At the Relief Society general conference in Salt Lake City on October 4, 1945, President George Albert Smith said: “By the time we have two or three more general conferences here, we may have visitors from Australia, New Zealand, Africa, China, Japan, etc. They may leave their homes in airplanes and in about twenty-four hours be right here.”1
General president Belle S. Spafford felt uplifted when she heard these words. After the meeting, she asked President Smith if he thought this could happen during her administration. When he said it could, she asked how that could happen. He said, “The Lord will take care of that.”2
Three years later, the Relief Society presidency hosted a special session for international sisters during general conference. Belle noted that every part of the world President Smith had mentioned in October 1945 was represented.
Today, Relief Society is the largest women’s organization in the world, with members throughout the world from Moscow, Russia, to Alice Springs, Australia, to Dunkirk, Indiana. During the nearly three decades that Belle S. Spafford served as Relief Society general president, she saw sweeping changes in the world and in the status of women. In the Church she saw the Relief Society grow from a largely western United States organization of a hundred thousand members to a worldwide organization of nearly a million sisters in 65 countries.
Born on October 8, 1895, in Salt Lake City, Utah, Belle was the seventh child of Hester Sims and John Gibson Smith. Her father, however, had died suddenly seven months before she was born, leaving Hester to raise seven children. Hester named her new baby Marion Isabelle Sims Smith, but she was known simply as Belle.
“Mother never allowed us to feel that we were without a father,” Belle said. “She would often say to us, ‘You have a father. He’s not with us, but he is taking care of us, I’m sure. And you have a Heavenly Father, and you have the father of the ward who is the bishop.’”3
Hester shared with her children her love of music, art, and good books and firmly implanted in their minds the importance of education. The Smiths took music lessons, served missions, and earned college degrees. Belle completed a two-year normal school (teacher education) course at the University of Utah.
The Spafford family also had support from Hester’s mother, Isabella M. Sims. Belle remembered that her grandmother wore a black silk dress with a beautiful gold watch pinned to it to Church meetings. One day young Belle asked her, “When you die will you will me your gold watch?” Isabella gently reminded Belle that the watch was of “small worth,” then said, “I’ll will you something else that I brought all the way from Scotland that will serve you into the eternities, I’ll leave you my testimony of the gospel.”4
Belle met Willis Earl Spafford at Brigham Young University shortly after he returned from service in World War I. Handsome and athletic, Earl played basketball at BYU. They were married on March 23, 1921, in the Salt Lake Temple.
Belle and Earl had two children, Mary and Earl. The children grew up in a home where their mother believed that “the most valuable contribution that a woman can make to society is to rear children who have internalized a sense of worthwhile values.”5
Her son, Earl, remembered: “Those of us who are close to her … have always viewed her not in the light of prominence, but as a warm and affectionate woman who always seemed to have time for the little things. … She has been our tutor, our comforter, our counselor and our confidante.”6
Belle also enjoyed telling funny stories. Earl says, “Mother is the only person I know that could tell the same old joke over and over again and get a laugh every time.”7
In 1926, as a young mother, Belle was surprised when her bishop called her to be a counselor in the Relief Society presidency. She responded by saying, “That organization is for my mother, not for me.”
Although she accepted the call, she did not feel enthusiastic about it. After three weeks, she discussed her feelings with her bishop, who asked her to “try a little longer.” Even after she was injured in a car accident, the bishop, with prayerful consideration, did not release her. She agreed to stay on and do her best.8
She began by following her favorite philosophy—“if a thing is worth doing, I want to put all I’ve got into it.”9 She said of this time: “To me the society needed lifting up and pushing forward. We needed to enroll more young women, and have programs a little more meaningful. We needed to do something on the homemaking day besides quilting. … So I worked toward these goals along with my president and the other counselor.
“Then the Depression came. … My Relief Society sisters and I would pick up the windfall peaches and the windfall apples. Then we would go back to the meetinghouse where the sisters would bring their pressure cookers, and we’d gather up the bottles and put them in great big tubs with boiling water and sterilize the bottles. We’d work all day long. And when the canning was done, before the bottles were cool, people would be standing in line, our fine families in the ward, waiting to receive the commodities that we’d prepared. … To me, that was Relief Society. Then I liked it. …
“It was a very converting experience. Someone had to do it. Why not the women? Why not the organization that the Lord established … ? To stand side by side with the brethren … , why shouldn’t we do our part? Then came the vision of it as an essential part of the gospel plan.”10
Now Belle was fully converted to Relief Society. Her vision of it as “an essential part of the gospel plan” grew within her as she served on the Relief Society general board (1935–42), as second counselor to Relief Society general president Amy Brown Lyman (1942–45), and as the ninth Relief Society general president (1945–74).
When Belle was sustained in April 1945 general conference, she had no idea that she would work under the leadership of six Presidents of the Church. She could not have dreamed of the changes she would oversee in Relief Society as the Church adjusted programs and policies to meet the needs of a growing worldwide membership. Nor could she know she would become the most traveled Relief Society general president the Church had ever had.
In April 1945 most Latter-day Saints lived in the Intermountain West. At that time, women paid annual dues to join Relief Society. Visiting teachers visited sisters with the goal of gathering money for charity. Church auxiliaries, including Relief Society, had their own budget and raised money for it. Each auxiliary had its own magazine. The Relief Society Magazine contained poems, stories, and pictures of Relief Society activities, as well as lessons for the sisters.
