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History of Relief Society & Its Leaders
(Page citations all from Derr et al, see sources @ end)
RS began during construction of the Nauvoo Temple 1842-1843 (50-52) Outlet for the charitable impulses of LDS women in Nauvoo
• • •
Penny subscriptions for nails and glass Sewing work shirts, donating materials, time, income from wool, eggs, soap – home production Relieving the local poor (context: immigration)
Organized in 1842 with Emma Smith as president. Joseph Smith’s vision for the organization was more than just a ladies benevolent society, but seeing their work as an official part of the latterday church organization and as participants in the temple ceremonies (47). Prophet declared in April of that year to the group, “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 for this Society.”
Originally (until the 1970s actually) did not include all women automatically. Joseph Smith said of it in March 1842 that it should be (53) “a select Society of the virtuous and those who will walk circumspectly… the Society should move according to the ancient Priesthood, hence there should be a select Society separate from all the evils of the world, choice, virtuous, holy, a ‘kingdom of priestesses’ as in Enoch’s day.”
Emma Smith (served 1842-1844) – Under her leadership the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo raised funds for the Nauvoo temple, petitioned the Illinois governor to protect Joseph Smith, nursed the sick, cared for the poor, and gave relief where it was needed. During the early years of the Church, Emma suffered many trial and persecutions with the Saints. A revelation given to Emma in 1830 (D&C 25) through the Prophet Joseph Smith gave her instructions and promised great blessings, even a “crown of righteousness” if she obeyed the commandments. She was married to Joseph Smith and they had eight children including adopted twins.
Interrupted in Nauvoo, disbanded as an organization after Emma opposed polygamy. Small groups still met, but the society as a whole was disrupted from 1844 to the late 1860s.
(63) A Penny and Sewing Society met in Boston, and a Benevolent Sewing Society in Lowell MA. Ladies’ handwork society in the Nauvoo area and some groups of British converts met as Relief Societies. When first reconstituted, after the migration to Utah, it was by establishing charitable organizations for local Paiute Indians in the 1850s, to make clothing for them. Some women (77)
were set apart as nurses and teachers to Paiute women as an outreach to “the Lamanites” and then, later, expanded to collect and make clothing and bedding for the many immigrants (some of them close to destitute) arriving yearly in the Utah territory.
(why sewing? Remember – treadle machines not in wide use until after the Civil War; ready to wear clothing unknown. Need it? Sew it, BY HAND – hours and hours of work)
April 1868 conference BY told women, under their bishops’ direction, to establish relief societies (86) “for the relief of suffering and poverty” in the wards & stakes. Centralized organization happened in 1880 with calling Eliza R. Snow as the president and organizing the society “after the pattern of the priesthood” (121). Eliza R. Snow (served 1866-1887) – served as the secretary of the Nauvoo Relief Society and later carried the organization’s Book of Records to the Salt Lake Valley. She was a gifted writer and poet who wrote many of our Church hymns (including O My Father, which teaches about Heavenly Mother) and was a vigorous supporter of education. She was also very involved in temple work. In 1866 Brigham Young called her to help bishops organize a Relief Society (and later, Primary and the organization for young women) in every ward and branch of the Church. Eliza’s presidency emphasized spirituality and self-sufficiency. The Relief Society sent women to medical school, trained nurses, opened a hospital, operated cooperative stores, promoted the manufacture of silk (to reduce Utah’s dependency on “foreign” cloth), saved wheat and built granaries, and began publishing a Utah newspaper, the Woman’s Exponent. By 1888 the Relief Society had more than 22,000 members in 400 wards and branches. Eliza was sealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith and later married Brigham Young and lived at Beehive House on Temple Square with his family, although she had no children of her own.
Context: the same time as the Sunday Schools, Schools of the Prophets for men, expansion of temple ceremonies to the deceased. Soon to be followed by Primary in the 1870s and the Young Ladies Department of the Cooperative Retrenchment Association (later the Mutual Improvement Association (1877), the MIA or “Mutual” – the YMMIA founded in 1875). Lots of church institutional growth in these years.
