Belle Spafford

I assure you that the message of Mormon women is needed by women of the world today.

― Belle S. Spafford, “Latter-day Saint Women in Today’s Changing World,” February 1975

Belle Spafford, October 8, 1895 – February 2, 1982 (source: http://tinyurl.com/pznzjsj)

Belle Spafford, October 8, 1895 – February 2, 1982 (source: http://tinyurl.com/pznzjsj)

Belle Spafford served as General Relief Society President of the Church for nearly 30 years, from 1945 to 1972. During that time she also served as a delegate to the National Women’s Council in New York for 42 years, including as the President of the Council from 1968 to 1970. Her tenure as General Relief Society President began at the close of World War II and later encompassed President David O. McKay’s mission of expanding the reach of the Church internationally to bring the Gospel to many nations. President Spafford served as General Relief Society President under six different Presidents of the Church.

In the Church she is well known for choosing to view the innate role of women very traditionally in society and as subordinate to men in the management of Church affairs by virtue of the Priesthood prerogative of men to preside over the activities of the Church, including women in the spheres of influence reserved to them according to these traditional gender roles, and to function as intermediaries between God and the Church membership generally. In this, she was much like a latter-day Miriam, the biblical prophetess who nevertheless submitted to the intermediation of Moses with the God of Israel (Exodus 15:20-21, NRSV).

President Spafford subscribed to the then prevailing understanding that men and women lived and acted in separate spheres but were to be united in their righteous purposes: “The advancement of the work of the Church is a joint responsibility of the men and the women of the Church, each working in his assigned sphere” (“Latter-day Saint Women in Today’s Changing World”). But as a result of this perspective of separate spheres of work and influence coupled with submission to Priesthood direction and oversight in the work of women in the Church[1], President Spafford also insisted that “it seems imperative that not only the women but also the brethren of the priesthood should be knowledgeable regarding the role of women. The brethren will want to be familiar with the problems confronting women so that through an understanding of these and the duties and the responsibilities of the sisters they will be in a position to counsel and direct them in harmony with the design of the Lord. . . . Understanding is built primarily upon knowledge” (Ibid). This was a charge to the Priesthood leaders of the Church that she appears to have taken very seriously. Many times throughout her leadership of the Relief Society, she would approach the President of the Church to ask him to petition the Lord for direction on an issue relevant directly to women generally or specifically to her own work, such as when she asked President Heber J. Grant whether she should continue participating as a delegate to the National Women’s Council.

In her decades of service as General Relief Society President, President Spafford assisted the efforts of Priesthood leadership to complete the complicated task, beginning just before she was called and continuing until her release, of bringing the work of the Relief Society administratively under their direction. This was completed by the end of her service as a function of the formal implementation of the Correlation program under President Harold B. Lee. At that time, the Relief Society’s independent Relief Society Magazine was replaced with the Ensign, the general Church magazine, with President Spafford’s support. These administrative changes coincided with making all women of the Church members of the Relief Society automatically, eliminating the requirement of paying dues for membership. President Spafford viewed this change as having the potential to allow Relief Society sisters to devote their time and energy more fully to compassionate service and other similar activities rather than fundraising.

President Spafford was very focused, together with President McKay, on bringing the Gospel message to all nations of the world. Specifically, she saw great potential in what she referred to as the “message of Mormon women” for all women in the world. It was a vision of holding strongly to traditional societal roles (while at the same time praising progress that had been made to eliminate injustices toward women) as a way to best utilize women’s unique gifts. With the Psalmist she seems to have prayed the Lord “that your way may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you. Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth” (Psalm 67:2-4, NRSV).

The Resource Center for the Genevan Psalter, Psalm 67

She was adamant in her preaching that Mormon women, and the Church more generally, were “the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.” Thus, she repeated the Savior’s admonition that “Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:14-16). She was delighted that women could now travel from around the world to attend the General Relief Society meetings held in proximity to General Conferences. This provided potential for an outpouring of righteousness and a true gathering of the saints: “And he gathereth his children from the four quarters of the earth; and he numbereth his sheep, and they know him; and there shall be one fold and one shepherd; and he shall feed his sheep, and in him they shall find pasture” (2 Nephi 22:24-25).

