Editor's note: Third in a series
When we think of the Relief Society, Eliza R. Snow’s name will often come up as the most recognized woman. She is seen as the woman who did the most for, and in behalf, of all Mormon women. Where that may be true, in contrast, the name of one woman whose idea flourished into this most beloved of all women’s organizations seems to have been forgotten. This is Sarah Melissa Granger Kimball.
Kimball was born in New York in 1818. Her parents first learned of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints shortly after the Book of Mormon was published. A vision her father had, of the prophet Moroni bearing testimony of the book to him, brought the family into the church. They remained faithful to the end.
It was Kimball who decided to invite some friends over to start a sewing circle to sew shirts for the men working on the Nauvoo Temple. And it was Kimball who asked her good friend, Snow, to write up a constitution for their little group, so they could feel a purpose and objective to their service. Kimball is owed grand kudos for gently reminding the Prophet Joseph Smith to organize the women under the priesthood. Kimball recorded in her journal that the Prophet said the church was not fully organized until the women were organized, and it was her idea that got the ball rolling.
In those first meetings held in Nauvoo, the Prophet taught the women their purpose on the earth. Where they had been a silent voice in the background, he stated clearly that through the priesthood, and in the name of the Lord, he was turning the key to the women. Power was now available, through the restored priesthood, for women to accomplish works of greatness, as well as the dispensing of great wisdom and knowledge.
Kimball's husband was a wealthy man in Nauvoo. She was used to comfort and maybe a little luxury. But her husband, Hiram, was not a member of the LDS Church at that time. Because of her example, and the friendship of Joseph Smith, Hiram finally joined the church. After settling in the Salt Lake Valley, he left to serve a mission to the Sandwich Islands. He drowned when his ship exploded on the way.
Her life changed drastically. She began teaching school to bring income to the family. She had already been serving as the Relief Society president of the 15th Ward — a calling she would hold for the rest of her life (about 40 years in all). While supporting a family and a group of Relief Society of sisters, she relied on her talent for organization, fiery personality, strong opinions and an ability to inspire people.
Because of those unforgettable words, of turning the key to the women, spoken by the Prophet, she set out to organize her sisters in the storing of grain, silk manufacture, buying and building property where the women could set up cooperative mercantile, medical study and political activity. Typically, because of her initiative, the 15th Ward was the first to begin work on these ventures, an example for the other sisters who followed close behind.
Kimball spoke frequently about women’s rights. Again, encouraged by the memory of Joseph Smith and his teachings, she believed women were granted the assignment to lead the women of the world. She spoke on this subject in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Europe. Her voice was likened to Susan B. Anthony, who became a close friend.
The 15th Ward, under Kimball’s leadership, provided for the poor, extending themselves beyond the borders of Utah. These women raised and stored grain, selling their grain on the Stock Exchange. When it came to the gospel, Kimball insisted that classes be held where principles of the gospel were discussed. Providing income for families was necessary, so a Relief Society hall was constructed to house a store for the selling of homemade items (the first of its kind). She also encouraged the women to read the Constitution and held meetings where it could be discussed. Politics was a favorite topic of Kimball's. She, Emmeline B. Wells and many other women worked hard to make it legal for women to vote in the Deseret Territory.
Being proficient at organizing and delegating the sisters around her, Kimball, still president over the 15th Ward Relief Society, allowed her committees to handle all the many enterprises the women embarked upon. This allowed her to pursue her interest in politics (which included much traveling), as well as serve in the general Relief Society presidency, first as secretary, then as vice president, for 12 of those years. And if that wasn’t enough, Kimball also served as the president of the Utah Woman’s Suffrage Association during this time.
She should be a woman never to be forgotten. Because of her efforts, there is a rich history of the LDS Church's Relief Society. She served first, she served well and she served with power when called upon.
Jan Tolman is a mother of six who enjoys spending time researching the history of Relief Society. For additional information on Relief Society, visit her blog at www.ldswomenofgod.com/blog.