In a blog post last week I discussed the issue of lineal succession for Joseph Smith III (1832-1914) and the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. While the church’s leadership certainly accepted without qualification the role of primogeniture in presidential succession, Smith also emphasized the divine aspects of his call to preside over the Reorganized Church. He spoke and wrote about his development between 1844 and 1860, especially about his spiritual experiences confirming the rightness of his place at the head of the church. His memoirs, his editorials in the church newspaper, and his private writings attest to the importance of these events heralding Smith’s commitment to a life of prophetic ministry.
These concerns and angles of vision contributed to Smith’s emphasis of the role of appointment by revelation through the previous president as a significant determinant of succession in the Reorganized Church. Although this method of succession had been advanced by others, indeed Joseph Smith Jr. had designated several different people to succeed him at various stages of his career, in the case of Joseph III this revolved around blessings on him by his father. There does not seem to be much question that Joseph Jr. did bless his son to succeed him; too many references to the incident are extant. But numerous factors came into play to prohibit his succession in 1844, not the least of which was the fact that he was a boy not yet in his teens and could never have provided the church the strong leadership it required in that troubled period.
As the Reorganized Church encountered the Utah church’s religious system beginning in the latter 1860s, it searched for irrefutable means of proving its legitimacy. The direct link to Joseph Smith, Jr., first by having his son as president of the Reorganization, and then by having that son actually be called to the presidential office by his father, was a persuasive argument. Although there were no formal documents extant verifying Joseph Smith III’s setting apart, the oral tradition from a wide range of sources pointed to at least one such blessing by the father to the son. That the blessing had been well known was attested to by the fact that in a history of Illinois published in 1844, the non‑Mormon writer had commented that Joseph Smith Jr. had “left a will or revelation, appointing a successor; and among other things, it is stated that his son, a lad of twelve years, is named therein as his successor.”
Over the years the case for Joseph III’s succession through appointment—by revelation was always assumed as part of this act—from his father had developed. Smith presented on several occasions his own recollections of the event, as did other old church members. The case was impressive for those with sympathies for the Reorganized Church. It was probably not overly convincing to members of the Utah Latter‑day Saints, some of whom pointed out that no hard evidence confirmed these oral arguments and recollections written years after doing so. It was the same rationale used by Joseph Smith III to reject the recollections of Utahns that his father had been a polygamist.
The oral tradition of Joseph Smith III having been blessed by his father to be his successor continued to grow throughout his career. The lineage and the designation, both of which were manifested to Smith through spiritual intervention, combined to create a strong sense of legitimacy for his presidential leadership. Smith commented on how these ingredients affected him during his testimony on behalf of the church at the Temple Lot Suit in the 1890s. He told the court:
I claim to be his successor by lineal right, and by his blessing, and lastly by the right of selection and appointment. It is not necessarily a birthright to be the President of the Church. It comes by virtue of fitness and qualification, I may say, good behavior and the choice of the people, recognizing a call or a right….I do not regard my lineal successorship as one of the claims [to legitimacy for the Reorganization], not necessarily. The existence of the Reorganized Church does not depend on my lineal successorship as I understand it.
The succession question, particularly as it related to the appointment of Joseph Smith III by his father, took a different and ultimately a tragic course beginning in 1981. Mark W. Hofmann, a Utah documents dealer, claimed to have found a written record of the blessing of Joseph Smith III by his father. Dated January 17, 1844, it said all the appropriate words legitimizing the succession claims of the Reorganized Church: “For he shall be my successor to the Presidency of the High Priesthood; a Seer, and a Revelator, and a Prophet, unto the Church; which appointment belongeth to him by blessing, and also by right.” The Reorganized Church acquired the document after a convoluted set of dealings with Hofmann and the Mormon church, and the church’s “World Conference” canonized it in the historical appendix of the Doctrine and Covenants during the 1982 sessions, thereby essentially assigning it the force of revelation. Church leaders, the scholarly historical community, and the media were caught up in the euphoria of this document, granting the Reorganized Church a measure of respect it had not usually enjoyed before.
Unfortunately, the document was a forgery. Instead of a vindication of the Reorganization’s succession process, the church ended up with a Hofmann original. This became clear in 1986 as a result of an investigation into two grisly murders in Salt Lake City in October 1985. Hofmann had committed them in cold blood to prevent the exposure of his forged documents scam. While I do not think it necessary to go into this episode in detail, I would comment that the result was as embarrassing to the Reorganized Church as any event in its history.
This was true for two major reasons. First, the forged blessing document was not a particularly convincing product. Supposedly in the handwriting of Thomas Bullock, one of Joseph Smith Jr.’s scribes, the blessing’s handwriting was not consistent with the numerous handwriting examples of Bullock. A forensic examiner should have raised red flags about its authenticity on the basis of these inconsistencies. Perhaps they did not do so because they were comparing handwriting on high‑quality photocopies rather than in original documents.
Although some tests were conducted on the paper and ink used in the blessing, the only thing they verified was that both were of the type used in the period it was presumably written. From these paper and ink tests, which indicated that there was no evidence of forgery, and the handwriting analysis, which was at best of questionable veracity, many church officials as well as the membership made the leap of faith that the blessing was inviolate. The Reorganized Church wanted to believe in the blessing too much, and was willing to ignore countervailing evidence. The impression that it carried the force of revelation to the church further clouded the succession question. It required additional action in 1986 to remove the blessing from the Doctrine and Covenants, in what could only be termed a giant “oops” on the part of the Reorganization.
As important as Joseph Smith III considered his blessing/designation under his father’s hand, he recognized that it was only one aspect of the succession question. Lineage and the revelatory process—manifested in ways other than in a specific blessing—also figured significantly into the succession equation. As Joseph grew older he became increasingly concerned about providing for the church’s continuation beyond his death. He desperately wanted to ensure that the controversy surrounding his succession were not repeated at his death. In his last years Joseph Smith III took blatant action to ensure that his oldest son followed him as president of the church.