The Church Historian's Press


As Latter-day Saints prepared to leave Nauvoo, Illinois, in the early months of 1846 for their long trek to the West, clerks packed into one small box and one large box stacks of records, including Joseph Smith’s journals and history, as well as minutes, ledgers, and letters from the Saints’ sojourns in New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. These early accounts of the church’s beginnings accompanied the Saints to their new home in the Mountain West and served as the foundation for the enduring community they established there. At least one important record made the journey outside the inventoried boxes. “A Book of Records. Containing the proceedings of The Female Relief Society of Nauvoo” traveled west with its primary author, Relief Society secretary Eliza R. Snow.1 This treasured volume was crucial to the reconstitution and expansion of the Relief Society, the organization through which Latter-day Saint women ministered, in the last half of the nineteenth century. It is the foundational document in this collection.

Nineteenth-century Latter-day Saint women understood the significance of their records. Their individual and collective documents evidence a deep faith in the religion that emerged from the visions and revelations of Joseph Smith: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, formally established in 1830.2 Its members believed it to be the kingdom of God on earth, and they regarded its doctrine, ordinances, and authority structure as divinely revealed and essential to their spiritual salvation. Church membership was at once intensely personal and essentially communal, a system of belief that affected an individual’s entire way of life. This volume examines Latter-day Saint women’s temporal and spiritual activities, demonstrating how the church served as the reference point for their marriage and family life, church service, and civic engagement. The private and corporate records created by women illuminate their belief that the church both ennobled and challenged women, and their conviction that the church enriched their own relationship to the divine.

Church members believed that records established precedent and helped nourish faith. Both the Bible and the Book of Mormon, one of the Latter-day Saints’ unique books of scripture, underscored the importance of keeping, preserving, and studying records. Before the formation of the Relief Society in 1842, the church’s institutional records were largely created by and focused on the activities of the men who led the church. For example, Joseph Smith’s revelations were recorded, edited, and published primarily through the efforts of his male counselors, scribes, and clerks; and official church minute books recorded the deliberations of the all-male presidencies, quorums, and councils that governed the church generally and locally. Latter-day Saint women had occasionally helped create official church records. Emma Smith, Joseph’s wife, served as a Book of Mormon scribe and helped preserve the manuscript of the book as well as other important records.3 Eliza R. Snow recorded epistles for Joseph Smith in a record book called the Book of the Law of the Lord.4 Of course, women also kept personal records. Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph’s mother, wrote a history of her family and church beginnings that is the only record for many of the events it documents,5 and hundreds of Latter-day Saint women wrote letters, diaries, and reminiscences.

The establishment of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo in March 1842 and the appointment of Eliza R. Snow as the organization’s first secretary marked the beginning of institutional record keeping by and about Latter-day Saint women. The minutes Snow and other women kept of Relief Society meetings from 1842 through 1844 are the single most important document in this volume. In addition to chronicling members’ beliefs and contributions, the Nauvoo minutes include sermons Joseph Smith delivered during six of the nine visits he made to the society in 1842. Containing the only recorded words he directed exclusively to the women of the church, the minutes were regarded as a sacred and prophetic record that provided the authorization and pattern for women’s temporal and spiritual ministry.6

Willard Richards, Joseph Smith’s clerk, gave Snow a book for keeping minutes of the meetings. Thereafter, she and her assistants kept a record during the two years the society functioned in Nauvoo. These minutes remained in Snow’s possession through her tenure as Relief Society president in Utah Territory (1880–1887) and then passed to her successor, Zina D. H. Young (1888–1901), and in turn to her successor, Bathsheba W. Smith (1901–1910). Not until 1911, following Bathsheba Smith’s death, did the volume become part of the collection of the church historian, finally joining the historical records boxed up in Nauvoo.7 The minutes, then, were uniquely a women’s record. For nearly seven decades they remained in women’s possession. Excerpts were read in Relief Society meetings, celebrated at women’s gatherings, and frequently published in the Woman’s Exponent, a semimonthly newspaper edited by and for Latter-day Saint women from 1872 to 1914.8 Excerpts were also published, after some revisions, in the official History of the Church.9 Joseph Smith’s six sermons to the Relief Society were repeatedly quoted to inspire women and to explain and legitimize their ministry. Snow described the volume as “a Treasure beyond Price.”10 Passages from the minutes have been quoted in numerous historical articles and books, but never before have the minutes been published in their entirety in print.11

This foundational record of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo served as a constitution for the Relief Society, setting forth its purposes, structure, and procedures. In the initial organizational meeting, Joseph Smith stated that “the minutes of your meetings will be precedents for you to act upon— your Constitutio[n] and law.”12 Its role as constitution had particular significance during the reestablishment of the Relief Society in Utah beginning in 1867. Called by Brigham Young to assist in reconstituting the organization, Snow took the record she had preserved for more than two decades, carried it from ward to ward, and read to women and their bishops the account of the March 1842 organizational meeting so they could replicate the recorded pattern.13

The Nauvoo minute book also contributed to a record-keeping consciousness and became a model for local minute books in Utah. Title pages of some of the local minute books commenced in the late 1860s display format and wording copied from the title page of the Nauvoo minute book. In some instances, Snow wrote the title page or initial entries, revealing her deep commitment to maintaining the precedent established with the Nauvoo record.14

The minute book also taught women the significance of their records. The seriousness with which women kept minute books underscored the sense of permanence and importance they attributed to their Relief Society work as well as the written record of it. For example, the Relief Society minutes for the Salt Lake City Seventh Ward were kept initially in the 1850s in a very long and narrow account book, which was actually a newspaper subscription book. When the Relief Society was reorganized in 1868, the local women started to keep the minutes there again, and then they obtained a new minute book. In this big, thick minute book they recopied some of the previous meetings’ minutes and continued to keep records of their meetings well into the 1890s.15 These women esteemed their Seventh Ward minutes the same way Eliza R. Snow treasured the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes. Official organizations for children and young women, which the Relief Society nurtured, also kept minute books according to the same model. The commitment of women keeping records resulted in hundreds of official Relief Society records that are now preserved in the Church History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.

