Relief Society Foundations

Historic Nauvoo: Exterior of Sarah Granger Kimball Home

The worldwide female Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints traces its roots to Nauvoo, where women sought to help build Zion and the temple.

What began in Nauvoo as a way to serve those in need has become the worldwide sisterhood of the Church’s Relief Society. Two restored homes in Nauvoo help tell the stories of remarkable women who are part of that origin story, Sarah Granger Kimball and Lucy Mack Smith. Sarah Granger Kimball’s interactions with Joseph Smith show us how a small group of Latter-day Saint women helped prepare the prophet to receive the will of the Lord and create an organization for the women of the Church. Joseph’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, became an early and prominent member of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo. Her influence on her son and the Restoration is immeasurable. She consistently supported her son’s prophetic mission throughout her life.

Hiram and Sarah Granger Kimball Home

Historic Nauvoo: Parlor of Sarah Granger Kimball Home

Kimball Home, Parlor.

Early in 1842, Sarah Kimball noted that “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints was poor in worldly goods and earnest in devotion to the labors required.”1 Help was especially needed on the construction of the temple, which was only three feet in height at the time and which Sarah could see on the hill when she looked out of her parlor window.

Portrait of Sarah M Kimball

Sarah Granger Kimball decades after she moved from Nauvoo to Utah.

One day, Sarah was speaking with Margaret Cook, a seamstress doing work for the Kimballs. Church leaders had recently made calls for “provisions, clothing, beding and general supplies for the workmen [at the temple site] and their families.”2 Margaret expressed a desire to provide needlework; Sarah offered to provide the cloth. They realized that others might want to contribute and discussed organizing a sewing society to “aid in the erection of the Temple.”3 A few days later about a dozen women gathered in Sarah’s parlor. They chose Eliza R. Snow to write bylaws and a constitution for their emerging organization, which they then asked the Prophet Joseph to review.

When Joseph read the constitution and bylaws, he commented that they were “the best he had ever seen.” However, he then added, “This is not what you want.” Joseph let these sisters know that their offering was accepted by the Lord but that He had something better for them. In fact, the Lord directed Joseph to “organize the women under the priesthood after the pattern of the priesthood.”4

Until this point, the organizational structures revealed to Joseph had focused on priesthood quorums and offices held by men in the Church. Soon, women would be given charge over their own all-female organization. By organizing both women and men “according to the law of Heaven,” the Saints were prepared to receive further light and knowledge in the temple.5 Unlike in Kirtland, both men and women participated in the temple ordinances introduced in Nauvoo. Sarah and Margaret’s inspired actions truly had not only prepared the temple for the people but also the people for the temple.

Upper Floor of Joseph and Emma’s Red Brick Store

On March 17, 1842, 20 women, including Sarah Kimball and Margaret Cook, met on the upper floor of Joseph and Emma’s Red Brick Store. The prophet led their meeting, assisted by two members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. In this initial meeting of the Relief Society, Emma Smith was elected president by unanimous vote. Joseph explained that Emma’s calling was a fulfillment of a revelation he had received 12 years earlier—now recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 25.

Painting depicts Joseph (seen in profile wearing a black/brown coat and a white shirt and holding a book in his right hand) speaking to a large group of women.  There are five women seated in the front row, six women in the second row, three women in the third row and four figures standing in the back that are only partially visible.   From left to right front row:  a Woman in a pale yellow plaid dress, brown center parted hair holding a child; and woman in a blue dress with a large white collar and a ringlet hairstyle; a woman in a green dress with pink under-sleeves leaning slightly forward; and woman in a yellow chevron striped dress with a white cap, woman in a dark dress and a white tiered lace collar with brooch and a ringlet-braid hairstyle.From left to right second row a woman in a green floral dress with a brown centered parted hair with a hand on her shoulder; a woman with a green floral dress with white collar and cap; a woman in a coral colored stripped dress with a cap far back on her head; and woman in a blue print dress with small white lace collar; a woman in a tan floral dress with light brown ringlets; and a woman in a pink dress with a small boy on her lap. Third row from left to right: a woman in a yellow stripped dress with a white inset and brooch, a woman in a pale blue dress with center parted hair and a woman in an orange/pink dress with a cap.  Standing are a figure in blue (arm only ) a woman in a brown dress with red cuffs(hand on the shoulder of the woman seated in front of her) and woman in a olive colored dress with a green stripe and a figure in a red dress. Lower red corner reads, "Walter Rane" in red.

The Foundation of the Relief Society, by Walter Rane.

The Female Relief Society of Nauvoo grew in membership. They met frequently, including five additional meetings with Joseph Smith, who provided prophetic counsel to the society. He taught the sisters that they were “not only to relieve the poor, but to save souls.”6 Today, as members of a worldwide Relief Society, Latter-day Saint women continue to work together to help those in need and save souls.

Lucy Mack Smith Home

Inside the historic Nauvoo home of Lucy Mack Smith.

Lucy Mack Smith Home, Kitchen, including bed alcove.

Another woman who had a great influence on the Latter-day Saint movement was Lucy Mack Smith, mother of Joseph Smith Jr. She moved into the home in Nauvoo that now bears her name in April 1846, when she was 70 years old and after many Nauvoo residents had departed west. Lucy devoted much of her final years to preserving the memory of her son Joseph and bearing testimony of his prophetic mantle.

Painting, opaque watercolor or gouache on paper glued to old fiberboard. Depicts an aged woman seated in a rocking chair, one foot upon a small stool. She holds a Book of Mormon in her right hand and a handkerchief in her left. She is shown in direct left profile. She wears a lace cap and a very large lace collar, black dress, and "Mary Jane" shoes. The floor has a patterned carpet in red and green on cream. A portion of a window is visible at the left and portions of fringed drapes are at the top right and left corners and themselves frame a framed portion of a Pearl of Great Price Egyptian drawing. Drapes are dark blue and the back wall is grey-blue. The back of the old fiberboard contains a glued-on photograph of an old advertising broadside from Quincey, Illinois. Unsigned/undated.

Portrait of Lucy Mack Smith.

Lucy’s stalwart support of her son Joseph and of the Church he founded led others to refer to her as Mother Smith during her time in Nauvoo. In addition, Mother Smith was considered a “mother in Israel.”7 In 1833, a blessing from her son Joseph gave this title to Lucy: “And blessed also, is my mother, for she is a mother in Israel. … For her soul is ever filled with benevolence and philanthropy; and notwithstanding her age, she shall yet receive strength and be comforted in the midst of her house: and thus said the Lord, She shall have eternal life.”8

The title remained Lucy’s even after Joseph’s death. During the October 1845 general conference of the Church, Lucy requested an opportunity to address the congregation. In this, the first account of a woman speaking in general conference, she urged the Saints to guide their children in truth with love and kindness. She then asked the congregation if they considered her a mother in Israel. Brigham Young arose and put the question to a vote and “one universal ‘yes’ rang throughout” the unfinished Nauvoo Temple where they met.9

Exterior of Lucy Mack Smith Home

Lucy Mack Smith Home in Nauvoo

Lucy Mack Smith was foremost among exceptional women whose leadership, spiritual gifts, and strength of character helped bring about the Restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ. By the fifth meeting of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, Lucy Mack Smith was an active member of the organization. She and other women in Nauvoo helped lay a foundation of righteousness for the Church, fulfilling in part the divine call to establish Nauvoo as a cornerstone of Zion. The story of the Relief Society demonstrates how women of the Church have been a force for good from its earliest days, continually nurturing the landscape of Latter-day Saint faith.