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Unto the Least of These

An original recording of this discourse is available at (courtesy of Church History Library).

Relief Society General Conference

Tabernacle, Temple Square, Salt Lake City, Utah

September 28, 1950

Margaret Aird Cummock Pickering (1891–1976) spent much of her life organizing and coordinating the work essential to institutions, serving as secretary or secretary-treasurer for several organizations. Born and raised in Salt Lake City, she attended Latter-day Saints University, the Utah Agricultural College, and the University of Utah.1 She contributed to church programs long before serving on the Relief Society general board. First, she worked for the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association, whose headquarters were in the Bishop’s Building, down a long hall from the Relief Society offices. Then she worked for several years in the editorial department of the Improvement Era, an official church magazine, which was housed in the same building.2 In 1917, she married Harold W. Pickering.3 Before joining the Relief Society general board in October 1945, she also served as secretary-treasurer of both the Salt Lake City South Eighteenth Ward Relief Society and the Ensign Stake Relief Society.4

An avid participant in service work, Pickering volunteered for several local and state agencies in Salt Lake City both before and after joining the general board. She was the first executive secretary of the Woman’s Civic Center, the first secretary of the Utah State Society for Mental Hygiene, a member of the executive committee of Community Chest, and for ten years, including during World War II, director of the Salt Lake County chapter of the American Red Cross.5 During her tenure as Relief Society general secretary-treasurer from 1945 to 1956, Pickering managed a heavy load of correspondence and traveled throughout the church to attend stake Relief Society conventions.6

Pickering’s Relief Society service work came during the early years of the Cold War, a time marked by fear and insecurity. Three months before Pickering gave this speech, the United States entered the Korean War. From a military standpoint, the country was not prepared to fight a war in Korea. Many veterans had resigned from military service at the end of World War II, leaving the armed forces understaffed. Seeking to save money, the Pentagon was slow to hire replacements, and the new personnel were inexperienced.7 The government responded to this crisis with the unpopular announcement that it planned to draft eighty thousand men per month for the first three months of 1951.8 The Korean War also increased American fears about communism and communist sympathizers.9 This threatening atmosphere was the backdrop when Pickering gave the following speech about compassionate service in the Salt Lake Tabernacle during a Relief Society general conference.

My dear brothers and sisters: The title of this talk that I am to give this afternoon is taken from Matthew, the 25th chapter, and refers to the last judgment when the Son of Man shall come in all his glory and all nations shall be gathered before him, and he shall separate them one from another as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats, and he shall say to those on his right hand,

Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.10

During the 108 years of Relief Society’s existence, compassionate service—the tender, love-inspired ministrations which women, by their very natures, are peculiarly fitted to perform—has been an integral part of its program.11 In fact, Relief Society had its inception in concern for the welfare of the immediate group in which the Saints lived and, from that time to the present, Relief Society has given the world a testament of faith that it sorely needs—a great, practical demonstration of brotherly love through its millions of friendly visits bearing cheerful and faith-promoting messages, through its care of the aged, needy, sick, and homebound, and through sympathetic service at the time of death. Emphasis has been placed on various aspects of this service over the years, according to the needs of the times. In the early years of Relief Society’s existence, both in Nauvoo and later in the West, caring for the physical or temporal needs of the Saints was of paramount importance—making clothing and bedding, caring for the sick, and sharing scarce provisions—for limited crops and severe weather on the frontier made this necessary. But throughout these years, the spiritual needs were not forgotten, and as the wilderness was conquered and temporal needs became less acute, Relief Society continued to minister to the spiritual needs of the sisters. Up until the time the welfare plan was inaugurated, through which the temporal needs of the Saints are met, Relief Society continued to directly supply some of the temporal needs of the Saints, under the direction of the bishops.12 During the last decade, however, Relief Society’s efforts have been transferred from directly supplying such needs to assisting in producing welfare assignments and to more extensively ministering to the spiritual hungers of women.