In addition to these official minutes, thousands of other extant documents record and shed light on the history of the Relief Society in its first decades. Like the minutes, some of these records were also created in an ecclesiastical setting, such as reports of sermons given by women or men in church conferences, annual reports from local Relief Societies, and official letters from church leaders. Other records are public in nature. Examples include newspaper articles and editorials, political petitions and transcripts of speeches, and published poetry. Still other records are essentially personal, such as private correspondence, diary entries, and reminiscences.

The collection of documents published in this volume has been selected from among the thousands of available records to illustrate the development of the society across the first fifty years of its existence, beginning with the establishment of the Relief Society in 1842. The organization was suspended from 1845 to the mid-1850s, when attempts were made to organize the Relief Society on a congregational level in some areas of Utah Territory. A more general and permanent reorganization began in 1867, and the Relief Society’s roles within the church structure and within women’s lives expanded over the succeeding decades.

The seventy-eight documents in this collection thus represent the Relief Society—and through it, some of the broader patterns of the lives of Latter-day Saint women—from 1842 to 1892. The story these records tell is more institutional than personal, more collective than individual. But the public and private often merged in women’s lives, so these documents illuminate various aspects of women’s experience. The records give insight into the spiritual dimension of their lives, as women sought holiness and cultivated spiritual gifts; their ecclesiastical activities, as they ministered within the church structure through the Relief Society and other organizations; and their political, temporal, and social pursuits, as they sought to build what they viewed as the kingdom of God through actions as diverse as relieving the poor, running cooperative stores, and storing grain.

Seeking Holiness

In his addresses to the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, Joseph Smith emphasized charity and purity. “Let your hearts expand— let them be enlarged towards others,” he implored. At the same time he exhorted personal contrition. “All hearts must repent— be pure and God will regard them and bless them.”16 He entreated society members to become “separate from all the evils of the world, choice, virtuou[s] and holy.”17 Three decades later Eliza R. Snow delivered a similar message to women: “It is the duty of each one of us to be a holy woman.”18 Women’s pursuit of holiness is a prominent motif in these documents as they testified and experienced spiritual manifestations and gifts.

Women generally preached at Relief Society meetings and other women’s gatherings, though on occasion male church leaders did so.19 Just three months after he officially organized the church, Joseph Smith ordained his wife, Emma, to “expound Scriptures & exhort the Church.”20 As president of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, she exhorted women to “watch and pray,” to “be ambitious to do good,” to “deal frankly with each other,” and to avoid “stirring up strife among ourselves and hardness and evil fee[l]ings.”21 Upon the reestablishment of the Relief Society in Utah Territory, Brigham Young appointed Eliza R. Snow to instruct Latter-day Saint women.22 Many of the hundreds of sermons that Snow delivered between 1868 and her death in 1887 survive in women’s local minute books and in the Woman’s Exponent. These sources also contain counsel from other leading women and dozens of lesser-known women appointed locally as Relief Society officers “to instruct, to exhort, to strengthen, and to build up a holy people unto the Lord.”23

Women frequently testified in their own meetings as well as in congregational fast meetings, generally held once a month. In an August 1843 meeting, one woman said she “stood a living wittness for Jesus of Nazareth knew he had pourd his Spirit upon her.”24 Latter-day Saints considered faith in and knowledge of Jesus Christ as the redeemer of humankind to be received from the Holy Spirit.25 Many Latter-day Saint meetings, including Relief Society meetings, became sites for sharing this witness of the Spirit. They often spoke of the latter-day restoration of Jesus Christ’s ancient church as one of the most significant blessings in their lives. “We are engaged in a good work, and the Principles that we have embraced are life and Salvation unto us,” declared Margaret T. Smoot in Salt Lake City in 1870.26 The same year, at a Relief Society meeting in Nephi, Utah, President Amelia Goldsbrough “encouraged the sisters to faithfulness said each one must be saved for themselves … felt that she would never give up mormonism whatever she might be called to pass through.”27 Such testifying remained a key element of gatherings.

Women also regarded the Holy Spirit as the channel through which they might receive spiritual gifts as described in the New Testament and in Joseph Smith’s revelations. In March 1842 Joseph Smith summarized these as “the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelation, visions, healing, interpretation of tongues, and so forth.”28 His April 28, 1842, sermon to Relief Society members, with 1 Corinthians chapters 12 and 13 as his text, addressed women’s practice of these charismatic gifts of the Spirit.29

With respect to the gift of tongues, which some Saints had practiced since the early 1830s, Joseph Smith expressed both support and caution.30 “Speak in tongues for your comfort,” he advised, but not for doctrinal instruction.31 During the difficult westward trek, small groups of women found consolation in speaking in and interpreting tongues and thereby set a precedent for later women’s gatherings.32 Latter-day Saint women and men continued to exercise this gift in the succeeding decades. “Several spoke in toungs the interpretat[ion] was splended,” Jane Wilkie Hooper Blood wrote in 1883.33 Yet the practice seems to have diminished as the first generation of Saints gradually died off. Eliza R. Snow mourned in 1880 that “there are many children, to say nothing of older people, who never even heard the gift of tongues.”34

Nineteenth-century Latter-day Saint women particularly cherished the gift of healing, and it became closely associated with their ministry among the sick and needy. As with speaking in tongues, healing by faith was practiced among women in evangelical congregations, whence many Latter-day Saint converts came. The fact that Mormon women did not initially agree about whether they should engage in the practice prompted Joseph Smith’s April 28, 1842, sermon to the Relief Society on spiritual gifts. After remarking on speaking in tongues, he “offered instruction respecting the propriety of females administering to the sick by the laying on of hands— said it was according to revelation.” “If the sisters should have faith to heal the sick,” he stated, “let all hold their tongues.”35 A “Mrs. Chase” celebrated Smith’s teaching: “If the sisters are faithful, the gifts of the gospel shall be with us, especially the gift of healing,” she told members of the Relief Society a few months later.36

Latter-day Saints invoked the Bible in claiming healing as a sign that followed believers and as a gift of the Spirit.37 Joseph Smith emphasized that such signs “should follow all that believe whether male or female.”38 Both men and women performed healing blessings by laying on hands and invoking the name of Jesus Christ. Over time, men who were ordained to priesthood office also increasingly invoked priesthood authority when they administered healing blessings. Women gave blessings of healing in Nauvoo, during the Saints’ trek westward, and in Utah. They also gave blessings intended to renew commitment and to bolster flagging spirits in small female gatherings that promoted spirituality and sisterhood.

