This past Saturday, Thomas S. Monson was installed as sixteenth president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormons. This process involved two points of doctrine: the principle of common consent and the practice of solemn assemblies. Both of these began with the founding prophet Joseph Smith.
Mormons are guided by common consent. That is, we as members of the Church must approve people before they fill positions in the Church. This not only applies to local congregations, but also includes the general, or global, leaders of our Church.
Two scriptures given to Joseph Smith explain this doctrine. The first comes from the revelation known as the Articles and Covenants of the Church. (Section 20) The revelation explains:
“No person is to be ordained to any office in this church, where there is a regularly organized branch of the same, without the vote of that church.” (D&C 20:65)
The other scripture is found in a revelation known as the Law of the Church (Section 42). It says:
“Again I say unto you, that it shall not be given to any one to go forth to preach my gospel, or to build up my church, except he be ordained by some one who has authority, and it is known to the Church that he has authority and has been regularly ordained by the heads of the church.” (D&C 42:11)
That is, whenever a person receives a position in the Church, it must come from above, and it must be presented to the body for a sanctioning vote. So holding an office is unlike running for office. In politics, we choose to throw our hats in the ring. But in the Church of Jesus Christ we wait until we are called. Or, in the case of the President of the Church, the selection is based on seniority.
It is different from the selection of the Pope, which is done by a conclave of cardinals at the Vatican, and signaled by white smoke. It is also unlike some protestant denominations, where staffing begins with a call in the heart, then enrollment in seminary, and finally finding a congregation that will welcome the preacher.
Mormons operate top-down. And it is an ultimate top-down, with the call coming from God, via the established leaders of the Church:
“We believe that a man must be called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority, to preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof.” (Articles of Faith 1:5)
The upshot of this process is simple: democracy, transparency, and order. All members of the Church know who is called, where he got his authority, and have given him a sanctioning and sustaining vote.
Since the call is by revelation, politicking, ego-trips, and faction (or schism) within the body of Christ are eliminated. Boyd K. Packer, president of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, also explained that this process protects the Church “from any imposter who would take over a quorum, a ward, a stake, or the Church.” (“The Weak and the Simple of the Church,” Ensign, Nov 2007, 6–9.)
JOSEPH SMITH AND COMMON CONSENT
Joseph Smith followed this pattern of common consent when he organized the Church on April 6, 1830:
“Whilst the Book of Mormon was in the hands of the printer, we still continued to bear testimony and give information, as far as we had opportunity; and also made known to our brethren that we had received a commandment to organize the Church; and accordingly we met together for that purpose, at the house of Mr. Peter Whitmer, Sen., (being six in number,) on Tuesday, the sixth day of April, A. D., one thousand eight hundred and thirty.”
“Having opened the meeting by solemn prayer to our Heavenly Father, we proceeded, according to previous commandment, to call on our brethren to know whether they accepted us as their teachers in the things of the Kingdom of God, and whether they were satisfied that we should proceed and be organized as a Church according to said commandment which we had received.”
“To these several propositions they consented by a unanimous vote. I then laid my hands upon Oliver Cowdery, and ordained him an Elder of the ‘Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’; after which, he ordained me also to the office of an Elder of said Church.”
“We then took bread, blessed it, and brake it with them; also wine, blessed it, and drank it with them. We then laid our hands on each individual member of the Church present, that they might receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, and be confirmed members of the Church of Christ. The Holy Ghost was poured out upon us to a very great degree—some prophesied, whilst we all praised the Lord, and rejoiced exceedingly.” (History of the Church 1:74-46)
All members of the Church sanctioned the actions taken. There is nothing in this record to suggest deviousness, underhandedness, or an iron-fisted rule of a flock of dumb sheep. These six members were willing and active participants in running the Church. This same process and attitude exists in the church today. We all vote to sustain the newly-called leaders.
This sacred meeting traces itself back to Old Testament days, when certain Jewish feasts, such as the Passover, or the dedication of Solomon’s temple, were held. The ancient believers prepared themselves for special and supernal blessings by gathering as a body for worship (Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 3:1390-1391).
As the name implies, it is an assembly that is solemn, above and beyond the normal decorum associated with other church gatherings. Elder Bruce R. McConkie, a Latter-day apostle, wrote, “As of old, their purpose is one of solemn worship, when by fasting, prayer, and faith the saints can draw near to the Lord and receive an outpouring of his Spirit” (Mormon Doctrine, 739).
