The document presented and discussed in this paper is one of the most important early Latter-day Saint manuscripts associated with both the final months of Joseph Smith’s life and the postmartyrdom (or apostolic) interregnum period. Written in late 1844 or early 1845, the document appears to have been drafted for possible use as an official statement by the Twelve concerning Joseph Smith’s “last charge” to them, given at a special meeting held in late March 1844, three months before his death. On this occasion, the Prophet conferred upon the Twelve the priesthood keys and authority necessary to lead the Church following his death. The document is a powerful, declarative, united testimony that the Twelve were the authorized legal successors to Joseph Smith. Furthermore, the declaration provides valuable historical information concerning the March meeting—including where the meeting was held, which members of the Twelve were present, and the core of what Joseph Smith said on that occasion.
Introduction to the 1844/1845 Declaration of the Twelve Document
The significance of this document went virtually unknown or unrecognized until 1981. Part of the reason for the document’s obscurity lies in the fact that it was never issued publicly or published by the Twelve, and as time passed it became part of the voluminous Brigham Young papers. We have found no evidence to suggest that the document, in whole or in part, was ever published anywhere before 1981.
In 1970, simultaneous with the emergence of more professional scholarship among the LDS historical community, the first monograph advocating apostolic succession appeared in print. However, the book did not include any portion of or reference to the 1844/1845 document. Titled Succession in the Church, Reed C. Durham Jr. and Steven H. Heath’s work details the leadership role of the Apostles between 1835 and 1844 to demonstrate that the Apostles had the necessary authority and right to lead the Church following the Martyrdom. Unfortunately, in producing their narrative the writers relied almost exclusively on published sources, so it is no wonder that the 1844/1845 document does not appear in their work.
In the early and mid-1970s, D. Michael Quinn’s studies focusing on 1844 succession authority produced new insights and interpretations. Significantly, however, in his discussions on apostolic authority, Quinn made no reference to the 1844/1845 document, suggesting he may have been unaware of its existence.
Credit for the initial discovery of the document should be given to Ronald K. Esplin, past director of the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History at Brigham Young University and present managing editor of the Joseph Smith Papers project. In the late 1970s, while completing his doctoral studies, Esplin focused on the preparation and development of the Twelve, as well as their expanding role in the Church leadership. Part of that research led him to produce an informative essay in 1980 on the events that led the main body of Latter-day Saints to accept Brigham Young and the Twelve as leaders beginning in August 1844. In the essay, Esplin mentions that “in the spring of 1844 [in] a dramatic meeting . . . Joseph Smith gave the Twelve additional priesthood keys along with a charge to ‘bear off the Kingdom’ to all the world—to build on the foundation he had laid.” Esplin continues, “As he had several times intimated since 1842, Joseph Smith on this occasion in March 1844 told them still again that he would not be long with them.” Such wording, which parallels somewhat the 1844/1845 document, suggests Esplin was aware of the manuscript, and he was no doubt even referring to it, but he gives no source for the material.However, the following year (1981), Esplin published a landmark essay on the 1844 succession question, and on this occasion he included several actual statements from the 1844/1845 document. His use of the document in the essay clearly illustrates that he not only knew of the manuscript’s existence but recognized its significance as well. Thus, Esplin was the first historian to actually cite and quote from the document and include portions of it in a published interpretive essay. Shortly thereafter, Leonard J. Arrington, relying on Esplin’s work and recognizing the significance of the 1844/1845 document, included several excerpts from the manuscript in his discussion on succession in his monumental 1985 biography of Brigham Young. In 1995, Richard Neitzel Holzapfel began work on a long-term project documenting all known images of Brigham Young, forcing him to wade through the massive Brigham Young Papers. In his searches, he came across the 1844/1845 manuscript and wrote about it in two separate books. With the exception of Holzapfel, during the decade of the 1990s, no other published works by LDS historians or authors on the subject of 1844 apostolic succession referred specifically to the manuscript. Significantly, however, in an April 1995 general conference address, President Boyd K. Packer briefly cited a portion of the document to illustrate the fact that prior to his death Joseph Smith conferred upon the Twelve the priesthood keys necessary to lead the Church.
