What was the "last charge" meeting? And why was it so important to the question of "authority" in the Church?
When friends and family tell me the Church has divine "authority," they mean they believe priesthood keys have been passed down the generations in a line unbroken, from prophet to prophet.
Those who hold this view believe that authority is "fungible" (meaning a commodity that can be transferred) like a rock that passes hands. You can trace the hands that have held that rock, and you can create rules for it, such as: only one pair of hands can hold it at a time . . .
You get the idea.
I want to begin by letting the Church speak for itself, so you may know (1) what is officially claimed; and (2) that I am not making this stuff up.
"Knowing his mortal ministry would soon come to a close, the Prophet met frequently with members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to instruct them and to give them the priesthood keys necessary to govern the Church.
"These preparations culminated in a meeting with the Apostles and a few other close associates in March 1844. In this extraordinary council, the Prophet charged the Twelve to govern the Church after his death, explaining that he had conferred upon them all the ordinances, authority, and keys necessary to do so. 'I roll the burden and responsibility of leading this church off from my shoulders on to yours,' he declared. 'Now, round up your shoulders and stand under it like men; for the Lord is going to let me rest awhile.'"
There you have it. But is that what really happened?
The Story Grows Legs and Sprouts Wings There are no contemporaneous sources that record Joseph giving the Twelve Apostles any authority to govern the Church in its organized Stakes, let alone in this "extraordinary council" held on March 26, 1844.
Historians call it "the Last Charge" meeting, when Joseph bestowed his keys and authority on the Twelve.
The premise itself is odd because in Joseph's lifetime we find:
"the Twelve Apostles had jurisdictional authority onlyOUTSIDE of Zion and the organized stakes."
It was understood by everyone and their corn dodgers that the Twelve had NO authority in Zion where there were high councils.
The Twelve were supposed to be abroad preaching the word as special witnesses. The scriptures give them no administrative powers at all in the Stakes of Zion.
That's why they're called the "traveling high council" in D&C 107: because that's all they were, a roaming group of wonderful gypsies who were to leave purse and scrip behind and declare the Good News in foreign lands.
President Joseph Smith then stated that the Twelve will have no right to go into Zion, or any of its stakes, and there undertake to regulate the affairs thereof, where there is a standing high council.
Joseph never dreamt of calling a member of the Twelve into the First Presidency. They're separate quorums, for heaven's sakes!
And D&C 107 required a member of the First Presidency to be a high priest; whereas apostles are elders (hence, we address them by that title: "Elder Bednar").
So how in the world did the Twelve obtain management and governance over the entire Church?
Well, that's the problem the Last Charge meeting is all about fixing!
Encyclopedia of Mormonism to the Rescue
If you pull the Encyclopedia of Mormonism off the shelf and dust it off, you'll find these same claims about the Twelve getting their authority from Joseph at the Last Charge Meeting.
"About March 26, 1844, Joseph Smith made his 'last charge' to the Twelve. He declared that he had now given them every priesthood key that he possessed and that it was their responsibility to shoulder the burden of the kingdom while he rested."
So we can see that by the latter part of the Twentieth Century the narrative had fully metastasized.
Let's see if we can summarize the main points:
1. Joseph Smith, over an undefined period of time in Nauvoo, was meeting with the Twelve, even though the Twelve weren't around Nauvoo much since they were serving missions and electioneering; and
2.Joseph gave the Twelve priesthood keys even though he had publicly taught they had no authority in the organized stakes of Zion, and despite the fact that all his focus was on the Council of Fifty and running for president of the United States; and
3. Joseph's conferral of priesthood keys upon the Twelve culminated on March 26, 1844 at the Last Charge meeting; and (here's the kicker)
4. There's no record of any of this ever happening.
Yikes! If I had defended a college term paper so poorly supported by the historical record, I think my professors would have given me a Failing Grade.
So how did this story become the official narrative, when it went against everything Joseph had done in organizing the priesthood again on earth?
Well, in the 1850s some of these problematic accounts made their way into the official Manuscript History of the Church (now I wonder how that happened), and from there the legend grew and grew.
(See, John Dinger, "The Council of Fifty, Orson Hyde, and the Last Charge Meeting," The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Fall/Winter 2017), pp. 62-82.)
What Really Happened on March 26, 1844?
