The Succession Crisis of 1844
What happened after the murder of Joseph Smith?
When Joseph Smith founded the Mormon religion and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints it caused great dissension in places where it resided. The special, divine revelations he testified to receiving from God were questioned and non-Mormons were sometimes bothered by the church's presence. As a result, early LDS history is characterized by persecution and migration due to being unable to find a suitable place for their community to settle.
The climactic moment of the religion's early struggle was the murder of Smith in a violent shoot-out. In the months following his death, it was not immediately clear who would lead the newly-founded church. There was a struggle for control of the church's leadership, which involved some of Smith's own family members. In the end, though, it wouldn't be Smith's flesh-and-blood that would lead the church into its next chapter, but another. His name was Brigham Young.
A leadership crisis
Joseph Smith's brothers
Smith's brothers, Hyrum and Samuel, who had reportedly been designated to succeed Smith, were also dead. Adding to the confusion was that Smith's eldest son, Joseph Smith III, was a boy of 11, and therefore unable to properly lead the community. Other men who (by some reports) were designated as successors, including Book of Mormon witnesses David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery, had been excommunicated from the church.
As a result, the principal claimants on the scene were:
- Sidney Rigdon, the only remaining member of the First Presidency — the church's highest executive council
- The (Presiding) High Council of Nauvoo — the church's highest legislative and judicial council — led by William Marks
- The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — the council in charge of the church's missionary program — led by Brigham Young
Smith's widow Emma wanted Marks to become church president, but Marks believed that Rigdon had the superior claim.
The rise of Brigham Young
In a general meeting of the church at Nauvoo on August 8, 1844, Rigdon and Young presented their respective cases. As the only surviving member of the First Presidency, Rigdon argued that he should be made "guardian" of the church. Young argued that no one could succeed the fallen prophet. Instead, he proposed that the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles be constituted as the new First Presidency of the Church. A vote of the congregation overwhelmingly supported Young's proposal. Soon after, Rigdon left Nauvoo and established his own church organization in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Still, there was more conflict to come, which led to the LDS church settling in Utah.
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