D&C 107. Part 13. Succession and Discipline.

One of the interesting issues raised by the history of Doctrine and Covenants section 107 is the question of a transgressing President of the Church. The November 11 revelation (second half of D&C 107) introduced a church court system (see parts 2 and 3 in the series). The two leading offices in the early church were the bishop and the president of the high priesthood. The revelation defined a way for each officer to be disciplined, should the need arise. This was to work by using each of the court systems attached to these officers to judge the other.

As the church matured, there continued to be only one president of the high priesthood over the entire church, but the number of bishoprics gradually increased. Since the original revelation left open what should happen in that event, some clarification was needed. The revelations in part 12 of the post made some regulation to substitute for the early method. But those revelations, while subjected to canonical vote, did not provide a lasting answer to the question: how to deal with a transgressing church president. Moreover, it was clear that people in the know saw the November 11 revelation applying to each member of the church presidency.

The Twelve Apostles had no defined role in the problem partly because they didn’t exist in November 1831. The front portion of D&C 107 defines the role of the 12, but does not give them overt disciplinary responsibilities with regard to the church presidency, and in the question of Joseph Smith’s trial in Kirtland, they made no appearance (unless you count a plaintiff).

The 1838 revelations made it clear that the November revelation was deprecated and was to be discarded with reference to this discipline issue. But another office was in store in Nauvoo. A presiding bishop. This bishop presided over other bishops. While revealed in Nauvoo, it was never occupied during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. A naive reading of D&C 107 has led some commentators to suppose that the presiding bishop would be the judge of a church president.

In a sense, the problem disappeared with the death of Joseph Smith. Of course it was Sidney Rigdon’s position that he was a president of the high priesthood and that (in essence) based on policies like those found in D&C 102, he should lead the church. A small segment of the church believed him. When the apostles assumed leadership, they weren’t presidents of the high priesthood. Indeed, Brigham Young would come to describe his office as superior to the high priesthood (for example see his sermon of April 6, 1853). When the First Presidency was reformed in 1847, there was no mention of the high priesthood. Historically, the identification of the First Presidency and the Presidency of the High Priesthood was merely a convenient renaming process. With the desire to elevate the office of apostle, the old title was left behind. It’s worth noting that Brigham’s point of view would not stick. Joseph F. Smith would read D&C 107 in a different way from Brigham. Apostles like George Albert Smith who were not high priests prior to coming into the Q12 would be ordained high priests as well since JFS believed they could not preside without being high priests (a similar practice was adopted with the First Council of the Seventy decades later). Brigham would have blanched.

Still, an analogous problem existed with the new First Presidency. How would a member of the First Presidency be dealt with? By the 1890s it seemed like the presidency was not accountable to anyone. The apostles were uncomfortable with some of George Q. Cannon’s activities. Only learning of some of them by rumor made it worse. Some members felt Cannon should be dropped. The very idea angered President Woodruff, but the apostles asserted themselves, partly based on D&C 107 perhaps also because of Brigham’s feeling the the Presidency were merely apostles with a different assignment. The resolution of the tiff put the two bodies on a more even footing. The idea that a member of the presidency could be dropped was not without precedence. It had happened twice in 1832 and twice again in 1837 (Joseph Smith attempted to drop Rigdon in 1843, but failed). Cannon of course was not dropped but reined in a bit. However, it is difficult to believe that a church president could be dropped. Instead, President Woodruff offered another solution: if a church president would go haywire, God would take him out of the mortal shell (See D&C OD1). The discipline would come from above, not below, and it would be rather permanent.

As a side note, John Taylor seems to have identified the First Presidency with the presidency of the high priesthood. For example, see JD 21:364 and Orson Pratt in JD 22:35. By the 1940s, some reference to the President of the High Priesthood (as church president) began to reappear in General Conferences. But as we have seen already in a previous post, “high priesthood” by this time had morphed into a synonym for “Melchizedek Priesthood.” Hence the question of applying D&C 107 becomes oddly muddled.

The finale appears to be that no formal method exists for recalling a church president. The Woodruff solution remains.

The recall of a president is unlikely for other reasons. The system of leadership presently in place in the Church makes is unlikely that a young vigorous man will rise to the senior tranche. Although President Gordon B. Hinckley, while elderly, had great vigor. Much of the well-known headline changes over the last 15 years have been attributed to that vigor. Spencer W. Kimball was a vigorous leader in his first decade (1973-1981 or so). But even in the case of a vigorous leader gone “astray” (whatever that might mean) the present system is capable of dealing with any extreme moves. Given the embedded bureaucracy in the Church, and the consensus driven approval process for big moves (something suggested by D&C 107 itself), it would be nearly impossible for the untoward to get past it. But what about speech? Could an off the reservation Church President be muzzled? It’s clear that presidents who have been less functional can be isolated. That happened with Ezra Taft Benson and Spencer Kimball.

This suggests that a presidential recall would be unnecessary except for a vigorous president who began to *speak* the heterodox. The ugly head of schism rises in this case, but it seems clear that since the Twelve have been king makers since Brigham Young (even if in a perfunctory way) they would have to act as a quorum to depose the president – the common council is really a dead issue unless the presiding bishop were rehabilitated in the November 11 reading (the January 1838 revelations would only come into play in some worst case outcome). There are all kinds of nightmare scenarios here, each as unlikely as the next.

Sidney Rigdon argued for succession based in part on the ideas of the November 11 portion of D&C 107. Brigham Young argued for succession in part based on the April 28 portion of D&C 107. Could Rigdon have made a stronger case? Perhaps, but the insiders in Nauvoo knew Rigdon had problems with Joseph Smith’s innovations like polygamy and unlike Young he never had any cachet in the “sealing” enterprise. Rigdon might have cited the July 1837 revelation (now D&C 112) as clearly marking out the territory of the First Presidency as superior to the Twelve. On the other hand, the same revelation suggests that Joseph would hand the “keys” to Thomas B. Marsh and the Twelve (and hence Brigham Young and Twelve). The apostles did try to reinforce their position vis-a-vis this revelation by publishing a modified version of a statement of Joseph Smith to the effect that when he wasn’t around, there was no First Presidency over the Twelve. (And while that statement was an invention, it plays into the recall question in a way.)

Finally, I regard the recall provisions of the November 11 revelation as not only temporary in fact, but temporary in need. They responded to the old Protestant fear of prelate tyranny. While that fear is still occasionally voiced in Mormonism, I think a recall is still possible in several ways. Is it likely that anything like that would ever come up? Absolutely not, in my opinion. The narrative of tried and true leadership over decades of steady service is a convincing one and combined with the Woodruff doctrine and isolation in the case of mental aberration or disability it is pretty complete in theory. But whatever the case, D&C 107 is never going to play a role in deposing a Church president.

2 Responses to D&C 107. Part 13. Succession and Discipline.

  1. David G. says:

    Fascinating. Thanks, WVS.

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