January 2011 Visiting Teaching Message: The History and Heritage of Relief Society

by Spunky

In what can only be described as a strange academic journey, I began to study the history of the Relief Society and fell in love. I do not profess to be even a good amateur Mormon historian, nonetheless, with the direction to focus on “understanding the history of Relief Society”[1], I was excited. I loved readingWomen of Covenant[2], because it made me realise how powerful these early Mormon women were.  After initial disappointment that the history would only be recognised in Visiting Teaching, therefore only aimed at women, I decided to be happy with that minimalist nod of recognition for Mormon women. In light of that, I wanted to offer some thoughts on the Visiting Teaching message as a means of developing and celebrating the history of women in the church.

Eliza R. Snow recalled the Prophet Joseph Smith teaching that “although the name [Relief Society] may be of modern date, the institution is of ancient origin.

Inspiration can be awkward at the best of times as it lacks often lacks scientific tangibility. Likewise, the inspiration that Smith had that the Relief Society is of ancient origin is problematic for two reasons: one is that historically, women’s organizations lacked sufficient recording. The second is that the “modern” title implies that the name of the ancient organizations is not similar, so even if there were a grand historical ancient library of women’s clubs, it could be difficult to define which were most or least inspired by God.

But, in embracing this fact we are assured that this Relief Society, the modern Relief Society will not allow itself to be erased or ignored in history. We have records of the first Relief Society meeting. Even if sketchy, we have histories of several thousand Relief Societies from around the world. So, at face value alone, if the Relief Society is of ancient origin, the first thing we can learn from the ancient organization is to keep records. Women are important, and if this is the oft-quoted “Lord’s organization for women”, we have an obligation to keep records to ensure that the history of women today will not be lost to future generations.[3]

Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, visited Joseph Smith and, through him, restored the fulness of the gospel to the earth. Relief Society was part of that restoration. The organization of the Church was not complete until the sisters were organized.

Why would a church not be complete until the sisters were organized? In part, I think it is to give women a voice. Otherwise, in overtly patriarchal religious history, women have limited recognition of inspiration or spiritual enlightenment. More importantly, their inspiration had to be limited to those within her immediate circle as women, for the most part did not have a voice. Think about it like this: before women’s suffrage introduced the right for women to vote, could the US or other western countries really be called democracies? Were the voices of the people all being heard? (I am not ignoring the right for all ethnicities to vote, I am just focusing on women). I would open this up for discussion and ask why any church is would be incomplete in the eyes of God if it lacked an arm specifically focused on the development of women.

In the coming months, each Visiting Teaching Message will give us the opportunity to learn more about the history of Relief Society and its part in the restored gospel. For many reasons, understanding our history is not only important but essential.

First, an understanding of our history inspires us to be the women of God we need to be. By following the examples of noble Latter-day Saint women, we can learn from the past how to face the future.

Second, our history teaches that the same principles that existed in the early Church are our foundational principles today. This knowledge and our purposes—to increase faith and personal righteousness, strengthen families and homes, and help those in need—draw a connection between our past and our present.

Okay, I am a cynic at heart. Which means I kinda like the stories of leaders flopping. It reminds me that they are as mortal as I am, and that I am obligated to seek out and make my own non-blind-faith choices, as directed by the spirit. For example: I once toured Brigham Young’s summer home in St. George, Utah. I loved the building and the grounds. I also loved learning that Young had a grand idea of importing silkworms. The purpose was to make a silk industry in Utah wherein women of the church could make their own silk stockings. To make a long story short, the silkworms were messy, became work intensive and ended up being very unprofitable failure on a number of levels. The women quit the industry and moved on.

Fast forward to M. Russell Ballard’s unfortunate fashion advice in 2010. He admonished mothers for setting a poor example for their daughters for wearing flip-flops to church.[4] Really? Flip flops? This is a bad example? In my current branch, there is a large divide in incomes. For more than one family, flip-flops are the only shoes women, children and sometimes even men can afford.

If I consider Ballard’s advice, and apply the lesson learned from Young’s economic mistake of a century ago, I can support my sisters because they came to church- no matter what kind of shoes they wear. Equally, although some the early sisters may have complained about the failed silk worming, this wasn’t a reason for them to disregard their own personal testimonies and quit the church. Just like there is no reason for the sisters in my branch to leave the church because all they can afford to wear are flip flops. The connection here between the past and the present is that when our testimony is grounded in Christ, then we can prayerfully adapt the advice of leaders as appropriate in our own lives. THAT is empowering.

Third, as we value our history, we can better share our spiritual heritage. President Henry B. Eyring, First Counselor in the First Presidency, said: “You pass the heritage along as you help others receive the gift of charity. … The history of Relief Society is recorded in words and numbers, but the heritage is passed heart to heart.”

Well, this is a bit tricky, because since this history is only being taught in the vehicle of Visiting Teaching, it seems like only women value it. But I think this is an opportunity for us to be Christlike in setting an example. If the women of the church embrace the history of the Relief Society, and become excited about it, we can add this knowledge in our Sacrament talks and Sunday school lessons. In this, we can teach recognition for the important and progressive place of Mormon women, and hopefully ignite a passion and return to the service and suffragist ideas of the early Relief Society days.

Finally, understanding our history helps make us an effective part of the future of Relief Society. President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) explained, “We know that women who have deep appreciation for the past will be concerned about shaping a righteous future.”

