Barbara Bradshaw Smith moves gracefully among the sisters of the Church, exchanging warm handclasps and frequent hugs with women around the world who look to her as president of the 1.5 million-member Relief Society. It is hardly surprising that women all over the Church had been drawn to her quiet dignity.
Not every woman will be able to meet Sister Smith personally. But she’d have them all over to dinner if she could.
“Barbara has a very deep empathy and concern for the women of the Church,” says her husband with quiet pride. And Douglas H. Smith is the first to acknowledge one of the vital sources of his wife’s strength and ability: “One of our children once said that whenever you give Barbara a call to service, you should set apart the whole family, because we’re all called to that same service. We’re all part of whatever Barbara does. In one way or another the whole family—the children, the grandchildren, the neighbors, friends—the associates of all of us are brought into the service to work with her and help her and sustain her. Because we enjoy being a part of her call as she has been a part of all of our calls. We’re a very close family.”
Sister Smith feels that Relief Society, like family, fulfills itself in “appreciating the blessings of the Lord; learning to smile; learning to take time for each other; learning to rejoice in this very brief time we have in mortality. It should be a time of service and rejoicing, and his Spirit should be in our midst. And it will be, if we let him make it so.”
“The Lord has always blessed me,” she recalls. “I’ve not had a negative life; it’s been a good, pleasant experience. Problems have come, of course. But I have felt that the Lord has loved me and helped me through them.”
Her daughter, Catherine Faulkner says, “Her many projects were never a problem to her; in fact, she made us feel a part of those experiences.”
“She is a very approachable woman,” comments Sister Mayola R. Miltenberger, general secretary-treasurer of the Relief Society. “Persons who come feel warmly received.” Adds Sister Marian R. Boyer, first counselor in the Relief Society presidency, “I’ve seen her be late for important meetings because of her concern for others.” Sister Shirley W. Thomas, second counselor in the presidency, says that “she is always gracious. People look to her for a kind of identity and strength.”
It begins at home. “She is never too busy for her family,” says daughter Sherilynn Alba, youngest of the seven Smith children, now married with two children of her own. “It was true when we were growing up, and it’s true now. If we need her, she’s there. I can’t imagine not having her here to get her opinion and counsel and advice.”
“She has a real gift for seeing what’s good,” says daughter Lillian Alldredge. “When I was little, she would take me with her all kinds of places, and she would talk to me so I felt needed and important.” Her loving concern extends to the grandchildren.
“The other day,” says Lillian, “I asked my children (the oldest is fourteen) what they would say about Grandma Smith. They said, ‘She takes time to be with us.’”
Time, for the general Relief Society president, is very valuable because she has so much to do. So she works hard to include family get-togethers, temple trips, birthday parties for the grandchildren, and dinner at the children’s homes. “We get involved with each other,” says Brother Smith. “If one has a problem, we all share the problem, if one has a success, we share the success; if one is called to service, we share the call to service insofar as it is appropriate .”
Sister Smith’s husband of almost forty years, president of Beneficial Life Insurance Company and currently serving the Church as a Regional Representative, describes their unshakable commitment to matters of supporting and sustaining—a commitment that has been nurtured through the years by mutual agreement. Both have accepted important civic and Church responsibilities throughout their married lives—but neither has been without support of the other.
His reaction to Sister Smith’s Relief Society call was an immediate vote of confidence. “President Kimball came to our home and said, ‘Barbara, I have come to call you to be the president of the Relief Society of the Church.’ And then he turned to me, and he said, ‘Douglas, would you sustain her in that call?’ At that moment I felt that the President of the Church was giving me a special call, a call to sustain my wife. And that was my call to service. I told President Kimball that Barbara had sustained me for the thirty-five years that I had been involved in Church service, and that it would be an honor for me to sustain her—which I have tried to do.”
The majority of women in the Church have heard or read Sister Smith’s prepared speeches and observed the friendly but businesslike demeanor with which she conducts a women’s fireside or makes a statement to the press. She is obviously a woman to be respected. But her warmth becomes tangible as she speaks from the depths of her personal conviction to a small congregation. Or when she takes your hand in hers and says, “I’m so glad to know you,” and you know she means it. At such times it is easy to love Barbara Smith—and we know the statement by her daughter Lillian is true: “She taught us to leave every room or place better than we found it. And she does the same thing with people.”
Sister Smith holds deep convictions, concerning the Relief Society and women generally. Following are some of her thoughts on areas of interest to Latter-day Saint sisters throughout the world.
