Relief Society: the beginning

165 years ago today, Joseph Smith addressed the band of Sisters who had organized a female society:

The meeting was address’d by Prest. Smith, to illustrate the object of the Society- that the Society of Sisters might provoke the brethren to good works in looking to the wants of the poor–”searching after objects of charity, and in administering to their wants- to assist by correcting the morals and strengthening the virtues of the female community, and save the Elders the trouble of rebuking; that they may give their time to other duties &c: in their public teaching.

Prest. Smith further remark’d that an organization to show them how to go to work would be sufficient. He 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 Presidency, preside over the church: and if they need his instruction ask him, will give it from time to time.

Let this Presidency serve as a constitution- all their decisions be considered law, and acted upon as such.

If any Officers are wanted to carry out the designs of the institution, let them be appointed and set apart, as Deacons, Teachers, &C. are among us.

The minutes of your meetings will be precedent for you to act upon- your Constitution- and law.

He then suggested the propriety of electing a Presidency to continue in the office during good behavior, or so long as they shall continue to fill the office with dignity &C.,- like the first Presidency of the Church.

Motioned by Sister Whitney and seconded by Sister Packard that Mrs. Emma Smith be chosen President-passed unanimously.

Mov’d by Prest. 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.

The Presidentess Elect, then made choice of Mrs. Sarah M. Cleveland and Mrs. Elizabeth Ann Whitney for Counsellors.

President Smith read the Revelation to Emma Smith, from the book of Doctrine and Covenants; and stated that she was ordain’d at the time the Revelation was given, to expound the scriptures to all; and to teach the female part of community; and that not she alone, but others, may attain to the same blessings.-
The 2d Epistle of John, 1st verse, was then read to show that respect was there had to the same thing, and that why she was called an Elect lady is because elected to preside. (Eliza R. Snow Smith, Relief Society Minutes, 17 March 1842)

John Taylor then ordained the presidency.


  1. Hurrah for Emma.

  2. Fascinating riff on Calvinist election incidentally, a theme that her husband had associated with Elijah fairly specifically. One wonders to what extent this could be useful evidence in establishing that integration into the church hierarchy was critical to election/salvation.
    Incidentally, I did not place an exclamation point in the above post because a wise person once said you’re allowed two such marks in a lifetime; use them wisely. No sardonism should be inferred from the use of mild-mannered punctuation there.

  3. That is interesting, Sam. Joseph’s discourses to the RS in the subsequent weeks would seem to emphasize at least some connection between hierarchy and exaltation.

    I know that “constitution” has masonic underpinnings, but I can’t help but think of the council of 50’s “living constitution” (though it doesn’t really appear for a couple of years and only after a regular one proves too difficult to draft).

  4. “he would ordain them to preside over the Society- and let them preside just as Presidency, preside over the church: and if they need his instruction ask him, will give it from time to time.

    Let this Presidency serve as a constitution- all their decisions be considered law, and acted upon as such.”

    This statement makes it sound as if the RS pres was to function independent of the bishopric or other presiding priesthood. Is that a correct assumption?

  5. For a curious balancing act, check out the T&S announcement of the founding of the relief society, followed immediately by a long editorial (attributed to JSJ) on “Try the Spirits,” designed to a) restrict the possibility of a female led religious community, and b) limit the exercise of charismatic spirituality, an expression that had often favored women and the powerless (at least that’s the current historical dogma). I’m still not entirely sure what was going on, but however messy things ultimately got, I do believe part of this was a desire to include women formally in the afterlife community of the blessed.

    Boy, if you’re searching out Masonry as the source for Constitution in the early American Republic, you are a metaphysical addict (though the authors of the Constitution were Masons, they were not higher degree Masons, which is really a different animal from early Republican Masonry).

  6. 5. Sally, not really, though there has been a lot of debate about this.

  7. Sorry, that was too brief. Basically, you’re projecting a model of church governance back onto a church where it didn’t exist in that way. Bishops in Nauvoo were responsible for the temporal affairs of the church in given sections of town. The High Council and Stake President provided city-wide governance, while Joseph Smith also governed, and the Traveling High Council (Twelve Apostles) were involved in various complex ways but not how we would think of them today.

    So RS was certainly independent of the Bishop, but that didn’t mean the same thing it would today. They were apparently meant to be a separate body integrated into the main church through the First Lady who was integrated into the larger church via her marriage to Joseph Smith. They were like an evangelical reform association but with that special twist. But they were clearly supervised by the central authorities, both in JSJ’s oversight and in Brigham Young’s decision to shut it down before the exodus.

  8. J./Sam/Anyone:

    I could look it up and confirm it myself, if I knew where to look, but I’m guessing someone around here knows the answer to my question.

    I remember reading or hearing that the original Nauvoo RS was something like a private club. They did not offer membership to all adult LDS women as we do today. You had to be invited to join, and nobody got an invitation who wasn’t already OK’d by the membership. They could and did blackball women of whom they did not approve. True, false, or incomplete?

  9. You’re right Sam, and womens organizations of the time did often have constitutions as well.

    Sally, the independence of the Relief Society and conflict that resulted because of that was likely at least one of the reasons the Brigham Young didn’t re-establish the General Relief Society presidency (John Taylor did as President).

    Mark IV, alas, I would have to look up the details myself right now and I shall bask in my laziness with you.

  10. Mark, you’re basically correct as I recall (I don’t have sources at hand and am writing from basic memory), though the “blacklisting” to the extent it occurred would have been related to the tempest over polygamy (Emma hoped it would give her power to resist polygamy, Joseph hoped it would help to quiet dangerous rumors and mollify Emma).

    As I recall, it functioned much as an evangelical reform union except that it was clearly denominational. These were special unions and you had to apply for membership, but they were not as exclusive as the Masons, and much less exclusive than the social clubs which existed pre-Revolution. I can’t imagine a committed Mormon woman was excluded except over polygamy or an impugned moral character (which was the same thing then).

  11. It would seem that another thing that would keep you out of the Society was gossiping particularly about polygamy. Clarissa Marvel was denied membership and her behaviour was investigated because of her telling “scandalous falsehoods on the character of Prest. Joseph Smith without the least provocation.” It would seem that Joseph’s charge to correct morals and strengthen virtues as well as “purging iniquity” was one of the most difficult problems of the early RS.

  12. The other day on the way to work I heard the following statement about the YWCA, and confirmed the statement from their website, “The YWCA is the oldest and largest multicultural women’s organization in the world.” Now, with 25 million members worldwide I guess the statement is half true but since they were founded in London in 1855 I wonder if we should be challenging their statement about longevity. Just wondering. What do you think?

  13. Lamonte, according to the Utah History Encyclopedia, the RS pretty much stopped functioning officially after 1844. The resurgence in Utah in the 1850’s was mostly informal, although supported by the leadership, and Brigham didn’t officially reorganize it with Eliza R. Snow as the president, until 1866.

    So I would say, no, we can’t really challenge them on it. But hey, what do I know.

  14. Ann, it depends on whether you invoke “continuously functioning,” and I think most people would feel that you should when comparing RS to other organizations. You are correct about the hiatus.


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