A Great Blessing

Matthew C. Godfrey

The Calling of the Original Twelve Apostles in This Dispensation

On February 14, 1835, Heber C. Kimball, a 33-year-old elder in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sat in a council called by Joseph Smith in Kirtland, Ohio. Heber had been a member of the Church for nearly three years, had preached the gospel on a few missions, and had accompanied the Prophet Joseph on the 1834 Camp of Israel expedition to Missouri (now known as Zion’s Camp). Despite this service, he had no inkling of how his life was about to change. In the course of the meeting, Heber was named as one of twelve men designated “as Apostles to go to all nations, kindred[s] toungs [tongues] and people” and was ordained to that office.1 “It was far from my expectation of being one” of the Twelve, Heber remembered, “as heretofore I had known nothing about it.” But he willingly accepted the call—one that would bring great blessings to him for the rest of his life.2

The calling of Heber and 11 other men to the apostleship established the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in this last dispensation. Although these callings occurred in 1835, five years after the Church was organized, plans to form the quorum had been in place since June 1829, when Joseph Smith received a revelation containing instructions for Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer. In that revelation the Lord declared that 12 men would “take upon them my name” and be “called to go into all the world to preach my gospel unto every creature” (D&C 18:27–28). He directed Oliver and David to “search out the Twelve,” whom they would know “by their desires and their works” (D&C 18:37–38).

Over the next several years, Oliver and David’s minds were “on a constant stretch to find who these Twelve were.” The two periodically “sought the Lord by fasting and prayer,” and they occasionally received additional instruction from Joseph Smith about how to fulfill this assignment.3 However, no clear identification of the Twelve was forthcoming. As Oliver remembered, “When the time should come, we could not tell,” but they prayed that they would live long enough to fulfill the assignment.4

The time for calling the Twelve arrived after Joseph Smith led the Camp of Israel to Missouri. This expedition occurred from May to July 1834, after Saints who were building the city of Zion in Jackson County, Missouri, had been violently expelled from the county. Joseph organized the expedition according to revelation (see D&C 101 and 103) and in an attempt to help the Saints regain their land. The expedition also gave him an opportunity to travel for a period of two months with individuals such as Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball, observing how they reacted to adversity and difficult situations. These men, in turn, learned leadership principles from Joseph Smith—knowledge that Brigham regarded as greater than earthly riches.5

In June 1834, after the camp had entered Clay County, Missouri, Joseph received revelation declaring that it was no longer expedient for the group to redeem Zion (see D&C 105). The Saints needed to be instructed more fully in their duties, and the elders were to receive an endowment of power in the Kirtland House of the Lord, then under construction, before Zion could be redeemed. The revelation also declared that because of the sacrifice of Zion’s Camp members, the Lord had “prepared a great endowment and blessing” for them (D&C 105:12).

Early in 1835 Joseph Smith reflected on the expedition to Zion and the willingness of those who had volunteered to accompany him. On February 8, he asked the brothers Brigham and Joseph Young to come to his home after a meeting and sing to him. As they did so, according to a Joseph Smith history, “The Spirit of the Lord was poured out upon us, and I told them I wanted to see those brethren together who went up to Zion in the camp, the previous summer, for I had a blessing for them.”6 Brigham remembered that Joseph received a revelation stating that it was time for the Twelve Apostles to be called and that some of them would be selected from those who had gone to Missouri.7 Joseph asked Brigham to “notify all the brethren living in the branches, within a reasonable distance from this place, to meet at a General Conference on Saturday next.” Before the brothers departed, Joseph Smith turned to Brigham and informed him that he would be one of the chosen Twelve.8

Less than a week later, on February 14, the Saints gathered in the Church’s schoolhouse in Kirtland, just west of where the house of the Lord was being constructed. Joseph Smith said that he had called the meeting because “God had commanded it.” After recounting the experiences of the Camp of Israel, he stated that “it was the Will of God” that those who had gone on the expedition “should be ordained to the ministry and go forth to prune the vineyard for the last time.” After a brief adjournment, the Prophet declared that the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon would “choose twelve men from the church as Apostles.” Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris—the Three Witnesses—then announced the selections.9

The 12 men designated as Apostles, in the order they were presented to the meeting, were Lyman Johnson, Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Orson Hyde, David W. Patten, Luke Johnson, William E. McLellin, John F. Boynton, Orson Pratt, William Smith, Thomas B. Marsh, and Parley P. Pratt. All 12 were relatively young men: David W. Patten was the oldest at age 35, and Lyman Johnson was the youngest at age 23.10 All had previously served missions for the Church, some on multiple occasions. Eight of the 12 had accompanied Joseph Smith on the Zion’s Camp expedition.11

Although the Three Witnesses had been the ones designated to select the Twelve, the final determination seems to have been made in collaboration with Joseph Smith and was probably done either sometime before the meeting or during the adjournment, just before the selections were announced. Joseph, for example, had already received a prompting that Brigham Young would be called, and he had also provided feedback on other selections. Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer later remembered that they both wanted to select Phineas Young, Brigham’s brother, as one of the Apostles, but the Prophet told them that William Smith should be appointed instead. “Brother David and myself yielded to his wish,” Oliver remembered, “and consented for William to be selected.”12

