The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: An Interview with the Editors

You may have heard about the new history by the Church Historian’s Press of the first 50 years of the Relief Society. Excerpts of key documents are found online as well at the Church Historian’s Press. A review will be forthcoming, but to call it a landmark history underplays the importance of the text. Kate Holbrook (a specialist in women’s history with the Church History Department) and Matt Grow (director of publications for the Church History Department), who each were major editors of the volume, were gracious enough to answer some of our questions.

What was the genesis for the volume? Was it a grassroots (or historian-roots) effort, or did the suggestion/direction come from other elements in church leadership?

The book had its genesis around the year 2000 when Jill Mulvay Derr and Carol Cornwall Madsen were professors at the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History at BYU.

Jill and Carol hoped to publish the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes and decided to surround those minutes with documents spanning fifty years of the Relief Society’s history to provide context. Jill and Carol worked on the volume intermittently for many years. After Jill came to the Church History Department in Salt Lake City and Carol retired, Matt Grow and Kate Holbrook became involved in the book, writing introductions and annotations to the documents. At that point, it had been decided to model the book on the Joseph Smith Papers. Like the JSP volumes, this book required a large team of people, besides the primary editors, including researchers both at BYU (Jenny Reeder) and the Church History Department (Randy Dixon, Brian Reeves, Chad Foulger); missionaries who assisted with transcription and biographical research (led by Sister Paddy Spilsbury); editors (led by Eric Smith with lots of help from Janelle Higbee, Jay Parry, and others); and other research assistants, source checkers, etc. The book is published by the Church Historian’s Press, an imprint of the Church.

A big question is present relevance for the text. Figuring out something’s original configuration doesn’t necessarily mean that we in the present should return to that. Meanwhile, plenty of people in the present can read the Nauvoo minutes and argue that something has been lost that we should work to recover. So, what’s the balance between seeing these documents as a profoundly valuable resource for understanding our past and reading them for guidance about what shape RS should take in the present? What are Mormons supposed to do when they read Joseph Smith telling women to heal the sick?

Let us answer this question first by addressing the question of what has been lost and then by addressing the question of audience and relevance.

The idea that the Relief Society had more authority in the 1800s or that women had a better position in the Church then is really simplistic. This narrative of loss ignores the very real constraints that women operated under in the patriarchal culture of the nineteenth century, both in and out of the Church. Let’s not forget that women rarely spoke or taught before mixed-gender audiences; couldn’t serve missions except with their husbands; were plural wives; etc. Certainly, we shouldn’t replace the narrative of loss with a narrative of triumphalism either. Readers will have to decide for themselves the correct balance that you articulate. On the question of the Nauvoo minutes and their context, we recommend that they also read the Church’s recent essay, “Joseph Smith’s Teachings About Priesthood, Temple, and Women.”

We have two audiences: an audience of scholars and interested outsiders, and an audience of Church members (and, obviously, these audiences overlap). For a scholarly audience, the book is relevant because it demonstrates the vibrancy and extensive contributions of Latter-day Saint women’s lives in the nineteenth century, notwithstanding stereotypes to the contrary.

For Church members, in the last General Conference, President Russell M. Nelson encouraged Latter-day Saint women to “speak up and speak out.” In this book, we hear their voices. We see their struggles, their triumphs, and their faith. Women tell their own story in their own words in these documents. We are a history-loving and a record-keeping people. We are unusual in how much emphasis we place as a people on our history and on our records. And that is because we believe there is wisdom in the past, power in seeing God’s hand with His people, and that the patterns of the past can help us live in the present and prepare for the future.

Can you talk a little about how the women in the minutes from the first 50 years talked about their home lives, if at all. Sometimes today, you can see women shore up their legitimacy by speaking as representatives of home and family. Did the women then speak that way, or did they treat this more like a civic organization where they were officers? We would be interested in those kinds of cultural insights.

Latter-day Saint women were openly mocked by men and women throughout the world during the 1800s. They were seen as degraded and oppressed because of plural marriage. “How could any woman in her right mind accept such a system,” the thinking went. “She must be ignorant or duped or coerced.” Latter-day Saint women responded eloquently and forcefully. They defended their system of belief to a skeptical world. So, yes, when they spoke up—as they did in the “indignation meetings” of the 1870s and 1880s—they often did so as defenders of their family and their faith.
They did not treat Relief Society as a civic organization because it was not secular. They believed that Relief Society was the way they were building the Kingdom of God, making the world better for all women. They pursued their work at home, in service, and in politics, all at once, bringing their whole selves and overlapping concerns to every occasion.

