Throughout the 1870s Latter-day Saint women found themselves in a posture of defense, obliged to justify their religious beliefs and practices. The anti-Mormon movement that escalated throughout the decade included the introduction of numerous antipolygamy bills in Congress, a campaign of national women’s reform societies against polygamy, a movement to disenfranchise Utah women, and popular lectures and sermons of orators and clergy that inveighed against the church. Mormon women found support and solidarity through their membership in the Relief Society and sought to defend themselves and their religion.1
In 1877 Emmeline B. Wells succeeded Louisa Greene Richards as editor of the Woman’s Exponent; she would also serve as business manager, owner, and publisher.2 In January 1880, at the beginning of the new decade, Wells published an editorial praising the Relief Society for the important role it played in the church and for being a vehicle of knowledge, growth, influence, and opportunity for its members.
The organization of the Relief Society in Nauvoo, Ill., in March, 1842, opened perhaps one of the most important eras in the history of woman. It presented the great woman-question to the Latter-day Saints, previous to the woman’s rights organizations, which have created such extensive agitation of the subject since, in America, Great Britain and Europe.3 The question did not present itself in any aggressive form as woman opposed to man, but as a co-worker and helpmeet in all that relates to the well-being and advancement of both, and mutual promoting of the best interests of the community at large. It has given to woman, in its rise and progress, influence on almost all subjects that pertain to her welfare and happiness, and opportunities for expressing her own thoughts, views and opinions; all of which has had a tendency to make her intelligent in regard to matters which before were considered incompatible with “woman’s sphere,” and unintelligible to her “weaker” mind.
Through these organizations an immense work has been done in developing the faculties and capabilities of woman, that never could have been effected except through some permanent organization, or association, for mutual help, benefit, and interchange of ideas.
The developments and progression made since the commencement of these societies, which exist now throughout the extent of the settlements of the Latter-day Saints, was not dreamed of in the beginning. They are educational in the most general sense; all subjects, religious, moral and mental, in their various bearings, are discussed, and instruction is given on all matters pertaining to life, health and happiness.4 One of the strongest features of this remarkable organization is the cultivation of the gift of faith. That great power has been manifested under the hands of sisters in administering to the sick is a fact to which many can testify; and is not this one positive proof that the Lord recognizes them and approves their labors in this direction? Is there anything more heavenly than to give comfort and relief to the sick and distressed? We think not.
In reference to this subject it seems appropriate to give the Prophet Joseph’s words to the Relief Society in session in Nauvoo, from his own journal:
I met the members of the Female Relief Society, and after presiding at the admission of many new members, gave a lecture on the priesthood, showing how the sisters would come in possession of the privileges, blessings and gifts of the priesthood, and that the signs should follow them—such as healing the sick, casting out devils, &c., and that they might attain unto these blessings by a virtuous life and conversation, and diligence in keeping all the commandments.5
It is gratifying to know that there are sisters still living who listened to the teachings of the Prophet Joseph, and heard him prophesy in regard to the glorious work that would be accomplished through the energy, industry and capability of the sisters, with the blessing of God upon their labors.
Foremost among those connected with the Relief Society of Nauvoo we are proud to mention the name of our aged sister and Mother in Israel, Elizabeth Ann Whitney, who was Counselor to the President of that organization; Sister Eliza R. Snow, who was the able and efficient Secretary, and Sarah M. Kimball, one of its originators and most active and eminent workers. These ladies, with others who are still living, are among the pioneers of this woman movement, or are indeed the very ones who have aided most vigorously in laying the foundation for us who are now engaged in this work. How thankful we are that they still live, and others who took part in those early days, when so little was known of woman’s fitness for positions of trust, or her ability to transact business for the public good.
Sisters Mercy R. Thompson, Zina D. Young, Phebe Woodruff, Marinda Hyde, Amanda Smith, Bathsheba W. Smith, Louisa B. Pratt and others whose names are honorable, were members of that Society in its infancy. We honor them as women of God who not only accepted in humility and meekness the additional responsibility placed upon them, but who have continued in the good work from year to year, aiding, assisting and advising, and though they have grown grey in the cause of truth, yet falter not, but maintain with steadfastness and integrity the principles of righteousness, and sustain those who are walking in the same straight and narrow way.
Many of those whose names were enrolled as members of that first organization sleep now in the cold and silent tomb; but think you, my good friends, their glorified spirits are idle? No. They are at work: we know not where nor how, but this we know, that in the economy of heaven there is no inactivity. We are instructed that the spirits of men who pass behind the vail are engaged in preaching to the spirits in prison, as Christ, who went “to preach to the spirits in prison that were sometime disobedient in the days of Noah,” &c.6 If there is specified work for man there is also a place for woman, of this rest assured; and in the good time of the Lord, through the revelations of His holy will, it will be revealed.
Among those who were actively engaged in the work of the Society at a very early period, we ought to make honorable mention of Vilate Murray Kimball, who was well known as an efficient adviser and one of the most benevolent and sympathetic women who ever lived. She was greatly beloved by all who knew her, and was a woman of remarkable spiritual endowments. In her experience she had wonderful manifestations of a spiritual nature, which we hope to write up at some future time for the edification of our readers. In speaking of these ladies who have figured conspicuously in the history of this people, we do not depend altogether upon the testimony of others; having been intimately acquainted with all the ladies whose names are mentioned, and with many of the facts interwoven in the incidents which form a portion of the history of the women of this people. That the lives of the women of this age are quite as remarkable as those of any period of the world we feel assured; that great events are about to transpire in which woman will perform an active and important revolutionary part we are not afraid to predict. The great question is, Is she preparing herself for the position she is destined to occupy, and the work which will consequently devolve upon her? This subject opens up a wide field for dissertation.
E. B. W.