As I have participated with you in this moving experience of a solemn assembly, there has been brought more forcibly than ever to my mind the significance of the great revelation of the Lord given to the Church in 1835. In this revelation the Lord gave specific instructions setting forth the order of the priesthood in the government of the church and kingdom of God. In this revelation the Lord specified four requisites in the establishment of the First Presidency, or the presidency of the Melchizedek, or High, Priesthood of the Church, as the Lord speaks of it. First, it was requisite that there be three presiding high priests. Second, they were to be chosen by the body (which has been construed to be the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles). Third, they must be appointed and ordained by the same body—the Quorum of the Twelve. Fourth, they must be upheld by the confidence, faith, and prayers of the Church. All of these steps were taken in order that the quorum of the First Presidency could be formed to preside over the Church. Those first steps were taken by action of the Twelve and they were attended to in a sacred meeting convened in the temple on July 7, 1972, where the First Presidency were named. Today, as never before, have I more fully realized the importance of that last requirement: that this presidency, in the Lord’s language, must be upheld by the confidence, the faith, and the prayers of the Church—which means, of course, the entire membership of the Church. We witnessed a short while ago the outpouring of love and fellowship that was in evidence in the great regional conference of our wonderful Lamanite Saints from Central America and Mexico, assembled in Mexico City in August. Over 16,000 Saints were gathered together in a great auditorium, where they sustained their General Authorities. Again, in the mighty demonstration of this solemn assembly, I am moved with emotions beyond expression as I have felt the true love and bonds of brotherhood. There has been here an overwhelming spiritual endowment, attesting, no doubt, that in all likelihood we are in the presence of personages, seen and unseen, who are in attendance. Who knows but that even our Lord and Master would be near us on such an occasion as this, for we, and the world, must never forget that this is his church, and under his almighty direction we are to serve! Indeed, I would remind you what he declared in a similar conference of Saints in Fayette, New York, and undoubtedly would remind us again today. The Lord said: “Behold, verily, verily, I say unto you that mine eyes are upon you. I am in your midst and ye cannot see me.”
After Brigham Young’s death in 1877, the Church was governed for three years by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. On the tenth day of October 1880, the First Presidency was reorganized. John Taylor was sustained as President of the Church in the first Solemn Assembly held in this dispensation for that purpose. . . One duty devolving upon the Twelve is to see that the churches are organized correctly. And I think they are now thus organized throughout the land of Zion. The Churches generally are organized with Presidents of Stakes and their Counselors, with High Councils, with Bishops and their Counselors, and with the Lesser Priesthood, according to the order that is given us. Then we have the High Priests, Seventies and Elders occupying their places according to their Priesthood, position and standing in the Church. And the First Presidency seemed to be the only quorum that was deficient. And it is impossible for men acquainted with the order of the Holy Priesthood to ignore this quorum, as it is one of the principal councils of the Church. While the Twelve stand as a bulwark ready to protect, defend and maintain, to step forward and carry out the order of God’s Kingdom in times of necessity, such as the above referred to, yet when everything is adjusted and matters assume their normal condition, then it is proper that the Quorum of the First Presidency, as well as all other quorums, should occupy the place assigned it by the Almighty.
A solemn assembly, as the name implies, denotes a sacred, sober, and reverent occasion when the Saints assemble under the direction of the First Presidency. Solemn assemblies are used for three purposes: the dedication of temples, special instruction to priesthood leaders, and sustaining a new President of the Church. This conference session today is a solemn assembly for the purpose of sustaining a newly called Church President and other officers of the Church. There is a pattern to solemn assemblies that distinguishes them from other general Church meetings where we sustain officers of the Church. That pattern, which was established by the Prophet Joseph Smith, is that the priesthood quorums, commencing with the First Presidency, stand and manifest by the uplifted right hand their willingness to sustain the President of the Church as a prophet, seer, and revelator, and uphold him by their confidence, faith, and prayers. The priesthood quorums of the Church so manifest by their vote. Then the general body of all the Saints stand and signify their willingness to do the same. The other leaders of the Church are similarly sustained in their offices and callings. When we sustain the President of the Church by our uplifted hand, it not only signifies that we acknowledge before God that he is the rightful possessor of all the priesthood keys; it also means that we covenant with God that we will abide by the direction and the counsel that come through His prophet. It is a solemn covenant.
When the Church was organized in 1830 it was composed of six people. So the Prophet Joseph Smith presided at first over a very small group, but it grew to many thousands by the time of his martyrdom. When Brigham Young became President, there were approximately 40,000 members. In 1877 the new President, John Taylor, presided over about 145,000. Wilford Woodruff in 1887 had about 192,000 under him. When Lorenzo Snow became President in 1898, there were about 253,000 members, and then Joseph F. Smith had over a quarter of a million. President Heber J. Grant had nearly half a million; George Albert Smith one million, and when David O. McKay became President in 1951, there were over 1,100,000 members. When Joseph Fielding Smith took over the reins, there were 2,800,000, and as President Harold B. Lee becomes the President, there are about 3,200,000 and growing very rapidly. It is reassuring to know that President Lee was not elected through committees and conventions with all their conflicts, criticisms, and by the vote of men, but was called of God and then sustained by the people. The Church has had three different Presidents in three years. A Deseret News editorial writer wrote this: “In many organizations such rapid turnover at the top could readily bring on confusing shifts of direction and with them a feeling of hesitancy and uncertainty. “By contrast, the feeling within the church during this historic period has been one of stability and clear purpose, of constancy amidst change.” . . The Prophet Joseph Smith made this statement over a century ago: “Every man who has a calling to minister to the inhabitants of the world was ordained to that very purpose in the Grand Council of heaven before this world was.” . . . Significant to us is the fact that there has never been one minute since April 6, 1830, 142 years ago, that the Church has been without divine leadership. No deceased President has ever taken the keys and authorities into the spirit world away from the Church on the earth. The second that the spirit left the body of President Joseph Fielding Smith on July 2, President Harold B. Lee in that same second as president of the twelve apostles rightfully assumed command and was the true and recognized leader, having been foreordained as said by Joseph Smith.