An Interview with the Editors of the Book, The First Fifty Years of Relief Society
Kate Holbrook and Matt Grow, editors of the new book, The First Fifty Years of Relief Society, graciously agreed to answer some questions I had about the book and its content.
- What is the reasoning behind compiling this book? Why do you consider this an important project?
Matt: The intent of this book is to make available key documents in the history of the Relief Society—including the detailed minutes of the society from Nauvoo and 77 other documents over a fifty year period—to a broad audience. Documentary histories allow historical actors to tell their own stories in their own words. This book thus gives us the unfiltered voices of nineteenth-century Mormon women. Too often, academic and popular histories have not paid close enough attention to the voices of Mormon women. We hope that this book becomes a resource for personal study, for future scholarly and popular histories, and using the voices and examples of women more often in church teaching and talks.
- Emma Smith is, I think, one of the most fascinating people of early Mormonism. Do you glean any particular insights about Emma Smith from these documents?
Matt: The book contains many insights about Emma Smith. It was within the Relief Society structure that Emma sought to fulfill the instructions given in a July 1830 revelation (now known as section 25 of the Doctrine and Covenants) to “expound scriptures & exhort the Church.” It is primarily within the records of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo that we hear Emma’s public voice in the early Church. This begins at the first meeting of the Relief Society in Nauvoo, on March 17, 1842 in which she advocates that the new organization be called the “Relief Society” against the suggestion made by John Taylor that it should be the “Benevolent Society.” The public interaction between Joseph and Emma Smith—initially taking opposite sides of this question—modeled their hope that the Relief Society would “deliberate candidly and investigate all subjects.” At the end of this discussion, John Taylor told Emma Smith, “I shall have to concede the point—your arguments are so potent I cannot stand before them.” To learn more about Emma Smith, we encourage you to read the following:
- Part 1 Introduction, 1830-1845: https://churchhistorianspress.org/the-first-fifty-years-of-relief-society/part-1
- Revelation, July 1830: https://churchhistorianspress.org/the-first-fifty-years-of-relief-society/part-1/1-1
- The 1842 minutes of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo: https://churchhistorianspress.org/the-first-fifty-years-of-relief-society/part-1/1-2
- Tell us about one particular anecdote that stands out to you in this book. Why does it stand out to you? What does it tell us about Relief Society’s scope, power, or impact?
Kate: Eliza R. Snow wrote an article for the Deseret News in 1868 that portrays well the scope, power, and intended impact of Relief Society. Snow was writing just a week after Brigham Young had called for wards throughout the church to establish local Relief Societies. She reviewed where they would fit institutionally, that bishops would have ultimate say in each ward, as well as what their purpose should be: “to do good—to bring into requisition every capacity we possess for doing good, not only in relieving the poor but in saving souls.” The article is full of quotable sentiments, “If any of the daughters and mothers in Israel are feeling in the least circumscribed in their present spheres, they will now find ample scope for every power and capability for doing good with which they are most liberally endowed” (271). Or “United effort will accomplish incalculably more than can be accomplished by the most effective individual energies” (273).
- Just how autonomous was Relief Society in the first fifty years? What was its relationship to Brigham Young, and how does that compare to its relationship to Joseph Smith in Nauvoo? To what extent were Relief Society leaders autonomous (from priesthood leadership) in their endeavors?
Matt: This is a complicated and important set of questions. The best place to start would be to read the book’s general introduction at https://churchhistorianspress.org/the-first-fifty-years-of-relief-society/front-matter/introduction. That introduction states that Latter-day Saint women “viewed themselves not as an independent sisterhood but as part of a larger kingdom, grounded in prophetic revelation and priesthood authority. ‘In the Church and Kingdom of God,’ Eliza R. Snow emphasized, ‘the interests of men and women are the same; man has no interests separate from that of women, however it may be in the outside world, our interests are all united.’”
