Louise Yates Robison

Sometimes church (like so much else) looks like a place designed for extroverts. Gregariousness, if not a virtue exactly, at least seems like the sort of thing that could come in handy, since the realities of lay ministry so often oblige us to give talks, teach lessons, or otherwise act in semi-public ways. What, then, of the shy among us? Perhaps their (ok, our) patron saint could be Louise Yates Robison, who notwithstanding deep shyness served effectively as the General Relief Society President during the difficult years of the Great Depression.

Robison’s shyness came through when Heber J. Grant called her from the pulpit to serve as a counselor to Clarissa Smith Williams. She later recalled her reaction to hearing a name that sounded so like her own: “I had never heard of her, but I voted for her. When I realized it was myself, I was so upset.” She, like Moses, considered herself slow of speech, and yet the Lord had a work for her to do. [1] It is therefore fitting in a strange way that Robison became the first General Relief Society President to speak in General Conference, in October 1929. [2] Like the woman with an issue of blood who touched Jesus’ garment as he passed, Robison learned to act publicly with a quiet, yet powerful faith.

As Relief Society President from 1928 until 1939, Robison led the organization through the depths of the Great Depression. Building on her predecessor’s social services emphasis, Robison had to help the Relief Society cope with an exploding demand for aid. Following the example of leadership set by King Benjamin, she labored with her own hands, not thinking any task below her. Robison’s daughter Gladys recalled seeing her mother during World War I sorting through massive piles of donated clothes and shoes for refugees in the Near East. [3] She brought the same ethic to her time as President, trusting with the Psalmist in the Lord’s ability to deliver from death and feed in time of famine those who wait in hope for his steadfast love. She gave sisters this opportunity to hope by creating the Mormon Handicraft Shop, where they could market their home crafts and bring in needed income to feed their families. [4]

Robison also believed in being of good cheer during difficult times, that even in famine our hearts might rejoice in the Lord. She loved music, and because she thought that songs sung together could lift weary hearts, she instituted groups of Singing Mothers in Relief Societies around the world. She saw that Paul’s injunction—”with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God”—gave women a way to bolster the faith and courage of those around them. Sometimes where no joy is to be found, people can come together to make it, and what better way than through music? [5]

Always self-conscious about the relative lack of formal education during her youth, Robison as an adult pursued learning vigorously. Her son Rulon remembered his mother getting up at 4:00 am to do homework for the extension courses she was taking. Then, after a full day of Relief Society work, she would do more schoolwork in the evenings. She kept up this schedule for years. [6] Just as the Lord urged the First Presidency to seek learning, Robison’s thirst for knowledge put her in stead to do her part in ordering the affairs of the kingdom.

Robison’s quietly masterful way of serving appears in an episode that occurred during her presidency. A young woman who was unmarried, pregnant, and in distress came into her office; Robison mended the woman’s jacket while counseling with her, then arranged for some job interviews, and gave her money for new clothes and a visit to the hair salon. [7] May this kind of service give all of us, no matter how reserved in temperament, the courage to know that God can use our gifts, too—and may we then go and do likewise!

MLP

MLP

Mormon Lectionary Project

Louise Yates Robison, General Relief Society President, 1946

Exodus 4:10-12 (NRSV); Psalm 33:18-22 (Common Worship); Mark 5:25-34 (NRSV); Colossians 3:16-17 (NRSV); Mosiah 2:12-17; D&C 90:14-17

The Collect: O God, who, though always present with us in your love, veils your face from us: grant that we, like your servant Louise Yates Robison, might see in our own desires to veil our faces an opportunity to love others as you love us, that through the Holy Spirit we might become one in the love of Jesus Christ. Amen.

For the music, here is Josquin des Prez’s “Recordare Virgo Mater,” which in addition to being about Mother Mary was written for all treble parts, meaning that it can be sung by women’s choruses like the Singing Mothers that Robison so loved:

[youtube http://youtu.be/KROj9gZin9o]

Notes

[1] Janet Peterson and LaRene Gaunt, Faith, Hope, and Charity: Inspiration from the Lives of General Relief Society Presidents (American Fork, UT: Covenant, 2008), 135.

[2] Jill Mulvay Derr, Janath Russell Cannon, and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), 261. For the history of women speaking in General Conference, see this post at Juvenile Instructor.

[3] Peterson and Gaunt, 134-35.

[4] Derr et al., 269.

[5] Ibid., 273-74.

[6] Peterson and Gaunt, 132-33.

[7] Ibid., 137.

Comments

  1. Thank you, thank you. I love hearing these kinds of stories as I became unexpectedly nervous giving a prayer yesterday. The Patron Saints for Introverts and Continuing Education – a saint, indeed.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Agreed, Ellie.

  3. I’d never heard of this sister before now, but I really enjoyed getting to know her. Thanks for writing this, Jason!

  4. Jason K. says:

    You’re welcome, everyone. Learning about these early Relief Society Presidents has been a real blessing to me.