Our Five-Generation Love Affair with Relief Society
June 1978

“Our Five-Generation Love Affair with Relief Society,” Ensign, June 1978, 37

Our Five-Generation Love Affair with Relief Society

“Let’s play house. I’ll be the mommy and take care of baby Rachel,” said our three-year-old Margaret.

“No, you got to be the mommy yesterday,” five-year-old Roberta retorted. “But I know what. You be the mommy. You go to your Relief Society class and I’ll take care of Rachel for you.”

Chuckling at this sage solution to the problem, I recognized that children love to copy what Mommy does. Often, one of our children will wield a wooden spoon or even a stick of uncooked spaghetti to lead the singing while another plays a “tune” on the piano in accompaniment. They imitate me in my current calling as Relief Society nursery leader by taking turns pretending to teach the other children. They often even enlist the baby as a class member, at least until she can wriggle away. I am pleased to see that they are learning at an early age, as I did, that a woman’s service can extend beyond her family to the Church and the community.

Some of my happiest childhood memories are of helping my mother serve others. “Lick the bowl, but don’t you snitch that cake for Diane Smith,” she’d say, as we made something for a sick person. Or, “We’re all going to take care of little Jimmy today while his mother is in the hospital with his new baby sister.”

During most of the time I was growing up, Mother’s callings were in Relief Society, so much of her Church service was channeled through that organization. She attributes her profound knowledge of the gospel to the many years of preparation for teaching the theology class.

Her lessons for Relief Society became a family affair. All of us were enlisted at one time or another to help make visual aids or to load them (it seemed she always had a lot) into the back of the station wagon. At one family home evening, Mother had each of us try on someone else’s shoes. We all rather quickly got the point about not judging others until we’d been in their shoes, and Mother used the idea for her class.

These experiences made me aware that Relief Society and the service it advocated were vital in Mother’s life. From my perspective now, I realize that not all the meetings, projects, teaching, and especially the service to individuals were convenient or easy for her. But this kind of commitment was a tradition in Mother’s family. In fact, for several generations each of my grandmothers had served as a Relief Society president at some point in her life. Since my calling as Relief Society president was probably the most demanding I have ever had in the Church, I could really identify with them.

My great-great-great grandmother, Elizabeth Haven Barlow, joined the Church in 1837 when she was twenty-six years old. Much of her life was filled with physical hardships. Her parents didn’t approve of her new religion so she left home and journeyed for thirty days from Massachusetts to join the Saints in Far West, Missouri. Because she’d been educated at Bradford and Amherst colleges, she was assigned to teach the children. The situation in Far West was tense; mobs threatened the Saints daily. One of Grandma Barlow’s students recalls: “I well remember the morning the mobbers came into Far West to take the Prophet Joseph and other brethren. … As the mobbers passed the school house they sounded their bugle causing excitement so great that the teachers allowed us children to go to the windows and look out.”

Later, in Nauvoo, Grandma Barlow and the other women were still concerned about protecting themselves and their children from the harassments of mobbers. In fact, the Relief Society sisters, feeling there would be safety in numbers, often met together with their babies and lunches as they discussed plans for evacuation. Grandma Barlow’s troubles didn’t end with the expulsion from Nauvoo, however. She was among those hardy pioneer women who gave birth en route to the Salt Lake Valley. Her history mentions almost casually that she stopped at Horseshoe Bend, Kansas, to deliver her fifth child. Instead of returning to a warm cozy house, disposable diapers, and a doting grandma, the Barlows had to make haste to catch up with the rest of their company.

Even after they reached the relative security of Utah, the Barlows and others of their generation still had to endure many physical hardships. The Walker Indian War, for example, broke out in Bountiful, where they lived, just as Grandpa Barlow was called on a mission to England. Grandma Barlow pulled down her log cabin and moved back to Salt Lake City for protection. While her husband was away, Grandma sold butter and cheese and straw hats she braided to provide for the family’s needs.

In 1857, after the Barlows moved back to Bountiful, President Brigham Young called Grandma Barlow to be ward Relief Society president. Many of the Saints, including the Barlows, were still living partially on pit weeds and mushrooms at this time. Yet Grandma Barlow and the other sisters managed to raise $60 for a needy widow with a sick son.

It was also in 1857 that the Mormons’ safety was again threatened, this time by the arrival of Johnston’s army. The Barlows joined the exodus south to Provo, leaving their home, as they had been instructed, full of straw and ready to be burned in case of invasion. When she returned to Bountiful, Grandma Barlow continued as “presidentess” of the ward Relief Society. Under her leadership, the Relief Society Hall was built and furnished. To accomplish this project, each sister was asked to contribute fifty cents. Each sister was also encouraged to donate an egg every week. Grandma Barlow served in her calling as president even into her widowhood and was released just three years before her death at seventy-seven years of age.

In 1881 Grandma Barlow’s daughter, Pamela, married David Wilken Thompson. The Thompsons were called to colonize in southern Utah and Nevada. It must have been quite different in Grandma Thompson’s day to receive a “transfer,” knowing you had to build your own house when you got there.

When the Thompsons were living in Panaca, Nevada, Grandma Thompson was called as ward Relief Society president. The women in the Relief Society learned to sew on Grandma Thompson’s new sewing machine. Since it was the first one in the area, even the Indians came for miles around to see the wonder. While she was serving in this position, her husband was killed. Six weeks later Grandma Thompson had her ninth child, a little girl named Athelia, after whom Grandma, Mother, and I were named. Unfortunately, the baby died within a few months.

