March 17, 2021, marks the 179th birthday of Relief Society, the organization for women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The largest and one of the oldest women’s organizations in the world, Relief Society works every day to help those in need, build faith in Jesus Christ and strengthen families.
With the world currently plunged into the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic, the Relief Society motto “Charity Never Faileth” has come to mean even more as Latter-day Saints from around the world have rallied to comfort those who are in need of comfort. This episode of the Church News Podcast, released during Women’s History Month, features Relief Society General President Jean B. Bingham.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with leaders, members and others on the Church News team. We end each Church News podcast by giving our guests the last word and the opportunity to answer the very important question: “What do you know now?” We hope each of you will also be able to answer the same question and say, “I have just been listening to the Church News podcast, and this is what I know now.”
Sarah Jane Weaver: We are fast approaching the anniversary of the largest and one of the oldest women's organizations in the world. March 17, 2021, marks the 179th birthday of Relief Society, the organization for women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This global sisterhood works every day to help those in need, build faith in Jesus Christ and strengthen families. With the world currently plunged into the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic, The Relief Society motto, “Charity Never Faileth,” has come to mean even more as Latter-day Saints from around the world have rallied to comfort those who are in need of comfort, including each other and themselves. Today on the Church News podcast, we are joined by Relief Society general president, Sister Jean B. Bingham. March is also Women's History Month, and we take this opportunity to learn about women in President Bingham's life who have inspired and helped her on her journey. President Bingham, thank you so much for joining us today.
President Jean B. Bingham: It is a delight to be with you, Sarah.
Sarah Jane Weaver: As the world turns and takes time this month to think about women, what do you want people to know about the Relief Society?
President Jean B. Bingham: I want people to know that Relief Society is an organization that has power, really, to change the world. It was divinely organized, meaning it was created through inspiration, and it is a Latter-day equivalent, if you will, of this society that was the Lord’s pattern for organizing women anciently. In 1842, when the Prophet Joseph Smith organized the Relief Society. He said something very interesting: He said it was organized under the priesthood, after the pattern of the priesthood, and Eliza R. Snow, the second general president of the Relief Society, said, “It derives all its authority and influence from that source.” So it truly does have power. Today, the Relief Society is full of ordinary women who do extraordinary things as they exercise faith in God and Jesus Christ. They are women who love and care about those in need, which of course can be anyone, including us, at any given time. And they’re willing to step up and serve and are willing to speak up in defense of the vulnerable.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And right now, they’ve been doing this for 179 years. Let’s take a minute and look back and highlight a few of the remarkable things in the history of this organization.
President Jean B. Bingham: Well, you know, from the very beginning, when the first president, Emma Smith, said, “We are going to do something extraordinary,” Relief Society women working together have done some remarkable things. Early in its history, Relief Society women wrote and published a newspaper by and for women that, among other things, influenced the Suffragist Movement in the United States. And then recognizing that there were too many mothers and babies dying in childbirth in their communities, they sent women to medical schools in the eastern United States to become doctors and nurses and midwives, and they eventually started the first maternity hospital in Utah, which I think is very significant. They also learned how to grow, harvest and store wheat, sufficient that they had enough to provide emergency food for survivors of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. They sent wheat to China in their famine in 1907. And they even sold 200,000 bushels of wheat to the U.S. government after World War I to alleviate shortages. Those are just a few of the things they’ve done historically. And Relief Society also sponsored groups that met the needs of children and young women, and those groups continue today in the Primary and Young Women organizations. I also think about the numerous large and small service projects sponsored by Relief Society over the years, from the more than 100,000 quilts were made and donated to refugees in Kosovo, and then to the incredible outpouring of support for refugees around the world during the “I Was a Stranger” campaign that began just a few years ago. So there have been many things that the Relief Society has done in the history of the organization.
Read more: Relief Society at 179 years: President Bingham’s message to women, including those doubting their place in the Church
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and I was touched earlier this year when we saw Relief Society partner with other organizations in the western United States to make almost 6 million masks.
President Jean B. Bingham: Oh, that was an amazing feat. And really, it was accomplished by literally thousands of women who each sewed hundreds of masks. When many women come together to do good, they accomplish much more than they can on their own.
Sarah Jane Weaver: This year, we are studying Doctrine and Covenants, and as each of us pay attention to early Church leaders, as we look at “Come, Follow Me” and study those “Come, Follow Me” lessons every week, I wonder if you've learned anything specific about the women who were involved in the early Restoration of the Church.
