Sarah Jane Weaver: Why studying the past will help us shape the future

On March 17, 1842 — 181 years ago this week — 20 women met in the Red Brick Store in Nauvoo to organize the Relief Society

In spring 1842, as Latter-day Saints labored to build the temple in Nauvoo, IIlinois, a group of women met in Sarah M. Kimball’s home to discuss how they could contribute to the temple project.

As was popular in that era, the women wrote a constitution and bylaws to form their own organization and asked Joseph Smith to review them.

The Prophet said the work the women had done was “the best he had ever seen.” Then he added: “This is not what you want. Tell the sisters their offering is accepted of the Lord, and He has something better for them than a written constitution.”

The next week, on March 17, 1842 — 181 years ago next week — 20 women met in the Red Brick Store in Nauvoo. Joseph Smith told them they were encouraged to search “after objects of charity.” Emma Smith, Relief Society’s first president, declared: “We are going to do something extraordinary. ... We expect extraordinary occasions and pressing calls.”

Graphic designer, Nicole Erickson-Walkenhorst was involved in the design of one of the latest Church publications, “Daughters in My Kingdom,” which is a history of the Relief Society. Erickson-Walkenhorst works in her office at the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2011. | Mike Terry, Deseret News

Their story is recorded in “Daughters in My Kingdom: The History and Work of Relief Society,” which also notes that early minutes of Relief Society are filled with manifestations of the powerful work of Relief Society — “of ordinary women doing extraordinary things.”

  • “Mrs. Hawkes spoke of the Drury family — still sick needing our prayers — if nothing more.” 
  • “Sister Joshua Smith ... went and visited Sister McEwen and Sister Modley. Found them and their families in suffering want. They need attendance every day.” 
  • “P. M. Wheeler ... would recommend to the charity of this society Sister Francis Lew Law, who is sick and without a home, an aged widow lady at present destitute of money.” 
  • “Sister Peck reported Mr. Guyes and family as sick and destitute. Administered to their relief. ... Mrs. Kimball stated a Mr. Charleston and family were sick, his wife very low and in great need of a nurse. Said she had assisted them.” 

“Daughters in My Kingdom” also documents the work of Relief Society after Church members moved west.

Once the early Latter-day Saints had settled in the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young asked Eliza R. Snow to travel the territory and help bishops organize Relief Societies.

A portrait of Eliza R. Snow | Deseret News archives

She taught that Relief Society would “refine and elevate” the women, “and above all strengthen them in the faith of the Gospel, and in so doing, may be instrumental in saving many.” 

Individually and collectively the voice of these women was strong.

At a time of great misunderstanding for the Church in 1870, 46 women called a press conference, expressing support for living prophets.

Sister Snow said: “It was high time [to] rise up in the dignity of our calling and speak for ourselves. ... The world does not know us, and truth and justice to our brethren and to ourselves demands us to speak. ... We are not inferior to the ladies of the world, and we do not want to appear so.”

Newspaper reporters called the meeting remarkable. “In logic and in rhetoric the so-called degraded ladies of Mormondom are quite equal to the ... women of the East,” one reporter wrote.

Eliza R. Snow also taught other women to use their voices. Emily S. Richards recalled being asked by Sister Snow to speak in public. She stood but could not find words. In response, Sister Snow said, “Never mind, but when you are asked to speak again, try and have something to say.”

Minute record of the organization of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, depicted here in painting by Nadine Barton, is displayed in Foundations of Faith exhibit at Church History Library. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

In 1889, Sister Richards spoke at the National Woman Suffrage Association convention in Washington, D.C. A journalist described Sister Richards as “trembling slightly under the gaze of the multitude, yet reserved, self-possessed, dignified, and as pure and sweet as an angel. ...  It was not the words themselves but the gentle spirit [that] went with the words and carried winning grace to every heart.”

In the Salt Lake Valley, women organized the production of silk and the storage of wheat. They influenced the health and wellness of those in the valley by sending women east to study medicine. They established hospitals and advocated for their right to vote. They started their own newspaper, the Women’s Exponent.

Eliza R. Snow would declare: “Don’t you see that our sphere is increasing? Our sphere of action will continually widen, and no woman in Zion need[s] to mourn because her sphere is too narrow.”

She promised the women, who already had much to do, that they would “find time for social duties, because these are incumbent upon us as daughters and mothers in Zion. By seeking to perform every duty you will find that your capacity will increase, and you will be astonished at what you can accomplish.”

It is a promise that remains true today.

Sister Snow taught that Relief Society was restored to the earth for this purpose. “Although the name may be of modern date, the institution is of ancient origin,” she said. “We were told by our martyred Prophet that the same organization existed in the Church anciently.”

Years later, President Spencer W. Kimball, the Church’s 12th President, would note that “women who have deep appreciation for the past will be concerned about shaping a righteous future.”

It is our charge each March as we honor and celebrate the establishment of Relief Society.

— Sarah Jane Weaver is the editor of the Church News.

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