After being widowed, Grandma Thompson returned with her family to Bountiful, where she continued to serve. She was first president of the ward MIA and in later years a counselor in Relief Society there. On special occasions President Brigham Young asked her to come to Salt Lake City to cook for his guests.

My great grandma, Theresa Thompson Call, was ten when her father was killed. She went to work to help support the family, arising before daylight to pick peas and clean houses. Within a few years after her marriage at seventeen years of age, the Calls moved to Mexico. That first winter she was made president of the MIA, which met in her front room. Much of her life, however, she served simultaneously as Relief Society president and as a counselor in the Primary. During this same period her husband served as bishop for many years in addition to fulfilling a two-year mission to England. Their family obviously struggled with priority decisions about family and Church responsibilities much like those facing active families in our generation.

I was impressed to discover that in addition to rearing her nine children, as well as several children left motherless, and fulfilling her official church activity, Grandma Call made compassionate service a way of life.

Often, when the Call family sat down for dinner, Grandma Call would excuse herself after the blessing, and the children would see their mother carrying a hot meal to some sick or unfortunate person. She also made it a point to remember the elderly in the neighborhood with a cake on their birthdays. One evening after an especially hectic day, Grandma Call suddenly remembered it was the birthday of a dear sister who lived a few blocks away. She quickly cut more kindling, rebuilt the fire, and stirred up a cake “from scratch.” It was after nine o’clock when she finally arrived at the lady’s door. The sister burst into tears and said, “I have been waiting all day for you, and I had just about decided that you had forgotten me this time.”

Grandma Call’s life was physically threatened, much as her Grandma Barlow’s had been. Twice, during the Mexican Revolution, she and her family were forced to flee their home. Each time they returned to a house in shambles and occupied by others. Once, when she was all packed to leave Mexico, her husband sent word that he was bringing General Pershing home for dinner. Grandma Call was embarrassed to serve her company on tin plates, but the others were already packed. General Pershing, however, was so impressed with the delicious dinner and the warmth of her hospitality that he later sent her a box of chocolates and continued to correspond with the family for years.

Great-grandma Call’s second child, Athelia Call Sears, became my grandmother. As a young wife, Grandma served in the Primary organization. During the time she was Primary president, she’d bundle the toddlers into a sled in the wintertime, and she and the older children would pull them to the meetinghouse. She was always an active member of the Relief Society too. Those meetings were the highlight of her week. Mother remembers how she would rush to get her ironing done Tuesday mornings so she could attend Relief Society on Tuesday afternoons.

Later in her life, at a time when many women are feeling they have put in their requisite church service, Grandma Sears accepted a call to be a ward Relief Society president. She was in her seventies. Under her direction the women cooked lunches for the Ogden Lions Club twice a month. I remember how proud Grandma was that this project not only enabled the sisters to finance their own organization and buy needed dishes and kitchen equipment for the church, but also to hand the bishop a check for $1,000 for other ward uses.

While Grandma Sears was probably one of the oldest Relief Society presidents called, my mother, Athelia Sears Tanner, was one of the first young women to serve in this position. The University of Utah student branch had just been organized when Mother was called to preside over the Relief Society there. Part of her challenge in that calling was to organize child care and meals for mothers of new babies who arrived with predictable regularity in that branch. Later, when our family moved to California, Mother was asked to teach Primary. She solved her problem of getting her six children to the meetinghouse without a car by pushing a buggy carrying the two youngest children, while the four oldest walked the several miles to the chapel weekly.

In spite of having thirteen children over a period of twenty-one years, Mother served as theology teacher and a second term as president of the Relief Society in another ward. She also was room mother for each of us at least once, as well as serving on several PTA boards. In addition to all the Little League games where she took her turn selling refreshments, there was a period of sixteen years when she didn’t miss a Scout Court of Honor. Currently she is in a stake Relief Society presidency.

Finally, as I think about my own generation, I am reminded that my sister has accepted a call to be a ward Relief Society president on three different occasions. She first served in this position while she was a student at Brigham Young University. The second time was when her husband was a graduate student in Texas. During part of this period her husband was also in the bishopric. Part of her responsibility was to visit teach some sisters who lived ninety miles from town. More recently she was sustained as Relief Society president when her oldest child was five years old and her fourth baby was a week overdue. She always made her children feel they were really her most needed helpers as they went early and stayed late at Relief Society to set up and clean up. Her challenges have been great, but she has met them as our grandmothers did.

I’m grateful to know of the special love the women m my family have had for Relief Society and the concern they have shown for others. As I contemplate their lives, I recognize that devoted service in the Lord’s kingdom has never been easy. Yet the rewards of their service have also enriched their families’ lives. Their dedication has been a most effective way to communicate their testimonies of the gospel of Jesus Christ to their children.

I’m glad my girls play Relief Society now. I hope in years to come they will gain the joy from serving in it that our grandmothers and I have.

  • Athelia T. Woolley, a homemaker, is nursery leader in the Cody Second Ward Relief Society, Cody Wyoming Stake.

  • Athelia S. Tanner, a homemaker, is education counselor in the Pasadena California Stake Relief Society.

Illustrated by Parry Merkley

Elizabeth Haven Barlow

Pamela Barlow Thompson

Mary Thompson Call

Athelia Call Sears

Athelia Sears Tanner