I am the 2nd counselor in the Relief Society Presidency in the Medford 4th Ward, Central Point, Oregon Stake. One of our biggest and most attended activities of the year is the annual Relief Society “Birthday Dinner” in which we commemorate the anniversary of the founding of the Relief Society. This year I was disappointed to find out that our ward would not be having it’s RS birthday dinner because a stake activity had been planned instead. I suggested to my Relief Society President that we devote an entire sacrament meeting to the Relief Society; she loved the idea and got approval from the bishopric. I offered to speak on the founding of the Relief Society. This is the talk I gave in sacrament meeting. I want to thank Rachel Steenblik for her excellent post in Exponent II, Daughters in My Kingdom: “Something Better”: The Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, in which I relied heavily for information. Rachel was also helpful in pointing out ways to present hers and other scholarly writings in a credible manner that would be appropriate for a sacrament meeing talk. To read Rachel’s post click here.
If you are interested in listening to an audio version of my talk, scroll all the way to the bottom and click the play button.
The REAL Female Relief Society of Nauvoo
On March 17th, 1842, twenty women gathered together in the upper room of the “red brick store” in Nauvoo, Illinois with Joseph Smith and two of his apostles, Elders John Taylor and Willard Richards. What transpired at that meeting has become a significant event in the history of our Church. As many of you may know, March 17th marked the 172nd anniversary of the organization of the women’s Relief Society. Today I would like to discuss the events that led up to the organization of the Relief Society, the details and teachings of that first meeting of women, and how we, as disciples of Christ, continue to fulfill the purpose of the Relief Society in these latter days. In my talk I will be using references mainly from two sources. The first is Daughters in My Kingdom – the History and Work of Relief Society, which was published by The Church a few years ago. The second is the original Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, which is a book of detailed notes, called minutes, kept by Eliza R. Snow, who was the Relief Society secretary at the time. Joseph Smith told the sisters that these minutes would become the “constitution and law” of the society. The Church made this minute book available to the public through the release of the Joseph Smith Papers. It can be viewed online at the Church’s website, JosephSmithpapers.org. I enjoy studying Church History but I’ve had some people ask me, “Why is it so important to know about the past?” With reference to women learning about the history of Relief Society, President Spencer W. Kimball said,
“We know that women who have deep appreciation for the past will be concerned about shaping a righteous future”.
In Daughters in My Kingdom it states,
“The history of Relief Society teaches the divine identity and infinite worth of daughters of God. It is a Spirit-filled story of strong, faithful, purposeful women who have served with little public recognition. Through a study of this history, Latter-day Saints can see that our Heavenly Father knows His daughters, that He loves them, that He trusts them with sacred responsibilities, and that He guides them as they fulfill those responsibilities.”
What events led to the organization of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo? The building of the Nauvoo Temple was the impetus for organizing the women. Joseph Smith and other early Latter-Day Saints were profoundly interested in building Zion, and temples were a big part of that. Both men and women desired to contribute to this great cause. One sister, Margaret Cook, suggested that she could provide needlework to help support those physically building the temple. Another sister, Sarah Kimball, offered material to help her, and they discussed inviting others to start a sewing society, to benefit the temple. The following Thursday “about a dozen of the sisters” met together in Sarah’s home. It was common in that time for women to start such “benevolent” societies, as well as to write their own constitution and bylaws. As such, the women did so, and then took them to their prophet, Joseph Smith for approval. Joseph told them that they were “the best he had ever seen” but that the Lord had “something better for them than a written constitution.” He invited them to meet together with him and a few of the brethren the following Thursday, and he would “organize” them “under the priesthood after the pattern of the priesthood.” When they met together the following Thursday in the upper room of the “red brick store”, Joseph Smith’s wife, Emma was chosen as the President of the Society. I think it’s important to note here who Emma was chosen by. In the minute book it states:
“Joseph Smith propos’d that the sisters elect a presiding officer to preside over them, and let that presiding officer choose two Counsellors to assist in the duties of her Office — that he would ordain them to preside over the Society — and let them preside just as the Presidency, preside over the church” (p 7, Minute Book).
