A few weeks ago, J. Stapley reported that the church was digitizing parts of its collection. This post is the first in what I hope will be a series that presents excerpts of documents from this archive that I’ve enjoyed.
Around 1893, the Board of Lady Managers of the Columbia Exposition sent a call across the country seeking information about women’s charitable societies. The National Women’s Relief Society responded by presenting the book “Charities and Philanthropies: Women’s Work in Utah” edited by Emmeline B. Wells.
This book focuses on women’s work in general—featuring biographies of female Utah physicians near the back and including charitable organizations affiliated with other churches. But for Mormon readers, the most striking passages are those describing the state of the Relief Society in 1893. In contrast to the current Relief Society, Relief Society then was a property owning, work performing economic force in the community.
To begin with, the Relief Society meetings described in the book sound like business meetings where women were encouraged to share their ideas for improving the society: “Meetings are held serai-monthly in which all have the privilege of speaking; expressing their feelings or making suggestions for the furtherance of the work of the society.”
This work included running institutions of considerable community importance: “The Deseret Hospital, and Woman’s Co-operative Mercantile and Manufacturing Institution were instituted by the Relief Society.” The Relief Society also funded itself: ”The money used by this vast organization is mostly donations or free-will offerings, each member giving what she wishes to the visiting teachers.” Visiting teachers appear to have performed a role that resembles today’s ritual of YM collecting fast offerings.
The Relief Society also provided means of emergency preparedness. After Brigham Young advised the people to store grain in case of famine, “the Relief Society of Salt Lake County  built a number of granaries and stored up large quantities of wheat. At present there are 6112 bushels stored away. There is also money on hand to purchase wheat at harvest time $977.25.”
Indeed, a focus on finances and property permeates the book, which reports on the financial holdings of the relief societies in various counties. For example, it notes, “Real estate, such as land, granaries, halls for meetings, etc., owned by the society, is also always separate from the regular amounts reported. There are quite a number of buildings owned by women in this county, one or two of them quite large and commodious, and in some places there are stores and millinery establishments managed entirely by the Relief Society.”
These excerpts should give us plenty to ponder: What do these descriptions of women embracing work have to say to our current teachings on gender? Do these experts point to the potential for women to assume greater leadership roles in the church? Did Relief Society’s charity work overlap with institutions like fast offerings and the bishop’s storehouse? How did the Relief Society become the more domesticated institution it is today? Feel free to provide answers, comment, or raise your own questions.