Relief Society. The name evokes as many images as there are women, eras, and countries. But regardless of time or place, Relief Society has meant sisters lifting one another spiritually, loving and taking care of one another, and absorbing insight and inspiration from other women headed in the same direction.
At the first meeting of the Relief Society, President Emma Smith stated, with no small amount of vision: “We are going to do something extraordinary.”1 What has transpired through the past 150 years has been nothing short of extraordinary. And women have responded magnificently to a multitude of pressing calls.
In Czechoslovakia, during years the Church was not recognized there, a young Relief Society leader typed the entire Doctrine and Covenants so that sisters could have “scriptures,” since it was unlawful for religious books to be brought into the country.
A young Relief Society president in a Salt Lake City singles ward had repeated promptings one evening to visit a ward member. When she went to the girl’s apartment, she found her nearly incoherent from potentially fatal internal bleeding. She and a friend rushed the girl to the hospital, where emergency surgery was performed and the girl’s life was spared.
In a ward in Saipan where women speak thirteen different languages, the Relief Society president has dealt with language barriers by assigning different parts of the lesson to be taught in their own languages by different women—so everyone understands at least part of the message.
Chieko N. Okazaki, now first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, was reared as the daughter of a Buddhist plantation laborer in Hawaii. She tells of her first encounter with Relief Society as a young girl:
“I knew there was one meeting with all of the ladies—wonderful, loving Hawaiian women who took care of me at church. That meeting was Relief Society. They ministered to me like angels.” She has since mused, “I wonder if I would be here today, serving in this presidency, if those wonderful Hawaiian sisters had not opened their arms to a shy Japanese girl and welcomed me.”
Relief Society spans the globe and represents women who come in every age, shape, and color; whose cultures, languages, and life experiences are as different as their values and beliefs are the same.
Throughout the world, other women’s organizations have come and gone. But if anything, the relevance of Relief Society in the lives of women and its importance to the Church are greater today than ever. Why has Relief Society—now the largest and oldest women’s organization in the world—flourished during 150 years in a world of change, upheaval, and transition?
Belle S. Spafford, the ninth Relief Society general president, endorsed Relief Society as an ideal vehicle to promote constancy amid change: “In the midst of all this change … Relief Society has been just as constant in its purpose as truth is constant. The purposes that were important for a handful of women in Nauvoo are still important to women worldwide. That is the miracle of Relief Society.”2
Relief Society began, appropriately enough, as a charitable act. When Sarah M. Kimball decided to provide clothing for men building the Nauvoo Temple, others offered to help. As the women sewed they discussed the idea of forming a “Ladies’ Society.” Soon Eliza R. Snow had drafted a constitution and bylaws for the new organization and presented them to the Prophet Joseph Smith for his approval.
He told Sister Snow that while the bylaws were the best he’d ever seen, “this is not what you want. Tell the sisters their offering is accepted of the Lord, and He has something better for them than a written constitution.” He then invited the sisters to join him on 17 March 1842 in the room over his store, where he would “organize the sisters under the priesthood.”3
Twenty sisters met with the Prophet that day. Joseph Smith began by outlining the purpose of an auxiliary for sister Saints: “That the 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.”4 Such was the beginning of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo.
Lucy Mack Smith sensed the scope of this new auxiliary to the priesthood: “We must cherish one another, watch over one another, comfort one another and gain instruction, that we may all sit down in heaven together.”5
During subsequent meetings, the Prophet elaborated on the role the society should fill and on its potential impact: “It is natural for females to have feelings of charity and benevolence. … If you live up to these principles, how great and glorious will be your reward in the celestial kingdom! If you live up to your privileges, the angels cannot be restrained from being your associates.”6
On 28 April 1842, Joseph Smith said, “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.”7
President George Albert Smith later explained the significance of this action: “When the Prophet Joseph Smith turned the key for the emancipation of womankind, it was turned for all the world, and from generation to generation the number of women who can enjoy the blessings of religious liberty and civil liberty has been increasing.”8
Women of Nauvoo flocked to Relief Society in such numbers that two months later there were more than six hundred members and no building large enough to accommodate them.
Clearly, the Prophet intended the society to offer spiritual as well as temporal relief. “The Society is not only to relieve the poor, but to save souls,” he taught.9 The spiritual nature of the meetings drew many women. After one meeting, the secretary recorded that “nearly all present arose and spoke, and the spirit of the Lord like a purifying stream, refreshed every heart.”10
There was, however, no shortage of opportunity to render temporal relief in 1842 Nauvoo. There were meals to prepare, sick members to care for, homeless converts to assist, grieving mothers to comfort, and persecution to contend with. Lucy Mack Smith related of Emma Smith: “How often I have parted every bed in the house for the accommodation of the brethren, and then laid a single blanket on the floor for my husband and myself, while Joseph and Emma slept upon the same floor, with nothing but their cloaks for both bed and bedding.”11 During bouts of the swamp fever that plagued Nauvoo, Joseph and Emma opened their home to the sick. When there was no more room inside, they slept outside.
