MWS: The First Fifty Years of Relief Society

At the recent Church History Symposium, historians expressed hope that every sister, in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, would have these two books in their bookshelves:  Daughters in My Kingdom and The First Fifty Years of Relief Society. These books “give roots” to our Relief Society. And as Kate Holbrook (one of the chief editors) said, “To understand where you are today, it’s important to understand where we’ve been before.”

Where Daughters in My Kingdom is a beautiful, simplified, as well as inspired volume of history, The First Fifty Years of Relief Society is a scholarly tome filled with original documents, letters, and journal entries. But, don’t let that scare you! These two books, used together, will serve as an incredible resource for women who desire to know how God works with his daughters, what He expects us to do, and just how much He cherishes each one.

What I have found written in its pages is a testimony of the spirit of Woman. The documents radiate a witness of faith, an eagerness to do the will of God, as well as a determination to catch the vision of the work of the Lord, in spite of insurmountable hardship. Our challenging day must be met with the same fortitude and courage as these women exhibited. We can gain strength and conviction by reading their words, learning how they managed, and capturing their spiritual testimonies into our own hearts.

Having the complete Minutes to the original Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, (for the first time available in print), will give every sister the chance to feel the spirit of those early gatherings. Phebe Woodruff compared those meetings to the School of the Prophets (pg. 5).

You’ll be able to read Lucy Merserve Smith’s account of a time when she was almost overcome by evil spirits. “The Holy Spirit said to me they can do no harm where the name of Jesus is used with authority. I immediately rebuked them in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (pg. 215).

I particularly enjoyed reading the Minutes of the “Great Indignation meeting” that occurred in Salt Lake City on January 13, 1870. Mormon women were inflamed that the US Government was working to abolish polygamy, and our dear sisters fought to preserve this God-given practice. Sarah M. Kimball stood before the boisterous crowd of women and said, “We are not here to advocate woman’s rights, but man’s rights” (pg. 313). She, herself, was a widow at the time, and had never personally entered into plural marriage.

Being able to read Jane Wilkie Hooper Blood’s daily accounts of how she went about her daily work, but still managed to attend a meeting here and another meeting there, as she served in the Primary and Relief Society, made me feel like I could easily connect with this long past sister.

June 1880

Tues 8 We irond in the morning I attended FRS Meeting in the afternoon went to Elizbeth Bennett in the evening she was sick …

Thur 10 Made some wax Flowers

Fri 11        “           “             “   went to Choir practice …

Satur 12 I was busey home in the morning went to Meeting in the afternoon Sisters holmes and Clark came both Primary Associations held Meeting in the Meeting house Annie came

Jane lived in Kaysville, Utah and noted when the Relief Society was organized there (May 14, 1898). She was called to serve as the secretary, and later as a counselor, as well as a treasurer. She also served as the first Primary president when it was first organized in that area (pgs. 454-466).

Relief-Society-Sisters-1893 (1)The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles wrote a Circular letter, which was to go out to all the bishops encouraging them to work well with the Relief Society sisters. It gave instruction on how the ladies were to be set apart for the work. That the women were to instruct, exhort, and build up their sisters unto the Lord. The letter stated, “God hath given them power; and he will be with them, and greatly bless them, and give them an honorable name which shall not be blotted out, but shall remain for ever” (pg. 488).

Clearly, the message we must gather from the documents in this book is that our early sisters understood that although men and women have differences, we were always meant to work together for the benefit of the church and its membership. Eliza R. Snow said, in speaking to the women, “In the Church and Kingdom of God, the interests of men and women are the same; man has no interests separate from that of women, however it may be in the outside world, our interests are all united” (pg. xxxiv).

Likewise, Zina D. H. Young taught, “The Relief Society … was first organized nearly half a century ago, by the Prophet Joseph Smith; after the pattern of the Holy Priesthood, and under its direction, to dispense temporal blessings to the poor and needy: and to give encouragement to the weak, and restrain the erring ones, and for the better development, and exercise of woman’s sympathies, and charities, that she might have opportunity to attain spiritual strength, and power for the accomplishment of greater good in the work of the redemption of the human family” (page 565).

As Editor of the Woman’s Exponent, Emmeline closed her report with this “sentiment” of the Jubilee program. “What does this woman’s Jubilee signify? Not only that fifty years ago this organization was founded by a Prophet of God, but that woman is becoming emancipated from error and superstition and darkness. That light has come into the world, and the Gospel has made her free, that the key of knowledge has been turned, and she has drank inspiration at the divine fountain” (pg. 591).

The Church is making every effort to make this book available to all members with the hope that it will be used as a teaching tool. Portions of this book are available online at the Church Historian’s Press website, as well as through mobile devices.

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As modern-day sisters, we are expected to make use of this book. So, how do we do that?

It may be that Relief Society presidencies will need to take on the responsibility of teaching history to their sisters. Use the history in your newsletters, presidency messages, Fast Sunday lessons, Spotlights, Relief Society meetings, and other gatherings. All sisters like games, so incorporate RS history into your questions and answers. Engage sisters to do their own research, and give them opportunity to report.

Never miss an opportunity to celebrate the anniversary of our Relief Society. Honor our sisters by sharing the talks, stories, and testimonies that are within the pages of this book. Relief Society presidents have been given power and authority to lead, exhort, teach, and serve her sisters. She can magnify her calling by unifying her sisters, teaching them the past, and giving them the opportunity of building their own testimonies, strengthening their families, and standing for, and sharing, truth and righteousness as our sisters did before us.

By taking steps to learn the history of Relief Society, sisters’ hearts will become more turned toward actively fulfilling our role in building the kingdom of God, not just as individuals, but as a powerful Relief Society unit, bonded together, showing love toward Jesus Christ, using strength in our numbers to declare Him as our Savior.

Yes, this could all happen, because of this book and the treasure it holds, as we work to unify our sisterhood in the cause of Jesus Christ.

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Jan Tolman

Jan Tolman is a wife, mother of six, and grandmother of seven. She is a writer, as well as speaker, on the history of the Relief Society at www.ldswomenofgod.com. Several articles, written by her on Relief Society history, have been published in the Deseret News. She has taught Institute and served as a docent at the Church History Museum. She urges everyone to learn something new about Church History, and especially about the incredible women of LDS faith.

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About Jan Tolman

Jan Tolman is a wife, mother of six, and grandmother of seven. She is a writer, as well as speaker, on the history of the Relief Society at www.ldswomenofgod.com. Several articles, written by her on Relief Society history, have been published in the Deseret News. She has taught Institute and served as a docent at the Church History Museum. She urges everyone to learn something new about Church History, and especially about the incredible women of LDS faith.