Church History
36. Unto the Least of These: Margaret C. Pickering

“36. Unto the Least of These: Margaret C. Pickering,” At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women (2017), 161–65

“36. Margaret C. Pickering,” At the Pulpit, 161–65


Unto the Least of These

Relief Society General Conference

Tabernacle, Temple Square, Salt Lake City, Utah

September 28, 1950

An original recording of this discourse is available at (courtesy of Church History Library).

Margaret Aird Cummock Pickering (1891–1976) spent much of her life organizing and coordinating the work essential to institutions, serving as secretary or secretary-treasurer for several organizations. Born and raised in Salt Lake City, she attended Latter-day Saints University, the Utah Agricultural College, and the University of Utah.1 She contributed to church programs long before serving on the Relief Society general board. First, she worked for the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association, whose headquarters were in the Bishop’s Building, down a long hall from the Relief Society offices. Then she worked for several years in the editorial department of the Improvement Era, an official church magazine, which was housed in the same building.2 In 1917, she married Harold W. Pickering.3 Before joining the Relief Society general board in October 1945, she also served as secretary-treasurer of both the Salt Lake City South Eighteenth Ward Relief Society and the Ensign Stake Relief Society.4

An avid participant in service work, Pickering volunteered for several local and state agencies in Salt Lake City both before and after joining the general board. She was the first executive secretary of the Woman’s Civic Center, the first secretary of the Utah State Society for Mental Hygiene, a member of the executive committee of Community Chest, and for ten years, including during World War II, director of the Salt Lake County chapter of the American Red Cross.5 During her tenure as Relief Society general secretary-treasurer from 1945 to 1956, Pickering managed a heavy load of correspondence and traveled throughout the church to attend stake Relief Society conventions.6

Pickering’s Relief Society service work came during the early years of the Cold War, a time marked by fear and insecurity. Three months before Pickering gave this speech, the United States entered the Korean War. From a military standpoint, the country was not prepared to fight a war in Korea. Many veterans had resigned from military service at the end of World War II, leaving the armed forces understaffed. Seeking to save money, the Pentagon was slow to hire replacements, and the new personnel were inexperienced.7 The government responded to this crisis with the unpopular announcement that it planned to draft eighty thousand men per month for the first three months of 1951.8 The Korean War also increased American fears about communism and communist sympathizers.9 This threatening atmosphere was the backdrop when Pickering gave the following speech about compassionate service in the Salt Lake Tabernacle during a Relief Society general conference.

My dear brothers and sisters: The title of this talk that I am to give this afternoon is taken from Matthew, the 25th chapter, and refers to the last judgment when the Son of Man shall come in all his glory and all nations shall be gathered before him, and he shall separate them one from another as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats, and he shall say to those on his right hand,

Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.10

During the 108 years of Relief Society’s existence, compassionate service—the tender, love-inspired ministrations which women, by their very natures, are peculiarly fitted to perform—has been an integral part of its program.11 In fact, Relief Society had its inception in concern for the welfare of the immediate group in which the Saints lived and, from that time to the present, Relief Society has given the world a testament of faith that it sorely needs—a great, practical demonstration of brotherly love through its millions of friendly visits bearing cheerful and faith-promoting messages, through its care of the aged, needy, sick, and homebound, and through sympathetic service at the time of death. Emphasis has been placed on various aspects of this service over the years, according to the needs of the times. In the early years of Relief Society’s existence, both in Nauvoo and later in the West, caring for the physical or temporal needs of the Saints was of paramount importance—making clothing and bedding, caring for the sick, and sharing scarce provisions—for limited crops and severe weather on the frontier made this necessary. But throughout these years, the spiritual needs were not forgotten, and as the wilderness was conquered and temporal needs became less acute, Relief Society continued to minister to the spiritual needs of the sisters. Up until the time the welfare plan was inaugurated, through which the temporal needs of the Saints are met, Relief Society continued to directly supply some of the temporal needs of the Saints, under the direction of the bishops.12 During the last decade, however, Relief Society’s efforts have been transferred from directly supplying such needs to assisting in producing welfare assignments and to more extensively ministering to the spiritual hungers of women.

All this is a testimony to me of the divine origin of this organization—that it is set up to serve how, when, and where it is most needed. Never in the history of civilization have more people of all ages and in all lands felt more restless, insecure, confused, afraid. Never has the world had greater need for a testament of faith through practical demonstrations of brotherly love. Relief Society has a great opportunity now. It does not do much good to talk about such big things as “humanity,” “democracy,” and the “brotherhood of man” unless we can bring them down and apply them to our next-door neighbor, as that is where international amity and the brotherhood of man begins. The Prophet Joseph said at one of the early meetings of the society: “Let your labors be confined mostly to those around you in your own circle.”13

