When Brigham Young met with two groups of Latter-day Saint men in March 1845, he foreclosed any possibility that Relief Society meetings might recommence that spring, as had been the pattern in previous years. Young was adamantly opposed to women resuming their meetings after a hiatus of nearly a year. Young’s reasons can partially be surmised from his remarks to the men, featured in these excerpts from the minutes of the Nauvoo high priests quorum and the Nauvoo seventies quorums.
Following the mob murders of Joseph and Hyrum Smith on June 27, 1844, Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo experienced intense community turmoil. Through that summer until early 1846, when the majority of Saints departed Nauvoo to migrate westward, members of the church grappled with questions over church leadership, finances, and doctrine. A majority of members supported leadership by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, with Young at its head. This presiding quorum, deemed second in authority to the First Presidency and closely associated with Joseph Smith and the doctrines he introduced in Nauvoo, assumed leadership at a church conference in early August 1844. As the Twelve worked to unite the membership, complete the Nauvoo temple, and cope with hostile outsiders, dissenting church members repeatedly contested their authority.1 The movement toward organizational stability was tortuous, and what role if any the Female Relief Society might play in the developing structure was unclear.
Tensions between Brigham Young and Emma Smith, Joseph Smith’s widow and president of the Relief Society, likely fueled Young’s concern about Relief Society meetings. Their differences centered on the working out of Joseph Smith’s temporal and spiritual legacy, including the settlement of his estate, succession to church leadership, and the role of plural marriage in the church. In July 1844 William Clayton, Joseph Smith’s clerk, wrote that the intermingling between church property and personal Smith family property made the settlement of the estate a challenge. He explained that “the property is chiefly in the name of the Trustee in Trust [Joseph Smith] while the obligations are considered personal.”2 As the mother of five fatherless children, Emma Smith necessarily focused on her family’s needs, whereas Young and the Twelve sought the broader interests of the church.3 Complicating these differences was Emma Smith’s support of leadership of the church by those who opposed the Quorum of the Twelve. Soon after Joseph’s death, Emma suggested Nauvoo Stake president William Marks should serve as a trustee for the church and as its president.4
Emma Smith’s opposition to the practice of plural marriage as introduced by Joseph Smith and supported by the Quorum of the Twelve was another element in the schism in her relationship with Young and the apostles. She at one time gave her permission for her husband to marry additional wives, but she then vacillated and at length conclusively voiced her opposition both privately and publicly.5 Personal hurt was one dimension of Emma Smith’s stand against plural marriage; another was the responsibility given to the Relief Society by Joseph Smith for “correcting the morals and strengthening the virtues of the female community.”6 In her role as president of the Relief Society, Emma Smith may have attempted to unite women in opposing plural marriage because she rejected the view that it was a divinely revealed principle and she believed it to be morally wrong. John Taylor later reported, “Sister Emma got severely tried in her mind about the doctrine of Plural Marriage and she made use of the position she held to try to pervert the minds of the sisters in relation to that doctrine.”7 Emma Smith expressed her opposition to plural marriage in her calls for a reformation in morals at the Relief Society meetings on March 9 and March 16, 1844, in which the society endorsed “The Voice of Innocence from Nauvoo.”8 Brigham Young believed that Emma Smith’s efforts to thwart the practice of plural marriage contributed to the furor against Joseph and Hyrum Smith and helped lead to their deaths.9
Less than a year after their deaths, on Sunday, March 9, 1845, Young addressed the topic of Relief Society in two meetings of men assembled as quorums of the higher or Melchizedek priesthood. A quorum of men ordained to the office of high priest met in the Masonic Hall.10 In addition, the Nauvoo seventies quorums assembled that day in three sessions—morning, afternoon, and evening—in the recently dedicated Seventies Hall. In Nauvoo, nearly “all elders under the age of thirty-five” were ordained as seventies.11 Young spoke first to the high priests and later to the seventies. Near the end of his remarks to the high priests, he said that “he had preached the caps all off his pistols, and the buttons off his coat.”12 In both meetings, with just such energy, Young expressed his opposition to further Relief Society meetings.
