The Church Historian's Press

PART 1: 1830, 1842–1845

Women and men who embraced Latter-day Saint theology sought to become a “pure people,” “a kingdom of priests,” and a “holy nation” worthy to build a literal city of Zion where Jesus Christ would rule after his Second Coming.1 Alone and in families, these Latter-day Saints gathered together in communities in upstate New York, and later in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. Devout brothers and sisters opened their homes for meetings and donated their means and land to the emerging church. Joseph Smith gradually elaborated the church’s organizational structure and ordinances, a process that culminated during the early 1840s when Saints settled in and around the city of Nauvoo, located on the banks of the Mississippi River in western Illinois.

In Nauvoo, women acquired new organizational responsibilities through the establishment of the Relief Society and participated with men in temple ordinances, the faith’s highest rituals. These women believed that their full integration into “the priviliges & blessings & gifts of the priesthood,” as Joseph Smith told the Relief Society, was essential to the complete restoration of the primitive gospel as taught by Jesus Christ and his apostles.2 In Nauvoo in the 1840s and in succeeding decades, they built upon the foundation of Smith’s revelations to envision and understand their sacred labors in Zion. Part 1 contains early documents that proved formative to this process.

Strong, supportive women surrounded Joseph Smith in his family, including his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, and his wife, Emma Hale Smith, who served as his first scribe when he translated the Book of Mormon. In July 1830 Joseph dictated a revelation addressed to Emma about her role in the fledgling church (Document 1.1). The revelation, canonized in 1833 as part of the Book of Commandments—the first published collection of Joseph Smith’s revelations—recognized Emma’s gifts, gave her specific assignments, and promised that she would be ordained “to expound Scriptures & exhort the Church.” It is the only one of Joseph’s canonized revelations directed specifically to an individual woman.

Twelve years later, in 1842, the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo was organized. Joseph Smith’s remarks at six of their meetings were included in the society’s minutes, formally titled “A Book of Records. Containing the proceedings of The Female Relief Society of Nauvoo” (Document 1.2). At the group’s first meeting, when Emma Smith was elected president of the society by the women, Joseph invoked the July 1830 revelation as the mandate for assigning her new responsibilities. He stated that her new position would be the means of fulfilling promises pronounced in the 1830 revelation, including that “not she alone, but others, may attain to the same blessings.”3 Thus, these two records—the 1830 revelation for Emma Smith and the Relief Society “Book of Records,” or Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book—became permanently linked as complementary and foundational documents. Both address women’s relationship to God as well as their spiritual and temporal responsibilities to their families and the religious community. The twelve other documents in Part 1, dating from 1842 to 1845, demonstrate how a new degree of institutional inclusion for women introduced new possibilities as well as new tensions in the 1840s.

The years between the 1830 revelation for Emma Smith and the 1842 establishment of the Relief Society were a defining period for the church. Moving from its New York beginnings to Ohio in early 1831, the church then pressed into Missouri in summer 1831 while retaining a core in Ohio; after pressure for most members to leave Ohio in early 1838 and then a violent expulsion by Missouri militia in winter 1838–1839, the church reassembled most of its members in western Illinois. Church membership grew from a few hundred at the end of 1830 to an estimated fifteen thousand by the end of 1845. About a third of those members lived outside Nauvoo and its surrounding communities.4 During these years, Joseph Smith’s revelations established the form and officers of the church organization, the areas of authority of its leaders and workers, and a foundation of church doctrine, and emphasized the need for unity and harmony among the members.

Women actively contributed to the Latter-day Saint community as it expanded and relocated. They fed and sheltered new arrivals; some wives accompanied their husbands on missions.5 In Kirtland, Ohio, where the first temple was built, women sewed and mended clothing for those who constructed it, and they made carpets and curtains for the interior of the temple or “House of the Lord.”6 Mary Fielding wrote in 1837 that on the occasion of one of many spiritual outpourings in that edifice, “the Bretheren as well as the Sisters were all melted down and we wept and praised God together.”7 When ritual washings and anointings were introduced in the temple at Kirtland, only men participated. These ordinances prepared potential missionaries and church leaders to fulfill offices and other assignments, and some women were angry about their exclusion from the ceremonies.8 Though women voted in general church assemblies or conferences from at least 1835 onward, they did not receive ecclesiastical offices and other formal leadership or missionary assignments, as men did.9 Lay men ordained to priesthood offices gradually assembled according to office in groups known as quorums, which provided men opportunities for collective learning and service.10

