“Relief Society—Its Promise and Potential,” Ensign, Mar. 1976, 2
It is very fitting that this issue of the Ensign should pay special attention to the women of the Church, for March 17 marks the 134th anniversary of the founding of their unique organization, the Relief Society. “I will organize you … after a pattern of the priesthood,” the Prophet Joseph Smith told that small group of women who wished to have a society of their own.
Later, he added, “The Church was never fully organized until the women were thus organized.” (“Story of the Organization of the Relief Society,” Relief Society Magazine, March 1919, p. 129.) Thus, Latter-day Saint women everywhere were united in a sisterhood; and today the Relief Society blesses every woman who accepts the gift of activity in that sisterhood just as the young women’s organization blesses their younger sisters.
I wonder if women who do not participate fully in Relief Society realize the great promises that come with their membership. Let me enumerate some of these blessings, pronounced upon the Society by the Prophet Joseph Smith:
1. This society, a society of sisters, is organized “according to your natures. … You are now placed in a situation in which you can act according to those sympathies which God has planted in your bosoms.” (HC, 4:605.)
2. “If this Society listen to the counsel of the Almighty, through the heads of the Church, they shall have power to command queens in their midst.” (HC, 4:605.)
3. “If you live up to your privileges, the angels cannot be restrained from being your associates.” (HC, 4:605.)
4. “Knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time henceforth.” (HC, 4:607.)
5. “This Society shall rejoice.” (HC, 4:607.)
I think there are many ways in which these promises are being fulfilled. I think of the spirit of revelation that my own dear wife invites into our home because of the hours she has spent every year of our married life in studying the scriptures, so that she can be prepared to teach the principles of the gospel in her Relief Society calling. I think of the sweet and tender spirit that accompanies her after she spends her time in compassionate service or in the loving fellowship of visiting teaching. Our Relief Society sisters acknowledge by their deeds their willingness to follow the Savior and to make sacrifices for the kingdom of God. They strengthen each other as they grow and learn together. They share their testimonies about the magnitude of their callings to care for others and their knowledge that the Lord aids them as they seek help with those responsibilities.
I marvel at the faithfulness of so many of our sisters and their unswerving devotion to the cause of righteousness. My own wonderful mother’s journal records a lifetime of being grateful for the opportunity to serve and sorry only that she couldn’t do more. I smiled when I recently read one entry dated January 16, 1900. She was serving as first counselor in our Relief Society in Thatcher, Arizona, and the presidency went to a sister’s home where a sick baby had prevented the mother from doing her sewing. Mother took her machine, a picnic lunch, her baby, and a high chair, and they began work. She wrote that night, we “made four aprons, four pairs of pants and started a shirt for one of the boys.” They had to stop at 4 P.M. to go to a funeral, so we “did not get any more than that done.” I would have been impressed by such achievement, rather than thinking, “Well, that’s not much.” Then two days later, the Relief Society met in our home for a work meeting. “We had quite a turnout,” wrote my mother, and “accomplished considerable.” Then after that work meeting, she went uncomplainingly to a board meeting.
That’s the kind of home I was born in, one conducted by a woman who breathed service in all her actions. That is the kind of home my wife has made. That is the kind of home that thousands of wonderful women all over the Church make for their husbands and children, and I firmly feel that much of that success rests in the ideals and work of the Relief Society.
As the First Presidency, we feel strongly enough about the blessings that come through Relief Society that we have asked presidents of stakes, missions, and districts to foster Relief Society attendance, to help the brethren understand the great strength to the priesthood and to families that comes from the activity of the sisters in Relief Society. We have particularly asked them to encourage single sisters to participate in Relief Society.
The Relief Society is the Lord’s organization for women. It complements the priesthood training given to the brethren. There is a power in this organization that has not yet been fully exercised to strengthen the homes of Zion and build the Kingdom of God—nor will it until both the sisters and the priesthood catch the vision of Relief Society.
There is a wonderful lesson for all of us in the minutes of the Fifteenth Ward Relief Society here in Salt Lake. This organization was presided over for forty years, beginning in 1868, by Sarah M. Kimball, a great woman, but not related to me. During the late 1870s when Relief Societies were being organized in all the wards, some of the brethren occasionally did not understand the program and thus failed to lend it their full support, but the bishop of this ward understood and respected the Relief Society. On January 8, 1878, he sent his counselor to speak to the Relief Society. Brother Binder transmitted the love of the bishop and said he had “no fear of the sisters transcending the bounds of the Priesthood.” Instead, he extended to them his “support and faith.” Then he added something very significant. He hoped that the sisters would sustain their officers “as faithfully as they would be sustained by the bishop and counsel[ors].” (Minutes, Fifteenth Ward Relief Society, Church Archives.)
We echo this message. We hope that you sisters will support your leaders in the Relief Society as faithfully and as fully as we support them. Sister Smith and her counselors are noble women. They seek the direction of the Spirit in their lives and decisions. They are faithful stewards in the great and weighty responsibilities that they have been called to. They work harmoniously with their advisors in the Council of the Twelve and sustain the priesthood in every way. They have our love, our confidence, and our support.
It is a great blessing to be a woman in the Church today. The opposition against righteousness has never been greater, but the opportunities for fulfilling our highest potential have also never been greater.
What is our greatest potential? Is it not to achieve godhood ourselves? And what are the qualities we must develop to achieve such greatness? We might consider some:
First, intelligence, light and knowledge. What special opportunities do women have in this area? These qualities, you will remember, are part of the promise given to the sisters by the Prophet Joseph Smith. Since we learn best by teaching others, we think our Relief Society sisters see the fulfillment of that promise daily as they teach children at home, in Sunday School, and in Primary, in Relief Societies, in sacrament meetings, and in daily conversation. We urge our sisters who are called to teach to magnify their callings through study and prayer, recognizing the eternal values they are building for themselves, as well as for those they teach. We encourage all our sisters to take advantage of their opportunities to receive light and knowledge in school, in personal study, and in Relief Society.
Second, leadership. Women have unique opportunities to grow in leadership skills. Do you think of leadership as telling others what to do, or as making all the decisions? Not so. Leadership is the ability to encourage the best efforts of others in working toward a desirable goal. Who has more significant opportunities to lead than a mother who guides her children toward perfection, or the wife who daily counsels with her husband that they may grow together? The tremendous contribution in leadership made by women in the auxiliaries of the Church and in their communities is likewise beyond measure.
And finally, perhaps the most essential godlike quality: compassion and love—compassion shown forth in service to others, unselfishness, that ultimate expression of concern for others we call love. Relief Society indeed provides women with special opportunities to express their feelings of charity, benevolence, and love. There are other avenues of service—the community and particularly the home. Wherever women are true to their feminine natures and magnify their opportunities for loving service, they are learning to become more like God.
I have mentioned only a few of the special blessings God gives his daughters in helping them to become like him. His sons have their own special opportunities. And in his wisdom and mercy, our Father made men and women dependent on each other for the full flowering of their potential. Because their natures are somewhat different, they can complement each other; because they are in many ways alike, they can understand each other. Let neither envy the other for their differences; let both discern what is superficial and what is beautifully basic in those differences, and act accordingly. And may the brotherhood of the priesthood and the sisterhood of the Relief Society be a blessing in the lives of all the members of this great Church, as we help each other along the path to perfection.