1870s and 1880s Utah’s first female doctors (New England trained), founding of the Deseret Hospital – leaders in health care, education, politics (UT the first territory to meaningfully extend the vote to women), and publishing (e.g. the Woman’s Exponent 1872-1914, considered one of the leading newspapers in the west & not just dealing with issues of women’s suffrage) on the western frontier.
Zina D. H. Young (served 1888-1901), a midwife and an educator, worked closely with Eliza R. Snow in the Relief Society. In 1870 Brigham Young called Zina to promote silk production among the women of the Church as part of the Church’s emphasis on home industry and self-
sufficiency. During her presidency the Relief Society became part of the United States National Council of Women and campaigned for women’s right to vote. Zina continued the Relief Society’s emphasis on health care, grain storage, education and compassionate service. Many new immigrants who came to Utah were cared for by the Relief Society in these years. Widowed by her first husband, she raised two sons from that marriage, one daughter from her later marriage to Brigham Young, and four of Brigham Young’s other children.
Bathsheba W. Smith (served from 1901-1910) also belonged to the original Nauvoo Relief Society, and like her predecessors, endured persecution and trekked west with the Saints. She was known for her charm, graciousness and hospitality. During her lifetime she saw the Relief Society grow from a small group in Nauvoo to more than 400,000 members. While Bathsheba was president, the Relief Society continued to train nurses, store grain, and emphasize compassionate service. The needs of a new generation of sister prompted the start of mothering classes, the first formal Relief Society instruction. Sister Smith and her husband, George A. Smith, had three children. She was the grandmother of President George Albert Smith.
Emmeline B. Wells (served 1910-1921) had traveled with the Saints from Nauvoo to the Salt Lake Valley. She was placed in charge of the wheat storage program in 1876 by Brigham Young. A talented writer, she started the Woman’s Exponent in 1877. During her presidency the Relief Society experienced many transitions. In 1912 President Joseph F. Smith made the Relief Society responsible for all temple and burial clothing. In 1914 the Relief Society introduced its first study course. In 1915 the Woman’s Exponent was replaced by the Relief Society Magazine, which included visiting teaching messages and lessons for weekly meetings. In 1918 the Relief Society sold its wheat to the US government to help war victims, and encouraged wartime conservation and many kinds of relief efforts. Under Emmeline’s leadership, the Relief Society emphasized the sacredness of motherhood, raised funds for temples, supported legislation for women and children, and cooperated with community welfare agencies. As a widow with two young daughters, Emmeline married David H. Wells, the mayor of Salt Lake City who had four other wives, and they had three daughters.
Clarissa S. Williams (served 1921-1928) was a schoolteacher and a woman of humility and exceptional executive ability. Her presidency witnessed an increase of Relief Society involvement in the community. At her suggestion, money earned from the interest of the wheat trust fund was used in the 1920s for social services like maternal and child health care, i.e. each ward was to have a “maternity loan chest” for home births to help reduce infant mortality in rural Utah and throughout the European missions – this program worked well, and she was very proud of it. [The century-old wheat fund program ended in 1978 when the Relief Society handed over its wheat trust fund money into the general fund of the church.] Clarissa and her husband William N. Williams, had eleven children.
In 1919, under Sister Williams, the RS started a Social Services Department which instituted a church welfare program, did social work (helping families in need or in trouble), ran a women’s employment bureau, and an adoption agency. Several of the general RS presidents during these years were professional social workers and they aimed to do Relief Society work according to the high standards of that profession. (236)
Also at that time, the Church in the early 20th century transitioned from trying to gather all the Saints to Utah, to strengthening stakes around the nation and the world. (241)
In the early 1920s, LDs meetinghouses began to have Relief Society rooms built into them. Prior to that time local relief societies had built their own buildings as they had the funds to do so, where they held their meetings during the week. (242). During these years the Relief Society developed books and yearly courses of study to send to all the societies, which included child development, literature, and the scriptures.
Louise Y. Robison (served 1928-1939) – grew up in Scipio, Utah, where she learned much about compassionate service from her mother who served as a stake Relief Society president. Louise loved the temple, was an excellent seamstress, and especially enjoyed the Relief Society’s role in the temple and burial clothing department of the Church. She also loved music, and during her presidency Relief Society Singing Mothers’ Choruses were organized which became a famous and much-loved part of Relief Society. In 1937 the Relief Society opened Mormon Handicraft, a shop near Temple Square where women could sell their handwork to supplement family income. Louise and her husband, Joseph L. Robison, had six children.
