Sustaining a New First Presidency in 1847

Aaron L. West
18 March 2019

Why We Remember the Kanesville Tabernacle

In Council Bluffs, Iowa, a log structure shares a city block with a cluster of fast-food restaurants and retail stores. It stands in memory of the Kanesville Tabernacle, the first place where a Latter-day Saint congregation sustained President Brigham Young and his counselors in the First Presidency. In that tabernacle in December 1847, the Lord established a pattern that continues to influence The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today.

Building the Original Kanesville Tabernacle

On October 31, 1847, President Brigham Young and most of the other members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles arrived in Winter Quarters, Nebraska, from the Salt Lake Valley in Utah.1

By that time, about 1,700 pioneers had settled in Utah Territory.2 About 10,000 Saints—including the families of the Apostles—lived in settlements in Iowa and Nebraska, along the Missouri River.3 Most of those Saints would go to Utah within the next five years.

One settlement was Miller’s Hollow, Iowa, across the river from Winter Quarters. The Saints would soon call the town Kanesville in honor of Thomas L. Kane, a non–Latter-day Saint who was a friend to the Church. The Apostles tried to hold a conference there on December 3 and 4, but they were “dreadfully crowded” in the small building where they met.4 On December 4, leaders decided to adjourn the conference until they could meet in a bigger building. Local members made plans to construct that building immediately despite the cold winter weather. The conference would reconvene in the new building on December 24.5

Reorganizing the First Presidency: Revelation to the Apostles

As local members prepared to build the tabernacle, the Apostles set their sights on building up the kingdom of God throughout the earth. On December 5, they met in the cabin of Elder Orson Hyde, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. Their discussions included an issue they had considered for some time: reorganizing the First Presidency. They had especially struggled with this subject over the three previous weeks. They had counseled together about it during their trip to Winter Quarters and in multiple meetings after they arrived.6

At the time, the Quorum of the Twelve was the Church’s highest governing quorum. Quorum members had this authority because a few months before Joseph Smith died, he conferred on them all of the priesthood keys needed to lead the Church. Latter-day Saints looked to the President of the Quorum of the Twelve, Brigham Young, as their leader.7 For three and a half years after the death of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, the Church did not have a President or a First Presidency.

Brigham Young was convinced that the Church needed to reorganize the First Presidency. He was worried that the Apostles’ many administrative duties would consume too much of their time. A First Presidency could carry much of that load, allowing the Twelve to better serve as “special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world.”8

In Elder Hyde’s cabin, the Apostles’ discussion began much as it had in previous meetings. Some of the Apostles were open to the idea of reorganizing the First Presidency. Others believed that their quorum should continue as the governing body of the Church.

Like past meetings on this subject, this gathering included lively discussion and frank disagreements. But in the end, this meeting was different from the others. As the Apostles in attendance discussed the issue, the Lord revealed His will. The Apostles gained a unified witness that the time was right to reorganize the First Presidency. They unanimously sustained Brigham Young, the senior member of their quorum, as President of the Church. He presented Heber C. Kimball and Willard Richards as his counselors in the First Presidency, and all in attendance sustained them.9

Bathsheba Smith had traveled to the Hyde cabin with her husband, Elder George A. Smith, who was one of the Apostles. She did not participate in the meeting, but she felt the power of the gathering. She later recalled: “A great manifestation of the Holy Spirit was poured out upon those present. . . . I slept in the cabin that night and the sweet influence of the Holy Spirit which had been engaged in the council, still remained.”10

Sustaining a New First Presidency: Revelation to the People

By December 24, the local Saints had completed the tabernacle. The log building could hold about 1,000 people—as long as they didn’t mind close quarters. (It measured 60 feet by 40 feet—18 meters by 12 meters—significantly smaller than a full-size basketball court today.)11 Latter-day Saints gathered there for four days of meetings, which would function as a general conference for the Church.

