Lineal succession (Latter Day Saints)

Lineal succession was a doctrine, largely abandoned in many denominations of the Latter Day Saint movement, whereby certain key church positions are held by right of inheritance. Most frequently the offices connected with lineal succession are those of the President of the Church and the Presiding Patriarch.

The office of Church President

During his lifetime Joseph Smith Jr. held the offices of Prophet, President of the Church, President of the First Presidency, President of the High Priesthood, and Trustee-in-Trust for the Church. At the time of Joseph's assassination in 1844, most Latter Day Saints agreed that his brother, Hyrum Smith, would have been chosen successor, had he not also been assassinated. Another likely successor was Samuel Harrison Smith, another brother, who died under questionable circumstances less than one month later. A few asserted that the remaining Smith brother, William, should become Church President, and William for a time made that claim and gathered a small faction of followers around him.

Many Latter Day Saints believed that a son of Joseph Smith Jr. should be the successor to the church presidency. Several prominent leaders asserted that a patriarchal blessing given to the eldest son, Joseph Smith III, designated the boy to succeed his father. However, at the time of his father's death, Joseph III was only 11 years old.

As a result, many leaders arose who either argued against lineal succession or suggested that the Church would have to wait for Joseph Smith III to mature. The largest group, led by Brigham Young, were proponents of a system whereby the senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles would succeed to the Church Presidency. This system of Apostolic succession continues in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Other Latter Day Saints living in the Midwest continued to support lineal succession and in 1860, they invited Joseph Smith III to become President of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which is known today as the Community of Christ. This Church continued to appoint Presidents who were patrilineal descendants of Joseph Smith Jr. until 1996, when President Wallace B. Smith (a great-grandson of Mormonism's founder) designated W. Grant McMurray (who was not a descendant) as his successor. Abandonment outside of lineal succession was a factor that caused a recent schism and foundation of several new Latter Day Saint churches, including the Remnant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which accepted Frederick Niels Larsen, a grandson of Frederick M. Smith through his daughter Lois, as its Prophet-President.

The office of Presiding Patriarch

Most Latter Day Saints originally believed that the Presiding Patriarch of the Church should be transmitted by lineal succession. Ordained December 18, 1833, the first Presiding Patriarch, Joseph Smith, Sr., was the father of the founding prophet. On his death bed, Joseph Sr. appointed his eldest living son, Hyrum Smith, Presiding Patriarch "by right" of inheritance. When Hyrum was assassinated in 1844, his youngest brother, the Apostle William Smith became Presiding Patriarch. William broke with Brigham Young, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who was acting as President of the Church in Nauvoo, Illinois, in part over the office. William asserted that the Presiding Patriarch's title was "Patriarch over the Church" and Young argued for the less grand "Patriarch to the Church." William was later excommunicated by Young's faction which became The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. William then joined with James J. Strang, a rival claimant for the church presidency. Breaking with the Strangites, William eventually joined his nephew, Joseph Smith III, and the Reorganization. William petitioned Joseph III to restore him to the office of Presiding Patriarch of the RLDS church, but the re-appointment never occurred.

After William's death, Joseph Smith III reinstituted the office of Presiding Patriarch, calling his brother Alexander Hale Smith to fill the office. Thereafter the office of Presiding Patriarch in the RLDS church remained within the Smith family and was passed by lineal succession until 1958. In that year, Church President W. Wallace Smith ended the tradition by calling Roy Cheville to be Presiding Patriarch. Today, Presiding Patriarchs of what is now the Community of Christ church are known as "Presiding Evangelists."

After William Smith was excommunicated by Brigham Young, "Uncle" John Smith (brother of Joseph Smith, Sr.) was called by Young to be Presiding Patriarch of the LDS Church. This group was the largest faction of Latter Day Saints and soon after relocated to the Salt Lake Valley in what is now Utah. After the death of Uncle John Smith, another John Smith became Presiding Patriarch of the LDS church in Utah. This John Smith was the son of Hyrum and Jerusha Smith. Thereafter, the majority of the Presiding Patriarchs of the LDS Church were descendants of Hyrum, in keeping with the tradition of lineal succession. The LDS Church ceased to sustain Presiding Patriarchs in its hierarchy after 1979.

Interrelation of Church Offices with the Smith Family

The following chart illustrates the interrelationship of the offices of Church President and Presiding Patriarch in the Community of Christ, as well as the Remnant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.


  • Irene M. Bates and E. Gary Smith, Lost Legacy: The Mormon Office of Presiding Patriarch, Urbana, Illinois, 1996.

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