It is only within the last five years that the Twelve’s “last charge” document has become more widely known. In 2005, Devery S. Anderson and Gary James Bergera published a full text of the statement, but the authors provided no historical background or context for the reader.In addition, in 2007, LDS curriculum included two brief excerpts from the text in the Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society manual Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith.
Dating the Manuscript and Describing the Document
Although the date of the document transcription is not given, it can be approximated. The text refers to a meeting held in Nauvoo on September 8, 1844 (the meeting was Sidney Rigdon’s excommunication trial). Therefore, the document had to be written sometime after September 8. Furthermore, the text states that the “last charge” meeting was held “the latter part of the month of March last” (italics added), meaning late March 1844. Since reference is made to “March last,” the document had to have been written before March 1845, but after September 8, 1844.
Initially the document was likely drafted to defuse Rigdon’s leadership claims. Immediately following the August 8 meeting in which the Twelve were sustained as the Church’s new leadership, Rigdon began undermining their authority, which resulted in his excommunication exactly one month later. Significantly, the minutes of Rigdon’s September 8 excommunication trial indicate that the March “last charge” meeting was one of the topics of discussion. In a portion of his remarks given at the trial, Orson Hyde emphasized one reason why Rigdon could have no claim on the leadership: he was not even present during the meeting in which the priesthood keys were conferred upon the Twelve. Significantly, Hyde’s comments bear a number of striking similarities to the Twelve’s apostolic succession document.Following his excommunication, Rigdon remained for a few days in Nauvoo, where he secured a few followers, but by November he was in Pennsylvania with intentions of garnering the support of LDS branches in Kirtland and in the East. Rigdon’s attempts during fall 1844 to garner support probably prompted the Twelve to make an official statement regarding the events that led to their receiving from Joseph Smith the authority to lead the Church.
Besides Rigdon, the Twelve also had to deal with another detractor, thirty-one-year-old James J. Strang. In August 1844, Strang produced a letter, purported to have been written by Joseph Smith nine days before his death, appointing Strang as his successor and designating a location near Burlington, Wisconsin (later named Voree), as the new place of Mormon gathering. Word of Strang’s claims reached the Twelve in Nauvoo in August, which led to his excommunication on August 26.Thus, while the Twelve apparently hoped their declaration would put to rest Rigdon’s influence, they were probably also targeting Strang’s claims.
After examining the historical sources, we conclude the document was drafted sometime during the fall of 1844. However, allowance must be given to extend the dating of the document to as late as March 1845.
If the document is so significant, the question might be asked, Why was the Twelve’s “declaration” never officially published or released? The answer may lie in the fact that those who were invited to attend the private meetings conducted by the Prophet Joseph Smith during the early months of 1844 were instructed to remain silent about the details of the closed meetings. For example, at a meeting held on March 10 (just a little over two weeks prior to the “last charge” meeting), those attending were told that “Joseph required perfect secrecy of them” regarding the things they had learned and were being taught.This possibly explains why William Clayton and Wilford Woodruff, both of whom were thorough and detailed diarists, did not record any of the particulars regarding the “last charge” meeting in their diary records. Given the restriction by the Prophet not to discuss what transpired in the closed-door meetings, the Twelve, at least initially, appear to have been cautious about sharing many of the details associated with the “last charge” meeting.
The two-page manuscript is written in Orson Hyde’s handwriting on unlined paper measuring approximately 12 x 8 inches.The fact that the document is in Hyde’s handwriting suggests several possibilities regarding the document’s actual authorship. One possibility implies that perhaps the document was collectively authored by the Twelve and Hyde was chosen as the scribe to write the draft. Or, Hyde may have been assigned by the Twelve to draft the manuscript and then submitted it to the Twelve for their approval and authorization. Finally, Hyde may have independently drafted the document and then submitted it to the Twelve for their approval. Regardless of who actually authored the document, the subject matter and content provide invaluable historical information as well as a collective testimony of the Twelve regarding the “last charge” meeting.
