What Happens If All the Apostles Pass Away?

Many countries have continuity of government plans for what to do if the leadership suddenly dies in some sort of a catastrophe. The United States famously has a “designated survivor” that is in a secure location during the State of the Union so that somebody in the line of succession can be preserved if the Capitol building is destroyed; one of the of the most interesting manifestations of this planning is the fact that each of the four UK nuclear missile submarines has a handwritten letter from the Prime Minister in a safe that has instructions for what to do with their nuclear missiles in case the UK government is destroyed.

The hierarchy of the Church is structured around the doctrine that the top fifteen men in the Church have the same office as Christ’s original apostles, and that they are ordained to that position by other apostles, eventually stretching back to Jesus Christ through the laying on of hands. But what would happen if all fifteen pass away at the same time? 

The lack of a clear, legal successor might lead to a post-Joseph Smith martyrdom situation, with various splinter groups and claimants. Institutionally it seems the most likely scenario would be that the Presidents of the 70s would become the new governing body of the Church (assuming they were not affected by the catastrophe). D&C 107:26 could be interpreted as meaning that, just as the Quorum of the 12 becomes the governing body when the First Presidency dissolves, so to do the Quorums of the 70 become the governing body of the Church if the Quorum of the 12 dissolves. While the Presiding Bishopric might also be a natural option, I assume that the fact that theirs is an Aaronic priesthood office removes them from the line of Melchizedek priesthood succession. However, I’m not much of a Latter-day Saint “canon lawyer.” and others might have more informed takes on what, canonically, could be done in that situation, and what the implications are.

For example, would the apostolic keys be passed to the new governing body (whatever that would be)? Or would the re-establishment of the apostleship require another heavenly visitation and ordination? The chance of the worst case scenario happening, while thankfully small, is still not negligible; since the fifteen prophets presumably often meet together, the bench is not that deep. (I heard that there is a “designated survivor” arrangement at General Conference, with one of the fifteen not in attendance in each session, but that might just be a rumor and I haven’t seen a solid source on it.) 

If the laying on of hands from a previous apostle is taken as non-negotiable for apostolic continuity it’s hard to know what measures could be taken outside of basic security precautions to assure that the line is preserved. One outside-the-box possibility stems from the fact that apostleship is not synonymous with membership in the Quorum of the 12. For example, Brigham Young non-publicly ordained his son John to the apostleship while not placing him in the Quorum of the 12. In theory a non-Quorum of the 12 general authority could be ordained an apostle (publicly or otherwise) while still serving as a 70 in Timbuktu, and this would help preserve the apostolic office in a worst case scenario. (In the case of John Young, he eventually moved to New York City and became a tragic, broken figure; however, if a catastrophe had happened to the Utah-based apostles, then in theory John Young would have been the sole ordained apostle left). I’m just speculating here; it’s not my business to tell the Church what to do, but whatever the case I hope that the powers that be have given serious thought to a theological and administrative continuity of government scenario even if the answer is “nothing while we wait for more celestial visitors.”


16 comments for “What Happens If All the Apostles Pass Away?

  1. The church would definitely splinter to some degree. But even so, my guess is that the majority of members–including myself–would follow the First Quorum of the Seventy. They might have to wait a bit for further instruction from above–but I’m confident that the church would hold together under their combined leadership.

  2. So as I understand it, the first quorum of the seventy scripturally has equal authority to the quorum of the twelve which has equal authority to the first presidency. (Citation needed). So you’d actually have to eliminate that whole quorum as well to cut off church leadership.

    As a thought experiment, there are changes I would like to see in the church and I don’t think the twelve or 1st presidency will do them, I have wondered if the quorum of seventy could call for the changes, like term limits, removal for senility, whatever. It ain’t going to happen, but it was interesting to think about.

  3. I have wondered this as well. Below are four statements I have found previously by Presidents Hinckley, Joseph F. Smith, and Brigham Young. They all agree that the Seventy would lead the Church if the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve were destroyed. Presidents Joseph F. Smith and Brigham Young go further and explain what would happen if only a single elder were left on the earth.

    The statements does not address the transferal of priesthood keys, but President Joseph F. Smith seems to imply another heavenly dispensation in saying that a last elder on earth could reconstitute the Church again by revelation “as did Joseph in the beginning.”