Eliza Snow’s statement conveys how her belief that the relationship between Relief Society leaders and priesthood leaders would be one of collaboration. Relief Society leaders and members exercised a degree of autonomy under both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young; they also sought to collaborate with and follow the counsel of both general Church leaders and local bishops. The documents in the book demonstrate how Latter-day Saint women and men both sought the ideal of collaboration and how they worked through the inevitable tensions that arose.
- In your opinion, what was the most impressive thing that Relief Society accomplished in its first fifty years? Why?
Kate: This is a great question but I can’t answer it because I am so impressed by so many things. Jane Blood’s diary entries reveal how consuming sericulture was. Aurelia Spencer Rogers’ memoir demonstrates both the spiritual highs and the melancholy that can accompany pioneering efforts. Rogers was helping to create Primary. Thousands of women spoke out against anti-polygamy legislation and their efforts bore no immediate fruit, but in speaking out they were still accomplishing important achievements—organizing a unified effort, refining their writing and speaking abilities, rejecting mean-spirited portrayals of themselves while making themselves vulnerable to future criticism through their visible participation in the public realm. Eliza R. Snow’s reestablishment of Relief Society was a great accomplishment. Production of the Woman’s Exponent was a tremendous accomplishment. Relief Society members exercised great initiative and were strikingly resilient.
- What were Relief Society leaders’ primary endeavors and how did those change over time?
Kate: We first see reference to the purpose of Relief Society in the June 9, 1842 entry of the Nauvoo Relief Society minute book, “The Society is not only to relieve the poor, but to save souls.” Throughout this book you see Mormon women working to achieve that dual purpose of saving souls and administering relief. They also often restate the purpose. One of my favorite instances of restatement is at the first Relief Society conference on April 6, 1889. President Zina D.H. Young said, “The Relief Society [was organized] to dispense temporal blessings to the poor and needy; and to give encouragement to the weak, and restrain the erring ones, and for the better development, and exercise of woman sympathies, and charities, that she might have opportunity to attain spiritual strength, and power for the accomplishment of greater good in the work of the redemption of the human family.” (565) I sometimes hear people shy away from the prospect of service, concerned that it will deplete their energy. That’s important to keep in mind. But I love Young’s perspective here that Relief Society work builds our spiritual strength and our power to do good. Specifically, women in these pages describe their efforts at charitable work, sericulture, wheat gathering, political protest, sewing, cooking, baking, suffrage advocacy, preaching, teaching, organizing, healthcare, and writing.
- Do these documents indicate Relief Societies forming relationships with Native American women, members and non-members? What did that relationship look like?
Kate: Two documents give us information about these relationships. During the 1850s, some Relief Societies formed in response to Brigham Young’s encouragement to provide food and clothing for native women and children. Because of this main relief goal, the societies were called “Indian Relief Societies.” In 1854 and 1855, at least seventeen of these Relief Societies in Salt Lake City donated a total of $44 cash and bedding and clothing worth $1,540. Document 2.7 contains several months of minutes from one of these societies. Document 4.7, on the other hand, has minutes from a society in Utah’s Sanpete County, half of whose members belonged to the Ute Tribe. A Ute member was also in that society’s presidency. This document is painful, because the attendees are concerned with teaching the Ute members to keep their houses clean. But it is also a treasure. Records of nineteenth century Indian women’s voices are hard to come by and their words were recorded in these meeting minutes.
- Some Mormon women today feel tension between employment and stay-at-home motherhood. Do these documents indicate that Mormon women felt tension between producing income/products and mothering their children?
Kate: Most often what you find in these pages are male and female leaders encouraging women to expand their efforts beyond the domestic sphere. Public life did not mean the sacrifice of private life. Midwife Emma Liljenquist’s reminiscence (Document 4.17) articulates in detail the exhausting nature of her work and the ways her family members helped to care for her children when she was attending a birth or tending the sick.
- As many people know, general Relief Society leaders in Utah were connected to the national suffrage movement. But what role if any did Relief Societies on the local level play in advocating for suffrage?
