed Hyrum as Patriarch. William Clayton in his important Nauvoo journal reported for the date of 2 July 1844:

Tuesday 2nd A.M. went to see Emma. She is in trouble because mother Smith is making disturbance about the property in Joseph[']s hands. Mother Smith wants Samuel to move into Nauvoo and take the Patriarch[']s office & says the church ought to support him.11

Ten days later on 12 July Clayton recorded in his journal:

Friday 12th. A.M. at the Temple measuring Lumber. Prest. Marks came up to enquire which was best to do about appointing a Trustee. We concluded to call a meeting of the several presidents of Quorums & their council this P.M. at 2 o clock. As I returned to dinner bro. Whitney came down with me & stated his feelings about Marks being appointed Trustee. He referred me to the fact of Marks being with Law & Emma in opposition to Joseph & the quorum. - And if Marks is appointed Trustee our spiritual blessings will be destroyed inasmuch as he is not favorable to the most important matters The Trustee must of necessity be the first president of the Church & Joseph has said that if he and Hyrum were taken away Samuel H. Smith would be his successor.12

Evidently Bishop Newel K. Whitney and/or William Clayton had heard before the death of Joseph Smith that "if he [Joseph] and Hyrum were taken away Samuel H. Smith would be his successor." Whether this would be until Joseph Smith III becomes of age is not mentioned. But as far away as Massachusetts John Hardy, President of the Boston Branch of the church discussed with the public press the possibility that Samuel H. Smith would take Hyrum Smith's place as Patriarch. This statement was made while most of the Twelve Apostles were in the east on church missions and before the notice of the death of Samuel Smith who died on 30 July 1844.13

Successor of the Prophet - John Hardy, president of the Boston branch of the Mormons, in reference to a successor to Jo Smith, informs the editor of the Times that all the speculations on this point are "fudge and nonsense," and says, "Samuel H. Smith, the eldest member of the family now living, and a brother to the murdered Prophet, will take the office of his brother Hiram as Patriarch in the church, according to the ancient custom of God's people."14

Elder Hardy's comments were also published in the People's Organ:

SMITH'S SUCCESSOR. - Elder Hardy, President of the Boston Branch of the Mormons, states that no successor will be appointed. Joe had twelve apostles, upon whom devolved his power and duties. Samuel W. [H.] Smith, the oldest living Mormon Smith, Joe's brother, will assume Hiram's office of Patriarch in the Church.15

Soon after the majority of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles arrived from the east to Nauvoo, a special conference was held regarding the church leadership. William Clayton recorded the following in his journal of this meeting held on 8 August 1844:

Thursday 8th. A.M I went to council with the Twelve. Brother Kimball concluded to pay the $1000 to Emma. I went home to get it & while there B[righam]. Young came & said they were going to have their conference this afternoon and wanted I should notify the brethren. I then went with brothers Kimball and Richards to see Emma. K[imball]. paid her the $1000 and bore testimony to her of the good feelings of the Twelve towards her. She seemed humble and more kind. P.M. attended conference. The Church universally voted to sustain the Twelve in their calling as next in presidency and to sustain Er [Elder] Rigdon and A[masa] Lyman as councillors to the Twelve as they had been to the First Presidency. The ch[u]rch also voted to leave the regulation of all the church matters in the hands of the Twelve. There was a very good feeling prevailed except amongst a few who were disappointed.16

At this conference Sidney Rigdon was voted as being a counselor to the Quorum of the Twelve along with Amasa Lyman who had been ordained an Apostle when Orson Pratt was excommunicated in 1842. Lyman was made a counselor to the First Presidency early in 1843.17

The unanimous vote meant an overwhelming vote in favor of the Twelve Apostles but there were some dissenters at the conference. In the 2 September 1844 issue of the Times and Seasons a short article appeared about the successor of Joseph Smith:

Great excitement prevails throughout the world to know "who shall be the successor of Joseph Smith?" In reply, we say, be patient, be patient a little, till the proper time comes, and we will tell you all. "Great wheels move slow." At present we can say that a special conference of the church was held in Nauvoo on the 8th ult., and it was carried without discenting voice, that the "Twelve" should preside over the whole church, and when any alteration in the presidency shall be required, seasonable notice will be given; and the elders abroad, will best ex[h]ibit their wisdom to all men, by remaining silent on those things they are ignorant of. - Bishops Whitney and Miller have been appointed trustees, to manage the financial concerns of the church, and will soon enter on the duties of their calling.18

Problems in the leadership were apparent when Sidney Rigdon, counselor to the Twelve, started performing ordinations without consultation with the Twelve to "be Prophets, Priests, and Kings unto the Gentiles."19 A public trial of Sidney Rigdon was held and the outcome was that Sidney Rigdon was excommunicated from the church on 8 September 1844. The trial minutes were published in the Times and Seasons.

One item that was discussed in the trial of Sidney Rigdon was the charge that Joseph Smith gave in March 1844 to nine members of the Twelve. Orson Hyde prepared a document relating to their remembrance of the keys and responsibility of leading the church being given to the Twelve. The document is in manuscript form and was not signed. The following is the text of the complete statement of what was remembered concerning a council meeting held in March 1844 in Joseph Smith's Red Brick Store:

We, the undersigned, do hereby solemnly, sincerely, and truly testify before God, Angels, and men, unto all people unto whom this certificate may come, that we were present at a Council in the latter part of the Month of March last, held in the City of Nauvoo in the upper part of the brick building situate[d] upon Water Street, commonly known here as "Joseph's Store," in which Council Joseph Smith did preside; and the greater part of the Twelve Apostles were present. Namely, Brigham Young, Heber C Kimball, Orson Hyde, Parley P Pratt, Orson Pratt, John Taylor, Amasa Lyman, Willard Richards, and Wilford Woodruff. These we feel confident were all present on that occasion, besides many others who were of the quorum of high Priests to which we ourselves belong.

In this Council, Joseph Smith seemed somewhat depressed in Spirit, and took the liberty to open his heart to us concerning his presentiments of the future. His own language to us on that occasion, as nearly as we can recollect, was as follows.

Brethren, the Lord bids me hasten the work in which we are engaged. He will not suffer that you should wait for your endowment until the Temple is done. Some important Scene is near to take place. It may be that my enemies will kill me, and in case they should, and the Keys and power which rest on me not be imparted to you, they will be lost from the Earth; but if I can only succeed in placing them upon your heads, then let me fall a victim to murderous hands if God will suffer it, and I can go with all pleasure and satisfaction, knowing that my work is done, and the foundation laid on which the kingdom of God is to be reared in this dispensation of the fulness of times. Upon the shoulders of the Twelve must the responsibility of leading this Church hence forth rest until you shall appoint others to succeed you. Your enemies cannot kill you all at once, and should any of you be killed, you can lay your hands upon others and fill up your quorum. Thus can this power and these Keys be perpetuated in the Earth. Brethren, you have many storms to pass through, and many sore trials await you. You will know what it is to be bound with chains and with fetters for this cause sake. God knows I pity you and feel for you; but if you are called to lay down your lives, dir like men, and pass immediately beyond the reach of your enemies. After they have killed you, they can harm you no more. Should you have to walk right into danger and the jaws of death, fear no evil; Jesus Christ has died before you.

After this appointment was made, and confirmed by the holy anointing under the hands of Joseph and Hyrum, Joseph continued his speech unto them, saying, while he walked the floor and threw back the collar of his coat upon his shoulders, "I roll the burthen [burden] and responsibility of leading this Church off from my shoulders on to yours. Now, round up your shoulders and stand under it like men; for the Lord is going to let me rest a while." Never shall we forget his feelings or his words on this occasion. After he had thus spoken, he continued to walk the floor, saying: "Since I have rolled the burthen [burden] off from my shoulders, I feel as light as a cork. I feel that I am free. I thank my God for this deliverance."