Joseph Smith’s successors as church president, including Brigham Young, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff, also encouraged women’s use of the gift of healing.39 In 1880 as John Taylor set apart Zina D. H. Young as first counselor to Eliza R. Snow in the Relief Society general presidency, he assured her, “Thou shalt have the gift to heal the sick.”40 Earlier that year, Emmeline B. Wells in the Woman’s Exponent described the close connections between the Relief Society and faith healing: “One of the strongest features of this remarkable organization is the cultivation of the gift of faith. That great power has been manifested under the hands of sisters in administering to the sick is a fact to which many can testify; and is not this one positive proof that the Lord recognizes them and approves their labors in this direction? Is there anything more heavenly than to give comfort and relief to the sick and distressed? We think not.”41

In addition to these blessings of health and comfort, Latter-day Saint women ritually washed and anointed one another before childbirth at a time of high maternal and infant mortality and sparse and questionable medical treatment. The practice emerged from women’s experiences as midwives, as faith healers, and as officiators in temple ceremonies. Through this ritual, empathetic women pronounced a series of specific blessings upon the body to provide spiritual strength and emotional comfort. Zina D. H. Young told the Cache Valley Relief Society in 1886, “I wish to speak of the great privilege given to us to wash and anoint the sick and suffering of our sex. I would counsel every one who expects to become a mother to have this ordinance administered by some good faithful sister.”42

Latter-day Saint women and men believed that the blessings given by women for health and comfort, as well as the washings and anointings before childbirth, were performed by the power of faith. In 1880 the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles composed a circular letter that supported women’s healing of the sick and outlined certain parameters. Women might “administer to all the sick or afflicted in their respective families, either by the laying on of hands, or by the anointing with oil in the name of the Lord: but they should administer in these sacred ordinances, not by virtue and authority of the priesthood, but by virtue of their faith in Christ.”43 Eliza R. Snow stated three years later, “Women can administer in the name of Jesus but not by virtue of the Priesthood the promise which Jesus made was to all not to either sex.”44

In the twentieth century, church leaders gradually and then exclusively emphasized the scriptural mandate to “call for the elders of the church” (James 5:14) and instructed members that it was more appropriate for men ordained to priesthood offices to give such blessings of healing or comfort. By the 1930s and 1940s, women’s laying on of hands to heal the sick had become a rare rather than a common practice among Latter-day Saint women.45

Ministering with Authority

“The mission of the Latter-day Saints is to reform abuses which have for ages corrupted the world, and to establish an era of peace and righteousness. The Most High is the founder of this mission,” Harriet Cook Young told women assembled in the tabernacle in Salt Lake City in 1870.46 The documents in this collection show that Young and other Latter-day Saints believed Joseph Smith’s accounts of divine revelation and heavenly visitations, including the appearances of ancient prophets and apostles who conferred upon him the authority to establish the church and administer ordinances. Saints believed that this ancient sacred authority, or priesthood, was restored to prepare the world for Christ’s millennial reign and forward the salvation of humankind. According to their beliefs, this priesthood ordered, authorized, and sanctified the ecclesiastical structure and holy rites through which men and women ministered to their fellow Saints.

Distinct church offices emerged over time, as did an understanding of how the offices related to one another. For example, a circa April 1830 revelation named Joseph Smith an apostle and described the office of apostle, but the ordination of twelve men as apostles and the formation of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles did not occur until five years later.47 A July 1830 revelation to Joseph Smith regarding his wife, Emma, designated her “an Elect Lady” to be ordained to “expound Scriptures & exhort the Church.”48 As the twelve-year gap in Part 1 of this collection illustrates, Emma Smith did not fully undertake these roles until 1842, when she became president of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo.

By organizing the Relief Society “after the pattern of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” with a president and two counselors, Joseph Smith established the first church offices for women, and he counseled them “to administer in that authority which is confer’d on them.”49 He also provided for other officers to be selected when need arose: “If any Officers are wanted to carry out the designs of the Institution, let them be appointed and set apart, as Deacons, Teachers &c. are among us.”50 Previously, only men ordained to priesthood offices had filled leadership positions or associated in councils or quorums.51

The 1842 joining together of Latter-day Saint women under the direction of a women’s presidency, commissioned to “preside just as the [First] Presidency, preside over the church,”52 added a new dimension to the church’s structure and to women’s lives. The small circle of Nauvoo women who had initially laid plans for an independent sewing society set their design aside and embraced Joseph Smith’s invitation to be organized “according to the order of God” and “connected with the priesthood.”53 Although the name women selected for their council, Female Relief Society, linked them with the female benevolent movement of the period, they also viewed themselves as “daughters of Zion” who felt “the popular Institutions of the day should not be our guide.”54

Members of the Relief Society believed that the Melchizedek Priesthood (the higher of two orders of priesthood in the church) authorized and sanctified the offices they held. A revelation to Joseph Smith declared that the Melchizedek Priesthood “holds the right of presidency, and has power and authority over all the offices in the church in all ages of the world, to administer in spiritual things.”55 In 1868 Eliza R. Snow described the Relief Society as “an organization that cannot exist without the Priesthood, from the fact that it derives all its authority and influence from that source.”56 During his lifetime, Joseph Smith was the president of this priesthood, which his revelations also referred to as “the holy order.”57 Order was indeed an essential component, and Smith taught Relief Society women, as he also taught men, “the necessity of every individual acting in the sphere allotted him or her; and filling the several offices to which they were appointed.”58 His appointment of Emma Smith as Relief Society president established a pattern for women’s ministry in the church.

