Relief Society in Sacrament Meeting
Several months ago, I contacted my bishopric and suggested that we have a sacrament meeting devoted to Relief Society to celebrate the 175th anniversary. They agreed that it was a good idea and asked me to speak. Below is the talk I gave on March 12, 2017. Names have been shortened to protect privacy.
175 years ago this month, on March 17, 1842, the Prophet Joseph Smith met with women in the church and founded the Relief Society. At its founding, the purpose of the Society was to serve the poor and for its members to spiritually administer to one another. Emma Smith, the first president, said at the time that, “we are going to do something extraordinary.”
I believe that Emma Smith’s prophetic words have come to pass and continue to come to pass through the women in the church. The Relief Society has done extraordinary things. However, I have also witnessed the Relief Society spoken of and treated as a secondary group, as if it was an afterthought to the organization of the church. When Patrick and I were young marrieds in 2005, Patrick’s elder’s quorum president gave a lesson on the priesthood and said to the men there, “We are not an auxiliary, filling our time up with things like baking casseroles. The priesthood has real work to do.” I don’t blame this man for what he said. He was young and newly married himself and had little experience or knowledge about the Relief Society. But, to me, it represents the lack of knowledge or understanding that many of us have about the divine calling of the women’s organization. Can we name the current members of the general Relief Society presidency? Do we have a favorite Relief Society president and can we expound on the teachings and doctrines she taught from the pulpit? Do we—and I am speaking not just to the women here—understand the mission of Relief Society and the crucial role that it has played in building the kingdom? If not, I suggest that we seize this opportunity of celebrating 175 years of Relief Society and spend some time learning about the women of the church. Today I hope to inspire you with a brief history of some of the work the early Relief Society did in Utah and tell you a few stories from women in my life who have given me better appreciation of those early women.
Many of us don’t know the works of the Relief Society in 19th century Utah. These women did extraordinary things. They had independence and autonomy and they had a zeal to accomplish big ideas. They started farm cooperatives and hospitals. They started a newspaper, the Woman’s Exponent, and published poetry, political tracts, and testimonies. Many were suffragists and fought to earn women the right to vote in Utah and Wyoming. They pushed for publicly funded maternal and child health care. They were idealistic and well before their time in thinking of a basic standard of living as a right of all people. Carol Madsen, a professor of history at BYU, has said, “They’re not just sunbonnet pioneer women that just kind of trudged along in the dirt with their covered wagon. They were well read. They were articulate. They knew what they believed in. They knew how to move forward.”
In 1876 President Emmeline B. Wells led the effort to start a grain storage system, where women raised the money to build storehouses and donated small amounts of extra grain to be used for a common purpose in cases of emergencies. By working together, the women of the church created a formidable amount of food security, so much that it was employed to ease the suffering of survivors of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco and sold to the U.S. government during World Wars I and II. In 1919 the elderly President Wells received a visit in her home from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who thanked her for supporting her country during World War I through the sale of the wheat. The women used the money earned from the sale of the wheat to build church meeting houses and begin several church programs, including medical, social, and welfare services. You can see a reference to their work on the Relief Society Building in Salt Lake City, which features bronze sheaves of wheat on the outside walls.
Early Mormon women pooled their resources and sent women back east to become doctors. That included caring for other women’s children so that those women could go to school. Women such as Romania Pratt, Ellis Reynolds Shipp, and Martha Hughes Cannon became some of the first female doctors in the country. After their schooling they returned to Utah and started the Deseret Hospital, which became LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City, where I was born. Several of these women, later in their careers, entered politics. Martha Hughes Cannon was the first female state senator in the country and she used her position in government to fund public clinics for women and children and push for better maternal healthcare.
In addition to hard work and big ideas, these women led strong spiritual lives. A book recently published by the church, The First Fifty Years of Relief Society, shares information about early practices of administering to the sick and afflicted. In 1842, Joseph Smith sanctioned women laying their hands on one another to give blessings of healing and encouragement. Early Saints understood the gift of healing “primarily in terms of the New Testament’s teaching that it was one of the gifts of the Spirit available to believers through faith,” and Eliza Snow explained in 1883 that women blessed each other through the power of their faith. These blessings often took place just before childbirth, as a group of women would gather together and administer to a pregnant woman, sharing their wisdom, faith, and knowledge with her.
