Rachel Hunt Steenblik is sort of a PhD student in philosophy of religion and theology at Claremont Graduate University, but mostly a mother. She co-edited Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings with Joanna Brooks and Hannah Wheelwright. She also blogs at The Exponent, and loves books, bikes, and boggle.
This is a slightly fleshed out version of what I gave in Jersey City 2nd Ward, Jersey City, New Jersey, March 19, 2017.
In his Deseret Book published book, Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt, my friend and Mormon studies professor, Patrick Mason, noted that the first time Moroni visited Joseph Smith he “included an invocation of Malachi’s prophecy, placing at the very heart of the restoration the promise that ‘the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers.’”[i] Mason explained, “Malachi, Moroni, and Joseph probably didn’t mean that each of us must become a professional historian: if so, the earth would be ‘utterly wasted’ indeed. Rather, the prophecy suggests that we—as individuals and as a community—have an integral and intimate relationship to our history.”[ii]
March 17, 2017 marked the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Relief Society. My heart now, as in the past weeks, and months, and years is turned to my spiritual mothers and sisters. Today I’m going to tell the story of that founding, because it is a good story, and one I think we all should know. It is part of our history that we—as individuals and as a community—should have an intimate relationship with.
To tell this story I’m going to draw upon the original Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book recorded by the first secretary, Eliza R. Snow, Daughters of My Kingdom: the history and work of the Relief Society, and The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women’s History, recently published by The Church Historian’s Press.
There were at least three things happening around the time of the Relief Society’s birth. First, many of the Saints were gathered in Nauvoo, Illinois, with impoverished refugees from Missouri and converts from the British Isles regularly joining them.[iii] The saints welcomed them into their community (and often their homes) as well as they could. Still, there was a profound need for temporal and spiritual care.
Second, following the great awakening, tens of thousands of American women converted to Christian sects.[iv] They formed and participated in “prayer, missionary, moral reform, and benevolent” societies.[v] Latter-day Saint women were familiar with their organization, and recognized a model for how to dispense needed temporal and spiritual care.
Third, Joseph Smith and other early Latter-day Saints were profoundly interested in building Zion, and temples were seen to be a significant part of that. The Nauvoo Temple was under way, and both men and women wanted to contribute, as they had in Kirtland previously.
Here, as elsewhere, I’m going to say the names of women, because it is important that we know the names of the women of the restoration, as we know the names of the men of the restoration. One sister, Margaret Cook, suggested that she could provide needlework to help support those physically building the Nauvoo Temple. Another sister, Sarah Kimball, offered material to help her, and they talked about inviting others to start a sewing society to support the temple. The following Thursday they met together with a dozen or so neighboring women in Sarah’s home.
They wrote their own constitution and bylaws, akin to the benevolent societies’ of their day, and took them to their prophet for approval. Joseph told them that they were “the best he had ever seen” but that the Lord had “something better for them than a written constitution.”[vi] He extended an invitation to meet with him and a few of the brethren the next Thursday, and promised to “organize” them “under the priesthood after the pattern of the priesthood.”[vii]
That next Thursday was March 17, 1842, a day that we now celebrate. A few more women (now totaling twenty) gathered on the top floor of Nauvoo’s red brick store with Joseph Smith and two early apostles to learn the higher pattern for their organization. Joseph’s wife, Emma Hales Smith, was elected to serve as the new society’s president, by the women themselves. Eliza R. Snow recorded that Joseph
propos’d that the Sisters elect a presiding officer to preside over them, and let that presiding officer choose two Counsellors to assist in the duties of her Office—that he would ordain them to preside over the Society—and let them preside just as the Presidency, preside over the church; and if they need his instruction—ask him, he will give it from time to time.[viii]
Directly following, Joseph added, “Let this Presidency serve as a constitution—all their decisions be considered law; and acted upon as such,” as well as, “If any officers are wanted to carry out the designs of the Institution, let them be appointed and set apart, as Deacons, Teachers &c. are among us.”[ix] It was “motioned by Sister Whitney and seconded by Sister Packard that Mrs. Emma Smith be chosen President.” The motion “passed unanimously.”[x]
Eliza documented further:
Mov’d by Pres Smith, that Mrs. Smith proceed to choose her Counsellors, that they may be ordain’d to preside over this Society, in taking care of the poor—administering to their wants, and attending to the various affairs of this Institution. The Presidentress Elect, then made choice of Sarah M. Cleveland and Mrs. Elizabeth Ann Whitney for Counsellors.[xi]
We are also given our first glimpse of the society’s purpose: “in taking care of the poor–administering to their wants, and attending to the various affairs of this Institution.”