JOSEPH SMITH AND SOLEMN ASSEMBLIES
Joseph Smith first held a solemn assembly when he dedicated the Kirtland Temple. Before he dedicated the temple, he put the names of the general and local leaders of the Church for a sustaining vote:
“I then made a short address, and called upon the several quorums, and all the congregation of Saints, to acknowledge the Presidency as Prophets and Seers, and uphold them by their prayers. They all covenanted to do so, by rising.”
“I then called upon the quorums and congregation of Saints to acknowledge the Twelve Apostles, who were present, as Prophets, Seers, Revelators, and special witnesses to all the nations of the earth, holding the keys of the kingdom, to unlock it, or cause it to be done, among them, and uphold them by their prayers, which they assented to by rising.”
“I next called upon the quorums and congregation of Saints to acknowledge the presidents of Seventies who act as their representatives, as Apostles and special witnesses to the nations, to assist the Twelve in opening the Gospel kingdom among all people, and to uphold them by their prayers, which they did by rising.”
“I then called upon the quorums and congregation of Saints to acknowledge the High Council of Kirtland, in all the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood, and uphold them by their prayers, which they assented to by rising.”
“I then called upon the quorums and congregation of Saints to acknowledge, and uphold by their prayers, the Bishops of Kirtland and Zion, and their counselors, in all the authority of the Aaronic Priesthood, which they did by rising.”
“I next called upon the quorums and congregation of Saints to acknowledge the High Council of Zion, and uphold them by their prayers, in all the authority of the High Priesthood, which they did by rising.”
“I then called upon the quorums and all the Saints to acknowledge the president of the Elders, and his counselors, and uphold them by their prayers which they did by rising.”
“The quorums and congregation of Saints were then called upon to acknowledge, and uphold by their prayers, the presidents and counselors, of the Priests, Teachers and Deacons, which they did by rising.”
“The vote was unanimous in every instance, and I prophesied to all, that inasmuch as they would uphold these men in their several stations, (alluding to the different quorums in the Church), the Lord would bless them; yea, in the name of Christ, the blessings of heaven should be theirs; and when the Lord’s anointed go forth to proclaim the word, bearing testimony to this generation, if they receive it they shall be blessed; but if not, the judgments of God will follow close upon them, until that city or that house which rejects them, shall be left desolate.” (History of the Church 2:417-418).
It was a rather intricate process, but it served a purpose. The members of the Church had an opportunity to renew their commitment to serve and sustain their leaders. In effect, it is a covenant to love and to obey those who have been called to lead them.
BELIEF AND COVENANT
James E. Talmage, a Latter-day apostle, wrote:
“It is not sufficing to accept the precepts of Christ as we may adopt the doctrines of scientists, philosophers, and savants, however great the wisdom of these sages may be; for such acceptance is by mental assent or deliberate exercise of will, and has relation to the doctrine only as independent of the author. … Acceptance of Jesus as the Christ implies obedience to the laws and ordinances of His gospel; for to profess the One and refuse the other is but to convict ourselves of inconsistency, insincerity, and hypocrisy. (Jesus the Christ, Ch. 21)
The same principle applies to Jesus Christ’s servants. It is not enough to give “mental assent or deliberate exercise of will” to these men. We need a covenant to bind ourselves—both to our leaders and to God who guides our leaders.
I have attended several solemn assemblies. These were the dedications of several temples: American Fork, UT, Palmyra, NY, Winter Quarters, NE, and the rebuilt one in Nauvoo, IL. Plus I have remotely attended the solemn assemblies associated with the calls of Presidents Benson, Hunter, Hinckley, and the dedication of the Conference Center.
This one associated with President Thomas S. Monson’s ordination, however, has to be the most unusual. I was with my parents driving back from funeral in Oakley, Idaho, where we had buried my grandfather.
As we merged onto I-84, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, the second counselor in the First Presidency, began the process of sustaining the new prophet. First the First Presidency voted on the call of President Monson and his counselors, then the Quorum of Twelve Apostles voted. Next the Seventy and Presiding Bishopric voted, followed by the Melchizedek Priesthood as a body, then the Aaronic Priesthood, then the female Relief Society, then the Young Women. Lastly, we reconfirmed our vote by voting as a body and as a Church.
Even though we were participating by radio, and heading southbound in a rental car, we still voted and gave President Monson our uplifted hand.
This is the miracle of Mormonism. This is a people-friendly Church. We all have a part in the call of the new prophet of the Church. This is an opportunity to offer him our right hand of support, of sanction, and of love. And I am grateful that Joseph Smith, under direction from the Lord, organized the Church in this democratic fashion. We are all on equal footing.