Historians agree on one thing, which everyone is certain about: whatever happened on March 26, 1844 happened in a meeting of the Council of Fifty.
(See, Andrew Ehat, Joseph Smith's Introduction of Temple Ordinances and the 1844 Mormon Succession Question (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, 1981.)
That is critically important to understand because anything Joseph said or did on March 26, 1844 ― and any authority Joseph purportedly conferred ―was to the brethren in the Council of Fifty.
Not the apostles.
Don't misunderstand: there were members of the Twelve who were also members of the Council of Fifty, but any "keys" that were delivered were addressed to the members of the Council of Fifty (more formally called "The Kingdom of God and his Laws, with the Keys and Power thereof, and Judgement in the Hands of his Servants").
I mean, just look at the full name! The Council of Fifty had "KEYS AND POWER THEREOF" right there in its name.
So who were the members of the Council of Fifty? Who received this "last charge" from the Prophet? Spoiler alert: there were a lot more than just 12:
Having had some minor interactions with Brother Richard Hozapfel, I can vouch that he is a good guy. He's an expert in LDS Church History. He's a professional historian (got a PhD and everything) and was employed as a professor at BYU in the Church History and Doctrine department. Now he serves as an Area Seventy.
He's written extensively on this topic.
So what evidence, do you think, would the Church's best-and-brightest have to support the Church's claims about the Last Charge meeting?
Let's have Brother Holzapfel spell it out for us in his own words:
"This important gathering, known as the 'Last Charge' meeting, was a particularly significant and far-reaching event for which no contemporary minutes have been discovered."
Re-read that last part, please. There's no "contemporary" evidence. Ooookay.
So where did the story come from?
(1) Wilford Woodruff's 1897 Testimony (54 years later)
President Wilford Woodruff in 1897 gave a special testimony, recollecting this moment in Church history:
"Upon one occasion [Joseph] stood upon his feet in our midst for nearly three hours declaring unto us the great and last dispensation which God had set His hand to perform upon the earth in these last days. The room was filled as if with consuming fire; the Prophet was clothed upon with much of the power of God, and his face shone and was transparently clear, and he closed that speech, never-to-be-forgotten in time or in eternity, with the following language:
"'Brethren, I have had great sorrow of heart for fear that I might be taken from the earth with the keys of the Kingdom of God upon me, without sealing them upon the heads of other men. God has sealed upon my head all the keys of the Kingdom of God necessary for organizing and building up of the Church, Zion, and Kingdom of God upon the earth, and to prepare the Saints for the coming of the Son of Man.
"'Now, brethren, I thank God I have lived to see the day that I have been enabled to give you your endowments, and I have now sealed upon your heads all the powers of the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods and Apostleship, with all the keys and powers thereof, which God has sealed upon me; and I now roll off all the labor, burden and care of this Church and Kingdom of God upon your shoulders, and I now command you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to round up your shoulders, and bear off this Church and Kingdom of God before heaven and earth, and before God, angels and men; and if you don’t do it you will be damned.'
"And the same spirit that filled the room at that time burns in my bosom while I record this testimony, and the Prophet of God appointed no one else but the Twelve Apostles to stand at the head of the Church and direct its affairs."
We need to remember something here. Joseph Smith taught that if something isn't recorded, then it's not binding and is not honored by heaven.
Whatsoever you do not record on earth shall not be recorded in heaven;
It may seem to some to be a very bold doctrine that we talk of―
Whatsoever those men did in authority . . . and kept a proper and faithful record of the same, it became a law on earth and in heaven, and could not be annulled, according to the decrees of the great Jehovah. (D&C 128:8-9)
There is no "proper and faithful record" of Joseph conferring keys to govern the Church to the Twelve in the organized Stakes. Ever.
This is a faithful saying. Who can hear it?
(4) Minutes for March 26, 1844 for Council of Fifty
Well, let's cut to the chase and go directly to the best source of all: the actual minutes of the Council of Fifty for March 26, 1844.
Certainly if Joseph had done something as momentous as alter the government of the Church and establish a new, novel means of succession after his death, it would have merited being mentioned in the minutes, right?
And we have them! If you wish to read the minutes yourself, you may find them here.
