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Relief Society Evolution: Vision and Visibility

By: Guest - June 11, 2014

Today’s post comes from Kate Holbrook.  Kate is a Specialist in Women’s History  at the LDS Church History Department.   She completed her Ph.D in Religious Studies at Boston University this spring and most recently contributed a chapter entitled  “Good to Eat: Culinary Priorities in the Nation of Islam and Latter-day Saint Church” in Religion, Food, and Eating in North America published by Columbia University Press this year.

Relief Society endeavors have changed during the organization’s 172-year history. Some narratives frame the shift in Relief Society activities as a loss, arguing that the organization possessed greater visibility and autonomy during its first 150 years than it does now. We celebrate the achievements of our LDS foremothers in medicine, in politics, in organizing the affairs of the kingdom. Their contributions were often visible and measurable, affecting not just their families or their local congregations but the entire church, and indeed, society at large. In contrast, the work of Relief Society in the twenty-first century can seem small—most efforts are confined to individual stakes, wards, or families. But the idea that modern Relief Society work is a diminished version of the original begs the question: how do we measure the success of a religious organization for women?

As with most ways we try to define and make sense of the world, our impression that our grandmothers’ Relief Society was more successful than our own is both true and false. Relief Society projects used to be defined at headquarters for all members to follow, and people consequently had a more concrete idea about what Relief Society members did, because so many of them were doing similar work. I think those who mourn a loss of Relief Society visibility long for the purpose, momentum, and heady sense of playing on a righteous team that can come with visibility. But even without such widespread recognition of their work, many women today choose to make Relief Society a meaningful part of their lives, to be possessed of a Relief Society vision. All over the world, every day, these women do successful Relief Society work. Reviewing some changes in Relief Society activity from the early days of the church to the present may help us understand how broad visibility of the organization’s work has sometimes equated to a perception of greater success.

Wheat gathering is an example of Relief Society work that was more uniform, and therefore more visible, than it is now. Gathering wheat gave women through the (very small) church a sense of unity, vitality, and purpose. Relief Society women first began to collect wheat in 1876, when church president Brigham Young called on Emmeline Wells to use her immeasurable organizing skills, her position as chief editor of the Woman’s Exponent, and her influence as Relief Society general secretary to organize a wheat collection program. Women gleaned wheat, grew wheat, loaned wheat, and even sold wheat until the program became part of the General Church Welfare Committee in 1940.[1] The Church Welfare Program officially began in 1936 and finished construction of Welfare Square (in its initial form) in 1941. Welfare Square is most recognizable for its grain silo, which towers above the surrounding area with a capacity to hold 318,000 bushels of wheat. Relief Society wheat paid for the grain that filled that tower, and local Salt Lake City wards contributed labor and funds for its construction.[2] Because of their efforts, “Wheat became an enduring symbol of Relief Society commitment and accomplishment, one of its official emblems,” as Women of Covenant records.[3] Twenty sheaves of three-dimensional wheat, forged of shining bronze, adorn the Relief Society building’s granite exterior walls—a highly visible symbol of the crucial contributions of Relief Society women to the work of the church.[4] We have no equivalent, inspiring evidence of Relief Society cooperation today.

International membership growth contributed to Relief Society’s decision to cease initiating visible, uniform, church-wide projects.[5] Carol Clark, who worked on the Homemaking Committee during the 1970s and early ’80s when Barbara B. Smith was President, recalled an elaborate event the Relief Society held in the late 1970s with the theme, “Orange you glad for oranges.”[6] Clark now explains that you can’t plan lessons around oranges when members live in parts of the world where they don’t have oranges. Relief Society therefore came to pursue a philosophy of local autonomy. Certainly, the LDS Church has a substantially more standardized approach to church-building than one sees in Catholic congregations in Latin America, for example. But consider whence we have come. With the earliest publication of the Relief Society Bulletin in 1914, curriculum developed outlining lessons for Relief Society meetings and activities in detail.[7] So the fact that local Relief Society presidencies now choose what to teach their members on the first Sunday of every month, that local stake presidency leaders choose which contemporary talks and topics to study during priesthood and Relief Society meetings on the fourth and fifth Sundays of every month, and that local Relief Societies choose how often to hold weeknight meetings and what to do at those meetings is a pronounced change.

