This record of thirty-three meetings of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo commences with the founding meeting on March 17, 1842. A few weeks earlier Sarah M. Granger Kimball, a wealthy young matron in Nauvoo, proposed forming a “Ladies’ Society” to provide clothing for workers constructing the temple in the city. Church leaders had recently assigned more than two hundred missionaries to hasten work on the stone structure finally emerging from its foundation.2 Women’s sewing and benevolent associations flourishing in other U.S. cities probably informed Kimball’s idea to formally unite women to clothe missionary-workers.3 Eliza R. Snow, well-known Mormon poet and former secretary to her county commissioner father, drafted a constitution for Kimball’s proposed society. When Snow presented her constitution and bylaws to Joseph Smith, he praised the documents but asked the women to forego their “Ladies’ Society” in favor of “something better.”4
Twenty women responded to Smith’s invitation to gather in the large assembly room above the dry goods store he had recently opened on Water Street in Nauvoo. The red brick store’s offices and upper story provided space for church and city administration and for public and private gatherings.5 For example, the Nauvoo Masonic Lodge established its lodge in the store’s upper room on March 15 and conducted rites there on March 16. The lodge also met in the upper room on the evening of Thursday, March 17, after the women’s meeting was concluded. Joseph Smith, who had joined the fraternal order and advanced to the degree of Master Mason the day before the organization of the Relief Society, occasionally made references to Masonry when he addressed Relief Society women in 1842.6 More frequently, he referred to the Saints’ rising temple and the priesthood order and blessings connected with it.
Organized “after the pattern, or order, of the priesthood,” as Sarah Kimball recalled Joseph Smith saying, the women formally elected a president, Emma Smith, who in turn appointed two counselors, Sarah M. Kingsley Cleveland and Elizabeth Ann Smith Whitney.7 Joseph explained that Emma had been “ordain’d at the time” of a July 1830 revelation, which told her “to expound the scriptures to all; and to teach the female part of community.” Apostle John Taylor ordained Emma’s counselors and blessed Emma.8 The women’s presidency thus followed the pattern of the three-member presidencies of men’s priesthood quorums.
Eliza Snow and other scribes recorded minutes for seventeen meetings of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo in 1842, twelve meetings in 1843, and four meetings in 1844.9 At nearly every meeting, donations were listed and the names of those nominated for membership were submitted for a yea or nay vote. By the end of 1844, approximately 1,336 women had been admitted as members of the Relief Society. The number of participants and the place, timing, and character of the meetings varied during the three years. In May 1842, attendance having outgrown the small “Lodge Room” above Joseph Smith’s store, Relief Society women began meeting outdoors in a grove near the rising temple.10
The election of Emma Smith as the society’s president and the frequent attendance of and counsel from her husband probably helped speed the growth of the women’s organization during its first year. Emma Smith encouraged women in their new enterprise, provided spiritual counsel, and coordinated assistance to the poor. The minutes indicate that Joseph Smith attended nine of the meetings held in 1842 and addressed members on March 17 and 31, April 28, May 26, June 9, and August 31.11 The minutes are the only contemporaneous record of teachings that Joseph Smith directed specifically to women as a group. A letter that Joseph Smith and others wrote to the Relief Society on March 31, 1842, was also copied into the minutes following the September 28, 1842, entry.
The Relief Society did not assemble in the winter. When it resumed meeting in June 1843, more than one thousand women had enrolled as members. The group soon divided into four sections or wards that met separately in rotation. Because Sarah Cleveland, first counselor in the women’s presidency, had moved from Nauvoo, second counselor Elizabeth Ann Whitney presided in the absence of President Emma Smith, who battled sickness, traveled to purchase goods and visit family, and wrestled with Joseph Smith’s practice of plural marriage.12 Following the first two meetings in the summer of 1843, society secretary Eliza R. Snow moved to Morley Settlement, twenty-five miles south of Nauvoo, and assistant secretary Phebe M. Bartholomew Wheeler recorded minutes and donations.13 Relief Society visiting committees, appointed in each ward in July 1843,14 began to report needs of Nauvoo families and collect contributions for the poor and destitute, particularly new immigrants. From 1840 through 1845, nearly forty-seven hundred immigrants came from the British Isles, some three-quarters of them from 1841 through 1843.15 After a second winter hiatus, the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo reconvened on March 9, 1844, with Hannah M. Ells serving as secretary. Minutes for the last meeting on March 16, 1844, indicate an adjournment sine die, and no extant record suggests that further meetings took place.
At some point before the Latter-day Saints’ trek to the West from Nauvoo, which began in February 1846, Eliza R. Snow again took possession of the Relief Society minute book. When the Relief Society was reestablished in territorial Utah, Snow often used the minute book in local meetings and as a guide for the organization. She and other Relief Society leaders in Utah not only preserved the record as an artifact but also referenced it in their speeches and publications to perpetuate the memory and meaning of the Relief Society’s beginnings in Nauvoo.16
Book of Records.
The Female Relief Society of Nauvoo.
The following appropriate frontispiece, was found lying on an open Bible, in the room appropriated for the Society; at its first meeting.
〈 Written on a scrap.〉
“O, Lord! help our widows, and fatherless children! So mote it be. Amen. With the sword, and the word of truth, defend thou them. So mote it be. Amen.”18
was politely presented to the Society by
Elder W. [Willard] Richards;
on the 17th of March, AD. 1842. [p. 4]
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