At the first meeting of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, held March 17, 1842, Joseph Smith told the women, “The minutes of your meetings will be precedents for you to act upon— your Constitutio[n] and law.” Eliza R. Snow, who that day was appointed secretary of the new organization, ever after maintained a clear vision of record keeping.1 When she visited local Relief Societies in later years she often read from the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes.2
Sarah M. Kimball, another key figure in the Nauvoo Relief Society, also helped to shape its record-keeping tradition. In the late 1860s, as president of Salt Lake City’s Fifteenth Ward Relief Society, and with input from Snow, Kimball outlined the duties of Relief Society officers. The secretary was “to take minutes of all general meetings. and a synopsis of all Committee reports” and to handle business details for the president. The secretary’s “book must contain the general record and history of the Society.”3 When the central—or general—Relief Society presidency was formally installed in June 1880, Snow appointed Kimball as secretary.4
Meeting minutes became the backbone of the historical record created by local Relief Societies. Extracts of minutes regularly appeared in the Woman’s Exponent. Though the Exponent was not an official organ of the Relief Society, it became the central clearinghouse for news, instructions, and encouragement for the society’s far-flung membership.5 As submissions to the magazine increased, however, coverage of individual societies necessarily decreased. “In regard to publishing Relief Society reports and minutes,” the Exponent explained in August 1881, “there is not space for anything more than Stake Conference reports, unless it is a new organization or reorganization, or change of some officers. It must be clear to every one that with all the several organizations and their multitude of branches, it is impossible to give them all space for representation.”6 In February 1882 the Exponent published the following document, which gave Eliza Snow’s response to inquiries from secretaries of local Relief Societies regarding record-keeping practices.
Most stake, ward, and branch Relief Societies retained possession of their original minutes for decades. Beginning in the 1940s church leaders requested that all historical records, including minutes, be sent to the Historian’s Office in Salt Lake City for permanent filing.7 As a result, the Church History Library currently holds thousands of volumes of Relief Society minutes.
to the secretaries of the relief society; in reply to frequent inquiries.
It is very desirable that a uniformity should exist throughout all the branches of the Relief Society in regard to the Secretaries’ Books.
In some business departments of the Relief Society, we are under the necessity of varying, in order to meat [meet] the varied local circumstances of the different branches; but this does not, in any instance, apply to the Secretaries.
In each department we want to learn to do business in the best possible manner, and to adopt the manner in which it can be done with the greatest facility and the least labor.
The Secretaries of the various Branches of the Relief Society are, or should be, historians of their respective Branches. One Book (or when one Book is full another succeeds it) should contain the whole history—all records of the Branch; and those records should comprise everything worthy of preservation, and in as concise a manner as practicable. In this, skill and judgment are requisite, and “practice makes perfect.”
In the first place—at the meeting the Secretary should take minutes of all business transactions and whatever is said or done that should be read at the next meeting; all that has been donated to the society since the date of the last meeting, with the name in full of each donor; the amount of each cash donation, and the price of each article donated. These figures properly placed in the margin, are readily footed in making up reports; and all proceedings are readily referred to under their respective dates.
Should the Branch have an organized Board of Teachers (which is unnecessary in small Branches), and that Board a Secretary, a copy of the minutes of each teachers’ meeting must be forwarded to the general Secretary in time for her to compile under date whatever is worthy of record, in its proper order in Book.8
In making up Quarterly or Annual Reports, the Treasurer will furnish the Secretary with a list of all Disbursements from date of last report, which, after having been read and accepted by the Branch, also read at the Conference for which it was prepared, the Secretary will copy it under date, and thus have in one Book the minutes of each meeting, all the receipts and disbursements, comprising all business matters of the Branch.
The foregoing is in accordance with the original sample Book,9 which was fully approved by the Prophet Joseph Smith, through whom the revelation was given for the organization of the Relief Society.
E. R. Snow Smith.
S. L. City, January, 1882.