Also, was there ever a knock down drag out over polygamy in the early days in the minutes? Like maybe at winter quarters or similar? We’re particularly curious regarding the anti-polygamy rhetoric that supposedly led to the disbanding of Relief Society during Brigham Young’s presidency.

To understand these questions, we recommend that you read the sections on “plural marriage” and “final Relief Society meetings in Nauvoo” in the Part 1 introduction.

What aspects of the early church do you feel this study particularly illuminates?

Without understanding the history of the Relief Society, one cannot understand the history of Latter-day Saint religious belief and practice; gender dynamics in the early Church; Latter-day Saint lived religion; economics and politics in territorial Utah; the dynamics among Church members outside Utah and among congregations; and the interaction between Latter-day Saints and non-Mormons.

Is there a difference between Mormon live religion and Mormon women’s live religion?

Yes. Just as there is a difference between Mormon lived religion and Mormon men’s lived religion or Mormon children’s lived religion. This documentary collections highlights in particular the institutional side of Latter-day Saint women’s lived religion.

Are there tools for non-specialists to integrate the details and stories contained in these documents into their religious lives and worlds?

It’s a documents collection, but we also hope that it’s readable, that it can be read either cover-to-cover or used as a resource on specific topics. We intend this book to provide a solid scholarly foundation that will broaden the scope and improve the accuracy of future projects that engage nineteenth-century Church history, from Church lessons and talks to popular and scholarly books, news, and magazine articles.

What’s the intent for distribution on this book? Will we see RS/SS lessons taught from it like Daughters in My Kingdom?

The book won’t be officially distributed like Daughters in My Kingdom. Like volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers, we hope that the book is used for personal study, for future scholarship, for the writing of popular histories, and as a resource for lessons, talks, and future Church manuals.

How do you see Mormon RS in the background of 19th century Evangelical and Unitarian charitable efforts? Work that by the 1840s seems to have very political and in its most successful form outlines a force for redemptive reform, while carefully skirting dynamite issues (slavery, women’s suffrage, etc.) for example: Dorothea Dix. How did Mormon ideas of priesthood restrict or open ways for Christian service, and how did the broader societal conception of Mormonism affect the nature of RS work in conception and act? Was RS more in the image of Protestant relief work, or was it more Masonic in concept?

Certainly, the founding of the Relief Society reflected broader trends in the religious and cultural life of the United States. This was an era (as explained in the Part 1 introduction), “tens of thousands of women converted to various denominations and began organizing prayer, missionary, moral reform, and benevolent societies. A national conversation concerning women’s social roles emerged as women became evangelical preachers and activists in antislavery societies, and new academies and seminaries for women flourished.” The conception of the Relief Society was certainly more in the vein of these types of relief efforts and social reform than it was Masonic. “Commonalities [between other women’s relief organizations and the Relief Society] included leadership by women; use of parliamentary procedure and petitions; the recording of proceedings and reporting of work; and goals of charitable community service, moral reform, and personal piety. The Relief Society served, as did other early women’s voluntary associations, as a means by which women continued their expansion to public roles.”
But early members of the Relief Society would also have been careful to point out differences between their institutions and other women’s organizations. As the Part 1 intro states, “Though the founding cluster of Mormon women initially intended to establish their organization upon a constitution similar to those of other democratically spirited women’s groups, Joseph Smith invited them to be organized ‘after the pattern, or order, of the priesthood,’ that is, with a president and two counselors, ordained by the laying on of hands.” For early Relief Society members, the divine sanction of the priesthood set them apart from other organizations.

Over that fifty year span, how did RS interface with polygamy in broad and narrow ways?

The introduction to the volume tackles this question:
“Plural marriage is nearly omnipresent in women’s records because it forged their extended and overlapping family relationships and because it was central to the way they understood themselves as ‘a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people.’
“The documents in this volume shed light on the development of plural marriage and its ramifications for women’s collective experience. In Nauvoo, stating that he was acting upon revelation, Joseph Smith introduced the practice of plural marriage quietly among some of his trusted associates, including some members of the Relief Society. Knowing the practice would be controversial and would create a stark distance between the Latter-day Saints and the rest of American society, Smith required confidentiality of participants. Plural marriage, known to many by rumor only, created significant divisions among the Saints in Nauvoo: those who engaged in plural marriage, and those who did not; those who supported it, and those who did not. Distrust and dissension within the church and opposition from outside critics fueled events leading to the 1844 mob murder of Joseph Smith. The Relief Society may have been a forum for expressing objections to plural marriage, a possibility that likely contributed to the cessation of Relief Society meetings following Joseph Smith’s death. In the West, plural marriage played a different role. Especially after the formal announcement of the practice in 1852, plural marriages were public knowledge with no attempt at secrecy. These marriages facilitated women’s networks, and extended family connections became a framework onto which the Relief Society organization could be at least partially overlaid.”