Directly following, Brother Joseph added, “Let this Presidency serve as a constitution — all their decisions be considered law; and acted upon as such,” Joseph continued, “If any officers are wanted to carry out the designs of the Institution, let them be appointed and set apart, as Deacons, Teachers etc. are among us” (p 8, Minute Book). We must keep in mind that the words “ordained” and “set apart” were not clearly defined in the early days of the Church as they are now and were sometimes used interchangeably, but it seems rather clear that Joseph truly intended to organize the Relief Society after the “pattern of the priesthood”.
It was “motioned by Sister Whitney and seconded by Sister Packard that Mrs. Emma Smith be chosen President.” The motion “passed unanimously” (p 8, Minute Book). Then the minute book reports, “Mov’d by Pres Smith, that Mrs. Smith proceed to choose her Counsellors, that they may be ordain’d to preside over this Society, in taking care of the poor – administering to their wants, and attending to the various affairs of this Institution” (p 8, Minute Book). Joseph Smith then “read the Revelation to Emma,” from the 25th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, “and stated that she was ordain’d at the time…to expound the scriptures to all, and to teach. But, not she alone… other [women] may attain to the same blessings” (p 8, Minute Book). To know that our first prophet believed that women may be ordained to expound scripture and to teach is very meaningful to me. These are gifts we, as women, can claim. The name of this new organization was not chosen without some argument. The two counsellors, Sister Cleveland and Sister Whitney suggested that it be called the “Nauvoo Female Relief Society”. Elder Taylor offered an amendment that it be called The Nauvoo Female Benevolent Society” which he believed “would give it a more definite and extended idea of the Institution” (p 10, Minute Book). But, it didn’t end there. This is where we get a glimpse of Emma Smith’s strong will. Reading from the minute book it states, “The Pres [Emma] then suggested that she would like an argument with Elder Taylor on the words Relief and Benevolence” (p 11, Minute Book). The “popularity of the word benevolent” was “one great objection,” because “no person can think of the word” without thinking of “corrupt Institutions of the day”: she did “not wish to have it call’d after other Societies in the world” (p 11, Minute Book). Then Eliza R. Snow concurred with the President, with regard to the word benevolent, that many societies with which it had been associated, were indeed corrupt. She said: “The popular institutions of the day should not be our guide — that as daughters of Zion, we should set an example for all the world, rather than confine ourselves to the course which had been heretofore pursued”. She continued, “One objection to the word relief, is that the idea associated with it is that of some great calamity— that we intend appropriating on some extraordinary occasions instead of meeting the common occurrences—”, to which Emma Smith remark’d, and this is probably one of her most famous quotes, “We are going to do something extraordinary —when a boat is stuck on the rapids with a multitude of Mormons on board we shall consider that a loud call for relief — we expect extraordinary occasions and pressing calls” (p 12, Minute Book). “Elder Taylor [then] arose and said — I shall have to concede the point — your arguments are so potent I cannot stand before them —I shall have to give way” (p 12, Minute Book). Six weeks later Joseph Smith taught the sisters again and this is when he said these very important words, “This society is to get instruction through the order which God has established—through the medium of those appointed to lead—and I now turn the key to you in the name of God, and this society shall rejoice and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time—this is the beginning of better days to this society.” The Relief Society of Nauvoo grew rapidly and had a membership of nearly 1,100 by August of 1842. Initially, membership was not automatic for all adult female members of the Church as it is today. Women had to petition to belong, and they were “accepted based on their goodness and virtue”. They were excited to join and give of their temporal and spiritual aid in an organized way. When we read the Relief Society minutes and journals of the women during this period it is evident that the women saw their organization as more than a charitable society. “Spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues and healing the sick were not only discussed in their meetings but the sisters openly practiced them. With Joseph’s approval, Emma and her counselors laid hands on the sick and blessed them that they might be healed” (Linda K. Newell, A Gift Given, A Gift Taken: Washing, Anointing, and Blessing the Sick Among Mormon Women, p 17). At their 5th meeting, one sister, Sister Durfee, “bore testimony to the great blessing she received when administered to after the last meeting by Emma Smith and [her] Counselors Cleveland and Whitney” (Newell, p 17). During the next week, some had questioned the practice and Joseph Smith addressed it directly at the sixth meeting. He spoke of the Apostle Paul’s teachings in 1 Corinthians about gifts of the Spirit and emphasized that, “these signs, such as healing the sick, casting out devils etc. should follow all that believe whether male or female” (interestingly, Daughters in My Kingdom omits, “whether male or female”). He went on to teach that “It is the privilege of those set apart to administer in that authority which is confer’d on them — and if the sisters should have faith to heal the sick, let all hold their tongues, and let every thing roll on” (p 36, Minute Book). He continued:
“Respecting the female laying on hands, there could be no devils in it if God gave his sanction by healing — that there could be no more sin in any female laying hands on the sick than in wetting the face with water — that it is no sin for any body to do it that has faith, or if the sick has faith to be heal’d by the administration” (p 36, Minute Book).