Relief Society, through precept and example for over a hundred years, has sought to help us develop the forces in our own natures through which we may enrich the lives of others and, in doing so, enrich our own lives. And to the extent that we as individuals have actively engaged in ministering “unto the least of these,” to that extent has the organization through the individual been strengthened. While Relief Society officially records only those visits and services authorized by the president, it is aware of the fact that only the Master himself can note many of the heartwarming and soul-satisfying services rendered by our sisters, and it is about these services over and above the call of duty that I speak specifically.14

While visiting teachers through their monthly visits have unusual opportunities to discover persons in need of special attention and to discern ways to give help, there are in every neighborhood many aged, sick, lonely, or disturbed people who lack for no temporal needs—some members of the church, some not, but they need friendly interest, assurance, peace of mind. No one is better fitted to minister to their needs than friendly, faithful Latter-day Saint neighbors—Relief Society members backed by a tradition of a century of sympathetic service and understanding to inspire and guide them. President Spafford has referred to compassionate service as the “heartbeat of Relief Society—the kind word, the ray of hope, the warm handclasp.”15 It is the constant stimulation of this heartbeat through sincerity and frequency of application that increases the circulation of hope, cheer, brotherly love, and faith in God in the world today, and produces a warm, peaceful glow in the souls of men in exact proportion to the amount of stimulation applied.

What about the aged women in your neighborhood—some who don’t see too well, who would appreciate a cheerful visit, an hour of reading or letter writing, or being escorted to church or to an entertainment? What about the homebound for whom you might run an errand or do some shopping? What about the mother in your neighborhood whose son is called to war and who is depressed, or the young wife whose husband has entered military service and she is confused and upset about the future; or the newcomer who feels strange and lonely, perhaps one of our own converts from a foreign land having difficulty with our language and customs, and needs them interpreted?

What about the chronically ill to whom a smiling face and fresh viewpoint would give new hope; a child confined to bed for a long period, such as in the case of rheumatic fever, to whom a cookie, or some simple dessert would bring happiness; what about staying occasionally some afternoon or evening with the children of a neighbor who seldom gets out because she cannot afford a babysitter. There are endless opportunities all around us to demonstrate sisterly love if we but open our eyes to them.

Recently I read a little paragraph on the magic of giving in connection with an article on overcoming loneliness. It read:

To fight loneliness, you must give of yourself. Do you reach out to others in a friendly, helpful way? Do you make personal sacrifices? Do you visit the sick, do social service work, or otherwise give aid and comfort to those less fortunate than yourself? It is easy to make a money contribution or sign a check, but what does that give of your heart? If you go beyond routine gestures of helpfulness, thus establishing a bond of sympathy and affection for others, you cannot possibly be lonely.16

Yes, compassionate service benefits and blesses both the one who performs it and the one who receives it. In these times, when homes are being broken and plans being disrupted again by the call of our young men into military service and the specter of war hanging over us, there is great need for an acceleration of our compassionate services, not only as a means of encouraging and aiding our neighbors but to increase our own faith and quell our own fears, so that in following the example of our Savior, we shall be strengthened and can say with David of old, “What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee.”17

That we may do this is my prayer and I ask it humbly, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

  1. Latter-day Saints University was a predecessor of LDS Business College. Utah Agricultural College was a forerunner to Utah State University. (Ernest L. Wilkinson, ed., Brigham Young University: The First One Hundred Years, 4 vols. [Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1975], 2:592–595; Alice H. Songe, American Universities and Colleges: A Dictionary of Name Changes [Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1978], 230.)

  2. Amy Brown Lyman, “Margaret Cummock Pickering,” Relief Society Magazine 33, no. 1 (Jan. 1946): 5. Improvement Era content for 1913–1914 included articles and talks by members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and First Presidency, mission reports, fiction, poetry, and columns about priesthood quorums, the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association, and Scouting. (See individual issues of Improvement Era, vols. 16–17 [1913–1914].)

  3. “Margaret Aird Cummock Pickering,” Deseret News, Oct. 11, 1976.

  4. Lyman, “Margaret Cummock Pickering,” 4; Leone O. Jacobs, “Margaret C. Pickering Resigns as General Secretary-Treasurer,” Relief Society Magazine 44, no. 3 (Mar. 1957): 159.