One result of this glocalization of Relief Society endeavors is that uniform messages from headquarters now focus on spiritual rather than practical matters. This shift away from physical work has made the efforts of Relief Society less visible, but successes in spiritual work could hardly be considered less valuable. I have been studying twentieth-century discourses by women and have found that many a Relief Society general conference from the early twentieth century would pass without a single talk focused on spiritual matters because board members had so many practical and business matters to address at the conference. That some of us consider the visible, financially substantive activities of centuries past to be more successful than the spiritual work that is the focus of Relief Society today says more about our own criteria for establishing importance than it does about the quality of the work being performed.

Trends for mainline Protestant women’s groups show that Relief Society is not the only organization to undergo changes in uniformity and visibility over the past fifty years. According to R. Marie Griffith, mainline Protestant women’s organizations now have less momentum because some women who would have been active in the organizations during the 1950s and ’60s have now joined the clergy; because many women now have less time, particularly if they pursue full-time, paid employment; and because the membership is sufficiently diverse that they often cannot agree on common causes to which to devote their support.[8] The latter two pressures impact LDS women as well. LDS women have myriad pulls on their time, and their racial, cultural, and political diversity results in competing priorities. Relief Societies still do good works, but they do them on a local level.
While the work done by Relief Society over the years has changed, the purpose women have envisioned for Relief Society has generally been constant. The name Relief Society makes the organization sound like its primary function is to provide relief. But Relief Society has always sought to strengthen women spiritually as well as to provide service, and these are interrelated responsibilities—providing service increases spiritual power and spiritual power increases women’s capacity to serve. The spiritual vision of Relief Society has never changed, and it has also always been less visible than endeavors focused more exclusively on service. The Nauvoo Relief Society minutes refer to the spiritual role of Relief Society, but that role is harder to see than efforts to help the poor. At a meeting of the original Relief Society in Nauvoo, Lucy Mack Smith expressed her wish that members of the organization would: “cherish one another, watch over one another, comfort one another and gain instruction, that we may all sit down in heaven together.”[9] Smith’s vision of Relief Society as an institution that saw to spiritual as well as physical needs represented well the work of that early organization, and the vision persisted. Most recently, Julie Beck defined Relief Society’s purpose as, “to organize, teach, and inspire His daughters to prepare them for the blessings of eternal life. . . . To fulfill the purpose of Relief Society, the Lord has commissioned each Relief Society sister and the organization as a whole to: 1. Increase in faith and personal righteousness. 2. Strengthen families and homes. 3. Serve the Lord and His children.” Relief Society work has always been both spiritual and physical.

Attempting to observe and measure spiritual success is treading on shaky ground (ask the Puritans). The spiritual legacy of Relief Society is less visible as something that successive generations of Relief Society members bequeath to one another, but it is nonetheless what they do bequeath to one another. I have read accounts where twentieth-century Relief Society general presidents worry that not enough women have the vision of Relief Society. At this point in my study of LDS women’s history, I do not think that the majority of LDS women have ever had the vision of Relief Society. We look nostalgically back at the heroes who did: Sarah Granger Kimball, Rachel Ivins Grant, and Susa Young Gates. Starting in the late 1860s, Eliza R. Snow traveled from ward to ward with the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes she had carried across the plains, working to engender in fledgling Relief Societies an understanding of what they could be and do. But then and now, some of them took up the torch and some did not. This is the pattern. In the early twentieth century, Amy Brown Lyman founded through Relief Society the organization that became LDS Social Services. Some women did nothing. Before her first local Relief Society calling, a young Belle S. Spafford thought Relief Society was irrelevant, a gathering for older mothers.[10] But then she stayed with that calling. Without any directive from church headquarters, British Relief Society president Carol Gray and her twenty-year-old daughter, Sammy, drove relief supplies into the war zone areas of Croatia and Bosnia many times between 1992 and 1997.[11] Julia Mavimbela of Soweto, South Africa, practiced a vision of Relief Society long before she had ever heard of it, fighting apartheid, organizing women to help each other, and serving her neighbors.[12] What does it look like today when a woman has the vision of Relief Society? I see such women in my ward. I see it in their sense of purpose, their resilience, and their strength. I do not know how to measure the success of a religious organization for women. But I know the success of women ennobled by a vision of Relief Society.

