“Relief Society,” Church History Topics
The Female Relief Society of Nauvoo was organized in March 1842.1 Although Relief Society activities were officially suspended in March 1845, the commission Joseph Smith gave to women to relieve the poor and save souls endured.2 Even without a formal organization, Latter-day Saint women continued to gather together to pray, sing, and testify and to bless each other, their families, the sick, and the poor.
In 1854, under the direction of Brigham Young, women began to organize again in local Relief Societies.3 The women assisted their American Indian neighbors, ministered to poor Saints, wove carpet for meetinghouses, and helped clothe militia members protecting Utah Territory. At least 24 ward Relief Societies formed, but the arrival of federal troops in 1857 effectively ended these efforts.4
By 1867 large numbers of struggling immigrant Saints in Utah and the need for a self-sustaining economy concerned Brigham Young. He called Eliza R. Snow to assist bishops in reestablishing local Relief Societies. As secretary of the Nauvoo Relief Society, Snow had recorded and preserved its meeting minutes and used them as a charter for the new societies.
Early Relief Societies in Utah quickly multiplied—by 1869 over 100 branches were in operation. Such growth necessitated greater coordination, and in 1877 the first stake-level Relief Society was organized in Ogden, Utah, with Jane Snyder Richards as president. Stake Relief Societies soon formed throughout Utah, and three years later, Church President John Taylor installed Eliza R. Snow as president over all Relief Societies. Snow organized a central committee later known as the Relief Society general board. Within a decade, Relief Society membership grew to nearly 17,000 across the United States, Canada, England, Scotland, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Pacific Islands, Australia, and New Zealand.5
Relief Society members in the 19th century engaged in many enterprises, including grain storage, silk manufacture, cooperative stores, medical care, and female suffrage.6 Leaders were also aware of the needs of youth and children and helped organize Mutual Improvement Associations and the Primary.7 Relief Society women passionately defended religious freedom in the face of increasing government pressure to abandon plural marriage. Early General Presidents of the Relief Society in Utah served as temple matrons.
In the 20th century the Relief Society adapted to an increasingly scientific and urban modern world. Relief Society programs focused on community improvement. During the presidency of Bathsheba W. Smith, the Relief Society sponsored classes in home economics and nursing and ran an employment bureau for young women.8 Relief Society leaders offered their stored grain to aid American Indians in Utah, victims of a 1907 famine in China, and survivors of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco.9 In 1915, under Emmeline B. Wells’s direction, the Woman’s Exponent newspaper was replaced by the Relief Society Magazine, a more modern periodical with curriculum, reports from local units, and advice on household management.10 In the 1920s general board member Amy Brown Lyman led efforts to use modern social work techniques in Relief Society programs and directed maternity and child-welfare courses.
At the same time, the Relief Society faced the complex task of adapting to the Church’s changing organization. Under Bathsheba Smith, Relief Society sisters raised funds for a women’s building on Temple Square—but general Relief Society offices were moved into the Bishop’s Building instead.11 Ward Relief Society halls were replaced with a room within local meetinghouses.12 The long-running Relief Society grain storage program came to an end in 1918 when Church leaders sold the grain to the United States government to assist the World War I effort.13 Beginning in 1936 Relief Society members played a vital role in the new Church Security Plan, later known as the welfare plan.14
In the 1950s, under the direction of General Relief Society President Belle S. Spafford and Church President David O. McKay, Relief Society sisters again raised funds for a building on Temple Square, which was dedicated in 1956.15 The work of the Relief Society continued to evolve as a Churchwide correlation effort brought many of the Relief Society’s endeavors under the direction of local and general priesthood leaders. By 1970 responsibility for fundraising, magazines, and welfare had been transferred to Church committees and departments. Beginning in 1971 all Latter-day Saint women age 18 and older were enrolled automatically as Relief Society members. The requirement to pay dues was dropped.16
During the 1970s General Relief Society President Barbara B. Smith emphasized home and family roles and spoke out on the proposed Equal Rights Amendment as it was being debated in the United States; the next General President, Barbara Winder, encouraged healing after a decade of growing divisions.17 In the 1990s General President Elaine L. Jack spent time assessing the needs of sisters around the world and launched a new literacy program.18
The Relief Society has been recognized globally for its efforts to mobilize women in spiritual ministry, family and community service, economic self-reliance, and humanitarian and refugee services. The Relief Society also continues to contribute an important voice in the councils of the Church: just as local Relief Society leaders serve on their ward and branch councils, Relief Society General Officers began in 2016 to serve on the Priesthood and Family Executive Council, the Missionary Executive Council, and the Temple and Family History Executive Council.