  5. Lyman, “Margaret Cummock Pickering,” 4; Jacobs, “Margaret C. Pickering Resigns,” 159. The Salt Lake City Woman’s Civic Center offered adult education classes for women in academic and domestic subjects from 1919 to 1961. The Relief Society partnered with the Utah Mental Hygiene Society from its founding in 1925. The society contributed substantially to the establishment of a training school for the mentally disabled in 1929, the appointment of a trained psychiatrist at the state hospital in 1933, and the establishment of the State Department of Public Welfare in 1935. The community chest movement raised funds to support a federation of social service agencies, thereby saving individual agencies from duplicating each other’s fund-raising efforts and minimizing inconveniences to donors. Community chests became a very popular means of supporting social work, particularly during the 1920s. In 1945, the Salt Lake County Community Chest represented twenty-four different agencies. A Utah chapter of the American Red Cross developed to support troops during the Spanish-American War in 1898. Red Cross chapters proliferated in Utah during World War I, when Relief Society general president Emmeline B. Wells encouraged Relief Society cooperation with the Red Cross. Pickering received her Red Cross pin marking twenty-five years of service in 1962. (Salt Lake City Women’s Civic Center records, collection summary, UU; Beth Frandsen Hartmann, “Mental Health Association: An Historical Overview of the Utah Association for Mental Health” [master’s thesis, University of Utah, 1968], vi–vii, 1, 8; Stanley Wenocur and Michael Reisch, From Charity to Enterprise: The Development of American Social Work in a Market Economy [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989], 108–110; “Officials of Chest Drive Urge Support of Citizens,” Deseret News, Oct. 4, 1945; “Editorial Notes,” Woman’s Exponent 27, nos. 1 and 2 [June 1 and 15, 1898]: 292, 293; “Margaret Aird Cummock Pickering”; see also Carol Cornwall Madsen, Woman Triumphant: An Intimate History of Emmeline B. Wells [Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2016]; and Kerry William Bate, “Kanarraville Fights World War I,” Utah Historical Quarterly 63, no. 1 [Winter 1995]: 39–42.)

  6. Jacobs, “Margaret C. Pickering Resigns,” 159. Local stake Relief Society leaders conducted stake conventions where stake Relief Society and priesthood leaders instructed officers, and general board members spoke and led discussion groups. Most often the conventions included more than one stake. (Annual Relief Society Conventions, 1950, pamphlet, CHL; Handbook of Instructions of the Relief Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints [Salt Lake City: General Board of Relief Society, 1949], 67–68.)

  7. Andrew J. Dunar, America in the Fifties (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2006), 54.

  8. Steven Casey, Selling the Korean War: Propaganda, Politics, and Public Opinion in the United States, 1950–1953 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 186.

  9. Dunar, America in the Fifties, 51. By February 1950, Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy had claimed anticommunism as his major political platform and inaugurated a highly publicized period of persecution against many people with leftist political leanings. (Richard M. Fried, Nightmare in Red: The McCarthy Era in Perspective [New York: Oxford University Press, 1990].)

  10. See Matthew 25:36–40.

  11. Service has been a significant part of Relief Society work since the organization’s founding and has been called by different names. At the founding meeting, president Emma Hale Smith spoke about the society’s object “to seek out and relieve the distressed.” Relief Society service work was not consistently called compassionate service, as it is today, until the 1940s. David O. McKay’s use of the phrase during a 1939 Relief Society general conference may have inspired its official adoption. By 1942, compassionate service was the official term used to reference Relief Society charitable service. (Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, Mar. 17, 1842, 13, in Jill Mulvay Derr, Carol Cornwall Madsen, Kate Holbrook, and Matthew J. Grow, eds., The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women’s History [Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2016], 36; David O. McKay, “The Highest and Best in Woman’s Realm,” Relief Society Magazine 27, no. 1 [Jan. 1940]: 18; Vera White Pohlman, “Annual Report—1942,” Relief Society Magazine 30, nos. 6–7 [June–July 1943]: 420.)

  12. The official church welfare program began in 1936. For histories of the program’s development, see Jill Mulvay Derr, “Changing Relief Society Charity to Make Way for Welfare, 1930–1944,” in New Views of Mormon History: A Collection of Essays in Honor of Leonard J. Arrington, ed. Davis Bitton and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1987); and Garth L. Mangum and Bruce D. Blumell, The Mormons’ War on Poverty: A History of LDS Welfare, 1830–1990 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1993).

  13. Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, Apr. 28, 1842, [40], in Derr et al., First Fifty Years, 59.

  14. From the earliest days of the Relief Society, leaders tracked charitable service statistics in their organizational minute books. Here, Pickering is referencing service recorded by the general board. Service activities were recorded under different categories over time. For the year 1914, for example, service statistics were organized according to the following categories: money distributed to the poor, visits to the sick, families helped, bodies prepared for burial, and days spent in temple work. Gradually the general board stopped recording temple work, and after establishment of the church welfare program in 1936, the Relief Society no longer directly distributed money to the poor. Thus the 1949 report on compassionate service tracked these categories: visits to sick and homebound, days caring for the sick, number of funerals at which the Relief Society assisted, and dressing for burial. (Amy Brown Lyman, “General Conference of the Relief Society,” Relief Society Magazine 2, no. 12 [Dec. 1915]: 527–528; “Compassionate Service Annual Report—1949,” Relief Society Magazine 37, no. 9 [Sept. 1950]: [610].)

  15. Belle S. Spafford, “Report of Activities and Official Instructions,” Relief Society General Conference, Salt Lake City, UT, Oct. 3–4, 1945, A-10, CHL.

  16. Versions of this quotation appeared in various newspapers, including Louis E. Bisch, “The Magic of Giving,” Dixon (IL) Evening Telegraph, July 17, 1950. The quotation originally came from a pocket magazine entitled Your Life: The Popular Guide to Desirable Living.

  17. Psalm 56:3.