All this is a testimony to me of the divine origin of this organization—that it is set up to serve how, when, and where it is most needed. Never in the history of civilization have more people of all ages and in all lands felt more restless, insecure, confused, afraid. Never has the world had greater need for a testament of faith through practical demonstrations of brotherly love. Relief Society has a great opportunity now. It does not do much good to talk about such big things as “humanity,” “democracy,” and the “brotherhood of man” unless we can bring them down and apply them to our next-door neighbor, as that is where international amity and the brotherhood of man begins. The Prophet Joseph said at one of the early meetings of the society: “Let your labors be confined mostly to those around you in your own circle.”13

Relief Society, through precept and example for over a hundred years, has sought to help us develop the forces in our own natures through which we may enrich the lives of others and, in doing so, enrich our own lives. And to the extent that we as individuals have actively engaged in ministering “unto the least of these,” to that extent has the organization through the individual been strengthened. While Relief Society officially records only those visits and services authorized by the president, it is aware of the fact that only the Master himself can note many of the heartwarming and soul-satisfying services rendered by our sisters, and it is about these services over and above the call of duty that I speak specifically.14

While visiting teachers through their monthly visits have unusual opportunities to discover persons in need of special attention and to discern ways to give help, there are in every neighborhood many aged, sick, lonely, or disturbed people who lack for no temporal needs—some members of the church, some not, but they need friendly interest, assurance, peace of mind. No one is better fitted to minister to their needs than friendly, faithful Latter-day Saint neighbors—Relief Society members backed by a tradition of a century of sympathetic service and understanding to inspire and guide them. President Spafford has referred to compassionate service as the “heartbeat of Relief Society—the kind word, the ray of hope, the warm handclasp.”15 It is the constant stimulation of this heartbeat through sincerity and frequency of application that increases the circulation of hope, cheer, brotherly love, and faith in God in the world today, and produces a warm, peaceful glow in the souls of men in exact proportion to the amount of stimulation applied.

What about the aged women in your neighborhood—some who don’t see too well, who would appreciate a cheerful visit, an hour of reading or letter writing, or being escorted to church or to an entertainment? What about the homebound for whom you might run an errand or do some shopping? What about the mother in your neighborhood whose son is called to war and who is depressed, or the young wife whose husband has entered military service and she is confused and upset about the future; or the newcomer who feels strange and lonely, perhaps one of our own converts from a foreign land having difficulty with our language and customs, and needs them interpreted?

What about the chronically ill to whom a smiling face and fresh viewpoint would give new hope; a child confined to bed for a long period, such as in the case of rheumatic fever, to whom a cookie, or some simple dessert would bring happiness; what about staying occasionally some afternoon or evening with the children of a neighbor who seldom gets out because she cannot afford a babysitter. There are endless opportunities all around us to demonstrate sisterly love if we but open our eyes to them.

Recently I read a little paragraph on the magic of giving in connection with an article on overcoming loneliness. It read:

To fight loneliness, you must give of yourself. Do you reach out to others in a friendly, helpful way? Do you make personal sacrifices? Do you visit the sick, do social service work, or otherwise give aid and comfort to those less fortunate than yourself? It is easy to make a money contribution or sign a check, but what does that give of your heart? If you go beyond routine gestures of helpfulness, thus establishing a bond of sympathy and affection for others, you cannot possibly be lonely.16

Yes, compassionate service benefits and blesses both the one who performs it and the one who receives it. In these times, when homes are being broken and plans being disrupted again by the call of our young men into military service and the specter of war hanging over us, there is great need for an acceleration of our compassionate services, not only as a means of encouraging and aiding our neighbors but to increase our own faith and quell our own fears, so that in following the example of our Savior, we shall be strengthened and can say with David of old, “What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee.”17

That we may do this is my prayer and I ask it humbly, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Cite this page

Unto the Least of These, At the Pulpit, accessed July 23, 2024