The organization of the Relief Society in 1842 gave women their own organization, in some ways analogous to a priesthood quorum, in which they could receive collective doctrinal instruction and have new opportunities for service. Years later, one member of the Nauvoo Relief Society compared the women’s group to the School of the Prophets, in which church elders assembled in the 1830s to receive ecclesiastical instruction and prepare for temple rituals.11 In Nauvoo, women and men were thus organized or ordered “according to the law of Heaven,” both within the church structure and the temple.12 Indeed, in contrast to the rituals of the temple in Kirtland, both men and women participated in the temple ordinances introduced in Nauvoo. Women long remembered Joseph Smith teaching that “the organization of the Church of Christ was never perfect until the women were organized.”13

Early Relief Society Meetings in Nauvoo

Though Latter-day Saints saw themselves as a chosen people set apart from the world, the early activities of the Relief Society reflected broader trends in the religious and cultural life of the United States. Following the eighteenth-century Great Awakening, and particularly throughout the religious revivals of the early nineteenth century, tens of thousands of women converted to various denominations and began organizing prayer, missionary, moral reform, and benevolent societies. A national conversation concerning women’s social roles emerged as women became evangelical preachers and activists in antislavery societies, and new academies and seminaries for women flourished.14 These developments were familiar to Latter-day Saint women, many of whom came from communities in the eastern and southern United States where activist women had established their own organizations. The efforts of a small group of Mormon women to formally unite their labors to sew clothing for temple workmen in the spring of 1842 prompted Joseph Smith to invite them to become part of a new organization intended to diverge from the models then thriving among their contemporaries.

Though the founding cluster of Mormon women initially intended to establish their organization upon a constitution similar to those of other democratically spirited women’s groups, Joseph Smith invited them to be organized “after the pattern, or order, of the priesthood,” that is, with a president and two counselors, ordained by the laying on of hands.15 The new presidency would make decisions and set precedents that would serve as the society’s constitution, and they would also expound the scriptures and exhort the members to righteousness and good works.16 The minutes of the Relief Society in Nauvoo reveal both similarities and differences between this and other women’s organizations. Commonalities included leadership by women; use of parliamentary procedure and petitions; the recording of proceedings and reporting of work; and goals of charitable community service, moral reform, and personal piety. The Relief Society served, as did other early women’s voluntary associations, as a means by which women continued their expansion to public roles.

The Nauvoo Relief Society minutes and other documents in Part 1 reflect the interweaving of women’s concerns and broader church issues from 1842 to 1845. Women’s collective charity succored those in need and increased women’s public visibility. Accusations from Missouri officials against Joseph Smith, opposition from Illinois citizens outside of Nauvoo, and internal dissent within the church presented challenges to the Saints’ civic and political influence that eroded community peace and stirred women’s political action. The building of the temple in Nauvoo and the inauguration of temple ordinances strengthened and ordered family ties, but Joseph Smith’s introduction of plural marriage to a small group of confidants divided the female community and threatened to fracture the church. At the same time, new roles for women in church organization and their participation in temple ordinances brought forth questions about women’s religious authority. Many of these issues would shape Latter-day Saint women’s experience for the rest of the century.

Charity and Civic Action

One of the Relief Society’s imperatives was “searching after objects of charity, and … administering to their wants.”17 The prolonged poverty of refugees from Missouri and the influx of convert immigrants from the British Isles necessitated an expanded ministry to the poor. The minutes of the Nauvoo Relief Society vividly demonstrate charitable activities as members reported specific needs and discussed how to meet them. The Saints’ Nauvoo newspaper, Times and Seasons, announced in 1842 the society’s philanthropic mission both in an editorial likely written by Elder John Taylor of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (Document 1.3) and in a poem by society secretary Eliza R. Snow (Document 1.4). The Nauvoo Neighbor, the Saints’ secular newspaper at this time, published Snow’s report of the society’s first-year operations, including donations received, in July 1843 (Document 1.8).

In spring 1843, because of an ever-increasing membership, the Relief Society was divided into four units, corresponding to the four municipal wards. Visiting committees were appointed in each unit “to search out the poor and suffering” and to “call on the rich” for donations, a practice common in many contemporaneous women’s societies and one that set the precedent for collecting and disbursing charitable funds in future Relief Societies. Women visited families to discover want and contributed such items as onions and shawls, soap and thread, blankets and pennies. They labored, as one woman said, as though “our Salvation depended on our Liberality to the poor.”18

Emma Smith, often sick, frequently traveling, and wrestling with the introduction of plural marriage, did not attend any of the Relief Society’s 1843 meetings. However, neither her absence nor that of her counselor, Sarah Cleveland, who moved from Nauvoo in 1843 (see Document 1.7), deterred the Relief Society from pursuing its mandate to succor the poor and aid the families of the men constructing the temple. To further the same imperatives, “auxiliary societies” of women seem to have been organized in at least two settlements near Nauvoo.19

Independent of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo but reflecting similar impulses, Latter-day Saint women created sewing societies in Boston and Lowell, Massachusetts, in part to raise money for the Nauvoo temple (see Document 1.12). The collective humanitarian efforts of women far exceeded unorganized individual aid in scope and regularity, and the Relief Society became the primary conduit of the church’s social welfare efforts during the two years of its presence in Nauvoo. An April 1844 letter from Ellen Briggs Douglas shows the gratitude of a British immigrant who received Relief Society assistance (Document 1.11).

In addition to charitable work, Latter-day Saint women in Nauvoo took their first collective political action. Even as log houses were giving way to handsome brick buildings, as educational and social facilities were being constructed, and as the temple was beginning to take shape, the social climate in Nauvoo was plagued with lingering effects of the Missouri expulsion and rumblings of hostility in Illinois. Joseph Smith fought extradition orders to Missouri for allegations of treason and of complicity in an 1842 murder attempt on former Missouri governor Lilburn W. Boggs. These threats led about a thousand Relief Society members to sign a petition to Illinois governor Thomas Carlin in July 1842, proclaiming Joseph Smith’s innocence (Document 1.5).20 In addition, between 1839 and 1842 some women submitted individual redress petitions to the federal government for Missouri losses, and others signed a petition for redress prepared late in 1843 and presented to Congress in 1844.21

Temple Ordinances

While publicly the Relief Society was primarily a charitable organization and secondarily an influence for social reform, the organization also arose within the context of the introduction of temple ordinances in Nauvoo. A revelation Joseph Smith dictated in January 1841 commanded the building of a temple for “your anointings, and your washings, and your baptisms for the dead” and for other ordinances yet to be revealed.22 In his addresses to the Relief Society in 1842, Smith anticipated the completion of this temple and exhorted women to prepare to “move according to the ancient Priesthood.”23 An entry in his journal had earlier stated that a restoration of the “ancient order of [God’s] Kingdom” would prepare “the earth for the return of [Jehovah’s] glory, even a celestial glory; and a kingdom of Priests & Kings to God & the Lamb forever. on Mount Zion.”24 Smith told the women he intended “to make of this Society a kingdom of priests an [as] in Enoch’s day— as in Pauls day.”25 These intentions would be realized in the temple rituals in which both women and men would participate.

Recognizing that completing the temple would require years of work, Joseph Smith introduced the temple ritual known as the “endowment” to nine men in May 1842 in the upper room of his Nauvoo store.26 On September 28, 1843, Emma Smith became the first woman to receive the endowment.27 Joseph’s promise that Relief Society members would see “the blessings of the endowment rolling on”28 was confirmed as Emma began to help administer the ordinance to other women.29 The “endowed” men and women (most of the latter of whom were Relief Society members) formed a special group—referred to in Joseph Smith’s journal as a “council,” “quorum,” or “prayer meeting” and later known as the “anointed quorum”—that became thoroughly acquainted with all the temple rites.30 When the temple was completed after the death of Joseph Smith, members of this vanguard administered ordinances to the broader church membership, beginning in December 1845. More than five thousand Latter-day Saints participated in these ordinances before departing Nauvoo in February 1846.31

Joseph Smith taught that unity, charity, and purity were all elements in the Saints’ mandate to build Zion, and all were emphasized in temple rituals, as well as in the instructions Emma and Joseph Smith delivered to the Relief Society. Both Presidents Smith charged members to ferret out iniquity and disloyalty in the female community, promote reform, and cultivate forgiveness. Because the Relief Society was intended, in part, to prepare members for the temple, worthiness in this “select Society of the virtuous” was an issue. By the society’s third meeting, Joseph Smith advised that members “go into a close examination of every candidate.”32 Similar to the practice used with men when they entered priesthood quorums, potential members were scrutinized for worthiness and loyalty. Women petitioned for the privilege of membership, as evidenced in the application of Susan Cuthbertson (Document 1.9).

Plural Marriage

As hundreds of converts moved into Nauvoo, and as new doctrines were introduced to the Saints about the nature of God and the role of temples, maintaining the unity of the Saints became an increasing challenge. The marriage of husband and wife for eternity, with the promise of eternal family increase—“a continuation of the seeds forever and ever”—was solemnized through an ordinance associated with and eventually reserved for the temple.33 Saints came to understand this ordinance of celestial or eternal marriage—performed under priesthood authority and “sealed” or sanctioned by God—to be essential to the exaltation of both women and men.34 The Joseph Smith revelation that expounded this doctrine also included the principle of plural marriage and the requirement that this Old Testament practice be instituted as part of the “restitution of all things.”35

While Smith did not teach plural marriage publicly in Relief Society meetings or to the membership at large, in 1841 he began privately introducing the principle of plural marriage to trusted associates.36 Even many of these individuals found it difficult to accept. Speaking for himself and fellow apostles Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball, John Taylor later declared they had “been glad if it hadn’t come in our day but that somebody else had something to do with it instead of us.” Still, they committed to the practice, believing it “was substantiated by scripture and made manifest also by revelation.”37 Smith privately taught the concept to several members of the Relief Society, many of whom stated that they received their own spiritual affirmation that this principle was of God. Some of these women subsequently married Smith or other church leaders as plural wives.38 These marriages, or “sealings,” performed by authorized officiators with witnesses present, instituted relationships that the participants considered to be divinely sanctioned and permanent.39

Wide differences in church members’ knowledge and acceptance of the new marriages fueled grave misunderstanding, speculation, and accusations that threatened the unity of the church and ultimately estranged many Saints. Though these marital innovations were not discussed in public meetings, they were widely rumored. Reports regarding holy and unholy liaisons in Nauvoo surfaced in the women’s meetings, spurring both unequivocal condemnations of immorality and efforts to quell rumors. Some men, including Nauvoo mayor and church official John C. Bennett, “got an inkling of these things” and appropriated the doctrine as a pretext for seducing women.40 Joseph Smith had not authorized Bennett to marry plural wives or perform marriages, and Bennett, soon estranged from Smith, sought to expose Smith’s secret marriages.41

As tales of immoral acts flew among curious church members, many of them new to the faith, those who had not received Smith’s private instruction regarding authorized plural marriage were confused and disturbed. Rumors incriminated Joseph and Emma Smith and other respected men and women. The Relief Society assumed a role in defending the reputation not only of the Smiths but of the women of Nauvoo generally.42

Public attempts to warn women against seduction and help them distinguish plural marriage from imitative liaisons only exacerbated the confusion because church leaders did not acknowledge or explain the practice in a public setting.43 Those who practiced plural marriage considered their unions to be pure and holy, recorded and permanent. They unequivocally condemned adultery and fornication, and they did not view their marriages as bigamy or polygamy, though the latter was a term Utah Saints later accepted. Another contingent of church members saw no difference between authorized and counterfeit plural marriage, equated any plural marriage with adultery, and explicitly condemned both.

On two occasions, once in 1842 and again in 1844, Relief Society members publicly denounced every form of licentiousness, including the “Spiritual Wife System” and polygamy (Documents 1.6 and 1.10). The second of these statements, a document labeled “The Voice of Innocence from Nauvoo,” was drafted by William W. Phelps, a clerk for Joseph Smith, and read to a large congregation of Saints in early March 1844. Emma Smith read the document and Relief Society members unanimously endorsed it at each of the society’s last four recorded meetings in March 1844.44 In response to public accusations of immorality, the document declared the virtue of the women of Nauvoo and denounced slanderers, seducers, and any unchaste conduct. To those who rejected plural marriage, the “Voice of Innocence” and other public condemnations of adultery and bigamy seemed hypocritical if they did not represent a serious intention to stop the practice of plural marriage. The women’s published statements had potentially different meanings to those with different understandings of and feelings about the marriages Joseph Smith was sanctioning.45 Emma Smith’s vacillating approval of and disdain for plural marriage further complicated the situation.46

Final Relief Society Meetings in Nauvoo

The dearth of contemporaneous references to the “Voice of Innocence” or to activities of the Relief Society in 1844 make it difficult to assess precisely what happened at the society’s last recorded meetings in March 1844, or in their wake. The minutes of the meetings are enigmatic, but clearly Emma Smith tried to win women’s full support for “put[t]ing down iniquity,” and she seems to have mounted an intensified effort at what she considered moral reform, with the intent to halt all plural marriage, including the practice authorized by her husband.47

During the last four recorded meetings, two each on March 9 and March 16, 1844, Emma Smith presided. She spoke explicitly of her own authority—presumably referring to the 1830 revelation naming her “Elect Lady,” her ordination by her husband “to expound Scriptures & exhort the Church,” and her position as Relief Society president whose decisions, made in connection with her two counselors, were to “be considered law” for the society.48 The small circle of women who had received the endowment through her administration and joined with her in the anointed quorum would also have understood her authoritative role in women’s temple ordinances. Apart from these official roles, Emma, as Joseph Smith’s wife of seventeen years, was the church’s first lady and was much loved by church members, many of whom had been the beneficiaries of her compassion. Relief Society women who crowded into the four nearly identical March 1844 meetings voted to endorse the “Voice of Innocence” and heard their “Presidentess” authoritatively agitate for a significant change in moral behavior, “a reformation in boath men & woman.”49

On May 26, 1844, Joseph Smith seemed to blame the “Voice of Innocence” for the mounting fury he faced from dissidents that spring, asserting that he “never had any fuss with these men until that Female Relief Society brought out the paper against adulterers and adulteresses,” though he had himself announced its writing and presentation.50 Even though a direct relationship between Relief Society activities and the fomentation of the dissidents cannot be further documented, a tenuous connection seems to have lingered in the public mind. Eliza R. Snow remarked in 1868: “It has been said that the Society in Nauvoo did more harm than good, but it was not So.”51 In the early 1880s, when both the practice of plural marriage and the reconstituted Relief Society were well established, John Taylor, who became president of the church in October 1880, recalled that in Nauvoo “much disturbance arose among the Sisters.” According to Taylor, “Sister Emma … made use of the position she held to try to pervert the minds of the sisters” and “taught the Sisters that the principle of Celestial Marriage [plural marriage] as taught and practiced by Joseph Smith the prophet was not of God.” This, Taylor commented, was “the reason why the Relief Society did not continue.”52

In early June 1844 a group of disaffected Saints published one issue of the Nauvoo Expositor, a newspaper intended to expose Joseph Smith’s practice of plural marriage, his teachings regarding the nature of God, and the melding of civil and religious authority in Nauvoo. Destruction of the paper and its press by Nauvoo officials—including Joseph Smith, who was then serving as mayor—outraged neighbors who were already alienated by rumors of polygamy as well as by Smith’s political activities, including his candidacy for U.S. president in 1844. Escalating conflicts culminated in the mob murder of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum at Carthage, Illinois, on June 27, 1844.53

The tensions surrounding plural marriage seem to have led some church leaders to lose confidence in the Relief Society sometime in the spring or summer of 1844. Neither the minutes nor other sources document additional Relief Society meetings during 1844, and by spring 1845 the society was defunct.54 In the aftermath of Joseph Smith’s death, the majority of Saints in Nauvoo voted in August 1844 to sustain the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as the governing council of the church. In March 1845, when women may have anticipated beginning another season of Relief Society meetings, Brigham Young, president of the Quorum of the Twelve, announced his decision to “stay” Relief Society proceedings (Document 1.13), and subsequently “the labors of the Society ceased.” Asserting his presiding authority amidst the challenge of alternate claims, including from the Smith family, Young unequivocally foreclosed the possibility of female church members officially gathering or of Emma Smith presiding.

There is no evidence of remonstrance from the women who followed Young and the Quorum of the Twelve, the same women who would later reestablish the society in the Rocky Mountains while Emma Smith remained in the Midwest.55 Indeed, shortly after Young’s announcement one member of the disbanded society wrote in her diary of the church as a whole, “There appears to be the most union that has ever ben,” and noted that “the Temple prospers.”56 Completion of the Nauvoo temple, so prominent in Joseph Smith’s instruction to the Relief Society, became a primary concern. Women in Nauvoo and elsewhere continued to pool resources to speed work on the temple (see Document 1.12). Throughout the fall of 1845 Saints prepared for the westward exodus, and in December the first of thousands of women began to receive temple ordinances through the ministrations of men and women “endowed” earlier under Smith’s direction.

The issue of gender and authority in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was brought to the fore by the organization and suspension of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo. Documents in Part 1 show that Saints wrestled with such questions as whether women should be engaged in the structured charity work that had been the responsibility of bishops, whether women might speak in tongues and heal, the circumstances under which women could exhort the church, and the relationship between male and female church leaders. As is illustrated by Eliza R. Snow’s 1845 hymn, “My Father in Heaven,” with its references to a Mother in Heaven (Document 1.14), the effort of Joseph and Emma Smith and their fellow Saints to answer these questions carved out new spaces for women in both Latter-day Saint experience and theology. Unresolved in Nauvoo, these questions run not only through but well beyond the discourse of this era.

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PART 1: 1830, 1842–1845, The First Fifty Years of Relief Society, accessed July 22, 2024