Relief Society Lesson Chp 39: Divine Organization of Women
by Lynette at Zelophehad’s Daughters
This is a lesson I find rather challenging, so I’m going to suggest a couple of ways to approach it.
The first part of this lesson talks about the founding of the Relief Society. One way to focus the lesson could be historical—most Latter-day Saints are familiar with (and can possibly even recite) all the presidents of the church, but we don’t generally know as much about what different Relief Society presidents have done, and I think that could be fun to learn. A possible source could be Derr, Cannon, and Beecher’s Women of Covenant—please feel free to mention other possible resources in the comments. To tie this back to the lesson, you could bring in this kind of historical material as illustration of some of the ideals outlined here, as a way of understanding better what they meant to earlier generations of women in the church.
Another approach could focus on people’s individual experiences with Relief Society. This is a subject about which the people in the class have a lot of firsthand knowledge, so draw on that. What role does the Relief Society actually play in people’s lives? What parts do they like? Are there aspects they find challenging? When they do attend, why do they do so? If there have been times when they’ve avoided Relief Society, what were the reasons for that? It might be interesting to have women of different ages talk about their perceptions of Relief Society, and how those perceptions have changed over time and with different life circumstances. Again, these could be connected to statements regarding the purpose of the Relief Society in the manual—ask people to think about comments like “the Relief Society encourages women to practice holiness.” What does that mean, really? How does that ideal actually play out in their weekly experience of Relief Society?
And as usual, here are some possible discussion questions:
— Joseph Smith commented, “The Church was never perfectly organized until the women were thus organized.” (p. 451) The first point in the manual is that “the Relief Society, organized under the priesthood and after its pattern, is an essential part of the Church.” This might seem obvious, but it’s worth unpacking. Why exactly is the Relief Society essential? How does that connect to the fact that it also has the status of an “auxiliary?”
–There are some interesting differences between the way in which the Relief Society operates, and the institutional organization of the priesthood. For example, the men are split into different groups based on their office in the priesthood, while all women over age 18 are in the Relief Society. One has to be ordained to a priesthood office, but in the current church, membership in the Relief Society is automatic. What do you make of these differences? And what exactly does it mean to be organized “after the pattern” of the priesthood? Do you see the Relief Society operating in a kind of parallel way to the priesthood, or do you see it more as something unique?
–At the founding of the Relief Society, Joseph Smith said, “This Society is to get instruction through the order which God has established—through the medium of those appointed to lead—and 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 to this Society.” (p. 451) Think about this phrase–“I now turn the key to you in the name of God?” What is the key that the Relief Society has? (An interesting note here is that some other accounts of this mistakenly have Joseph Smith saying, “I now turn the key in your behalf,” which conveys a somewhat different sense.) What does it mean to talk about “knowledge and intelligence” flowing down? In what ways have you seen that?
–Joseph Smith says that “it is natural for females to have feelings of charity and benevolence” (p. 451) and the Relief Society is described as a place where those feelings can be put into action. Does the Relief Society also have room for women who might not feel that they are particularly charitable or benevolent?
–The Relief Society—as indicated already by its name—has traditionally had a particular concern for helping those in need—its object “is the relief of the poor, the destitute, the widow and the orphan, and for the exercise of all benevolent purposes.” (p. 452) But temporal relief is not its only purpose; the manual also cites Joseph Smith saying that it is “not only to relieve the poor, but to save souls.” (p. 453) It could be interesting to think more about the tie between physical and spiritual salvation suggested here (and possibly consider this in the context of LDS views about the physical world more generally). Are saving souls and aiding the poor two different things?
–D&C 25, the revelation to Emma, is referenced at the Society’s founding. “President Joseph Smith read the revelation to Emma Smith, from the book of Doctrine and Covenants; and stated that she was … to expound the scriptures to all; and to teach the female part of the community; and that not she alone, but others, may attain to the same blessings.” (p. 454) It is notable that women are called not only to study the scriptures, but also to expound them to others. What does it mean to expound? Paul’s comments on women speaking in church notwithstanding, why might it be important to have women as well as men expounding the scriptures? (In the current church, one might note, women teach not only “the female part of the community,” but also mixed-gender groups in Sunday School.)
–The last section emphasizes the need to show kindness to others, to avoid contention and self-righteousness, to be careful about what you say. These ideals can be challenging to actually live in the context of a diverse congregation. What are effective ways of handling conflict with other ward members, or negative feelings toward others in the community?