PART 4: 1880–1892

On July 24, 1880, in Salt Lake City, the annual pioneer parade celebrated the thirty-third anniversary of the entry of the Mormon pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley. Included in the parade were members of the newly organized Central Board of the Relief Society, who rode in carriages behind a large banner they had created for the occasion. Eliza R. Snow, who had been appointed president of the society the month before, had donated the white silk for the banner, which measured more than eight feet tall and four feet wide. Embroidered on the silk were the words “RELIEF SOCIETY | FIRST ORGANIZED BY THE PROPHET JOSEPH SMITH. | Mar. 17th 1842. | NUMBERS 300 BRANCHES | JULY 24th 1880.” Also depicted on the banner was a dove bearing in its bill the olive branch of peace. At the top was a representation of the all-seeing eye, and at the lower edge of the banner was a rising star.1

The banner was an explicit claim to an inheritance from the organization of the Relief Society in Nauvoo, Illinois, nearly four decades earlier and its reestablishment in the Great Basin under the direction of Brigham Young. The date of its organization by Joseph Smith and statement of its current number of branches announced its Nauvoo origin and its continuing growth in the Mountain West. The olive branch bespoke the Christian virtues of peace and love, symbolizing the society’s benevolent mission. The all-seeing eye was a pervasive symbol of faith in an omnipotent God, and the rising star suggested that from the time Joseph Smith “turned the key” to woman in Nauvoo, her star had been ascending.2 Through the banner, women leaders declared their institutional origins as part of the larger celebration marking the fiftieth anniversary of the church’s founding in Fayette, New York, in 1830 (see Document 4.10).

Relief Society banner

Relief Society banner. The Central Board of the Relief Society rode in carriages behind this white silk banner for the Jubilee Pioneer Day celebration in Salt Lake City in 1880. The banner measures more than eight feet high and four feet wide. (Church History Museum, Salt Lake City.)

Despite the fervent anti-Mormon crusade swirling around them in 1880, Latter-day Saints found much to celebrate. The number of church members had grown from a small houseful to nearly 120,000 in Utah alone.3 The Saints had colonized additional settlements in Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Colorado.4 By 1880 the church had built its first temple in the West, with two more to be completed before the end of the decade, numerous chapels for Sunday congregational worship, and larger tabernacles (assembly halls) in many communities.

As church membership increased numerically and spread geographically, church leaders standardized organizational forms and procedures to facilitate communication, preserve order, and promote unity (see Document 4.16). These changes helped the church survive escalating legislative attacks on its longtime practice of plural marriage and its dominant political and economic influence in Utah Territory. As a result of this standardization, the Relief Society operated more closely with governing ecclesiastical councils, and at the same time it provided a link between women throughout the growing church. The Relief Society also connected Latter-day Saint women to other advocates for women’s rights and advancement. Its representatives became members of the National Woman Suffrage Association and the National Council of Women and began to bridge the chasms that had separated Latter-day Saint women from other women in the United States. This new Mormon participation in a national culture reflected not only a change in the orientation of Mormon women toward the United States, but also the country’s expansion in a way that incorporated Utah not as an isolated outpost but as part of a continent-wide nation.5

Standardization and Expansion of the Relief Society

When John Taylor installed Eliza R. Snow as general Relief Society president in June 1880, it marked the first time a general Relief Society presidency had governed since the Nauvoo period (see Documents 4.4, 4.5, and 4.6). At the time, Taylor led the church as president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Brigham Young having died in 1877; Taylor became the church’s third prophet and president a few months later, at the October 1880 conference. His formalizing of Relief Society leadership, together with his appointment of general presidencies for the Primary Association and the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association in June 1880, began a process by which he hoped to promote system, order, and central direction for the organizations and programs of the church.

While Brigham Young had expressed high expectations for women’s individual development and progress and had provided numerous opportunities for initiative and leadership in the projects he assigned to the Relief Society, John Taylor defined and systematized those projects. He also sought to define more clearly the relationship of women and their church activities to priesthood leadership by emphasizing a difference between the authority bestowed on women when ordained or set apart for office in their organizations and the transmittal of priesthood authority to men when they were ordained to the various offices in the priesthood. Like his predecessor, Taylor emphasized the importance of the Relief Society to the church and instructed all priesthood leaders to recognize its value in their wards. He frequently spoke of the essential partnership of men and women, individually and collectively, in fulfilling the mission of the church (see Documents 4.4 and 4.5).

