Early Relief Society Women Felt a Connection with the Priesthood, Speaker Says

Contributed By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer

  • 31 March 2016

Jill Mulvay Derr, one of the editors of a new volume covering the first 50 years of Relief Society, delivers a lecture on the 174th anniversary of the founding of the organization in Nauvoo, Illinois.  Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

Article Highlights

  • Rejoice in the many opportunities for serving others through the Relief Society.
  • Throughout the history of Relief Society, women have expressed joy in the blessings of service and charity.

“What these women … celebrated and exuded at the 1892 jubilee was a sense of their connection to the priesthood order and ordinances as they existed in the Church.” —Jill Mulvay Derr, research historian

As conceived when it was founded in 1842—and as carried forth to this day—the Relief Society “was not just a benevolent association, but a holy calling, one connected with priesthood authority, principles, and ordinances,” according to one of the four editors of the newly released volume The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in LDS Women’s History.

Jill Mulvay Derr delivered a lecture in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on March 17, the 174th anniversary of the founding of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, Illinois. Her address was sponsored by the Church History Department in observance of that anniversary.

As an outline for her lecture, Sister Derr focused on the last document in part four of the volume, a report of Relief Society’s Grand Jubilee Celebration held on March 17, 1892, in the Tabernacle on Temple Square.

“What these women could feel and what they celebrated and exuded at the 1892 jubilee was a sense of their connection to the priesthood order and ordinances as they existed in the Church,” said Sister Derr, a retired senior research historian at the Church History Department.

“They were not fussing about words like ‘ordain,’” she commented. “They were not talking about priesthood offices of elder and priest and teacher. But their connection to the priesthood, to its order and its ordinances, was an essential part of their being members of the Relief Society, and that was a cause for rejoicing on March 17 in 1892.”

Sister Derr said that in addition to faith in God, devotion to personal prayer, righteousness, and charity, the connection with the priesthood was a dimension that gave particular meaning for early Latter-day Saint women.

She quoted Eliza R. Snow as writing in 1868, “This is an organization that cannot exist without the priesthood from the fact that it derives all its authority and influence from that source.”

Sister Derr said that in an 1882 reminiscence, Sarah M. Kimball recalled the Prophet Joseph Smith telling the women of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo back in the 1840s: “I have desired to organize the sisters in the order of the priesthood. I now have the key by which I can do it. The organization of the Church of Christ was never perfect until the women were organized.”

Sister Derr quoted Reynolds Cahoon, a member of the Nauvoo Temple Committee and husband of Relief Society member Thirza Cahoon, as remarking to the Nauvoo women in August 1842: “There are many benevolent societies abroad designed to do good, but not as ours. Ours is according to the order of God connected with the priesthood, according to the same good principles.”

Earlier in her lecture, Sister Derr said that the minutes of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo—which are published in the new volume—served as a constitution for the organization, setting forth its purposes, structure, and procedures.

“The Nauvoo minute book made possible the reconstitution and expansion of the Relief Society in the last half of the 19th century,” Sister Derr remarked. “It taught women the significance of their records and became a model for local minute books in Utah.”

At the jubilee in 1892, “women’s addresses intermingled with those of men from the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, who praised Relief Society and prayed for its members around the world,” Sister Derr noted. “Women speakers focused on sharing the history they had lived.”

One of those speakers, who had been present in Nauvoo when the Relief Society was founded, was Bathsheba W. Smith. Sister Derr quoted her brief address given at the jubilee:

“Fifty years ago this day, our beloved Joseph Smith organized the Relief Society in Nauvoo. Brother Joseph met with us many times and gave us much counsel and valuable instructions. He said, ‘If ye are pure in all things, nothing on earth or in heaven can hinder the angels from associating with you.’ At one meeting he said he would not be with us much longer to instruct us. This made us all feel sad. His words soon came to pass and wrung our hearts with sorrow and grief for the great loss we had sustained in losing our beloved prophet, for a true prophet I know he was. It has been a labor of love. The sick and the destitute have been blessed. The cast down have been comforted, and the Lord has filled our hearts with joy and peace.”

Jill Mulvay Derr, one of the editors of a new volume covering the first 50 years of Relief Society, delivers a lecture on the 174th anniversary of the founding of the organization in Nauvoo, Illinois. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.