On 11/18/21 Beyond the Walls’s Social Hour had a discussion on the history of Community of Christ’s prophetic succession. I noticed there wasn’t a good consolidated place that showed this history, so I decided to make one!
To preface, each of these presidents were presented to the church. The church must be governed by common consent, as per D&C 25. The church voted to accept these people as the president of the church, but they also reasonably could have voted to not accept them, even when the outgoing president designated them as their successor. There is a saying in Community of Christ that the highest governing body of the church are the delegates assembled in a World Conference.
That being said, let’s do a brief history of the presidents and how they came to be ordained!
Joseph Smith III
The story goes that before he passed away Joseph Smith Jr. designated his son, Joseph Smith III, as his successor. There has been no documented evidence that this actually happened other than the testimonies of the Smiths and some close family friends. However, when Joseph Smith Jr. was killed, JSIII was only 11 years old, and was very much not in a position to lead.
The church pretty quickly balkanized based on leaders like Brigham Young (president of the Quorum of the 12), Sidney Rigdon (Only surviving member of the 1st Presidency), James Strang, Lyman Wight (was told by JS to establish a colony in Texas), Alpheus Cutler (part of a secret group led by JS), David Whitmer (early leader in movement and BoM witness), and William Smith (youngest brother of Joseph Smith Jr.) all claimed to be the rightful leader. Many of these leaders knew that having the Smith family (namely Lucy, Emma, and JSIII) would validate their claims of authority, but the Smiths remained aloof. In the end, many people found these leaders to be lack-luster, and their movements fizzled out. Many entire individual congregations remained a part of the Latter Day Saint movement, but were not affiliated with an overarching church.
In the 1850s two men named Jason W. Briggs ans Zenas H. Gurley Sr. created kind of an umbrella for these diasporic congegations, and they called it the “New Organization”. They asked JSIII several times to be their leader, but each time he declined because he did not feel a personal call to lead. However, eventually that call did come to him. On April 6th, 1860, JSIII was accepted by the church as the new president.
Frederick M. Smith
Frederick M. ” Fred M.” Smith was the son of Joseph Smith III. He earned a Ph.D. in psychology, and was a very well educated man. Fred M. was made a counselor in the 1st presidency in 1902, and worked closely with his father. As JSIII aged he went blind and was no longer able to perform his duties well. He knew that his death was coming, and so in 1912 he designated Fred M. as his successor. JSIII passed away on December 10, 1914 and Fred M/ was ordained as the prophet on May 5, 1915.
Israel A. Smith
Israel A. Smith was another son of JSIII and was the brother of Fred M. He was very involved in church leadership and was in the Presiding Bishopric from 1920-1925 and the church’s general secretary from 1929-1940. Eventually he was called as a counselor to the 1st Presidency in 1940 and was also designated by Fred M. to be his successor when the time came. Fred M. died on March 20, 1946 and Israel A. Smith was ordained on April 9, 1946.
W. Wallace Smith
W. Wallace Smith was son of JSIII, and younger brother to Israel A. Smith and Fred M.. He was ordained a member of the Council of 12 on April 7, 1947, and then ordained a member of the 1st Presidency on April 2, 1950.
On June 14, 1958 Israel A. Smith unexpectedly died in a car accident, and left no designated sucessor. It was natural to follow precedent of having a Smith in the 1st Presidency assume the position of prophet, and W. Wallace Smith was accepted and ordained as prophet on October 6, 1958.
Wallace B. Smith
Wallace B. “Wally B.” Smith was the son of W. Wallace Smith. He was not very involved in church leadership, which is why it came as a bit of a surprise when he was designated to succeed W. Wallace Smith in 1976. He spent 2 years studying theology, history, and culture in preparation for his ordination. His father set a new precedent for retirement and emeritus status in 1978, and Wally B. was accepted and ordained as prophet on April 5, 1978.
