Clarissa Smith Williams

The 1920s signaled a shift toward “second generation” Mormonism. In 1921, the Relief Society received its first Utah-born president, Clarissa Smith Williams, just as Heber J. Grant had become the first Utah-born Church president in 1918. Few people could have been as prepared for the calling as Williams was: her mother, Susan West, married the church historian and apostle George A. Smith, meaning not only that Clarissa literally grew up in the midst of Church headquarters, but also that she had a lifelong association with Bathsheba W. Smith, George’s first wife, a counselor in the General Relief Society Presidency from 1888, and its president from 1901-1910. Bathsheba involved the precocious Clarissa (whose organizational skills led a brother to dub her, even at a young age, “the Little General”) in Relief Society work from an early age, and even predicted that one day she’d become its president. [1] Just like Mormon, Clarissa was a sober child and quick to observe.

As a young woman she eagerly pursued education, graduating in the first class of the University of Deseret. After marrying the Welsh convert William Williams the day before he departed for a mission, she continued working as a teacher—not because she had to, given ample family support, but because she wished to remain independent. [2] Education remained important to her throughout her life: she encouraged all her daughters and sons to go to college, and as Relief Society President she sponsored educational programs, like a one-year course designed to train assistants for public health nurses (for which the Relief Society paid tuition, in addition to providing participants with a monthly stipend). [3] She saw that establishing a house of learning created an environment that gave women both dignity and the means to support themselves while contributing to the public good.

Indeed, President Williams made the entire Relief Society into a house of learning. She believed that women could learn out of the best books, so the 1928 Relief Society curriculum included a literature course focused on six modern plays, like Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple. [4] Driven by a Progressive concern for social ills like poverty, disease, and crime, she implemented Church-wide Relief Society training in modern methods of social work. [5] Beyond this, she expanded the Relief Society Social Services department, aimed at providing, as she put it, “health, opportunity, and a decent standard of living for all those with whom we come in contact.” [6] Given that the Depression would soon amplify the ills that concerned President Williams, this emphasis proved nothing short of prophetic: she was like Joseph in Egypt, preparing, thanks to divine inspiration, for difficult times ahead.

President Williams believed that the Relief Society ought to be involved in the broader community instead of focusing exclusively on Latter-day Saints—to be the leaven in Jesus’ parable that helps the whole loaf to rise. When her decision to contribute Relief Society funds to the YWCA and YMCA proved controversial (because those organizations weren’t always friendly to Mormons) she argued that the positive value of their community work trumped inter-denominational politics. President Grant agreed with her and made a personal donation to confirm the point. The Relief Society similarly sent money and supplies to support victims of the Armenian genocide, reaching well beyond the Intermountain West when human need called for succor. [7]

President Williams showed great generosity in her personal life, as well. Her persistent willingness to feed the hungry from her own kitchen door earned her a reputation for kindness among the hobos who passed through Salt Lake. This concern for the poor, as Paul said of the Macedonian saints, showed the genuineness of her love. She placed the needs of others above her own pride, asking to be released in 1928 when her health no longer permitted vigorous participation. [8] Echoing the Psalmist’s praise for the righteous: her heart was steady, she distributed freely, she gave to the poor, and she will be exalted for it. May we all go and do likewise!

MLP

MLP

Mormon Lectionary Project

Clarissa Smith Williams, General Relief Society President, 1930

Gen. 41:25-36 (NRSV); Psalm 112 (NRSV); Matt. 13:33 (NRSV); 2 Cor. 8:1-9 (NRSV); Mormon 1:2; D&C 88:117-26

The Collect: O God, ever mindful of the poor: just as your Son Jesus Christ became poor so that we might have the riches of eternal life, grant that we, like your servant Clarissa Smith Williams, might open our hearts and be generous with our means to the people around us; that we might rejoice together in the bounty of the Holy Spirit, one people as you are One God. Amen.

For the music, here is Felix Mendelssohn’s setting of  the first two verses from today’s psalm, “Laudate pueri,” fittingly (and beautifully) performed by a women’s chorus:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kx-bMxWyuZk]

Notes

[1] Janet Peterson and Larene Gaunt, Faith, Hope, and Charity: Inspiration from the Lives of General Relief Society Presidents (American Fork: Covenant, 2008), 112.

[2] Ibid., 114.

[3] Jill Mulvay Derr, Janath Russell Cannon, and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1992), 246.

[4] Ibid., 245. Yes, they read A Doll’s House in Relief Society! (I’m still geeking out about this one.)

[5] Peterson and Gaunt, 120; see also Derr et al., 230.

[6] Peterson and Gaunt, 119.

[7] Derr et al., 234-35.

[8] Peterson and Gaunt, 121. This made her the first non-lifetime Relief Society President since the organization resumed activity under Eliza R. Snow; see Derr et al., 247.

Comments

  1. Michael Austin says:

    Thanks for this, Jason. It makes me proud to have a daughter named Clarissa, though, alas, she was named for the much less fortunate Richardson heroine (and because we just thought it was a cool name).

    Re: reading Ibsen in Relief Society: there was a lot more of this sort of thing going on in the early 20th century than one might imagine. I have been digging around the old Mutual Improvement Association curricula for a project that I am working on, and I recently discovered that the annual reading list for the MIA curriculum began in 1907 with Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, which was serialized in the Improvement Era so that everyone could read it during the year. From 1908 to 1920, the annual curriculum included Silas Marner, The Last of the Mohicans, A Tale of Two Cities, Little Women, and Lamb Tales from Shakespeare. It was a far cry from what MIA has become in our lifetimes.

  2. Jason K. says:

    “It was a far cry.” Indeed, my friend.

  3. Excellent article Jason. I do enjoy reading about how much more industrious and inspired these early women were.

  4. Thank you for this fascinating and inspiring post. Can’t think of a better scripture study session than this for International Women’s Day.

  5. This was fascinating, both to hear about what Clarissa did, and to hear about what was implemented in RS. Thanks for writing this.

  6. My wife and I have become devoted fans of your thoughtfully composed biographies, Jason. Thanks so much for continuing to shine a light on some of these noble and great ones we don’t discuss as much as we should in our correlated Sunday lessons. The music, the verses, the anecdotes, and the highlights culled from lives devoted to service truly do deepen one’s desire to “go and do likewise!” And thanks, in particular, for highlighting our mormon foremothers. We don’t do that nearly enough.

  7. Very nice. Thank you, Jason. I sent a copy of this to a Clarissa I know.

  8. J. Stapley says:

    Wonderful stuff. Thank you.