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.”
(Apparently, there were a lot of civic groups at the time that used the term “Benevolent,” much as we use the term “Charitable” today. Relief, in a legal aspect could be misconstrued to give the idea that the purpose was to help get charges dropped, or judgments overturned – so the concern was legit – especially to someone like Joseph Smith who had to petition for legal relief on a regular basis.)
President Emma Smith said “the popularity of the word benevolent is one great objection— no person can think of the word as associated with public Institutions, without thinking of the Washingtonian Benevolent Society which was one of the most corrupt Institutions of the day— we do not wish to have it called after other Societies in the world.”
(Please note that this is not only the prophet and the R.S. President discussing this, it was also husband and wife.)
“President Joseph Smith arose to state that he had no objection to the word Relief— that on question they ought to deliberate candidly and investigate all subjects.”
“Counselor Cleveland arose to remark concerning the question before the house, that we should not regard the idle speech of our enemies— we design to act in the name of the Lord— to relieve the wants of the distressed, and do all the good we can.”
“Eliza R. Snow arose and said that she felt to concur with the President with regard to the word Benevolent, that many Societies with which it had been associated, were corrupt,— that the popular Institutions of the day should not be our guide— that as daughters of Zion, we should set an example for all the world, rather than confine ourselves to the course which had been heretofore pursued— one objection to the word Relief is, that the idea associated with it is that of some great calamity— that we intend appropriating on some extraordinary occasions instead of meeting the common occurrences.”
“President Emma Smith remarked— we are going to do something extraordinary— when a boat is stuck on the rapids with a multitude of Mormons on board we shall consider that a loud call for relief— we expect extraordinary occasions and pressing calls.”
“President Taylor arose and said— I shall have to concede the point— your arguments are so potent I cannot stand before them— I shall have to give way.”
President Joseph Smith said I also shall have to concede the point, all I shall have to give to the poor, I shall give to this Society.”
Counselor Whitney moved, that this Society be called The Nauvoo Female Relief Society— second by Counselor Cleveland.”
So there it was: The official name was to be “The Nauvoo Female Relief Society.”
Almost. One more tweak.
“Eliza R. Snow offered an amendment by way of transposition of words, instead of The Nauvoo Female Relief Society, it shall be called “The Female Relief Society of Nauvoo.”
The name was seconded by President Joseph. Smith and carried unanimously.
And that, my friends is how the Relief Society got its name.
A couple of things I found to be quite interesting:
• It appears that all three men in the First Presidency disagreed with the sisters on the naming of the organization. Yet, they allowed both sides to explain their position, and then relented – accepting and following the counsel of the sisters.
I do hope that in today’s church there are men in leadership roles who do this exact thing. Ask, listen, consider, and when it makes sense, be willing to change. That’s the pattern we are shown – even on Day 1of the R.S. – and it can be a beautiful thing.
• The Prophet’s counsel at the beginning of the meeting went beyond merely serving others to include this line: “to assist: by correcting the morals and strengthening the virtues of the female community.” In our modern ‘don’t judge me’ world, this is quite a delicate task, but a task nonetheless.
• Eliza R. Snow’s comment that “the popular Institutions of the day should not be our guide— that as daughters of Zion, we should set an example for all the world, rather than confine ourselves to the course which had been heretofore pursued.”
Brilliant! She saw that it should – and would – be different from all the other organizations in the world. If the world goes one way, we should go a different direction. Think about this simple thought in context of today’s societal pressures.
• President Emma Smith wasn’t merely thinking big when she said, “We are going to do something extraordinary.”
Her vision was undeniably correct. For 176 years the Relief Society has done their thing, in their way – the Lord’s way – regardless of how the world does its thing – and it has been “extraordinary,” indeed.
Link to the RS Minutes in the Joseph Smith Papers: (Click here)
Note: This might make a good Priesthood lesson for the men and boys.