W. Grant McMurray
W. Grant McMurray was always very passionate about the church. He went to the church’s school (Graceland), and then went to a well-known school to obtain a master’s degree in theology. In 1973 at the age of 26 he gained employment in the church’s history department. In 1982 he became the World Church’s Secretary. He became a counselor in the 1st Presidency in 1992.
In 1995 Wally B. announced that he was retiring, and designated McMurray as his sucessor. This was quite controversial because McMurray was the first non-Smith to lead the church. W. Grant McMurray was accapted and ordained as the prophet on April 15, 1996.
Stephen M. Veazey
Stephen M. “Steve” Veazey became a full-time minister since 1983, ordained as president of seventy in 1988, ordained as a member of Q12 in 1992, president of Q12 in 2002. Additionally, Steve got his bachelor of science in biology from the University of Tennessee and master of arts in religion from Park College.
After McMurray stepped down, the Joint Council (1st Presidency, Presiding Bishopric, Council of 12) underwent a discernment process, and they felt as if Steve was called as president of the church, and he was presented, accepted, and ordained on June 3, 2005.
In short, there is no one standardized way of knowing who the next president will be, but there does seem to be 3 distinct precedents:
- A Smith is designated
- A member of the 1st Presidency is designated
- A member of the Council of 12 is picked by the Joint Council
If we look at all of the presidents, these points of data emerge:
Age at Ordination:
Age at Death/Retirement:
Length of Term:
However, Joseph Smith III and Frederick M. Smith kind of throw off the averages. With them excluded, these are the same points of data:
Age at Ordination:
Age at Death/Retirement:
Length of Term:
In light of this, the possibility of Steve Veazey retiring is becoming quite high. I suspect that we may see a designee as soon as the 2023 World Conference, and may ordain a new president at the 2026 World Conference.
I very highly doubt that Community of Christ will return to being led by the Smith family again. However, for the sake of exploring the idea, I think if we did the obvious choice would be Lachlan E. “Lach” MacKay, who is Joseph Smith Jr.’s great-great-great-grandson.
Lachlan serves as the Historic Sites director, Church History and Sacred Story Ministries Team lead, has written several books regarding the history of the Latter Day Saint movement, and is currently serving as an apostle.
If the 1st Presidency designee-precedent was to be followed, I think the obvious choice would be Stassi D. Cramm. Cramm has a masters and PhD in organizational management and currently also concurrently serves as the Presiding Bishop. Her experience and expertise sets her apart from K. Scott Murphy, whose background is as a school principal, counselor, and musical educator.
To be honest, it is much more of a toss up regarding who would be the president if the Joint Council were to pick (and they didn’t pick Cramm or MacKay). I picked 2 possibilities for this scenario:
Mareva M. Arnaud Tchong
Mareva M. Arnaud Tchong is from Tahiti, French Polynesia, an epicenter for Community of Christ membership. She grew up in the church and has served as the Temple School director, counselor to her mission center’s president as well as later being the president, and currently serves as an apostle for the Pacifikasia Mission Field (which includes the Australia, East Asia, French Polynesia, Pacific Islands, and the Philippines Mission Centers) and has for nearly 10 years. Her extensive knowledge of cultures around the world would make her a very good choice for pushing the church forward.
Robin K. Linkhart
Robin K. Linkhart has been employed by the church since 1999 where she has served on the International Leaders Council, Theology Formation Team, Ecumenical and Interfaith Ministries Team, advisor to Harmony (LGBT advocacy group for CoC), served as the preseident of the Quorum of Seventy, and many other things.
One of the most noteworthy things that Robin is known for is working with ExMormons. She served as the pastor of the SLC congregation in addition to being the apostle for the area, she serves on the board of directors for the Sunstone Education Foundation, and has helped design courses for CoC ministers to understand the ExMormon life experiences.
Its no secret that many of the people converting to Community of Christ are ExMormons. Having someone who has a great deal of knowledge about the life experiences of the people coming into the church would be a valuable leg up for the president of the church.
While the the history of prophetic succession is in our books, there is not one method that has set one method in stone. My predictions are nothing but speculation, but its always fun to make some guesses and then revisit the guesses in a couple of years!