    President Hinckley quoting and then commenting on a statement by Joseph F. Smith:

    “The question arises, How can they be equal in authority? Speaking to this question, President Joseph F. Smith (1838–1918) taught: “I want here to correct an impression that has grown up to some extent among the people, and that is, that the Twelve Apostles possess equal authority with the First Presidency in the Church. This is correct when there is no other Presidency but the Twelve Apostles; but so long as there are three presiding Elders who possess the presiding authority in the Church, the authority of the Twelve Apostles is not equal to theirs. If it were so, there would be two equal authorities and two equal quorums in the Priesthood, running parallel, and that could not be, because there must be a head” (Elders’ Journal, Nov. 1, 1906, 43).

    Likewise, the Seventy, who serve under the direction of the Twelve, would become equal in authority only in the event that the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve were somehow destroyed.”

    President Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Quorum of the First Presidency,” Ensign, December 2005.

    President Joseph F. Smith:

    “If the Presidency were to be killed off, then the Council of the Twelve Apostles would stand in their place and preside until the Presidency should be restored; and if they and the First Presidency were all killed off, then the Seventies would come forward and they would establish the order of Zion and renew the order of the Priesthood upon the earth; and if all the Seventies were killed off, and yet there was one Elder, possessing the Melchizedek Priesthood, he would have authority to organize the Church, under the command of God and the guidance of His Holy Spirit, as Joseph did in the beginning; that it should be re-established in its perfect form. So you can see that this organization is well-nigh indestructible.” (Elders’ Journal, Nov. 1, 1906, p. 46) TLDP:94

    President Brigham Young:

    “Suppose that Sidney Rigdon and Frederick G. Williams had been taken away or had apostatized, as one of them did soon after the revelation I have referred to was given, and there had been only Joseph Smith left of the First Presidency, would he alone have had authority to set in order the Kingdom of God on the earth? Yes. Again: Suppose that eleven of the Twelve had been taken away by the power of the Adversary, that one Apostle has the same power that Joseph had, and could preach, baptize, and set in order the whole Kingdom of God upon the earth, as much so as the Twelve were they all together. Again: If in the providence of God he should permit the enemy to destroy these two first Quorums, and then destroy the Quorum of the Seventy, all but one man, what is his power? It would be to go and preach, baptize, confirm, lay on hands, ordain, set in order, build up, and establish the whole Kingdom of God as it is now. Suppose the enemy had power to destroy all but one of the High Priests from the face of the earth, what would that one possess in the power of his Priesthood? He would have power and authority to go and preach, baptize, confirm, ordain, and set in order the Kingdom of God in all its perfection on the earth. Could he do this without revelation? No. Could the Seventies? No. Could the Twelve? No. And we ask, could Joseph Smith or the First Presidency do this without revelation? No. Not one of them could do such a work without revelation direct from God. I can go still further. Whoever is ordained to the office of an Elder to a certain degree possesses the keys of the Melchizedek Priesthood; and suppose only one Elder should be left on the earth, could he go and set in order the Kingdom of God? Yes, by revelation.” (At Mill Creek Ward, May 7, 1861, JD9:88) Discourses of Brigham Young,138-39

    President Joseph F. Smith:


    There is no office growing out of this Priesthood that is or can be greater than the Priesthood itself. It is from the Priesthood that the office derives its authority and power. No office gives authority to the Priesthood. No office adds to the power of the Priesthood. But all offices in the Church derive their power, their virtue, their authority, from the Priesthood. If our brethren would get this principle thoroughly established in their minds, there would be less misunderstanding in relation to the functions of government in the Church than there is. Today the question is, which is the greater—the high priest or the seventy—the seventy or the high priest? I tell you that neither of them is the greater, and neither of them is the lesser. Their callings lie in different directions, but they are from the same Priesthood. If it were necessary, the seventy, holding the Melchizedek Priesthood, as he does, I say if it were necessary, he could ordain a high priest; and if it were necessary for a high priest to ordain a seventy, he could do that? Why? Because both of them hold the Melchizedek Priesthood. Then again, if it were necessary, though I do not expect the necessity will ever arise, and there was no man left on earth holding the Melchizedek Priesthood, except an elder—that elder, by the inspiration of the Spirit of God and by the direction of the Almighty, could proceed, and should proceed, to organize the Church of Jesus Christ in all its perfection, because he holds the Melchizedek Priesthood. But the house of God is a house of order, and while the other officers remain in the Church, we must observe the order of the priesthood, and we must perform ordinances and ordinations strictly in accordance with that order, as it has been established in the Church through the instrumentality of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his successors.” —Oct. C. R., 1903, Gospel Doctrine, p. 87.

