Notes from the Legacy Lectures

The Bonds of Sisterhood

By Barbara B. Smith

Relief Society General President

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    Following Sister Smith’s introductory article are five lectures originally presented in Salt Lake City, Utah, March 15–19, 1982, as part of the Legacy Lecture series during A Tribute to Women: The Legacy Remembered and Renewed.

    The little four-year-old girl, excited at the chance to recount the activities of her day with her grandmother, said, “And d’you know what, Grandma? I played visiting teaching today!”

    The grandmother held her granddaughter close, remembering the day when the little girl’s mother, then five years old and wearing her best pink sweater and clutching a Relief Society Magazine, announced that she was “going visiting teaching.” That was years ago. Now, with her granddaughter in her arms, she reflected upon the bonds of sisterhood that unite women of every generation who have a work to do for the Lord.

    Sister Belle S. Spafford, general president of the Relief Society for three decades, said to me, as I was called to the Relief Society General Board, “You know that you are a part of the most glorious sisterhood upon the face of the earth, don’t you?”

    When I spoke of this to another board member, she said, “It’s true! It is also true that the harder you work in the service of the Lord, the sweeter the sisterhood.”

    In the ensuing years, I have gained a deep appreciation for the work and the sweetness of sisterhood among Latter-day Saint women. Although there are meaningful, close associations with women not of our faith, the eternal nature of our commitment and the Spirit of the Lord that accompanies service in the Church give a quality to sisterhood in the gospel that is not found elsewhere. Speaking of its “sweetness” is an attempt to give expression to the feeling associated with the selflessness and love so characteristic of these shared relationships.

    An important example of sisterhood is that of Mary and Elizabeth. Mary received a visit from a heavenly messenger who declared that she had “found favor with God” and would “bring forth a son.” The angel also said that her cousin Elizabeth, although she was old and until now childless, would have a son. (Luke 1:30–31, 36.)

    Mary hurried to the home of Elizabeth in the city of Juda. Upon hearing her salutation, Elizabeth knew, through a witness of the Spirit, that Mary was to be the mother of the Messiah. We are allowed to share some of the glory of that meeting as these two women, who would fill such important roles in the history of mankind, talked of their faith and of the nature of God’s dealings with his children on the earth. Mary praised God, saying, “He hath shewed strength with his arm; … he hath put down the mighty from their seats and … hath filled the hungry with good things.” (Luke 1:51–53.)

    For the next three months, Mary remained with Elizabeth. From Mary, in her youth and with a special mission few others could comprehend, there was surely understanding and support. And from Elizabeth, there surely came wisdom shared from the experiences of a long life. Women the world over appreciate the closeness Mary and Elizabeth felt and the strength they each gained together.

    This account allows us to see clearly that sisterhood may be both individual and shared. As the Savior would later say, “My mother and my brethren [and we may add sisters], are these which hear the word of God, and do it.” (Luke 8:21.) In that sense, Mary, as well as Elizabeth, enjoyed a sisterhood that had to do with personally qualifying through faithfulness to be counted among the followers of righteousness—the sons and daughters of God.

    We see many examples of women who have devotedly, often courageously, pursued personal righteousness. Tabitha of Joppa, described as a disciple, in life gave herself to good works and charitable service. In death, she became one more witness of the Lord’s power when Peter restored her to life. (See Acts 9:36–42.)

    Pioneer journals detail tender accounts of women who, while crossing the plains, buried husbands or children in graves they would never see again, and of single women who traveled the thousand miles from Winter Quarters to the Salt Lake Valley without the help of a man to help drive the wagon or push the handcart. They crossed rivers in slush-ice, then tried to dry out their clothes before pitiful fires sizzling and sputtering in the snow. When they finally reached the valley, a woman may have been required to keep house in a rude shelter dug from the side of a hill. But these sisters triumphed over trials, and in the strength of their faith created homes from which missionaries were sent abroad and welcomed back, where children were taught to read and write and to worship God.

    Less frequently known are accounts describing the goodness of individual women in subsequent generations. Through their singular sisterhood they have maintained a continuity of active faith that has served as a legacy of strength for our Church today.

    One of these devoted sisters was Ada Bitner Hinckley. Ada exemplified a ready willingness to do the Lord’s bidding, a zealousness for excellence in the good and the beautiful, and a steadfast support of the cause of Zion. While still a young woman, she went East to receive the best training then possible. Upon her graduation, she was given a position at the LDS Business College—the only woman on the faculty. Sometime after the death of his wife, the principle of the school, Briant S. Hinckley, asked Ada to marry him. She tells of feeling that it was the Lord’s design, and so she was pleased to accept his proposal of marriage and assume the mothering responsibility of his eight growing children.

    Their life together was rewarding. In addition to their already large family, she and Briant had five children of their own to nurture through such experiences as the flu epidemics of the early twentieth century, World War I, and the rigors of rural life. The family did not have a surplus of money, but they always had what they needed due to Ada’s wise management of the home.

