Relief Society: Through the Eyes of Eternity

joseph-speaking-to-women-rane-262362-galleryThe great purpose of Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) is to save souls. That includes bringing eternal blessings to every woman who enters the temple. Joseph Smith taught, “The Society is not only to relieve the poor, but to save souls.”[1]

Over the years, Relief Society presidents have led our society to help each Mormon woman increase her faith, strengthen her family, and help those in need. Women do this by understanding temple blessings, by offering compassionate service, and by sharing the gospel to help souls return to Heavenly Father’s presence.

The doctrine of a woman’s role in the plan of salvation starts with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Eve said, “Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient” (Moses 5:11).

J. Reuben Clark taught,

“Adam alone, no matter what his priesthood, could not bring this about … Eve the last created being in the creation of the world, without whom the whole creation of the world would have been in vain and the purposes of God have come to naught … This is the place of our wives and of our mothers in the Eternal Plan.

“The purpose of women is different than that of men. Where they are bearers of the priesthood, and all the duties and responsibilities of that position, women are builders and organizers under its power, and partakers of its blessings, possessing the complement of the priesthood powers and possessing a function as divinely called, as eternally important in its place as the priesthood itself.”[2]

Fifty years later, M. Russell Ballard said to the women of the Church:

“This doctrine sometimes causes women to ask: ‘Is a woman’s value dependent exclusively upon her role as a wife and mother?’ The answer is simple and obvious: No. Although there is nothing a woman can do that has more far-reaching, eternal impact than to rear her children to walk in righteousness, motherhood and marital status are not the only measures of a woman’s worth. Some women do not have the privilege of marrying or rearing children in this life. Yet if they are worthy, these blessings will come later. Men and women who do have the privilege of rearing children will of course be held accountable for that priceless, eternal stewardship.”[3]

Throughout the scriptures, many women have had to bear the cross of barrenness. Rachel despaired so much, she went to Jacob and said, “Give me children, or else I die” (Genesis 30:1). Motherhood is an extremely important part of being a woman. Throughout time, countless women have suffered this difficult test, yet it does not defeat them. Women tend to gather together to uplift, encourage, and support one another. This is part of the great innate gift of nurturing.

templeTemple Blessings

Joseph Smith called the women together to organize them under the pattern of the priesthood, completing the process of the Restoration.[4] The first Relief Society meetings were, in essence, a “female school of the prophets.”[5] Joseph taught the women about the covenants they would soon be making in the temple. It was typical in that day for men to have special privileges in their organizations. Women, in turn, began organizing themselves to do the work of women. The revelation Joseph presented to them, according to the direction of the Lord, was to prepare the women to enter the House of the Lord and receive all of the same blessings, covenants, and privileges allowed the men. He taught,

“This Society is to get instruction thro’ the order which God has established … and I now turn the key to you in the name of God and this Society shall rejoice and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time—this is the beginning of better days, to this Society.”

It was always the Lord’s plan that women be an integral part of the work of salvation. Julie B. Beck said, “In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we have a theology of the family that is based on the Creation, the Fall, and the Atonement. The Creation of the earth provided a place where families could live. … The Fall provided a way for the family to grow. … The Atonement allows for the family to be sealed together eternally.”[6] This beautiful doctrine is taught in the temple, where we go to receive the blessings and promises of an eternal family.

Service and Compassion

It was actually Emma Smith, the first president, who chose to call the organization “Relief Society.” She felt inspired that the women of the Church would use their innate compassion to relieve others from sorrow and despair.[7] From that first meeting, the women accepted their call toward compassion and service.

The Relief Society disbanded for a time after Joseph Smith’s death. Emma stayed in Nauvoo while most of the Saints moved West with Brigham Young. But the women on the trail still cared for one another in sickness and childbirth, blessed one another, cared for orphaned children, and bore the grueling journey together.

