Further Complications in Excommunicating the President of the Church

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post on the procedure for excommunicating the President of the Church. In doing a bit of research on the history of the church court system, I came across some interesting complications in the story.

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.

This revelation was given in 1835 when the administrative structure of the Church was quite different than it is today. For example, there was little or no congregational structure and no local bishops (a Nauvoo-period innovation). Still, the procedure laid out here seems to be for the Presiding Bishop to convene an extraordinary court with a specially appointed council of twelve high priests (presumably chosen by the bishop). The assumption of this reading is that “common council of the church” refers to the Presiding Bishopric. Interestingly, the current edition of the Doctrine & Covenants drops a footnote for “common council” that references the verses dealing with the bishop, who is referred to as “a common judge among the inhabitants of Zion” (D&C 107:74).

However, there appears to be some question of whether or not this procedure should still be used. On December 24, 1902, the Quorum of the Twelve met with the First Presidency for a regular meeting. Rudger Clawson (one of the twelve) recorded:

Elder Smoot [i.e. Reed Smoot] said that there was diversity of opinion in Utah Stake as to who would sit in judgment if the President of the church were placed on trial. Some claimed that it would be the right of the Presiding Bishopric to try him. Elder Smoot said he did not coincide with this view. The matter might be considered inappropriate for discussion, but he thought the council ought to be agreed touching this question. Elder Smoot said that the revelation which directed that in case the President of the High Priesthood should [be] put upon trial, the Presiding Bishop associated with twelve high priests should constitute the trial court, was given before the church was fully organized and before the Twelve had been chosen.
Pres. Smith [i.e. Joseph F. Smith] suggested that the matter be taken under advisement for one week, which was done.

Elder Clawson doesn’t record the out come of the special committee’s deliberations. However, a few years later President Smith was called to testify before the U.S. Senate as part of the controversy over seating Reed Smoot. During his testimony, he explained to the Senators that as President of the Church he was nevertheless subject to Church discipline. When asked about the procedure, he stated that he would be tried using the ordinary process by the bishop of the ward in which he resided. There are a couple of ways of interpreting President Smith’s statement. First, one could read him as agreeing with Reed Smoot, rejecting the procedure set forth in section 107 in favor of the ordinary disciplinary procedure as it developed thereafter. One possible problem with this view is that normally a Melchizedek Priesthood holder is not tried before a bishop’s court but rather before the Stake High Council, which has both original and appellate jurisdiction. However, I don’t know whether or not this rule had developed by 1904 when President Smith testified before Congress. A second way of reading President Smith’s statement is that the procedure set forth in section 107 remains valid, but that the “common council” referred to is not the Presiding Bishop but rather than bishop of the ward in which the President of the Church resides. If this is the case, then the local bishop would still have to call a special council of twelve high priests for the trial. Such a reading would also mean that there was no appeal from this special bishop’s court to the High Council or anywhere else.

Forty years after President Smith’s testimony before the Smoot Hearings, John A. Widstoe published his book Priesthood and Church Government. In that volume he laid out the procedure for disciplining the President of the Church, adopting the position that jurisdiction lay with the Presiding Bishopric of the Church. The book was published a manual for priesthood quorum teachers, but in the pre-correlation Church that fact standing alone needn’t imply that the question was deliberated over by the Bretheren. (Although it might have been.) The ultimate ambiguity about the procedure, of course, allows one to spin out even more elaborate hypotheticals about constitutional crisis within the Church. One could imagine a situation in which the President of the Church was excommunicated using one procedure, which he refused to acknowledge as legitimate. How would one deal with the resulting confusion about who was President of the Church? Fortunately, I take it that such a scenario is extremely unlikely. Still, my perverse lawyers imagination wants to know how it would be resolved.

32 comments for “Further Complications in Excommunicating the President of the Church

  1. Craig V.
    January 17, 2007 at 8:47 pm

    This raises two questions for me (both of which may be a bit peripheral to your post). First of all, if Mormonism assumes a notion of positive law (as was debated on another thread) what would be the grounds for excommunication of a President? Secondly, if a President can be excommunicated, doesn’t it follow that there should be a way to repudiate past alleged revelations?

  2. January 17, 2007 at 9:05 pm

    Craig V. — I don’t understand why you think the one follows from the other in your “secondly.” I’m wondering if you think that if a church president were to be excommunicated, it could only mean that he was a false prophet and that therefore his earlier pronouncements were false and should be repudiated? But if the church president were to be excommunicated for transgression, it doesn’t necessarily follow that his actions and teachings and revelations before his transgression would be invalid.