    She died of cancer before all of the children were fully grown. While their grief at her passing was not easily assuaged, they found comfort in the continuing evidences of her loving concern for them. One such example was the money she had put away, out of their meager means, for her sons’ missions. When her eldest, Gordon B. (now a member of the First Presidency), was called to serve in the British Mission, the world was in the depths of the Great Depression. The family’s resources, like most other families’, were depleted; but the fund that Ada had carefully saved for this purpose made it possible for Gordon to serve his mission. That he had this important preparation for the position he now fills is high tribute to his noble mother.

    Such faithful women can be found today in wards and stakes throughout the Church. I think of sisters in Norway, others in Brazil and Bolivia and Korea. In every land I have visited there are sisters, married and single, whose individual righteousness and devotion is evident in their efforts to live as Saints in these latter days.

    They have sisterhood with those women who qualified to be among the “congregation of the righteous” our Redeemer taught in the spirit world. I find it glorious that Mother Eve was among “the great and mighty ones” in that assemblage, “with many of her faithful daughters who had lived through the ages and worshiped the true and living God.” (D&C 138:38–39.)

    Some of the sweetness of sisterhood enjoyed by a worthy woman is the strength and love that comes through close association with other women in shared gospel pursuits. Sisters imbued with the spirit of the Lord have the desire to help others succeed and evidence a kind of selflessness that creates trust and lasting bonds of friendship. Zina D. Huntington, later Zina D. H. Young, was a close friend of Eliza R. Snow. At one time Zina became extremely distressed over the unusual circumstances of her mother’s death. Knowing of her perplexity and in concern for her friend, Eliza urged Zina to talk with the Prophet Joseph Smith. Zina went to the Prophet and asked if she would ever see her mother again. He answered unequivocally, “Yes, you will know your mother there.” Zina was comforted.

    As a result of their discussions concerning life, death, and the resurrection, and as a solace to her friend Zina, Eliza penned the words to the beloved “O My Father.” This poem, written as a supportive sisterly expression to a friend in distress, has become a cherished hymn throughout all the Church.

    The informal sisterhood of common challenge and shared opportunity has been a legacy of women for many generations, but it was Joseph Smith, who at the request of the women for a society, organized the sisters under the priesthood and pronounced a blessing upon them as he “turned the key” in their behalf. Since that day, women all over the world have received privileges and opportunities not known to them before. Relief Society actually came as a gift of God. With continuing priesthood counsel and with Relief Society leaders who are called of the Lord by inspiration, the women of the Church have a divine source of direction for the work that is theirs to do, and the Society provides a means to accomplish that work.

    Serving together, in an organized manner, women can be a marvelous force for good. Combining their efforts to serve the Lord, sisters throughout the history of the Church have helped, and will yet help, to solve many pressing problems of the Saints. Uniting in these causes, they enjoy a bond of understanding and love that is felt Churchwide.

    It is a feeling that translates without interpreter into every tongue. It is exchanged upon arriving at an airport where one has never been and being met by sisters who need no introduction. It is experienced by the woman who comes to Relief Society in a new ward and feels immediate acceptance.

    It is the security a woman feels in knowing that another woman understands and cares.

    The establishment of the Nauvoo Monument to Women stands as a great expression of sisterhood in the Church. When the announcement was first made and women were asked to contribute, some observers doubted that interest would be strong enough to generate the needed response. But when the contributions began to come, they were overwhelming. Then, when the time came for the dedication, once more there was a great response and desire to participate. Sisters came in chartered buses, in car pools, in motor homes, and by air. Eight thousand of them attended the three dedicatory sessions. Carriages and busses transported the sisters through the streets of old Nauvoo; they visited the restored homes and the site of Joseph Smith’s store where Relief Society was organized. Evenings they viewed the stirring pageant depicting the story of a faithful convert sister. Representing over 1,600,000 Latter-day Saint women, they exemplified the devotion, loyalty, and strength that are found in the sisters of the Church.

    Like the construction and dedication of the monument, sisterhood is made glorious by the often unheralded efforts of local women to serve the Lord quietly, looking to the needs of neighbors, tenderly serving at the time of a death, faithfully filling assignments in Church organizations, selflessly improving conditions in their communities, courageously teaching and defending the truth, steadfastly supporting the priesthood, and, with all, creating loving homes where His spirit may dwell. These are the living legacies, the saintly sisters, in latter as in former days, for whom sisterhood is not an abstraction but a dynamic statement, a vital force. While individually learning and striving toward righteousness, they are collectively adding their strength toward establishing the kingdom of God here upon the earth.

    Photography by Eldon K. Linschoten

    Women the world over appreciate the closeness Mary and Elizabeth felt and the strength they each gained together. (Painting by Carl Bloch, original at the Chapel of Frederiksborg Castle, Denmark; used by permission of the Frederiksborg museum.)