President Jean B. Bingham: This year, as we’re studying the Doctrine and Covenants, I’ve been very interested to see how many spectacular women have been talked about. You know, in the Book of Mormon, we don’t hear very much about the marvelous women. Yet, in the Doctrine and Covenants, there are many by name. And we have many stories, historical documents, that name women and the good things that they’ve done. When I think back to those amazing women who suffered through so much privation and moving, and when you just think about trying to create a new household year after year, or being ostracized by your neighbors, all those difficult things that they went by, and being actually afraid of physical harm on a daily basis. I so admire those early members of the Church, those wonderful women who stood up and testified, who shared the gospel with neighbors in words and actions, who supported their families while their husbands were called away on missions, which (were) anywhere from three to seven years, as one of the brethren said one time, they just have my full-hearted admiration. And I’m really looking forward to studying throughout this year, and seeing many more of those stories.
Sarah Jane Weaver: It does show that collectively how strong we are, and I'm grateful that we also have a history of very, very strong women. You just had the opportunity to speak about empowering women through education as part of International Women's Day. Can you tell us a little bit about what that opportunity was for you, and what your message was?
President Jean B. Bingham: That was a wonderful opportunity to speak to women who are involved in the consulate activities around the world, from any country you can imagine. And of course, some of the same challenges are evident for women in all areas of the world. I shared some thoughts that day on the importance of education for women, because we know that females are disproportionately represented in the ranks of the illiterate around the globe, women have far fewer opportunities for education—not just because of economic issues, but because of cultural attitudes, which consider girls, women, less valuable, if you will. And yet, we know that research studies have overwhelmingly found that if women are educated, the economic wellbeing of nations and communities would be greatly improved in a remarkably short time, and the fabric of society is significantly strengthened in their homes and families. And so my hope at that event was that women and men of goodwill and good sense for work to change that culture so that females can have the opportunity to embrace education and improved societies where they live.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Great. Well, how does Relief Society bless the lives of women across the globe every single day?
President Jean B. Bingham: Women who belong to Relief Society serve others in an astounding variety of ways. Because of their faith in Jesus Christ, they follow His example in loving and lifting those around them. And because of their understanding of Heavenly Father's plan of salvation, they reach out to help others understand their divine worth, that we are all children of God. And because we see God's hand in our lives, we love God and we want to express our gratitude to him through working to make life better for those around us. Relief Society women encourage one another in developing talents, becoming better wives and mothers and really in fulfilling their divine individual potential as leaders in whatever arena they find themselves. Wherever I go around the globe, from Scotland, to South Africa, or Chile, to the Czech Republic, or the Philippines, or Farmington, Utah, I know I can count on women of the Relief Society to welcome me as a sister. I have felt that throughout the world.
Sarah Jane Weaver: A story that I often share, when I talk about the power of Relief Society, is a trip I took several years ago to Tonga, and I ended up on this remote island to write an article and there were no hotels or stores or anything on the island. It was just homes and two meeting houses. And the area presidency and the mission presidency gave me permission to sleep in the meeting house, because there wasn't any place else to stay. And when I walked in the room, the Relief Society sisters had brought mats and bedding from home. And they had made that room very special. And then two Relief Society sisters came and they spent the night at the chapel because they knew I didn't speak Tongan. And the bishop said, “Well, we just thought they could be here for you in case you had a problem,” and that message, that wherever you go in the world, even if it's this tiny remote island in the middle of the Pacific, Relief Society is there for you.
President Jean B. Bingham: Oh, I love that. What a perfect example of what we've just been talking about.
Sarah Jane Weaver: A few years ago, I had the opportunity to attend the United Nation Commission on the Status of Women where the Church was doing a side event. And I remember talking to some of the organizers who had made that side event possible. I asked why they had involved the Church. And they said that when a woman joins The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she immediately learns about hygiene and literacy, and she’s given opportunities to teach and to lead. And then, ultimately, she often sits in council in countries where that doesn’t always happen with male leaders, and they expect her to speak. And then I’ll never forget what they said. They said, “And when all of those experiences are complete, they go out into their community and serve.” And so Relief Society really does take someone from wherever they are, and strengthens them and their families.
President Jean B. Bingham: Oh, that is so true. You know, I think about Relief Society, even the name is actually a very apt name for this group, because one of the main purposes is to relieve suffering, whether it's physical or spiritual. And that is a power for good that Relief Society sisters all have a responsibility for.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, can you share a few experiences or stories that highlight the strength of Relief Society with us?
