In 1843 women in Nauvoo, led by sisters Mercy Fielding Thompson and Mary Fielding Smith, organized a fund-raising effort for the construction of the Nauvoo temple. In her autobiography, Mercy recalled that while pondering how she could contribute to the temple, she received spiritual inspiration: “Try to get the Sisters to subscribe one cent per week for the purpose of buying glass and nails for the Temple.” Joseph Smith endorsed the plan and Hyrum Smith, a member of the temple building committee and husband of Mary Fielding Smith, “was much plea[s]ed and did all in his power to encourage and help by speaking to the Sisters on the subject in private and public promising them that they should receive their blessings in that Temple.”1 While the penny subscription effort was not an official project of the Relief Society in Nauvoo, it primarily involved Relief Society members and is an example of the public efforts of women in Nauvoo.
Besides promoting the penny subscription effort in Nauvoo, Mercy Thompson and Mary Smith wrote a letter to the “Sisters of the Church of Jesus Christ in England,” announcing that one thousand women had already joined their effort.2 The church periodical in England, the Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, published the letter in June 1844 along with an endorsement of the “Ladies Subscription for the Temple” by Hyrum Smith on behalf of the First Presidency. The Millennial Star urged its readers, “We feel much to encourage this plan, and trust that the sisters in England will manifest that they will not be behind the sisters in Nauvoo in this laudable work.”3
Church members in Boston also learned about the penny subscription drive and organized the Boston Female Penny and Sewing Society on July 16, 1844.4 A letter that described the society in the Prophet, a Latter-day Saint newspaper in New York City, stated, “The ladies of the Boston branch are determined not to be behind hand in assisting the rolling on of the cause of Christ.” The officers, all women, included Mary McAllester as president, two vice presidents, a secretary, a treasurer, and six members of a Committee of Arrangement. The society announced that it would lend its “aid in the purchase of glass, nails, &c, for the Temple of God, now being erected in Nauvoo.” Members of the society planned to meet one day a month to sew; each member was also to donate one penny per week.5
One day after the Boston society formed, Latter-day Saint women in Lowell, Massachusetts, formed the “‘Lowell Latter Day Saints’ Benevolent Sewing Society,’ for the purpose of purchasing material and making same into clothing, for such travelling Elders as may stand in need.”6 Organized similarly to the popular sewing and charitable societies of the time, these societies did not act as official branches of the Nauvoo Female Relief Society. Nevertheless, with their similar goals and strategies, they may have functioned like satellite Relief Societies in purpose.
The minutes of the second quarterly meeting of the Boston society, reproduced below, were published first in the Prophet and then in the Nauvoo Times and Seasons.7 The months between the organization of this society—which occurred roughly three weeks after Joseph Smith’s death—and the time of this conference were tumultuous ones for Latter-day Saints in the eastern states. The questions of succession and plural marriage that plagued the Saints in Nauvoo also created divisions within the branches of the church in Boston and other eastern cities.8 Nevertheless, Parley P. Pratt, who at the time of this meeting had recently arrived in the East to supervise church affairs, noted, “The saints in Boston are not only increasing in number by additions almost daily, but they are increasing in faith, in confidence, in union, and in an understanding of the kingdom and government of God.”9 Separately from the penny subscription effort, eastern Latter-day Saints were also encouraged by church leaders to pay tithing, through designated church agents, for the temple’s construction.10 The church in Boston numbered between three hundred and four hundred members during this era.11
As demonstrated by these minutes, the Boston Female Penny and Sewing Society remained active in 1845. Efforts continued among women in Nauvoo as well during 1845. A month after the publication of these minutes, Mary Smith and Mercy Thompson stated in the Times and Seasons that the penny subscription effort had already raised one thousand dollars and that most of the participants “seem inclined to continue paying their cent a week until the temple is finished.”12 The fund-raising effort, centered in Nauvoo but reaching into the eastern states and even England, raised approximately two thousand dollars before the completion of the Nauvoo temple in late 1845.13
Boston Female Penny and Sewing Society.
At the second quarterly meeting of the Female Penny and Sewing Society, held at Sister M. MacAllster’s 296 Washington street Boston, on Tuesday evening Jan. 28th, 1845.
M. Mac Allister. Prest.
Mary G. Allen, Sec.
Elvira Baldwin. Tres.
Meeting opened by prayer.
Moved and seconded that the treasurer report the receipts for the last six months, (carried.)
Report,—Received from the members of the Society.
Donations from Brethren,
For the constitution,
Making in all monies received,
Money paid out for sundry articles,
Leaving in all,
Moved and seconded, that the above report be accepted, (carried.) that the above money be paid to Br. Benson,14 and have it forwarded for the use of the Temple, (carried unanimous.)
Sister Baldwin resigns the office of treasurer moved and seconded that Sister Clarisa Devenport be appointed treasurer, (carried.)
Moved and seconded that the Sisters of the Boston branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have a Levee,17 and that the proceedings of the same be applied for the building of the Temple.
MARY MACALLISTR, Pres’t.
Mary G. Allen, Sec’y.