The Relief
Society

On March 17, 1842, the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo was organized. Emma Smith was chosen unanimously as the President and Presiding Officer and subsequently ordained by the Prophet Joseph Smith to lead the organization. What did the Relief Society look like in the early church? What did they aim for in their independent publications? How has the Relief Society evolved over the years? Why was there a twenty year gap from 1847 to 1867? What did the Relief Society have to do with polygamy?

Timeline for the Relief Society

17 March 1842

The first Relief Society meeting was held. 

 

March 1844

By now the society has a membership of 1,331. 

 

16 March 1844

The last recorded Relief Society meeting took place. While the Church does not like to admit the reason for the Relief Society ending, ample evidence suggests that it was due to the practice of polygamy. It is true that three months later Joseph and Hyrum are killed in Carthage, Illinois, and that three years later, the saints migrated west, but these alone are not the reason the society ended.

To learn more, click here.

 

March 9, 1845

In the Discourse to High Priests Quorum the following was recorded: "President Brigham Young spoke... Relief Society -going to meet up again- I say I will curse every man that lets his wife or daughter meet again -until I tell them- What are relief societies for? To relieve us of our best men- They relieved us of Joseph and Hyrum- that is what they will lead to- I don't [want] the advice or counsel of any woman- they would lead us down to hell-"

Later that day in the Discourse to Seventies Quorum the following was recorded from Brigham Young: “When I want Sisters or the wives of the members of this church to get up Relief Society I will summon them to my ad but until that time let them stay at home. And if you see females huddling together, veto the concern. And if they say Joseph started it, tell them it is a damned lie, for I know he never encouraged it.”

 

1854-1858

At Brigham Young’s suggestion, the women started an “Indian Relief Society” that lasted from about 1854 to 1858. Its primary purpose was to clothe the Indigenous women. Brigham Young said that the labor among the local Indians was to "civilize them, teach them to work, and improve their condition by your utmost faith and diligence" [Brigham Young, Discourse, Oct. 9, 1854]. Responding additionally to Parley P. Pratt's call, seventeen women organized a "Society of females for the purpose of making clothing for Indian women and Children." One of the new missionaries, T. D. Brown, wrote at Parley's suggestion: "We are much in want of old clothing, especially shirts, to help cover the nakedness of the Indians, especially of the women. What will the Salt Lake Saints do about it?" [Deseret News, June 22, 1854].

Other, smaller and localized Relief Societies began to operate during this time. "Largely isolated within local wards or congregations, most of the Relief Societies organized during this period functioned for four years or less, and sometimes discontinuously" [The First Fifty Years of Relief Society, p. 177]. For example, the Female Relief Society of the City Bountiful, operated for only six months. Documentation exists for some twenty-five ward Relief Societies in the 1850s. These early Utah societies "lacked the centralized leadership, organizational procedures, and expanded responsibilities that strengthened and invigorated those permanently reestablished after 1867" [Ibid, p. 177].

 

9 December, 1867 

Brigham Young formally calls on bishops to reestablish the Relief Society in every ward. Relief Society begins again, but only at a ward level, not generally. 

"Now, Bishops, you have smart women for wives, many of you; let them organize Female Relief Societies in the various wards. We have many talented woman among us, and we wish their help in this matter. Some may think this is a trifling thing, but it is not; and you will find that the sisters will be the mainspring of the movement. Give them the benefit of your wisdom and experience, give them your influence, guide and direct them wisely and well, and they will find rooms for the poor, and obtain the means for supporting them ten times quicker than even the Bishop could. If he should go or send to a man for a donation, and if the person thus visited should happen to be cross or out of temper for some cause, the likelihood is that while in that state of feeling he would refuse to give anything; and so a variety of causes would operate to render the mission an unsuccessful one. But let a sister appeal for the relief of suffering and poverty, and she is almost sure to be successful, especially if she appeals to those of her own sex. If you take this course you will relieve the wants of the poor a great deal better than they are now dealt by. We recommend these Female Relief Societies to be organized immediately" [Brigham Young, Discourse, December 8, 1867].

 

1872

The Relief Society supported the publication of the Woman's Exponent that lasted for forty-three years, until 1915. 