(252) During the Depression, the government developed a federal welfare plan to help the many unemployed and poor people around the nation. The Church didn’t agree with this approach and thought that this money from the government was a “dole” or a handout with no expectation of a person working for it. Church leaders preached that the dole was a great evil because it took away a person’s self-motivation and self-respect. Although the Church cooperated with the new government agencies, and worked closely with the Red Cross, the relief Society helped lay the groundwork for its own internal welfare system. The Relief Society, with its experience in family and child welfare, was well positioned to help develop that program and put it into place in the wards and stakes. (252-256). Harold B. Lee, who was at that time a stake president in the Salt Lake area, was given charge of the new welfare program in 1936. Its purpose was to “turn the tide from government relief, direct relief, and help to put the Church in a position where it could take care of its own needy…Our primary purpose was to set up, in so far as it might be possible, a system under which the curse of idleness would be done away with, the evils of a dole abolished, and independence, industry, thrift and self respect be once more established amongst our people. The aim of the Church is to help people to help themselves.” (256) Families which had enough food, clothing and bedding to share were encouraged to donate them through the Relief Society to be
given to people who needed them. Women who canned their own fruits and vegetables were asked to give every tenth jar to the Church for the bishop’s storehouse. (258)
Amy Brown Lyman (served 1940-1945) – a gifted administrator and social worker. She directed the first social welfare department of the Church for 16 years, which was part of the Relief Society until 1969. She also served in the Utah legislature. While her husband was president of the European mission, she presided over the Relief Society in Europe. During her presidency the Relief Society celebrated its centennial (although some of the celebrations were cancelled because of the war) and marked a membership of 115,000. At a time when war industries were pulling many women into the workforce, Amy focused on strengthening homefront families and championed the role of mothers in the home. She and her husband, Richard R. Lyman, had two children. During the Second World War, those same principles helped the Relief Society adapt to gas and food rationing, develop emergency preparedness and participate in drives for scrap aluminum, rubber, paper, and clothing. A “home beautification” program was turned into a program about “victory gardens” to help produce more of a family’s own food so that the surplus could feed the soldiers.
Belle S. Spafford (served 1945-174) - At the end of the war, Belle Spafford was called as general RS president. She would serve from 1945 to 1974, through the terms of 5 prophets (George Albert Smith, David O McKay, Joseph Fielding Smith, Harold B Lee and Spencer W. Kimball). She was an educator, a writer, and a good administrator and she led the Relief society through years of great change. Under her direction, a large and beautiful Relief Society building was built near temple square with funds raised from women all over the world. The Relief Society was very involved in helping with sending goods and clothing to relieve suffering in bombed cities of Europe. The Relief Society championed something called the “Family Hour” in the 1940s, which would later be emphasized church-wide in the mid 1960s as Family Home Evening. Belle was widely known and respected outside the church also, and served as president of the National Council of Women in New York City in the late 1960s. She and her husband, Willis Earl Spafford, had two children.
In 1951, when David O. McKay became the prophet (317), outside North America there was 1 stake, 1 temple and less than 8% of church membership.
(331-340) Some of the challenges that came to Relief Society during these years included “correlation,” which did away with separate budgets, RS dues, and the weekly meetings for Relief Society, and the relief Society magazine which had been published for over 50 years (this is when the new 3 Church magazines began publishing all together: the Ensign, the New Era and the Friend). By the time Sister Spafford ended her term, all women were automatically part of the RS.
Barbara B. Smith (served 1974-1984) served as president during years of tumultuous political and social change for women and intense conflict over women’s issues. She was often interviewed
about her (and the Church’s) stand against the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution which had been passed by Congress but needed to be ratified by the states. She encouraged LDS women to be involved in their communities and represent Church attitudes about women without being combative or divisive. Barbara continued the Relief Society’s emphasis on disaster relief, emergency preparedness, and welfare. She also emphasized homemaker education and the importance of the family. During her presidency the Relief Society grew to about 2 million members worldwide. Barbara asked the women of the Church to personally commit to a lifetime of learning and active service. She and her husband Douglas H. Smith, have seven childen.
