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After the Order of Heaven

Nauvoo Relief Society

Lodge Room, Red Brick Store, Nauvoo, Illinois

April 19, 1842


Twenty women gathered for the first Relief Society meeting on March 17, 1842, and at the second meeting, President Emma Hale Smith taught the women “to promote union in this society” and encouraged all those who wished to join.1 Counselors Sarah Marietta Kingsley Howe Cleveland (1788–1856) and Elizabeth Ann Smith Whitney (1800–1882) and secretary Eliza Roxcy Snow (1804–1887) contributed to the society’s inclusive and welcoming spirit. By the fifth meeting, held on April 19, 1842, there were 158 members, including Lucy Mack Smith (1775–1856), Elizabeth Davis Goldsmith Brackenbury Durfee (1791–1876), Martha “Patty” Bartlett Sessions (1795–1892), Abigail Calkins Leonard (1795–1880), and others who participated in discussion, testimony, and service.2

Some women living outside of Nauvoo, Illinois, had heard about the organization and wanted to participate. Presendia Lathrop Huntington Buell (1810–1892), for example, lived in Lima, Ohio, about thirty miles south.3 She traveled to Nauvoo, where her sister, Zina D. Huntington Jacobs [Young], lived, to attend the Relief Society, and the women welcomed her as a new member.4 Other Relief Society groups met later in surrounding towns.5 The Relief Society provided a central location to unite women across location, age, and socioeconomic status. Lucy Mack Smith “rejoiced in view of what was doing. As she came in and looked upon the sisters, it gave her feelings of deep interest. [She] wept … [and] hoped the Lord would bless and aid the society in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked … [and] felt to pray that the blessings of heaven might rest upon the society.”6

Joseph Smith taught the Relief Society that their institution followed an ancient order that existed in the time of the Old and New Testaments.7 As demonstrated in this April 19 meeting, women of the Relief Society participated in gifts of the Spirit with the belief that they were part of the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ.8 They spoke in tongues, with others interpreting. They gave and received blessings of health and comfort, allowing them to participate in sacred rituals as well as build intimate social networks.9 These experiences contributed to the “Spirit of the Lord which pervades this society” mentioned in this meeting. The Relief Society meeting was a participatory event—consisting more of discussion than a formal lesson or address. Many women spoke. Their public testimonies and personal blessings reveal the emotional relief they found in service and in communion.

A special meeting of the society being convened agreeably to previous appointment; President Emma Smith not being present, Counselor Cleveland presided.10

The meeting was opened with singing. Prayer by Counselor Cleveland. Singing by the choir. …

Counselor Cleveland then arose and addressed the meeting by saying that inasmuch as the meeting was specially called for the admission of Mrs. Buell, who resided at a distance, was deprived of the privileges enjoyed by the sisters in Nauvoo, and wished to become a member of this society; there was not much business to be attended to, therefore we might spend the time in religious exercises before the Lord. Spoke of the happiness she felt in the present association of females, and made very appropriate remarks respecting the duties and prospects of the society, that it was organized after the order of heaven, etc., etc.11

Counselor Whitney also made many interesting remarks and invited all present to speak their sentiments freely.

Mrs. Buell arose and said that she rejoiced in the opportunity, that she considered it a great privilege. She felt that the Spirit of the Lord was with the society and rejoiced to become a member, although residing at a distance and could not attend the meetings.

Joseph Smith’s red brick store

Joseph Smith’s red brick store. Circa 1885–1886. The founding meeting of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo took place on the second floor of this dry goods store on March 17, 1842. The red brick store became a location for women to gather and share needs, concerns, and spiritual ministry. Photograph taken or obtained by Brigham H. Roberts. (Church History Library, Salt Lake City.)

Mother Smith spoke very pathetically of her lonely situation, and the feelings she had as she reflected on the care which Father Smith always felt for the sisters when in life he presided over the meetings.12

Mrs. Durfee bore testimony to the great blessing she received when administered to, after the close of the last meeting, by President E. Smith and Counselors Cleveland and Whitney.13 She said she never realized more benefit through any administration, that she was healed, and thought the sisters had more faith than the brethren.

Miss Snow, after making observations with regard to the society, the importance of acting in wisdom and walking humbly before God, etc., said she had a blessing for Mrs. Buell, that inasmuch as she had become a member of this society, as the spirit of a person pervades every member of the body, so shall the Spirit of the Lord which pervades this society be with her. She shall feel it and rejoice. She shall be blessed wherever she is, and the Lord shall open the way and she shall be instrumental in doing much. Through her own exertions and by the instrumentality of others, she shall be enabled to contribute much to the fund of the society. She shall warm up the hearts of those who are cold and dormant and shall be instrumental in doing much good.

Mrs. Leonard, Counselor W., and Counselor C. bore testimony to the truth of what Miss Snow had said to Mrs. Buell.

