In 1984 Ronald Reagan, then president of the United States, made a courtesy visit to the headquarters of the Church. The First Presidency, the Council of the Twelve, the Presiding Bishop, and the heads of the women’s auxiliary organizations were in attendance for this visit.
In introducing the president of the Relief Society, I stated that “this woman presides over an organization of a million and a half women.”
“A million and a half?” President Reagan asked, with an air of incredulity.
“And even more,” I responded.
I indicated that President Barbara W. Winder’s jurisdiction was worldwide, with thousands of organizations across the United States and Canada and in many other nations. I stated that it was a voluntary organization, dedicated to works of charity and the education and training of women in many areas of the world.
When President George Bush visited with a comparable group of Church officers on 18 September 1991, I introduced him to Sister Elaine L. Jack, incumbent president of the Relief Society. I stated that she presides over an organization of more than three million women in well over a hundred nations. He, too, seemed impressed, as well he might be, to meet a woman who serves as executive officer of a great multinational organization of women.
The growth of the Relief Society from twenty members, when it was organized on 17 March 1842 in the frontier city of Nauvoo, to more than three million 150 years later, with members in communities large and small across the world, is a saga both extraordinary and remarkable. While all who qualify as members do not participate, the very large number who are active is most impressive.
This increase in numbers is a manifestation of the constant and uninterrupted growth of the Church. It is an affirmation of the inspired and divine calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith. It is an answer to the desire of women everywhere to join together for mutual good and for the blessing of others.
The elements from which the Relief Society grew predate its organization. Those elements include the natural instincts of women to reach out to assist in promoting the common good, to help those in distress, and to improve their own minds and talents.
During the construction of the Kirtland Temple the women were called upon to grind their china into small particles to be mixed with the plaster used on the walls of the temple, which would catch the light of the sun and the moon and reflect that light to beautify the appearance of the building.
In those times, when there was very little of money but an abundance of faith, the workmen gave of their strength and resources to the construction of the Lord’s house. The women supplied them with food, the best they could prepare. Edward W. Tullidge reported that while the women were sewing the temple veils, Joseph Smith, observing them, said, “Well, sisters, you are always on hand. The sisters are always first and foremost in all good works. Mary was first at the resurrection; and the sisters now are the first to work on the inside of the temple.” (Edward W. Tullidge, The Women of Mormondom, Salt Lake City: Photo Lithographic Reprint, 1957, p. 76.)
Again in Nauvoo, when the temple was under construction, a few women joined together to make shirts for the workmen. It was out of these circumstances that twenty of them gathered on Thursday, 17 March 1842, in the upper room of the Prophet’s store.
On that occasion Joseph Smith organized them and said that this “society of sisters might provoke the brethren to good works in looking to the wants of the poor—searching after objects of charity, and in administering to their wants—to assist by correcting the morals and strengthening the virtues of the community.” (Minutes of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, 17 Mar. 1842, p. 13.)
From that modest beginning has grown what I regard as the largest and most effective organization of its kind in all the world. At that first meeting, when Emma H. Smith was elected president, she said that “each member should be ambitious to do good.” (Ibid.)
That was the spirit then, and that is the spirit now. It must continue to be the guiding principle through all the generations that lie ahead—that “each member should be ambitious to do good.”
It was at a subsequent meeting of the society, held on 28 April 1842, that the Prophet, speaking as a prophet, declared: “This Society is to get instruction through the order which God has established—through the medium of those appointed to lead—and 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.” (Minutes, 28 April 1842; spelling standardized.)
That prophetic statement has stood as a charter through a century and a half of the Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Who can gauge the miraculous effects upon the lives of millions of women whose knowledge has been increased, whose vision has been extended, whose lives have been broadened, and whose understanding of the things of God has been enriched by reason of countless lessons effectively taught and learned in meetings of the Relief Society?
Who can measure the joy that has come into the lives of these women as they have mingled together, socializing in the atmosphere of the ward or branch, enriching the lives of one another through companionships that have been sweet and treasured?
Who, even in the wildest stretch of imagination, can fathom the uncountable acts of charity that have been performed, the food that has been put on barren tables, the faith that has been nurtured in desperate hours of illness, the wounds that have been bound up, the pains that have been ameliorated by loving hands and quiet and reassuring words, the comfort that has been extended in times of death and consequent loneliness?
