Excommunicating the President of the Church (and some possible complications)

Suppose that Gordon B. Hinckley really started misbehaving, sinning left and right, and generally leading the church astray. Some might find this unlikely on theological grounds, after all President Woodruff said:

    The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.

The implication seems to be that the Lord will “call home” any prophet who strays too far from the divine “programme.” Looking at the scriptures, however, suggests another possibility: Excommunicating the President of the Church.

According to D&C 107:82-84:

    And inasmuch as a President of the High Priesthood shall transgress, he shall be had in remembrance before the common council of the Church who shall be assisted by twelve counselors of the High Priesthood; And their decision upon his head shall be an end of controversy concerning him. Thus, none shall be exempted from the justice and the laws of God, that all things may be done in order and solemnity before Him, according to truth and righteousness.

The procedure from this passage is a little cryptic. The “common council of the Church” referred to is the Presiding Bishopric (See D&C 107: 74-76). In his book Priesthood and Church Government, Elder John A Widstoe had this to say about the judicial authority of the Presiding Bishopric:

    Should occasion ever arise that one of the First Presidency must be tried for crime or neglect of duty, his case would come before the Presiding Bishop with his counselors, and twelve High Priests especially chosen for the purpose. This would be a tribunal extraordinary – from which there is no appeal.

A couple of interesting points about the procedure. First, the twelve high priests who sit in council with the Presiding Bishopric are not the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, although presumably despite their ordination as Apostles they could serve. (Although the First Presidency is made up of “high priests,” Apostles regularly serve as members.) Indeed, as far as I know, the only times that this judicial machinery has been used – to excommunicate various counselors of Joseph Smith – the twelve high priests were not the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, but rather the local high council. However, as Widstoe suggests, there is no reason that they need to be high councilors, and the Presiding Bishop seems to have the authority to select any twelve high priests, regardless of their current office. The second interesting point is that the First Presidency is afforded fewer procedural protections than are other members of the Church. There is no appeal from the Presiding Bishopric, furthermore it is not clear if the procedural requirements that apply to other church proceedings apply here. For example, would President Hinckley have a right to have his bishop speak on his behalf?

Finally, the procedure sets up the possibility of a “constitutional crisis” within the Church. Suppose that the President of the Church were called before the Presiding Bishopric and excommunicated. Simultaneously, the First Presidency took jurisdiction over the Presiding Bishopric and excommunicated them. There is not right of appeal from either tribunal, and hence no “legal” way to resolve the controversy. There is, however, a pragmatic solution to the issue. This situation would force the Quorum of the Twelve to take sides. If they deem Presiding Bishopric’s action to be legitimate, then the Twelve become the presiding quorum of the Church, with the authority to select and ordain a new President of the Church. If, however, they deem the action of the First Presidency to be legitimate, then they would simply continue to follow the authority of the First Presidency and refuse to ordain a new President of the Church. Because the Presiding Bishopric has no authority over the Twelve, there is nothing that it can do to gain say the Twelve’s decision. The really difficult scenario would be one in which the Twelve sided with the Presiding Bishopric against the First Presidency, which refused to accept their combined decision. The First Presidency has the authority to excommunicate any member of the Twelve, and its decision to do so in unreviewable. Suppose, however, that the Twelve had already ordained a new President of the Church. We would now have the situation of two rival claimants to the Presidency, both with the unreviewable authority to excommunicate the other. One suspects that such a conflict would have to be resolved by the membership of the Church itself in general conference, much the way that the competing claims of Rigdon and the Twelve were resolved in 1844.

As far as I know, there has only been one attempt to institute an action against the President of the Church himself before the Presiding Bishopric. As I understand it, in the 1950s there were plans to shut down Rick’s College in Idaho (or at least there were rumors of such plans). Some of the local leaders in Rexburg were so infuriated that they tried to instigate an court to try President McKay. If this story is true, nothing ever came of it. Ricks still exists (albeit under a new name), and as far as I know, President McKay was never excommunicated.

Just as well. Things could get messy.

21 comments for “Excommunicating the President of the Church (and some possible complications)

  1. lyle
    June 7, 2004 at 3:32 pm

    yup…messy is as descriptive as any to describe an internal war over control of the LDS church. While LDS folks are largely (me too) to rely upon Pres. Woodruff’s statement…

    an interesting fiction read would be a book written about an LDS “council” were what you describe happens, or…where they are debating some big theological issue (to study it out in their minds) before asking God about [fill in the blank with whatever issue stokes your boat; from adam-god to MM/SSM, etc.)

  2. Jeremiah J.
    June 7, 2004 at 4:44 pm

    Great post, Nate. We seem to want very clear jurisdictions as well as absolute authority for the president of the Church–the Woodruff doctrine seems to allow us to have them both together without problem. But your considerations here make the issue much more interesting…

  3. June 7, 2004 at 5:07 pm

    Great stuff, Nate.