Counselor Cleveland stated that she many times felt in her heart what she could not express in our own language, and as the Prophet had given us liberty to improve the gifts of the gospel in our meetings, and feeling the power resting upon, desired to speak in the gift of tongues, which she did in a powerful manner.14

Mrs. Sessions arose and gave the interpretation of what Counselor C. had spoken in an unknown tongue, and said that God was well pleased with this society, that if we would be humble and faithful the Lord would pour out upon the members generally the gift of prophecy. That when the speaker laid her hand on the head of Sister Snow, she said that not only she should have the Spirit but that all should have it also. That the speaker then addressed herself to Mother Smith, saying that the prayers of Father Smith were now answered upon the members of the society. That the days of Mother S. should be prolonged and she should meet many times with the society, should enjoy much in the society of the sisters, and shall hereafter be crowned a mother of those that shall prove faithful, etc.15

The meeting was very interesting, nearly all present arose and spoke, and the Spirit of the Lord like a purifying stream refreshed every heart.

Mrs. Mary Smith recommended Elizabeth Eaton to the patronage of the society as a person skillful in needlework.

The meeting closed with prayer by Mother Smith and singing by the choir—after which Mrs. Leonard was administered to for the restoration of health, by Counselors Cleveland and Whitney.

Footnotes

  1. [1]Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, Mar. 17, 1842, 6; Mar. 24, 1842, 15, 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), 30, 37.

  2. [2]Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, Mar. 17–Apr. 19, 1842, 6–26, in Derr et al., First Fifty Years, 30–47.

  3. [3]Presendia Lathrop Huntington Kimball, “A Brief Sketch of the Life of Presendia Lathrop Huntington Kimball,” Apr. 16, 1881, [2], CHL.

  4. [4]Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, Apr. 19, 1842, [31–32], in Derr et al., First Fifty Years, 50–51.

  5. [5]Relief Society branches may have existed in Macedonia, La Harpe, and Lima, Illinois. (Jill Mulvay Derr, Janath Russell Cannon, and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992], 35.)

  6. [6]Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, Mar. 24, 1842, 17, in Derr et al., First Fifty Years, 38.

  7. [7]Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, Mar. 31, 1842, 22, in Derr et al., First Fifty Years, 43; see also Exodus 19:6; and Revelation 1:6.

  8. [8]For more information about spiritual gifts and the Relief Society, see Derr et al., First Fifty Years, xxi–xxv.

  9. [9]Jonathan A. Stapley and Kristine Wright, “Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism,” Journal of Mormon History 37, no. 1 (Winter 2011): 1–85.

  10. [10]This meeting was held in the upper room of Joseph Smith’s red brick store, sometimes known as the “lodge room” because it also hosted some meetings of the Nauvoo Masonic Lodge. It is not known why Emma Smith did not attend this particular meeting. In Emma Smith’s absence, following parliamentary procedure, her counselors presided and conducted. (Andrew H. Hedges, Alex D. Smith, and Richard Lloyd Anderson, eds., Journals, Volume 2: December 1841–April 1843, vol. 2 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, 2011], Mar. 17, 1842, 45.)

  11. [11]Sarah M. Kimball later recalled that the society was organized “after the pattern, or order, of the priesthood.” (Sarah M. Kimball, “First Organisation,” ca. June 1880, in “Relief Society Record, 1880–1892,” 5, CHL.)

  12. [12]Joseph Smith Sr. was ordained a patriarch in December 1834 in Kirtland, Ohio, and often presided at blessing meetings, where individuals would gather to receive their patriarchal blessings. Joseph Smith Sr. died on September 14, 1840, in Nauvoo. (See 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], 139, 440.)

  13. [13]For additional information on the nineteenth-century practice of female healing, see Derr et al., First Fifty Years, xxi–xxv; and “Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women,” Gospel Topics, accessed May 2, 2016, lds.org.

  14. [14]In March 1831, Joseph Smith dictated a revelation explaining the diverse gifts of the Spirit, and that revelation discussed the gifts of speaking in tongues and interpreting tongues. Joseph Smith attended the next Relief Society meeting on April 28, 1842, and provided additional explanation on the use of the gift of tongues. (Revelation, Kirtland, Ohio, ca. Mar. 8, 1831, in Michael Hubbard MacKay, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, Grant Underwood, Robert J. Woodford, and William G. Hartley, eds., Documents, Volume 1: July 1828–June 1831, vol. 1 of the Documents series of The Joseph Smith Papers, ed. Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman [Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2013], 280–283; Doctrine and Covenants 46; Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, Apr. 28, 1842, [40–41], in Derr et al., First Fifty Years, 59.)

  15. [15]Before his death, Joseph Smith Sr. blessed his wife with a prolonged life: “You must stay to comfort the children when I am gone, so do not mourn but try to be comforted. Your last days shall be your best days.” She passed away fourteen years later on May 14, 1856. (Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1844–1845, 18 books, bk. 18, [9], CHL.)