President Boyd K. Packer, Elder L. Tom Perry, and Elder Richard G. Scott were with us for a long time—since 1970, 1974, and 1988, respectively. Their combined 103 years of apostleship left a mark on our Church that can never be replicated or replaced. We’ll never forget President Packer’s wisdom, Elder Perry’s good humor, or Elder Scott’s tenderness. But now, three empty spots in the Quorum of the Twelve need to be filled, and it will likely happen at the approaching general conference.
The brethren are not cut from a particular mold—each of them have individual strengths, backgrounds, and a unique way of touching the lives of others. In fact, when considering the characteristics of these men, the only obvious common denominator is a powerful testimony of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Image of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1898, from Wikimedia
The Apostles influence the lives of Church members worldwide. Besides speaking at every general conference, they are looked to for guidance and direction, much like Paul or Peter were in the days of early Christianity. And because the order in which they are called determines the order in which Church presidents serve, it’s important to understand what happens when multiple Apostles are called at once.
Here’s a brief overview of the process:
All members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve are Apostles. When any one of these 15 men dies, a new Apostle is called in his place. The senior Apostle—the one who has been an ordained member of the Quorum or the Twelve the longest—is next in line to serve as President of the Church. Should the Prophet die, he will be succeeded by the Apostle next in seniority and so on.
How is seniority decided if multiple Apostles are called on the same day?
After the deaths of President Packer, Elder Perry, and Elder Scott, this question is particularly relevant. It is highly possible that three new apostles will be called during this upcoming general conference, and the order in which they fall in seniority could have historic implications for the Church.
Currently, the senior-most Apostles are President Russell M. Nelson and Elder Dallin H. Oaks, who were sustained on the same day—April 7th, 1984. Though they were called at the same time, President Nelson falls ahead of Elder Oaks in the line of seniority and would, therefore, assume the presidency of the Church in the event of President Monson’s death.
Image from Mormon Newsroom
Though seniority is always determined by order of ordination, historically, age has been a factor in determining what the order of ordination is. At the time of their calls, Elder Nelson was 60 and Elder Oaks was 52. Apostles have been simultaneously sustained several times in Church history, and the older Apostle has, with one exception, always come first in the line of seniority.
The most current example of this was on October 7th, 2004 when Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf and Elder David A. Bednar were both called to the apostleship. Elder Uchtdorf, the senior Apostle, was 64; Elder Bednar was 52.
Similarly, on October 7th, 1943, Elder Spencer W. Kimball and Elder Ezra Taft Benson were both called to the apostleship. Elder Kimball, the senior Apostle, was 48; Elder Benson was 44. In this case, the line of seniority was particularly impactful, since both eventually became Presidents of the Church. After the death of the prophet Harold B. Lee, President Kimball led the Church from 1973 until his death in 1985. He was succeeded by President Benson, who served until 1994.
That’s 21 years of Church presidency determined by this very issue.
When was the last time three apostles were called at the same time?
Image of George F. Richards, one of three Apostles called in April 1906 general conference, from Wikimedia
There is one clear exception to the calling/age organization, which also happens to be the last time that three Apostles were called simultaneously. Prior to the April 1906 general conference, one Apostle had died and another two had resigned in protest of the Manifesto that ended polygamy, leaving three vacancies. At the April conference, Elders George F. Richards, Orson F. Whitney, and David O. McKay were called in that order. In this case, however, age was not a determination of ordination and seniority—Elder Whitney was six years older than Elder Richards. It’s also interesting to note that the future President McKay was only 32 at the time of his call.
Age has influenced the organization of seniority in some way or shape since the beginning of the Church, when all the members of the original Quorum of the Twelve were called simultaneously and their seniority was determined exclusively by age. And though there are no official Church statements about it, and you won't see a bullet point in a Church handbook declaring that age is a determining factor in seniority, it seems to still play a role today when more than one Apostle is called at a time.
Regardless of who is called and ordained and in what order, however, it's still a big deal that multiple apostles could be called during this conference weekend. Considering how infrequently it’s happened in the nearly 200-year history of the Church, one might even call it historic.
In the long run, however, we know that no matter who is called and in what order, the Lord is in charge. Whoever He inspires to be called will bear a special witness, in word and deed, of the Savior and His gospel in whichever position they hold as members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.