This same year, the Relief Society sisters were encouraged to receive medical training. President Smoot encouraged the women to open a school “of medicine and surgery for the instruction of females.” He went on to ask, “Why should not the women of Utah take measures for gaining knowledge of the physical organization of the human system, especially that of the females, that the ladies of our community might receive, when necessary, medical or surgical treatment from those of their own sex?” He also said that this endeavor could help the women “to assert their right to hold public office” [“Minutes of a Special Meeting of the F. R. Societies of Provo,” Woman’s Exponent, Sept. 15, 1872, 1:58]

 

1876

In 1876 President Brigham Young put Sister Emmeline B. Wells in charge of a grain-saving program in which Relief Society sisters worked together to procure and store grain. In the early 1880s, some of the male priesthood leaders frequently sought to gain control of grain program resources for other purposes. 

In 1883 the Church leaders wrote the bishops: "The wheat has been collected by members of the [Relief] Society in the various wards at considerable trouble and they are the proper custodians thereof and responsible therefore to the parties from whom it has been obtained. No bishop has any right because of authority as a presiding officer in the ward, to take possession of the grain" {"To the Bishops of the Various Wards," Woman's Exponent 12 (15 July 1883):28] This was still the Church policy in 1896 when Wilford Woodruff told Zina D. Huntington Young, Eliza R. Snow's successor as head of the Relief Society, that even the president of the Church "had no right to take a handful of wheat and dispose of it" [Relief Society General Board, Minutes of the General Conference of the Relief Society, 2 April 1896, 2:24]. 

Further Reading: "Grain Storage: The Balance of Power Between Priesthood Authority and Relief Society Autonomy" by Jessie L. Embry

 

17 July, 1882

The Relief Society established the Deseret Hospital. In 1883, Eliza R. Snow reflected on the establishment of the hospital: "With the approval of the First Presidency, we commenced the Hospital as no other women on earth except Latter-day Saints would have undertaken so gigantic an enterprise -i.e. with nothing" ["The Deseret Hospital," Deseret News, Aug. 1, 1883, 435].

Funding for the hospital came from a variety of sources including subscriptions, donations from Primary children, benefit concerts, in-kind contributions, and circulars that were sent to local church leaders soliciting financial assistance. During its first months of operation the hospital served, on average, between twelve and twenty patients per month ["Desert Hospital," Desert News, Dec. 13, 1882].

 

1894

After only twelve years of operation, the Deseret Hospital closed its doors. According to Leonard J. Arrington, the hospital's demise was due to a number of financial factors, such as that most of the patients were unable to pay for their treatment.

 

1901

President Lorenzo Snow, outlined the assets, the growth, and the ability of the Relief Society as an autonomous structure. "You are the only ones among the Saints who are doing anything in a financial way against a day of famine" [Deseret Evening News, July 9, 1901]. At this time the Relief Society raised its own funds and maintained its own real estate. President Snow then listed off what the Relief Society had: 103,783 bushels of grain, along with flour and beans; $3, 331, and that it was 30,000 members strong "with a building fund of nearly $5,000 and with upwards of $100,000 worth of property in your possession." President Snow had designated a lot for the Relief Society. Snow was unable to fulfill his promise to the sisters as he died just three months later.

 

1909

In 1909, after the Relief Society had raised most of the money needed to build their headquarters, Smith reversed his predecessor’s decision and reassigned the lot intended for Relief Society to the Presiding Bishopric, requiring the women to donate their building fund to the Presiding Bishopric for a Bishops’ Building instead of the long awaited Women’s Building.  The Relief Society was granted use of a few rooms within the new building to meet in but as part of this arrangement, the Presiding Bishopric began supervising Relief Society efforts [Church's website - Church History].

Further Reading: "Outside the Mormon Hierarchy: Alternative Aspects of Institutional Power" by Jill Mulvay Derr and C. Brooklyn Derr

 

1913

"Charity Never Faileth" became the Relief Society motto.

 

1915

The Relief Society Magazine replaced the Woman's Exponent. It runs for fifty-six years, until it is discontinued in 1971.