    Here’s a question. What happens if some major calamity were to befall the Twelve. I think that reverse-interpolating the Woodruff doctrine one could say that that’s not likely to happen — and I don’t think that it is.

    But since we all have become more interested in the lines of succession in the UI.S. Presidency [with Cheney and the secret bunker, etc.], I was wondering what the scenario is for the Church. I assume that the Presiding Bishopric is in line before the Presidency of the Seventy, right?

  4. June 7, 2004 at 6:42 pm

    William: I don’t really know the answer, but I would be surprised if the Presiding Bishopric were in line for the presidency at all. The reason is that the First Presidency is the Presidency of the Melch. Priesthood, and the Presiding Bishopric is the President of the Aaronic Priesthood. It seems to me that the line of authority (and thus succession?) goes:

    First Presidency–>Apostles–>Presidency of 70–>Quorums of the Seventy–>Area Authority Seventy–>Stake Presidents–>Elders’ Quorum President.

    Notice, that with the exception of Elders’ Quorums there are now Melch. Priesthood officers. Elders’ Quorums are technically not part of the ward unit, but are under the authority of the Stake President. Indeed, there is no reason that one couldn’t have Elders’ Quorums that were unassociated with wards, or have Elders’ Quorums that spanned several wards. We do this with High Priests. Each stake has a single quorum of high priests presided over by the Stake President. Each ward has a High Priest Group which is presided over by a group leader designated by the Stake President. Ward Bishoprics are Aaronic Priesthood offices.

  5. Frank McIntyre
    June 7, 2004 at 6:51 pm

    And the Bishop is the Presiding High Priest over the ward, which lets him preside over both the High Priests group leader and the Elder’s Quorum President on matters pertaining to the ward.

    His ability to serve in the priesthood office of Bishop is an extension of his being a High Priest, which gives him authority to serve in any office (or something like that).

    Also, maybe somebody knows better than I, but we’d be in need of angelic intervention should we lose all the Apostles. It is they who hold all the keys (such as the sealing keys), although only the President can authorize the use of keys. Thus there would need to be a restoration of those keys should all the Apostles and the First Presidency disappear.

    As I recall, the D&C notes that these keys will never be removed until the Second Coming, but I don’t remember the exact quote so I may be wrong.

  6. Adam Greenwood
    June 7, 2004 at 9:06 pm

    Note that the competing Popes of the late Middle Ages was a major contingent contributor to the decline in respect for the Church.

  7. Keith Lane
    June 7, 2004 at 9:12 pm

    Frank says “there would need to be a restoration of those keys should all the Apostles and the First Presidency disappear.”

    D&C 107 says all three quorums are equal in authority. Members of the Seventy (first quorum at least) are given keys and a portion of the apostleship when they are set apart.

    As I understand the teaching of the church on this, they could take over without a completely new restoration.

  8. Frank McIntyre
    June 8, 2004 at 9:15 am

    I’d never heard of the Seventy getting the sealing keys when they are set apart so that is very interesting. Is that written down somewhere or does Keith just have the inside scoop?

    Of course, the fact that the quorums are equal in authority does not imply they all hold the sealing keys.

  9. June 8, 2004 at 9:34 am

    The Patriarch to the Church is also not technically released from his position; he is emeritus, but could potentially be in the line of succession after the Quorum of the Twelve. I’m not sure about whether he holds the same keys that the Twelve hold, though. (The question of the Patriarch’s place in succession is probably one of the factors that led to the elimination of that position.)

  10. Frank McIntyre
    June 8, 2004 at 11:29 am

    Elder Faust’s talk on The Keys that Never Rust is instructive on the sealing keys.

    As best I can determine, the President exercises the keys. The Quorum of the Twelve were given the keys by Joseph Smith and thus they have the authority to “carry off the kingdom”.

    I find no mention of Patriarchs or seventies holding sealing keys. Earl Tingey gave a talk on Seventies and the new Area Authority seventies. He said, speaking of all Seventies:

    “Members of the Quorums of the Seventy do not hold priesthood keys as part of their callings as Seventies. But when they receive an assignment from the First Presidency or the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the keys they need to accomplish the task are delegated to them. As President Brigham Young explained to the Seventy, “When we send you to build up the kingdom, we will give you the keys, and power and authority” (History of the Church, 7:308). When they are ordained, members of the Seventy do receive apostolic authority to bear witness that Jesus is the Christ and to go forth in all the world as the Twelve may send them.”

    He also quotes the scripture I could not remember, stating that this is all idle chatter because:

    “The keys of the kingdom of God are committed unto man on the earth, and from thence shall the gospel roll forth unto the ends of the earth, as the stone which is cut out of the mountain without hands shall roll forth, until it has filled the whole earth” (D&C 65:2).

    which is the “kingdom, which shall never be destroyed … , and it shall stand for ever” (Dan. 2:44).

