With this discourse delivered in the “old” tabernacle in Salt Lake City on December 8, 1867, President Brigham Young initiated the reestablishment of ward Relief Societies, most of which had been dormant for nearly a decade. Two important events occurred in the week before his discourse that may suggest why the time was ripe for reestablishment of the women’s organization. On December 2, 1867, Young reorganized the School of the Prophets, a forum where selected priesthood leaders discussed spiritual and temporal concerns.1 Three days later he proposed in a meeting of local bishops that the responsibility of caring for the poor, who had been receiving weekly allowances from the General Tithing Office in Salt Lake City, be transferred to the bishops, a move that would free up sparse tithing funds for construction of the Salt Lake City temple.2 Thus, local bishops would be shouldering a larger responsibility for the poor, a development of particular importance since 1868 was rightly projected to be a year of unusually high immigration.
Against this backdrop, Young, in his discourse of December 8, announced that the Relief Society would be revived. Under the auspices of their ward Relief Societies, women would both meet together regularly to discuss spiritual and temporal concerns (paralleling in some ways the School of the Prophets) and work collectively in conjunction with their bishops to relieve the poor. Young spoke about the establishment of both the School of the Prophets and the Relief Society as part of a larger theme of the responsibility of the Latter-day Saints to “establish the Zion of our God upon the earth,” including caring for the poor.3
The Deseret Evening News summarized Young’s discourse in its December 9 issue4 and published the first full report of the discourse on December 14. The following transcript is excerpted from the December 14 report made by Edward L. Sloan.
By President Brigham Young, made in the Old Tabernacle, G. S. L. City, Sunday, December 8th, 1867.
(reported by edward l. sloan) … [p. ] …5
I am now going to preach you a short sermon concerning our temporal duties. My sermon is to the poor, and to those who are not poor. As a people, we are not poor; and we wish to say to the Bishops, not only in this city, but through the country, “Bishops, take care of your poor.”6 The poor in this city do not number a great many. I think there are a few over seventy who draw sustenance from the General Tithing Office. They come to the Tithing Office, or somebody comes for them, to draw their sustenance.7 If some of our clever arithmeticians will sit down and make a calculation of the hours lost in coming from the various parts of the city to the Tithing Office, and in waiting around there; and then value those hours, if occupied in some useful employment, at twelve and a half cents each, every eight of them making a dollar, it will be found that the number of dollars thus lost by these seventy odd persons in a week would go far towards sustaining them. We have among us some brethren and sisters who are not strong, nor healthy, and they must be supported. We wish to adopt the most economical plan of taking care of them; and we say to you, Bishops, take care of them. You may ask the question, “Shall we take the tithing that should go to the Tithing Office to support them, or shall we ask the brethren to donate for that purpose?” If you will take the time consumed in obtaining the rations drawn by them out of the General Tithing Office,—for every person who is not able to come, must send some one for them—and have that time profitably employed, there will be but little more to seek for their sustenance. Get a house in your Ward, and if you have two sisters, or two brethren, put them in it, make them comfortable, find them food and clothing, and fuel; and direct the time now spent coming to this Tithing Office wisely in profitable labor. Furnish the sisters with needles and thread to work at sewing, and find something for them to do. Take those little girls who have been coming to the Tithing Office, and have them taught to knit edging, and tidies,8 and other kinds of knitting and make lace, and sell the products of their labor. Those little girls have nimble fingers, and it will only take a little capital to start them at such kinds of work. Where you have brethren who are not strong enough to saw and split wood, or do some kind of out-door labor, agree with some chairmakers to have his chairs bottomed, and get rushes and set the brethren to bottoming the chairs. If you cannot get that for them to do, procure some flags or rushes, and let them make foot-mats, and sell them, but do not ask too high a price for them, do not ask a dollar or two dollars each for them, for one can be made in an hour or two. And if the market should get stocked with them, get some willows and have willow baskets made, and you can scarcely stock the market with them, for they wear out almost as fast as they can be made. In the Spring have these brethren sow some broomcorn,—they will enjoy working a little out of doors in the nice spring weather; and then in the Fall they can make brooms with the corn. By pursuing this course a Bishop will soon be able to say, “I have accomplished a good work; the brethren and sisters whom I had to help are now in a condition to help themselves.” And in a short time, if their labor and time are wisely employed, you can build for them the finest house in the ward. You may call it a poor-house if you choose, though it should be the best house in the ward; and there its inmates can enjoy themselves, the younger ones can be taught music and thus a source of enjoyment be created, as well as being taught in various kinds of profitable employment; and the lives of all be made a blessing to themselves, they being in the enjoyment of happiness and comfort. You may think that I am painting a fancy sketch, but it is practicable, and those are places I intend to visit by and by.
Now, Bishops, you have smart women for wives, many of you; let them organize Female Relief Societies in the various wards. We have many talented woman among us, and we wish their help in this matter. Some may think this is a trifling thing, but it is not; and you will find that the sisters will be the mainspring of the movement. Give them the benefit of your wisdom and experience, give them your influence, guide and direct them wisely and well, and they will find rooms for the poor, and obtain the means for supporting them ten times quicker than even the Bishop could. If he should go or send to a man for a donation, and if the person thus visited should happen to be cross or out of temper for some cause, the likelihood is that while in that state of feeling he would refuse to give anything; and so a variety of causes would operate to render the mission an unsuccessful one. But let a sister appeal for the relief of suffering and poverty, and she is almost sure to be successful, especially if she appeals to those of her own sex. If you take this course you will relieve the wants of the poor a great deal better than they are now dealt by. We recommend these Female Relief Societies to be organized immediately.
… Let it be sent forth to the people, that on the first Thursday of each month, the fast day, all that would be eaten by husbands and wives and children and servants, should be put in the hands of the Bishop for the sustenance of the poor.9 I am willing to do my share as well as the rest, and if there are no poor in my ward, I am willing to divide with those wards where there are poor. If the sisters will look out for rooms for those sisters who need to be taken care of, and see them provided for, you will find that we will possess more [p. ] comfort and more peace in our hearts, and our spirits will be buoyant and light, full of joy and peace. The Bishops should, through their teachers, see that every family in their wards, who is able should donate what they would naturally consume on the fast day to the poor.
You have read, probably, that we are starting the school of the prophets. … We will start this school of the prophets to increase in knowledge.10 Brother [David O.] Calder commences to-morrow to teach our youth and those of middle age the art of book-keeping and impart to them a good mercantile education. We expect soon to have our sisters join in the class and mingle with the brethren in their studies, for why should not a lady be capable of taking charge of her husband’s business affairs when he goes into the grave? We have sisters now engaged in several of our telegraph offices; and we wish them to learn not only to act as operators but to keep the books of our offices, and let sturdy men go to work at some employment for which by their strength they are adapted; and we hope eventually to see every store in Zion attended by ladies. …11