In 1842, the year Joseph Smith created a place for women in the developing ecclesiastical structure, he introduced sacred rites linked to the temple, or “House of the Lord,” under construction on a Nauvoo hillside. A revelation to Joseph Smith in 1841 referred to this temple as “the house of the daughters of Zion.”59 Latter-day Saints saw the temple as a connecting place between heaven and earth where divine power would be bestowed, or endowed, upon the women and men who worshipped there. Temple ordinances, or covenant-making rituals associated with the Melchizedek Priesthood, included the “endowment” and “sealings” or marriages. The endowment consists of four key elements: a preparatory ceremonial washing and anointing, a course of instruction, the making of covenants, and a sense of divine presence.60 Latter-day Saints believed that the temple rites were the means of fulfilling the mandate to become “a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.”61 Joseph Smith spoke of this purpose in his March 31, 1842, address to the Relief Society, saying he would “make of this Society a kingdom of priests an [as] in Enoch’s day— as in Pauls day.”62 His statement made an impression. Bathsheba W. Smith later recounted that Joseph Smith “wanted to make us, as the women were in Paul’s day, ‘A kingdom of priestesses.’” She then explained, “We have that ceremony in our endowments as Joseph taught.”63

In 1843 Emma Smith became the first woman to receive the endowment, and she then administered those elements specifically relating to women to other women who, with their husbands, comprised the small group invited to officiate in temple rites prior to completion of the temple.64 When the Nauvoo temple was ready for ordinance work in December 1845, more than a year after Joseph Smith’s death, some of these endowed women, who were also members of the Relief Society, served among the first temple officiators who assisted in giving the ordinances to more than two thousand women before the exodus from Nauvoo in 1846. Sarah Pea Rich, one of these officiators, recalled how “we were to be there at 7 in the morning and remain untill work was done at ten or twelve o clock at night if necessary.” She expressed gratitude for “the faith and knowledge that was bestowed upon us in that temple by the influence and help of the Spirit of the Lord.”65

Only rarely do documents in this collection explicitly refer to the meaning of temple promises to women. Church members believed these ordinances were sacred and should not be exposed to the world. Yet women’s profound connection to the temple pervaded their institutional and private lives. Temple ordinances sanctified their marriages and opened new opportunities for women to minister to one another.

Joseph Smith taught that the temple sealing united a husband and wife into the eternities and that this “new and everlasting covenant” of marriage was an “order of the priesthood.”66 Smith’s associate, Newel K. Whitney, spoke of this when he addressed members of the Relief Society in May 1842, a few days after he received the endowment ordinance. Whitney stated: “In the beginning God created man male and female and bestow’d upon man certain blessings peculiar to a man of God, of which woman partook, so that without the female all things cannot be restor’d to the earth it takes all to restore the Priesthood.”67 A revelation to Smith promised faithful husbands and wives sealed in marriage an inheritance of heavenly “thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers, dominions,” and “exaltation and glory in all things,” including “a continuation of the seeds forever and ever.”68 Latter-day Saints believed that the temple sealing established earthly patriarchs and matriarchs who could not only engender life physically, but who could give life in a spiritual sense by teaching righteous principles and administering ordinances of salvation to others.69 Records that speak of women sharing the priesthood with their husbands appear to refer to temple sealings.70 Phebe Woodruff labeled this union as the “Patriarchal order of marriage”: “We are sealed to our husbands for time and eternity, that we may dwell with them and our children in the world to come, which guarantees unto us the greatest blessing for which we are created.”71

Latter-day Saints of that day also believed that sealings could include plural marriages, or the marriage of a man to more than one woman. During the era covered by this volume, Latter-day Saints practiced plural marriage. Indeed, polygamy, as it was commonly known, became a distinguishing characteristic of nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints, and particularly Latter-day Saint women. Plural marriage is nearly omnipresent in women’s records because it forged their extended and overlapping family relationships and because it was central to the way they understood themselves as “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people.”72

The documents in this volume shed light on the development of plural marriage and its ramifications for women’s collective experience. In Nauvoo, stating that he was acting upon revelation, Joseph Smith introduced the practice of plural marriage quietly among some of his trusted associates, including some members of the Relief Society.73 Knowing the practice would be controversial and would create a stark distance between the Latter-day Saints and the rest of American society, Smith required confidentiality of participants. Plural marriage, known to many by rumor only, created significant divisions among the Saints in Nauvoo: those who engaged in plural marriage, and those who did not; those who supported it, and those who did not. Distrust and dissension within the church and opposition from outside critics fueled events leading to the 1844 mob murder of Joseph Smith. The Relief Society may have been a forum for expressing objections to plural marriage, a possibility that likely contributed to the cessation of Relief Society meetings following Joseph Smith’s death.74 In the West, plural marriage played a different role. Especially after the formal announcement of the practice in 1852, plural marriages were public knowledge with no attempt at secrecy. These marriages facilitated women’s networks, and extended family connections became a framework onto which the Relief Society organization could be at least partially overlaid.

The Relief Society was also linked to Latter-day Saint temple ordinances in two ways that reinforced women’s authority to minister. First, the temple rites that sealed husband and wife in marriage, monogamous or polygamous, often influenced the ecclesiastical relationship between women and men. For example, Emma Smith, as Joseph’s wife, was the first president of the Relief Society. In Utah, Eliza R. Snow, a widow of Joseph Smith who then married church president Brigham Young, became the next general Relief Society president. On a local level, a bishop sometimes operated in connection with his wife who had been appointed to serve as Relief Society president. (Protestant ministers and their wives often followed a similar pattern.) Ecclesiastical relationships based on this marriage model assumed that partners filled complementary roles. While Relief Society women accepted the authority of male church leaders and agreed not to “overstep the counsel”75 of the bishop or stake president, they often operated in a somewhat separate sphere and could rely on informal family ties as well as the formal church organization to resolve problems. The move away from this husband-wife model by the late nineteenth century meant that these relationships between female and male church leaders became more hierarchical and more often defined by formal policies.