Brother Joseph then “read the Revelation to Emma” given 12 years before, that we know today as the 25th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, and that happens to be the book’s single revelation given directly to a woman. Following the reading, Eliza reported that Joseph “stated that [Emma] was ordain’d at the time…to expound the scriptures to all, and to teach.” But, “not she alone… other [women] may attain to the same blessings.”[xii] This remains deeply meaningful to me. Expounding, exhorting, and teaching are among the “errand[s]” and “gift[s] that as sisters, we claim.’[xiii]
“After some discussion, the sisters decided to call themselves the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo.”[xiv] The name was first suggested by one of Emma’s counselors, Sarah M. Cleveland, and was quickly seconded by the other, Counselor Elizabeth Ann Whitney. Eliza R. Snow noted that “Elder Taylor offered an amendment that it be called The Nauvoo Female Benevolent Society” which he believed “would give it a more definite and extended idea of the Institution.”[xv] Counselor Cleveland seconded, but the motion did not pass.
Eliza explained, “The Pres [Emma] then suggested that she would like an argument with Elder Taylor on the words Relief and Benevolence.”[xvi] The “popularity of the word benevolent” was “one great objection,” because “no person can think of the word” without thinking of “corrupt Institutions of the day,” and Emma did “not wish to have it call’d after other Societies in the world.”[xvii]
Eliza’s notes continued: “One objection to the word ‘Relief’ was that the idea associated with it is that of some great calamity—that we intend appropriating on some extraordinary occasions instead of meeting the common occurrences.” The new president offered a moving rebuttal. “Pres Emma remark’d we are going to do something extraordinary—when a boat is stuck on the rapids with a multitude of Mormons on board we shall consider that a loud call for relief—we expect extraordinary occasions and pressing calls.”[xviii] To his credit, “Elder Taylor arose and said—I shall have to concede the point—your arguments are so potent I cannot stand before them—I shall have to give way.”[xix]
Today’s organization bearing the same name shares similarities and purposes with the first, but also has key differences. “Membership in the society was not” initially “automatic for all female members of the Church.” Instead, women had to request membership, and “were accepted based on their goodness and virtue.”[xx] They were also originally required to pay literal dues. Daughters in My Kingdom states that “sisters in Nauvoo clamored to join the Relief Society,” and “were excited to give temporal and spiritual aid in an organized, authorized way.”[xxi]
To render temporal aid, the visiting teaching program was essentially started. Sisters visited families and noted what could be shared and what was needed. They delivered small, but significant, items such as onions, thread, and pennies.[xxii] Along these lines, my favorite section in Daughters of My Kingdom lists specific contributions women made for their temple and Zion.
Sis. Jones said she would be willing to go about and solicit material, if counseled so to do — she also offered to board one to work on the temple.
Mrs. Durfee said if the heads of the society wished, she is willing to go abroad with a wagon and collect wool etc. for the purpose of forwarding the work.
Mrs. Smith suggested that merchant’s wives donate material that others may be employed.
Miss Wheeler said she is willing to give any portion, or all of her time —
Mrs. Granger [is] willing to do anything, knit, sew, or wait on the sick, as might be most useful.[xxiii]
I have read this many times, and still find myself struck by the variety of service the sisters gave, and that each woman’s temporal offering depended on her unique skillset and resources. I imagine that their spiritual offerings were the same, and that it’s okay ours are today.