Barbara W. Winder (served 1984-1990) was a president with great compassion and humility. Under her direction the Relief Society emphasized personal spirituality and gave special attention to the needs of single adult sisters and the family. Barbara summarized the mission of Relief Society in four basic principles: building faith and testimony, strengthening families, giving compassionate service, and sustaining the priesthood. During her presidency, the Relief Society Building was remodeled so that it was the headquarters for the RS, the Young Women’s and the Primary and the three presidents of those organizations often began to travel together and work more closely together with similar goals. At the end of her leadership, the Relief Society had more than 3 million members in 135 countries and territories. She thought of the Relief Society as an organization that could bless each woman and family and an organization in which each woman could fully participate. She and her husband, Richard Winder, have four children.
Elaine L. Jack (served 1990-1997) – was raised in Cardston, Alberta, just half a block from the temple. Her vision of Relief Society was characterized by her great confidence in the goodness of women, in the unique contributions they make individually and collectively, and in the importance of strengthening families. She encouraged sisters to make “Charity Never Faileth” a motto of such personal significance that the whole world would be blessed. In 1992, the Relief Society celebrated its sesquicentennial with celebrations, pageants, service projects, and special activities. One special effort of hers was to begin a literacy effort through the Relief Society, to help all Church members gain basic reading and writing skills necessary to read the scriptures for themselves and to encourage lifelong learning, gospel study, and self-improvement. She and her husband Joseph E. Jack, have four sons.
Mary Ellen W. Smoot (served 1997-2002) emphasized the importance of the Relief Society working closely with priesthood leaders to help women and their families come unto Christ. Leading a worldwide organization with close to 5 million members, Mary Ellen traveled more than 200,000 miles during her administration. On one journey she helped with humanitarian aid in Kosovo (a province of Serbia) to relieve suffering from an ongoing conflict in that region. She also served on the World Congress for the Family Committee as part of her desire to help families. She published the Relief Society Declaration to help women realize their potential as daughters of God. Monthly “homemaking meeting” was replaced by Home, Family, and Personal Enrichment meeting. Monthly visiting teaching messages were reformatted to focus on gospel principles, scriptures, and
quotations from Church leaders, and to encourage women to bear testimonies to each other. Mary Ellen wanted women to be spiritually prepared to meet their challenges, to be examples of gospel living, and to move forward with faith and strength. She and her husband, Stanley Smoot, have seven children and fifty grandchildren.
Bonnie D. Parkin (served 2002-2007) led more than 5 million Relief Society women in 165 nations. During her presidency she focused on helping women feel the love of the Lord each day as they keep their covenants, exercise charity and strengthen families. She has a special commitment to young women and on the transition for them into Relief Society. She wanted women of all ages to feel they have a place in Relief Society. For her, visiting teaching is the heart and soul of Relief Society and is a sacred trust from the Lord. Bonnie and her husband are the parents of four sons. Julie B. Beck (serving 2007 - ) was most recently serving as a counselor in the Young Women’s presidency. She lived in Brazil as a child with her 10 brothers and sisters while her father was the mission president there and she learned to speak Portugese well (that is good, because there are almost a million members in Brazil alone, and it is the country with the largest number of missions outside the US). She has served on the Young Women’s general board and the Church board of Education, also as a Young Womens and a Primary president, and in the Missionary Training Center. She is a graduate of Dixie College in St. George and BYU with a degree in family science. She is also the niece of a former governor of Utah, Norman Bangerter. She has been a fulltime homemaker and she and her husband Ramon have three children.
Bios in blue come from the poster featuring all Relief Society presidents (except for Julie Beck; her bio came from the April 2007 General Conference report), found at: http://www.lds.org/pa/images/RSPresidentsPoster2004web.pdf
All the page citations refer to: Jill Mulvay Derr, Janath Russell Cannon, and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1992). [This book covers up to Elaine Jack]
See also: Janet Peterson and LaRene Gaunt, Elect Ladies: Presidents of the Relief Society (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1990) [This book covers up to Barbara W. Winder]
Carol Cornwall Madsen and Cherry B. Silver, New Scholarship on Latter-day Saint Women in the Twentieth Century (Provo: Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History, 2005).
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