A second connection between the Relief Society and temple ordinances stemmed from Emma Smith’s position as the first female officiator of temple rites, a position that prefigured the close temple association of her successors as Relief Society president, Eliza R. Snow, Zina D. H. Young, and Bathsheba W. Smith. Each of these women, like Emma Smith, served concurrently as Relief Society president and head of female temple officiators: Snow in the Endowment House (precursor to the temple) in Salt Lake City, and Zina Young and Bathsheba Smith in the Salt Lake temple. In these women, the ecclesiastical authority of the Relief Society president was coupled with the ritual authority of the leading female temple officiator. Snow was known by her contemporaries both as “a Priestess in the House of the Lord”76 and as “President of all the Relief Societies in the Church.”77

Various documents in this volume demonstrate how women and men negotiated issues of institutional authority within the framework of their belief in divine revelation and the sanctifying power of priesthood order and ordinances. From the time Joseph Smith extended church offices and temple privileges to women, questions emerged regarding the possibilities and limitations of their authority. Were women authorized to heal the sick? Were women intruding on the bishop’s role as they assisted the poor?

For instance, the 1880 appointment of a general presidency for the Relief Society78 both permanently expanded women’s offices and altered the relationship between the Relief Society and the organizations for young women and children. Emma Smith had served as the only Relief Society president in Nauvoo, but in reestablishing the Relief Society in Utah, Brigham Young called for individual ward Relief Societies with ward presidencies. In 1877, in connection with Young’s broad effort to standardize the organization of wards and stakes, he appointed the first stake Relief Society presidency in Ogden to coordinate the work of the several ward societies.79 Young’s successor, John Taylor, worked with Eliza R. Snow to call stake-level Relief Society presidencies in other locales and to organize similar stake-level presidencies for the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement and Primary Associations. These changes reflected church leaders’ commitment to regularizing the stake and ward ecclesiastical structure throughout the church. As part of this movement toward greater formalization, members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who had been serving as stake presidents were released to resume their duties in ministering to the general church rather than in a specific locale. Within this context, in 1880 John Taylor appointed three new presidencies at the general or churchwide level for the Relief Society, the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association, and the Primary Association.80

With the establishment of these general presidencies, the three women-led organizations had leadership at all three ecclesiastical levels (ward, stake, and general) of church governance. The change also separated these organizations into distinct entities that operated less interdependently than before. The Relief Society had long exercised leadership over the affiliated organizations it had nurtured for younger women and children. Indeed, Relief Society presidents had often appointed and set apart the officers for these organizations. A letter issued by the church’s First Presidency in 1880 indicated that this practice should not continue: “All ladies selected as presidents, should be blessed and set apart, by the President of the Stake, or by the Bishop of the Ward, wherein the branch society is organized.”81 This new standardized structure for women more fully integrated them with ward and stake priesthood councils. It gradually replaced the matriarchal network (with leaders such as “Aunt Eliza,” “Aunt Zina,” and “Aunt Emmeline”) that had held the Relief Society and the organizations for younger women and children together in a wide-reaching web forged by both formal and familial relationships.

In this setting of multiplying women’s presidencies, the First Presidency and other church leaders emphasized that women’s offices were not priesthood offices. John Taylor told those in attendance at the 1880 meeting during which he set apart Eliza R. Snow and her counselors as the Relief Society’s general presidency that he had been present at the Nauvoo Relief Society organizational meeting and participated in the laying on of hands to ordain the Nauvoo officers. “The ordination then given did not mean the confering of the Priesthood upon those sisters yet the sisters hold a portion of the Priesthood in connection with their husbands,” Taylor explained. Snow and Bathsheba Smith then “stated that they so understood it in Nauvoo and have always looked upon it in that light.”82 For much of the century, the words “ordain” and “set apart” were often used interchangeably (and sometimes together) in connection with women being appointed to offices in the Relief Society. For instance, when Taylor laid his hands on Snow at the 1880 meeting, he stated, “I set thee apart to preside over the Relief Societies … and I confer on thee this power and authority and ordain thee to this office.”83 Over time, the term “ordain” came to be associated only with the laying on of hands to ordain a man to a priesthood office. Setting apart, on the other hand, was associated with other church offices, including women’s offices.

As seen in this reestablishment of a Relief Society general presidency in 1880, the documents in this collection provide glimpses of the development of the increasingly formal ecclesiastical structure that became the church’s mode of operation in the late nineteenth and, especially, the twentieth centuries. The hierarchy of presidencies, councils, and offices, previously interwoven with extended familial networks, gradually largely supplanted those networks. This transition was well under way when, following a decade of intense antipolygamy legislation and prosecution, the church announced in 1890 its intention to end the practice of plural marriage, which had played a major role in forging and reinforcing familial networks. A functional formal ecclesiastical structure aided the slow and difficult move away from plural marriage and also facilitated church growth and more friendly relations with people and institutions outside the church. Indeed, in the fall of 1892 the Relief Society became a legally incorporated entity, in part to support its new connection with the national and international councils of women, while still maintaining its place as part of the church structure. Latter-day Saint women “administer[ed] in that authority which is confer’d on them”84 in the church’s ecclesiastical structure and in the sacred ordinances performed in temples, though the parameters of their authority changed over time. As these documents attest, women both initiated and accommodated such changes. They created organizations for young women and children, and they developed programs to provide charitable relief and other service within their communities and the church. Women also adapted to the ecclesiastical formalization that modified some past practices. They viewed themselves not as an independent sisterhood but as part of a larger kingdom, grounded in prophetic revelation and priesthood authority. “In the Church and Kingdom of God,” Eliza R. Snow emphasized, “the interests of men and women are the same; man has no interests separate from that of women, however it may be in the outside world, our interests are all united.”85

Building the Kingdom

Joseph Smith charged the Relief Society in Nauvoo not only with a spiritual ministry, “to save souls,” but also with a temporal one, to “relieve the poor.”86 Latter-day Saints, though, saw this distinction between spiritual and temporal as a false dichotomy; temporal actions that contributed to the building of the kingdom of God, they believed, were essentially spiritual. In their view, braiding straw, spinning silk, and operating the cash register at a Relief Society store were all spiritual activities. Records in this volume show the diversity of women’s contributions. In the early years of the Relief Society in Nauvoo and territorial Utah, members provided charitable relief for impoverished Latter-day Saints and recent immigrants, as well as for American Indian women and children. After the reestablishment of the Relief Society in 1867, women’s efforts became increasingly elaborate, including grain storage, silk production, medical training, and the establishment of a hospital.