When Young addressed these meetings, the atmosphere in Nauvoo was still highly charged. A little over a month earlier, Young and other leaders expressed their concern that Nauvoo was “infested by mobocrats.”13 Not wanting to add fuel to opposition fires, Young counseled, “Let every man stay at home and mind his own business.”14 George Miller, president of the high priests quorum, declared on March 2, “Our worst foes are those who have been in our midst, and pretended to be one with us.” They were “always aiming to destroy the head, of this church— They begun with Joseph— and will endeavor to destroy all the rest.”15
In addition, Young was concerned about the continuing challenges to his authority by Sidney Rigdon, a former counselor in the First Presidency who asserted his claim to lead the church as its guardian. In his comments to the seventies on March 9, Young addressed the disunity the Latter-day Saints continued to experience from the succession crisis and “Mr. Rigdon[’s] cause.” Young declared that he had “a right to speak for I am a man having authority & not as the Scribe.” He stated that “whenever I see Men striving to divide this people I will rise up by the power of Israel God” to rebuke them.16 On March 9 Miller attempted to raise “means to support a police about the houses of the twelve— & elsewhere.”17 A week later, on March 16, one of the high priests “illustrated our present situation by alluding to a boat in the Niagara river just above the falls— we must make an effort, and stem the rapids, until we get into still waters above.”18
Most of Brigham Young’s recorded addresses date to the Utah period. They show that his rhetoric was colorful, expressive, and sometimes coarse, a reflection of his frontier upbringing. After arriving in Utah, Young edited many of his talks before they were published. “In printing my remarks,” he said, “I often omit the sharp words, though they are perfectly understood and applicable here, for I do not wish to spoil the good I desire to do. Let my remarks go to the world in a way the prejudices of the people can bear.”19 He did not have the benefit of editing the clerks’ notes of his remarks delivered on March 9, 1845.
Young’s rejection of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo ended formally organized women’s meetings. The suspension was long-standing but ultimately temporary. In 1854, in Utah Territory, separated from the conflicts that assailed the church in Nauvoo, Young supported the formal calling of women leaders and the recommencement of Relief Society meetings (see Part 2).
Nauvoo. Sunday, March 9th 1845. … [p. ]20 …
Pres. [Brigham] Young spoke … [p. ] …
Reli[e]f society— going to meet again— I say I will curse ev[e]ry man that lets his wife or daughters meet again— until I tell them— What are relief societies for? To relieve us of our best men— They relieved us of Joseph and Hyrum— that is what they will lead to— I dont 〈want〉 the advice or counsel of any woman— they would lead us down to hell—
There is no woman on the face of the earth that 〈can〉 save herself— but if she ever comes into the Celestial Kingdom, she must be led in by some man— God knew what Eve was. He was acquainted with woman thousands and millions of years before—
He made a few remarks in relation to the revival of the Female Relief Society, and disapprobated it. [p. ] …21
City of Nauvoo Sunday Evening March 9th 1845. … [p. 77] …
President Brigham Young, arose & said he would make remarks relative to thing in which many of
or our Sister have been engaged they have no right to meddle in the affairs of the kingdom of God outside the pale of this they have a right to meddle because many of them are more sagacious & shrewd & more competent to attend to things of the financial affairs. the never can hold the keys of the Priesthood apart from their husband. When I want Sisters or the Wives of the members of this church to get up Relief Society I will summon them to my aid but until that time let them stay at home & if you see Females huddling together veto the concern and if they say Joseph started it tell them it is a damned lie for I know he never encouraged it but I know where the Chit22 was laid but I am determined to stay these proceedings for by it our best men have been taken from us. One ounce of prevent〈ive〉 is better than one pound cure. … [p. 78] …