The female champion at the time was Eliza R. Snow, who worked and lived alongside Brigham Young. He was the president of the Church and she was the “presidentess”[8] of Relief Society. He supported her in every new direction she felt was necessary to organize the women, young ladies, and children. She wrote in a letter,

“We never act in opposition to the priesthood … if bishops of our wards are willing to take responsibility to the contrary, I yield to the bishop … I obey the authority which God in his providence places over me …[9]

Years later, when Eliza was instructing a new Relief Society president, she said, “We will not quarrel with the priesthood, altho’ it is in ‘earthen vessels.”[10]

The Relief Society is responsible for an astounding number of accomplishments unheard of by women of that time. Relief Society sisters accomplished tasks ahead of their time and before other women in the world were allowed, or driven, to do so. They instigated schools, hospitals, social services, home industry, and more besides their work in the temples. Because the Relief Society was organized under the priesthood, it was sanctioned in their accomplishments. Relief Society has always worked hand in hand with the priesthood in furthering the kingdom of God on the earth. Many women have firmly understood that these “holy [temple] ordinances bound disciple to God, husband to wife, parent to child, generation to generation.”[11]

As women of covenant, we can choose each day to follow the original plan that began with Eve in the Garden of Eden. The Relief Society was organized to be a vehicle to work out the salvation of every woman.

rp_Mormon-women-priesthood-equality-300x262.jpgElder Petersen listed ten benefits for which The Relief Society was restored:

  1. It was to make better Latter-day Saints of us all.
  2. It was to build stronger homes.
  3. It was to strengthen our marriages.
  4. It was to help us rear stronger Latter-day Saint children.
  5. It was to help us make the Golden Rule function better among us as we render compassionate service to others.
  6. It was to strengthen our communities and make our neighborhoods better places to live.
  7. It was to educate our sisters in successful ways to solve their personal problems.
  8. It was to give them an appreciation of good literature and other cultural advantages to enrich and broaden their lives.
  9. It was to help our women see their inspired role in life as partners with God in the high estate of wives and mothers.
  10. It was to help our sisters to know that Mormon women are not second-class citizens; that they are not confined and circumscribed; and that they need not look for liberation in the avenues of the world.[12]

Eliza R. Snow said,

“We are privileged above all other women-kind on the face of the earth. How necessary for the Saints of the living God to be more of a distinct people than what they are … to be as different from the rest of the world as our privileges are more exalted—we should be a shining light to the nations of the earth. But I often say to myself, are we what we should be?”[13]

As our early sisters set the stage for the purposes of Relief Society, it is expected that our generation will continue the work, the power, and the dedicated witness of this glorious work. Every LDS woman, as a member of the Relief Society, is responsible to teach and save her children, her sisters, and others she has responsibility for. We are all invested in the work of Relief Society.

Boyd K. Packer said, “You sisters who are called to serve in the Primary or the Young Women may miss the Relief Society class, but you do not really miss Relief Society; you belong to it.”[14] All are Relief Society women with a responsibility and purpose to bring salvation to those souls she associates with.

The Work of Salvation

Joseph Smith told the sisters the “Society is not only to relieve the poor, but to save souls.”[15]

In response to why “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” was read in a general Relief Society meeting, President Gordon B. Hinckley said, “You are the guardians of the hearth. You are the bearers of the children. You are they who nurture them and establish within them the habits of their lives. No other work reaches so close to divinity as does the nurturing of the sons and daughters of God.”[16]

The gospel is taught in the family. If parents teach the gospel of Jesus Christ to their families, the world might be saved as children grow and influence communities in their own sphere. Those children will know how to live because learned from a loving mother who taught them the purpose of life and salvation.

Julie B. Beck, former Relief Society general president, said,

“Who will prepare this righteous generation of sons and daughters? Latter-day Saint women will do this—women who know and love the Lord and bear testimony of Him, women who are strong and immovable and who do not give up during difficult and discouraging times. We are led by an inspired prophet of God who has called upon the women of the church to ‘stand strong and immovable for that which is correct and proper under the plan of the Lord.’ He has asked us to ‘begin in [our] homes to teach children the ways of truth. Latter-day Saint women should be the very best in the world at upholding, nurturing, and protecting families.”[17]

Women influence one another through friendship, example, and compassion. President Joseph F. Smith urged Latter-day Saint women to “lead the world and to lead especially the women of the world, in everything that is praise-worthy, everything that is God-like, everything that is uplifting and that is purifying.” He said, “You are called by the voice of the Prophet of God to do it, to be uppermost, to be the greatest and the best, the purest and the most devoted to the right.”[18]

In Daughters in My Kingdom, we are reminded that “the charge to lead out in everything that is praiseworthy, Godlike, uplifting, and purifying is a demanding one. It always has been. But individual Relief Society sisters are not alone in accepting this charge. They are part of a great organization, founded by priesthood authority and strengthened by the teachings and declarations of prophets. They are beloved daughters of God with sacred responsibilities. They are covenant people of the Lamb, ‘armed with righteousness and with the power of God in great glory.’”[19]