[1]Jessie L. Embry, “Relief Society Grain Storage Program, 1876–1940” (Thesis, Brigham Young University, 1974), 1–2, 6. See also: Jessie L. Embry, “Grain Storage: The Balance of Power Between Priesthood Authority and Relief Society Autonomy,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15, no. 4 (Winter 1982): 59–66. Jill Mulvay Derr, Janath Russell Cannon, and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992).
[2] Donna D. Sorensen, “Church Grain Elevator Dedication,” Relief Society Magazine, October 1940, 652–53.
[3] Derr, Cannon, and Beecher, Women of Covenant, 213.
[4] Check out an online exhibit of the Relief Society at history.lds.org.
[5] Tina Hatch has argued convincingly about the influence of international church growth on the correlation of Relief Society endeavors with the church organization. Tina Hatch, “‘Changing Times Bring Changing Conditions’: Relief Society, 1960 to the Present,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 37, no. 3 (Fall 2004): 65–98.
[6] Carol Clark, interview by Kate Holbrook, October 9, 2013.
[7] Relief Society Bulletin was the name of issues published in 1914, which communicated important information in a bare-bones form. The magazine was fully designed and had more complete content by 1915, when it became the Relief Society Magazine.
[8] R. Marie Griffith, “The Generous Side of Christian Faith: The Successes and Challenges of Mainline Women’s Groups,” in The Quiet Hand of God: Faith-Based Activism and the Public Role of Mainline Protestantism, ed. John H. Evans and Robert Wuthnow (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 80–107.
[9] “Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book,” March 24, 1842, josephsmithpapers.org.
[10] Spafford eventually worked on the general board, beginning in 1937, and served as general president of Relief Society from 1945-1974.
[11] Carol R. Gray, Can I Have a Hug, Please? (Unpublished manuscript, 2005).
[12] Dale Lebaron, “Julia Mavimbela,” Ensign, March 1995.

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4 Comments

  1. Thank you for this historical perspective, Kate! I have never thought about how our current lesson structure, with presidencies choosing their own topics, and 4th Sunday teachers relating talks to local circumstances, could be a measure of the success of RS. By the standard of doing our own thinking and receiving the accompanying growth, we are doing better than in the past.

    I see how our history has a lot to do with our traditions regarding our activities. There is much talk on the blogs about RS budgets. Much of the discussion is regarding lost autonomy. Other talk is that some say that it would be better to spend the RS allocation filling needs of local families (as fast offering funds are used) rather than on dinners for ourselves. But fast offering funds already exist. And we (unlike the EQ and HP) are instructed to hold activities, and these often these activities cost money beyond refreshments. I think one of the purposes of these activities is to include women who are called to Primary and YW and otherwise would not have much interaction with their sisters. But the same is true of the men. In fact, the men are more fractured, being split into EQ and HP.

    Comment by Jennifer — June 11, 2014 @ 3:50 pm

  2. Thanks Kate, I really enjoyed this.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 11, 2014 @ 5:59 pm

  3. Thanks for this post, Kate. It made me think of this past weekend’s MHA and Jehu Hanciles lecture on globalization. I’m wondering if women are the ones leading out on this issue, but their efforts are not noted because of visibility issues and what is considered to be “important”. While definitely beginning steps, the new YW General Board as well as RS glocalization efforts, could be seen as improvements in enculturation.

    Comment by Kris — June 11, 2014 @ 10:44 pm

  4. Perhaps you should take into account the writings of the Women’s Exponent in your study? This is a rich perspective into the history of the Relief Society both spiritually and temporally. In 1914 Emmeline B Wells addressed the Relief Society to discuss the concerns your post discusses:

    “We feel impressed by the dignity of this, the first woman’s organization in the Church, and would like to awaken those who are indifferent to its significance as a school of spiritual and moral advancement…We must each of us seek for an increase of faith in our Heavenly Father, and in the Gospel that has been restored in this day and age. We must not look only to the material well being of our own households…”

    The whole letter is written as to inspire the sisters of the Relief Society as they embark on a New Year. It discusses the relationship between the temporal and spiritual work of the RS and the harmony that must exist between sisters as it becomes a global effort. Emmeline was always ahead of her time.

    Comment by Asisterinzion — June 16, 2014 @ 1:25 am