  11. June 8, 2004 at 11:49 am

    I don’t know how the practice of passing keys to the Presiding Patriarch has worked in this century, but the Doctrine & Covenants seems to indicate that the Patriarch holds the sealing keys:

    Verily I say unto you, I now give unto you the officers belonging to my Priesthood, that ye may hold the keys thereof, even the Priesthood which is after the order of Melchizedek, which is after the order of mine Only Begotten Son.

    First, I give unto you Hyrum Smith to be a patriarch unto you, to hold the sealing blessings of my church, even the Holy Spirit of promise, whereby ye are sealed up unto the day of redemption, that ye may not fall notwithstanding the hour of temptation that may come upon you. (D&C 124:123-124, see also verses 91-94)

    Joseph F. Smith discussed this pre-eminence of the Patriarch in his first General Conference after becoming President of the Church.

  12. Frank McIntyre
    June 8, 2004 at 12:50 pm

    Well it sure sounds like Hyrum held sealing keys. I think this is consistent with Elder Faust’s talk, which was given after Patriarchs (in stakes) probably no longer got sealing keys.

  13. Keith
    June 8, 2004 at 8:21 pm


    I may have mispoke in using the word “keys” (though I wasn’t using keys in reference to sealing). Members of the first and second quorum of Seventy are given the sealing power, however, and the other Seventy are not necessarily given it. (My sources here are a kind of inside scoop, as you say–associates whose fathers were in the Seventy, and another who is currently an area authority seventy.) In the cases of the ‘General Authority’ Seventy, there was mention of apostle and ‘portion of apostleship.’ This, of course, doesn’t say keys and I’d have to check to see if mention was made of keys specifically.

    I thought it was fairly common knowledge that the Seventy would be able to take over in the case of losing the Twelve.

  14. Frank McIntyre
    June 8, 2004 at 11:55 pm


    The articles I cited above are pretty unambiguous that:

    1. The seventy have the authority to seal when delegated the keys, but they do not hold those keys as part of their office. Certainly many seventies have performed sealings, but they do not appear to have the sealing keys. They have power in the way a 16-year old priest has the power to bless the sacrament. He only does it under th Bishop’s jurisdiction as the holder of the keys.

    2. I believe it is President Tingey’s talk that says Seventies partake of the Apostolic calling to be witnesses of Christ. Thus there is something Apostolic about their calling, but I don’t think it is the holding of sealing keys. Elder Tingey flat out rejects that the Seventy hold the keys. Perhaps I am misinterpreting him or he is wrong.

  15. Keith
    June 9, 2004 at 4:58 am


    Agreed on all you mention in 1 and 2. I do seem to recall, however, a clear statement somewhere or other, that the Seventy could bear off the Kingdom if the Twelve were all taken, but I could be suffering from falsely constructed memory. Do you remember anything of this sort?


  16. Frank McIntyre
    June 9, 2004 at 10:05 am

    No. But it could be out there somewhere.

  17. June 10, 2004 at 11:38 pm

    I vaguely remember being taught that, probably by some religion professor here at BYU. I move that we label it “CES doctrine” and find more meaningful things to worry about (until the terrorists strike…)

  18. Frank McIntyre
    June 11, 2004 at 4:13 pm

    I spoke with an Area Authority today who confirmed that Seventies hold no keys, but have them delegated. This was also confirmed by a recent discussion with a friend who had asked the same question of a member of the 70 and received the same response.

    The Area Authority noted an informative discrepancy in the 107th Section. Read verses 24-26 and note that the Q of the 12 have equal power and authority but the Q of the Seventy only are listed as having equal authority, power is excluded.

  19. JeffreyB
    July 8, 2004 at 2:24 pm

    In reading all the above comments concerning succesion to the Presidency, one point was failed to take into consideration, that there are men in the church who are ordained apostles but are not in the Q. of the Twelve. They have all the keys same as the FIrst Presidency and Q. of the Twelve, wouldn’t they step in to take things over before the Presidency of the Seventy?

  20. JeffreyB
    July 8, 2004 at 2:25 pm

    In reading all the above comments concerning succesion to the Presidency, one point was failed to take into consideration, that there are men in the church who are ordained apostles but are not in the Q. of the Twelve. They have all the keys same as the FIrst Presidency and Q. of the Twelve, wouldn’t they step in to take things over before the Presidency of the Seventy?

  21. JeffreyB
    July 8, 2004 at 2:26 pm

    In reading all the above comments concerning succesion to the Presidency, one point was failed to take into consideration, that there are men in the church who are ordained apostles but are not in the Q. of the Twelve. They have all the keys same as the First Presidency and Q. of the Twelve, wouldn’t they step in to take things over before the Presidency of the Seventy?

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