Historian Linda King Newell attested that rendering “spiritual aid” played a substantial role for early Relief Society sisters. Indeed,
the women themselves saw their organization as more than a charitable society. Spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues and healing the sick were not only discussed in their meetings but the sisters openly practiced them. With Joseph’s approval, Emma and her counselors laid hands on the sick and blessed them that they might be healed. At their fifth meeting, one sister who had been healed (Sister Durfee), “bore testimony to the great blessing she received when administered to after the last meeting by Emma Smith and [her] Counselors Cleveland and Whitney.”[xxiv]
At their sixth meeting, Joseph addressed the blessings directly: “It is the privilege of those set apart to administer in that authority which is confer’d on them—and if the sisters should have faith to heal the sick, let all hold their tongues, and let every thing roll on.”[xxv] And, “respecting the female laying on hands, he further remark’d, there could be no devils in it if God gave his sanction by healing—that there could be no more sin in any female laying hands on the sick than in wetting the face with water—that it is no sin for any body to do it that has faith, or if the sick has faith to be heal’d by the administration.”[xxvi]
In that same meeting, Joseph told the sisters, “This society is to get instruction through the order which God has established—through the medium of those appointed to lead—and,” crucially, “I now turn the key to you in the name of God, and this society shall rejoice and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time—this is the beginning of better days to this society.”[xxvii]
What did the early Relief Society sisters do with that turned key, and flowing knowledge and intelligence? Many remarkable things. In addition to caring for the temporal and spiritual welfare of souls, they fulfilled their calling to expound and exhort the church while speaking at the pulpit. Many received temple ordinances, and bravely made their way to Utah.
There they were among the first females in the United States to vote, in 1870, fifty years before the 19th amendment was passed. This right was granted them by the territorial legislature before being revoked by Congress in 1887. They befriended national suffrage leaders in D.C., including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and subsequently hosted them in Utah.
In 1855, they began the time and space-consuming task of raising silk worms to produce their own silk, at the strong invitation of Brigham Young. This foray into the silk industry lasted for fifty years, ending only in 1905. It required storing the silkworms in winter (and making sure they were cool enough), bringing them out in spring (and making sure they were warm enough), watching them attentively to see when they hatched, feeding them armful after armful of dried mulberry leaves after they did hatch, giving them ample space to grow and spin their cocoons (which sometimes meant moving out of whole rooms and houses for six+ week periods), boiling those cocoons at the appropriate time, finding the tiny ends of the small silk threads, reeling that thread off onto skeins, transporting the skeins to one of Utah’s three factories, weaving the threads into silk cloth and ribbon, and then sending them East for dyeing.[xxviii] On Susan B. Anthony’s 80th birthday, the Relief Society sisters gave her a beautiful black, silk dress, made with their own silk.
In 1872, Eliza R. Snow’s niece, Louisa “Lula” Greene Richards and other Relief Society sisters founded one of the earliest American periodicals written and published by women, called The Women’s Exponent. They used it as another avenue to “expound and exhort” on things that mattered to them, including polygamy and suffrage. While it was not an official Church publication, it had support from Brigham Young, and was first published on his birthday. Its masthead also bore the subtitle: “Organ of the Relief Society.” [xxix] Emmeline B. Wells served as the second editor for just under 40 years, stopping only when she became the 5th General Relief Society President, at which point The Women’s Exponent gave way to the Church sanctioned Relief Society Magazine.[xxx]
In 1873 Brigham Young suggested that “the time has come for women to come forth as doctors in these valleys of the mountains.”[xxxi] Several Relief Society sisters made great personal sacrifices to answer his call, including Romania Pratt who sold her precious piano to study medicine in New York, and then Pennsylvania, and Ellis Shipps who said goodbye to her husband and children to learn in Pennsylvania.
In 1876, again with Brigham Young’s encouragement, Relief Society sisters started “The Wheat Project.” Women gleaned wheat, purchased fields, and built granaries. Their wheat benefited not only those in their own community, but those in the wider United States, following San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake, and during both World Wars.[xxxii]
In 1878, the Relief Society formed the first Primary, remembering “the children.”[xxxiii]
In 1879, Dr. Ellis Shipps started her School of Obstetrics and Nursing, training Mormon midwives, often called and set apart as such, for the safe delivery of thousands of mothers and babies. Three years later, in 1882, the Relief Society opened the first Church hospital, Deseret Hospital.[xxxiv] Doctors Ellis Shipps and Romania Pratt served on its all-female board of directors with Eliza R. Snow, Emmeline B. Wells, and others.[xxxv]
In 1896, Relief Society sister, Martha Hughes Cannon, became the first female state senator in the United States, outvoting her own husband, Angus.
In short, early Relief Society sisters did “something extraordinary,” as their first president, Emma Smith, prophesied they would. Learning this history has blessed my life and influenced my decisions. (For instance, studying the history of Mormon midwives inspired me to give birth to both of my children at home, with female support.)