A note that reads “March 1844 Declaration of the 12 Apostles” was added later and is written sideways in the lower right-hand corner of the second page. This note should not be mistaken as the date the document was drafted. The manuscript is part of the Brigham Young Papers, Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City.
We, the undersigned,do hereby solemly, sincerely, and
truly testify before God, angels, and men, unto all people
whom this certificate may come, that we were present at a Coun
cil in the latter part of the month of March last, held in the City
of Nauvoo in the upper part of the brick building situate[d] upon Water
Street, commonly known here as “Joseph’s Store,” in which Council
Joseph Smith did preside; and the greater part of the Twelve
Apostles were present namely, Brigham Young, Heber C Kimball
Orson Hyde, Parley P Pratt, Orson Pratt, John Taylor, Amesa
Lyman, Willard Richards, and Wilford Woodruff. These we
feel confident were all present on that occasion besides many
others who were of the quorum of high Priests to which we our=
In this Council, Joseph Smith seemed somewhat depressed
in spirit, and took the liberty to open his heart to us concerning
his presentiments of the future. His own language to us on that
occasion, as nearly as we can recollect, was as follows.
Brethren, the Lord bids me hasten the work in which we are
engaged. He will not suffer that you should wait for your
endowment until the Temple is done. Some important scene
is near to take place. It may be that my enemies will kill
me, and in case they should, and the keys and power which
rest on me not be imparted to you, they will be lost from
the Earth; but if I can only succeed in placing them upon your
heads, then let me fall a victim to murderous hands if
God will suffer it, and I can go with all pleasure and
satisfaction, knowing that my work is done, and the foundat<ion> is
laid on which the kingdom of God is to be reared in this
dispensation of the fulness of times. Upon the shoulders of the
Twelve must the responsibility of leading this church hence
forth rest until you shall appoint others to succeed
you. Your enemies cannot kill you all at once, and
should any of you be killed, you can lay your hands upon
others and fill up your quorum. Thus can this power and these
keys be perpetuated in the Earth. Brethren, you have many
storms to pass through, and many sore trials await you. You [p. 1] will know what it is to be bound with chains and with fetters
for this cause sake. God knows I pity you and feel for you;
but if you are called to lay down your lives, die like men,
and pass immediately beyond
your<the> reach of your enemies.
After they have killed you, they can harm you no more. Should
you have to walk right into danger and the jaws of death,
fear no evil; Jesus Christ has died before you.
After this appointment was made, and
The Twelve received
confirmed by the holy anointing under the hands of Joseph and
Hyrum, Joseph continued his speech unto them, saying, while he
walked the floor and threw back the collar of his coat upon his
shoulders, “I roll the burthen and responsibility of leading this
church off from my shoulders on to yours. Now, round up
your shoulders and stand under it like men; for the Lord
is going to let me rest
ana while.” Never shall we forget
his feelings or his words on this occasion. After he had thus
spoken, he continued to walk the floor, saying: “Since I have
rolled the burthen off from my shoulders, I feel as light
as a cork. I feel that I am free. I thank my God for this
We gave our testimony on the 8th of September last before[Side note added on the bottom of page 2] March 1844
a special conference in this city, at which Sidney Rigdon was
tried and excommunicated from the church; and altho’ we declared
it there in the presence of many thousand people, we now feel
it a pleasure in reducing it to writing, and freely give our names
to the world in confirmation of the above statements; and further,
that Joseph Smith did declare that he had conferred upon the
Twelve every key and every power that he ever held himself
before God. This [is] our testimony [and] we expect to meet in a coming
day when all parties will know that we have told the truth
and have not lied, so help us God.
Declaration of the 12 Apostles