Relief Society also provided a setting where women could bolster one another’s spirits. Many sisters had sacrificed homes and even loved ones for their newfound faith. Bathsheba Smith, just eighteen years old, lived in an unfurnished log home where only a blanket-door kept out the winter cold. Two months after she gave birth to a child, her husband, George A., left on a mission.
Emmeline B. Wells lost her first son when he was five weeks old, and shortly thereafter her husband deserted her. Heartbroken, she later recorded, “How dreadful when I remember my agony at that time, my utter loneliness.”12 Later she married Daniel H. Wells. Similar scenarios were common. The sisters’ association with each other kept many women going.
By 1844 Relief Society membership exceeded 1,300. But after the martyrdom, and with increasing persecution, Brigham Young decided to “defer” operations of the society, and it ceased to function.
While there would be a 22-year hiatus from organized Relief Society activity, the foundation for an auxiliary of sisters had been laid and a model developed—one that welcomed all women regardless of age, nationality, or status; one built upon charity and spirituality; and one that demonstrated the strength and spiritual power generated when righteous women join together.
A precedent of providing relief—temporal, emotional, and spiritual—had also been set. Indeed, the key had been turned in their behalf.
In Winter Quarters Eliza R. Snow and others gathered in tents during the evenings to share testimonies. Amidst much sickness and death, sisters’ diaries recorded incidents of spiritual outpourings.13
Emmeline B. Wells said that “during all this time the sisters never lost sight of [the Relief Society] as it has been established, nor the promises made to them of its future greatness, by the Prophet Joseph Smith.”14
It was not until 1866 that Brigham Young instructed bishops to organize a Relief Society in each ward and called Eliza R. Snow (1866–87) to oversee the effort. Not long after the reorganization efforts began, President Young told President Snow that he had another assignment for her: “I want you to instruct the sisters.” In Nauvoo, Joseph Smith had done much of the teaching. Now President Snow rose to the challenge. Said one woman after hearing her speak, “I felt like shouting hallelujah while listening to Sister E. R. Snow.”15
Sisters rejoiced in having an auxiliary to buoy each other up against the rigors of pioneer life.
During the presidency of Zina D. H. Young (1888–1901), Latter-day Saint women endured intensifying national scrutiny and ridicule because of the Latter-day Saints’ practice of plural marriage. When in 1887, with the passage of a U.S. Congressional act against plural marriage, Utah women lost the right to vote (a right they had had since 1870), Latter-day Saint women joined the national women’s movement to support suffrage legislation. Local Relief Societies held suffrage meetings around the territory. Zina Young’s gentle nature endeared her to others, and she proved a genteel spokeswoman during a volatile era, with the result that the Relief Society began to exert its influence beyond the Utah Territory.
During her presidency, the Relief Society became a charter member of the National Council of Women. In March 1888 Emily S. Richards reported on the activities of 22,000 members of 400 local Relief Society organizations to the First International Council of Women: “They own many of the halls in which they meet, and such property is valued at $95,000. They have laid up wheat in granaries to the amount of 32,000 bushels, for seed or relief in case of scarcity. They assist in caring for the distressed, help to wait upon the sick and prepare the deceased for burial. … The Deseret Hospital, with a lady M.D. as Principal, and skilled nurses and attendants, is under their direction. They have fostered the silk industry, producing the raw material and manufacturing it into various articles. They encourage industry as well as intellectual culture. … [Relief Society’s] benefits are felt in every place where it extends, all its tendencies being to make women useful, progressive, independent and happy.”16
The early twentieth century saw the complexion of Relief Society beginning to change. For the first time, few Latter-day Saint women had personal ties with Nauvoo. The stark demands of pioneer life were gradually diminishing, the Manifesto had ended the practice of polygamy, and the Church was spreading beyond the Intermountain West.
General Relief Society president Bathsheba W. Smith (1901–10) felt that Relief Society needed to innovate and, while staying true to the divine principles it was founded upon, respond to the interests of women of all ages. As a result, the Relief Society published its first Mother Education lessons, focusing on child-rearing ideas.
President Smith felt strongly that women needed to be spiritually self-sufficient and that Relief Society was the place for that to occur: “It is plainly necessary that women as well as men, cease not while life lasts to study diligently for the knowledge which is of greatest worth.”17
The emphasis on education continued under general Relief Society president Emmeline B. Wells (1910–21). She felt passionately that Latter-day Saint women should be “the best informed of any women on the face of the earth,” and the Relief Society inaugurated the Relief Society Magazine in 1914.
Charitable activities continued to be a major thrust of the Relief Society, which owned livestock, real estate, and dress shops, the proceeds of which helped the needy. Wheat, which had been stored since 1876, was sent to survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and to World War I victims (the Relief Society sold 200,000 bushels to the U.S. government). During this period the Relief Society adopted the motto “Charity Never Faileth.” By 1913, the Relief Society Guide was released, providing lesson outlines for four meetings per month.
