“‘The Beginning of Better Days’: How the Relief Society Works to Bless the World,” Ensign, February 2020
On March 17, 1842, the Prophet Joseph Smith formed the Church’s first organization for women known as the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo. He said at the time, “I now turn the key to you in the name of God and this Society shall rejoice and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time—this is the beginning of better days.”1
That promise of better days indeed proved prophetic. Since its inception, the Relief Society has been a force for good not only for its members but also for their homes, for their communities, and for whatever nation where Relief Society sisters have lived. Whether by voting or volunteering, campaigning or curing, Relief Society sisters carry on a legacy of service and compassion.
That legacy—and the principles of Christlike charity that uphold it—lies at the heart of the strength and influence of Relief Society, which has grown to be one of the largest women’s organizations in the world.
The United States suffrage (right to vote) movement was an example of how the Relief Society opened a new era of opportunity for women, their communities, and their nations.
Sarah Melissa Granger Kimball, an early Relief Society leader and active participant in the national suffrage movement, stated that “the sure foundations of the suffrage cause were deeply and permanently laid” when the Relief Society was organized in 1842.2 Relief Society representatives attended national suffrage meetings in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, enthusiastically pressing for all women to enjoy the right to vote.
One hundred and fifty years ago, women didn’t have full voting rights anywhere in the world. But on February 12, 1870, Utah became the second United States territory (after Wyoming) to grant women the right to vote. Two days later, Utah women voted in a United States election for the first time. Eliza R. Snow, the second Relief Society General President, declared, “It is our duty to vote, sisters; let no trifling thing keep you at home.”3
It would be 50 more years before female suffrage was granted on a national level. During those years Relief Society women continued to advocate for women’s rights. Susa Young Gates, editor of the Relief Society Magazine, wrote in 1914, “My conviction is that woman should have the ballot in every land and clime.”4 When women in the United States finally received national suffrage in 1920, momentum for female suffrage was building around the world.
Another area that Relief Society sisters influenced was health care. Nineteenth-century medicine was primitive by modern standards. At one time during the pioneer era, when the Saints had been in their new home for only about three years, Utah had the second-worst death rate in the United States.5 In the 1870s and 1880s, several women traveled east to obtain medical training. When they returned to Utah, they shared their new knowledge with their Relief Society sisters.
On July 17, 1882, Deseret Hospital—staffed primarily by women and funded by the Relief Society—opened in Salt Lake City. The Relief Society also sponsored nursing classes so that women could provide medical care in their own communities.
Even though medical knowledge was advancing, many people, especially in rural areas, didn’t have access to good medical care. Therefore, in 1921, when the mortality rate among expectant mothers and young children was alarmingly high, Clarissa Smith Williams, the sixth Relief Society General President, announced a new focus on maternal and child health.
Women enthusiastically gathered supplies, raised funds, distributed pamphlets, and sponsored health clinics. They didn’t only help Latter-day Saints, and their efforts stretched beyond Utah. For example, the Hawaiian Mission Relief Society, working with the Honolulu Board of Health, set up baby clinics in villages and towns.6
By 1924, the Presiding Bishopric reported that the lives of 500 children had been saved by Relief Society efforts.7 Utah became one of the five lowest states in the nation for maternal and infant death rates.8
Another Relief Society effort—with a surprising side benefit—began in 1876. President Brigham Young appointed Emmeline Wells to organize a wheat storage program for the women of the Church. The subsequent efforts benefitted not only Latter-day Saints but also others across the world.
After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the Relief Society sent wheat to survivors. In 1907, wheat was sent to China during a famine. In 1918, the Relief Society sold over 200,000 bushels of wheat to the United States government to help the military and those starving in Europe after World War I. The interest earned on money received for this wheat funded the Relief Society health initiatives of the 1920s.
During World War II, Relief Society sisters again organized to provide aid. The Relief Society Magazine reported that during 1944, they contributed 139,338 hours of sewing for the Red Cross.9 Relief Society sisters assembled first aid kits, donated blood, and purchased war bonds. They also sent clothing, soap, safety pins, and other items to war-torn Europe.10
In 1992, the Relief Society celebrated its 150th anniversary with a global service-project initiative. Women responded eagerly. Sisters in the Upolu Samoa West Stake cleaned hospitals damaged by a cyclone. In Paris, France, Relief Society members made quilts for retirement homes and collected clothes for the needy. In Germany, women made dolls for children at a hospital. In England, Relief Society sisters picked up litter, sewed clothes for premature babies, and made Christmas dinner for retirement home residents. The Marikina Philippines Stake Relief Society sponsored community health clinics to promote healthy living.
One Relief Society president observed, “Service projects have a great tendency to not only strengthen relationships within each ward or branch of the Relief Society, but also give us a great feeling of unity and togetherness with our Relief Society sisters all over the world.”11
In 2017, Jean B. Bingham, 17th General Relief Society President, spoke at a United Nations panel, echoing sentiments from her Relief Society predecessors: “While individually we can do great good, collectively we can accomplish so much more.”12
President Russell M. Nelson has observed, “In Relief Society, women in various ages and stages of life … [are] making a real difference in the world.”13
Since the founding of the Relief Society with its divinely appointed pattern of organization, Latter-day Saint women have engaged in countless united efforts to effect positive change throughout the world. Now with over seven million members in nearly 200 nations, the Relief Society continues to be a force for good.