Though they lived during different time periods, the general presidents of the Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints all have had similar goals to help build unity, provide watch care and service, and stand as advocates of the family.
And each president touched the lives of the sisters for whom they had stewardship. Below are stories about some of the remarkable women who led the Relief Society organization taken from the book "Women of Character: Profiles of 100 LDS Women."
Emma Hale Smith
Emma Hale Smith is arguably the most famous LDS woman of the 19th century, yet she did not leave a journal or an autobiography, but she did leave a few letters. Gratefully, contemporaries wrote of her life — none more so than her husband Joseph Smith.
To the Prophet Joseph, she was “My beloved Emma — she that was my wife, even the wife of my youth, and the choice of my heart . . . undaunted, firm, and unwavering — unchangeable, affectionate Emma!”
She was the only woman to serve as a scribe for the translation of the Book of Mormon. Of her role as scribe, Emma said, “My belief is that the Book of Mormon is of divine authenticity — I have not the slightest doubt of it. I am satisfied that no man could have dictated the writing of the manuscript unless he was inspired; for, when acting as his scribe, your father (this was said to Joseph Smith III) would dictate to me hour after hour; and when returning after meals, or after interruptions, he could at once begin where he had left off, without either seeing the manuscript or having any portion of it read to him.”
Emma graciously welcomed both the poor and the acclaimed into her home and was the president of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo. Under her guidance, women searched out those in need and ministered to them. Through their service heavy burdens were lifted, sorrows too severe to be carried alone were shared, and necessities needed to sustain life were freely proffered.
Emma participated in temple ordinance work, acting as proxy for extended family members. She wrote letters in defense of Joseph Smith to the governor of Illinois, even traveling to Quincy, Ill., to meet with him on this important matter. She cared for Lucy Mack Smith for five years as Lucy suffered from crippling arthritis. Mother Smith said of Emma, “I have never seen a woman in my life, who would endure every species of fatigue and hardship, from month to month, and from year to year, with that unflinching courage, zeal and patience, which she has ever done.”
Barbara Bradshaw Smith
“This is a new era for women — a time of greater opportunities, of more choices for personal development and service, of more possibilities for expanding the reaches of the mind and the heart,” said Barbara Bradshaw Smith at a time when passage of the Equal Rights Amendment seemed imminent and many LDS women were questioning their role as women in the church. Barbara, Relief Society general president, assured a worldwide church that the most important role for a woman was to be an honorable daughter, wife and mother.
President Spencer W. Kimball extended the call to Barbara to be the Relief Society general president in October 1974. Barbara served as general president of the Relief Society from 1974 to 1984. During her presidency, she garnered much public attention for speaking out against the ERA. She said of this highly controversial subject:
“The blanket approach of the Equal Rights Amendment is, in my opinion, a confused step backward in time, instead of a clear stride forward into the future. It will create endless litigation in the courts in which legal decisions are made which might create circumstances harmful to the solidarity of the family and the optimum protection of children. And because it does not define some differences between men and women, I think it might be very destructive to families.”
When her views on the ERA movement became public, Barbara was asked to appear on the nationally syndicated Phil Donahue Show. After her appearance, she had many people approach her and share their opinions of the ERA.
Barbara also visited sisters confined in the Santa Rita Prison — a mother of nine with insufficient funds in the bank to cover her checks and a woman addicted to harmful drugs. These heart-rending visits enlarged her thinking about compassionate service.
Barbara’s message of compassion and reaching out to help the “one” was timely: during her presidency the Relief Society grew to 2 million members worldwide, nearly a 1,300 percent increase from 1942.
Mary Ellen Smoot
Today millions of sisters around the world are blessed by Mary Ellen Smoot’s compassion and love.
During her growing-up years, her father was bishop of the Clearfield First Ward, and church was not just a Sunday devotional.
“Our father would not leave (the home) until we were all called to kneel in prayer each morning and have breakfast together,” she recalled. If not going to church, her father was going next door to the Smith Canning Factory where he was field manager and later plant manager. Her mother had responsibility for hiring women and overseeing their work.
As an adult, Mary Ellen reached out to her community, writing “The City in Between,” a history of Centerville, Utah. She also served in the Parent Teacher Association, on the advisory board of The Friend, on a correlation writing committee, and as a columnist for her local newspaper.
In 1983, when her husband Stan was called to be president of the Ohio Columbus Mission, Mary Ellen set aside her civic activity to support her husband in this important assignment. She was also by his side when he was asked to open the Ohio Akron Mission. The same was true in 1993, when they were both called to be directors of Church Hosting. This assignment placed them in a position to meet politicians, ambassadors and other dignitaries. Frequently, it also placed them in a position to have many meaningful conversations with church leaders.
