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?
During the beginning of 1844, Joseph Smith was involved in a series of legal actions with a man by the name of Orsamus F. Bostwick, who was a blacksmith living in Nauvoo at the time.
According to a witness by the name of John Scott, Orsamus did not believe that Joseph Smith himself had spiritual wives, but was convinced that his brother Hyrum did.
In response to Orsamus F. Bostwick, Joseph Smith commissioned W. W. Phelps to write the "Voice of Innocence from Nauvoo" which was presented on March 7, 1844.
This response spoke of Hyrum's involvement in polygamy as "slander" (even though he had four wives at the time). The response called for the people to "shield" Hyrum and the women "from the blasting breath and poisonous touch of debauchees, vagabonds, and rakes, who have jammed themselves into our city to offer strange fire at the shrines of infamy, disgrace and degradation..."
According to The Church Historian's Press, "Publication of 'The Voice of Innocence' possibly fanned the flames of the swelling firestorm over plural marriage in Nauvoo" [The First Fifty Years of Nauvoo, p. 153].
On March 16, 1844, on the very last recorded Relief Society meeting, Emma exhorted the women "to follow the teachings of President J. Smith -from the stand." It seems that Emma Smith was aware that the brethren, her husband included, could indeed lead the church astray in their private teachings [Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, p. 126].
She might have been aware of Joseph's revelation to sell the copyright of the Book of Mormon in Canada, in which he is reported to have said, "Some revelations are of God: some revelations are of men: and some revelations are of the devil" [David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, 1887, p. 30-310.] She, likewise, might have felt that, just as with prophets in the Old Testament, the modern day prophets can also make mistakes. Much like Abraham lying about his wife, or Moses striking the rock and being kept out of the promised land, or Balaam who ignored God outright in His instruction to him. Emma could have also have felt that her husband indeed, had a weakness for the "softer sex" (as Brigham Young once put it). Stories had gone around about her friend Eliza Winters and Fanny Alger. Long before the revelation of polygamy was adopted, Joseph has already collected a number of spiritual wives.
In this same meeting, Emma "advised all to abide the Book of Mormon -Doctrine and Covenants &c then read that Epistle of President J. Smiths; written in this Book of Record.." At the time Doctrine and Covenants 101 was the published doctrine that condemned the practice of polygamy, which was later replaced by D&C 132, which allowed the practice.
On March 20, 1844, Emma amended the "Voice of Innocence" and had it published in the Nauvoo Neighbor.
“..We raise our voices and hands against John C. Bennett’s “spiritual wife system,” as a grand scheme of profligates to seduce women; and they that harp upon it, wish to make it popular for the convenience of their own cupidity; wherefore, while the marriage bed, undefiled is honorable, let polygamy, bigamy, fornication, adultery, and prostitution, be frowned out of the hearts of honest men to drop into the gulf of fallen nature, ‘where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched! and let all the saints say, Amen!
-Emma Smith, Pres.”
In response to further accusations that Joseph was living "Spiritual wifeism" Joseph made the following comment:
"I am quite tired of the fools asking me. -and now the new prophet has charged me with Adultery. I never had any fuss <with these men> until that Female Relief Society brought out the paper against adulterers and adulteresses..."
It appears, here, that Joseph Smith is blaming the women -"that Relief Society"- as being the catalyst for his troubles concerning polygamy.
"Relief Society -going to meet again - I say I will curse every man that lets his wife or daughters meet again -until I tell them -What are relief societies for? To relieve us of our best men -They relived 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-"
"When I want sisters or the wives of the members of this church to get up Relief Society I will summon them to my aid but until that time let them stay home & 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 but I know where the Chit [meaning seed or sprout] was laid but I am determined to stay these proceedings for by it our best men have been taken from us. One ounce of preventat(ive) is bbetter than one pound cure..."
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