 

1918

In 1918, the government of the United States of America requested to purchase the Relief Society grain storage to address worldwide grain shortages.  Without consulting the Relief Society, the First Presidency and the Presiding Bishopric sold the Relief Society’s entire grain supply—the work of four decades—and placed the funds from the sale in an account controlled by the Presiding Bishopric, not the Relief Society. Emmeline Wells, now serving as President of the Relief Society, was understandably upset that Relief Society assets had been sold without her permission. Bishop Nibley apologized but also changed policy; going forward, the Presiding Bishopric would have the final say about the Relief Society’s grain program and the moneys resulting from grain sales.


 

1923

President Heber J. Grant told the members: “We wish also to have it clearly understood that all auxiliary associations operate under the direct presidency and supervision of stake and ward priesthood authorities, who carry the ultimate responsibility for the work of these organizations" [Journal of Mormon History vol. 36, no. 2, Spring 2010, p. 216; this same teaching appears in 2005 'The Doctrinal Foundations of Auxiliaries" by Richard G. Scott].

 

1940

J. Reuben Clark had written a "Memorandum of Suggestions" and wished the auxiliaries to reduce their "unnecessary activities" and focus more on the central mission -build testimony, strengthen the family, and help the poor. He asked the Relief Society to "pull back" from its broad agenda and focus more on the welfare plan. He urged the Relief Society to give up its educational work and leave the “merely social, cultural, and educational” to other community agencies. He called upon the Relief Society to assume its rightful position as the “handmaid of the priesthood." He also discouraged the Relief Society's practice of leading out in independent... spheres of activity" [Journal of Mormon History Vol. 36, No. 2, Spring 2010, p. 242].

In addition to the changes J. Reuben Clark was making, he proposed that the Church do away with such magazines as the Relief Society Magazine and the Children's Friend, and combine them into one. President Amy Lyman discussed the matter with her counselors and "they asserted that the Relief Society was one of the oldest women’s organizations in existence and had long been regarded as the premier woman’s organization of the Church, a 'companion to the Priesthood.' As such, it stood higher in the estimation of LDS women than any of the other Church auxiliaries. For all these reasons, Relief Society leaders reasoned, the organization deserved a periodical of its own. Indeed, it had been served with its own publications for nearly seventy years, first by the Woman’s Exponent, then, after 1914, by the Relief Society Magazine, periodicals tailored to the specific needs of Mormon women. They not only entertained and inspired but also provided invaluable sources of information to women in even the most isolated areas. They had represented and unified a large and diverse organization" [Journal of Mormon History Vol. 36, No. 2, Spring 2010, p. 248]. Clark backed away from his suggestion and the Relief Society Magazine was spared for another thirty years.

 

1944

Visiting Teachers stop collecting donations and focus instead on ministering to the sisters they visit.

 

1969 

The Relief Society Social Service Department is incorporated into Church Welfare and Social Services.

 

1971

During the battle of the Equal Rights Amendment, the Relief Society Magazine was discontinued and was replaced with the Ensign magazine, thus ending nearly a hundred years of the publication of exclusively women's voices. 

Under Harold B. Lee's correlation efforts, President Amy Brown Lyman expressed concern that women would not want to join the Relief Society if it abandoned its projects. In response, the church made membership of the Relief Society automatic for all females in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints above the age of eighteen.

 

1978

According to an article from Ordain Women: "As part of this correlation effort, in 1978 the Relief Society transferred the last of its assets to the First Presidency: 266,291 bushels of wheat and nearly 2 million dollars in other assets.  In exchange, the Relief Society would at last be funded by tithing dollars, saving women from the expense of paying for Relief Society programs with additional money. Mormon women would also cooperate with male priesthood holders in the holistic work of the church through the newly established council system" ["How Mormon Women Were Correlated Out of LDS Church Finances"].

 

16 September, 1978

The first general Relief Society meeting is held. 

 

1992

Despite the Relief Society having been disbanded for over twenty years (from 1844-1867), the sisters celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Relief Society by participating in service projects in their communities. 

