“Symposium Discusses Relief Society, Women’s History,” Ensign, June 1981, 77–78
A moderately-sized but enthusiastic audience gathered on April 1 at Brigham Young University to participate in a Women’s History Symposium. Titled “Mormon Women: Spirit and Promise,” the event was jointly sponsored by the BYU Women’s Research Institute, the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History, and the Utah Women’s History Association. Symposium papers reflected the vital sense of history and purpose inherent in the Relief Society organization.
Sister Shirley W. Thomas, second counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, began the symposium by enumerating current challenges to which the organization must respond—needs of the underprivileged and sisters in developing countries; growth and development for highly-educated women “who are well-equipped to make outstanding contributions in their homes and, when appropriate, out of them”; guardianship of home and motherhood (“It is the responsibility of women—not just mothers—to save the home and keep love alive”); and the bringing together of single and married women “in love and understanding.”
Jesse L. Embry of BYU’s Charles Redd Center for Western Studies indicated that change within the Church has always been accompanied by a certain amount of adjustment on the part of members. As an example, Sister Embry examined the Relief Society grain storage program instituted by President Brigham Young in 1876 and administered by Emmeline B. Wells. The Relief Society retained charge of the project until President Joseph F. Smith’s movement, between 1906 and 1922, “to centralize Church organization through priesthood channels.” Although the grain storage program was eventually realigned, “the sisters accepted the decision because they saw it as a call from God through the priesthood.”
“The Relief Society as a Relief Society” was discussed by Loretta L. Hefner, supervisor of the Record Center of the Utah State Archives in Salt Lake City. “One particular decade [1919–1929] in the history of the Relief Society stands out as one spirited by an unusual degree of understanding of and activism against poverty and human want within the Mormon community. For the Relief Society, it was what can now be considered one of its golden decades.”
Amy Brown Lyman, under the auspices of government and Church leaders, was the guiding force behind the establishment of a social services department within the Relief Society. The Social Services Department “not only reflected fundamental social work principles, but was loyal to the faith while maintaining the contemporary standards of the social work profession. The overriding objective of the work was to restore the individual or family to normal self-sufficient living. The Relief Society Social Services Department became the center for cooperative work in serving LDS families in distress.”
Dr. Carol Clark Coombs, a member of the Relief Society General Board, chronicled the Relief Society’s approach to curriculum during the Progressive Era (roughly the years between 1890 and World War II). “Nationally,” she reported, “there was an emphasis upon separation of church and state and an increased amount of partisan politics.” But “Mormon women were looking less and less at a transformed society and more and more to their homes and families,” switching their focus “from political and societal concerns to strictly church and family ones. More than anything else, education became the emphasis of all Relief Society work. It was at the forefront, beginning with the Mother’s Class in 1902, and continued in that role throughout the entire Progressive Era.”
Responding to the morning’s presentations was Dr. Kate I. Kirkham of BYU, who drew several relevant conclusions from the meshing of current and historical information. “One point seems to me to be particularly poignant,” said Sister Kirkham. “It has always been easier for members of organizations to be against something than for something. So in some ways it’s easier for us in the Relief Society to say we don’t want to see some things happen than it is to say, ‘We want to see these things happen.’ In other words, we could look at how to build strength and direct the spiritual growth of individual women, no matter what their circumstance is. That’s a harder task, I think, than some physical project like changing curriculum or organizing a grain program. But I think in that internal alignment will come our greater source of strength and direction.”
A highlight was a visit with Sister Belle S. Spafford, now eighty-five, who for more than a quarter of a century served as general president of the Relief Society. Of individuals who have most influenced her life, Sister Spafford reflected that “I believe my first role model would be my mother. She was strong in character, a very wise mother, one who let us make our own decisions and then counseled us whether or not they were good decisions. I don’t remember her ever severely reprimanding us, but she always made sure her disapproval was felt if we weren’t in good order.”
Other significant role models have been Church leaders. “I have had the great and the rare privilege of serving under six of the twelve presidents of the Church. And while they were different as men—different in their physical appearance, in their personal attitudes, in their endowments that they brought with them from the premortal world, in their approach to building the kingdom—they were every one exactly alike as prophets, seers, revelators, great teachers, and as the voice of the Lord in guiding the earthly kingdom. Now, that I testify, because I’ve known them and I’ve worked with them.
“Obey the voice of God’s prophets,” she said. “We’ve got to remember that. We do have prophets, and we must obey their voice.”
Back at the lecture hall, symposium participants found themselves drawn back in time to the nineteenth century. The story of Jane Hyde Molen was recounted by Carol Cornwall Madsen of the Joseph F. Smith Institute for Church History at BYU. “In a society in which woman gains greatest legitimacy as a wife and mother,” she asked, “how does a childless woman cope?” Jane Hyde Molen “offers a case study.” Married at sixteen, Jane taught school in Cache Valley while her husband “became involved in Church and civic affairs, working on railroad lines, building canals, surveying the area and serving two additional missions for the Church.” No children were born to Jane and Simpson Molen, but they provided a foster home for a young teenage girl and later adopted an infant daughter. Accompanying Simpson on a mission to the Sandwich Islands in 1876 Jane “taught a small school of native children, took care of the plantation home, visited native members,” and served as a midwife. They brought back with them a native boy who lived with them for a number of years.
“The dominating theme of Jane’s diaries,” noted Sister Madsen, “is her relationship with other people.”
The symposium’s final paper was given by Jill Mulvay Derr, currently co-authoring a history of the Relief Society. Her presentation detailed the tender relationship between George A. Smith and his first wife Bathsheba (who would later serve as the Relief Society’s general president from 1901 to 1910). According to Bathsheba, it was their shared commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ that kept the family together. “‘I love my husband dearly,’ she wrote. ‘Our religion and our future hopes and expectations are the same.’
“Following the 1 September 1875 death of George A. Smith, Bathsheba received expressions of sympathy from members throughout the Church. One undoubtedly gave her cause for reflection: ‘I have thought much of the kind love that existed between you and your husband,’ wrote a sensitive sister, ‘that it was of no common order, or rather it was seated in hearts baptised by the Holy Ghost, and walled in so high by the powerful principles of the gospel that Satan could never so much as look over, much less to breathe his contaminating influence upon it.”
The Women’s History Symposium is conducted annually in April. Individuals interested in submitting papers for next year’s symposium may do so to either the Women’s Research Institute or the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History, both officed at BYU.