It was during a conversation with President Gordon B. Hinckley in April 1997 that Mary Ellen was called to be the general Relief Society president. During her first year as president of the Relief Society, she traveled to 21 countries to meet with Relief Society sisters and attended a planning session for the World Congress on Families held in Rome.
As occasional self-doubts arose, she reviewed the words of the late President J. Reuben Clark: “The task ahead of us is never as great as the power behind us.”
When attempting to share these inspiring words with President Hinckley, she inadvertently said, “The task ahead of us is greater than the power behind us,” she recalled. “We both had a good laugh.”
Belle Smith Spafford
In 1974 Belle Spafford told an interviewer, “Membership in the church is a tremendous privilege. Membership in Relief Society is a special privilege. There’s nothing like (Relief Society) for a woman to develop herself, to serve humanity, to find self-expression, to structure her own life wisely and well.”
No one realized these truths more than Belle, who served as the Relief Society general president for 29 years. In her faithful service, Belle not only helped others realize the great blessings offered by Relief Society, but demonstrated her leadership skill as well as she helped thousands become converted to the organization’s purpose, “Charity Never Faileth.”
While a young mother, Belle was called to be second counselor in her ward Relief Society. She was “shocked” by the call because she had told the bishop of her desire to teach children or youths. At the time she believed that Relief Society was an organization for her mother and that she did not have the right experience for her new calling. Her bishop reminded Belle that the calling was from God and refused to grant Belle’s requests to be released — once when her children became ill and again when she was injured in a car accident. Both times her bishop said, “I still don’t get the feeling that you should be released from Relief Society.” Years later, Belle felt great gratitude to her bishop for the opportunity to serve in Relief Society, for it helped prepare her for greater responsibilities ahead.
In 1935, Belle was called to be a member of the Relief Society General Board. Two years later, she was not only serving in a general capacity, but still had her ward Relief Society calling and also served as counselor in her stake Relief Society as well. In the same year, she was invited by editors of The Relief Society Magazine to join their staff; she accepted, and within a short time, President Heber J. Grant requested that Belle become editor of the magazine. During that interim she saw a tremendous growth in the number of magazine subscribers.
In 1945, Belle was called to be the Relief Society general president. She expected to serve as president for “only five years.” Much to her surprise, Belle served for the next 29 years, serving under six presidents of the LDS Church.
Like all great leaders, Belle realized the importance of “reaching the one.” She encouraged her sisters to fulfill their obligations to visit teach by saying, “While the actual visit to the home may seem a simple and uneventful call, countless times it has been the means whereby a miracle takes place in the life of a sister.”
Belle demonstrated in a clear manner a love for each sister in her society. After her death in February 1982, countless women told her grieving family “Belle was their best friend.” One friend wrote, “(Love) made her a great leader because she could talk to anyone, she could approach anyone and be accepted. She had that quality about her.”
When Barbara Winder received a letter informing her that she smiled too much, she said, “I thought that must be a really unhappy person! I do try to be cheerful, so I was complimented by that person’s observation.”
Financial challenges were an occurrence in Barbara’s home when she was a child. And there were spiritual challenges as well. Although her parents were inactive in the church, they supported her activity, but seldom took her to meetings. She spent lots of time at the neighbors’ home because she “enjoyed the Spirit there and the gospel discussions.”
During her sophomore year at the University of Utah, she met Richard Winder, who had just returned from a mission in Czechoslovakia. Two-and-a-half weeks after their first date, they were engaged.
Barbara and Richard raised their four children on Winder Lane, a rural road on the Winder dairy farm in Granger, Utah. Up and down the lane there were families related to Richard. “We raised our children together,” Barbara recalled. “Cousins were more like brothers and sisters to our children than cousins.
In 1984 Barbara was called by President Hinckley to be the 11th General President of the Relief Society. During her presidency she emphasized that the Relief Society program was a means of accomplishing the mission of the church — “Come unto Christ.”
She was also a leading advocate of visiting teaching.
comment on this story
“It is vital that each sister have visiting teachers — to convey a sense that she is needed, that someone loves and thinks about her,” said Barbara. “But equally important is the way the visiting teacher is able to grow in charity. By assigning our women to do visiting teaching, we give them the opportunity to develop the pure love of Christ, which can be the greatest blessing of their lives.”
Susan Easton Black and Mary Jane Woodger are the authors of the book “Women of Character: Profiles of 100 Prominent LDS Women," published by Covenant Communications.