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MLP

MLP

Mormon Lectionary Project

Marion Isabelle Sims Smith Spafford, General Relief Society President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982

Exodus 15:20-21 (NRSV), Psalm 67 (NRSV), Matthew 5:14-16, Romans 12:6-13, 2 Nephi 22:24-25

The Collect: Almighty God, thou hast not forgotten thy daughters and hast given them, and thy Church, stalwart leadership through Latter-day Saints such as thy servant Belle Spafford to pursue the work of gathering all those, both men and women, with righteous desires from all nations of the earth to the modern Zion of the heart; let us therefore always remember to live worthy to be the light of the world and a city that is set on a hill that cannot be hid, drawing all nations unto us to worship our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, who lives and reigns with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

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[1] President Spafford understood this to be the meaning of a “mandate” given by Joseph Smith to the Relief Society in 1842 that “[y]ou will receive instructions through the order of the Priesthood which God has established, through the medium of those appointed to lead, guide, and direct the affairs of the Church in this last dispensation.”

Comments

  1. Thanks for this, John. I love that you’ve compared President Spafford to Miriam. I’m glad to have her in the MLP!

  2. I’m left wondering how this meshes with Chieko Okazaki’s description of Belle Spafford’s frustrations at the curtailment of the breadth of things she was permitted to do. Because this reads like she was the one responsible, well, for selling RS out, to put it bluntly. Very mixed feelings.

  3. Belle Spafford was a foundational part of the church experience for a couple of generations of Mormon women, so it’s good that she’s being remembered here. Thanks, John.

  4. Interesting about the shift from paying dues to be a member of the RS to every Mormon woman automatically being included….

    Whenever I hear our leaders talk about RS being the “largest women’s organization in the world,” it always feels weird to me. Like, of course it is…by default. I’m not a fan of that description.

    I wonder how paying membership dues influenced Mormon women’s notion that they truly belonged and participated in the Relief Society organization. I, for one, take for granted that I’m a part of such a large female organization. I guess automatic membership has its pros and cons.

  5. She’s been painted here with a rather wide brush.

    With the benefit of hindsight, we see that many of pivotal points she encountered produced mixed results. Streamlining church publications meant a tragic loss of women’s voices for decades. Even today, women are underrepresented in church publications and curriculums. Correlation? The ramifications have been both positive and negative. Reporting to and through the priesthood? Many today are questioning that interpretation.

    Also, you left out a less flattering, but important milestone in her administration. She would have been the RS President who oversaw the completion of the RS Building on Temple Square which was usurped or “given over” to the church administration (priesthood) shortly afterward. Despite the spin, the “hand-off” was quite a blow to the sisters who had sacrificed for years specifically for the RS.

    Additionally, by turning over their humanitarian reins to the church, theoretically more could be accomplished, but the collaborative model that had worked well during the Depression and post WWII era was gone. The RS actually lost more than leadership and accountability for humanitarian projects, it lost its identity by losing its vision and purpose as a women’s relief organization. For decades the RS “vision” has blown in the wind, changing every 5 years with new presidencies. Crafts anyone? We say ‘Charity Never Faileth”, but that isn’t really the core of what we do. The RS Theme which was written in 1999 is evidence of this shift.

    When a program needs to be leveled to the ground and re-built, the idea is to do the demolition quickly and rebuild stronger and better, showcasing quick wins and communicating the new direction. In this case, the slow constant shelling has continued to destabilize and destroy.

  6. thanks for that input, annon. I don’t think anything in the post precludes any of that as a reasonable interpretation of the history of this period and President Spafford’s tenure — but a devotional post about someone’s life’s work can’t include all possible information and perhaps it needn’t focus on the real disappointments. They can be addressed elsewhere, for example in your comment! again, thanks.