The three women—Clarissa S. Williams (1921–28), Louise Y. Robison (1928–39), and Amy Brown Lyman (1940–45)—called to lead the Relief Society from 1921 to 1945 had extensive experience with social, humanitarian, and welfare work. This dark period saw the world rebound from one world war, engage in a second, and limp through a major depression. Providing humanitarian aid and lifting sisters to new levels of social awareness were the themes of the day.
With the onset of the Depression in 1929, the Relief Society went where it was needed and did what it could, helping with community relief efforts, and, later, with the Church’s welfare plan. In 1937 the Relief Society established the Women’s Commission Store (later Mormon Handicraft) so women could market their home-crafted items.
Belle Spafford remembered Relief Society service during those days: “We would can fruits and vegetables working day after day after day. Almost before the bottles were cool, some of our finest people were standing in line to take the food. That’s the kind of situation we were up against.”18
During World War II, sisters sewed and donated thousands of pieces of clothing and quilts to the Central Bishops’ Storehouse, making it possible to help many European Saints after the war. Women sewed hospital gowns in work meetings, taught Red Cross classes, and assembled first-aid kits. After the war, Relief Society sisters donated, sorted, sized, mended, and packed more than 500,000 articles of clothing for distribution among European Saints. The Relief Society demonstrated that religion and service were one and the same.
When the war ended, new challenges emerged. The new general president, Belle S. Spafford (1945–74), wrote: “It is my conviction that the time had come for Relief Society influence to be felt worldwide among womankind.”19
During President Spafford’s nearly three-decade presidency, the Relief Society recorded many milestones. Her legendary leadership saw Relief Society grow to one million members in sixty-five countries. The Relief Society Building was completed after sisters donated more than $500,000 toward its construction. In 1970 auxiliaries were freed of the responsibility of raising money to support their activities and were supported by money from local budgets instead. And then, in May 1971, a change altered the face of Relief Society forever: all Latter-day Saint women, age eighteen and older, were to be enrolled as members of Relief Society. Every LDS woman was drawn into the circle of sisters.
Barbara B. Smith (1974–84) was called to the presidency of Relief Society during volatile times, with the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) arousing controversy in the United States. Under the direction of the Brethren, Relief Society walked a fine line, supporting women’s rights but opposing an amendment that did not allow for natural differences between the sexes.
Perhaps more than during any previous era, the Relief Society found itself in the position of representing Church attitudes towards women. When the ERA was defeated, the controversy swirling around the issue died down.
The Nauvoo Monument to Women—thirteen statues symbolic of Latter-day Saint womanhood—was completed during Barbara Smith’s administration. The monuments were dedicated in 1978 by President Spencer W. Kimball after women Churchwide had donated to its construction. For many, this ambitious project was a tangible symbol of the value of women.
Changes due to the Church’s rapid worldwide growth occurred during Barbara Smith’s presidency, as directed by the Brethren: the consolidated meeting schedule was introduced, providing for Sunday Relief Society meetings rather than the daytime weekday meetings; the first general women’s meeting was held in 1978, at which President Kimball implored sisters to become scholars of the scriptures20; and the Relief Society doubled in size (to 1,600,000 members in eighty-nine countries and sixteen territories).
President Gordon B. Hinckley instructed Barbara W. Winder (1984–90), when he issued her call as Relief Society general president, that her presidency would be for “a different time.” President Winder explained: “It is a time to heal, a time to bond women to women and women to men. We can have unity in diversity and diversity in unity. We don’t have to be like one another to enjoy sisterhood.”21
It was also a time to meet needs of Saints throughout the world, especially in developing and emerging nations. A new curriculum with two Spiritual Living lessons per month was introduced, stake Relief Society boards were eliminated, and wards were given greater flexibility in administering programs. Flexibility and simplification were key guidelines.
Perhaps the most significant development during Barbara Winder’s presidency was a move toward unity among the three auxiliaries. With the approval of the First Presidency, the Young Women and Primary moved their offices into the Relief Society Building, and for the first time the three auxiliary presidents traveled internationally together. This model of unity was a pattern to be followed Churchwide to make the auxiliaries more effective in helping bring women and children to Christ.
With the call of Elaine L. Jack, Chieko N. Okazaki, and Aileen H. Clyde to the general presidency in 1990 has come a refocusing of the mission of Relief Society—a focus to fit the times. President Jack says: “The women in this church must be singular in purpose. We must seek first the kingdom of God. Today’s frantic schedules and desires to have it all have produced some whose attention to the path has become cluttered by too many demands and too many signals.”22
The Lord has told us, through a living prophet, how vital the work of women is in the spectacular winding-up drama that will take place between now and the time He will come again. President Spencer W. Kimball prophesied: “Much of the major growth that is coming to the Church in the last days will happen to the degree that the women of the Church reflect righteousness and articulateness in their lives, and to the degree that they are seen as distinct and different—in happy ways—from the women of the world.”23
“We need each other,” says President Elaine Jack. “We must connect in ways that comfort and sustain rather than compete. As sisters in Zion, we still have pressing calls. We have calls to teach the gospel, to live by example, to share our understanding with our neighbors and associates, to bring souls unto Christ by the way we live and the way we love one another.”24
Relief Society is truly “something extraordinary.”