  3. manaen
    January 17, 2007 at 9:30 pm

    e.g. General Authorities Richard Lyman and George P. Lee were excommunicated for transgressions, yet their teachings beforehand weren’t repudiated.

  4. Craig V.
    January 17, 2007 at 9:34 pm


    It’s true that it wouldn’t follow from a transgression, even one leading to excommunication, that a President’s revelations were false. What does follow, it seems to me, is that a President, at least in theory, is capable of doing something so wrong that it would warrant excommunication. From this it seems to me that it would also be possible for a President to be mistaken about an alleged revelation. Such a mistake would need to be repudiated once seen as false. Admittedly, there’s a bit of a jump in my reasoning, but I don’t think it’s a major jump. It’s moves from a greater to a lesser. If a President can, in theory, commit a wrong deserving excommunication (a great wrong), then a President can also, in theory, be wrong about an alleged revelation (a lesser wrong). If there’s a process to correct the great wrong (excommunication) doesn’t it follow that there should be a process to correct the lesser wrong (official repudiation)?

  5. MikeInWeHo
    January 17, 2007 at 10:02 pm

    But don’t all revelations have to be confirmed by the Q12 and then sustained by the Church, etc? Isn’t that all in place to protect against any possibility of a “mistaken” revelation?

  6. January 17, 2007 at 11:17 pm

    A possibly related question, in regards to some of the above comments: under what circumstances could a President of the Church be subject to church discipline without said discipline being taken as evidence against the post-Woodruff-era claim that a President of the Church cannot not lead the church astray?

  7. January 17, 2007 at 11:20 pm

    I’m not sure what to make of either Smoot or Smith’s comments. Seems to me that the excommunication of Sidney Rigdon is the archetypal case. The Twelve were meticulous in following the instructions for the trial of the President of the High priesthood. To quote Ehat, “[t]he Twelve Apostles made it clear they were only to be considered witnesses at the trial, and twelve other high priests had been selected with Bishop Whitney at their head to be the ‘twelve counselors of the High Priesthood’ to try Sidney.”

    I tend to think that Elder Smoot didn’t have the full story and the Smith’s testimony was geared to make the church look as democratic as possible.

  8. manaen
    January 17, 2007 at 11:21 pm

    Craig V., We don’t believe such leaps will occur because the Lord set a hedge against them. This principle is explained in a well-known (to us) comment by Wilford Woodruff, an earlier President-Prophet, in 10/1890 General Conference. It is bound in our scriptures under Official Declaration 1 and cited in Nate’s first posting:

    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.

  9. January 17, 2007 at 11:25 pm

    manaen, perhaps, the Lord would remove him according to D&C 107 trial procedures.

  10. Kaimi Wenger
    January 17, 2007 at 11:50 pm

    Interesting question, Craig.

    I’m not sure that the Woodruff quote precludes this. As Janice Allred has noted, there’s not a lot that’s barred by “The Lord will not permit the prophet to lead the church astray.” The Prophet could still make false statements; the only guarantee is that those false statements will not lead the church astray.

    (As a quibble, Craig, I’m not sure that false revelation is really a lesser, as compared to, say, committing adultery. The one leads to the excommunication of one person; the other to the potential damnation of the entire church.)

    As for repuditating past revelations, that’s easy, at least to some degree. There’s no official procedure of which I’m aware, but a number of statements have been de-canonized. The Lectures on Faith, for instance, as well as various former D&C sections. (Given loosely codified nature of Mormon theology, de-canonization is very important.)

    Non-canonized statements are only loosely and indirectly tied to doctrine. Important non-canonized statements are perhaps best characterized as “viewed as doctrine” by members, but most non-canonized statements are not clearly doctrine.

    Popular non-canonized statements by church leaders may be explicitly repudiated (see, for example, Elder McConkie’s statements about race, later famously repudiated by Elder McConkie himself). However, in my observation the most common way that non-canonized statements from church leaders cease to be viewed as doctrine ceases to matter is through desuetude.

  11. Craig V.
    January 18, 2007 at 12:31 am


    Am I correct in concluding that a past revelation (or at least a teaching that was accepted as a revelation) could be de-canonized and then later repudiated? Has this ever happened?

  12. DavidH
    January 18, 2007 at 12:35 am

    Regarding the Woodruff footnote.

    I had understood that scriptures become cannonized by sustaining vote of the members. I recall a vote to accept what is now Declaration 2–the letter regarding the priesthood revelation and change in practice. I recall votes accepting as canon what are now sections 137 and 138. I do not recall a vote to accept as scripture that “never lead astray” excerpt from the newspaper account of President Woodruff’s remarks at the conference in which the Manifesto was presented, which have been added in the footnote to Declaration 1. The footnote simply just showed up in a new edition.