This goes back to the start of my analysis of the message. Women have been historically disregarded. If we value who we are, and we value our organization and the contributions of women in the church and the world, then we become a better instrument for progress. In embracing the history of Relief Society, and celebrating the suffrage, support for women’s education and women’s enlightenment as illustrated in the historical Relief Society, then we can re-emerge as a Christ-centred and revolutionary organization for women. In this, we can unilaterally support the women around us as well as extend the concept of global women’s suffrage as an essential part of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This is really important to me. I think it is easy to forget that in many countries, women are often refused the privilege of education, the right to vote and the ability to own property. Women of the early church faced these same barriers. They fought for education and nursing training; they worked with Susan B. Anthony in securing the vote for women, and developed the concept of women’s ownership and property inheritance. In learning from the Mormon women of the past, I think we are in a better position to know how to strive for global change for all women. I believe these early Mormon women were inspired for all women. In following their example, we may be able to influence the women of the global church in obtaining human rights that are yet to be offered by all governments. These are Christlike, suffragist, human rights that the women of the early church saw to fruition in the United States.

This isn’t intended to imply that American Mormon women have perfected lives and can rest in ideal equality. But, these early sisters made change in their lives. They were smart and determined women who actively engaged in personal, economic and humanist development. We can apply this concept in our own wards as we strive for equal recognition and value of women within the church. The endurance of the pioneer women not only in crossing the plains, but they strived for what we see now as basic rights. When we study the techniques they enlisted for the advancement of women, we will learn ways in which we will be successful in strengthening the position of women in and out of the church. In the very least, we will not be forgotten

1] Julie B. Beck, Liahona, “Daughters in My Kingdom”, November 2010, p 112-115.

[2] Jill Mulvay Derr, Janath Russell Cannon, Mauree Ursenbach Beecher,Women of Covenant, Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, 1992.

[3] This is a very common quote. One reference is Barbara Thompson,Liahona, “Now Let Us Rejoice”, November 2008, 114-116.

[4] M. Russell Ballard, Liahona, “Mothers and Daughters”, May 2010, p 18-21.


Spunky lives in Queensland, Australia. She loves travel and aims to visit as many church branches and wards in the world as possible.

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11 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Spunky, I love this analysis. You are so right – by studying the triumphs and the failures of the early church, it helps us deal with current messages that we perceive as culturally motivated. Your example about Ballard’s discouragement of flip-flops was great. I remember rolling my eyes at that because it seemed so culturally motivated, but it didn’t even occur to me that there were places in the world where that’s the only footwear that women own. I love that you can bring that perspective to these VT messages.

    I’m looking forward to the next installment!

  2. CatherineWO says:

    This is great Spunky. I especially like your statement, “The connection here between the past and the present is that when our testimony is grounded in Christ, then we can prayerfully adapt the advice of leaders as appropriate in our own lives. THAT is empowering.”

    I have to admit that I was disappointed when I first read this message, like “this is it?” But you have given it so much more depth. Thank you.

  3. EmilyCC says:

    I completely agree with you about importance of seeing the early Mormon women as examples. There was such ingenuity, perserverance and intelligence when life didn’t go smoothly. In a time when most Church leaders have lived the ideal Mormon life (1 marriage when young, a few kids, and a higher socio-economic class), it’s nice to see these early Church female leaders who were married multiple times, polygamous (essentially single), had children die, and were more often than not, dirt poor.

    I’ll be incorporating this into my VT message this month 🙂

  4. MB says:

    Good thoughts. And I like your response too, EmilyCC. Just got to be sure that they are real stories. You are right. The more I learn about the challenging, courageous thoughtful lives of some of the early, devoted, everyday women in church history (not just the knock-your-socks-off ones) the more my vision of what is personally possible for me and my sisters as everyday modern RS members expands.

    For all those who are sad that it is just the visiting teaching message that carries the RS history message, I must say that I am very grateful that if they were only going to choose one venue, that this was it. There are many of us RS sisters whose callings preclude getting in on a discussion about RS history if it’s held during a Sunday RS meeting or whose work or family needs preclude us from attending RS midweek or Saturday meetings, but all of us, hopefully, have the opportunity to discuss this in a visiting teaching setting (even if we are one of those sisters who have to hunt down their visiting teachers and nail them to the wall in a corridor at church in order to get that conversation in since they never come to visit). Visiting teaching messages are the most widely inclusive venue in the current structure. That inclusivity is important

    And I anticipate publications of thoughtful RS history becoming more widely read and available as this idea catches on. Something to look forward to.

  5. css says:

    I LOVE this thank you!

    I agree and I think this is an important post and each of the VT messages needs to be better fleshed out to reflect the accurate history. In fact I heard that it was supposed to be called “the benevolent society” and Emma Smith said that she didn’t want people just sitting around being benevolent, but rather doing something! Thus, it became the “relief society.” Awww.

    Now why don’t we talk more about that stuff:) You are doing a great job.

    • spunky says:

      Thanks, CSS, your encouragement is appreciated! The RS did go by a number of different names, all of which wers common as “benevolent societies” were “in vogue” in the mid-Victorian period… kind of a cool fact in that it is such a long-standing organization.

  6. suzann says:

    I hope the visiting teaching messages will show how powerful, courageous, and wise the Relief Society women were, vs. women shoring up male leaders.
    Since Julie Beck mentioned, “we have a history,” in her general conference talk, I have only had a speck of optimism, because merely stating, “we have a history,” without any meaty evidence is worrisome. 150 years after the fact, women in church history appear like a new idea! Better late than never– I remain hopefully cautious.


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