  7. It’s hard to imagine that Belle Spafford actually had the power to “sell out” Relief Society, or that she would ever have thought of herself as somehow empowered to resist directives from her priesthood leaders. I think it’s important not to import contemporary secular notions about what constitutes feminine strength or advocacy for women into our examination of the lives of Latter-day Saint women in the past. Women who were leaders of Relief Society were, by definition, ardent believers in the right of a patriarchal priesthood to direct the affairs of the Church. This doesn’t mean that they were not powerful women, only that we are unlikely to find evidence of their strength, creativity, and leadership in the institutional history of the Church that focuses on the kinds of structural events that interest male leaders and the mostly male historians who have recorded their history.

  8. Well quite, Kristine.
    My main concern is that the piece is not a fair portrait, not an accurate representation, and not fair to her. Why go by the ‘institutional’ history?
    If on the other hand it does turn out to represent her views fairly, what’s to celebrate?

  9. What’s to celebrate? She was a skillful administrator contributing her efforts to a cause she believed in. You can disagree with her choices and still acknowledge her importance.

  10. I also feel that it is important that we not make assumptions around the word “traditional.” Regarding the genders, it is often used to mean “male on top/women subservient.”

    Whereas in the church, our ideal of equal partnership marriage is more one of complimentarity rather than subservience. The linked article by Sister Spafford calls for valuing the contributions that women have made and their divinely appointed responsibilities, which I think is a good thing.

    Whether those things are “less” and make them unequal to men is of course a matter for debate.

  11. Kristine,
    I disagree . . .she absolutely had the power to “sell out” the Relief Society, and by acts of omission and commission, contributed to its declining relevance. 30 years in the highest position for women certainly provided her constant opportunities to access and influence; to articulate and persuade. The fact that she was quite skilled in doing this (as John F demonstrated above), but chose to instead defer shows either a lack of dedication/vision/testimony to the original charter and motto for the RS, or perhaps a new testimony and openness to “change” in shifting from a complimentary position to relinquished one. Essentially, the keys were voluntarily handed back to the Priesthood, keys (responsibility) once given to Emma, keys that Eliza had to strategize for decades to get back from Brigham, keys and stewardship passed down only a few more times before being voluntarily returned. I certainly wouldn’t hold her against today’s modern feminists or standards, but even comparing her to her predecessors such as Emeline B. Wells (1910-1921), she was not an advocate for the unique role bestowed on the RS during its foundation or for women’s voice. In reflecting on that role, it seems that the cloak of charity is worn much like the bell of freedom is rung, with respect, duty, sacrifice, dedication, and constant vigilance; least it easily disappears.

  12. We should remember the environment in which President Spafford was working. President J. Reuben Clark, Jr. (called into the First Presidency in 1933) had enormous influence in changing the prerogatives of the Relief Society from the vision that President Amy B. Lyman had been working toward for the last two decades based on more or less “progressive” ideals (i.e. principles rooted in the American progressive era in the first decades of the twentieth century, principles which President Clark simply opposed, politically, based on his ideological opposition to FDR’s approach to addressing the economic collapse of the Great Depression, i.e. the involvement of the federal government in the economy and local welfare efforts). President Lyman was released as General Relief Society President in 1945 (following the excommunication of her husband, an Apostle, for an extramarital affair as part of his attempt to try to clandestinely become involved in polygamy), and President Spafford was called to replace her (having been one of Lyman’s counselors before that) at that time. It stands to reason that the First Presidency, as influenced by President Clark, chose someone as Lyman’s replacement who they knew was philosophically in agreement with President Clark’s preferred approach to addressing these issues in a way that departed significantly from the vision of the progressive era which President Lyman had been implementing as a guiding ethos of the Relief Society for the two decades preceding President Spafford’s call.

    I believe that the “separate spheres” perspective, wholly embraced and propounded by President Spafford as noted in the original post, was a major philosophical/political priority for President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., and he expressed this notion several times in talks during the 1930s and 40s — which came across as somewhat of an awkward corrective when he would express it during President Lyman’s administration in the Relief Society, since much of her work had acknowledged the need of many women to work professionally and had based progressive welfare principles on women’s professional work in many ways. So President Clark’s comments seemed to intentionally undermine that effort.