President Jean B. Bingham: Well, you already mentioned last year's effort to sew 5 million medical masks for the healthcare providers and hospitals and clinics in Utah, which turned out to be 6 million nearly, which was an amazing feat. And currently, the Relief Society is sponsoring programs to alleviate child malnutrition in different places around the world and to enhance literacy for women, both programs, which will bless countless individuals and communities and families. And yet, you know, one of the strengths of the organization is caring one by one for each other, making sure that each woman has a safe place to find support and encouragement as she learns and progresses in this life is one of the great strengths of Relief Society.
Sarah Jane Weaver: What advice do you have for young women who are turning 18, completing high school and becoming part of this Relief Society experience?
President Jean B. Bingham: Now, it's very interesting. As I graduated from high school, and I went away to college, I immediately became a member of the Relief Society and it seemed very natural. And I think maybe my message for young women joining the Relief Society is three words: You are needed. We need your energy and your talent, your faith, your creativity, your drive, your knowledge, they're all needed to make this world a better place for all of God's children, and avoid the distraction and thinking that Relief Society is for old ladies. It really is for every woman, from age 18 to 108 and beyond. It can be as relevant, as fun as invigorating, as it is comforting and reassuring of individual worth. I think one of the wonderful benefits of participating in Relief Society is the opportunity to have friends of all ages, from all walks of life, because we learn from each other. And we strengthen each other as we share testimonies and talents. And we need you young Relief Society sisters.
Sarah Jane Weaver: A few years ago, I was traveling with President Russell M. Nelson on his global ministry. And we were in Uruguay, and he was being interviewed by Sergio Rubin, who is the biographer for Pope Francis, and Mr. Rubin had flown in from Argentina to interview President Nelson, and President Nelson had agreed to answer any question that Mr. Rubin wanted to put on the table. And they allowed a few people from President Nelson’s media team to just sit in the room and observe. And as Mr. Rubin’s was going through this interview, he asked a question about women in the Church. And he said, “You know, a lot of people think that religions are run by men at the exclusion of women.” And he said to President Nelson, “You know, what do you have to say about that?” And President Nelson, who has nine daughters, and who could have actually given a really, really great answer, and I kind of leaned forward, I was excited to hear it. He did something that surprises me to this day, because he looked around the room. And he saw that Sister Sheri Dew, who’s a former member of the Relief Society general presidency, and an executive with Deseret Media Companies who was traveling with his media team. And so he saw that she was there. And he said, “Well, why don’t why don’t we let a woman answer that question?” He said, “Let’s hear from her.” So he got a chair. He pulled her into camera range. And I don’t remember what she said. But I do remember that when given the opportunity to speak about women in our Church, President Nelson instead turned to a woman to speak for herself. And so talk about that for a minute. How have general leaders empowered Relief Society sisters to step up and act and do things for ourselves?
President Jean B. Bingham: President Nelson has pled with the women of the Church to step forward and take your rightful and needful place in your home and your community and in the kingdom of God, more than you ever have before. I know that our Prophet and the Apostles are keenly aware of the challenges women face in the world, and they’re actively working to change the culture so that women can fulfill that prophetic mandate. I have had the opportunity of being many, many meetings, and observe and counsel with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and the First Presidency, and President Nelson individually. And I can tell you to a person, they are engaged in helping women realize their potential. We just need to take initiative and step forward and do what we’ve been asked to do and what we are designed to do. I see the women leading in the organizations of the Church, in Relief Society, of course, and Young Women and Primary. What a profound influence they have, starting from that very young age. What can we do to help all of our young people understand their potential, and work toward it?
I have to say one of the fun things about this calling is working with the Brethren. When we're in meetings, it is fun, it is delightful to be open and candid and share and feel that my perspective is valued and understood and acted on. So that is something that I hope every woman can experience in her leadership opportunities in the Church.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And a year and a half ago in general conference, President Nelson issued an invitation for women to learn more about the priesthood. As a result of that, you wrote an article for the Church News, as well as numerous other women leaders in the Church, about their experience with priesthood power in their lives. Is there something about that invitation and answering that invitation from a prophet that you learned about being a Latter-day Saint woman, and tapping into priesthood power in your life?
President Jean B. Bingham: I think that invitation from President Nelson, to learn about the priesthood and how to draw upon that power in an individual life for a woman was very enlightening for many of us, myself included. As a young mother, I did not understand, or as a young worker in the Church, I did not understand that I had priesthood authority as I was set apart by one having priesthood keys, nor that I had priesthood power from keeping my covenants. That was a very eye-opening phrase from President Nelson. And I have talked to many women; as a matter of fact, we talk about that every time we go to speak with women: To remind them to take that invitation he's given, and they'll discover how that works in their life.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Now, last year, you gave a talk in April 2020 General Conference about men and women working together, about them being more united. Have you had any feedback from that talk? I'm interested if you've seen any progress as far as Relief Society and priesthood quorums being more united in working together.
