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
“Each of us has a vital role, even a sacred mission to perform as a daughter in Zion. It is a new day, the dawning of a new era. It is our time, and it is our destiny to rejoice as we fill the earth with greater kindness and gentleness, greater love and compassion, greater sympathy and empathy than has ever been known before. It is time to give ourselves to the Master and allow Him to lead us into fruitful fields where we can enrich a world filled with darkness and misery. Each of us, no matter who we are, no matter where we serve, must arise and make the most of each opportunity that comes. We must follow the counsel given by the Lord and His servants and make our homes houses of prayer and havens of security and safety. We can and must deepen our faith by increasing our obedience and sacrifice. In this individual process, a miracle will take place. The Relief Society will begin to stretch and reach out to the millions in need. It will continue to become an organization that brings relief and rejoicing. This will happen, one sister at a time. We will unite in our righteousness and truly partake of the fruit of the tree of life together. The fruits of our labors can heal the world, and, sisters, in the process they can heal us too!” — Mary Ellen Smoot, Ensign, November 1999
“Sisters, we have work to do. The time has come for us to be anxiously engaged in the work of saving souls. The time has come for the sisters of Relief Society to stand with and for the prophet in helping build the kingdom.” — Sheri L. Dew, Ensign, November 2000
“In order to be successful in Relief Society work, one must not only partake of the influence of it, but must put one’s soul into the work and give it the stamp and seal of her personal life and character; and be so engrossed with the real merit and beauty of it as to be joyous and make it a part, as it were of herself, a life work — and assuredly a work of love.” — Emmeline B. Wells
“Women of God can never be like women of the world. The world has enough women who are tough; we need women who are tender. There are enough women who are coarse; we need women who are kind. There are enough women who are rude; we need women who are refined. We have enough women of fame and fortune; we need more women of faith. We have enough greed; we need more goodness. We have enough vanity; we need more virtue. We have enough popularity; we need more purity.” — Margaret D. Nadauld
“It is not for you to be led by the women of the world; it is for you to lead the … women of the world, in everything that is praiseworthy, everything that is God-like, everything that is uplifting and … purifying to the children of men.” — Joseph F. Smith, "Teachings of Presidents of the Church"
Jan Tolman is a mother of six who enjoys spending time researching the history of Relief Society. For additional information on Relief Society, visit her blog at www.ldswomenofgod.com/blog.