Relief Society women in Utah considered the home industries that Brigham Young assigned them, particularly in the 1860s and 1870s, to be an extension of Joseph Smith’s charge to assist in the spiritual and economic well-being of the community.87 Under the direction of Eliza R. Snow and ward Relief Society presidents, the organization implemented programs to help the Saints avoid dependence on outside manufacturers and merchants and enable the Saints to become self-sustaining. Beginning with the Fifteenth Ward in 1868, many Relief Societies built meeting halls, some of which included stores. As with many of the structures, the design of the Fifteenth Ward Hall was patterned after that of Joseph Smith’s red brick store in Nauvoo, where the Relief Society was first organized, with a store on the main level and a meeting or work room upstairs. For those who had lived in Nauvoo, this design emphasized the link between Relief Society and mercantile activity.88 The stores sold a variety of goods, including religious books, tailored and ready-made clothing, woolen goods, bedspreads, rag carpets, hats, and medicines. Mormon women and girls themselves crafted many of the materials they sold. They braided straw hats, baskets, and rugs; produced silk for fine apparel and decorative items; and sold some of their home-crafted articles on commission. Brigham Young wanted Relief Society women to run the stores and to use the profits to benefit various programs within the church.89 For instance, funds raised by the Weber County Relief Society supported immigration of converts, missions, the construction of the Logan and Manti temples, and the Relief Society’s hospital.90

In the view of Relief Society members, the charge to build the kingdom included establishing organizations for young women and for children. The Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association began with the strong encouragement of Brigham Young, who worried about outside moral influences and an increase in imported products that would impact the Saints with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. Initially, he encouraged his older daughters to meet in his home and gain instruction from more experienced women like Eliza R. Snow and Mary Isabella Horne. At the same time, he called for a churchwide retrenchment in which well-to-do members were to simplify their habits, particularly in food and dress. He encouraged lighter meals with fewer courses and more practical clothing with fewer adornments. The Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association began in 1870 as part of the women’s Retrenchment Association and then developed into a separate organization.91

Aurelia Spencer Rogers initiated the idea of an organization for children nearly a decade later in 1878. Rogers thought young boys were behaving poorly and wanted, for the sake of both the community and the girls destined to marry those boys, to train them up to be more respectful and responsible. After learning of the idea from Rogers, Eliza R. Snow obtained the support of the church’s First Presidency, named the organization “Primary,” and went about establishing the new organization throughout the church.92

Records also demonstrate the way Relief Society members reacted to threats against the church. The nineteenth-century Relief Society operated in a world where women were assuming an expanded public role. In 1842, when the Relief Society was organized, American women were active in early abolition and reform efforts in the United States. The Seneca Falls Convention six years later is often seen as the beginning of an organized women’s rights movement. During the last half of the nineteenth century, American women were increasingly active politically at local, state, and national levels. At the same time, Relief Society women expanded the public aspects of their work, particularly after the reestablishment of the Relief Society in Utah. Female Latter-day Saints took a more active role in public speaking and writing, which significantly increased their visibility and political influence. When the Utah territorial legislature granted women suffrage in 1870, women obtained a new channel for pursuing their work. Beginning that year, the Relief Society mobilized women in mass meetings to protest proposed antipolygamy legislation that threatened Latter-day Saint domestic life and that would eventually target woman suffrage in Utah. Hundreds of women enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to represent themselves and their opinions. When protesting these laws, Relief Society members worked to transform the national image of Latter-day Saint women from downtrodden and abused to proactive and empowered. Besides the mass meetings, the Woman’s Exponent provided the central forum for this expression.

During this period, as part of their suffrage efforts, Latter-day Saint women forged connections with the broader women’s movement. Beginning in the mid-1870s, Latter-day Saint women corresponded with leaders of the national movement for woman suffrage, supported suffrage petitions, and sent representatives to the East to create and maintain connections with the suffrage movement. While the controversy over plural marriage often made Latter-day Saint women less welcome in some national women’s organizations, the National Woman Suffrage Association always supported their voting rights.93 Exponent articles appeared in national women’s newspapers, and the Exponent reprinted articles from those papers as well.94

During this formative period, as women sewed clothing, tended the sick, gathered wheat, expanded their organizations, published a newspaper, and fought legal battles, they believed they were doing their part toward establishing God’s kingdom, and they referred often to the Nauvoo minutes to help define their work and their identity as female saints of the latter days.

This book is divided into four parts, each with a historical introduction and a group of documents demonstrating the activities of the Relief Society during a particular historical era. Part 1 contains the 1830 revelation to Emma Smith and thirteen documents related to the Relief Society from 1842 to 1845, particularly the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes. Part 2 features six documents exploring the tentative reestablishment of Relief Society organizations at a local level in Utah during the 1850s and 1860s. Part 3 contains thirty documents from 1867, when Brigham Young called for the reorganization of the Relief Society, through the late 1870s. The final section includes twenty-eight documents from 1880, when Eliza R. Snow was appointed as the first general Relief Society president since Emma Smith, through the fiftieth anniversary of the organization in 1892. Each document includes a bibliographic note, a historical introduction, and a transcript of the text that has been carefully verified three times. In addition, footnotes explaining the historical context and any textual issues accompany each document.

The first documents in this book—the 1830 revelation to Emma Smith and the Nauvoo minutes—and the final document, an account of the Relief Society’s Jubilee celebration in 1892, serve as bookends for the collection and demonstrate how the Relief Society’s collective memory of its history defined the organization throughout the nineteenth century. The Jubilee featured Sarah M. Kimball, Emmeline B. Wells, Bathsheba W. Smith, and Mary Isabella Horne sharing their memories from across the prior fifty years and providing a sense for what was most important to them.95 Sometimes, their facts were not quite right. For example, Wells gave the wrong date for Eliza R. Snow’s reorganization of the Relief Societies. In addition, the history they presented left out episodes of disconnection and conflict. Instead they emphasized strength, harmony, and continuity. Theirs was a sacred worldview and their narrative of women’s efforts told of the hand of God in their achievements. Although the following documents sometimes complicate the narrative of harmony and continuity, they also illuminate how this sacred worldview informed Mormon women’s lives in diverse times and places.