We gave our testimony on the 8th of September last before a special Conference in this City, at which Sidney Rigdon was tried and excommunicated from the Church; and altho' we declared it then in the presence of many thousand people, we now feel it a pleasure in reducing it to writing, and freely give our names to the world in confirmation of the above statements; and further, that Joseph Smith did declare that he had conferred upon the Twelve every key and every power that he ever held himself before God. This our testimony we expect to meet in a coming day when all parties will know that we have told the truth and have not lied, so help us God.20

It has been reported that this council meeting in the latter part of March 1844 was a meeting of the Council of Fifty.21 Whatever the circumstances under which the "Keys and power" were given to those in the Council held in March 1844 it is clear that members of the Quorum of the Twelve looked to these words of Joseph Smith to lead the church, perhaps until the time when Joseph Smith III should become of age.22


1. Doctrine and Covenants of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Section 124:124-29.

2. Alexander Hale Smith Diary, original in Library-Archives, Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (hereafter RLDS archives), Independence, Missouri. Diary entry of 14 May 1864.

3. William W. Blair Diary, original in RLDS archives. Diary entries of 14 and 17 May 1865. See published account by Blair in True Latter-Day Saints' Herald 8 (1 October 1865):101 and W. Grant McMurray, "'True Son of a True Father': Joseph Smith III and the Succession Question," Restoration Studies I (Independence: Herald Publishing House, 1980), 141.

4. William W. Blair Diary. Part of diary entry of 17 June 1874 in Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1994), 300.

5. William W. Blair Diary, entries of 14, 16 and 17 June 1874. In the diary handwritten letters were added to the entry of 17 June 1874. Italics indicate the letters that were added by Blair: "She put hnd of Wives in Jos hnd;" this would be: "She [Emma] put h[a]nd of Wives in Jos[eph] h[a]nd."

6. For further references to the Council of Fifty see: D. Michael Quinn, "The Council of Fifty and its Members, 1844 to 1945," Brigham Young University Studies 20 (Winter 1980):163-97 and Andrew F. Ehat, "It Seems Like Heaven Began on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Constitution of the Kingdom of God," Brigham Young University Studies 20 (Spring 1980):253-80. William Clayton's journal records that it was on 11 April 1844 when Joseph Smith was made King of the Kingdom of God. "Pres. J[oseph]. was voted our P[rophet]. P[riest]. & K[ing]. with loud Hosannas." (William Clayton Journal, 11 April 1844, typescript; also entry of 1 January 1845. Original in LDS First Presidency Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah. See copied entries made by L. John Nuttall, Brigham Young University Studies 20 (Spring 1980):267-68.

7. On Hyrum Smith to take the place of Joseph Smith see: Journal of Joseph Fielding, pp. 38-39, LDS archives. This journal was written at Nauvoo after the death of Joseph and Hyrum Smith - "it appears that Joseph in particular anticipated the fatal result in Part but said he wished at any Rate that Hyram might be saved to stand in his place" (As cited in Brigham Young University Studies 19 [Winter 1979]:151). Also a statement by Brigham Young at the 6 October 1844 conference, Times and Seasons 5 (15 October 1844):683.

8. On Joseph Smith's relationship to plural marriage see H. Michael Marquardt, The Strange Marriages of Sarah Ann Whitney to Joseph Smith the Mormon Prophet, Joseph C. Kingsbury and Heber C. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Modern Microfilm Co. [now Utah Lighthouse Ministry], 1973; revised edition, 1982); letter of Joseph Smith dated 18 August 1842 in Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1984), 539-42. See also Todd Compton, "A Trajectory of Plurality: An Overview of Joseph Smith's Thirty-three Plural Wives," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 29 (Summer 1996):1-38.

9. A reference to the birth of David Hyrum Smith born 17 November 1844 is in the Journal of Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs, LDS archives. "This day long to be remembered, Sunday the 17 of November 1844. Em[m]a Smith, the Wife of Joseph Smith the Martyr, has a Son born, in the morning. O may the Choicest of Heavens blessings attend the Child. May it grow into manhood, and may it walk in the ways of its Father, be A comfort to its Friends and be the means of performing a Mighty work to the Glory of God and Prince forever" (As cited in Brigham Young University Studies 19 [Spring 1979]:298).