After their designation, the Apostles who were present were ordained. Their ordination blessings were filled with great promises of missionary success. Heber C. Kimball, for example, was told “that many millions” would be “converted by his instrumentality,” and Brigham Young was promised that he would “do wonders in the name of Jesus.”13 As Heber later remembered, the blessings “predicted many things which should come to pass, that we should have power to heal the sick, cast out devils, raise the dead, give sight to the blind, have power to remove mountains, and all things should be subject to us through the name of Jesus Christ.”14

Only nine of the Apostles were ordained at this meeting, which extended into Sunday, February 15. Parley P. Pratt, who was living in New Portage, Ohio, was ordained on February 21, while Thomas B. Marsh and Orson Pratt, who were serving missions elsewhere, were not ordained until April 26, after they had returned to Kirtland.15

At some point, Oliver Cowdery gave an apostolic charge to the Twelve (this occurred either at the February 14–15 meeting or on February 21, when Parley P. Pratt was ordained). This charge provided an expanded view of their responsibilities, while emphasizing the difficulties they would face. “The adversary has always sought the life of the servants of God,” Oliver declared. “You are, therefore, to be prepared at all times to make a sacrifice of your lives, should God require them in the advancement and building up of his cause.” Oliver encouraged the Apostles to gain personal knowledge of Jesus Christ so they could testify of His existence with power and surety: “Never cease striving until you have seen God, face to face.” He continued, “We require as much to qualify us as did those who have gone before us. . . . If the Saviour in former days laid his hands on his disciples. Why not in the latter Days.”16

As part of his charge to the Apostles, Oliver told the Twelve that they were equal to each other “in bearing the keys of the kingdom to all nations.”17 Over the next several weeks, Joseph Smith provided additional instruction about their responsibilities. At a February 27 meeting, he said the Apostles would “hold the keys of this ministry, to unlock the door of the kingdom of heaven unto all nations, and to preach the Gospel to every creature.” They would be known as a “traveling high council,” which would “preside over all the churches of the Saints among the Gentiles, where there is no presidency established.”18 At the time the Twelve were called, two standing high councils existed in the Church—one in Missouri, which was the location of Zion, and one in Kirtland, which was a stake of Zion. The Missouri high council had jurisdiction over the Church in Missouri, while the Kirtland high council oversaw the Church in Kirtland. Initially, the Twelve Apostles supervised branches of the Church outside those two areas.

In the spring of 1835, Joseph Smith reiterated the instructions and assignments for the Twelve. His instruction on priesthood combined a revelation he had received in November 1831 with direction that had been gained since then. The instruction, now section 107 of the Doctrine and Covenants, clarified the roles of the Twelve Apostles and the Seventy as different from those of the standing high councils in Missouri and Kirtland. It also stated that the Twelve were to act “under the direction of the Presidency of the Church” (D&C 107:33) and were to serve as “special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world” (D&C 107:23).

With this direction, the Twelve Apostles served a mission from May to August 1835 in the eastern United States, holding conferences with branches of the Church there. This ushered in the Twelve’s heavy missionary responsibility, one that in future years would see them preach in locations overseas. The Apostles continued growing in their administrative responsibilities until 1844, when Joseph Smith bestowed upon them, according to Orson Hyde, “every ordinance of the holy priesthood” and told them, “You have got all the keys, and all the ordinances and you can confer them upon others.”19

Although each man selected as an Apostle in February 1835 was a devoted member of the Church, many of them later fell away. Of the original Twelve, nine at some point became disillusioned, although several later repented and returned. Parley P. Pratt, for example, had a falling out with Joseph Smith in 1837, which lasted several weeks. Others, such as Orson Pratt and Orson Hyde, were dropped from the Quorum of the Twelve for a time but were later restored after they had repented. During the difficulties in Kirtland and Missouri in 1837 and 1838, five Apostles left the Church: Luke Johnson, Lyman Johnson, William E. McLellin, John F. Boynton, and Thomas B. Marsh, although Luke and Thomas would later return. William Smith, Joseph’s tempestuous brother, eventually broke with Brigham Young and the Twelve before the Saints departed Nauvoo, Illinois, for Salt Lake City. Only three of the original Twelve remained constantly true to the Church: David W. Patten (who was mortally wounded in the Battle of Crooked River in 1838), Brigham Young, and Heber C. Kimball.20

Despite any later actions, those who were called as the original Apostles received great blessings. Lyman Johnson stated that while he was an Apostle, “I was full of joy and gladness. . . . I was happy by day and by night, full of peace and joy and thanksgiving.”21 Brigham and a number of others, including Heber C. Kimball, Parley P. Pratt, Orson Pratt, and Orson Hyde, experienced the great proselytizing success promised in their ordination blessings as they served missions to the British Isles and elsewhere, helping to bring thousands of members into the Church.22

The June 1829 revelation that instructed Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer to seek out the Twelve also declared that those who would serve as Apostles would “desire to take upon them [Christ’s] name with full purpose of heart” (D&C 18:27). Although not all continued with full purpose of heart, they all, at least for a season, served faithfully and diligently in the Church. For them, serving as an Apostle was part of the blessing God had promised some who served in Zion’s Camp. Their calling also helped solidify Church leadership and establish a quorum that has blessed the lives of countless Church members ever since.