Mormon Women: The Relief Society
Some people outside The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have the notion that Mormon women are somehow oppressed or treated with less dignity than Mormon men. This could not be farther from the truth. Mormon women hold a place of great honor, which includes active participation in the oldest of all women’s organizations on earth, the Relief Society.
In the 1840s Mormons were building a beautiful and stately city in Illinois called Nauvoo. While most of the inhabitants had what they needed, there were yet many who were poor and suffering. Most of the Mormon Church members gave freely of their means to help those in need, but there was no structured organization, and sometimes needs went unnoticed.
Some of the Mormon women began developing different ways to help, and as more got involved, it was decided that they should form a special society. This was initiated on March 4, 1842. At the time, the state of Illinois required that benevolent societies have a constitution, bylaws, and elected officers. Eliza R. Snow, later to become President of the Relief Society, was asked to write both the constitution and bylaws. When she finished her work, she showed the results to the Mormon prophet and president Joseph Smith. He said that the documents were the best he had ever seen, and that he also wanted to provide “something better for them than a written Constitution.” One sister (Mormon woman) recalled his saying, “I will organize the women under the priesthood after the pattern of the priesthood” (Sarah M. Kimball, “Auto-Biography,” Woman’s Exponent, 1 Sept. 1883, p. 51).
The society was organized on March 17, 1842, with Emma Smith, Joseph’s wife, elected as the first President. Many expressions of enthusiasm and desire to help those in need were offered at the meeting, and the prophet was touched. He stood up and said, “All I shall have to give to the poor, I will give to the society,” upon which he contributed a five-dollar coin. Others followed his example and donated money to the Relief Society to aid the needy.
The women strove tirelessly to find and help those in need. Widows and orphans were brought into others’ homes; attention and service were given to many. As the Joseph Smith watched the Relief Society work he was again touched and stated,
It is natural for females to have feelings of charity. You are now placed in a situation where you can act according to those sympathies which God has planted in your bosoms. If you live up to your privileges the angels cannot be restrained from being your associates (Relief Society Minutes, 28 Apr. 1842, p. 38).
With the promise of blessings for working to help the poor, the Relief Society pushed forward. A couple of the women suggested that each woman donate one cent per week to the Society to help buy glass and nails for the building of the Mormon temple at Nauvoo. Through this program a thousand dollars was raised for the temple.
Mormons believe that the Relief Society has a role of saving souls in a spiritual sense as well as material. This is explained in the following quote.
One of the purposes of the organization of the Relief Society was that a system might be inaugurated by which study of religious subjects, or Church doctrine and government, might be pursued by women. The administration of charity under the direction of the Bishopric … was to be part of their active work. But this was not intended to absorb their activities to the exclusion of the development of faith, and the advancement of women in literary, social and domestic activities of life (James R. Clark, comp., Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965–75, 5:217).
In short, the society was to be a place where women could teach one another and learn, as well as help improve their community. One of many specific activities they are involved in is a program called Visiting Teaching, where pairs of Mormon women are assigned to regularly visit fellow Relief Society members on an individual basis and share spiritual messages with and offer loving support to each other.
The statement that the Relief Society is organized like the priesthood also gives insight into the purpose of the Relief Society.
While the sisters have not been given the Priesthood, … that does not mean that the Lord has not given unto them authority. Authority and Priesthood are two different things. A person may have authority given to him, or a sister to her, to do certain things in the Church that are binding and absolutely necessary for our salvation, such as the work that our sisters do in the [temple] (Relief Society Magazine, Jan. 1959, p. 4).
As Gordon B. Hinckley, late president of the Mormon Church, stated, the women of the Relief Society “have their own offices, their own presidency, their own board. . . . The men hold the priesthood, yes. But my wife is my companion. In this Church the man neither walks ahead of his wife nor behind his wife but at her side. They are co-equals in this life in a great enterprise” (Ensign, Nov. 1996, p.48).