With the organization of the Relief Society, the effort to help those building the Nauvoo Temple was even greater. In one Relief Society meeting, the women concentrated on practical ways they could serve the men who were working so diligently on the temple. “The sisters expressed their feelings one by one,” manifesting a unanimous “desire to assist in forwarding the temple and in aiding the cause of Zion.” One of my favorite things listed in the minute book is a list of donations offered by specific Relief Society members. For example:
“Sis. Jones said she would be willing to go about and solicit material, if counseled so to do – she also offered to board one to work on the temple. “Mrs. Durffee said if the heads of the society wished, she is willing to go abroad with a wagon and collect wool et. for the purpose of forwarding the work. “Miss Wheeler said she is willing to give any portion, or all of her time- “Mrs. Granger is willing to do anything, knit, sew, or wait on the sick, as might be most useful.”
The list goes on and on. These sisters had a desire to serve. I love that what they offered was so varied and dependent on their unique skills and resources. This reminds me that our contributions to the Church today may be varied. We are all blessed with unique talents and gifts. What I may offer may be different from someone else, but everyone’s contributions are needed to help build up the Lord’s Church. I’m extremely grateful that we have the original Relief Society Minute Book available to us. It is the only record of teachings Joseph Smith directed specifically to women. Of all the minutes Eliza R. Snow recorded, her notes of the Prophet’s discourses were probably the most influential. Daughters in My Kingdom states:
“The Prophet’s teachings in this setting guided the work of the Relief Society sisters and the priesthood leaders who served with them. Those teachings continue to influence the work of the Church today.”
Joseph Smith addressed the women 6 times in that first year. He taught principles that “helped Relief Society Sisters ‘relieve the poor’ and ‘save souls’ – foundational principles upon which the society was built.” Additional teachings included instructions regarding women’s new responsibilities, authority, and forthcoming temple blessings. The minutes also documented donations for and visits with the poor, donations for temple construction, and women’s efforts at moral and civic activism. This record also contains references to the difficulties and hardships the Saints faced during that time period. Unfortunately, tensions in Nauvoo regarding Joseph Smith’s political influence and threatened extradition to Missouri as well as difficulties with the introduction of plural marriage, led to the discontinuation of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo in March of 1844. Over a decade passed before Relief Society meetings resumed again in the Salt Lake Valley. A lot has changed since that first year the Relief Society was organized, but one thing that has not changed is our purpose, to provide relief for those in need. We are a diverse group of women with different talents and gifts to share. Sometimes we may feel that our talents or abilities are not needed or wanted; or that we don’t quite fit the mold of a typical Mormon woman. When I begin to feel this way I am reminded of the inspiring words of former counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency, Sister Cheiko Okasaki – “There’s not just one right way to be a Mormon woman, as long as we are firmly grounded in faith in the Savior, make and keep covenants, live the commandments, and work together in charity” (“Strength in the Savior”, GC, Oct.1993). As we women participate in Relief Society, we serve as valiant disciples of Jesus Christ. Sister Julie Beck, the fifteenth Relief Society General President, taught: “Through Relief Society we practice being disciples of Christ. We learn what He would have us learn, we do what He would have us do, and we become what He would have us become.” Brothers and sisters, that is our mission. I’d like to bear my testimony of the importance of the Relief Society. I believe the Prophet Joseph Smith’s declaration that “The Church was never perfectly organized until the women were thus organized.” I have a testimony of our Savior, Jesus Christ. I know he atoned and died for our sins and that he resurrected on the 3rd day. I know that I can serve Him through loving and serving others. I love the sisters I work with in my calling and I appreciate all the sacrifices they make for the benefit of the Relief Society. They are truly my sisters.