10. Ronald K. Esplin has written: "It is possible some such public mention was made, perhaps on more than one occasion, as was the case with the Prophet's announcement that he had shifted the burden of the kingdom to the Twelve, but it seems unlikely any formal action was taken publicly and no record survives" ("Joseph, Brigham and the Twelve: A Succession of Continuity," Brigham Young University Studies 21 [Summer 1981]:317n54).

11. William Clayton Journal, 2 July 1844, typescript. See George D. Smith, ed., An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton (Salt Lake City: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1991), 136, cited hereafter as Intimate Chronicle.

12. William Clayton Journal, 12 July 1844, typescript. See Intimate Chronicle, 138. For a discussion of "the quorum" see Andrew F. Ehat, "Joseph Smith's Introduction of Temple Ordinances and the 1844 Mormon Succession Question" (Master's thesis, Brigham Young University, 1982), 12-17.

13. The death notice of Samuel H. Smith is in Times and Seasons 5 (1 August 1844):606.

14. Saint Louis New Era, 8 August 1844, p. 2, col. 2. John Hardy evidently told the Boston Times and it was picked up by newspapers in St. Louis.

15. St. Louis People's Organ, 9 August 1844, p. 2, col. 2.

16. William Clayton Journal, 8 August 1844, typescript. See Intimate Chronicle, 142. Wilford Woodruff recorded in his journal: "Do you want to sustain President Rigdon to Stand in his place to council with us and we with him and the Same Br[other] A[masa] Lyman? A universal vote" (Original journal in LDS archives, as cited in Wilford Woodruff's Journal [Midvale, Utah: Signature Books, 1983], 2:440).

17. Amasa M. Lyman was ordained an Apostle on 20 August 1842. As Lyman would have been apostle number thirteen he was brought into the First Presidency. Lyman had no known role while acting as a counselor. Wilford Woodruff recorded in his journal for 19 January 1843 that Lyman "was taken in to the first Presidency." In the Joseph Smith Nauvoo Journal kept by Willard Richards he recorded on 4 February 1843: "told Amasa Lyman he had restored Orson Pratt to his former standing, that he had concluded to make Amasa counciler to the first Presidency" (Original Joseph Smith Nauvoo Journals in LDS archives).

18. Times and Seasons 5 (2 September 1844):632.

19. Jedediah M. Grant, A Collection of Facts, Relative to the Course Taken by Elder Sidney Rigdon, in the States of Ohio, Missouri, Illinois and Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: Brown, Bicking & Guilbert, 1844), 18.

20. This undated and unsigned certificate of nine of the Quorum of the Twelve was written by Apostle Orson Hyde between 8 September 1844 and March 1845. Typescript, the original is in the Brigham Young Papers, LDS archives.

21. Benjamin F. Johnson in the manuscript of his autobiography "A Life's Sketch," (1885) stated that this meeting took place "At one of the last meetings of the Council of Fifty after all had been completed and the keys of power committed . . ." (As quoted in Brigham Young University Studies 16 (Winter 1976):207, original in LDS archives. In a later account Johnson recalled Joseph Smith saying: "And in the name of the Lord I now Shake from my Shoulders the Responsabilaties of bearing off the Kingdom of God to all the world - and here & now I place that Responsability with all the Keys Powrs & privilege pertaining there too [sic] upon the Shoulders of you the Twelve Apostles in connection with this Council" (Letter of Benjamin F. Johnson to George Gibbs, 1903, original in LDS archives; as published in Dean R. Zimmerman, I Knew the Prophets: An Analysis of the letter of Benjamin F. Johnson to George F. Gibbs, Reporting Doctrinal Views of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young [Bountiful, Utah: Horizon Publishers, 1976], 36). Brigham Young commented in 1846 that "before the death of Jos[eph] he said that when [wherever] the keys of the Kingdom were there would be the place to gether [gather] now here ever [wherever] the 12 & council are there will the keys be also & there will be the place of gathering be" (Journal of John D. Lee, 3 May 1846, original in LDS archives; page 129 of a typed copy in the possession of Mr. James D. Wardle, Salt Lake City, Utah.

22. Times and Seasons 5 (15 December 1844):740.

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