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We Are Going to Do Something Extraordinary

Nauvoo Relief Society

Nauvoo, Illinois

1842–1844


Emma Hale Smith (1804–1879) met her husband, Joseph Smith, when he boarded at her parents’ farm in Harmony, Pennsylvania, and they were married on January 18, 1827.1 Her mother-in-law, Lucy Mack Smith, praised Emma: “I have never seen a woman in my life who would endure every species of fatigue and hardship, from month to month, and from year to year, with that unflinching courage, zeal, and patience, which she has always done.”2 Emma Smith briefly worked as a scribe for the translation of the Book of Mormon and assisted her husband in other ways.3 For instance, she helped prepare early missionaries for their service and gathered with women to pray on behalf of Joseph Smith in New York.4 Years later, she delivered a petition to the governor of Illinois, signed by nearly a thousand women in Nauvoo, Illinois, seeking protection for her husband.5 She opened her home to the sick, the orphaned, and other visitors.6 Smith was the mother of eleven children—nine biological and two adopted. Four of her children died at birth or shortly after, and two died as toddlers.7

In early July 1830, a short time after Emma Smith’s baptism, Joseph Smith dictated a revelation directed to his wife, now known as section 25 of the Doctrine and Covenants. The revelation addressed Emma Smith as “an Elect Lady whom I have called” and told her that she would be “ordained … to expound scriptures and exhort the church according as it shall be given thee.”8 Her calling extended even further when she was elected president of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo on March 17, 1842. At the first meeting of the organization, Joseph Smith read the 1830 revelation, explaining that at the time it had been given, “Presidentess” Smith had been “ordained … to expound the scriptures to all; and to teach the female part of the community.” He went on to liken Emma Smith to the “Elect Lady” spoken of in the New Testament.9 John Taylor called Emma a “mother in Israel,” and instructed her to care for the needy and be a “pattern of virtue,” to “preside and dignify her office” through teaching correct principles.10 Though Emma Smith met with the society only twelve times in 1842 and four times in March 1844, her leadership was crucial in shaping the organization. Latter-day Saint women were not automatically enrolled in the Relief Society in the early days of the society—they were required to apply in order to prove their worthiness and commitment to the church. Emma directed membership recruitment efforts, encouraged unity, and instructed women on compassion and care for the poor. Emma Smith’s public speaking established a pattern for Latter-day Saint women, who looked to the 1830 revelation—which declared that its exhortation to Emma was also the Lord’s “voice unto all”—as justification for their own ministries.11

Emma Smith also maintained her charge to “walk in the paths of virtue” as instructed by the 1830 revelation.12 National purity movements and moral reform groups formed by women all over the country at this time worked to instill virtue and uphold chastity and marital fidelity.13 The Relief Society provided a public venue for Emma Smith to crusade in defense of virtue and promote moral reform. At the same time, Joseph Smith was privately introducing the principle of plural marriage to a small group of Latter-day Saints.14

While the Nauvoo Relief Society functioned in a discussion format rather than as a venue for traditional discourses, Emma Smith’s words, which are excerpted here, show her leadership. Even at the final meeting of the Nauvoo Relief Society, Smith maintained her sense of spiritual authority, exhorting the women to repent as they strengthened each other and practiced charity.15

[March 17, 1842]

President Emma Smith remarked we are going to do something extraordinary. When a boat is stuck on the rapids with a multitude of Mormons on board we shall consider that a loud call for relief.16 We expect extraordinary occasions and pressing calls. …

President E. Smith then arose and proceeded to make appropriate remarks on the object of the society, its duties to others, also its relative duties to each other, viz., to seek out and relieve the distressed, that each member should be ambitious to do good, that the members should deal frankly with each other, to watch over the morals and be very careful of the character and reputation of the members of the institution, etc. …

[March 24, 1842]

President E. Smith then rose and said that measures to promote union in this society must be carefully attended to. That every member should be held in full fellowship. As a society, hoped they would divest themselves of every jealousy and evil feeling toward each other, if any such existed. That we should bring our conduct into respectability, here and everywhere else. Said she rejoiced in the prospect before her. …

President E. Smith said, no one need feel delicate in reference to inquiries about this society. There is nothing private. Its objects are purely benevolent … , its objects are charitable: none can object to telling the good, the evil withhold. She hoped all would feel themselves bound to observe this rule. … She said it was the duty of every person to inquire into the condition of the poor and represent their true state. … We should assist each other in this way. …

[March 31, 1842]

President E. S. said we were going to learn new things. Our way was straight. Said we wanted none in this society but those who could and would walk straight and were determined to do good. …

[April 14, 1842]

President E. Smith arose and addressed the meeting. … Her desire was to do good. Wished all the members of this society to assist her. Said it was necessary to begin at home, to eradicate all evil from our own hearts, and warn those who wish to join with us to come calculating to divest themselves of everything wrong and unite to expose iniquity, to search it out and put it away. She said the society had other duties to attend to than seeing to the wants of the poor. Exhorted the members so to conduct as to have the honor of commencing a good work and of carrying it out. Enforced the necessity of walking in a manner that would be approbated of God. …

President Smith then called on those, if any present, who knew of cases of the poor to be represented.

