After leading The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for thirty-three years, President Brigham Young passed away on August 29, 1877. His influence on the Church can hardly be overstated. As first territorial governor of the territory of Utah from 1851-1858, and an active citizen and contributing member of society thereafter, his political, social, and cultural impact went well beyond the bounds of his spiritual jurisdiction. The Salt Lake Herald-Republican summarized his varied contributions in complimentary style: “A pioneer and organizer, whose ability, will and determination overcame mighty obstacles, surmounted grave perils, and outwitted and overthrew many powerful enemies;
“A grand organizer of industrial pursuits, and a promoter of measures for the welfare of the people.”1
President Young’s death came just seven weeks after issuing the 1877 First Presidency Circular, which inaugurated significant ecclesiastical restructuring. Although suffering from significant health issues for some time,2 Elders George Q. Cannon and Brigham Young, Jr., reported in his obituary that just four days earlier “the organization of the different Stakes of Zion was completed,”3 evidence that President Young had indeed “died in the harness,”4 as he said he intended to do.
With President Young’s death, only Orson Hyde and Orson Pratt remained of the original Quorum of Twelve Apostles. In addition to Elders Hyde and Pratt, only Elders John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff were participants in the process of succession following the death of a Prophet and President of the Church when Joseph Smith had been martyred in 1844. Signatories on this Epistle included John Taylor (President of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles) and the nine other Apostles present in Utah at the time: Wilford Woodruff, Orson Hyde, Charles C. Rich, Lorenzo Snow, Erastus Snow, Franklin D. Richards, George Q. Cannon, Brigham Young, Jr., and Albert Carrington. Elders Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith were fulfilling Church assignments in England at the time. This epistle was also signed by John W. Young and Daniel H. Wells, who had been serving in the First Presidency as first and second counselors, respectively. After the passing of Brigham Young, Brothers Young and Wells5 “were unanimously sustained as one with, counselor to, and associated in action with the Twelve Apostles” (Epistle, p. 3).6 This statement of unity demonstrates that while this moment was filled with mourning and grief, it was certainly fraught with less uncertainty and rancor than its only historical precedent in this dispensation.
In this vein, the first issue taken up in the Epistle, after paying due tribute to President Brigham Young, was the issue of succession. The Epistle makes it clear that the Quorum of Twelve Apostles and the former counselors in the First Presidency “sought to learn [the Lord’s] mind and will concerning us and His Church” (Epistle, pp. 2-3) and arrived at complete unanimity in the course they pursued to have the Quorum of Twelve Apostles assume leadership of the Church at the time. Thus, this Epistle affirmed the doctrine of the dissolution of the First Presidency with the death of the Lord’s Prophet and President and the automatic succession of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as the rightful divinely appointed governing body of the Church in the absence of the First Presidency.7
The Epistle then goes on to provide instructions for work on the Salt Lake, Logan, and Manti Temples. It further promotes implementation of the instructions from the recent 1877 Circular of the First Presidency, including holding regular priesthood quorum meetings, quarterly stake conferences, and submitting records and reports to Church headquarters.
The Epistle concludes with a powerful message about the need for revelation, both in the Church and in individuals’ lives. Revelation inspires and moves us to carry on God’s work. Revelation is necessary so that we “know the voice of the True Shepherd, and [will] not be deceived by pretenders.” There were many competing claimants for the faith and devotion of the saints in the middle part of the 19th century. While James Strang had died in 1856,8 the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, under the leadership of Joseph Smith III, had launched significant missionary efforts in Utah in 1863, 1866, and 1869.9 Other dissenters in Utah--like Joseph Morris10 and William Godbe11--also sought to lead Church members away from the leadership of the Lord’s servants. If the saints would hearken to the revelation they received from the Lord individually and through His servants, they would have “power to build up His Zion on the earth, and to help establish a reign of righteousness, peace, and truth” (Epistle, p. 4).
- “Death of President Brigham Young,” Salt Lake Herald-Republican, August 30, 1877; https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/details?id=11717268 , accessed June 3, 2021. Not all media announcements of President Young’s death were as laudatory; see “Brigham Young as a Ruler,” Salt Lake Tribune, August 30, 1877; https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/details?id=12993431 , accessed June 3, 2021.