Matt: Latter-day Saint women were active politically in early 1870 in two key ways: protesting proposed federal anti-polygamy legislation through “mass indignation meetings” and advocating for women’s suffrage. The idea to extend suffrage to women in Utah was an outgrowth, in part, of the national anti-polygamy movement that believed Mormon women would vote out Mormon men if given the right to vote. Confident that this would not happen, both Latter-day Saint women and men in Utah supported the extension of voting rights to women. At the January 6, 1870, Relief Society mass meeting held to protest the federal anti-polygamy Cullom Bill, Bathsheba Smith motion that “we demand of the Gov[ernor] the right of Franchise.” A right was called on Smith’s motion and it carried. Following effective public demonstrations organized and staged by Utah women in protest of national legislation, the territorial legislature began discussion of female suffrage. Latter-day Saint leaders responded favorably to the idea. Indeed, the female suffrage bill passed the Utah legislature unanimously in February 1870. Two days after the governor signed the bill, women voted in a municipal election in Salt Lake City. We feature a document from that same week in which a committee of prominent Mormon women wrote “an expression of gratitude” to the governor for signing the bill.
The introduction to Part 3 gives some background here: https://churchhistorianspress.org/the-first-fifty-years-of-relief-society/part-3
- Is there any sense from the documents as to how Relief Society leaders and members felt when the Manifesto proclaimed the end of polygamy?
Matt: The reactions of women to the Manifesto of 1890 is not covered extensively in the book. The introduction to one document—a report from the Emery Stake Relief Society on October 17, 1890, a few weeks after the Manifesto—does give us a glimpse into the reactions. The introduction to that document quotes Joseph H. Dean, recently returned from presiding over the Samoan mission, on the reaction of church members in general conference: “Many of the saints seemed stunned and confused and hardly knew how to vote, feeling that if they endorsed it they would be voting against one of the most sacred and important principles of their religion, and yet, as it had been promulgated by the prophet, seer and revelator and the earthly mouthpiece of the Almighty, they felt it must be proper for some reason or other. There were no opposition votes, but many of the saints refrained from voting either way.” Dean further noted, “A great many of the sisters weeped silently, and seemed to feel worse than the brethren.” The Manifesto definitely brought pain to both women and men who had sacrificed to defend and, in many cases, practice plural marriage. But most moved forward in their faith. Helen M. Whitney reported that she had studied the general conference minutes “with a prayerful heart and desire for the right spirit and understanding to judge of its true source. And the testimony, and spirit that came to me was strong enough to convince me that this step was right.”
In the Emery Stake Relief Society conference in October 1890, Ann Beers Pulsipher, one of the stake Relief Society counselors, “spoke of the trials the Saints had gone through and were now passing through, referred to the Manifesto that President Woodruff had issued, spoke very interestingly.” Sarah Fullmer “also referred to the Manifesto and found it already was trying some people.”
- Is there a sequel planned? Will there be a book covering the next fifty years of Relief Society? What other future books about Mormon women is this press planning to publish?
Kate: We don’t currently plan on a sequel. Our next women’s history project for the Church Historian’s Press is a collection of women’s discourses from 1831 to 2014.
- Tell us about the Church Historians Press Online Resources website that has been recently launched. What is the vision behind it? What do you hope it will accomplish? Are there resources there that are not available in the book?
Matt: The vision behind the Church Historian’s Press website is to make available everything that the press publishes for free. We are doing this on the press’s first series, the Joseph Smith Papers, at www.josephsmithpapers.org. We believe it is important to give all Church members and all scholars access to these documents—not just those who can afford the books. The website currently contains selections from the book—including the general introduction, the four part introductions, the entire Nauvoo minutes, selected documents from throughout the book, and 400 biographies. We will be posting more documents throughout this year; all of the content will be available within a year or so. There is some content available on the website that doesn’t appear in the book, including four videos and a chronology. In a few months, we will have an additional 1600 short biographies of individuals who appear in the book. We hope that you will explore the website: www.churchhistorianspress.org.