“Female Relief Society of Nauvoo,” Church History Topics
“Female Relief Society of Nauvoo”
In early March 1842, when seamstress Margaret Cook noticed that construction workers on the Nauvoo Temple were in need of shirts, she proposed the idea of a sewing group to her employer, Sarah Kimball. The impulse for women to organize benevolent societies to promote social and religious causes and to address poverty and other community needs was common in 19th century America.1 Sarah invited her friends and neighbors to join their “Ladies Society” and asked Eliza R. Snow to write a constitution, an organizational pattern common among other societies at the time. Eliza presented her document to Joseph Smith, who said it was the best he had seen but that the Lord had in mind “something better” for the women. He wanted to organize them “after the pattern, or order, of the priesthood” and give the society a place of prominence in God’s Church.2 Sarah Kimball recalled that Joseph said, “The organization of the Church of Christ was never perfect until the woman were organised.”3
On March 17, 1842, twenty women gathered in the large assembly room above Joseph Smith’s Red Brick Store. At this founding meeting, Joseph Smith proposed the women elect a president, who would then choose two counselors.4 Emma Smith was elected president by unanimous vote, and she chose Sarah M. Cleveland and Elizabeth Ann Whitney as counselors. After the selection, Joseph Smith read a revelation he had received for Emma Smith in 1830 that had declared her an “Elect Lady.” Emma had a responsibility, Joseph taught, “to expound the scriptures to all; and to teach the female part of community; and that not she alone, but others, may attain to the same blessings.”5
“We are going to do something extraordinary,” Emma Smith declared during this first meeting. “We expect extraordinary occasions and pressing calls.”6 The assembled women also appointed a secretary and a treasurer. These women were “ordained,” or set apart, according to Joseph Smith’s instructions, by the laying on of hands. The society grew rapidly and, by March 1844, over 1,300 women had been admitted as members.
Through the Relief Society, the Lord gave women an institutional place and authority in the Church. “I now turn the key to you in the name of God,” Joseph Smith declared on April 28, 1842, “and this Society shall rejoice and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time.” The Relief Society was instrumental in preparing the women of the Church to receive temple ordinances.7 Referring in part to their future participation in these ordinances, Joseph taught that the women would soon “come in possession of the privileges and blessings and gifts of the priesthood.”8
Nauvoo Relief Society members focused on two major objectives as taught by Joseph Smith: “the Society is not only to relieve the poor, but to save souls.”9 The minutes of their meetings record, for example, how these women cared for the influx of poor immigrants from Missouri and the British Isles. The members went about satisfying the needs of their fellow Saints by exchanging services among Relief Society members, soliciting donations for the needy, and identifying needs among the families in the community. The Relief Society was also politically involved, delivering petitions to Illinois governor Thomas Carlin.10
In addition to charitable and civic work, the Relief Society served important spiritual purposes. Joseph Smith gave them additional instructions about their religious responsibilities and authority, speaking to them on six of the nine occasions he attended Relief Society meetings in 1842.11 Women also gave counsel to each other during the meetings and held theological discussions, much as the men did in the School of the Elders in Kirtland. The women exercised spiritual gifts and bore testimony to each other. Lucy Mack Smith, for instance, told the assembled women to “remember the words of Alma” and “pray much at morning, noon and night.” She feared she “could not meet with the Society but few times more,” she told them, because of her advanced age. But she “wished to leave her testimony that the Book of Mormon is the book of God.”12
The Relief Society initially met during the spring and summer months of 1842 and 1843. In March 1844, when the society first convened for the year, Emma Smith spoke at four meetings on the need for moral purity, likely as a way to subtly oppose authorized plural marriages.13 After these meetings, the Relief Society did not meet again in Nauvoo.14 Brigham Young formally suspended meetings of the society in March 1845.
Eliza R. Snow brought the Nauvoo Relief Society minute book to Utah and, when asked by President Brigham Young to help reestablish the Relief Society, used it as a pattern in assisting bishops and women throughout the territory in the late 1860s. These Utah societies looked to the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo for inspiration, keeping their own minute books and frequently recounting their founding story and Joseph Smith’s inclusion of women in the restoration of the Church.15