[May 19, 1842]

Mrs. President continued by exhorting all who had erred to repent and forsake their sins. Said that Satan’s forces were against this church. That every saint should be at the post. …

[May 27, 1842]

President E. Smith arose and addressed the congregation. She said all must have grace for themselves, etc. … She impressed the necessity of being united in doing good to the poor. …

[June 23, 1842]

Mrs. President said she was rejoiced to see the increasing union of the society. Hoped we should live right before God, among ourselves, and before the world. … Said we had nothing to do but to fear God and keep the commandments, and in so doing we shall prosper.

[August 4, 1842]

Mrs. President arose and addressed the society upon the necessity of being united among ourselves. Said we shall have sufficient difficulty from abroad without stirring up strife among ourselves and hardness and evil feelings one towards another, etc. …

We could govern this generation in one way if not another. If not by the mighty arm of power, we can do it by faith and prayer.17 If we will try to live uprightly, said she believed we should not be driven.18

Mrs. President continued by saying God knows we have a work to do in this place. We have got to watch and pray and be careful not to excite feelings, not make enemies of one another, etc.

[March 16, 1844]

Mrs. President then arose and addressed the meeting upon the necessity of being united among ourselves and strengthening each other’s hands in order that we may be able to do much good among the poor. … We must throw the mantle of charity around to shield those who will repent and do so no more. … She advised all to abide the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants. … Also exhorted them to look after the poor.

Footnotes

  1. [1]Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 53.

  2. [2]Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1845, 190, CHL.

  3. [3]Mark L. Staker, “‘A Comfort unto My Servant, Joseph’: Emma Hale Smith (1804–1879),” in Women of Faith in the Latter Days, Volume One, 1775–1820, ed. Richard E. Turley Jr. and Brittany A. Chapman (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 353–356.

  4. [4]Smith, History, 1845, 189–190; John S. Reed, “Some of the Remarks of John S. Reed, Esq., as Delivered before the State Convention,” Times and Seasons 5, no. 11 (June 1, 1844): 551.

  5. [5]Nauvoo Female Relief Society, Petition to Governor Thomas Carlin, ca. July 22, 1842, CHL, 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), 136–141.

  6. [6]Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1844–1845, 18 books, bk. 14, [5]; bk. 15, [12], CHL; Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, 2nd ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 84–90, 132.

  7. [7]Staker, “A Comfort unto My Servant, Joseph,” 345.

  8. [8]Doctrine and Covenants 25:3, 7.

  9. [9]See 2 John 1:1.

  10. [10]Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, Mar. 17, 1842, 8–9, in Derr et al., First Fifty Years, 32–33. “Presidentess” was a nineteenth-century term for female president. For an explanation of the word ordain, see Derr et al., First Fifty Years, xxxi–xxxiv.

  11. [11]Doctrine and Covenants 25:16.

  12. [12]Doctrine and Covenants 25:2.

  13. [13]Mary P. Ryan, “The Power of Women’s Networks: A Case Study of Female Moral Reform in Antebellum America,” Feminist Studies 5, no. 1 (Spring 1979): 66–85; Lori D. Ginzberg, Women and the Work of Benevolence: Morality, Politics, and Class in the Nineteenth-Century United States (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990), 113–114.

  14. [14]See Derr et al., First Fifty Years, 97–99, 142–144; Glen M. Leonard, Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, A People of Promise (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002), 226; Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 460, 494–499; and Newell and Avery, Mormon Enigma, 96, 142–147, 151–156.

  15. [15]In that meeting, Emma Smith “exhorted them to cleanse their hearts and ears. … [She] also exhorted to look after the poor … and said if there ever was any authority on the earth, she had it, and had it yet.” (Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, Mar. 16, 1844, [125–126], in Derr et al., First Fifty Years, 130–131.)

  16. [16]The “rapids” refers to the Des Moines or Lower Rapids, an eleven-mile stretch of the Mississippi River just north of Keokuk, Iowa, where the river dropped about twenty-two feet. These rapids were impassable for steamboats during months of low water and were potentially treacherous during many other months. (Louis C. Hunter, Steamboats on the Western Rivers: An Economic and Technological History [New York: Dover, 1993], 188.)

  17. [17]See Deuteronomy 9:29; and Doctrine and Covenants 123:6.

  18. [18]This may be a reference to the Saints being driven from Missouri in 1839 and the hope that the Saints would not also be driven from their present location in Nauvoo.