President Linda K. Burton has focused her presidency on understanding the covenants we have made to earn all the blessings of salvation. She said, “The priesthood of God is a sacred trust given to bless men, women, and children so we can return as families to live eternally together in God’s presence.”[20]

Elder M. Russell Ballard taught,

“My dear sisters, we believe in you. We believe in and are counting on your goodness and your strength, your propensity for virtue and valor, your kindness and courage, your strength and resilience. We believe in your mission as women of God. We realize that you are the emotional (and sometimes spiritual) glue that holds families and often ward families together. We believe that the Church simply will not accomplish what it must without your faith and faithfulness, your innate tendency to put the well being of others ahead of your own, and your spiritual strength and tenacity. And we believe that God’s plan is for you to become queens and to receive the highest blessings any woman can receive in time or eternity.”[21]

Righteous women can look to Eliza R. Snow as an example in defending marriage, family, and divine womanhood. She said:

“I will now ask this intelligent assembly of ladies, do you know of any place on the face of the earth where woman has more liberty and where she enjoys such high and glorious privileges as she does here as a Latter-day Saint? No!

“Were we the stupid, degraded, heart-broken beings that we have been represented, silence might better become us; but as women who stand not as dictators but as counselors to their husbands, and who, in the purest, noblest sense of refined womanhood, being truly their helpmates, we not only speak because we have the right, but justice and humanity demand that we should.”[22]

There is no shortage of information about the purpose of Relief Society, the valiant women who have stood as examples, and the words of praise and encouragement for any woman to ponder and be uplifted by. Women are vital to the plan of salvation set forth by our Heavenly Father. He depends upon His daughters to “organize, teach, and inspire”[23] as we work together to bring forth the salvation of God’s children. Eliza’s words ring full of hope and destiny to Heavenly Father’s daughters: “You, my sisters, if you are faithful, will become Queens of Queens, and Priestesses unto the Most High God.”[24]

[1] Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, June 9, 1842.

[2] J. Reuben Clark, Jr., “Our Wives and Our Mothers in the Eternal Plan.” General Relief Society Conference, Oct. 3, 1946.

[3] M. Russell Ballard, “Women of Righteousness,” Ensign, April 2002.

[4] Eliza R. Snow, “The Female Relief Society,” Woman’s Exponent, June 1, 1872.

[5] Jill Mulvay Derr and Carol Cornwall Madsen, “‘Something Better’ for the Sisters: Joseph Smith and the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo,” Joseph Smith and the Doctrinal Restoration.

[6] Daughters in My Kingdom. 150.

[7] Female Relief Society of Nauvoo Minute Book, March 17, 1842.

[8] Jill Mulvay Derr, “The Lion and the Lioness,” BYU Studies, Vol. 40, 2001:74.

[9] Jill Mulvay Derr, “Form and Feeling in a Carefully Crafted Life: Eliza R. Snow’s ‘Poem of Poems,’” Journal of Mormon History, Spring 2000: 28.

[10] Jill Mulvay Derr, “The Lion and the Lioness,” BYU Studies, Vol. 40, 2001: 83.

[11] Ibid., 81.

[12] Mark E. Petersen, “Why Every Woman Needs Relief Society,” Ensign, March 1976.

[13] Eliza R. Snow, Woman’s Exponent, August 14, 1873.

[14] Boyd K. Packer, “The Relief Society,” Ensign, May 1998.

[15] Female Relief Society of Nauvoo Minute Book, June 9, 1842.

[16] Gordon B. Hinckley, “Stand Strong against the Wiles of the World,” Ensign, Nov 1996.

[17] Julie B. Beck, “Mothers Who Know,” Ensign, Nov 2007.

[18] Daughters in My Kingdom. 179-180.

[19] Ibid., 181.

[20] Linda K. Burton, “Priesthood Power—Available to All,” Ensign. June 2014.

[21] M. Russell Ballard, “Women of Righteousness,” Ensign, April 2002.

[22] Proceedings in Mass Meeting of the Ladies of Salt Lake City, 4.

[23] Julie B. Beck, “Fulfilling the Purpose of Relief Society,” Ensign, Nov 2008.

[24] Eliza R. Snow, “An Address,” Woman’s Exponent, September 15, 1873.

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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 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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