Perhaps no issue has been more controversial than presidential succession in the Latter-day Saint movement. Joseph Smith III, son of the Mormon founder, buttressed his ascension to the presidency of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 1860 through several methodologies. One of those, and a powerful one for many Mormons of the nineteenth century, was Smith’s legitimacy based on lineal priesthood succession.
But lineal succession was never really sufficient; historians have found that the issue was far from “cut and dried” at the time of Joseph Smith Jr.’s death. Succession might be legitimately based upon prophetic declaration, organizational evolution, priesthood authority, and scriptural precedents. These suggested at least eight ways in which an individual within Mormonism could legitimately claim leadership.
From the perspective of the Reorganized Church, there can be little doubt that Joseph Smith Jr. believed in the right of lineage, as “Old Testament” an idea as ever there was, and numerous statements abound about this particular aspect of his belief system. An 1835 revelation to Joseph Smith Jr. proclaimed lineal priesthood: “The order of this priesthood was confirmed to be handed down from father to son, and rightly belongs to the literal descendants of the chosen see, to whom the promises were made.” In 1841 he announced another revelation making a direct statement about the favored position of his own descendants: “In thee and in thy seed shall the kindred of the earth be blessed.” In this environment it would be difficult to argue that Joseph Smith Jr. did anticipate his sons entering the church’s leadership.
Accordingly, the justness of lineal succession, essentially a royal family approach to church leadership, was present almost with the founding of Mormon church. It evolved during Joseph Smith Jr.’s lifetime, and William B. Smith, the sole surviving Smith brother, became its most vocal advocate after Smith’s death in 1844. Even so William Smith was inconsistent about who this would allow to be president, himself or another member of the family. In spite of this, at least by October 1845 William Smith had suggested that lineal succession was the key to church leadership and that it pointed to Joseph Smith III, then a 12-year-old boy.
The strictly lineal succession position gained advocates among those who associated with the Reorganized Church in the 1850s. For example, Zenos H. Gurley Sr., a founding father of the Reorganized Church, emphasized primogeniture in picking a president. He told Alpheus Cutler, a would‑be” successor to the prophetic mantle: “This brother Cutler (tho plainly taught in the revelations of God in the order of the Priesthood) was unknown to us until revealed through the gift of the ghost to several who were tired and sick of the doctrine of men and of Devils and had by fasting and prayer sought the Lord to know from him the true and right way.”
The lineal succession doctrine was so well accepted by the Reorganization that in 1863, when some members of the Reorganized Church were demanding the replacement of Joseph Smith III with David H. Smith, his youngest brother, David responded with one of his most eloquent poems arguing that this was not appropriate. Lineal succession, he advocated, extended by order of birth. In “A Word of Advice to Those Who Look for Me to Be the Prophet” he wrote:
Joseph is the Chosen Prophet, Well ordained in God’s Clear sight;
Should he lose it by transgression, Alexander has the right.
Joseph, Alexander, David, Three remaining pillars still;
Like the three remaining columns, Of the Temple on the hill!
Joseph’s star is full and shining, Alexander’s more than mine;
Mine is just below the mountain, Bide its time and it will shine.
Alexander, the middle brother between Joseph and David, was, according to the doctrine of lineal succession, the next in line for the presidential office, not David.
Joseph Smith III did not come to accept lineal succession easily. In 1856 when representatives of the Reorganized Church approached Smith officially for the first time, they presented him with a letter urging that it was Smith’s birthright to lead the church. It stated:
we have shown the right of successorship to rest in the literal descendant of the chosen seed, to whom the promise was made,…We can not forbear reminding you that the commandments, as well as the promises given to Joseph, your father, were given to him, and to his seed. And in the name of our master, even Jesus Christ, as moved upon by the Holy Ghost we say, Arise in the strength of the Lord and realize those promises by executing those commandments.
Joseph Smith III responded that he was willing to do what God required of him, but that he had to receive the calling through divine intervention not through bloodline. Until he received a confirming testimony about his calling, Smith would not accept succession to the prophetic office as a requirement of parentage.
Smith offered a similar statement about lineal succession not being the primary means for following him. When presenting himself to the 1860 Amboy conference, he told the Reorganized Church members gathered there matter of factly that “I have come [here] in obedience to a power not my own.”
Joseph Smith III never faltered in his emphasis on personal, as well as corporate, spiritual confirmation of calling in the prophetic office. I suspect that Smith’s aversion to lineage as the sole determinant of presidential succession was related to secular monarchies that were oftentimes oppressive to their subjects. Smith’s naturally democratic tendencies, his acceptance of the pluralistic American society, his perception of the Reorganization as a dissenting tradition within Mormonism, as well as a whole truckload of other baggage all combined to make Smith wary of claiming presidential prerogatives by birthright alone.
Smith’s denunciation of the absolute right of lineage was expressed in several ways. In his memoirs he wrote unappreciatively of “the cruelties and inequalities of the law of primogeniture, the oldest son became head of the family and was alone entitled to its estates, greatly to the handicap and impoverishment of his brothers.” On other occasions he commented on the need to rid the earth of tyrants, hereditary or otherwise. When the war with Spain began in 1898, for instance, Smith let his beliefs be known that he supported the overthrow of Spanish control of Cuba because of the king’s harsh domination based on his perceived “rights” as ruler.
Joseph Smith III, therefore, 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.
Nonetheless, as the Reorganized Church encountered the Utah Mormon Church’s religious system beginning in the latter 1860s, the issue of primogeniture arose as a powerful argument in favor of the church’s legitimacy. If the Mormon kingdom had largely migrated to Utah in the 1840s, its line of kings had remained in the American Midwest and had taken leadership in the Reorganized Church. In such a situation, the direct link to Joseph Smith Jr. by having his son as president of the Reorganization lent considerable credence to the church.
It became a significant part of the Reorganization’s identity in the nineteenth century. A succession of Smiths, moreover, led the Reorganized Church until 1996, when Wallace B. Smith retired from the presidency. He was the grandson of Joseph Smith III. Primogeniture played a powerful role in shaping the Reorganized Church, renamed the Community of Christ in 2000.