- See Turner, John G. (2012), Brigham Young: Pioneer, Prophet, pp. 373-74, 402.
- This entailed the restructuring of as many as thirteen of the Church’s twenty stakes in just a few weeks. See Cannon, George Q. and Young, Brigham, Jr., “Obituary,” Deseret News, August 30, 1877; https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=Aul-kAQHnToC&dat=18770830&printsec=frontpage&hl=en , accessed May 13, 2021.
- See “To Die in the Harness,” Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 2, No Unhallowed Hand, 1846–1893 (2020), p. 429; https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/history/saints-v2/part-3/29-to-die-in-the-harness?lang=eng , accessed May 13, 2021.
- John W. Young had been ordained to the office of an apostle in 1864, but was never sustained as a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles. Daniel H. Wells had been ordained to the office of an apostle in 1857, but was never sustained as a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles.
- While there is no equivalent position for this in the Church today, after the death of President Young, “it was voted unanimously that, for the present, President John Taylor be assisted by brothers John W. Young, Daniel H. Wells, and George Q. Cannon, in attending to business connected with the Temples, the public works, and other Church affairs of a financial character” (Epistle, p. 3). These brethren may rightly have been referred to as “assistants to the President of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles.”
- According to sources, the primary reason that the First Presidency was not reorganized immediately after the death of Brigham Young was that the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles did not feel inspired by the Lord to do so. See Roberts, B.H. (1892 original; 1963 reprint), The Life of John Taylor, pp. 326-328; https://www.gutenberg.org/files/45303/45303-h/45303-h.htm , accessed May 14, 2021; and Bishop, Patrick A. (2009), “Precept upon Precept: The Succession of John Taylor,” in Champion of Liberty: John Taylor, ed. Mary Jane Woodger, pp. 257-260; https://rsc.byu.edu/champion-liberty-john-taylor/precept-upon-precept-succession-john-taylor , accessed May 14, 2021.
- See biography of “Strang, James Jessee” on Joseph Smith Papers; https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/person/james-jesse-strang accessed May 14, 2021;
- See Romig, Ronald E. (2009), “The RLDS Church on the Pacific Slope,” Journal of Mormon History, vol. 35, no. 2, pp. 70, 91-101; http://www.jstor.org/stable/23290497 , accessed May 14, 2021.
- See Godfrey, Kenneth (1994), “The Morrisites,” Utah History Encyclopedia, https://www.uen.org/utah_history_encyclopedia/m/MORRISITES.shtml , accessed May 4, 2021; and Bryant, Seth L. (2009), “Reviving the Millennial Kingdom: Mormons, Morrisites, and Massacre,” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal, vol. 29, pp. 115-139; https://www.jstor.org/stable/43200347 , accessed May 4, 2021.
- See “Godbeites,” Church History Topics, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/history/topics/godbeites?lang=eng , accessed May 14, 2021.
Just six days after the 1877 Epistle was published, Elder George Q. Cannon delivered an address in which he emphasized the need for revelation in the organization of the Church, a prominent theme in this epistle:
If it were not for the new revelations received from the Almighty, this people called Latter-day Saints would not be in existence. If it were not that the Lord has revealed in great plainness his mind and will unto his people, they would not be an organization, neither would his Elders have gone forth bearing testimony of the truths of the everlasting Gospel. The rock upon which this Church is built, and the foundation stone thereof, is new revelation from God to men…Read More: https://jod.mrm.org/19/104
In an address on October 7, 1877, Elder Orson Pratt clarified the role of Counselors in the First Presidency after the death of the President of the Church and taught the principles that led to John W. Young and Daniel H. Wells being sustained to assist President Taylor as Quorum President, as outlined in the 1877 Epistle:
I refer to the Counselors that may be left, when the President, the First President of the Church is taken away from our midst. We are informed that the Counselors that existed in the day of Joseph could not act as Counselors to Joseph after he was taken away; to be Counselors to him would be impossible, unless they themselves should go the other side of the veil. Hence when the President was taken away their duties as Counselors to the Prophet, the First President, ceased...So it was considered, in the days of the loss of our Prophet and Seer, Joseph Smith. The two Counselors that then existed had the privilege, if they chose to do so, of being associated with the Council of the Twelve to assist us in the work of bearing off the kingdom; not as members of the Twelve, but acting with and assisting them. The same order has again been carried out; and it is just as I believed it would be, when I was in Liverpool, after learning of the death of President Young. The question came up there, and I took the l iberty of instructing the Saints making the inquiries. I told them, that when the First Presidency left, the Twelve would lead forth the Church, until such times as the Spirit of God, and the desires of the people, universally, should be to select and set apart and sustain by their prayers and faith, a First Presidency again.Read More: https://jod.mrm.org/19/111