By the time of the Jubilee, the Relief Society was on a secure enough foundation to celebrate a half-century of growth and achievement. The grand Jubilee commemorative exercises were held in the tabernacle in Salt Lake City on March 17, the date of the society’s organization in Nauvoo. The tabernacle was adorned with flags, banners, flowers, portraits of the first three Relief Society presidents, and a representation of the key that Joseph Smith said he had turned to the women fifty years before. Seven of the central presidency and board members in 1892 had been part of the society in Nauvoo. Male church leaders joined the celebration. Several of them, along with Relief Society leaders, addressed the audience, lauding the work of the past and anticipating the promise of the future. Participants read both the revelation given to Emma Smith in 1830 and portions of the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes. These foundational documents continued to affirm women’s authority and stewardship within the church’s ecclesiastical structure as well as its most sacred ordinances. “This momentous event for woman,” wrote the Relief Society general presidency, “causes us to view with wonder the past, with gratitude the present and with faith the future.”96 The Jubilee made a public statement that whatever changes or expansion the Relief Society would face to remain viable in an ever-changing world, it would retain its unbreakable ties with the past in some form or another.

For nearly thirty more years that link would be clearly visible. The first five presidents of the Relief Society, concluding with Emmeline Wells, had known Joseph Smith and had participated in the Nauvoo experience. Not only in their presence but in their programs and pronouncements they evoked the spirit and ideals of that first Relief Society. As these living links with Nauvoo gradually left the scene, a new generation of women, whose experience and vision were rooted firmly in the twentieth century, took their place. Their vision was to the future, not the past. For them, Nauvoo was history, not memory. At the passing of Wells in 1921, Susa Young Gates, one of the younger board members, noted that with her death Nauvoo faded quietly into history, “dear, but very distant.”97 For later generations of Latter-day Saint women the story of the founding of the Relief Society became iconic, and the ubiquitous March 17 anniversary celebrations featured only brief extracts from the minutes, if any.98

The Nauvoo record itself has remained largely unseen and unread for nearly a century. The continuing story of the nineteenth-century Relief Society, recorded in hundreds of local minute books by thorough and conscientious secretaries and in thousands of other documents, is likewise largely undiscovered and untold. Together, the Nauvoo minutes and the other documents in this selection demonstrate how Joseph Smith and other Latter-day Saints envisioned new possibilities for women within Latter-day Saint organization, belief, and practice, and how women made meaning and helped create permanence for their collective ministry.

Editorial Method

This volume presents verbatim transcripts of seventy-eight documents that were selected from among thousands of available records to illustrate the development of the Relief Society across the first fifty years of its existence. These transcripts were prepared largely according to the editorial procedures developed by the Joseph Smith Papers Project.

Version Selection

For many of the documents included in this volume, multiple early versions exist. For example, the report of a discourse may have been published in both the daily and the weekly editions of the Deseret News. The editors have usually selected the earliest known extant version for inclusion in this volume, without necessarily mentioning other available versions. Annotation in this volume points out exceptions to this general practice as well as significant variations between relevant early versions.

In cases where an original document contains material not relevant to a study of the Relief Society for this period (such as a sermon or a personal memoir covering a variety of subjects), the relevant material is presented herein as an excerpt. In all such cases, the transcript is clearly identified as an excerpt and ellipsis points are employed to show where material was omitted. Otherwise, the transcripts in this volume are unabridged.

The documents are arranged in chronological order by creation date, except that the handful of reminiscent accounts are placed where their content is most relevant.

Rules of Transcription

To ensure accuracy in representing the texts, transcripts were verified three times against either the original documents or copies, each time by a different reader or pair of readers.

The approach to transcription employed in this volume is a conservative style of what is known as ‘‘expanded transcription.’’ The transcripts render most words letter by letter as accurately as possible, preserving the exact spelling of the originals. This includes incomplete words, variant spellings of personal names, repeated words, and idiosyncratic grammatical constructions. The transcripts also preserve substantive revisions made by the original scribes. Canceled words are typographically rendered with the strikethrough bar, while inserted words are enclosed within angle brackets. Cancellations and insertions are also transcribed letter by letter when an original word was changed to a new word simply by canceling or inserting letters at the beginning or end of the word—such as “sparingly” or “attend〈ed〉”. However, for cases in which an original word was changed to a new word by canceling or inserting letters in the middle of the word, to improve readability the original word is presented stricken in its entirety, followed by the revised word in its entirety. For example, if a scribe revised “falling” to “failing” by canceling the first “l” and inserting an “i”, the revision would be transcribed as “falling 〈failing〉” instead of “fal〈i〉ling”. Insubstantial cancellations and insertions—those used only to correct spelling and punctuation—are silently emended, and only the final spelling and punctuation are reproduced.

The transcription of punctuation differs from the original in a few other respects. Dashes of various lengths are standardized to a consistent pattern. Where a scribe used short vertical marks to identify superscript letters, the letters are rendered as superscript but the marks are not reproduced. In some cases of repetitive punctuation, only the final mark or final intention is transcribed while any other characters are silently omitted. Flourishes and other decorative inscriptions are not reproduced or noted. When the original document sets off a quotation by using quotation marks at the beginning of each line that contains quoted matter, the quotation is formatted as a block quote and the original quotation marks are not reproduced. Punctuation is never added silently.

Incorrect dates and other errors of fact are left to stand. The intrusive sic, sometimes used to affirm original misspelling, is never employed, although where words or phrases are especially difficult to understand, editorial clarifications or corrections are inserted in brackets. Correct spellings of personal names are supplied in brackets the first time each incorrect name appears in a document (unless the correct name cannot be determined). Where a personal name is incomplete in the original document, enough additional information is supplied in brackets to allow the reader to find the full name in the biographical directories that accompany this volume (see additional discussion under “Annotation Conventions” below).

