Minutes by minute: Relief Society documents and more

Within the last few hours, the Joseph Smith Papers Project website was updated to include the Documents volume covering 1834-1835, and the entirety of Minute Book 1 and the Record of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo.

O, Lord! help our widows, and fatherless children! So mote it be. Amen. With the sword, and with the word of truth, defend thou them. So mote it be. Amen.

On March 17, 1842 a group of women gathered in the upper room of Joseph Smith’s Red Brick Store. The meeting began by singing “The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning” and a vote determining whether all present held good feelings toward each other. It was at this meeting that Emma Smith’s ordination was accepted as being fulfilled as she became President. And apostle and Recorder Willard Richards gave Eliza R. Snow a book to inscribe an account of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo for earth and heaven. [1]

Snow found the above prayer on a scrap of paper in the room in which that first meeting was held. The room was used for other ritual purposes and she memorialized it upon the first page of the fresh record. She was the Secretary of the Society and the principle scribe for the record book. She kept it well.

These months were explosive for church growth, though not numerically. Notably Joseph Smith started what ultimately became a temple quorum and his sermons to the Female Relief Society recorded an expanded vision for both men and women. The sisters, as well as the elders were to receive “keys of the kingdom.” Smith declared he would make of them a kingdom of priests, as in Enoch’s day, as in Paul’s day. He gave them a revelation affirming the female right to administer healing rituals. He turned the key to them. And it was to be the beginning of better days.

The heady times of the Spring of 1842, however, didn’t persist and the Female Relief Society, perhaps inevitably, fractured under pressures that make us uncomfortable today. Still, the purpose of the Relief Society moved on, whether it was in the donation of “a suit of clothes to old Mrs Miller” or an offering of a blanket and 60 cents.

For a century, the minutes of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, or at least excerpts, were printed and reprinted. They were to be read and understood by all the members of the society. The twentieth century marked a time when these minutes fell out of use and for many, fell out of memory. However, starting in the 1970s scholars began to access them again and found new ways to understand old things (and old ways as well!). Andrew Ehat and Lyndon Cook published the Joseph Smith sermons in their foundational Words of Joseph Smith, and the manuscript minutes were digitized and included on the Selected Collections DVDs. Though in full, the latter resource is generally inaccessible. For some time, however, scholars—primarily Jill Mulvay Derr—at the Church History Library have been transcribing and annotating the minutes with other important documents of the Relief Society for a forthcoming print volume.

Today, however, in conjunction with the Joseph Smith Papers Project, the minutes of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo are now available on-line. May this mark a great day in the expansion of Mormon scholarship as was this same month 169 years ago an expansion of our faith. May we also preserve the good feelings that made this publication possible for longer than one verdant Spring.


  1. For a detailed look at the record, its contents, and its use during the bulk of the nineteenth century, see Jill Mulvay Derr and Carol Cornwall Madsen, “Preserving the Record and Memory of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, 1842-92,” Journal of Mormon History 35 (Summer, 2009): 89-117.


  1. Wow, this is amazing. Quite quiet too. I suppose this indicates we won’t see a little print edition?

  2. BHodges, it is my understanding that the RS Documents volume is still forthcoming. At least I haven’t heard differently.

  3. I am loving reading the NRS minutes. If only the RS were given such autonomy today–even to debate with and vote against the wishes of the brethren.

  4. Researcher says:

    Very cool. I was just looking the other day to see if the RS Minutes were online anywhere and couldn’t find a copy. Thanks for the link! What a treasure.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Man is that awesome.

  6. Really is quite astounding.

  7. Huzzah! Thanks for the news; this is awesome.

  8. Excellent.

  9. Wow, that interface is unbelievably awesome.

  10. Very cool! I was wondering the other week during our RS birthday celebration if the constitution the women of Nauvoo came up with before JS organized the Relief Society still existed anywhere. Any thoughts?

  11. Thanks!

  12. Spectacular, Stapers.

  13. kristine N. I’m unaware of any extant copy. Too bad, really. It’d be very cool to have.

  14. StillConfused says:

    What does “mote it be” mean?

  15. StillConfused, that prayer was copied from a scrap of paper, which ERS found in the “Lodge Room” as they called it. It is actually a Masonic prayer, that was auspiciously fitting for the purposes of the RS. “So mote it be,” is a ritual term common in freemasonry that means “so may it be.”

  16. john willis says:

    I just went to the site and on the June 9th 1842 meeting I found the name of my great great great grandmother Margaret Willis. Quite a moving experience to be able to view the actual handwritten mintues with her name listed as a new member of the Relief Society

  17. Mommie Dearest says:

    I scoured the lists of new members for my ancestor too, but didn’t find her. She was an unmarried 19 year old at the time, and I’m thinking that back then the YW were somewhat reluctant to join the matrons’ social circle, just as they are today. But there are some notable differences from their activities to what we do in RS today. We don’t collect dues, provide homes for immigrant members, or have the Prophet Joseph Smith as our guest speaker.

    Kudos for the fabulous website organization.

  18. Ron Madson says:

    thank you for posting this. I read through the RS minutes rather quickly. I have a few questions:
    What was the final resolution, if any, as to Sisters continuing the act of laying on of hands for healing the sick? How long did it continue to be sanctioned as a society?
    Was is required that Sisters be sponsored/invited/ voted upon to be part of this society? If so, when did it become universal for adult women?
    What “secrets” were they to be tested to see if they could keep?
    Were the sisters married to Joseph aware of the other sisters also married to him at the same time or were they individually sworn to secrecy?
    any light or setting me straight on any of the above would be helpful to me and my wife who also reviewed it.

  19. Ron. On female healing, see here. The short answer is that women participated in the healing liturgy into the late mid-twentieth century.

    On the history of the Relief Society, check out Women of Covenant, it is an excellent volume.

    The secrets are often viewed to be temple or polygamy related.

    Not all wives knew about each other.

  20. Ron Madson says:

    thank you for the info. and the link. Fascinating. As a counselor to a mission president there was/is a very well known faith healer that I interviewed who wanted to join our church and wanted to, as a women, continue laying on hands as part of exercising her gift. She was born a hundred and fifty years too late.

  21. Ron,
    Stories like that just break my heart.

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