    President Spafford personally believed in the “separate spheres” concept that constituted the then prevailing conservative political thought about women’s prescribed roles in society, as expressed by J. Reuben Clark, Jr. and Church leaders following the Grant Administration. Clark himself was in the First Presidencies of Heber J. Grant, George Albert Smith, and David O. McKay, until Clark’s death in 1961, having served as a member of several consecutive First Presidencies from 1933 to 1961. Presidents Joseph Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee followed President McKay as Church President, respectively. Both of them continued to view women’s roles in the same “separate spheres” paradigm. As the post notes, Belle Spafford continued to believe in and teach this perspective in 1975, several years after her release as General Relief Society President. And, of course, part of her legacy was her vocal opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, precisely based on these “separate spheres” beliefs.

    So President Spafford was very much a product of her times, both inside and outside the Church — inside the Church, opinion was very much shaped by President Clark’s influence and his political perspective opposing New Deal politics and outside the Church, the “separate spheres” concept espoused by President Clark and President Spafford (and most, perhaps virtually all other Church leaders) very closely tracked politically conservative rhetoric about the traditionally prescribed, fixed gender roles of women in society.

  13. And, I should add, having lost the point a little bit in that long exposition in my previous comment, President Spafford viewed the lessening of the Relief Society’s autonomy as consistent with how she interpreted comments she understood Joseph Smith to have made in 1842 at the organization of the Relief Society. She appears to have interpreted Joseph Smith’s statement that “[y]ou will receive instructions through the order of the Priesthood which God has established, through the medium of those appointed to lead, guide, and direct the affairs of the Church in this last dispensation” to mean that the Relief Society must be subordinate to the male Church leaders in their priesthood function. The Priesthood Correlation Program, I would think, must have seemed entirely unobjectionable to her given such a starting premise, though many are aware of reports that she was indeed at least a little discouraged about the wholesale loss of autonomy that occurred as Correlation was implemented.

    Of course, this was not the only way to interpret Joseph Smith’s statement. Others, such as President Wells, had interpreted Joseph Smith’s comment slightly differently, i.e. as not necessarily undermining substantive autonomy for the Relief Society or pointing toward mandated Correlation under the direct oversight of Priesthood leaders. But it stands to reason that the convergence of the prevailing societal view at the time about acceptable women’s roles in the “separate spheres” identified by traditional gender stereotypes with the religious teachings of Priesthood leaders, such as J. Reuben Clark, Jr., who subscribed to that political thought in their own private, political lives and incorporated those ideas into their religious perspective about the place and role of women in mortality greatly informed the direction that President Spafford took the Relief Society in response.

    This doesn’t lessen her impact on twentieth century Mormonism; that is, on the lives of millions of Mormons, both men and women, for nearly 30 years as General Relief Society President. Many women, in particular, really resonated with her leadership and with the conservative approach to gender roles that she took during a period of substantial moral upheaval in the country as a result of the “sexual revolution,” which many religious people in entirely good faith completely disagreed with on very understandable moral grounds, especially in the context of their dedication to trying to keep age-old commandments relating to these aspects of the sexual revolution specifically.

    Many completely orthodox, faithful members in the Church today may have a much broader perspective about the “appropriate” roles that women can play in every aspect of society than President Clark did in the 1930s and President Spafford during her tenure as General Relief Society President, but we are all hopefully still guided, in our spiritual quest to come closer to God, by the same age-old standards of righteousness stemming from the Ten Commandments and other ethical teachings of Jesus Christ that guided President Spafford’s conscience in her life’s work of leading the Relief Society. She appears to have viewed the changes that occurred under Correlation to be beneficial in (1) upholding the then prevailing politically conservative belief in the “separate spheres” framework that she also, as a product of that time, believed applicable to women’s work, and (2) allowing Relief Society members, which now included all LDS women, to focus more directly on compassionate service.