Some handwriting in the documents is difficult to decipher. Where capitalization, spelling, or punctuation is ambiguous, deference is given to the scribe’s usual practice. Where that is ambiguous, modern convention is favored.

Formatting is standardized. Original paragraphing is retained, except that in journal and minute entries the first paragraph of the entry is run in with the original dateline. Standardized editorial datelines—typographically distinguishable from the text—have been added before entries in minute books and other multiple-entry documents. All paragraphs are given in a standard format, with indention regularized and with empty lines between paragraphs omitted. Extra space between words or sentences is not captured unless it appears the scribe left a blank space as a place holder to be filled in later. Block quotations of letters, minutes, and other similar items within the texts are set apart with block indentions, even when such items are not set off in the original. Horizontal rules and other separating devices inscribed or printed in the original are not reproduced. Line ends are neither typographically reproduced nor symbolically represented. End-of-line hyphens are not transcribed, and there is no effort to note or keep a record of such hyphens. This leaves open the possibility that the hyphen of an ambiguously hyphenated compound escaped transcription or that a compound word correctly broken across a line ending without a hyphen is mistakenly transcribed as two words. As many end-of-line hyphens have been editorially introduced in the transcripts, a hyphen appearing at the end of a line may or may not be original to the document.

In transcripts of printed sources, typeface, type size, and spacing have been standardized. Characters set upside down are silently corrected. Printers sometimes made changes to the text, such as to correct spelling mistakes or replace damaged type, after printing had already begun, meaning that the first copies to come off the press may differ from later copies in the same print run. No attempt has been made to analyze more than one copy of the printed texts transcribed here, aside from sometimes consulting another copy when the one used for transcription is indeterminable or ambiguous.

Except where explicitly noted in annotation, redactions and other changes made on a document after the original production of the text are not transcribed, nor are labeling and other forms of archival marking.

Transcription Symbols

The following symbols are used to transcribe and expand the text:


Brackets enclose editorial insertions that expand, correct, or clarify the text. This convention is frequently applied to the abbreviated or incorrect spelling of a personal name, such as L. [Louisa] G. Richards. Obsolete or ambiguous abbreviations are expanded with br[acket]s. Bracketed editorial insertions also provide reasonable reconstructions of badly miss[p]elled worsd [words]. Missing or illegible words may be supplied within brackets when the supplied word is based on textual or contextual evidence. Bracketed punctuation is added only when necessary to follow complex wording. All brackets in this volume were supplied by the editors of this volume, unless otherwise noted.


A question mark is added to conjectured editorial insertions, such as where an entire word was [accidentally?] omitted and where it is difficult to maintain the sense of a sentence without some editorial insertion.


An illegible word is represented by the italicized word [illegible] enclosed in brackets.

An illegible letter or other character within a partially legible word is rendered with a diamond. Repeated diamonds represent the approximate number of illegible characters (for example: sto♢♢♢♢s).

[p. x]

Bracketed editorial insertions indicate the end of an originally numbered page, regardless of the location of the page number on the original page. No page indicator is given for the last page of a document if the document was transcribed from a multiple-entry source (such as an article from a newspaper or a minute entry from a minute book) and if there is text following the featured document on that same page.

[p. [x]]

Bracketing of the page number itself indicates that the page was not originally numbered and that the number of the page is editorially supplied.


Underlining is typographically reproduced. Individually underlined words are distinguished from passages underlined with one continuous line.


Superscription is typographically reproduced.


A single horizontal strikethrough bar is used to indicate any method of cancellation: strikethrough, cross-out, wipe erasure, knife erasure, overwriting, or other methods. Individually canceled words are distinguished from passages eliminated with a single cancellation. Characters individually canceled at the beginning or end of a word are distinguished from words canceled in their entirety.


Insertions in the text—whether interlinear, intralinear, or marginal—are enclosed in angle brackets. Letter〈s〉 and other characters individual〈ly〉 insert〈ed〉 at the beginning or end of a word are distinguished from 〈words〉 inserted in 〈their〉 entirety.


The word text begins textual footnotes describing significant details not comprehended by this scheme of symbolic transcription.


A line break artificially imposed in an original document is rendered as a vertical line in textual notes.

Annotation Conventions

The documents in this volume do not present a unified narrative. Annotations—including historical introductions and footnotes—supply background and context to help readers better understand and use the documents. The aim of the annotation is to serve scholars and students of Mormon history, women’s history, and American religious history generally, whose familiarity with these fields may vary widely. Each document receives its own introduction, which is intended to establish the historical context. While these introductions may include cross-references to information found elsewhere in the volume, they are intended to serve as stand-alone explanations, meaning that a certain amount of repetition occurs throughout the various introductions.

Sources are cited in full the first time they appear in a document, after which a short citation form is generally used within the notes in that particular document. Citations to the Book of Mormon and other Latter-day Saint scriptures are usually referenced to modern editions. The names of two frequently cited repositories are abbreviated in citations: Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City (CHL); and Family History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City (FHL). As each document herein is numbered, document numbers rather than document names are used in internal cross-references.

Naturally, many terms with specialized meaning in this period of Mormon history appear in the texts and annotation. While some of these terms may be explained or defined in this volume, a working familiarity with the terminology has been assumed. Researchers seeking additional information on Mormon terminology may especially benefit by consulting the glossary on and the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, online at

The names of more than two thousand individuals appear in these documents. Most of them have been identified through extensive research. Roughly four hundred women and men who play more prominent roles in the documents receive a short biography included in the back of this volume. The sources for these biographical sketches are available in the biographical directory published online at The online directory also provides brief biographical information—typically full name, birth place and date, names of parents, and death place and date—for almost all the other individuals named in the documents in this volume.

The back matter of this volume also includes a chart identifying the women who served as general officers of the Relief Society, Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association, and Primary Association during the time period covered by this volume.

Cite this page

Introduction, The First Fifty Years of Relief Society, accessed June 14, 2024