    In any event, I am unsure whether footnotes are considered canon.

  13. DavidH
    January 18, 2007 at 12:45 am

    The former section 101 of the D&C, an article on marriage, stated “we declare that we believe that one man should have one wife, and one woman but one husband, except in case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again.” It was removed in the late 19th century from the LDS edition, and replaced by section 132 on celestial marriage. I believe it continues to be in the Community of Christ edition.

    BH Roberts argues that section 101 was not a “revelation” and was presented to the body of the Church while Joseph Smith was absent. This was the same conference that approved what is now section 134 of the D&C, on the role of governments. http://www.ldshistory.net/pc/sec134.htm

  14. el_godofredo
    January 18, 2007 at 2:01 am

    Before I read this thread, I read Nate’s older linked blog. Someone refers to apostles that aren’t members of the Quorum of the Twelve. He also said that that still happened today. I knew about Brigham Young jr. over a century ago, but does anybody here know about anyone who has been ordained an apostle but isn’t a member of the 12 in more recent times?

  15. John Pearce
    January 18, 2007 at 5:26 am

    What about the possibility of a president resigning from his position as was the case with the former RLDS Church? W Grant McMurray, the President of the Community of Christ Church resigned from his position in November 2004. Although there was no indication of any wrong doing on his part, still it is interesting that a relatively young man would stand down.

    John P

  16. January 18, 2007 at 8:15 am

    “I do not recall a vote to accept as scripture that ‘never lead astray’ excerpt from the newspaper account of President Woodruff’s remarks at the conference in which the Manifesto was presented, which have been added in the footnote to Declaration 1.”

    I agree with you David; while the belief that the president of the church cannot lead the church astray (a phrase which itself requires a some explanation–would personal unworthiness or a false revelation necessarily constitute “leading the church astray”?) because the Lord would never allow it to happen has become deeply engrained in church culture and curricula since Woodruff day, and has been repeatedly emphasized by numerousl general authorities, it is not, by any strict definition, binding doctrine. However, for better or worse, trying to understand the mechanics of the church by way building solely upon “binding doctrines” isn’t going to work very well; we are just not at present–and perhaps will never be–the sort of institution that operates in such a legalistic way. The Woodruff statement may not be doctrine, but one might say it has been “operationalized” as such, and thus will probably remain until and unless some change or crisis will oblige it to be ignored. (I’m thinking here of an old argument that Fred Gedicks once made, that the Lord wants this church to survive, and thus won’t let even what the members of the church take to be His own revelations to stand in the way, plural marriage being the primary example.)

  17. January 18, 2007 at 9:09 am

    J.: I agree with you that the Rigdon case is the best precedent. Interestingly, however, Whitney was probably not the Presiding Bishop at the time. He was a bishop, and may have even been regarded as primus inter pares among the bishops of the Church. However, the first Presiding Bishopric was not organized until — I believe — 1847, at which time Whitney was set apart as Presiding Bishop. (Note: My research notes on this are at work, so I may have the chronology wrong.)

  18. Ebenezer Robinson
    January 18, 2007 at 11:11 am

    A bit of a threadjack, but the most recent apostles not in the Q12 that I’m aware of were Alvin R. Dyer and (maybe) Thorpe B. Isaacson, who were ordained in the latter days of Pres. McKay’s administration.
    Don’t know of any more recent than that.

  19. January 18, 2007 at 11:13 am

    J. Reuben Clark was also ordained an Apostle before being a member of the Q12. He served in the FP for a while as a HP, and was then ordained an Apostle while remaining in the FP. He never did serve in the Q12 as far as I know.

  20. Hayes
    January 18, 2007 at 11:14 am

    In 1835, Joseph referred to Whitney, in his journal, as Bishop Whitney (referring to a meal at Bishop Whitney’s house)…for what it’s worth.

    And, Arben brings up a good point. I always read Woodruff’s quote as a “I’ll never spout false doctrine from the pulpit”, not a “I’ll never fall or sin.”

  21. MikeInWeHo
    January 18, 2007 at 11:28 am

    re: 15 I thought McMurray’s resignation letter did imply that he had committed some moral wrong.

  22. January 18, 2007 at 11:52 am

    Hayes: There were bishops from 1831 on. The quorum of the Presiding Bishopric as a body with church-wide authority, however, did not exist until the mide-1840s. Indeed, I think that there was a special revelation in 1841 on the Presiding Bishopric, which is different than the 1831 revelation creating the first bishop.