President Jean B. Bingham: You know, it’s interesting. Since that talk, there’s been more direction and interest in Elders Quorum and Relief Society working together. I’ve seen more men and women learning to work together, we’re learning to present leadership instruction together, there’s so many ways that we are understanding that we can work together, we’re not in silos. We’re not one so different than the other that we can’t help one another. But in fact, when we help one another, we really work together. So it’s been really interesting to me to see how the leaders here have absolutely embraced that.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And I also thought President Nelson sent a sweet message when a year ago, when he was preparing for April General Conference where we were going to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the First Vision, and he traveled to that sacred site before the COVID pandemic. And he could have taken anyone with him and he took you and Sister Joy Jones.
President Jean B. Bingham: Being with President Nelson in the Sacred Grove was a profoundly moving experience. I will never forget being there. There are many things that will always stay in my heart. For one thing, I gained a deeper appreciation for the boy Joseph Smith's First Vision. In other words, his incredible first experience with answered prayer, that experience in the grove impressed even more strongly on my mind. That the Lord prepares his prophets from an early age, knowing what they're capable of and how they’ll need to be appropriately prepared to serve in that capacity. In that vein, I gained a deeper appreciation of our prophet President Russell M. Nelson, he has been absolutely prepared to lead at this time, and is doing so with vigor, watching him bound along the trail, and yet stand in quiet contemplation. He is absolutely remarkable. I know that the Lord is his guide and director in every aspect of his life. And we can totally trust what he asks us to do.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And thinking about that Sacred Grove experience where Joseph Smith goes into a grove of trees and prays, and then compare it to this ability that you and other general Relief Society presidents have spoken so often about, which is the ability of every Latter-day Saint woman to ask for, receive and act on personal revelation, in their families, in their individual lives, and in their ministry as a Relief Society sister.
President Jean B. Bingham: You know, receiving personal revelation is absolutely critical. It's an essential component to making decisions that help us as individuals feel satisfaction, happiness, even in the middle of difficulties, as well as knowing how to go forward in our individual lives, and our families and our callings. You know, God gave each of His children the gift of agency, meaning that we’re responsible for our choices and actions. And in order to exercise our agency in ways that lead to joy, we must reach out to Him for guidance and direction. There are so many things in this world that can distract, divert, deceive us, if we do not go to the source of perfect truth. We are agents unto ourselves. So when prophets give us direction, we can ask God and know the truth for ourselves. We hear that over and over and over. And when we receive that testimony of truth, that gives us the courage and the strength to move forward and do what has been asked of us, or what the Lord has told us in our individual hearts. We can know with assurance the path that leads to fulfillment and happiness. Doesn't mean that we'll know every step along the way from the very beginning, but we can know that we're going in the right direction. I'm so grateful, I have to say, for answers to prayer when I've been uncertain what to do. Knowing that I'm welcome at any time of the day or night to discuss my concerns with my Father in Heaven. That is a precious privilege and opportunity that every one of us needs to take advantage of in order to make it through the challenges of this day.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well in your time as general Relief Society president the Church also made an important shift, and they shifted through the inspiration of our senior leaders away from the Visiting Teaching program and to ministering. Can we talk about the great strength of the ministering program of the Church?
President Jean B. Bingham: Absolutely. Ministering truly is the great strength of the Church. I don’t think people quite understand yet that that really is the key to doing the Lord’s work. Ministering is simply the term for an organized way to care for each member of the Church, and that’s what we’ve done. As baptized members, we’ve made a covenant with God to, as it says in Mosiah, to comfort those who stand in need of comfort, to mourn with those that mourn, and to stand as a witness of him and all things in places. And so when we minister, we’re showing our love in simple ways, and it can be texting or praying for their needs. And we seriously consider how we can provide support in difficult times, as well as help celebrate joys. Truly, ministering is just about caring about someone, reaching out to express that caring in ways that would be meaningful to that one. Our focus is to follow the example of Jesus Christ in observing needs, and then acting to meet those needs. That’s really what ministering is. And when we do that, we will be prepared to be a Zion people, because we will care as much about one another as you do about ourselves. We want to bring them with us to that happy place.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and all of our experiences in life sort of build on one another and allow us to minister in a higher and holier way. I was recently so touched by one of your social media posts on being a mother; specifically, a foster mother. I thought it communicated so much about love and unity and influence and hope. Can you tell us about how the experiences of your life before your service as general Relief Society president have strengthened and helped you in your current calling?
