“I Am Following a Noble Woman,” Ensign, Nov. 1974, 123
The Relief Society sisters came as they come every fall. They stayed up too late talking, got up early to find seats in the crowded Tabernacle, were thrilled to see the entire First Presidency at a session for the first time in Relief Society conference history, ran into old friends, collected ideas at the homemaking display, and were counseled, encouraged, and inspired by the talks and demonstrations.
Although the sisters did not know it, this year they also had come to release a presidency and sustain a new one.
Most of them, in their years of Relief Society service, had never known another president than Belle S. Spafford. Some of their mothers hadn’t either. Called by President Heber J. Grant and sustained during April conference 1945, she has guided the Relief Society for 29 and a half years under six presidents of the Church. Even Eliza R. Snow held the position for only 20 years.
When President Kimball, in his quiet, measured tones, announced the release of Sister Spafford, her counselors, and the general board, a hushed rustle of shock and surprise rippled through the audience. There was sorrow in it as well. The tears came while Sister Spafford gave her concluding address to the conference audience and while the new president, Barbara B. Smith, delivered her first remarks as president. They came during the closing song, “Let Us All Press On,” and during the emotion-choked closing prayer of Judy Komatsu, just released from the general board. And when the sisters walked outside, each silent or whispering quietly to each other, it was raining.
Sister Spafford bade unflinching farewell to her counselors, a general board, and the sisters who have followed her for three decades: “In the time that I have served in this position, I have learned the greatness of this institution, the power for righteousness inherent in it. I have learned to love the Relief Society and to revere it as the Lord’s organization for his daughters.”
She paid special tribute to her counselors, Marianne C. Sharp, who has served “since the day I was called, “and Sister Louise W. Madsen, counselor for 16 years and member of the board for 27 years. “My love for these women is beyond measure, “declared Sister Spafford, and she also praised “the brilliant, dedicated, hard-working women” on the board.
Referring to her release, she said, “I’m convinced that in this act of the First Presidency, the well-being of the Relief Society and the sisters of the Church will be added to.” She characterized the new presidency as “strong leaders, faithful, intelligent, and experienced. You have my love, my confidence, my support, my faith, and my prayers. I could not be happier in this appointment.”
When Sister Smith took the stand for the first time as president, her voice wavered. “When President Kimball came to my home and called me to be the Relief Society president, I couldn’t believe it could happen to me. I controlled myself fairly well while he was there, but after he had gone, I wept and wept.”
Of Sister Spafford, she said, “I am following a noble woman, “and applying the words of Ruth to her own feelings for Sister Spafford, she quoted: “Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee …” (Ruth 1:16.) She paid special tribute to Sister Spafford’s attitude toward priesthood leadership: “On the board, we knew that if we did what she told us, we would always be obedient to the priesthood of the Church, and that’s a wonderful blessing.”
She also expressed appreciation to her husband for his support, even when he shouldered heavy professional and ecclesiastical duties of his own, and added, “One of my sons said a few years ago, ‘When Mother’s called to a position, the whole family should be set apart. She always involves us all.’ We have seven children, and it’s a wonderful thing to know that they and their companions will support me and live lives worthy of this responsibility.”
In concluding she told of her mother’s firm faith at the end of her life: “I’m not afraid to die. I know the plan of life and salvation and I have always lived life in the best way I knew how. “Sister Smith exclaimed, “There is no better information for every woman in the Church to know.”