Nevertheless, some aspects of women’s authority remained ambiguous. Taylor and other church authorities affirmed that through the temple sealing ordinance, women held the priesthood “in connection with their husbands,” but what exactly this meant in terms of women’s ministry remained unclear (Document 4.20). For example, questions arose surrounding the continuing and common practice of women blessing the sick. In October 1880 Taylor and his counselors in the First Presidency wrote, “It is the privilege of all faithful women and lay members of the Church, who believe in Christ, to administer to all the sick or afflicted in their respective families,” but this administration, they explained, should not be “by virtue and authority of the priesthood, but by virtue of their faith in Christ” (Document 4.8). In an 1888 address, apostle Franklin D. Richards answered similar questions, observing that women, though not ordained “to the various orders of the priesthood which were conferred upon us [men]” yet “share with us any and all of the ordinances of the holy anointing, endowments, sealings, sanctifications and blessings that we have been made partakers of.” Richards, an assistant church historian, read passages from Joseph Smith’s addresses to the Relief Society regarding the privilege of women to heal the sick, and expressed his wish that “all the sisters were so faithful that they were healers of the sick, through the power of God” (Document 4.20; see also Document 4.19).

In harmony with the larger movement for organizational refinement, Eliza R. Snow also worked to standardize the structure of the Relief Society throughout the church. She asked wards and branches to write and gather reports of local activities and to submit periodic reports to the general Relief Society presidency (see Documents 4.9 and 4.12). She also facilitated official formation of general boards for the Primary and the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association (see Document 4.4). Upon Snow’s death in 1887, her counselor Zina D. H. Young, who like Snow had been married to both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, became the general Relief Society president (see Document 4.18). Young, who had been instrumental in establishing silk-farming projects throughout the church (see Document 4.3), presided over the Relief Society’s first general conference in 1889 (see Documents 4.23 and 4.24).

The Relief Society also expanded in both membership and geography during this era. Eliza R. Snow reported in the fall of 1880 that the Relief Society had 290 branches in Utah Territory and “more than ten branches” outside Utah.6 By the close of 1890, the Relief Society reported a membership of 16,741 in 368 branches, including branches in the United States, Canada, England, Scotland, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Sandwich (Hawaiian) and Samoan Islands, Australia, and New Zealand.7 Most of the foreign branches were small and struggled to survive as faithful members emigrated to Utah. For instance, between 1879 and 1880 the White Chapel (England) Branch lost thirty-three women from emigration,8 and at the close of 1888 the North London (England) Branch reported that in part because of emigration, “attendance has been very small, the usual number present not exceeding six lately” (Document 4.22). In the Sandwich Islands there were fifteen Relief Society branches by 1883, with a total membership of 345 women (see Document 4.13).

Relief Society organizations in outlying areas in Utah, Idaho, and Arizona Territories, though closer to the headquarters of the church, nonetheless were isolated. For example, the San Juan Stake Relief Society president, who traveled several hundred miles from southeastern Utah to attend the Relief Society conference in Salt Lake City, “spoke of the disadvantages under which the sisters labored in that Stake because of the great distances to be traversed to come together.”9 As missionary work expanded among American Indians in Utah, the church established Relief Societies for American Indian members (see Document 4.7). A binding tie for the women of the Relief Society, whether residing in foreign lands or the harsh climate of Arizona or southern Utah, was the Woman’s Exponent, which kept women throughout the church informed of Relief Society activities and policies (see Documents 4.14 and 4.21). “It is invalable to us,” the women of the London branch wrote of the Exponent, “and it is looked for by one and all, we learn so much by it, what our sisters are doing thousands of miles away.”10 Though the Exponent was not officially published by the Relief Society, its editor, Emmeline B. Wells (see Document 4.1), was the organization’s general secretary during this era and directed the Relief Society’s wheat-storage program (see Document 4.2).

During this period, the Relief Society continued earlier efforts to store grain, to manufacture silk, and to improve women’s health through better professional care.11 Church leaders, including Relief Society leaders, recruited some women to leave family and friends to procure medical degrees from schools in the eastern United States.12 These women made significant sacrifices to complete their training. For instance, when Ellis Reynolds Shipp departed for medical school in Philadelphia, she expressed deep anguish, knowing she would not see her children for more than two years.13

When these women returned to Utah as educated physicians, they offered classes in obstetrics and midwifery (see Document 4.17). They also championed the need for a Mormon hospital in Salt Lake City, which led to the construction of the Deseret Hospital, dedicated in July 1882 (see Document 4.11). At the dedication Wilford Woodruff observed that now there was “a place for the treatment of the afflicted, where the Elders could walk in and freely administer the ordinance for the healing of the sick.”14 Women also gave healing blessings in that place.15

