On February 11, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI announced his intention to resign the papacy on February 28, 2013. His reason for resigning was his lack of strength and energy to continue to fulfill the rigorous demands that come with the office. The process of electing a new pope can be time consuming since a two-thirds majority is required. The complex process has changed considerably over the centuries, but that is how it stands today. The process is very secluded to ensure the cardinal electors are not influenced by outside forces. They are effectively cut off from the world until they reach a two-thirds majority decision.
Pope Benedict XVI is the first pope since 1415 to abdicate the papacy. It has raised questions for some even outside of the Catholic religion. For example, some may wonder if a Mormon prophet would ever resign. The short answer is no. A Mormon prophet, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which church is often mistakenly called the “Mormon Church”), is called for life.
Pope Benedict XVI was elected to the papacy at a very advanced age, and, as stated above, his reason for resigning is limitations on his health which prevent him from fulfilling his duties. Since the calling of prophet and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“Mormon prophet”) is also for life, it is to be expected that any given Mormon prophet may find himself in the same situation as the pope, unable to fulfill his duties due to health problems. This has been the case in the past. However, when this happens, the day-to-day responsibilities of a Mormon prophet may be divvied up between his counselors as well as other General Authorities of the Church.
The current Mormon prophet is the mouthpiece of the Lord on the earth, but Jesus Christ is the head of the Church. Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”) believe that God still speaks to His children today through a living prophet. However, as the name of the church testifies, the church is the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and He is the head of His church.
The guidelines which govern the sustaining of a new Mormon prophet are simple and clear. The senior apostle among the prophet’s counselors and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles is next in line for the presidency. A new Mormon prophet is sustained by the members of the Church at the next semi-annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ (mistakenly called “The Mormon Church”), and any who do not choose to sustain him may show they do not sustain him. However, there is no voting involved in the matter. Each member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is strongly urged to gain personal testimony of any new Mormon prophet through a personal witness through the Holy Spirit that the prophet has been called of God.
History of Succession in the LDS Church
The process of succession for Mormon prophets has changed very little in its history. When the first Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, was martyred, the church was in a bit of turmoil about who should succeed him as leader of the Church. After several spiritual manifestations, however, God made it clear that Brigham Young was the man He had chosen to succeed Joseph Smith. A pattern was established at that point for the senior apostle to succeed in the presidency. However, many apostles were made members of the Quorum of the Twelve at the same time in the early days of the Church. Joseph Smith had instructed them to arrange seniority by age. Brigham Young declared in 1865, however, that henceforth seniority would be reckoned according to the individuals’ priesthood ordination dates.
There was also a pattern in the early church for new presidents to not be sustained for a few years after the previous Mormon prophet had passed away. Authority to lead the church rested with the Quorum of the Twelve as a whole, and eventually the senior apostle would be sustained as the new Mormon prophet, reorganizing the First Presidency.
About six years before his death, President Wilford Woodruff (fourth Mormon prophet) took Lorenzo Snow (next senior apostle and President of the Quorum of the Twelve) aside and told him that if he, Woodruff, should die before Snow, then the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles should not wait to sustain a new First Presidency, as they had done in the past. Rather, Lorenzo Snow should be sustained and should call George Q. Cannon and Joseph F. Smith as his counselors. President Woodruff died in 1898, and Lorenzo Snow had a marvelous visitation from the Savior confirming His will that the First Presidency should immediately be reorganized. Since then, a new First Presidency has been organized and sustained at the first General Conference following a Mormon prophet’s death.
Seniority was reckoned after the manner Brigham Young had established until Lorenzo Snow was prophet; he declared seniority would be reckoned by when individuals were made members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. This is how it remains today.
In 1970, Elder Spencer W. Kimball (later himself a Mormon prophet) declared in a General Conference address:
The moment life passes from a President of the Church, a body of men become the composite leader—these men already seasoned with experience and training. The appointments have long been made, the authority given, the keys delivered . . . the kingdom moves forward under this already authorized council. No ‘running’ for position, no electioneering, no stump speeches. What a divine plan! How wise our Lord, to organize so perfectly beyond the weakness of frail, grasping humans (Conference Report, April 1970, p118).
President Ezra Taft Benson declared that the Lord controls succession in His church:
God knows all things, the end from the beginning, and no man becomes President of the church of Jesus Christ by accident, nor remains there by chance, nor is called home by happenstance (Korea Area Conference 1975, p52).
It is wonderful to have a personal witness from the Holy Spirit that the Mormon prophet has truly been called of God to be His mouthpiece on the earth. We are promised that if we follow the prophet, we cannot be led astray. God would not allow it. Still, it is important to gain a personal witness each time a new Mormon prophet is sustained.
While great sin could result in a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles begin excommunicated and therefore losing the opportunity (and responsibility) to become a Mormon prophet, this is unlikely today. These men are called of God and have consecrated their lives to His service. They recognize the responsibility placed on their shoulders and do the best they can in their own weaknesses and shortcomings to magnify their callings and serve God.