How did RS act as vehicle for women as policy modifiers and makers? Preachers? Scholars? Rationalizers of Mormon teaching?

This is a multifaceted and complex question. Yes, the documents demonstrate women doing all of these things. For example, Relief Society was the vehicle Mormon women used to promote political change. In 1870, for example, the Salt Lake City Fifteenth Ward Relief Society sponsored a mass meeting to protest new anti-polygamy legislation. In 1886 Relief Society members demonstrated against a new law that disenfranchised polygamists. Relief Society was also the forum for organizing ambitious endeavors such as saving grain, producing silk, and running community stores. Relief Society members became more proficient leaders, organizers, and speakers through their active participation in that organization.

How did succession affect women and RS?

The succession crisis following the death of Joseph Smith, combined with the trek West, led to the suspension of Relief Society activities, beginning in spring 1845. Disputes between Brigham Young and Emma Smith contributed to this, as did a general desire to streamline Church activities, including missionary work, so that Church leaders and members could focus on preparing for the westward trek. Relief Society was revived on a local level in Salt Lake City during the 1850s and then a permanent reorganization began under the leadership of Brigham Young and Eliza R. Snow in 1867-1868.

What was the view of male churchmen of RS?

For the most part, Latter-day Saint men supported the work of the Relief Society. Certainly, they lived in an age in which women’s opportunities were more constricted than they are today, and there were ups and downs in the relationship between Mormon men and Relief Society sisters, both at a general level and in individual congregations. Apostle Franklin D. Richards criticized male detractors of women’s efforts in a speech in 1888, “Every now and again we hear men speak tauntingly of the sisters and lightly of their public duties. Instead of supporting and encouraging them.” Latter-day Saint women and men generally emphasized collaboration in building the kingdom of God. Both men and women would have agreed with Eliza R. Snow when she stated, “In the Church and Kingdom of God, the interests of men and women are the same; man has no interests separate from that of women, however it may be in the outside world, our interests are all united.”

How did females see RS both inside Momon congregations and in the outside Gentile world. Did RS function as boundary marker for Mormon women? Did it tend to isolate women from Gentile thought and practice? Or could it reach across party lines as it were?

We think it’s accurate to say that the Relief Society functioned in both ways: as a boundary marker for Mormon women, but also as a means by which Latter-day Saint women interacted with non-Mormons, particularly in their involvement with national women’s rights organizations. The general introduction explains: “During this period, as part of their suffrage efforts, Latter-day Saint women forged connections with the broader women’s movement. Beginning in the mid-1870s, Latter-day Saint women corresponded with leaders of the national movement for woman suffrage, supported suffrage petitions, and sent representatives to the East to create and maintain connections with the suffrage movement. While the controversy over plural marriage often made Latter-day Saint women less welcome in some national women’s organizations, the National Woman Suffrage Association always supported their voting rights. Exponent articles appeared in national women’s newspapers, and the Exponent reprinted articles from those papers as well.”


  1. FYI it would be helpful if you better set off the BCC questions from the Kate’s answers. For whatever reason it is coming off well. But thanks for an early interviewer and look at what will hopefully be a landmark project!

  2. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    Kudos!! I look forward to this long awaited volume!

  3. What an excellent development. Very excited for this volume.

  4. Looks like a book for the birthday list. My birthday list. Congrats to the editors.

  5. The Other Clark says:

    Hmm… For some reason, I never knew RS was suspended during the trek west. Knowing this sheds additional insight on why Nancy Tracy (one of the original members of the Nauvoo RS) was called to the first Relief Society Presidency of her ward near Ogden: continuity.

  6. The only criticism I have seen of the new book so far is that in the forward it says the RS was suspended by By after the death of Joseph Smith when other sources say it was suspended in March prior to the death of Joseph due to Emma’s lack of support of polygamy. Has this been addressed?

  7. Matt, the last meeting of the Nauvoo RS was before the death of JS, but I’m interested in getting into your use of the passive voice there. Are there people making claims that JS suspended the RS? If you look at the dates of RS meetings, there are some very long gaps–longer even than the months between the last RS meeting and JS’s death. Now, Emma’s anti-polygamy is a thing, to be sure, but I’m unaware of evidence suggesting that JS shut the RS down.

    On the other hand BY essentially said that the Mormons weren’t going to be having the women meet together anymore. I’d be interested in who was making the criticism. Can you point me to the relevant reviews?

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    I pointed my GD class to this book this past Sunday. Not sure whether that wil result in any sales, but at least they now know about it.

