President Jean B. Bingham, the 17th Relief Society general president, called in 2017, described the Relief Society as a “divinely established sisterhood,” while speaking at BYU Women’s Conference in 2019.
“You may not realize it yet, but Relief Society can help you accomplish extraordinary things,” she said. “It is a place of learning. It is an organization whose basic charter is caring for others. It is a safe place for sisters to bring their questions, and for those who are searching for identity and purpose. It is a place that will help us blossom individually and improve collectively.”
This year marks the 178th anniversary of the Relief Society, long-touted as the largest and one of the oldest women’s organizations in the world.
What began as small gathering in the “red brick store” in Nauvoo, Illinois, on March 17, 1842, has become a worldwide organization for good.
Emma Smith’s declaration from the organization’s earliest days that the Relief Society would “do something extraordinary” is continually coming to fruition as its membership and influence around the world increase with the spreading of the gospel.
From 20 women in Illinois to more than 7.5 million women around the world, the Relief Society has grown an incredible amount in the last 178 years and has accomplished many amazing things.
Here’s a brief look at some of the history of the organization from the late 1800s to the 21st century:
- To date, there have been 17 Relief Society general presidents — the same number of Presidents of the Church in the latter days. Here is the list of presidents and the amount of time they served in the role:
- 1842 – 1877
- In organizing the Relief Society in 1842, Joseph Smith said, “The Church was never perfectly organized until the women were thus organized.” At that initial gathering, 20 women were present and another eight were admitted without being present.
- As the Saints were forced out of Nauvoo following the Prophet Joseph Smith’s death in 1844, the Relief Society organization ceased operation as the Saints moved west. The final meeting of the organization in Nauvoo was held on March 16, 1944.
- Eliza R. Snow, the society’s first secretary under Emma Smith, carried the organization’s “Book of Records” with her across the plains.
- Although the Relief Society was not officially reestablished among the Saints settled in the Salt Lake Valley until 1867, Emmeline B. Wells made record of several smaller relief organizations formed among local women in an effort to continue the work of the Relief Society in the valley as early as 1851.
- Originally called the “Female Relief Society,” the term “female” was dropped in 1973.
- The Weber Stake Relief Society in Ogden, Utah, was the first stake Relief Society, established in 1877.
- 1889 – 1956
- The first general conference of the Relief Society was held in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah, on April 6, 1889.
- Although plans for a “women’s building” to house the Relief Society central headquarters were introduces as early as 1896, the building itself was not completed until 1956. Major efforts to erect the building were not undertaken until after WWII.
- Sister Belle Spafford broke ground for the Relief Society Building on Oct. 1, 1953, and it was dedicated by President David O. McKay on Oct. 3, 1956.
- 1966 – 1971
- The Woman’s Exponent had served as the organization’s record through its publication in the years in Salt Lake City. However, in 1914 the organization established its own separate publication, the Relief Society Magazine, which took over as the primary record of the organization at the time.
- In 1966, the magazine was published in Spanish, the first foreign language edition of the magazine — “Revista de la Sociedad de Socorro.”
- The book “History of Relief Society 1842-1966” was published by members of the Relief Society general board to bring the history of the organization up to date following the centennial in 1942. In the book, board members noted their excitement for having reached nearly one-third million members in the organization worldwide.
- 2004 – 2014
- The first worldwide leadership training for the Relief Society and other women’s organizations of the Church began in 2004.
- In 2006, membership in the Relief Society reached 6 million.
- In 2011, the Church published a book about the history of the Relief Society detailing the faith of the women throughout the years. The book “Daughters in My Kingdom” is not a comprehensive history, but rather describes the history and the work of the Relief Society through scriptural, anecdotal and biographical accounts.
- In 2014 the the General Women’s Meeting for general conference was changed to include all women ages 8-years old and up.
The Relief Society motto “Charity Never Faileth” reflects Joseph Smith’s declaration that the society would act upon the key words: “Said Jesus, ‘Ye shall do the work, which ye see me do.’”