  23. January 18, 2007 at 2:22 pm

    Nate (17 & 22): You are correct that we can’t impose the current church structure onto Joseph’s lifetime. It just didn’t exist. In the mid-to-late 1830’s there were only two Bishops in the church. There were no congregational bishops like we have today. They had general authority over their respective regions (east and west). There really wasn’t a question as to who would try Oliver Cowdery, only on Bishop had jurisdiction.

    In Nouvoo, there were general bishops and one ward Bishop. The 1841 revelation named Vinson Knight to organize the Aaronic priesthood (this portion was left unpublished and unknown by the saints), but Joseph pretty much squashed that, and all of the bishops ended out doing a limited amount of it (Miller was made a general bishop by the same revelation). Knight was sustained as a bishop and performed generally. Knight died in 1842.

    At Sidney’s trial, in September 1844, there were two living general bishops (Whitney and Miller) and a ward bishop in Nauvoo. Perhaps it was Miller’s relationship that drove the Twelve to have Whitney preside (Miller was dropped as an officer at the April 1847 conference). The following month in General Conference Whitney was sustained as the “First Bishop” because of his long tenure and Miller as “Second Bishop.”

    It seems to me that the Bishop with the greatest jurisdiction would be the officer to try a President of the High Priesthood. To say that it would be a local, congregational Bishop doesn’t have any parallel or precedent.

    Obviously, the cases of William Law and John Bennett complicate things.

  24. Hans Hansen
    January 18, 2007 at 2:29 pm

    #14, #18, & #19.

    Sylvester Q. Cannon, who had been the Presiding Bishop, was ordained an Apostle in 1938 and served as Associate to the Quorum of the Twelve from 1938-1939. In 1939 he was sustained as a member of the Quorum on the death of Elder Melvin J. Ballard.

    As far as I know, Thorpe B. Isaacson was never ordained an Apostle. He had been an Assistant to the Twelve prior to being called as a counselor to President McKay, and following the death of President McKay, he resumed his place as an Assistant to the Twelve.

  25. Matt W.
    January 18, 2007 at 3:35 pm

    I am guessing that in the Modern age, God would probably just use a bad case of Old age, and skip the earthly trial process…

  26. January 18, 2007 at 9:23 pm

    Small correction to the text — DCs are only held at the Stake level for MP-holders when there is reason to believe that there might be need for excommunication. MP-holders can be disfellowshipped at the ward level. A ward level DC can be convened and then determine that the matter should be referred to the Stake level if appropriate. These decisions are made between the Bishop and SP when it appears that formal discipline is required.

  27. mark smith
    January 19, 2007 at 1:09 am

    Based on the currently incorporation of the church as a corporate sole. Is it really even truly possible to try the president of the church? Legally is there a way to remove his from his position? He could be excommunicated but still remain legally the corporate head of the church.

  28. January 19, 2007 at 9:21 am

    mark smith: It is an interesting question, but I doubt it is a problem. Corporation sole has existence seperate from the person around which it operates, and I don’t think that there is a problem with a committee (ie the Q12) serving as the “First Presidency” of the “Corporation of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”

  29. Visorstuff
    January 19, 2007 at 8:50 pm


    In Nauvoo there were also young bishops called and placed in charge of leading AP deacons called the “whistling and whittling brigade.” No geographic boundary neccessarily, just jurisdiction over deacons who harrassed suspicious outsiders – both before and after the Nauvoo charter was revoked.

  30. DKL
    January 20, 2007 at 5:08 pm

    I don’t know about all this legal mumbo-jumbo. But I, for one, think that excommunicating Gordon Hinckley is a terrible idea. I’m against it. Definitely.

    Anyway, your post reminded me of this cartoon.

  31. sinema
    January 25, 2007 at 1:02 pm

    Please distinguish between being ordained to the priesthood office of “apostle” and being a members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. As mentioned, Alvin Dyer was ordained to the office of apostle but was never a member of the quorum. The members of the quorum receive certain keys, in fact all of the keys, of the priesthood. The keys do not necessarily come with the priesthood office.

  32. Mark Ashurst-McGee
    January 26, 2007 at 6:03 pm

    A discussion of complications in excommunicating the president of the Church should include the 12 January 1838 revelations bearing directly on this topic (see Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:254-255). Joseph was clearly facing this possibility.

    And, perhaps a trial occurred. The motto Joseph composed when he moved to Missouri complained of “all those who invent or seek out unrighteous and vexatious lawsuits under the pretext or color of law or office, either RELIGIOUS or political” (PJS, 2:214). And McLellin thought that the First Presidency had “had made a general settlement and had acknowledged their sins” (PJS, 2:241).

    Also, Smith submitted himself to the general membership of the church for a trial by vote in the April 1843 general conference (“President Joseph Smith’s Journal,” 6 April 1843).

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