Latter-day Saints take comfort in the fact that their church is never without leadership, even when the presiding First Presidency is dissolved upon the death of the president.
Leadership automatically shifts to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in a move formally termed "apostolic interregnum." That group discusses and takes the necessary action to designate the new church president following the funeral of the former president. Though speculation about a successor is rampant following such a death, the pattern of succession has been established historically.
The subject was addressed in detail by the church in the August 1996 issue of its official publication, the Ensign magazine, in an article titled, "The Kingdom of God Will Roll On: Succession in the First Presidency."
During the time the Quorum of the Twelve presides over the church after the death of a president, "the President of the Twelve ... is as much the President of the Church in function and authority as when he becomes sustained as such in a newly organized First Presidency," it says.
It quotes former church President Joseph Fielding Smith. "There is no mystery about the choosing of the successor to the President of the Church," he wrote in his book, "Doctrines of Salvation, vol. 3." "The Lord settled this a long time ago, and the senior apostle automatically becomes the presiding officer of the church, and he is so sustained by the Council of the Twelve."
Once the new president is ordained by the Quorum of the Twelve, a public announcement is made, and church members are given the chance to sustain their new prophet during the next session of LDS General Conference.
Such a procedure was not clearly spelled out in the early history of the church following the death of founder Joseph Smith but evolved over time through instructions to church leaders in the faith's Doctrine and Covenants.
Today, "The beginning of the call of one to the President of the Church actually begins when he is called, ordained and set apart to become a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles," former church President Harold B. Lee told church members during General Conference in April 1970. Each apostle "has given to him the priesthood authority necessary to hold every position in the Church, even to a position of presidency over the church if he were called by the presiding authority and sustained by a vote of a constituent assembly of membership of the church."
In a talk delivered during the April 1994 general conference, President Gordon B. Hinckley — then first counselor in the First Presidency — referred to scriptures from the Doctrine & Covenants and other writings regarding succession the church.
He said Christ stands at the head of the church, "which bears his sacred name. He is watching over it. He is guiding it. Standing at the right hand of his father, he directs this work. His is the prerogative, the power, the option to call men in his way to high and sacred offices and to release them according to his will by calling them home. He is the master of life and death," President Hinckley said.
The procedure for sustaining church officers is an "act of grave and serious importance, an act required under the revelation of the Lord," he said, adding that the process for designating leadership is "peculiar to the Lord's church." He said there is "no jockeying for position, no campaigning to promote one's virtues," which may be contrasted with the world.
"The Lord's way is quiet, it is a way of peace, it is without egotism or vanity or ambition. Under the Lord's plan, those who have responsibility to select officers are governed by one overriding question. Whom would the Lord have? There is quiet and thoughtful deliberation. And there is much of prayer to receive the confirmation of the Holy Spirit that the choice is correct."
Shortly after he became church president in 1995 following the death of President Howard W. Hunter, President Hinckley told Latter-day Saints during general conference in April about the procedure that took place in the Salt Lake Temple on Sunday, March 12, of that year:
"All of the living ordained apostles gathered in a spirit of fasting and prayer in the upper room of the temple. Here we sang a sacred hymn and prayed together. We partook of the sacrament of the Lord's supper, renewing in that sacred, symbolic testament our covenants and our relationship with Him who is our divine Redeemer.
"The presidency was then reorganized, following a precedent well established through generations past."
Former church President Spencer W. Kimball also outlined the process of succession in an April 1970 general conference address, saying, "The moment life passes from a president of the church, a body of men become the composite leader — these men already seasoned with experience and training. The appointments have long been made, the authority given, the (priesthood) keys delivered."