Speaking specifically of the need for revelation in reorganizing the First Presidency of the Church during the Sunday morning session of General Conference following President Young’s death, Elder George Q. Cannon spoke from his own experience of just a few weeks earlier:
Hear it, O Israel! and remember it. Have I the right to say who shall preside over this people? No. Although an Apostle, holding the keys with my brethren and being side by side with them, having equal authority with them. Why? Because I am not chosen by the Lord to be his mouthpiece to the Latter-day Saints; what I mean by this, to give them revelation. It is my right to instruct and teach, to labor and to counsel; but it is not my right to organize a First Presidency for this Church, neither is it the right of any other man, excepting him whom the Lord has chosen [as] the President of the Twelve…
Well but, says one, Why cannot you organize a First Presidency now, if the Twelve have this authority? Do you want to know the reason, brethren and sisters, why we do not take such a step? I suspect you would like to know why a man and his two Counselors are not singled out, called and set apart by the voice of the people at this Conference, as the First Presidency of the Church? The reason is simply this: the Lord has not revealed it to us; he has not commanded us to do this, and until he does require this at our hands, we shall not do it. For the present, it seems to be the mind and will of God, as manifested to us, that the Twelve should preside over the Church. And until he does reveal unto his servants that it is right and proper that a First Presidency should be organized again, we shall wait, we shall do nothing of that kind.
In the same address during the Sunday morning session of General Conference, Elder George Q. Cannon also reinforced the invitation to all members of the Church to seek revelation for themselves so they could “know the voice of the true shepherd, and not be deceived by pretenders” (Epistle, p. 4):
A day or two ago, a man came here and notified the President of the Twelve that he was to be the successor to Brigham...Whenever the voice of the Lord comes upon such a subject, it will come with the power and demonstration of the Holy Ghost and with much assurance, and every Latter-day Saint on the earth will receive it, because the Spirit of God will bear testimony to our spirits that it is from Him, so that we cannot be deceived. It is our privilege to so live that we know the voice of the true shepherd, and cannot be deceived by those who profess to have revelation and have authority, when they have it not. And every man and woman in this Church should so live that when they hear the true voice, they will know it as they would know the voice of their nearest friend, and not be deceived or led astray.Read More: https://jod.mrm.org/19/230
At a meeting in the Provo meetinghouse just over a month after the 1877 Epistle was issued, President John Taylor also testified that the organization of the Church was under the direction of the Lord by way of revelation to those who held the keys of the priesthood:
We have and have had various organizations of the holy Priesthood. We have had a First Presidency, and sometimes we have not. It was sometime before a First Presidency was organized in the early days of the Church, and then it was quite a number of years before the Twelve Apostles and the several quorums now in existence were organized...There was no difficulty in the matter [of succession following Joseph Smith’s death]; it was understood that the duty rested on the Twelve. Why? The revelation stated that the Twelve were to hold the keys of the kingdom in connection with the First Presidency, which were handed down under various circumstances...When President Young was taken away the same condition of things were presented again, the circumstances being similar. There is no contention, strife or difficulty, because we all understand the principles that God has ordained for the government of his people...Now a second time it devolves upon the Twelve to take the presidency of the Church. Will there be anything else? I cannot say; there may be, when the Lord deems it necessary. We should feel as Jesus did when he exclaimed, “Lord, not my will, but thine be done.” It devolves upon the Twelve to attend to the duties the Lord has placed upon them, but they need the faith and confidence of the Saints and the sustenance of the Almighty, for they will not be able to do anything of themselves.Read More: https://jod.mrm.org/19/137
Without citing the 1877 Epistle directly, B.H. Roberts clearly quotes from it verbatim to highlight the principles of unity and revelation that prevailed during the transition after Brigham Young’s death:
“With humble, contrite and saddened hearts [the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles then present] earnestly sought to learn [the Lord’s] will concerning themselves and the Church. The Lord blessed them with the spirit of union, and revealed to them what steps should be taken…” (See The Life of John Taylor (Bookcraft: 1963), pp. 326-327).
