The remarkable lives of early, everyday Relief Society sisters are slowly coming to light through diligent research and a desire to make them known to their descendants, even as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints celebrate the organization's 175th anniversary.
One year ago, Church Historian's Press published "The First Fifty Years of Relief Society," an 800-page volume featuring photos, documents, minutes and other records that capture the development of one of the largest women's organizations in the world.
The book's full content is now available for online at churchhistorianspress.org. One of the website's main features is a biographical directory consisting of more than 2,000 names. Sister Patricia L. Spilsbury, a church history missionary, is one of several volunteers who has compiled biographical information for these women (and some men) mentioned in the documents.
"There are seeds of so many stories in there ... sad stories, interesting stories, and most are about the everyday members of the church," Spilsbury said in a recent interview with the Deseret News. "We read they 'joined the church and crossed the plains,' but there is so much more to the story. If you look at the biographies online, you will find all this source information. That’s where the seeds of the stories come from.
"If people will get into those seeds, look and see what the sources tell them, they can really find some amazing stories — stories of faith, determination, of commitments to the covenants they have made. Life wasn’t easy for them," she said. "The world wasn't a friendly place for them either. Yet they went along, one foot in front of the other and did what they could. That’s what Saints do."
The missionary shared a few such stories, and FamilySearch confirmed a plan to connect these faithful Relief Society members with their descendants. One of the purposes in finding these lost women is so families can perform their temple work, Spilsbury said.
One of the first women Spilsbury researched was identified by Sarah Kimball as "a maiden lady seamstress" named "Miss Cook."
One day, Kimball and Miss Cook were discussing the needs of temple workmen and their families in the way of clothing and other supplies. Miss Cook offered to contribute if materials could be provided. Kimball agreed to be the provider and wondered if other women might be interested in helping under the same arrangement.
Their brief exchange played a role in the beginnings of the Relief Society. Many people know about Kimball, but they didn't know much about Miss Cook. Through extensive research and digging, Miss Cook was eventually identified as Margaret Norris Cook Blanchard, a wife, mother of four and charter member of the Relief Society who made her way to Utah and died in Clarkston, Utah, in 1874, Sister Spilsbury said.
"She saw her role as someone who is called and asked to do something and you do it," Spilsbury said. "Her way of fulfilling her covenant to her Father in Heaven, in a quiet way, what so many of us do, that was the first really meaningful story that I did."
The name of a "Sis. N. Kennedy," later identified as Nancy L. Kennedy Chapman or "Aunt Nancy," was found in the minutes of a meeting in early 1854 when a group of women met in response to Parley P. Pratt's call in October conference to feed and clothe the Indians, Spilsbury said.
Her trail was harder to follow, but Spilsbury eventually found her in various records. At one point in Nauvoo, Illinois, Kennedy was married with children but carried the surname "Chapman." Later she appeared as Kennedy again, living alone in Richmond, Utah.
"It isn't much of a stretch to recognize that when she joined the church on March 16, 1832, she did so without the approval of her husband," Spilsbury said. "She never did marry again."
Aunt Nancy worked in the bishop's storehouse/tithing office and often attended the Logan Temple to do work for her family. She frequently bore her testimony at Relief Society meetings, according to the Richmond Ward Relief Society records.
Kennedy's story is a sad one that really struck a chord with Spilsbury, she said.
"She was a valiant, strong woman," Spilsbury said. "Her obituary states 'She joined the church at an early day, passed through many sufferings for the gospel's sake, and died as she had lived, a faithful Latter-day Saint.'"
So often it's assumed that if Latter-day Saints didn't come West with the pioneers, they fell away from the church. That's not necessarily true, Spilsbury said.
Margaret McMean Martin and Sarah Conklin Boice Wright Honor are examples of women who helped build up the church outside of Utah, the missionary said.
Martin was baptized in Nauvoo in 1840. She married Eli Houghton after his first wife, Deborah Dwinell Houghton, died following the birth of the couple's ninth child. Eli Houghton was suddenly a widower with six children. He and Martin married a month later, Spilsbury said.
The new family planned to go West to Utah but first detoured to Minnesota to visit Eli Houghton's three sons. They stayed there for a season and Martin's husband died unexpectedly died, leaving her with two young children. As a result, she stayed there for another 13 years. They became active in a local LDS branch and helped support local full-time missionaries, Spilsbury said.
A way opened for Martin and one daughter to go to Utah in 1878. Another daughter and her family stayed in Minnesota. Martin moved to Salina, Sevier County, and became a plural wife of William George Ralph Campbell McFadyen. She died in 1887, Spilsbury said.
"Her family was the nucleus for the beginning of the church in Minneapolis," Spilsbury said. "It's a neat story."
Honor appears in the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes in 1842 as Sarah Boice. She joined the church in Canada and moved to Kirtland, Ohio. When the church members moved to Illinois, her first husband didn't come and was later remarried. Sarah also remarried but it ended in divorce. She eventually married Thomas Honor in 1860 and they settled in the Detroit area. She appears in a city directory in 1874 as a widow living with her son, Spilsbury said.
At a time when records have her in Detroit, temple documents show Sarah Honor received her endowment in Logan in 1884. She also performed baptisms for eight of her Conklin family members, four of her Boice extended family members and nine other friends, including a cousin of her husband. How did she get from Detroit to Logan?
"In 1884, it was possible to ride the railroad from Detroit to Chicago, Chicago to Omaha, Nebraska, and from there to Ogden," Spilsbury said. "The five- or six-day trip would have cost nearly $65, equivalent to $1,500 in 2016. What was her journey like at nearly 70 years of age? One can only imagine."
Records show she made one more trip around age 77, but returned to Detroit by 1895 and died in Chicago in 1897, Spilsbury said.
"To me, that's a story of real conversion and dedication to keeping covenants, even when it's really hard," Spilsbury said.
The descendants of the women (and a few men) featured in "The First Fifty Years of Relief Society" will soon become aware of these seeds.
A team at FamilySearch.org has identified about one million living descendants of the 2,000-plus names in "The First Fifty Years of Relief Society." As Latter-day Saints commemorate the anniversary of the Relief Society during the week of March 17, FamilySearch.org will launch an email campaign, sending relatives links to view their ancestor's biographic information, said Kathy Warburton, marketing campaign manager at FamilySearch.
"I think many people will be surprised by the discovery, as this is not something that has received a lot of attention in the past," Warburton said. "It has been exciting and inspirational for me as I have learned more about these ordinary women who helped to create something extraordinary. I think others will also be surprised and inspired by the contributions these women made."
For those who can't wait for an email, a website has been set up at FamilySearch.org/reliefsociety.
Ben Godfrey, senior product manager for the LDS Church History Department, said some descendants may know the stories of these ancestors, but many will not.
"Many will be surprised, as I was, to learn how their ancestors worked to build the Kingdom of God and to establish the Relief Society," Godfrey said. "I found that my third-great grandmother Janet Walker Redfern Hadfield was mentioned in 'The First Fifty Years.' She and her husband Joseph Hadfield were silk weavers who helped weave into cloth the silk raised by the early sisters of Relief Society. Finding this bit of information was a treasure to me as her descendant."
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