Antipolygamy Legislation and the Manifesto

The greater visibility and responsibility of Latter-day Saint women did little to arrest a vigorous campaign against plural marriage and polygamous families. Both the federal government and organized moral reform associations, mostly associated with evangelical Christianity, increased their attention on Utah during the 1880s, determined to undermine Mormon political and economic authority and to outlaw the practice of plural marriage through federal legislation. Since the territorial legislature had enfranchised Utah women in 1870, federal legislators and opponents of plural marriage had called for a repeal of the statute, hoping to diminish Mormon political control. Though Latter-day Saint women had exercised the franchise for a decade, a significant achievement in the movement for equality, they were nonetheless depicted as oppressed victims of their marital system in the inflammatory novels and lectures that caught the public fancy during this period. The Woman’s Exponent served as Mormon women’s public mouthpiece to refute these derogatory claims.

When the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1879 that the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion was not a defense to an indictment on bigamy charges, Congress had a firmer legal basis for action.16 The decision validated the 1862 Morrill Act,17 which outlawed bigamy and provided for sanctions against the practice but had not been rigorously enforced. In 1882 Congress reinforced and amended the Morrill Act in the form of the Edmunds Act, which disenfranchised all present or former polygamists and established a commission to oversee elections in the territory. The Edmunds Act also provided punishment for those convicted of practicing polygamy—or of cohabitation, which was easier for prosecutors to establish.18

Creating the crime of cohabitation meant that women lost the support of their husbands either through sentencing to jail or loss of their presence in the home. After the passage of the Edmunds Act, many Latter-day Saints attempted to align their relationships with their plural families in accordance with the law. This proved difficult, however, as apostle Lorenzo Snow discovered when he was convicted of violating the law for continuing to contact and provide financial support for his plural wives and children, even though “he had not eaten, slept, or lived in the same house with them since the passage of the Edmunds law … he lived with one [wife] only.” A federal judge in Utah broadly defined what it meant to cohabit: “The offense of cohabitation is complete when a man to all outward appearances is living or associating with two or more women as his wives.”19 Snow served nearly a year in prison on this conviction.20

The conviction of husbands under the Edmunds Act placed increased pressure on families. One husband indicted on polygamy charges wrote to his wife, “The malice of ungodly men have rested heavily on me for some years passed, which has caused me to neglect my family and thereby causing you much unhappyness.”21 In Salt Lake City, men accused of practicing polygamy often went into hiding. One Latter-day Saint woman remarked, “The City of the Saints more like the city of Desolation now-a-days as the prosecution that is going on against the polygamists is almost unendurable.”22

The Edmunds Act had other negative consequences for Mormon families, particularly when prosecutors pressured wives to answer questions before grand juries that might lead to the conviction of their husbands. For instance, Belle Harris—the grandniece of Martin Harris, one of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, and “a lady with a nursing infant”—was “hauled to the penitentiary” for refusing to testify against her husband.23 For the same reason, Nellie White was imprisoned in the penitentiary for a little over a month.24

As they had in the mass meetings of the 1870s, Mormon women gathered to protest. They protested the Edmunds Act and the increasingly rigorous enforcement of it, including the targeting of plural wives by the legal process. In 1886 a delegation of women presented their grievances to the U.S. president and Congress in Washington (see Document 4.15). Among their grievances, as Dr. Ellen B. Ferguson explained, was their complaint that “young children are brought into court and plied with indecent questions; tender women in delicate health are asked impertinent and insulting questions in court, and many of the leading men and priests of Mormonism are driven into hiding by the exactions of the officials.”25 These protest efforts proved fruitless.

Later, the 1887 Edmunds-Tucker Act, which amended the 1882 Edmunds Act, disenfranchised all Utah women and placed most of the church’s property and financial holdings in receivership.26 While crippling the church financially, these acts also diminished the Mormon electorate and removed Mormons from elected office, allowing non-Mormon residents of Utah to gain political control in both Ogden and Salt Lake City.27 By 1890 the confiscation of the church’s religious property—including the temples—appeared imminent, and even more debilitating legislation was proposed and appeared likely to pass. Church president Wilford Woodruff, after months of deliberation, announced that he had received divine assurance that he should submit to the law of the land. In September 1890 he issued a manifesto suspending further plural marriages, thus ending more than a decade of federal prosecution, constant surveillance, and personal anxiety while paving the way to statehood and economic, political, legal, religious, and social readjustments for Latter-day Saints (see Documents 4.25 and 4.26).28 Against this tumultuous backdrop, the Relief Society provided stability and a focus for church service and commitment that helped women endure the personal calumny, the fragmentation of their families, and the uncertainties that marked the decade.

