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The First Fifty Years of Relief Society

Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women’s History
This collection of primary sources opens a window into the fascinating and largely unknown early history of the women's Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Published in 2016, the volume provides an authoritative history of the first fifty years of the Relief Society through transcripts of seventy-eight key documents, accompanied by introductions, annotation, and hundreds of biographical sketches.

Volume Editors

Jill Mulvay Derr is a retired senior research historian for the Church History Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Carol Cornwall Madsen is a professor emerita of history at Brigham Young University. Kate Holbrook is a specialist in women’s history for the Church History Department. Matthew J. Grow is the director of publications for the Church History Department.

About This Volume

This collection of original documents explores the largely unknown nineteenth-century history of the Relief Society, the women’s organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Founded in 1842 in Nauvoo, Illinois, the Relief Society was initially led by Emma Smith, wife of church president Joseph Smith. The substantial minutes of the organization’s proceedings from 1842 to 1844, published unabridged herein for the first time in print, document the women’s priorities, contributions, and teachings. The Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book also contains six sermons Joseph Smith delivered to the society, the only recorded words he directed exclusively to the women of the church. 

The organization was suspended from 1845 until the mid-1850s, when attempts were made to organize the Relief Society on a congregational level in some areas of Utah Territory after the emigration of the Latter-day Saints to the American West. A more general and permanent reorganization began in 1867, under the leadership of Eliza R. Snow, and the Relief Society’s roles within the church structure and within women’s lives expanded over the succeeding decades. 

The example of the Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book helped create a record-keeping sensibility among Latter-day Saint women, who conscientiously created thousands of official and private records during the nineteenth century. The seventy-eight key documents in this collection include minutes of meetings, sermons by both women and men, annual reports from local Relief Societies, newspaper articles and editorials, political petitions and speeches, poetry, letters, journal entries, and reminiscences. They were produced not only near church headquarters but in far-flung settlements in the Mountain West and in areas as remote as Hawaii and England.

These records from the first fifty years of Relief Society give insight not only into the spiritual and ecclesiastical dimensions of Latter-day Saint women’s lives but also into their political, temporal, and social pursuits. Relief Society women cared for their families and the poor. They manufactured and sold goods, worked as midwives and doctors, gave healing blessings, appointed and set apart Relief Society officers, stored grain, built assembly halls, fought for woman suffrage, founded a hospital, defended the practice of plural marriage, and started the church organizations for children and young women.

Prominent in the documents are the towering figures of Mormon women’s history from this period—Emma Smith, Eliza R. Snow, Sarah M. Kimball, Mary Isabella Horne, Emmeline B. Wells, Zina D. H. Young, and many others. In addition, some two thousand lesser-known Latter-day Saints appear in these records. Each document is meticulously transcribed and placed in historical context with an introduction and annotation. Taken together, the accounts featured here allow readers to study this founding period in Latter-day Saint women’s history and to situate it within broader themes in nineteenth-century American religious history.

Advance Acclaim

“This remarkable collection is not only a landmark in Mormon historical editing—it is a signal contribution to religious studies, women’s history, and the economic and social history of the American west. In my view it is the most important work to emerge from the Mormon press in the last fifty years. With quiet authority and without special pleading it offers an accessible foundation for assessing the position of Latter-day Saint women in the nineteenth century and today.”
—Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Harvard University

“Scholarship on Mormon women’s history continues to burgeon, and this outstanding volume on the early history of the Relief Society is possibly the most significant and exciting contribution of its kind. The editors have done a superb job of pairing richly detailed primary sources with accessible scholarly commentary on Mormon women’s history, making the volume suitable for historical specialists and curious newcomers alike. More broadly, this collection reminds us of the many ways that women have worked to make male-led traditions their own.  The book is a genuine treasure for scholars and students of American religious history.”
―R. Marie Griffith, Washington University in St. Louis