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Bonus Chapter 1

The Privilege of the Sisters

Nauvoo Relief Society

Nauvoo, Illinois


Elizabeth Ann Smith Whitney (1800–1882) was appointed second counselor in the Nauvoo Female Relief Society presidency by Emma Hale Smith on March 17, 1842.1 Whitney later wrote, “President Joseph Smith had great faith in the sisters’ labors, and ever sought to encourage them in the performance of the duties which pertained to these Societies, which he said were not only for benevolent purposes and spiritual improvement, but were actually to save souls.”2

Whitney’s experience in working for the temporal and spiritual welfare of her fellow Saints began well before the organization of the Relief Society. She and her husband, Newel K. Whitney, lived a comfortable life in Kirtland, Ohio. She recalled, “We had a very fine orchard and garden, all planned and arranged according to our own taste and skill. … We had always been in the habit of entertaining our friends and acquaintances generously and hospitably, but after we received the gospel we did not feel like using our means and time in a way that would only benefit those who had an abundance of this world’s means.”3 A year after their conversion to the church in late 1830, Newel was appointed bishop in Kirtland in December 1831, and the Whitney store became the bishop’s storehouse, where the poor received needed commodities.4 Later he instituted “fast meetings,” asking church members to abstain from meals and bring the food they would have eaten to the storehouse for distribution to the needy. The development of fast meetings coincided with “feasts for the poor,” a practice that combined patriarchal blessing meetings with charitable dinners.5 Together with Emma Smith, Whitney prepared a “sumptuous” three-day feast in January 1836 to which “the lame, the halt, and blind were invited according to the instruction of the Savior.” Joseph Smith attended each day, “talking, blessing, and comforting the poor, by words of encouragement and [his] most welcome presence.” This experience, in Whitney’s words, was “a feast of fat things indeed; a season of rejoicing never to be forgotten.”6

The Whitneys made plans to move their store and their family to Missouri in the fall of 1838. They sent the supplies ahead of them, but while the family was traveling, they received news of the Mormon’s expulsion from Missouri. They instead spent the winter in Carrolton, Illinois, where they learned that their property had been destroyed in Missouri. In 1839 the family moved to Commerce (later Nauvoo), Illinois. They experienced firsthand destitution, loss of home and income, severe sickness, and death of children.7 At the same time, they developed a strong commitment to the church and its doctrine, as is evident in Whitney’s words to the Relief Society, which are reproduced here. Having experienced significant spiritual manifestations in Kirtland, she urged other women to advance their personal spiritual welfare in preparation for temple ordinances.8 Describing Whitney’s time in Nauvoo, Emmeline B. Wells wrote, “Her smile was as sweet, her voice as musical as ever, and the sisters who were greatly perplexed with many things, and often sorely tried, would go to Sister Whitney for counsel and sympathy and she turned none away empty, but in her beautiful way strengthened them in humility and good works, thus helping to lift the burdens that oft press heavily upon womankind.”9 Her experience both in abundance and in want prepared her to ably lead the women of Nauvoo.

[March 24, 1842]

We must pray much for each other, that we may succeed in the work before us and have wisdom given us in all our pursuits. …

[May 19, 1842]

Counselor Whitney … was desirous that this society become more obedient to the gospel in keeping all the commandments. Exhorted them to humility and watchfulness. That the gifts and blessings of the gospel were ours, if found faithful and pure before God, etc. …

[May 26, 1842]

Counselor Whitney gave an exhortation to humility and watchfulness, etc. Rejoiced at the numbers present who were uniting their faith with their works, alluding to donations just received. …10

[June 23, 1842]

Counselor W. [Elizabeth Ann Smith Whitney] rose. Encouraged the sisters to look for long life to do good. Spoke of the glory to come, etc. …

[June 16, 1843]

Counselor Whitney rose and addressed the meeting by saying that she felt alone in consequence of the absence of the president, from whom she had received instructions that we might not only relieve the wants of the poor but also cast in our mites to assist the brethren in building the Lord’s house.11 Said she had felt a deep interest on the subject since last Sabbath, hearing President Smith’s remarks.12 Wished the sisters to express their feelings. Our president, Mrs. Smith, said we might speak to the temple committee, and whatever they wished and we could, we might do. …13

Counselor Whitney then addressed the society on the subject of mothers discharging their duties towards their daughters, in teaching them to be sober and cultivate a realizing sense of the necessity of conducting with propriety in the Lord’s house. Exhorted to instruct them in love, etc. …

[July 15, 1843]

Counselor Whitney then rose, said she rejoiced that we could enjoy the privilege of associating together to converse on things of the kingdom, to comfort and edify each other while passing through this vale of tears, made many appropriate remarks. Said, could we abide a celestial law and be made meet for the celestial kingdom, how glorious will it be.14 Requested the sisters present to free their minds, as the Spirit of the Lord should direct that all should make known the wants of the poor. Said that though President Emma Smith was absent, yet that she requested the society to do all the good in their power. Regretted her absence, etc. …

Counselor W. again remarked appropriately. Spoke of the blessings in reserve for us if faithful in keeping the commandment concerning these houses to be built, etc. …