Advocacy for Women’s Rights

Travelers, including officers and members of several national women’s organizations availing themselves of the transcontinental railroad, came in droves to Salt Lake City to see the Mormons during this era. Many of them left with uncomplimentary accounts of their visit, while others found a unique community of hard-working, dedicated, and unified people. Amidst the growing national sentiment for antipolygamy legislation, the National Woman Suffrage Association and the National Council of Women supported Utah women’s efforts to retain their right to vote.

Mormon women affiliated with the National Woman Suffrage Association in January 1879, when Emmeline B. Wells and Zina Young Williams attended the annual convention in Washington DC. They went “in response to official invitation to represent the cause of the women of Mormondom.”29 While in Washington they met with President Rutherford B. Hayes as members of a “committee appointed by the women of the suffrage convention” to solicit his support. During their meeting with President Hayes, Wells and Williams requested that he veto “any bill to enforce the act of 1862,” meaning the antipolygamy Morrill Act.30 They also prepared a memorial to Congress asking for the Morrill Act to be repealed.31

Wells and Williams took an active part in the suffrage convention. Wells served on the committee of resolutions, along with national suffrage leaders Sara A. Spencer and Matilda J. Gage, while Williams was selected a member of the finance committee. Both Wells and Williams were given opportunities to address the convention. In Williams’s speech, she “expressed her thanks for the kind manner in which she has been received in Washington, where she expected to meet with prejudice.”32 Though their stay in Washington was brief, both women felt their efforts were beneficial. George Q. Cannon, who was then in Washington as a congressional delegate for Utah Territory, wrote: “Sisters Wells and Williams had done very well here and their visit had been productive of much good. I have said that much in previous letters; but in alluding to their departure home I intended to repeat it. As we are making history, and the trip they have made will doubtless be noticed.”33

Over the next decade Mormon women continued their involvement in the suffrage movement.34 The Relief Society and the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association, for instance, participated in the National Council of Women, which suffrage advocates organized on March 31, 1888, at the close of their international convention (see Document 4.27). The purpose of this council was to bring together representatives of women’s organizations from all parts of the United States to work together “to the overthrow of all forms of ignorance and injustice, and to the application of the Golden Rule to society, custom and law.”35 Latter-day Saint women addressed this council when it convened in Washington DC in February 1891 and reported the work of the Relief Society and Young Ladies’ organizations.36 Through membership in this organization, Mormon women developed friendships and weakened barriers to misunderstanding. In addition, in the early 1890s, as Utah statehood was fast becoming a reality, Latter-day Saint women took the lead in organizing a campaign to reinstate woman suffrage in Utah. Between 1879 and 1896, the masthead of the Woman’s Exponent included the motto “The Rights of the Women of Zion, and the Rights of the Women of all Nations.”37

During the last decade of the nineteenth century, Latter-day Saint women and men increasingly looked beyond the Mountain West valleys where they had initially sought refuge and isolation. The Saints’ connection to the United States had proved to be enduring, though painfully conflicted. The decade of the 1880s, with the intense antipolygamy campaign and ultimately President Woodruff’s manifesto in 1890, closed as one of the most challenging in the church’s brief history.

For the Relief Society, looking back at its beginnings lent strength to moving forward. The society mounted an impressive Jubilee celebration on March 17, 1892, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of its founding. In introducing the program in the tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Relief Society general president Zina D. H. Young, who three years earlier had told the sisters “there is more difference in our manner of speech, than in the motives of our hearts,”38 now reiterated that same unifying sentiment, declaring, “O, that my words could be heard by all people, not only by you my brethren and sisters in this Tabernacle and throughout Utah, but that they might be heard and understood by all the people of this continent, and not only this continent but the continents of Europe, Asia, Africa and the Islands of the Sea” (Document 4.28). The “grand Jubilee all over the world” proclaimed the Relief Society’s divine origin, its tenacious fidelity to Nauvoo roots, and its unity of purpose. With the mingling of male and female voices at the tabernacle pulpit and in the audience, the celebration affirmed the continuing partnership of men and women. As they honored the past, women looked forward to a future with all new challenges and possibilities.

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PART 4: 1880–1892, The First Fifty Years of Relief Society, accessed May 27, 2024