In keeping with its motto “Charity Never Faileth,” the Relief Society was involved in many compassionate service programs. Since Belle had skills and interest in social work, she expanded and professionalized the delivery of social services by the Relief Society in cooperation with the Church welfare program.
Belle reached out to the world through her involvement with the National Council of Women (NCW). Encouraged by President George Albert Smith to “take one or two of your ablest board members … and make your influence felt,”11 she did just that. Over the years, she served with distinction in many capacities. In 1969 she was elected president of the NCW and served a two-year term. Her involvement lasted throughout her lifetime.
Another of Belle’s accomplishments as president was the construction of the Relief Society Building, located east of the Salt Lake Temple. Asking the hundred thousand sisters worldwide to each donate five dollars, the Relief Society reached its half-million-dollar goal. Construction began in 1953, and the building was dedicated on October 3, 1956. It now houses the offices of the Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary.
As the Church continued to grow rapidly, leaders recognized the need to bring all parts of the Church under the umbrella of the priesthood. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, many responsibilities held by the auxiliaries were moved to other Church departments.
For the Relief Society, that meant sisters no longer paid dues or raised money. All auxiliaries would now receive operating funds from the ward budgets. Visiting teachers were directed to go to the sisters’ homes as friendly visitors and help build the spirit of the home; they were to give service instead of gather money. Beginning in 1971, all LDS women who were 18 and older were considered members of Relief Society; there was no longer any need to “join.” Also in 1971, three new Church magazines—the Ensign, New Era, and Friend—replaced the other English-language magazines. Auxiliary lessons were now provided by the Church Curriculum Department. Gradually the social services programs of Relief Society were moved to other Church departments, most to what is now LDS Family Services.
Some of these changes were difficult for Belle, especially losing the social service programs and the Relief Society Magazine, but she wisely commented, “Adjustment is painful in changing an old pattern into a new one, but we must make the new patterns fit.”12
Sisters followed Belle’s strong leadership and example of obedience. She said, “There is nothing more fundamental to the well-being of Relief Society than that it is organized by the priesthood.”13
Belle knew firsthand of the value of the gospel and Relief Society in the home. She saw her widowed mother’s example in raising seven children. In her own life, Belle also suffered personal loss. In 1963 her beloved husband, Earl, died of a heart attack, and within a year her daughter, Mary, also died.
Of the relationship between Relief Society and families Belle said: “Women who become active in Relief Society grow to love it. Their knowledge and skills increase, their testimonies of the gospel become firmly rooted. There develops within them a desire to help in the building of the kingdom of God on earth. This influence they carry into their home and disseminate among the family members. The home then becomes enriched, a place where the Spirit of God may dwell, a home prepared to fulfill its divine destiny.”14
Current Relief Society general president Bonnie D. Parkin says of Belle: “I think her teachings of the importance of family continue today. Belle believed in families. We love families. … If I could meet Belle Spafford, I would thank her for her vision, for her love of all women throughout the world, and for her great insights to want to make life better for women and families.”15
A few months before Belle’s release, she noted: “Tremendous changes … have taken place in the social, economic, industrial, and educational life of most countries in the world since Relief Society was founded. And I don’t think any change in the world has been more significant than the change in the status of women. … Yet, 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 the handful of women in Nauvoo are still important to women world-wide.”16
After her release on October 3, 1974, Belle commented that when she was first serving in her ward Relief Society presidency, she would encourage sisters to come to Relief Society by telling them, “We need you.” Years later, she would say, “Come to Relief Society. You need it.” At the end of her service, however, she said, “We need you, [and] you need it.”17
“Belle was one with everyone,” says Florence S. Jacobsen, who served as Young Women general president when Belle was Relief Society general president. “This made her a great leader because she could talk to anyone, she could approach anyone and be accepted. She had that quality about her.”18
After Belle’s death on February 2, 1982, many women told her family that Belle was their best friend. They echoed the sentiments of a nonmember friend who once wrote to her: “Many claim you in your church and in your family, but my dear Belle, you belong to the world.”19
President Boyd K. Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said: “You won’t know Belle Spafford unless you know her deep and abiding testimony of the Lord Jesus Christ and her testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith and the Brethren who have succeeded him in the leadership of the Church. If you begin to know that, then you’ll know something about this great woman.”20
Once converted to Relief Society, Belle Smith Spafford led women, in the Church and in national and international society, through an era of tremendous change. A dynamic leader, she was understanding and tactful but steadfast on principles and forthright on social issues. A mother, a sister, a friend, and a Church leader, Belle Spafford made a difference in the lives of women throughout the world.
“Years ago I saw a photograph [below] of a Sunday School class in the Sixth Ward of the Pioneer Stake in Salt Lake City. The photograph was taken in 1905. A sweet girl, her hair in pigtails, was shown on the front row [center]. Her name was Belle Smith. Later, as Belle Smith Spafford, general president of the Relief Society, she wrote: ‘Never have women had greater influence than in today’s world. … It is a time rich in rewards if we keep our balance, learn the true values of life, and wisely determine priorities.’ …
“You, my beloved sisters, know who you are and what God expects you to become. Your challenge is to bring all for whom you are responsible to a knowledge of this truth. The Relief Society of this, the Lord’s Church, can be the means to achieve such a goal.”
President Thomas S. Monson, First Counselor in the First Presidency, “If Ye Are Prepared Ye Shall Not Fear,” Ensign, Nov. 2004, 113, 115.