President Jean B. Bingham: As I look back on my life, I'm so grateful for the Lord. It's interesting how most of the time we don't see as we're going forward, what's happening, but we can look back and we connect the dots. And I see opportunities that I've had to teach English as a second language to refugees and immigrants, I see opportunities that that we've had to do some foster care, to simple things like medical training, and background, leadership opportunities and working with young women. Everything, when I look back in my life, has prepared me for the responsibilities that I have today. I'm so grateful for a father. I'm one of seven daughters, and two sons at the end of that little string, and my father empowered his daughters to do anything and everything that they wanted to do. I think that's one of the gifts that fathers can give daughters, that parents can help their children feel that they are capable, and encourage them to fulfill their potential.
Sarah Jane Weaver: You know, I’m the mother of three daughters. I can't imagine having seven, especially through those teenage years. That had to be a preparatory experience for you.
President Jean B. Bingham: Yeah, it was fun. I'm one of the older ones. And so it's interesting how my mother helped us to learn. There were so many children that we had the responsibility as the older ones to help with the younger ones, to get them ready for church, to make sure that their hair was brushed, and their teeth were clean, that they looked nice, and to comfort them when they had fallen down and hurt themselves or any of those kinds of things. We had the opportunity to learn and to love from a very early age, to take care of one another.
Sarah Jane Weaver: You know, sometimes we get questions from people at the Church News. And occasionally we get questions from young women, or from young single adults, or from other women who are doubting their place in the Church or their place in Relief Society. Do you have a message for them?
President Jean B. Bingham: My message to all of my sisters who may be wondering where their places in the Church is to absolutely affirm that your place is in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, giving your talents and time and abilities to lifting and blessing those around you. So often, we feel like we need to have someone give us direction. We don't use your own initiative, your own inspiration, your own personal revelation, to find ways to bless, and it really doesn't matter who gets the credit. That's one thing I've learned. If we're just concerned about lifting and strengthening and loving one another, the Lord will lead us. I can tell you hundreds of stories of women I have met who have quietly influenced others simply by the way they live, and the quiet ways that they reach out to be of service. We can do that. And we don't need permission to do that. On the other hand, I can say that as I have worked with the Apostles here at Church Headquarters, we are in the high level executive councils. And unfailingly, they solicit and consider seriously our input. I've seen many things change because of women sharing a perspective in those councils. There are some things we're going to have to change in the world at large, many cultures around the world do not value women as much as our Heavenly Father does. And that's something that we need to work on. And we're working on that to try and help each person in the Church to make that commitment, and we see that understanding.
Sarah Jane Weaver: We have a tradition at the Church News Podcast where we always allow our guests to have the last word, and we ask them to answer a very specific question. And that question is, “What do you know now?” And so as we close this podcast, I'm wondering if you will contemplate for us what you know now, after serving in and leading the Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and then I hope you'll be willing to share your testimony of this work with us.
President Jean B. Bingham: What do I know now after leading Relief Society for these few years? I absolutely know that the Lord Jesus Christ is in charge of this Church. I know that if we can harness the power of the women in Relief Society, no power on earth can stop this good work. I know that the Prophets and Apostles are keenly aware of the challenges women face in the world. And I know that our Heavenly Father loves every single woman and cherishes her as a daughter of God. I know that President Nelson is the Lord’s prophet at this time, and he pleads with members of Relief Society to fulfill President Spencer W. Kimball’s 1971 profound prophecy about the impact that covenant-keeping women can have on the future of the Lord’s church. And this is that time. I know that women have untapped potential and ability to lead and lift and love and strengthen. And when we forget ourselves and go to work, as the expression goes, we’ll be able to accomplish more than we ever imagined. I have a testimony that this work is of God. I have seen its influence around the world, I have seen women and men work together to make a difference, to change lives, to strengthen the good in the world. And I know that that is our mandate, and we need to choose to do that. We can do that. I know that this is the Lord’s work without a doubt. It is not the work of man. Heavenly Father allows us to help in order for us to grow and become more like Him. And I’m so grateful for the opportunity that I have had, and I say that in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News editor, Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you’ve learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast, and if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others.Thanks to our guests, to my producer KellieAnn Halvorsen and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel or with other news and updates about the Church on TheChurchNews.com.