Relief Society sisters today still have the key that Joseph turned, as well as the mandate to listen for “loud” and quiet “call[s] for relief,” and to “expect extraordinary occasions and pressing calls.” They still have the opportunity to welcome refugees and immigrants, to share what they have, and to lift each other temporally and spiritually. And they do this, in big and small ways, every day, by caring for a sister after she gives birth or sitting with another in her grief and loneliness. I recognize their participation in the Relief Society’s initial purpose, remembered by Zina Diantha Huntington Young on it’s 50th anniversary:
“The Relief Society . . . was first organized nearly half a century ago . . . to dispense temporal blessings to the poor and needy: and to give encouragement of the weak, and restrain the erring ones, and for the better development, and exercise of woman’s sympathies, and charities, that she might have opportunity to attain spiritual strength, and power for the accomplishment of greater good in the work of the redemption of the human family.” [xxxvi]
For this, I am grateful. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
[i] Patrick Mason, Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt (Salt Lake City (UT: Maxwell Institute and Deseret Book, 2015), 75-76.
[ii] Ibid., 76.
[iii] The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-Day Saint Women’s History , ed. Jill Mulvay Derr, Carol Cornwall Madsen, Kate Holbrook, Matthew J. Grow (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church Historian’s Press, 2016); https://www.churchhistorianspress.org/the-first-fifty-years-of-relief-society/part-1
[vi] “’Something Better’: The Female Relief Society of Nauvoo,” in Daughters of My Kingdom: The History and Work of Relief Society (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2011), https://www.lds.org/relief-society/daughters-in-my-kingdom/manual/something-better-the-female-relief-society-of-nauvoo?lang=eng&_r=1#2-06500_000_02.
[viii] Eliza R. Snow, Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book (Salt Lake City: UT, The Joseph Smith Papers), 4.
[ix] Ibid., 5.
[x] Ibid., 5.
[xi] Ibid., 5.
[xii] Ibid., 5.
[xiii] Emily H. Woodmansee, “As Sisters in Zion” in Hymns, (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985), 309.
[xiv] Daughters in My Kingdom.
[xv] Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, 7.
[xvi] Ibid., 8.
[xvii] Ibid., 8.
[xviii] Ibid., 8.
[xix] Ibid., 8.
[xx] Daughters in My Kingdom.
[xxii] The First Fifty Years of Relief Society.
[xxiii] Daughters of My Kingdom.
[xxiv] Linda King Newell, “A Gift Given, A Gift Taken: Washing, Anointing, and Blessing the Sick Among Mormon Women,” Sunstone 6.4 (1981): 16-25.
[xxv] Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, 33.
[xxvi] Ibid. (I didn’t share this paragraph in my ward, but wish that I did.)
[xxvii] Daughters of My Kingdom.
[xxviii] “The Silk Industry,” St. George Temple Visitor’s Center, http://www.stgeorgetemplevisitorscenter.info/by/silk.html; Ardis E. Parshall, “A Child’s Eye View of the Mormon Silk Experiment,” Keepapitchinin, http://www.keepapitchinin.org/2009/02/02/a-childs-eye-view-of-the-mormon-silk-experiment/. I didn’t share this paragraph in my ward either, for time reasons, but am in awe at this rich part of the Relief Society’s rich history.
[xxix] Jan Tolman, “10 Accomplishments of the Relief Society,” Deseret News (March 13, 2014), http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865598532/10-accomplishments-of-the-Relief-Society.html
[xxxi] Claire Wilcox Noall, “Utah’s Pioneer Women Doctors,” Jared Pratt Family Association, http://jared.pratt-family.org/parley_family_histories/romania_bunnell_women_doctors.html
[xxxii] Jan Tolman, “Relief Society Wheat Project,” LDS Women of God, http://www.ldswomenofgod.com/2008/08/22/relief-society-wheat-project/. I didn’t share this paragraph in my ward either, also for time reasons.
[xxxiii] Rosemary Wixom, Jean A. Stevens, Cheryl A. Esplin, “Primary Celebrates 135 Years,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, https://www.lds.org/church/news/primary-celebrates-135-years?lang=eng
[xxxiv] “Deseret Hospital Opened,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, https://history.lds.org/event/deseret-hospital-opened?lang=eng.
[xxxv] “Board of Directors of the old Deseret Hospital,” Family Search, https://familysearch.org/photos/artifacts/20958139; Tolman, “10 Accomplishments of the Relief Society.” Notably, this was also the first all-female medical board in the United States.
[xxxvi] The First Fifty Years of Relief Society.