In order to have a meaningful discussion about Hyrum, it is necessary to provide background information that may seem strange to most modern Latter-day Saints. We have a much different story today than the story told in the beginning. To communicate across the barrier of mistaken and incomplete understanding, there are some ideas that seem strange that are required as background to begin to explain why Hyrum was so significant.
Hyrum was given the calling of “Priesthood and Patriarch” in a revelation in January, 1841. (D&C 124: 91.) That seems a curious statement to us, since everyone is presumed to have held the “priesthood” as soon as they were “elders” in the church. In the beginning, however, it was not understood the same way it is now. The offices of “elder,” like other offices, (priests, deacons, teachers) were offices in the church. (D&C 20: 38.) They were not coincidental to having priesthood. They were “offices… in the church of Christ.” (This was the original name of the church.) These offices were elected, approved by common consent, and then filled by those elected. After Section 107, the two things (church office and priesthood) were conflated to mean the same thing. The office belongs to the church, and whether there is priesthood present or not, the right to preach, teach, expound, exhort, baptize, lay on hands for the Holy Ghost, bless and pass the sacrament, are all things which the Lord commissioned the church to perform. This is also why, at the time Joseph and Oliver received only the Aaronic Priesthood, (JS-H 1: 69) they began to call one another the First and Second “elder of the church.” (JS-H 1: 72.) This is also why Joseph and Oliver received the Holy Ghost when baptized (JS-H 1: 73) even though the angel said the priesthood given did not have “the power of laying on hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.” (JS-H 1: 70.) They had the right to baptize, they were called the “First and Second elders of the church,” but they did not have the “power of laying on hands” for the Holy Ghost. This is not inconsistent, but it is different from what we now overlay onto the idea of priesthood. Today we are more confused than ever even when we think ourselves in possession of the truth.
In any event, when the January 1841 revelation came, Hyrum had already proven valiant. The time arrived when the Lord wanted Hyrum to be ordained to “Priesthood” and “Patriarch” so that he might “hold the keys of the patriarchal blessings upon the heads of all my people.” (D&C 124: 93.) This same revelation appointed another “prophet, and a seer, and a revelator unto [the Lord’s] church.” (D&C 124: 94.) This was the word of the Lord establishing this status and entitling Hyrum to claim this position.
He was then to “act in concert also with my servant Joseph” as co-president of the church. (D&C 124: 95.) Joseph had restored to him “all things” and could ask and the Lord would “make all things known unto” him (D&C 132: 45). Hyrum was likewise able to “ask and receive” answers from the Lord. (D&C 124: 95.)
Because of this ordination by the word of the Lord, Hyrum was given the power to seal: “Whoever he blesses shall be blessed, and whoever he curses shall be cursed; that whatsoever he shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever he shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (D&C 124: 93.) These rights made him co-equal with Joseph, though Hyrum always acted only in concert with Joseph. He was meek, like Moses (Numbers 12: 3) and like Nephi, son of Helaman (Helaman 10: 5). They could be trusted by the Lord because they would do what the Lord wanted, not what they wanted. (See also Alma 14: 10-11.)
This is the kind of man Hyrum was. He was trusted by the Lord, and chose to die with his brother. Had he lived, He would have been Joseph’s successor. Brigham Young said this during the debates over who should succeed Joseph as the president: “Did Joseph Smith ordain any man to take his place? He did. Who was it? It was Hyrum…” (Times & Seasons, October 15, 1844, Vol. 5, p. 683.)
This is an interesting fact because Hyrum was not a member of the Quorum of the Twelve at the time he was killed. However, even Brigham Young, who won the initial debate having argued that the twelve should lead, and then ultimately won an election in December 1847 to become the president of the church, acknowledged it was Hyrum’s right to succeed Joseph. With Hyrum gone, and without any clear direction to follow, the church elected first the twelve, and then Brigham Young.
Brigham Young was never ordained to be church president. He was elected. The initial offices of Elder, Priest, Teacher, Deacon were elected positions. Brigham Young viewed the office of church president as similarly elected.
He explained how he thought this should operate. Anyone could lead the church. All that was required was an election, then the prayers of the members. Here is the system: “Take any man in this kingdom, and if the people say that they will make him a President, or a Bishop, or elect him to fill any other office, and the faith of the people is concentrated to receive light through that officer or pipe laid by the power of the Priesthood from the throne of God, you might as well try to move the heavens as to receive anything wrong through that conductor. No matter whom you elect for an officer, if your faith is concentrated in him through whom to receive the things which he is appointed to administer in, light will come to you. Let a presiding officer or a Bishop turn away from righteousness, and the Lord Almighty would give him the lock-jaw, if he could not stop his mouth in any other way, or send a fit of numb palsy on him, so that he could not act, as sure as the people over whom he presided were right, that they might not be led astray.” (Complete Discourses of Brigham Young, Vol. 3, p. 1379, November 29, 1857; the talk can also found at JD Vol. 6 beginning on p. 93.) In this system, the power of being elected coupled with the members’ prayers were enough to always insure the answers you got through that leader were exactly perfect.
This was in the early days when church leaders were elected to office. Church authorities may offer names, but the congregation, stake, or church members elected them to office.
With Hyrum’s death, we lost something of great value. If he had outlived Joseph, he would have been the unchallenged church president. His succession would have set the pattern for later church presidents. They each would have chosen their own successors before they died. (See D&C 43: 2-5.)
By the time Brigham Young established the twelve as the seat of power, the pattern was set. Instead of the replacement being chosen by the sitting president through revelation, the senior apostle was presumed to be the next in line. Today’s legal structure using the Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the succession is automatic. The corporation’s sole member is the longest tenured apostle. This is in place because Hyrum did not outlive Joseph. So we are all affected by the loss of Joseph’s brother.