  9. Clark Goble says:

    Do we have enough data to really say when/why the RS ended? Certainly by the time of the well known Brigham Young statement J. Stapley alluded to it seemed like there was a backlash, but I’d love to know what was going on in that era just before Joseph died until the saints left Nauvoo.

  10. Matt, is there an actual source with like, citations to documents? Forgive me if I’m skeptical.

  11. The Deseret News article announcing the volume suggested that Brigham Young shut down the Relief Society: “Brigham feels under siege,” Grow said. “He’s grieving. Emma Smith is also grieving, and they said hard things about each other in that grief. Brigham and other church leaders decide that safety for the church will necessitate a move somewhere in the West. As part of that they make a number of changes in church activities, including suspending the Relief Society. They suspend missionary work for a time. We have to see it in that context, that other things are being suspended, closed in at the same period of time so that there can be this focus on moving to the West.”

    When you take a look at the Part 1 Introduction (linked to in the OP), it’s clear that dissatisfaction with the Relief Society was happening before the martyrdom: “The dearth of contemporaneous references to the “Voice of Innocence” or to activities of the Relief Society in 1844 make it difficult to assess precisely what happened at the society’s last recorded meetings in March 1844, or in their wake. The minutes of the meetings are enigmatic, but clearly Emma Smith tried to win women’s full support for “put[t]ing down iniquity,” and she seems to have mounted an intensified effort at what she considered moral reform, with the intent to halt all plural marriage, including the practice authorized by her husband.47
    During the last four recorded meetings, two each on March 9 and March 16, 1844, Emma Smith presided. She spoke explicitly of her own authority—presumably referring to the 1830 revelation naming her “Elect Lady,” her ordination by her husband “to expound Scriptures & exhort the Church,” and her position as Relief Society president whose decisions, made in connection with her two counselors, were to “be considered law” for the society.48 The small circle of women who had received the endowment through her administration and joined with her in the anointed quorum would also have understood her authoritative role in women’s temple ordinances. Apart from these official roles, Emma, as Joseph Smith’s wife of seventeen years, was the church’s first lady and was much loved by church members, many of whom had been the beneficiaries of her compassion. Relief Society women who crowded into the four nearly identical March 1844 meetings voted to endorse the “Voice of Innocence” and heard their “Presidentess” authoritatively agitate for a significant change in moral behavior, “a reformation in boath men & woman.”49
    On May 26, 1844, Joseph Smith seemed to blame the “Voice of Innocence” for the mounting fury he faced from dissidents that spring, asserting that he “never had any fuss with these men until that Female Relief Society brought out the paper against adulterers and adulteresses,” though he had himself announced its writing and presentation.50 Even though a direct relationship between Relief Society activities and the fomentation of the dissidents cannot be further documented, a tenuous connection seems to have lingered in the public mind. Eliza R. Snow remarked in 1868: “It has been said that the Society in Nauvoo did more harm than good, but it was not So.”51 In the early 1880s, when both the practice of plural marriage and the reconstituted Relief Society were well established, John Taylor, who became president of the church in October 1880, recalled that in Nauvoo “much disturbance arose among the Sisters.” According to Taylor, “Sister Emma . . . made use of the position she held to try to pervert the minds of the sisters” and “taught the Sisters that the principle of Celestial Marriage [plural marriage] as taught and practiced by Joseph Smith the prophet was not of God.” This, Taylor commented, was “the reason why the Relief Society did not continue.”52

  12. Matt W. says:

    Steve: skepticism noted. That’s why I asked if this had been addressed anywhere.

  13. BHodges says:

    I just took a look at the blog post Matt W pointed to. Mary Ann posted relevant material from the new book’s intro which is helpful. I posted a response over on that blog as follows:

    Hi, runtu. I came across your post because someone linked to it at BCC. I just finished reading all of the intro matter and some of the documents in the new RS documents book. It seems to me you misunderstand the position laid out in the book. The volume editors include transcripts from two 1845 meetings Brigham Young held, one with high priests, the other with seventies, in which he openly (and brashly!) puts a definitive halt to RS gatherings:

    “Reli[e]f society—going to meet again—I say I will curse every man that lets his wife or daughters meet again—until I tell them[…].”///

    These notes appeared in a record book that later summarized BY’s remarks as follows: “He made a few remarks in relation to the revival of the Female Relief Society, and disapprobated it.”