Here's what happened that day:
IN THE MORNING SESSION:
1. Previous minutes were read. 2. Several new members were admitted. 3. Joseph "gave some instructions pertaining to the kingdom of God." 4. The brethren threw shade at William Law. 5. Joseph "continued his instructions on heavenly things and many other important subjects." 6. They drafted a memorial to send to the United States Congress regarding immigration and other political issues.
IN THE AFTERNOON SESSION:
1. Approved the morning minutes. 2. Workshopped the Memorial, arguing over whether they should use the words "Be it enacted" or "Be it ordained." 3. Joseph suggested sending missionaries to France (Viva la France!). 4. Elders Hyde and Clayton talked about building up the Kingdom and sending a proclamation to the kings of the earth. 5. Sidney Rigdon addressed the council "on the subject of the kingdom of God. He entered into the subject in a most spirited and animated manner, showing the glory and joy which will exist when God reigns over the nations." (Maybe it was Sidney's countenance that "shone transparently clear" in the power of God that Wilford Woodruff remembered 50 years later?) 6. Joseph answered Elder Babbit's questions pertaining to the kingdom of God. 7. They adjourned.
There you have it.
Nothing about the Twelve. Nothing about keys.
(5) "Draft Declaration of the Twelve," Post-Martyrdom
Now we come to a bit of sophistry, where we see the gamesmanship of the Correlation Department.
When you dig into this, you'll eventually be directed to what is called by the Church the "Declaration of the Twelve Apostles, Undated Draft" (see above), found in Brigham Young's effects.
This is the only document the Church cites in its teachings manual that I quoted at the beginning of this post.
Well, this document was drafted by Orson Hyde in 1844 or 1845. The Church makes this sound like a primary source that we can trust; but what the Church doesn't tell us is that this document was rejected by the Council of Fifty and the Twelve (that's why it never got beyond the "draft" stage)!
Using the word "draft" is pregnant with meaning here, for what it leaves unsaid; in fact, the Church sorta makes it appear like the opposite, that this was a legit document, by how they caption it:
"Quoted in declaration of the Twelve Apostles (undated draft), reporting Mar. 1844 meeting."
Let this sink in: this document was never signed or adopted because NO ONE WOULD go along with it, including other members of the Twelve, and is now being used as evidence that the Twelve got their authority in this Last Charge meeting?
Orson Pratt (the other Orson) objected to the whole charade, saying he wasn't even at the meeting on March 26, 1844 (and how are keys supposed to be conveyed if not by the laying on of hands, anyway?).
Even Brigham Young wasn't willing to endorse Elder Hyde's gambit. That says something!
No, Brigham rested his authority-claims on the following:
"Joseph conferred upon our heads all the keys and powers belonging to the Apostleship."
(Minutes of the Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 1835-1893 (Salt Lake City, privately published, 2010, p. 42.)
You see, for Brigham it was always about the Apostleship ― NOT THE PRESIDENCY (and Joseph did not, in fact, confer upon Brigham's head any keys and powers because Brigham was ordained on April 14, 1835 by the Three Witnesses: Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer and Martin Harris).
If you have ever read Brigham Young's discourses, then you know that Brigham's doctrinal explanation for how he could run the Church can be summarized as follows:
1. "I'm an apostle, so I can do whatever."
Brother Hozapfel Explains To Us the "Important" (but discredited) Draft Declaration
The fact the Church hangs its hat on this "draft" document is alarming because it shows there's nothing out there to support their narrative, except for a declaration that nobody supported at the time.
Which is why we're left with the Correlation Department citing a discredited document written by Orson Hyde to trace the Twelve's line of authority back to Joseph.
But no matter how you try to fit a hog into a girl's tutu and make it dance, it's still a hog at the end of the day.
I'm just going to repeat myself because this is all so incredible. The document the Church uses as evidence for the Twelve's priesthood authority was never adopted and was, in fact, rejected by the Council of Fifty and the Twelve at the time.
Maybe Brother Richard Holzapfel can explain it better than me:
"There is another important source about this monumental gathering which may be the earliest written document describing the meeting. Although it is unknown exactly when it was composed, it could have been written as early as September 1844."
So . . . let me get this straight. This "monumental" moment in Church history upon which the Brethren hang all of their priesthood keys appears in our record for the first time after Joseph is dead in an undated and unadopted draft, which no one but Orson Hyde would peddle?
