When President Bush visited Salt Lake City last week, he met with President Thomas S. Monson and his counselors at LDS Church headquarters. This was part of a grand tradition dating back to Brigham Young welcoming Ulysses S. Grant in 1875. It is commendable that Bush took the time for the visit. It is appropriate recognition of the recently ordained President Monson and a nod of respect to the entire LDS Church and its 13 million members.
The meeting in church headquarters was not a surprise, but what was exceptional was to see the honor shown to Julie Beck and the organization she presides over the church's women's auxiliary, the Relief Society. The White House decides in advance who is part of the welcome line when the president descends from Air Force One. When Bush came down the stairs Wednesday afternoon, he was greeted by Gov. Jon and Mary Kaye Huntsman, Secretary Mike and Jacalyn Leavitt, and Julie Beck, General Relief Society president.
The nation's president and the Relief Society president reportedly thanked one another for their respective service and had a humorous exchange about whom she "relieves" in her role. After the presidential motorcade departed, the honors continued as President Beck joined President Monson and his second counselor, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, in a very rare tour inside Air Force One.
Yet, this recognition of the Relief Society by the president of the United States is actually part of a long tradition dating back to 1919. That September, President Woodrow Wilson visited Utah as part of his tour to drum up support for the League of Nations. He met with church President Heber J. Grant and insisted on calling on the Hotel Utah apartment of the General Relief Society president 91-year-old, bedridden Emmeline B. Wells to thank the Relief Society for providing more than 200,000 bushels of wheat to the government during World War I.
Other presidents have acknowledged the powerful force of the LDS Relief Society, including Herbert Hoover. In 1963, John F. Kennedy invited Relief Society President Belle S. Spafford to attend a civil rights meeting at the White House with other presidents of leading women's organizations, where he heard her recommendations
In 1983, General Relief Society President Barbara B. Smith was invited to a state dinner at the White House in honor of the emir of Bahrain. She was given the honor of being seated at President Ronald Reagan's table alongside astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. "I can only think of one reason I was invited," she said. "It was a recognition of Mormon women as a viable force in society."
The following year during a visit to Utah by Reagan, he was given a tour of Welfare Square by President Gordon B. Hinckley and the new General Relief Society president, Barbara W. Winder. Reagan lauded the church's welfare efforts and the Relief Society's role in it.
In 1991 Relief Society President Elaine Jack met George Herbert Walker Bush with other church leaders. The president was reportedly quite impressed when President Hinckley introduced Sister Jack by saying, "This woman presides over 3 million women in well over a hundred nations." President George H.W. Bush commended the Relief Society for its campaign to promote literacy, which had also been an initiative of first lady Barbara Bush.This past week's subtle yet significant acknowledgement of Sister Beck and the LDS Relief Society joins this unique tradition. It is pleasing to see the president of the United States pause in his busy schedule to meet with the First Presidency, but it was a pleasant surprise to see the nod of respect to one of the world's oldest and largest women's organizations.
Michael K. Winder is the author of "Presidents and Prophets: The Story of America's Presidents and the Latter-day Saints" and a member of the Utah Board of State History.