    Look at the interesting claim BY makes later that day to the seventies:

    “When I want Sisters or the Wives of the members of this church to get up Relief Society I will summon them to my aid but until that time let them stay at home & if you Females huddling together veto the concern and if they say Joseph started it tell them it is a damned lie for I know he never encouraged it but I know where the Chit was laid [a shoot or sprout, first germination of a seed]…”

    BY’s claim that JS did not “start it” can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, one could argue that BY was referring to JS not starting up the RS again after evidently disbanding it before his death. So why don’t we find a contemporaneous claim that JS disbanded the RS, or that he even wanted it disbanded, rather than simply expressing frustration with it? On the other hand, BY can be understood as saying JS didn’t start the RS. Barely technically true, since he didn’t initiate it, but there’s no question JS approved of the society and helped shape it. Weird.

    Evidently, it was customary to initiate RS meetings in the spring, work through summer and fall, suspend things through the winter, and meet again in the spring. (See p. 168 of the new RS documents book.) The last recorded RS meeting occurred on March 16, 1844. This is when Emma undertook her most open opposition to polygamy (which the editors neither approve of or condemn, by the way). The intro in the new docs book is very clear about this. It notes that Joseph Smith seemed to blame the “Voice of Innocence” document as promulgated within the RS for public outcry which we know culminated in his assassination. So what happened between the last meeting in 1844 and the meeting when BY suspended the RS? This is how they attempt to fill in the gaps:

    The tensions surrounding plural marriage seem to have led some church leaders to lose confidence in the Relief Society sometime in the spring or summer of 1844. Neither the minutes nor other sources document additional Relief Society meetings during 1844, and by spring 1845 the society was defunct. In the aftermath of Joseph Smith’s death, the majority of Saints in Nauvoo voted in August 1844 to sustain the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as the governing council of the church. In March 1845, when women may have anticipated beginning another season of Relief Society meetings, Brigham Young, president of the Quorum of the Twelve, announced his decision to ‘stay’ Relief Society proceedings (Document 1.13), and subsequently ‘the labors of the Society ceased'” (14-15).

    So at the very least, while the editors don’t claim JS himself disbanded the RS, they note his negative remarks about it. They are clear that polygamy was a precipitating factor in JS’s death and the dysfunction of the RS. The editors also describe the tumult in Nauvoo and the preparations for the trek as the context in which the RS was suspended, not as the big reason for its suspension.

    The editors also note that in 1880 (date in text, not a footnote, so as to highlight the late reminiscence) John Taylor blamed disturbances created by Emma over plural marriage for the RS’s suspension, but they do so not to simply agree with Taylor but to make a specific point:

    “Even though a direct relationship between Relief Society activities and the fomentation of the dissidents cannot be further documented, a tenuous connection seems to have lingered in the public mind.”

    This is when they quote Eliza Snow and John Taylor to give evidence of this suspicion—not necessarily to agree with either of them, but to point out how Mormons interpreted events at the time even though, as they lay out in the intro itself, things were actually more complicated.

    I think it’s an uncharitable stretch to claim the story as presented in the Deseret News article (based on the new documents book) represents some sort of cover-up. Earlier church materials that fail to mention polygamy in the narrative of the RS’s suspension are obviously taking protective liberties with the history. But this new book isn’t a continuation of that. The DesNews article as I read it isn’t trying to establish a set timeline or to define what it would mean to “suspend” the RS—which seems to be your main complaint, that it gets the timing of the suspension wrong—rather he author is ballparking part of the overall story, and one lesser-known to most Mormons today.

    Should we date the suspension from the time of the last recorded meeting, or from the pronouncement of the leader stating there would be no more RS meetings until further notice? Given the tumult in Nauvoo and Emma’s firm opposition to polygamy, and the fact that she was presider over the RS, and then the martyrdom and the ensuing fear/chaos/mourning not to mention the everyday demands of living in the 1840s, it’s reasonable to assume there were multiple factors why the RS didn’t finish out the season. Then when it came time to start it back up, as was tradition, BY put the kibosh on it as the record demonstrates. If BY didn’t initiate the suspension of the RS (and I don’t see a contemporanous record that claims otherwise), he definitely completed it. And he apparently didn’t say “because JS said so.” In fact he seems to have denied JS’s involvement with its establishment to begin with, oddly enough, which the editors do not try to erase from the record. Again, transparency.

    In short: based on the available records I think reasonable people can say the RS was suspended either in 1844 or 1845. I think the editors of a documentary record book would need more definitive proof than it seems they have in order to be more specific than they were. Documents can only take any writer so far. I see these authors/editors making judicious use of the documents, laying out the textual evidence in a way that both supports their claims and allows readers to formulate their own conclusions (as you suggest people should). In other words, they’re doing solid professional documentary editing work here. DesNews coverage can be expected to present a simplified overview.

    PS- Steve, great questions here. Thanks.

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