 

23, September, 1995

Although the sisters had already prepared talks for the Relief Society conference, two weeks prior, Gordon B. Hinckley asked the women if he could read the new proclamation on the family and change their talks to fit his message. The sisters agreed. In an interview with Greg Prince, Sister Chieko N. Okazaki (the first counselor to Elaine L. Jack in the Relief Society General Presidency from 1990-1997) made the following statements:

Okazaki: “...when “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” was written, the Relief Society presidency was asked to come to a meeting. We did, and they read this proclamation. It was all finished. The only question was whether they should present it at the priesthood meeting or at the Relief Society meeting. It didn’t matter to me where it was presented. What I wanted to know was, “How come we weren’t consulted?” 

Greg Prince: You didn’t even know it was in the works? 

Chieko Okazaki: No. They just asked us which meeting to present it in, and we said, “Whatever President Hinckley decides is fine with us.” He decided to do it at the Relief Society meeting. The apostle who was our liaison said, “Isn’t it wonderful that he made the choice to present it at the Relief Society meeting?” Well, that was fine, but as I read it I thought that we could have made a few changes in it. Sometimes I think they get so busy that they forget that we are there…”

 

1997

The Church does away with specific lessons geared toward the men and women and instead give the Relief Society, High Priest Groups, and Elder's Quorum, the same curriculum to study on Sundays. 

 

2004

Despite having existed as a General Relief Society since 1978, for twenty-six years, the Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary general presidents participate in the first worldwide leadership training meeting for auxiliaries.

 

2009

In the early church, the women had to petition to become members of the Relief Society. In the 1971 the church changed the Relief Society to automatically include any female member of the Church eighteen years of age and older. In 2009, the Relief Society membership reached six million. 

 

April 1, 2018

LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson announces that ministering will replace home and visiting teaching programs during the Sunday afternoon session of the 188th Annual General Conference.

 

Present

According to an article from Ordain Women: "Today, women may provide input on church finances as they serve on church councils but may not make final decisions. Women are always outnumbered by men as a matter of policy and remain excluded from many councils altogether.  Women are barred from most LDS finance-related callings and assignments, such as clerk or auditor.  In 2015, the church finally admitted women—or rather, one greatly outnumbered woman—to each of three high-level priesthood councils from which women had previously been barred.  However, women are still absent from the Council on the Disposition of the Tithes and the Correlation Executive Committee. This is an important oversight, given the impact of correlation on Mormon women over history" ["How Mormon Women Were Correlated Out of LDS Church Finances"].

 

TL:DR

After just two years the Relief  Society ended, evidence suggests it was due to polygamy. In the 1850s, smaller, local Relief Societies cropped up, but didn't last long. At Brigham's request, The Indian Relief Society began in 1854. Its main focus was to clothe the indigenous women. In 1867, after over twenty years, Brigham Young reestablished the Relief Societies on a ward level. In 1876, the Relief Society began to store grain, many of the priesthood holders tried to take control of the grain storage. The prophets reassured the Relief Society that the grain was fully theirs. In 1882, after encouragement from the leaders, the Relief Society started the Deseret Hospital which lasted only twelve years and ended due to financial reasons. In 1901, the prophet promised the RS a building, if they earned enough money. Eight years later the new prophet took the money from the RS and purchased the promised building for the Presiding Bishopric and allowed the RS "a few rooms." In 1918 the Church leaders took away the grain and sold it to the government, taking sole control over the finances it produced. In 1923, the RS was formally put under the control of the Brethren. In 1940, J. Reuben Clark threatens to take away the Relief Society Magazine in the church's correlation efforts. The women, understandably protest and Clark backs off the suggestion. In 1971, the church takes away the RS Magazine and implements the Ensign instead. Due to decline in the RS, President Amy Lyman expresses concern that none of the women would want to join the RS. In response, the church makes RS enrollment automatic. In 1978, the RS turns over the last of its assets to the Brethren: 266,291 bushels of wheat and nearly 2 million dollars in other assets. Later that year, the first General RS Meeting is held. The women today continue to have limited influence in the financial decisions and in all of the decisions within the chuch.

 

Further Reading

Grain Storage: The Balance of Power Between the Priesthood Authority and Relief Society Autonomy by Jessie L. Embry (click here or below for the audio version, or here for the PDF version)

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