With the death of 86-year-old Elder Richard G. Scott, three vacancies have opened up in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Also recently passed away were 90-year-old Boyd K. Packer and 92-year-old L. Tom Perry.
The question of the age of the governing quorums of the church was raised last Spring when 87-year-old President Thomas S. Monson was unable to meet with visiting President Barak Obama. The average age of the two highest quorums (15 men) at that time was 80 — the highest ever in the history of the church.[i]
However, vacancies of three (or more) in the Quorum of the Twelve are not unprecedented in church history. In fact, it has been quite common, although for varying reasons.
From the Fall of 1837 to the Fall of 1838, ten apostles lost their apostleship when they were either excommunicated or disfellowshipped. However, six of these apostles were not members of the Quorum of the Twelve. This was before apostolic roles in church government were clearly defined. Then when Apostle David W. Patten was killed, just seven apostles remained in the quorum, with one extra-quorum apostle (Joseph Smith). [ii] This was the smallest number of quorum members in the history of the church, with five vacancies. Quorum membership began to replenish with the ordination of John Taylor and John Page. Soon, the quorum became over populated and Amasa M. Lyman had to be dropped from the quorum when Orson Pratt was re-baptized and restored to full fellowship in 1843.
Because no established procedure existed for organizing a new First Presidency upon the death of the president, lengthy periods of time passed before organizing the Brigham Young, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff presidencies. The Quorum of Twelve would govern during these interims, resulting in quorum numbers dropping from twelve to nine when a new First Presidency was organized. This continued until a seamless transition became the standard when Lorenzo Snow became president.
Just after the Brigham Young Presidency was organized, Lyman Wight was excommunicated, leaving four vacancies in February 1849.
As Brigham Young aged, several members of The Twelve were reassigned as counselors to Brigham Young, bringing the number of Quorum members down to nine in 1875.
The last time there was a vacancy of three was in 1906 when Apostle Marriner W. Merrill passed away, and Apostles John W. Taylor and Matthias F. Cowley resigned from the Quorum due to political pressure regarding their promotion of polygamy.
Sixteen years earlier, President Wilford Woodruff had issued the Manifesto in 1890 saying, he personally planned to obey the laws of the United States regarding plural marriage. The statement lacked clarity and left room for interpretation. Many in the presiding quorums continued to enter into, or sanction new plural marriages. When newly elected Senator — Apostle Reed Smoot tried to take office, he met with strenuous objections. Senate hearings regarding his seating beginning in 1904 brought embarrassing testimony about the church into the national lime light, and finally, pro-polygamy apostles Taylor and Cowley resigned their positions under pressure from fellow church leaders. Then, with Apostle Merrill’s death, three vacancies opened up in the Quorum of the Twelve. They were filled by George F. Richards, Orson F. Whitney, and David O. McKay — who would later become the president of the church.
[i] “Thomas S. Monson ‘feeling the effects’ of his age, LDS Church says” by David Noyce, The Salt Lake Tribune, May 01 2015
[ii] If I did my math correctly