Carrying on the quarterly stake conferences mentioned in the 1877 Epistle proved to be a great benefit for the Church during a difficult time of persecution:
To increase the Saints’ understanding and conviction of the gospel, President Taylor scheduled quarterly stake conferences throughout the Church. Whenever possible, he attended these conferences. If he could not, he sent a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. Referring to this practice, Elder B. H. Roberts of the Seventy recorded: “The Saints received much teaching and instruction from the Apostles, more perhaps than at any previous time in the history of the Church. The result was a great spiritual awakening among the Saints.”Read More: https://abn.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/teachings-john-taylor/the-life-and-ministry-of-john-taylor?lang=eng
The 1877 Epistle reinforced an earlier teaching of the Prophet Joseph Smith that “the heavenly Priesthood are not idle spectators” ("Times and Seasons, 2 May 1842," p. 776, The Joseph Smith Papers, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/times-and-seasons-2-may-1842/10 , accessed June 3, 2021). While expressing sorrow over the passing of Joseph Smith’s successor, the Epistle stated that “Brigham Young has gone from us to join the prophet Joseph and the host of the holy and the pure who are behind the vail; but we do not therefore lose the benefit of his labors. He is now in a position to do more for that work which he loved so well, and for which he labored so ardently, than he could possibly do in the flesh” (Epistle, p. 2). A month after this Epistle was published, President John Taylor reiterated that “the Priesthood is not confined to this earth alone, but that, after having performed our various duties here and passed away, we shall be called upon to operate for the same grand purpose in another sphere...brother Joseph, brother Brigham, brother Heber C. Kimball, brother Geo. A. Smith and others who held the holy Priesthood and have passed away, and are operating with [the heavenly priesthood] in behalf of fallen humanity, in behalf of the people who live now on the earth and the myriads of dead who have left us. We are engaged in a work that nothing but the combined action of the Priesthood on the earth and in the heavens can bring about” (October 14, 1877, https://jod.mrm.org/19/137 , accessed June 3, 2021; see Revelation 4:1-6; also McConkie, Joseph F. (1986), “Premortal Existence, Foreordinations, and Heavenly Councils,” in Apocryphal Writings and the Latter-day Saints, ed. C. Wilfred Griggs, pp. 174–98). Other Presidents of the Church, such as Gordon B. Hinckley, have felt the strength, comfort, and support of this heavenly council in their assignments here in mortality:
After President Hunter’s funeral, President Hinckley found comfort in the temple. Alone in the meeting room of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve in the Salt Lake Temple, he pored over the scriptures and meditated on what he read. He reflected on the life, ministry, and Atonement of Jesus Christ. Then he studied the portraits on the wall, depicting all the Presidents of the Church from Joseph Smith to Howard W. Hunter. He recorded this experience in his journal:
“I walked around in front of these portraits and looked into the eyes of the men there represented. I felt almost as if I could speak with them. I felt almost as if they were speaking to me and giving me reassurance. … I sat down in the chair which I have occupied as first counselor to the President. I spent a good deal of time looking at those portraits. Every one seemed almost to come alive. Their eyes seemed to be upon me. I felt that they were encouraging me and pledging their support. They seemed to say to me that they had spoken in my behalf in a council held in the heavens, that I had no need to fear, that I would be blessed and sustained in my ministry.”
The 1877 Epistle was originally published in the Deseret News on September 10, 1877, p. 2:
[Featured Version] The 1877 Epistle was later published in pamphlet form for broader distribution. This copy is found in the Princeton University Library:
The Woman’s Exponent, a bimonthly newspaper created and operated by members of the Relief Society, republished the 1877 in their issue of October 1, 1877:
For the benefit of the Saints in Europe, the 1877 Epistle was republished in the Millennial Star on October 15, 1877:
The 1877 Epistle was also published in the Danish periodical, the Skandinaviens Stjerne on October 15, 1877, pp. 41-45:
The 1877 Epistle was also published in the October 1877 issue of the German periodical, Der Stern, on pp. 164-167: