The Church Historian's Press

PART 3: 1867–1879

In 1877, near summer’s end, Eliza R. Snow sent to twenty-one-year-old Susa Young Dunford [Gates] an invitation. “My Dear Susie,” she wrote, “The Book entitled ‘The Women of Mormondom’ is now out and on sale—pronounced very interesting. We are thinking of sending a few staunch sisters to the States to canvass for the sale of it.” Snow hoped Dunford, a daughter of Brigham Young, might go.1 The new book, edited and narrated by a Mormon man, Edward Tullidge, was esteemed “a woman’s book” because it described the stories and beliefs of Mormon women, incorporating autobiographical narratives to do so. “The book has been published by the women of Utah,” wrote one reviewer, although the title page showed New York as the place of publication and listed Tullidge and Crandall as the publisher. The Women of Mormondom was sold by subscription, a common practice of the era, and had potential to generate income for the women’s Relief Society and a new sister organization for younger women such as Dunford (see Document 3.18). “It is three dollars well spent,” wrote S. M. Dell after she purchased and perused the book. “To say I am pleased would not half express my feelings.”2

Women of Mormondom was a product of a collaboration between Tullidge and the Relief Society,3 reestablished beginning in 1867 and mobilized by 1880 in nearly three hundred branches throughout Utah Territory.4 During this iteration of the Relief Society, Latter-day Saint women collectively entered the public sphere and gradually increased their ecclesiastical, economic, and political presence. They represented themselves in new ways, both within the church organization and within the broader public debate regarding the church. Stereotypes of subjugated Mormon women had existed in the public mind since the 1850s, when the Saints first publicly acknowledged their practice of plural marriage.5 Women of Mormondom was one attempt to correct that image. “The women of Utah,” wrote one reviewer of the book, “have undertaken to place themselves in a proper light before the world. They are voluntary disciples of Mormonism and esteem their relationship thereto as wives, mothers and saints, above all else on earth. This is their position and they do not wish the world to be misled in regard to it.”6 Women of Mormondom represented a new era during which the Relief Society achieved greater cohesiveness, visibility, and permanence.

The Reestablishment of the Relief Society

During the winter of 1867–1868, Latter-day Saint women in Utah Territory reestablished the Relief Society. Nearly ten years had passed since the Utah War had interrupted ward Relief Society operations. In 1858, thousands of Latter-day Saints in Utah’s northern settlements had moved southward en masse as federal troops approached Salt Lake City. Saints returned to their homes after three months, but the effects of the temporary dislocation took years to overcome. Sarah M. Kimball recalled that on January 2, 1868, in the Salt Lake City Fifteenth Ward, “after the lapse of ten years lacking three months, [Relief] Society was reorganized by Bishop [Robert] Burton, with a majority of the former officers.” She continued: “We came together renewed our acquaintance, and sought to renew our efforts to do good to the human family, especially the sick and the poor of this Ward.”7 Virtually every ward where the Relief Society had operated in the 1850s had a similar story (see Document 3.7).

Reestablishing the Relief Society in 1867 marked a significant point of departure for Latter-day Saint women. Not only was their dormant organization resuscitated, but its local operations were standardized and expanded. Connections among wards and between generations and forums for communication developed solidarity and enabled public activism.

Why it took ten years for the organization to reemerge is unclear, but certainly a combination of new circumstances favored the reestablishment of the Relief Society in 1867 and propelled its rapid growth. After the end of the Civil War, church leaders refocused their attention on long-term strategies to strengthen church members temporally and spiritually, reviving and creating institutions to facilitate economic self-sufficiency and to train up the rising generation. The Relief Society fit logically into this expanding organizational structure and assumed a leading role in the movements for home industry and youth development. At the same time, federal officials in Utah Territory and Washington DC attempted through a variety of legislative and judicial means to end plural marriage and curb the church’s political and economic power. Latter-day Saint women organized to oppose such measures, becoming highly visible defenders of the doctrine and opponents of federal legislation. Finally, Latter-day Saint women’s new public roles were informed at least in part by the women’s movement in the United States that gained momentum following the Civil War.

In calling for the reorganization of ward Relief Societies in December 1867, Brigham Young urged women to work with local bishops in assisting the poor (see Documents 3.1 and 3.2). Women immediately organized Relief Society visiting committees in numerous congregations, including the Salt Lake City Seventh Ward, to pursue that directive (see Document 3.3). For Latter-day Saints, the Christian imperative to care for the poor was a central aspect of establishing a Zion-like community—a people of one heart and one mind dwelling in righteousness with no poor among them.8

Saints gathered together geographically to separate themselves from the world and strive to become such a people. The isolation they achieved by relocating to the West in the late 1840s had eroded during the next two decades, in part because of the presence of federal territorial officials and army troops and the influx of other non-Mormon outsiders, whom the Saints called “Gentiles.” Church leaders cautioned members to resist encroaching worldly influences. They exhorted Saints to maintain their identity as a people apart—“a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation”9 commissioned by God to bring the gospel to the world in preparation for the millennial coming of Jesus Christ. Latter-day Saint women and men believed that through priesthood rites, particularly temple ordinances, they had been “called with a holy calling.”10

For the Saints, as for many other Americans, the upheaval of the Civil War stirred millennial anticipation regarding end-times and “the glory of the coming of the Lord.”11 Living far from eastern battlefields, Latter-day Saints mourned the war’s catastrophic losses and gravely contemplated the possible destruction of the nation. They condemned corrupt government officials and asserted that the Saints had a divinely mandated role as guardians of the nation’s inspired founding principles. After the war ended, Mormons maintained two intertwined identities. On the one hand, they were part of the reunited nation: they sent delegates to Congress and assisted with the completion of the transcontinental railroad. At the same time, they remained a people apart: they sought to become a religious commonwealth through increased righteousness, sustained economic independence, and a greater measure of political self-rule. They advanced their separatist agenda during the late 1860s by reviving and creating institutions such as the Relief Society.

On December 2, 1867, less than a week before Brigham Young called for the reorganization of ward Relief Societies, he reinstituted an organization for men: the School of the Prophets.12 Joseph Smith had established schools with that name in the 1830s in Kirtland, Ohio, and Jackson County, Missouri,13 providing a forum for men who had been ordained to priesthood offices to assemble and receive instruction and discuss doctrinal and practical matters that would prepare them to fulfill the duties of those offices.14 Instigated anew by Young, multiple Schools of the Prophets functioned in the West from 1867 through 1874, with over nine hundred members eventually meeting in Salt Lake City and an additional five thousand members in branch schools formed in other towns.15 As did ward Relief Societies, these schools promoted egalitarian economics, home industry, theological instruction, and unity of thought and action. Fillmore Stake president Thomas Callister saw a parallel relationship between the two, telling Relief Society women in 1869: “This society reminds me of the school of the Prophets and we might almost call you a school of Prophetesses.”16 Through local branches of the Relief Society and Schools of the Prophets, church leaders mobilized a significant portion of the population.

Other organizational innovations supported the younger generation, most of whom had not experienced the church as their parents had known it. First-generation Saints forsook home and family for their new religion and made the arduous trek to the West. Some of them endured persecutions in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. Repeated sacrifices secured the faith of these early believers. Without encountering similar challenges, many wondered, how could a second or third generation of Saints become grounded in the religious tradition of their mothers and fathers? Spiritual nurture seemed to be the answer. In addition to the rituals in which young Saints had participated or would participate—including baptism, the weekly sacrament (the Lord’s Supper), and temple ordinances—they needed instruction. Sunday schools for children, first introduced in Utah in 1849, reappeared in local congregations beginning in 1866.17 Relief Society responsibilities expanded to include in 1870 guidance of teenage and young adult women (see Document 3.18), and in 1878 creation of a weekday program for children (see Document 3.30). These institutions and a new association for young men all functioned at the village or ward level. Incorporating women into the ward organizational structure and instituting programs for youth and children also fostered the assimilation of immigrant converts who continued to flow into Utah Territory and bordering areas, the space Latter-day Saints defined as “Zion.”

The reconstituted Relief Society played a central role in the movement to preserve Latter-day Saint religious identity and autonomy. Most of the core of women leaders who worked to reestablish the organization had been members of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo. First among these women was Eliza R. Snow, who had served as secretary of the Nauvoo society and was appointed by Brigham Young in 1868 to assist bishops in reorganizing the Relief Society in each ward (see Documents 3.5 and 3.6). Snow had in her possession the record book containing the minutes of the Nauvoo Relief Society,18 which served the organization as its “Constitutio[n] and law.”19 In her newspaper articles and letters and her visits to wards throughout the territory, Snow drew from the minute book to introduce the Relief Society to bishops and church members unfamiliar with its history and workings (see Documents 3.6 and 3.8). She assisted local leaders, such as Sarah M. Kimball in the Salt Lake City Fifteenth Ward, in replicating the organizational pattern initiated in Nauvoo (see Document 3.9). Even the format of the Nauvoo minutes became a template for a new generation of local Relief Society records. Snow personally inscribed title pages and founding minutes in some ward Relief Society records.20 Efforts to tie the reconstituted Relief Society to its Nauvoo predecessor not only provided a sense of continuity but standardized organizational form and procedure. Kimball, for instance, continued the tradition begun in Nauvoo of writing an annual report (Document 3.10). Thus grounded, local Relief Societies became versatile in undertaking a variety of public projects.

Relief Society and Economic Self-Sufficiency

Many new Relief Society responsibilities stemmed from the Saints’ intensified emphasis on economic self-sufficiency. Charitable ministrations remained a fundamental Relief Society obligation. Indeed, money or goods contributed for and dispensed to the poor, many of them immigrants, are reported in virtually every Relief Society record (see Documents 3.19 and 3.22). Nonetheless, women’s collective engagement in home industry became one of the most visible aspects of their work and formed an important part of the Saints’ countermove against the growing economic strength and capitalist forms of non-Mormon miners and merchants in Utah, which threatened to undermine Latter-day Saint self-sufficiency and their ideals of a Zion community. Federal troops, appointed to guard the western section of the overland mail route during the Civil War, arrived in Utah in October 1862 and erected Camp Douglas in the foothills east of Salt Lake City. These California and Nevada Volunteers, many of them experienced prospectors, successfully pursued silver and gold in the surrounding Oquirrh and Wasatch Mountains. During the 1850s and 1860s church leaders directed various efforts to mine iron ore, lead, coal, and silver, but they feared the rush of outsiders that large-scale mining might precipitate. Generally, they invested their faith and resources in agriculture.21

In the 1860s Brigham Young appointed groups of church members to settle in the warmer southern reaches of the territory—some to raise and manufacture cotton, some to produce molasses, some to raise figs, grapes, and other fruits. The Relief Society played an important role in this comprehensive program for reinforcing Mormon economic self-sufficiency. During 1867 and 1868, as the transcontinental railroad drew steadily closer to completion, church leaders accelerated immigration of British and European Saints to further expand colonization and secure land for Mormon agriculture and manufacturing.22 At the same time the leaders promoted mercantile and manufacturing cooperatives, aiming to dampen the influence of existing and incoming non-Mormon merchants.

Nearly all ward Relief Societies throughout the territory promoted silk production, but projects varied. “Council together and deliberately decide what branch or branches of business will be most likely to succeed in your particular Ward or Settlement, and promptly adopt measures for its promotion,” Eliza R. Snow instructed in 1875, noting as examples straw braiding and knitting.23 By the end of that year Snow was soliciting specimens of women’s handiwork for display at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, in connection with which she composed a short history of the Relief Society and its expanding responsibilities (Document 3.24). In 1876 ward societies added to their work the task of storing grain and building granaries (see Document 3.25). These multiplying duties all fell under the rubric of supporting Mormon economic self-sufficiency.

A year before he officially called for the reorganization of the Relief Society, Brigham Young spoke of its potential for boosting home industry. Addressing the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve on December 26, 1866, with respect to “our Temporal Position,” Young said that “if we could get up Female releif Socities & they would use their influence to get the Sisters to make their own bonnetts & make & wear their own Home made Clothing it would do much good.”24 In 1868 and 1869, as Young addressed newly reestablished Relief Societies, he emphasized the importance of women’s individual and collective involvement in home manufacture (see Documents 3.4 and 3.11).

As the predominant managers of household food and clothing, women understood the importance of home-manufactured goods, an essential of frontier survival. Bathsheba W. Smith wrote of the orchards she and her sister wives (her husband’s other wives) planted and maintained and the cloth they wove, indicating that “[we] have done all we could to encourage Home manufactury.”25 But as the Saints became less isolated and possibilities multiplied for purchasing imported ready-made goods, home-manufactured products became a matter of choice, not necessity, for the individual household. In response, a movement for retrenchment among older and younger women centered on simplified meals and clothing and on consuming locally produced instead of imported goods (see Documents 3.15, 3.16, and 3.18).

Efforts toward Political Autonomy

Although Latter-day Saints achieved some degree of economic independence, the political autonomy they hoped for was far more elusive. The decision of the U.S. Congress in 1850 to organize Utah as a territory imposed a longstanding interdependence with federal officials that quickly became distasteful to both sides. Plural marriage figured prominently in the escalating antipathy, and legislative and judicial attempts to end the practice provoked Mormon women to publicly defend their convictions and their marriages. The church first officially acknowledged its doctrine and practice of plural marriage in 1852, triggering a continual barrage of criticism and ridicule from pulpits and presses in America and abroad. The 1856 Republican Party platform denounced slavery and polygamy as the “twin relics of barbarism,” and in 1862 the U.S. Congress passed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, intended “to punish and prevent the Practice of Polygamy in the Territories of the United States.” The act restricted the amount of property that churches could own in U.S. territories and annulled “certain Acts of the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Utah” that supported plural marriage.26 Unfunded and unenforced, the Morrill Act had little initial impact. Following the Civil War, however, as federal lawmakers passed Reconstruction legislation for the southern states, they renewed their attempts to reconstruct the social, economic, and political makeup of the Territory of Utah.

Latter-day Saints were outraged by three successive bills proposed (but never passed) to reinforce and implement the Morrill Act—the Wade Bill (1866), the Cragin Bill (1867, 1869), and the Cullom Bill (1869, 1870).27 The bill authored by Illinois representative Shelby Cullom, chair of the U.S. House Committee on Territories, included such extreme provisions as denying citizenship to those who practiced plural marriage. In response, Mormon women staged a series of protests in the early months of 1870 (see Documents 3.12 and 3.13). Their mass meetings of indignation marked a pivotal moment of politicization for the Relief Society and for Mormon women.28 They broke the silence they had largely maintained in the public debate over polygamy, but they did not denounce it, as critics had long anticipated they would. Rather, they publicly spoke in support of plural marriage, representing themselves as strong, decisive, and free women, fully committed to their religious beliefs. Their new visibility demonstrated a reality different from the pervasive stereotypes of Mormon women as subjugated and deluded. Reporting on speeches he had heard at the “indignation” meeting in Salt Lake City, a correspondent to the New York Herald wrote, “In logic and in rhetoric, the so-called degraded ladies of Mormondom are quite equal to the women’s rights women of the East.”29

Women’s defense of plural marriage became an integral part of their presence in the public sphere in the late nineteenth century, a presence facilitated by the recently reestablished Relief Society. The more than one hundred local Relief Societies operating throughout Utah in 1870 provided a new and stable structure for mobilizing women en masse.30 In local or ward societies women honed their organizational skills and public speaking abilities, and as these units acted collectively Latter-day Saint women exercised new political influence. However, their activism did not halt further federal legislation to curtail the practice of plural marriage. The Poland Act, passed in 1874, transferred responsibility for civil and criminal cases in Utah from local probate courts to federal district courts, where polygamists would be prosecuted. Relying on the First Amendment clause protecting the free exercise of religion, Latter-day Saints maintained they could not be legally prosecuted for practicing plural marriage, a religious tenet. But an 1879 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court contradicted that argument and opened the way for more severe congressional legislation in the 1880s, culminating with the 1887 Edmunds-Tucker Act, which included measures for fully enforcing the twenty-five-year-old Morrill Act.31

The women’s 1870 mass meetings had been pivotal, however, and in their wake Latter-day Saint women maintained a political voice. Their familiarity with and interest in the mounting movement for women’s rights fueled their nascent activism. At the first mass protest meeting in 1870, Bathsheba W. Smith “moved that we demand of the Gov the right of Franchise” and Lucy W. Kimball “moved that we be represented at Washington.”32 Between 1867 and 1869, the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate had discussed but not passed bills for extending suffrage to women in the U.S. territories as a test case, or in Utah specifically, with the assumption that women would vote to end polygamy. Utah’s territorial legislature acted more decisively, and “An Act Conferring upon Women the Elective Franchise” was passed by the territorial legislature and signed by the acting territorial governor on February 12, 1870. The local Deseret News, which had supported the reestablishment of the Relief Society and the entry of women into trades and professions, enthusiastically endorsed the measure (see Document 3.14). Utah Territory thus became only the second territory or state in the nation to extend suffrage to women.33 Latter-day Saint women delivered to the acting governor a formal expression of thanks for signing the bill (Document 3.17).

If Mormon women were interested in the larger movement for women’s rights, some of the movement’s most vocal national leaders likewise took interest in the newly enfranchised women of Utah. While traveling in the West, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton visited Salt Lake City early in July 1871. They came at the invitation of the Godbeites, dissenting critics of Brigham Young’s economic and religious leadership,34 but the suffrage leaders also addressed a general gathering of women in the “old” tabernacle. According to Stanton’s account, the meeting lasted five hours. Stanton took full advantage of the unique opportunity “to speak to Mormon women alone” and lectured on the history of marriage and the dissatisfaction of all women “with their position as inferiors.” Though Stanton saw Latter-day Saint women gaining “practical political experience,” she could not endorse their religious beliefs, nor could they sanction her radical concepts.35 During the last week of July an address written by Eliza R. Snow was read to a vast audience at a community celebration (Document 3.20). Snow sought to differentiate Latter-day Saint women’s efforts for women’s advancement from the work of activists such as Anthony and Stanton who often opposed traditional familial and religious institutions. Ironically, the conservative wing of the suffrage movement in the United States shunned Latter-day Saint women because they viewed Mormonism as a threat to traditional familial and religious institutions. Thus, despite their pronounced differences, Mormon women and radical suffragists formed an amicable alliance that lasted until the end of the century.36

Women’s New Collective Presence

Latter-day Saint women were not of a single mind regarding women’s rights and woman’s sphere. They could speak and act collectively, but they also had individual ideas and experiences that increasingly found expression on the pages of the Woman’s Exponent. The semimonthly periodical established in June 1872 was edited first by Louisa (Lula) Greene Richards and then by Emmeline B. Wells (see Document 3.21). Part of a new generation of American women’s newspapers focused on social issues, the Exponent had much in common with such publications as the Woman’s Journal, begun in 1870 in Boston and edited by activist Lucy Stone and her husband Henry Blackwell, and the New Northwest, a Portland, Oregon, paper launched by Abigail Scott Duniway in 1871. Although the Exponent occasionally republished articles from these and other papers and carried suffrage news and editorials on women’s rights, it was intended as a forum for Latter-day Saint women. Through the Exponent, Mormon women represented themselves to one another and to the broader culture. The paper, which was typeset by women, published women’s poems and essays, featured editorials supporting church leaders and plural marriage, and posted minutes of the meetings of local Relief Societies (see Document 3.22) and of its affiliated organizations for young women and children.

The Woman’s Exponent was a semiofficial Relief Society publication, and its pages charted the society’s growth and changes. Over the years local branches of the society multiplied as new settlements were established in Utah Territory and the surrounding area. Continuing immigration increased population and necessitated the division of some wards or congregations. Several branches of the Relief Society were often organized in a single village or town. Eliza R. Snow continued to exercise a leading role, though she was not officially set apart as general president of the Relief Society until 1880.37 Initially, she and a team of ward Relief Society presidents and other leading women counseled together in meetings of the Senior and Junior Cooperative Retrenchment Association, also known as General Retrenchment, which served essentially as the Relief Society’s directing board or council (see Documents 3.15 and 3.16). This council also helped establish and direct emerging ward organizations for younger (junior) women, known first as Retrenchment Associations and later as Mutual Improvement Associations (see Document 3.18).

This governance pattern began to change in July 1877 when Brigham Young, in connection with a massive push toward refining and regularizing church structure, established the first Relief Society organization at a stake level in Weber County.38 The new Weber Stake Relief Society presidency, under the direction of Jane S. Richards, would oversee and coordinate Relief Society work in various wards in that stake (see Documents 3.26 and 3.28). Similar presidencies were soon appointed in Salt Lake City and other areas (see Document 3.29). Official recognition that the Relief Society must be part of a complete stake or ward organizational structure demonstrated church leaders’ full endorsement of the reestablished women’s organization. John Taylor, who, as president of the Quorum of the Twelve, assumed leadership of the church following the death of Brigham Young in August 1877, praised the work of the Relief Society and emphasized the importance of women and men working together collaboratively to establish God’s kingdom on the earth (see Document 3.27).

The Relief Society reemerged in the 1860s and 1870s as a cohesive, visible, and permanent organization. Under its auspices, women assumed new ecclesiastical, economic, and political roles in the expanding Mormon community. Religious faith remained at the heart of their multiplying activities, from straw weaving to suffrage. “We shall have elevated aims, if we are holy women,” Eliza R. Snow taught the women she addressed as sisters. “We shall feel that we are called to perform important duties. No one is exempt from them. There is no sister so isolated, and her sphere so narrow but what she can do a great deal towards establishing the Kingdom of God upon the earth” (Document 3.23). The same perspective permeated the Woman’s Exponent and the Women of Mormondom. To be sure, neither the disenchanted who left the Latter-day Saint community nor the outside critics who attacked it saw the experience of Latter-day Saint women through the same lens. But this sacred worldview informed and sustained the Relief Society and guaranteed its continuation.

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PART 3: 1867–1879, The First Fifty Years of Relief Society, accessed July 21, 2024