What relevance do these stories have to our own lives? Are we meant to sit in awe of our spiritual and physical ancestors, marveling at what they accomplished and feeling diminished in comparison? I don’t believe so. I hope that we hear these stories and feel inspired to lengthen our stride. I’d like to tell you three stories from my own life that mirrored those I just shared: one about assisting a sister in medical school, one about grain storage, and the last about blessings from women.
In 2007, Patrick and I were living in Baltimore. Some good friends in our ward, K. and C., lived a few blocks away. C. was getting a PhD at a school in Virginia and working in the DC suburbs while K. went to medical school with Patrick. They also had a one-year-old son, T. As K. started her third year, she moved from a standard 9 -5 day of lectures to a more demanding and variable day of rotations in the hospital. K. and C. struggled to find childcare for their son with such difficult hours of work. I felt prompted, at that time, to offer to be a part of the patchwork of care that they were piecing together. I was in my first semester of graduate school and felt overwhelmed by the amount of work facing me, but every time I told myself that I couldn’t do it, I heard the spirit telling me that I could. So on Mondays and Wednesdays I commuted to DC for my lectures, on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays I studied as hard as I could, and on Fridays I had T. and we spent the day at the park, taking walks and reading children’s books. I am convinced that those days with T. left my brain refreshed and ready for more work. It felt like my time with T. was consecrated, a gift I had given K. and C., and that holiness filled in other cracks in my life. I felt honored to give K. a big hug as she graduated from medical school a year and a half later. After taking a few years off to have four more children, she is now completing her residency and I couldn’t be happier for her. I am so grateful that Relief Society and the example of the early Utah sisters prompted me to believe that I could do more than I thought I could.
Next is a story from our ward that reminds me of the grain storage in Utah. For years, Patrick and I have been saying we needed to get serious about food storage. When we moved here, we decided to finally do it. But I wasn’t sure where to start. Then I got an email from Sister M., with a detailed explanation of the semi-annual order she organizes from a food storage company. It was a simple and easy way to build the foundation for our food storage. In the 18 months since we’ve been using it, we’ve come to deeply appreciate our bins of flour, beans, dried fruit, and rice. Sister M. takes on this work out of obedience to the prophet’s guidance and love for people in this ward. That inspires me just as much as Emmeline Well’s grain storage. When a handyman was recently working at our house, he asked me if we were Mormon. A bit surprised, I asked him how he knew. “Ma’am,” he responded, “most people don’t have 500 pounds of rice and beans in their closets.”
The final story is one that is very sacred to me. When I was pregnant with my first child, I deeply wished that I could have a gift of a blessing like the ones that women in the early church performed for one another before childbirth. I wanted that support from women who understood what I was experiencing and could share their knowledge and wisdom with me. My search took me to the temple to do washings and anointings. As I moved through the ceremony, women put their hands on my head and blessed my body. I placed my own hands on my belly and repeated the words in my head as they said the words aloud. I knew that priesthood authority was moving from the hands on my head into my body and through my hands to my babe. I felt like my entire being rested on the strength of women who were spiritually present in that moment: my Heavenly Mother, the women in the temple with me, my mother, sisters, and friends; Emma Smith, Emmeline Wells, Jane Manning James, and so many other women I knew and loved from history. A few weeks later, I used the words of the temple to stay calm and focused during contractions as I gave birth to my daughter. I repeated this practice for the births of my sons and doing washings and anointings became a tradition for me in the weeks leading up to childbirth. Even from before their births, my children have been given the gift of spiritual strength of women. I hope they remember that throughout their lives.
I believe in the women of this church. I have, many times, witnessed their charity, bravery, and hard work. I also believe that there is much that has not yet been revealed about our capacity, authority, and divine potential. We have a legacy of women who have a great deal to teach all of us. We also have daughters and sons who need for us to be pointing them towards these historical women—and the living women who surround us—as spiritual leaders. My prayer today is that LDS women will fully see themselves as the inheritors of a righteous legacy and that everyone in this room will look for new ways to gain wisdom from those good women who have gone before us.