Establishment of the Relief Society

When several Nauvoo women gathered on 17 March 1842 to organize a society devoted to good works in the community, Joseph Smith read the revelation to Emma Smith now contained in D&C 25, emphasizing that she had been “ordained … to expound scriptures, and to exhort the Church” (D&C 25:7). The establishment of the Relief Society on that day, and Emma’s election as its first president, brought this ordination for the first time into the formal structure of the Church. [1] To what, then, does Relief Society as an organization exhort the Church—not just the women, but all of us?

The Relief Society embodies, perhaps more than any other part of the Church, Mormonism’s distinctive collapse of the grandly spiritual and the humbly quotidian: it began in a desire to make shirts for the men working on the Nauvoo Temple. [2] If Jesus taught all Christians to ask God for their daily bread, the Relief Society is dedicated to bringing that gracious will of God to pass. (The grain storage program begun by Emmeline B. Wells made this a literal reality.) “Daily bread” is of course a metonymy for all manner of temporal needs, but Jesus’ words in another place (John 6) about the “bread of life” suggest the possibility that feeding the new mothers, the sick, and anybody else who needs it might also bring a more lasting food to everyone involved. When put into practice, the Relief Society’s motto—”Charity never faileth”—leads to the accomplishment of what George Herbert called “heaven in ordinary,” a realization of the divine in the everyday. [3]

The ordinariness of so much Relief Society work can lead to its being underappreciated, leaving the Society’s exhortation all too often unheard by the greater body of the Church, which, especially post-correlation, can tend to give greater emphasis to priesthood activities. In his early addresses to the Relief Society, Joseph Smith anticipated and sought to correct this imbalance, repeatedly placing the new organization on par with the priesthood: he said that its officers should “be appointed and set apart, as Deacons, Teachers, &c. are among us” [4] and that “the Society should move according to the ancient Priesthood.” [5] Indeed, he said that the Presidency of the Relief Society “shall continue to fill the office with dignity &c. like the  first Presidency of the church.” [6] Cementing this priesthood parallel, “He spoke of delivering the keys to this Society” [7] and famously “turn[ed] the key to you in the name of God” [8]. Beyond this, he chastised those “great big Elders” who objected to women giving healing blessings, saying, “[I]f  the sisters should have faith to heal the sick, let all hold  their tongues, and let every thing roll on.” [9] Paul modeled the proper sense of balance when, writing to the Romans, he greeted women like Phoebe, Priscilla, Junia, and Julia among the men, calling Phoebe a deacon of the church and Junia “prominent among the apostles.” Such salutations show women and men as fellow-laborers in the cause of Christ.

The case of healing blessings reminds us that in the early Church spiritual gifts were poured upon both men and women, just as the prophet Joel had said. The exhortation of the Relief Society to the Church finds expression in the words of Mary:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.

Our souls most magnify the Lord when we serve our fellow beings in love, as the Relief Society calls us to do. This saving work—even small acts of kindness—enables us to rejoice together in God. And when we remember our lowliness as servants, we will give thanks for divine favor rather than seeking to elevate ourselves above others, whether explicitly or implicitly. The Church is diminished when it dishonors or discourages the exercise of spiritual gifts by some of its members; the saving work to which Relief Society calls us all (both women and men) is to nurture those gifts in the people around us, to give their souls that bread of life with which they can grow to the full measure of their creation. [10]

MLP

MLP

Mormon Lectionary Project

Establishment of the Relief Society, 1842

Joel 2:28 (NRSV); Canticle: Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55, NRSV); Matt 6:9-13 (NRSV); Romans 16:1-16 (NRSV)Moroni 7:45-48; D&C 25

The Collect: Most loving God, giver of every good gift: grant that the spirit of Relief Society might distill upon us, that we might learn to serve one another in the pure love of Jesus Christ until we become one body in the Holy Spirit, just as You are one God. Amen. 

Because of its liturgical importance, there are many settings of the Magnificat, ranging from short ones designed to be sung in services (like the classic Anglican ones of Howells and Stanford) to longer settings by Bach, Rutter, and others. Perhaps as a small way of showing that Mary’s canticle remains as relevant as ever, I’ve chosen a contemporary setting by the American composer René Clausen:

[spotify https://play.spotify.com/track/1YT16gkPiaAevIjmFu5JVN]

Notes

[1] Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, p. 5.

[2] Jill Mulvay Derr, Janath Russell Cannon, and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 2000), 26.

[3] See Kristine Haglund’s essay on this theme, “The Liturgy of Jello“; for “heaven in ordinary,” see George Herbert’s “Prayer [I].”

[4] Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, p. 8.

[5] Ibid., p. 22.

[6] Ibid., p. 8.

[7] Ibid., p. 37.

[8] Ibid., p. 40.

[9] Ibid., pp. 36-37.

[10] That Relief Society should call to men  as well as women appears in Joseph Smith’s statement that it should “provoke the Elders to good works.” Ibid., 38.

Comments

  1. A Happy Hubby says:

    I wonder how many women actually know of the autonomy and level-ranking with the priesthood. I wish they would ask me to give the RS lesson one week on “anything I wanted”.

  2. Great piece. Like A Happy Hubby I wonder how many people realize the expansive vision originally set forth. I am keeping this for reference purposes.

  3. The history of the early Relief Society is incredibly disheartening to me, just one long history of growing smaller.

  4. I’m with you, Rachel.

  5. Thank you, Jason. That is all.

  6. I believe that we are all living well below the gifts and blessings we have been given, because we ignore the wide range of spiritual gifts that exist and are given to women and men.

    I join Rachel in believing that the historic arc of Relief Society is not what God would want. I look forward to seeing the 13 Articles of Faith become the foundation of a year’s worth of teaching, and a reminder of the foundation.of.our.faith.

    We seem to think that memorizing them The Articles of Faith in Primary, (and my kids were the only ones in their classes to do that in their ward, and a couple years later can’t remember more than a few of them) and maybe in Seminary, is enough to make them a living document in the hearts and minds of young people.

    I believe that all of the “big questions” that we face could be solved by going back to the basics of our faith, including looking for spiritual gifts and miracles, as an expectation.