We have changed some of the responsibilities of the stake board so that the counselors are responsible for information concerning the Relief Society program, and the presidents are responsible for information relating to the Relief Society sisters. We hope that this will make the members of Relief Society stronger than they’ve ever been before. The focus has been enlarged to give added impetus to the full breadth of Relief Society work. Members of the Board are now assigned to supervise many areas that were previously handled by the president. A person on the board works directly with each of our areas of concern—activation/missionary, curriculum/inservice, home-making/nursery, leadership training, music/recreation, single adult/transition, welfare, and visiting teaching/compassionate service. Generally speaking, wards are following the same pattern; and we’re delighted about that. The more people there are involved, the greater the response.
I think none of us really realize what a great organization the Relief Society is. One of the reasons it was given to us by the Lord was to help us gain the knowledge and the intelligence to act in this day. And it isn’t just the kind of knowledge that you acquire through academic learning; this is the kind of knowledge that can come to us by having the Spirit guide us. We really are only in the beginning stages. We have a good foundation, because we have had good, strong women in the past. One tremendous responsibility we have today is to gain knowledge and information, so that we will receive the blessings of heaven.
I don’t know of anything I’d like more to be able to impress upon the women of the Church than the importance of learning each gospel principle and applying it to their particular situation. You know, the Lord hasn’t given us two scriptures, one for unmarried people and one for married people; and yet, so often a single person will say, “Well, why don’t you have lessons that apply more to us than the others?” But it can’t be for one or the other. We all have to make the application as it applies to everyone else. The principle is universal. The sad thing is that we limit ourselves in our understanding. But instead of saying, “Why don’t you apply this principle to me?” we should say, “How can this principle, apply to me?” The Lord wants us to learn how to apply his principles to everything we do.
I want them to know what a great gift Relief Society is. I know that some of them have never had any connection with it in the past, but I hope that they will take the time to discover the great strength in older women and that they will recognize they have much to contribute to the organization. Relief Society is theirs for the rest of their lives; it is not a temporary assignment, but a lifelong organization for them, and the Lord has provided it to bless and strengthen them. They can get as much as they want from Relief Society, and there is so much that they need to give to it.
If you were to ask me what I would say to leaders about these young women, I would say be sure that you give them immediate responsibilities. Put them in positions; they need to learn—and they have much to contribute. I even see our young women being in presidencies as well as holding teaching positions and serving on committees. I see them becoming contributing members of the great sisterhood of the Church.
I have been told by a number of mission presidents and priesthood and Relief Society leaders that unless the Relief Society involves women as contacts or recent converts, they often lose them. But if the Relief Society gets the sisters involved, they are able to strengthen their families and receive the stability they need as they go through that period of adjustment. They are very seldom lost if they become associated with Relief Society.
The things that take place in the home make it a source of power; it is a place where the priesthood can function; it is where the examples of good living can take place. It’s the place where compassionate service begins, and where every principle of the gospel can be learned and lived. It helped us gain the power to grow and progress, the power to stave off evil, the power to obtain the blessings of eternity.
The effort to destroy the home is, I think, the greatest evil we face, whether it comes in the form of divorce or child abuse, or immorality, or depression—it’s all there to try and destroy the home and to undermine self-esteem and self-worth. We must strengthen the home—give it power so that those things don’t happen. Homes where parents are separated or divorced destroy one of the great sources of strength for an individual—the example of a husband and wife working together in love.
Each needs to understand that the other has strengths, special responsibilities, and an important purpose in this divinely organized church. They must strive to bring out in each other those things that will bring about the greatest blessings for all. For example, I think that for the priesthood to succeed, the Relief Society really needs to support it; we need to pray for priesthood leaders, and we need to be there to do whatever we can to help them. I think of that, for example, in terms of compassionate service. Women have a great opportunity to be very compassionate and they support the priesthood when they do this compassionate work. I would like to see more of that take place.
A wonderful way to serve one another is to look for the good in each other and “cease to find fault.” (D&C 88:124) If we would do that one thing—if we wouldn’t find fault with each other but would look for the good, then we would help each person to be better. Today’s society is “self” oriented and often faultfinding. I would like it to change from that; I would like us to say to one another, “You are special.”
Charity isn’t just deeds or words; it’s also the motivation behind them. I think Christ helps us understand the significance of doing good things; and when we understand why we should look to another’s need and reach out in love to help, we then lift ourselves above the mediocre. Trying to be charitable is trying to be as the Savior is. I think charity begins to take root when every day we work to bless other people.
You can’t pray for sisters every single day and then not feel a great love for them. I do pray that the Lord will bless the sisters. I pray that they will be unified. I pray that they will understand that the Relief Society is there to help them and that they will avail themselves of the opportunities it affords them. Above all I pray that they will have great love for one another.