  4. Rockwell, here is the citation:
    D&C 107
    23 The twelve traveling councilors are called to be the Twelve Apostles, or special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world—thus differing from other officers in the church in the duties of their calling.

    24 And they form a quorum, equal in authority and power to the three presidents previously mentioned.

    25 The Seventy are also called to preach the gospel, and to be especial witnesses unto the Gentiles and in all the world—thus differing from other officers in the church in the duties of their calling.

    26 And they form a quorum, equal in authority to that of the Twelve special witnesses or Apostles just named.

  5. @Tony Vance: Thanks for those citations; you’ve convinced me that there probably wouldn’t be a theological problem with reconstituting the Quorum of the 12 and First Presidency (including the apostolic offices) from the Quorums of the 70 if needs be.

  6. This discussion highlights the fact that, despite the church’s assertion that women exercise priesthood power, have much to contribute and are critical to the functioning of the church, they really have zero authority. The women who serve as General Officers appear nowhere outside their function as advisors on councils. They don’t oversee regional, stake or ward organizations. Stake presidents and bishops do. So frustrating and reinforces the idea that church administration doesn’t need women except as supportive ‘companions.’

  7. I was once an aaronic quorum pres. I was told I was entitled to the ministering of angels. They never turned up.

    If you are called as a prophet, seer, and revelator, but no prophecy seering and revelating happen do you just muddle through?

    They only started claiming to all be prophets seers and revelators in my lifetime, but having the title doesn’t seem to have produced more or better fruit.

    If at least half of them disapeared at once it would be a good time to replace them with women, but if they are defending the patriachy type women it might not make any difference. It would be a good time to put in a retirement age too.

    The 12 have painted themselves into a corner on so many issues, replacing them all might be the only way forward for the church, but are there any in top leadership that would be an improvement? Is there a real prophet waiting in the wings?

  8. I like Hugh Nibley’s response to a question he was asked (in an interview back in the 70’s–I think) having to do with how he felt about the leadership of the church. He responded (in so many words) that he felt great about it. And then he went on to say that Jesus Christ is at the head of the church — and that he knows what he’s doing — so we don’t need to worry.

  9. It is an interesting question. My gratitude for the post and comments. A pleasure to read.

    Of more immediate concern to me is the question of, after a sitting Church President dies, what happens if the next, most senior Apostle, who traditionally becomes the next President, is too infirm to function in the post. I realize that the First Presidency has done well in the past when the President was incapacitated and his Counselors ably stepped in and filled the gap. But I think that the likelihood of a sitting President dying, and the next Apostle in line (given their advanced ages) is unable to fill the post, is a more likely possibility.

    My (not necessarily inspired) guess is that the most senior Apostle who is capable, would assume the position of Acting President. But this is something the Church has not had to deal with, before.

    I wonder what other followers of Times and Seasons think (even though this is a question that might make some readers nervous),

  10. I think we’ve already seen an example or two of that, Taiwan Missionary. Howard W. Hunter was pretty well incapacitated when Ezra Taft Benson died, but he was still made president of the Church. Joseph Fielding Smith was also deemed by many to be too old for the post when David O. McKay died (though he was not incapacitated), but he was still made president of the Church too.

  11. Thank you, Chad.

    Howard Hunter was indeed frail, but was able to hold a press-conference when he became President, and he was in his right mind. He gave a brief but coherent conference in the one GC he presided over. He also spoke at a temple dedication. JFS was also frail, but in his right mind, and was able to give very brief general conference talks. I

    I am talking about someone (apologize for the phrase) who is next in line to become President , but is also completely out of it, and basically comatose (someone like Marion Romney in his final years, or ETB). What does the Church do, when the next-in-line Apostle is in such a state?

  12. @Taiwan Missionary: I assume that if the rightful President of the Church was, say, in a coma or otherwise clearly incapacitated when his predecessor passed away they would just go to the next in line. It would be much more difficult if it was an edge case.

  13. It seems to me that the most important document would be the charter for the corporation now called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, formerly known as the Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Doesn’t it have all the succession plans?

  14. @TaiwanMissionary It is my understanding that if the senior apostle was incapacitated in some way the Twelve could choose to not reorganize the fFirst Presidency for a time. In that case and Acting President of the Twelve would likely be named and the Twelve would lead the Church.

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