Lucy Mack Smith, mother of the Prophet, in speaking to the sisters in Nauvoo, said, “We must cherish one another, watch over one another, comfort one another and gain instruction that we may all sit down in heaven together.” (Minutes, 24 Mar. 1842.) The history of the organization has shown that women of the Church have not had to wait to sit together in heaven to taste the sweet fruit of the kind of activities she described. They have experienced much of heaven on earth as in life they have cherished one another, comforted one another, and instructed one another.
Following the exodus from Nauvoo, the formal Relief Society organization disintegrated while the Saints were crossing the plains. But the impetus and the spirit of the work continued. The sick were nursed, children were born, and mothers and babies were cared for during the long and difficult trek. The dead were dressed and buried by kind and gentle hands along the entire length of that trail from the Mississippi River to Winter Quarters and to the valley of the Great Salt Lake.
In 1866 Brigham Young called Eliza R. Snow to serve as president of the Relief Society and gave her a mandate to see that an organization was established in every ward and branch of the Church. This has since been the policy. Wherever the Church has gone, the organization of a Relief Society in each branch has been basic.
No one could possibly calculate the projects that have been undertaken and completed by local Relief Societies. No one could possibly estimate the good that has come into the lives of the women belonging to these organizations and those whom they have benefited through their good works.
Many and varied have been the undertakings of the society. In 1876 Brigham Young instructed the women to gather wheat and store it against a day of possible need. Through the years hunger was alleviated because of this program. It reached its culmination in 1918 when the Relief Society wheat was sold to the United States government and used to alleviate starvation that had resulted from the scourge of the First World War. The money gained was reinvested.
Silk was needed in the pioneer years of the Church. Women of the Relief Society were asked to plant mulberry trees and grow silkworms. It was a messy and unattractive task for many, but they did it. My wife speaks of her great-grandmother, a widow, who planted mulberry trees and engaged in the culture of worms, not because she enjoyed it, but because “she always did what she was asked to do, when it needed to be done.”
But such projects and numberless works of charity were not the only concerns of the society. There was another important dimension, and that was education. Numerous have been the courses of study designed to extend the knowledge and cultivate the talents of women. Among these was the “Out of the Best Books” reading program. It was an implementation of the commandment of the Lord that we should seek learning “out of the best books.” (D&C 88:118.) Knowledge, light, understanding, culture, and appreciation for some of the great literature of all time came into the lives of hundreds of thousands of women who, without this program, would have tasted little if anything of its kind.
Now a great new project is to be undertaken. It is a practical and much-needed part of this 150th anniversary celebration. But its consequences will go on and on and be felt in the lives of generations yet to come. It is a program to teach those who suffer from functional illiteracy. It is designed to bring light into the lives of those who can neither read nor write.
This lack of literacy skills is far more common than many believe. In some areas of the world 75 percent are unable to read or write. Illiteracy’s effects are tragic. Those who are its victims are denied the opportunity to become acquainted with history and the great minds of the past. They cannot read the daily newspaper. They cannot understand the word of God set forth in the immortal scripture. For them there is little light of ages past, and only diminished knowledge of the vast and intriguing world of which they are a part. The darkness that surrounds them, the bleak shadow of illiteracy, condemns them to poverty, hunger, and ignorance. Theirs is only half a world, a world in which they are literally blinded from much of that which goes on about them. Now there is to be provided a means to open the doors of communication and let in the light of understanding. Women old and young, in various nations, will be taught by their sisters to read and write. Imagine, if you can, the potential of this inspired program. Who dare dream of its consequences?
God bless the Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. May the spirit of love which has motivated its members for a century and a half continue to grow and be felt over the world. May their works of charity touch for good the lives of uncounted numbers wherever they find expression. And may light and understanding, learning and knowledge, and eternal truth grace the lives of generations of women yet to come, throughout the nations of the earth, because of this singular and divinely established institution.
Some Points of Emphasis
You may wish to make these points in your home teaching discussion:
From its modest beginning, Relief Society has grown to be the largest and most effective organization of its kind in the world.
In the first Relief Society meeting, President Emma Smith said that “each member should be ambitious to do good.”
Who can gauge the effects upon millions of sisters of the knowledge gained in Relief Society? Or measure the joy that has come into sister’s lives through mingling together? Or fathom the uncountable acts of charity that they have performed?
Said Lucy Mack Smith to the sisters: “We must cherish one another, watch over one another, comfort one another and gain instruction that we may all sit down in heaven together.”
Relate your feelings about the blessings of Relief Society.
Are there some scriptures or quotations in this article that the family might read aloud and discuss?
Would this discussion be better after a pre-visit chat with the head of the house? Is there a message from the bishop or quorum leader?