Excommunication of Sidney Rigdon
Orson Hyde (down but not out) tried to resurrect his rejected account of the Last Charge Meeting in September 1844, during the excommunication hearings against Sidney Rigdon.
The fascinating thing about Sidney's disciplinary council was that it was as much about the Twelve's right to lead the Church as it was Sidney's membership.
Brigham Young, Orson Hyde, Parley Pratt, Amasa Lyman and Heber C. Kimball testified. NONE OF THEM said anything about the Last Charge (except, of course, Orson Hyde. So much for the law requiring two or three witnesses, right!).
Orson's account, though, was picked up by the local newspaper who was reporting on the proceedings.
Years later in the 1850s scribe Leo Hawkins took some artistic liberties with the Manuscript History of the Church and inserted details retroactively into the record which bolstered the Twelve's authority to lead the Church, including some of Orson Hyde's story. (See, Dinger, "The Council of Fifty," p. 71.)
I guess it goes to show if you repeat something long enough, it may as well be true.
A Brief Timeline
1. March 26, 1844: Joseph attends a meeting of the Council of Fifty.
2. June 27, 1844: Joseph Smith dies.
3. August 8, 1844: The Twelve are voted to be the successor-trustees for the Church (notice that we weren't voting on a successor to Joseph Smith's prophetic mantle; we weren't interested in a "new" prophet; the members were voting on who would take possession of the Church's assets and property as the successor-trustees of the Church Trust. This was about legal and financial affairs, not spiritual affairs).
4. As a sidebar to #3, 25 years later apostle Orson Hyde recollected (yes, he's back) how Brigham Young was transfigured that day, on August 7/8, 1844:
"[Brigham] spoke, and his words went through me like electricity. This is my testimony; it was not only the voice of Joseph, but there were the features, the gestures and even the stature of Joseph before us in the person of Brigham."(Journal of Discourses 13:181)
The miracle, of course, was Orson Hyde remembering something he didn't witness since he wasn't in Nauvoo on August 7/8, 1844, and wouldn't arrive until five days later.
5. September - December 1844/1845? Who Knows?: The Draft Declaration of the Twelve is Drafted and Never Adopted.
6. 1884: The Council of Fifty no longer meet and informally goes defunct.
7. 1945: The last surviving member of the Council of Fifty, Heber J. Grant, dies. Thus ended the Kingdom of God, and any authority or keys Joseph may have bequeathed it.
How Does the Church Historian's Office Deal With All This?
Let's pretend you work for the Church Historian's Office.
How are you going to present this information about the Last Charge Meeting to the public?
"A significant event likely occurred in this meeting, probably in the morning session, about which the minutes are silent but which council members discussed a year later in connection with a written summary prepared by Orson Hyde."
(Joseph Smith Papers, Administrative Records, p. 63.)
Okay, that was painful. Did you notice what they conspicuously left out after "Orson Hyde?"
"Clayton’s brief note that JS spoke 'on heavenly things and many other important subjects' likely marks what was later referred to as JS’s 'last charge.' This may have been an extension of the charge relating the history, purpose, and rules of the council that was typically given to new members and that JS may have delivered in this meeting."
And that, my friends, is the very best explanation our tithing dollars can buy.
Can we confidently stake our eternal welfare on this?
Measure Twice, Cut Once
This was the post that has been on my mind for a long time.
So many of us view "authority" as black-and-white; as if "authority" were something a person either (1) has or (2) doesn't. But is divine authority binary?
If God were an artist painting with his brush of authority, would the canvas reflect abstract, impressionist, or hyper-realistic strokes?
I wish we would not treat the Melchizedek Priesthood, which is endless and eternal, like we were dishing pumpkin pie, divvying up authority as if it were zero-sum.
The power and authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood is to hold the keys of all the spiritual blessings of the church.
I wish we would understand that God's authority is manifest through the gifts of the Spirit (which He confers liberally; I mean, everyone has at least one gift, right!), not through administrative "keys."
A bishop's authority, after all, is in his gift of discernment:
And unto the bishop of the church, and unto such as God shall appoint and ordain to watch over the church and to be elders unto the church, are to have it given unto them to discern all those gifts lest there shall be any among you professing and yet be not of God.