Mrs. Whitney continued. Said that prayer and faith, together with our efforts, must agree. Proposed that some should pray to this effect. …

[July 21, 1843]

Sister Whitney rose. Spoke of the privilege of the sisters. Hoped we should be one and feel a freedom to speak of things that mostly concerned us and realize the wants of the poor. …

[July 28, 1843]

Mrs. Whitney continued the subject. Referred to one of the revelations, said, “By this shall ye know that ye are my disciples.”15 The Lord confirms it again and again, he is delighted with our acts of charity, etc. …

Counselor Whitney then rose, said when you go to those who have means, tell them you are appointed to relieve the needy. Call on them. The Spirit of the Lord will bless you in it and stimulate the hearts of the rich. Provoke them to good works. Let us try to do it. …

[August 13, 1843]

Counselor Whitney very feelingly remarked that they were only directed to do the little that they could without injury to themselves, etc. …

[September 15, 1843]

Sister Whitney spoke very feelingly to the society upon the necessity of being united in faith, that sickness may be turned aside, lives prolonged. Desired the society to pray for Sister Emma. …

[October 14, 1843]

Counselor Whitney rose. Said she was happy to again meet the society but sorry that Emma is not present. Spoke of the blessings that awaited the Saints. Exhorted all to faithfulness and humility, that we may be prepared for the trials and temptations which surround us.


  1. [1]When Emma Smith was unable to attend Relief Society meetings, often due to sickness, counselors Sarah Cleveland and Elizabeth Ann Whitney conducted meetings. (See, for example, Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, Apr. 19, 1842, [30]; Sept. 28, 1842, [85]; June 16, 1843, [90]; and Oct. 14, 1843, [121], in Jill Mulvay Derr, Carol Cornwall Madsen, Kate Holbrook, and Matthew J. Grow, eds., The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women’s History (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2016), 49, 96, 100, 126.

  2. [2]Elizabeth Ann Whitney, “A Leaf from an Autobiography,” Woman’s Exponent 7, no. 12 (Nov. 15, 1878): 91.

  3. [3]Whitney, “A Leaf from an Autobiography,” Woman’s Exponent 7, no. 9 (Oct. 1, 1878): 71.

  4. [4]Whitney, “A Leaf from an Autobiography,” Woman’s Exponent 7, no. 7 (Sept. 1, 1878): 51; Revelation, Dec. 4, 1831–A, in Matthew C. Godfrey, Mark Ashurst-McGee, Grant Underwood, Robert J. Woodford, and William G. Hartley, eds., Documents, Volume 2: July 1831–January 1833, vol. 2 of the Documents series of The Joseph Smith Papers, ed. Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman, and Matthew J. Grow (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2013), 146–150; see also Doctrine and Covenants 72:7–8; and Mark Lyman Staker, Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting for Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2009), 242.

  5. [5]Staker, Hearken, O Ye People, 244.

  6. [6]Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, 2d ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 54; Dean C. Jessee, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Richard L. Jensen, eds., Journals, Volume 1: 1832–1839, vol. 1 of the Journals series of The Joseph Smith Papers, ed. Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2008), 146–147; Whitney, “A Leaf from an Autobiography,” Woman’s Exponent 7, no. 11 (Nov. 1, 1878): 83.

  7. [7]Whitney, “A Leaf from an Autobiography,” 83, 91.

  8. [8]See Elizabeth Ann Whitney, “Adam-Ondi-Ahman,” herein. Elizabeth Ann Whitney was the second woman, after Emma Smith, to receive her temple ordinances. (Carol Cornwall Madsen, “Mormon Women and the Temple: Toward a New Understanding,” in Sisters in Spirit: Mormon Women in Historical and Cultural Perspective, ed. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher and Lavina Fielding Anderson [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987], 86.)

  9. [9]Emmeline B. Wells, “Elizabeth Ann Whitney,” Woman’s Exponent 10, no. 20 (Mar. 15, 1882): 154.

  10. [10]At this meeting, fourteen women donated a combined total of about twenty dollars, along with clothing and a quilt. (Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, May 26, 1842, 50, in Derr et al., First Fifty Years, 69.)

  11. [11]See Mark 12:42–44; and Luke 21:2–4.

  12. [12]On Sunday, June 11, 1843, at the Nauvoo temple grounds, Joseph Smith taught that the Saints needed to build a house of God because “there are certain ordinances and principles that when they are taught and practiced, must be done in a place or house built for that purpose.” The Saints were thus building “unto the Lord an house to prepare them for the ordinances and endowment, washings and anointings, etc.,” including the ordinance of vicarious baptism for the dead. (Wilford Woodruff, Journal, June 11, 1843, CHL. See another version of this sermon in the journal entry for June 11, 1843, in Andrew H. Hedges, Alex D. Smith, and Brent M. Rogers, eds., Journals, Volume 3: May 1843–June 1844, vol. 3 of the Journals series of The Joseph Smith Papers, ed. Ronald K. Esplin and Matthew J. Grow [Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2015], 31–33.)

  13. [13]The temple committee was charged with overseeing the finances and construction of the temple at Nauvoo. (Hedges, Smith, and Rogers, JSP, J3:469.)

  14. [14]Doctrine and Covenants 88:22.

  15. [15]See John 13:35.