Welfare responsibilities in the LDS Church has long been identified with the women of the church.
Joseph Smith commissioned the Relief Society to do what “is according to your natures — it is natural for females to have feelings of charity — you are now placed in a situation where you can act according to those sympathies which God has planted in your bosoms. If you live up to these principles how great and glorious! If you live up to your privileges, the angels cannot be restrained from being your associates. After this instruction, you will be responsible for your own sins. It is an honor to save yourselves — all are responsible to save themselves” (see the "Female Relief Society of Nauvoo Minute Book").
He made two important distinctions: First, welfare involves serving one another, and women have a natural affinity to do that through charity. Second, welfare involves being responsible for yourself.
After settling in the Salt Lake Valley, President Brigham Young felt it was necessary to store wheat. He commissioned men to begin this labor and was disappointed to discover that the men never seemed to get around to it.
Summoning Emmeline B. Wells to his office one day, he gave her the assignment to announce in her newspaper "The Woman’s Exponent," (the article was in the Oct. 15, 1876, issue), that women would now have the responsibility of storing wheat, and, second, that she would be in charge of the entire enterprise. To this day, the Wheat Project is among the largest and longest running assignments ever undertaken by the Relief Society.
The women became very inventive when it came to gathering wheat. They gleaned, they held wheat parties (where admission was a bushel of wheat), they held bazaars and creatively raised money so they could buy wheat or buy fields where they could grow their own wheat. Eventually, they would build granaries in order to store the vast amounts of wheat they were accumulating. These meetings and activities were often announced, discussed, and shared in "The Woman's Exponent" and the "Relief Society Magazine."
The United States government sought the leaders of the church to possibly buy the wheat to feed starving people during the Great Depression.
When President Young first asked the women to take on this enormous project, he prophesied that there would come a time when people would come West looking for food, and church members would have it. The women recognized this as fulfillment of prophecy and gladly gave their permission. (Rosannah C. Irvine detailed this story in "Relief Society Magazine," August 1941 issue, "Aunt Em and the Gathering of the Wheat.")
When the grain elevator at Salt Lake City’s Welfare Square was dedicated, it was filled with Relief Society wheat. This stored wheat kick-started the church’s welfare program. The wheat that was sold to the government earned the women a lot of money. Some of this money was turned over to the church for welfare purposes, while the interest was given back to the women.
With the interest, the women started the social welfare programs of the LDS Church before turning over those programs to the welfare department.
In 1978, Relief Society General President Sister Barbara B. Smith turned over approximately $3 million in wheat and money to the welfare department, finally ending this century-long project. That’s why there are wheat stalks on the Relief Society emblem. (For this story, and many other amazing contributions by the Relief Society, see "Women of Covenant," by Jill Derr, Janath Cannon and Maureen Beecher).
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Today, Relief Societies all across the world continue to find avenues where they can help supply welfare, which typically is for members of the LDS Church, and humanitarian needs, which goes to those around the world regardless of religion. The two work hand-in-hand to take care of emergencies and help people in need to get back on their feet as soon as they are able.
This legacy, where the Relief Society and priesthood work so closely together, continues today. With every disaster that strikes, helpless people will find yellow T-shirt-clad folks of the Mormon Helping Hands ready to clean up, gather and unload food and supplies, and give a helping hand whenever and wherever needed.
Jan Tolman blogs about the Relief Society's history as well as the role of women in the church at www.ldswomenofgod.com/blog.