Relief Society: Women of destiny

By Jan Tolman

For Mormon Times

Published: Tuesday, March 22 2011 6:30 a.m. MDT

When the Relief Society was first organized on March 17, 1842, there were 20 women in attendance.

By the following March, there were 1,158 in attendance.

They outgrew their meeting room almost immediately, so they met in “The Grove,” where the overflow of sisters could all be included.

The society became so popular that even “unseemly women” wanted to join. Stricter rules were adopted, and finally they resorted to insisting that each new member “present a certificate of her good moral character, signed by two or more responsible persons.”

In each meeting, visits were reported, the welfare of fellow Saints was discussed, donations were collected for various projects, and discussions ensued about women’s responsibilities, duties and influence. Joseph Smith had given a city lot for the Relief Society to build homes for the homeless coming from Missouri and to provide work for those in need. The sisters kept busy and involved themselves in many projects of goodwill. 

Again, organized in the Salt Lake Valley, Eliza R. Snow wrote, “In having been driven from a city, the Female Relief Society, more amply developed than in Nauvoo, has extended its branches to every ward, and settlement from Bear Lake in the North to Santa Clara in the South, and yet, as seen in perspective, it has but little more than emerged from its embryo state in comparison to its great future.”

What is the great future Snow imagined? I don’t believe it was population, even though we are the largest women’s group in the world (5,000,000-plus). I believe it is the influence we have. Our presidents have served on the boards, as vice president and even president, of the National Women's Organization. We have indeed been visible to the world.

Before the 1970s, a sister was a member of the Relief Society only if she paid her dues. Once the schedule was consolidated and dues were dropped, all women were instant members at age 18. Some were asked to sacrifice their Sunday Relief Society for their callings in the MIA and Primary.

President Boyd K. Packer said, "You must graduate from thinking that you only attend Relief Society to feeling that you belong to it!"

For younger sisters who struggle with a feeling of belonging, or older sisters who feel relegated to the back of the room, consider the following.

In 1973, the youngest member of the Relief Society General Board was 21-year-old Kristin Theurer. She said, “It’s silly to talk about a generation gap in the gospel, because, basically, we’re all working for the same end — eternal life.”

Instead of suffering over separation, we sisters can unite to fulfill that destiny Eliza was talking about. By understanding where Relief Society came from and using this organization effectively today, we will fulfill the destiny of our womanhood.

Here are just a few quotes of inspiration:

“We ask our Sisters of the Relief Society never to forget that they are a unique organization in the whole world, for they were organized under the inspiration of the Lord. … No other woman’s organization in all the earth has had such a birth.” — President Joseph F. Smith, “A Centenary of Relief Society,” p. 7, Deseret News Press, 1942

“Sisters, it is for us to be wide awake to our duties. The kingdom will roll on, and we have nothing to fear but our own imperfections. May God bless you and endow you with energy and determination to act.” — Zina D. Young, special meeting of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association of the First Ward, Sept. 26, 1877, as reported in the Women’s Exponent

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