    Our broader perspective on (1) allows significantly greater freedom to Mormon women to engage in the work that they, in their own analysis and preference, feel is best suited to their talents and abilities to make a difference for the good of society and the world. We do not need to diminish President Spafford’s life’s work because we now view women’s roles as less rigidly prescribed under such a “separate spheres” political ideology. She was likely correct as to (2), even if we today might indeed feel that the cost in the loss of the relative autonomy of the Relief Society was too much to pay for the marginal increase in the ability of Relief Society members to focus specifically on compassionate service. But that is a judgment from hindsight, with the benefit of decades of experience under the correlated framework of how Relief Society relates to the leadership and administration of the Church by male priesthood holders.

  14. Thank you John F for this excellent post and for sharing a thoughtful overview of her life and impact. I have learned a great deal about the sister, the people, and the era from your discussion.

  15. Thank you for that additional detail. It has enabled me to make more sense of the post. I do usually enjoy your posts.

  16. Marjorie Conder says:

    One thing I have not seen addressed here, but which doubtless had an impact is that one of Pres. Smith’s counselors was Marianne C. Sharp, J. Reuben Clark’s daughter.

  17. Amy B. Lyman would be a fascinating devotional/historical post as well.

  18. Yes, she’s on the list. I was supposed to write hers but got too busy around that time a couple of months ago. But it’s on my to-do list and will be put up late.

  19. I think that we can mourn the loss of the rights and responsibilities that were given away, without Common Consent of the women in the Relief Society, by a president who never asked for that consent. I know what my grandmother gave up as a RS member, and how painful it was to have correlation wipe away the records of those sacrifices. She was as politically conservative as most women of her time, but it was several years after her death that I started to understand the pre-correlation history of the church, and her grief over RS began to make sense.

    This is one that I have tried for several days to find a way to be gracious and find anything spiritually uplifting in, and I will just have to leave it. I don’t have it in me to find a way to see past the trauma caused by correlation and the loss of autonomy for women, in the only sphere of the church it existed.

  20. That is a completely fair response, Julia. Thank you for voicing it. It contributes to this broader contemplation of her life and times.

  21. Thanks John – Correlation took away my ability to even understand her pain. In some ways, I think that may be the part that is hardest to forgive. If you have no significant family history in the church before the RS lost its independence, and you don’t live in, or have family in, the Wasatch front, there is no way in regular church meetings to learn.

    Without Ardis and Keepa, there are still parts of her journals that would have continued to be confusing. My grandfather was converted to the church as the restoration of the priesthood to the Jews of Israel. (After losing most of his extended family to the death camps in WWII, he was also excited by the sealing ordinances.) For my grandmother, she wasn’t sure about the church, but the RS sisters welcomed her in a way she hadn’t felt before, and becoming a member of the church was almost secondary to being a member of the RS.

    Less than a year after joining the RS, all of the California sisters were asked to be part of a special fundraiser for the RS Building in Utah. She pledged the rent from one of the cottages my grandparents rented out, until the building was built. Their RS had planned to go on a special trip to visit the building, but were told they would need to wait until after the Utah wards and stakes had their receptions. I don’t know all the details, except that the trip didn’t happen, and my grandmother spent months mourning the loss of both the trip and her job typing up the minutes to their RS meetings.

    She also mourned for how many single women the RS lost when the activities that let them mingle with married women, we’re curtailed. I didn’t understand what she meant as a teenager, but she would often get to telling stories about RS fundraisers or activities, and then say, “but that was when RS used to give widows a reason to live, and single sisters a way to feel like spiritual equals to married ones.” I didn’t know what a precious thing that was at the time, but with a couple more decades under my belt, I can understand her grief at losing the organization that allowed her to feel an equal to the other society members, and the autonomy to do what they thought was needed, including giving blessings, without the need for priesthood approval. I am often jealous of the women who had those opportunities.

  22. “that was when RS used to give widows a reason to live, and single sisters a way to feel like spiritual equals to married ones.”

    yep — the Emmeline B. Wells/Amy Brown Lyman RS as compared to the modern iteration, a transition that occurred during President Spafford’s tenure.