On the third day of the conference, a Sunday, Brigham Young told the Saints: “If you have not been careful to pray night and morning, begin tonight. Pray tomorrow. Come here tomorrow and you shall have one of the best days you ever had and see if we can’t have a fire that will not go out from this time henceforth.”12

The next morning, Monday, December 27, 1847, the tabernacle was “crammed” with people who had prepared themselves as Brigham had said. “The glory of the Lord is here,” wrote the clerk of the conference.13 By late afternoon, the Saints would have an experience similar to the meeting of the Apostles in Orson Hyde’s cabin. In fact, their experience would be an extension of that meeting.

Elder Orson Pratt of the Quorum of the Twelve, who had once been firmly against the idea of reorganizing the First Presidency, was the first to recommend it to the men and women at the conference. “The time has come,” he said, “when the Twelve must have their hands liberated to go to the ends of the earth. If there is no First Presidency, it confines the Twelve too much to one place. . . . They cannot have their eyes on the distant parts of the earth. . . . I want to see this subject acted on by the brethren and sisters.”14

The Saints did act on the subject. Local members nominated Brigham Young as President of the Church. Elder Amasa Lyman, another member of the Twelve, echoed Elder Pratt’s declaration. “Here is the power of doing the work of God,” he said. With a First Presidency, the Twelve would not be “cooped up in Salt Lake City.” They could go and plant “the seeds of life . . . in the four corners of the earth,” and Zion would “enlarge.”15 Inspired by these words, local members made a motion that the First Presidency be organized. Brigham Young then presented Heber C. Kimball and Willard Richards as his counselors.16 The congregation gave their sustaining vote to each recommendation.

With that, Brigham Young, the new President of the Church, stood as the concluding speaker. He said, “What I have heard today is as good doctrine as ever I heard in my life. The Spirit of the Lord is here. Joy, communion of the Holy Spirit with each other and God is here. Let us grow in grace until we come to perfection. May the consolation of the Lord be with you.”17

Guided by the Lord, the people in the Kanesville Tabernacle had participated in a meeting that would help establish a divine pattern for Church leadership.

Following the Pattern Established in Kanesville

In the late 1800s, the transition from one President of the Church to the next was not as clear as it is today—and at first, it didn’t happen as quickly. Church leaders and members still needed to learn more about succession in the Presidency. But the pattern established in the Kanesville Tabernacle guided them as they continued to learn the Lord’s will. Each time a President of the Church died, the First Presidency was dissolved and the Quorum of the Twelve became the Church’s governing body. Each time, the Lord revealed His will, first to the Apostles and then to the general Church membership. Each time, the Lord called the Apostle with the longest continuous experience in the Quorum of the Twelve to become the President of the Church.

This pattern continues to guide the Church as it moves forward today. At the death of the President of the Church, the Quorum of the Twelve becomes the governing body of the Church. They seek and receive revelation in reorganizing the First Presidency. All Latter-day Saints then have the privilege of receiving that same revelation—a confirmation that the Lord has spoken His will. It is, as President Thomas S. Monson has said, a “pattern which the Lord Himself put in place.”18

The Kanesville Tabernacle Today

The Saints in Kanesville dismantled their tabernacle two years after the first conference there. They had built it with newly cut wood that dried and shrank, making the structure unstable. An underground spring below the building caused additional problems during warm months. When the Saints saw that they could not preserve the tabernacle, they hauled off the logs and used them for other buildings.

Kanesville isn’t even called Kanesville anymore. In 1853, after most of the Saints had left for the Salt Lake Valley, other settlers officially changed its name to Council Bluffs.

Today, that log building in Council Bluffs is not a historic structure. It is a reconstruction, built in the 1990s not far from the place where the original building stood. It goes largely unnoticed. Many people drive quickly by, on their way to purchase burgers and sporting goods, and never go inside. The building it memorializes—the original Kanesville Tabernacle—is also largely forgotten, but it is worthy of remembrance. Its influence endures. It is part of the heritage of every Latter-day Saint who has ever sustained a President of the Church and his counselors in the First Presidency as prophets, seers, and revelators.