The Almost Not Relief Society

In case you missed it in all the St. Paddy’s Day commotion, yesterday marked the 176th anniversary of the founding of the Relief Society. Now I am by no means an expert in all things Relief Society. My experience lies solely within being married to a member of the organization for 30+ years, and working with our ward’s Relief Society as a bishop for a few years.

However, I have greatly benefitted from the benevolence of the Relief Society many, many times in my life. Mostly in the ways of good food, but also in service given to our family and, especially, my EC.

I’m a fan.

Yesterday I was chatting with my super-smart daughter, and she told me that you can read the actual minutes from the early Relief Society meetings in 1842 in Nauvoo. They are part of the collection “The Joseph Smith Papers.”  So I decided, in honor of the anniversary, to read the minutes of the very first meeting, held on Thursday, March 17, 1842.

Interesting stuff. Not just from a historical perspective, but watching the interplay between the brethren leading the church, and the sisters leading the “Society” is fascinating. I’ll retell it here, with much of it quoted directly rom the minutes.

President Jospeh Smith took a few minutes to explain his vision of the organization. It is pretty profound and powerful stuff for Day 1:

“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 female community, and save the Elders the trouble of rebuking; that they may give their time to other duties in their public teaching.”

There was a lot of business to take care of. President Joseph Smith gave them an outline of the structure, then he and his counselors left the room. While they were gone, the membership of 27 sisters was approved.

When he got back, he instructed the Society to select leaders, and by unanimous vote, Emma Smith was chosen to be the “Presidentess Elect.” She picked two counselors: Sarah M. Cleveland and Elizabeth Ann Whitney.

Elder John Taylor set apart all three sisters in their new callings.  Part of the blessing given to Emma Smith was recorded:

“He then laid his hands on the head of Mrs. Smith (note it was Mrs. and not Sister) and blessed her, and confirmed upon her all the blessings which have been confered on her, that she might be a mother in Israel and look to the wants of the needy, and be a pattern of virtue; and possess all the qualifications necessary for her to stand and preside and dignify her Office, to teach the females those principles requisite for their future usefulness.”

Afterwards, Joseph took some time explaining about how presiding works and how to run a meeting like this. When he was finished, he told Elder Taylor to “vacate the chair.” President Emma Smith and her counselors then “took the chair.”

As their first official item of business, President Emma Smith’s counselors made a motion “that this Society be called The Nauvoo Female Relief Society.”

Aaaand… there was pushback from the brethren.

“Elder John Taylor offered an amendment, that it be called The Nauvoo Female Benevolent Society which would give a more definite and extended idea of the Institution— that Relief be struck out and Benevolent inserted.”

They voted on it, and amending the name change from Relief to Benevolent got approved. But Emma wasn’t convinced.

“President Emma Smith then suggested that she would like an argument with Elder Taylor on the words Relief and Benevolence.”

So they voted to undo Elder Taylor’s name-switch, and Elder Richards made a motion to adjourn the meeting…

Not so fast there, Elder Richards. Nice try.

The Prophet objected. He wanted to give his opinion and hear what the sisters were thinking.

President Joseph Smith explained, “Benevolent is a popular term— and the term Relief is not known among popular Societies— Relief is more extended in its signification than Benevolent and might extend to the liberation of the culprit— and might be wrongly construed by our enemies to say that the Society was to relieve criminals from punishment — to relieve a murderer, which would not be a benevolent act.”


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  1. Anyone that says Mormon women are treated as second class citizens have clearly never met our women. I don’t know any that would stand to be treated as second class. RS is the greatest feminist organizations in the history of the world.

  2. After teaching gospel doctrine last year, I wondered if the got the idea from the care they received in Quincy, since after Quincy they moved to Nauvoo. I haven’t found anything to verify that, but it makes sense to me.

  3. MMM
    You always bring the most thought provoking things to light. Our early sisters were fisty beings, with independent thoughts, and had brothers who encouraged and got out of their way in righteousness. All good to know.

  4. While I was Stake Relief Society President for six years, I found the Stake Priesthood Leaders, especially the Stake President, with whom I worked the most, extremely willing to “ask, listen, consider” and, indeed, to make appropriate changes based on our input.
    Thank you for this post!

    1. Deb, I don’t know if you remember this, but years ago, when you were my stake RS President, I approached the stake with an idea about a small block of space in the ward directory educating people about Michelin’s LDS store.
      I got a call back from the Stake president a week later who started the conversation by saying, “your argument in support of this store has caused a long, heated, and thorough examination of the idea among myself, my counselors, and the high counsel. However, we have decided not to allow it. I’m sorry.
      But thank you for bringing it to our attention. And please bring future ideas you have. We appreciated your creative problem solving.”
      I can honestly say, I truly felt heard. Good men, those Bellingham people.

      1. I did NOT remember that, but it does not surprise me. Yes, they are–very good men. I enjoyed working with them, and with all the RS Sisters I worked with through out the Stake!

  5. One other thing of note-the women chose their own leaders. Even the president. The men withdrew each time the vote was taken.

Add your 2¢. (Be nice.)