SALT LAKE CITY — A striking transformation in senior LDS leadership culminates this weekend with the expected announcement of two new apostles and a solemn assembly to sustain new church President Russell M. Nelson.
Those events will complete a decades-long arc of Mormon history — and continue the birth of a new one — that underscore how this weekend's general conference will shape and alter the future of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The first arc began to develop in April 1984, when, with church President Spencer W. Kimball ailing, two new apostles were called to join the Quorum of the Twelve as its junior members.
The announcement of his calling at general conference that spring so surprised a daughter of pioneering heart surgeon Russell M. Nelson that she went into labor. The other new apostle-to-be was Justice Dallin H. Oaks of the Utah Supreme Court, who was in Arizona at the time and wouldn't be ordained for a month.
Now, 34 years later, those two leaders have advanced from junior members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to seniority in a faith in which "the senior apostle has always become the successor president of the church," as Elder D. Todd Christofferson said on Jan. 16.
As they continue their new roles in the First Presidency with President Henry B. Eyring, President Nelson is expected to call two new apostles. They would be the fourth and fifth new members of the quorum since October 2015 and represent the possible start of a second arc.
Their calling means that one-third of senior church leadership — and nearly half of the Quorum of the Twelve — has changed in a span of 30 months.
The church generally has 15 apostles at time, three serving in the First Presidency and a dozen in the Quorum of the Twelve. With the deaths of Elder Robert D. Hales on Oct. 1, 2017, and church President Thomas S. Monson on Jan. 2, 13 remain.
Twelve days after President Monson's death dissolved the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles gathered on a Sunday morning, Jan. 14, in the upper room of the Salt Lake Temple to consider reorganizing the First Presidency.
They came "in a spirit of fasting and prayer," with President Nelson presiding as the senior apostle and then-president of the Quorum of the Twelve, Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Twelve said recently.
For the meeting, 13 chairs formed a semicircle in the temple's upper room, and each member of the quorum spoke, from junior member to senior member. They unanimously decided to reorganize the First Presidency, then sustained President Nelson, 93, as the 17th president of the church.
"This followed with the Council of the Twelve gathered in a circle with hands placed upon the head of President Nelson to ordain and set him apart,," Elder Stevenson said, "with the next most senior apostle acting as voice."
That was President Oaks.
"It was a sweet, sacred experience in which the Lord's will was clearly manifest and all were in full accord," Elder Christofferson said.
"This was a deeply sacred and special experience," Elder Stevenson said, "with an abundance of the Spirit in attendance. I offer to you my absolute witness that the will of the Lord, for which we fervently prayed, was powerfully manifest in the activities and events which took place that day."
Of the two apostles called in 1984, one was now president of the church. President Nelson then called and set apart President Oaks, 85, whose seniority places him next in line to be church president, as his first counselor in the First Presidency with President Eyring as second counselor.
The calling of new apostles can herald a future church president, as President Nelson's call did in 1984.
Five new apostles in 30 months raises the likelihood one or more could become president in the future, say the 2030s or '40s. An example can be found in the last time five LDS apostles were called in a span of two and a half years, more than a century ago.
Elder George Albert Smith was ordained an apostle and member of the Quorum of the Twelve in October 1903, followed by Elder Charles W. Penrose in July 1904. Those two were joined in April 1906 by Elders George F. Richards, Orson F. Whitney and David O. McKay.
Elder Smith later became the eighth president of the church, in 1945. Elder McKay succeeded him as the ninth in 1951.
Once the senior apostle is set apart as the new president, a solemn assembly is convened at the next general conference.
Solemn assemblies were prominent anciently, a time for fasting and praying. Latter-day Saints believe they were restored by revelation in the 1830s.
"A solemn assembly, as the name implies, denotes a sacred, sober and reverent occasion when the Saints assemble under the direction of the First Presidency," the late Elder David B. Haight said in the first session of the October 1994 general conference, with his talk coming shortly after such an event for then-new church President Howard W. Hunter. "Solemn assemblies are used for three purposes — the dedication of temples, special instruction to priesthood leaders and sustaining a new president of the church."
If past patterns are followed, on Saturday or Sunday — the church has not announced when the solemn assembly to sustain President Nelson will be held — Mormons at the Conference Center and wherever they are watching or listening to broadcasts will stand simultaneously as the voice of the church for a sustaining vote of the new president.
"This is an occasion of great significance for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints throughout the world," President Gordon B. Hinckley said in 1994.
The first time LDS leaders convened a solemn assembly at a general conference to sustain a new leader was in 1880 for John Taylor, the third president of the church.
The general pattern of solemn assemblies has varied but generally has included groups and quorums standing one at a time to sustain the new president, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. Then the entire church does so together.
Prior to the latest solemn assembly for a new church president — President Monson in 2008 — Elder Marlin K. Jensen, then the church historian and recorder, said a sustaining vote "indicates a willingness to offer continued faith, prayers and support for the new church president."
"Thank you, brothers and sisters, for your sustaining vote and your faith and prayers," President Hinckley said in 1994 after the solemn assembly for President Howard W. Hunter. "We feel that you have sustained us not only with your hands but also with your hearts. We urgently need your prayers and pray that you will continue to offer them in our behalf as your servants."
Past and present
President Nelson and President Oaks and the two vacancies in the Quorum of the Twelve link this weekend's conference to one 34 years ago.
Then, Elders Nelson and Oaks filled the vacancies left by the deaths of Elders LeGrand Richards and Mark E. Petersen.
Now, if the two new vacancies are to be filled, a total of five new apostles in a short period of time underscores the stability in senior leadership the church has seen in recent decades. In fact, three recent stretches are the longest in church history for periods without changes in the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve.
The longest stretch was the nine-plus years between April 1995, when then-Elder Eyring was added to the quorum after the passing of President Hunter, and the July 2004 deaths of Elders Neal A. Maxwell and Haight.
Six years spanned the time between the April 2009 ordination of Elder Neil L. Andersen as an apostle to the 2015 deaths of quorum President Boyd K. Packer and Elders L. Tom Perry and Richard G. Scott.
And there were five years and four months between the October 1988 ordination of Elder Scott and the February 1994 death of Elder Marvin J. Ashton.