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The Beginning of Better Days

By: Jenny R - March 18, 2013

First I must say this: Hooray! The publication of the Nauvoo Relief Society Minutes has been a long time coming—one hundred and seventy one years, to be exact. The Beginning of Better Days: Divine Instruction to Women from the Prophet Joseph Smith, ed. by Sheri Dew and Virginia H. Pearce, presents powerful words and meaningful experiences, both with the Nauvoo Relief Society and with its interpretation.

beginningWhy the excitement? The Nauvoo Relief Society Minutes contain the organizational founding of the Relief Society, a female counterpart to priesthood and patriarchal leadership. The women elected lady leaders and established a purpose: to save souls and provide relief to the poor. “We are going to do something extraordinary,” said Emma Smith, first president of the Relief Society and the prophet’s wife. “We expect pressing calls,” she continued, “and extraordinary occasions.”[1] Officially sanctioned, the Relief Society engaged in religious, charitable, economic, political, and cultural activity and initiated a new emphasis on recording, remembering, and retaining the authority of the past. The Minutes record information about women and their connection to God, to the temple, to priesthood, to families, and to each other. Here Joseph Smith connected members of the Relief Society with ancient women, he empowered them to act as holy women, and he provided them with the information they needed to forge through mortality and beyond.

After Brigham Young officially disbanded the Relief Society in 1845, Eliza R. Snow carefully wrapped up the Minutes and carried them across the plains, keeping them until another period of “better days” would come for this ancient Society.[2] When Young reinstated the Relief Society in 1866 and called Snow to lead the effort, she pulled out her well-worn minutes and got to work. She brought the Minutes with her as she traveled throughout the territory, using them as a tangible example to teach proper order and appropriate spirit.[3]

Various iterations of the Minutes have surfaced here and there. Selections appeared in the Deseret News and the Woman’s Exponent, often with discreet editing which twisted meanings.[4] Emmeline B. Wells had had painstakingly copied her own version, which she used to consult and study and emulate as she served as the fifth General Relief Society president. Amy Brown Lyman also had her own copy.[5] The Joseph Smith Papers have published on their website scans and transcriptions of the minutes’ full run. (Here.)

Deseret Book published the collection of Joseph Smith’s six sermons to the Relief Society in the summer of 2012. The Beginning of Better Days is a beautifully designed book with space for notes, inviting readers to study, ponder, note, and engage with the content. The Minutes have become tangible once again, inviting a deeper understanding of Joseph Smith and his concept of holy women.

Virginia Pearce and Sheri Dew present interesting introductory insight into the Minutes. Their essays provide two very different examples of how twenty-first century women have engaged with the Nauvoo Relief Society. Pearce’s essay opens with an insightful personal epiphany about women in the temple and the priesthood. Her account of her own spiritual enlightening presents perhaps the most orthodox feminist approach published by Deseret Book. Dew’s essay seems more devotional, recognizing the turmoil of many women as they have struggled with questions of equality and priesthood. Dew presents a pro forma explanation for why women don’t have the priesthood, quoting significant general authorities to back up her view. The edited sermons take up forty pages, while introductory essays by Pearce and Dew make up eighty-six pages. While the book invites personal engagement and application, the format presents more of two women’s interpretations than actual primary material with which to engage.

The focus of this edition of the Nauvoo Relief Society Minutes is on Joseph Smith’s sermons. They are powerful and noteworthy. But the women’s voices themselves are missing. We lose the rich conversation of the Nauvoo women, their interpretation, their expression of faith and love and question and concern. We don’t see the way they understood and practiced Joseph’s words, or what prompted their eventual demise. Also missing is the historical context to such issues as plural marriage, women blessing each other, speaking in tongues, or other practices common in the Nauvoo Relief Society. Nor do we see how the Minutes were picked up again by Sarah Kimball in Salt Lake City with “Relief Society Minutes, vol. 2,” where she carefully recorded the renewal of the Society in a new time and place, following the same instruction and memory as before.[6]

Jill Mulvay Derr and Carol Cornwall Madsen’s future volume of foundational Relief Society documents promises a wealth of information, including primary documents, annotations, a lengthy biographical register, and analysis of the Nauvoo and early Utah Relief Societies. As careful historians, they will provide the rich context, the conversation, the nuances, the relationships, and the outcomes of Nauvoo and Joseph Smith over the next fifty years.

These really are the beginning of better days. Just you wait.


[1] “Nauvoo Relief Society Minutes, 1842-1844,” 17 March 1842, Church History Library.

[2] The official organization abruptly ended in the spring of 1845 when Brigham Young, Smith’s successor, officially condemned such a gathering of women. “When I want Sisters or the Wives of the members of the Church to get up Relief Society,” Young proclaimed, “I will summon them to my aid, but until that time let them stay at home & if you see Females huddling together, veto the concern, and if they say Joseph started it all tell them it is a damned lie for I know he never encouraged it.” “General Record of the Seventies, 1844-1847,” Church History Library, 9 March 1845.

[3] Jill Mulvay Derr and Carol Cornwall Madsen, “Preserving the Record and Memory of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, 1842-92,” Journal of Mormon History 35, no. 3 (Summer 2009): 88–117.

[4] The most significant changed Joseph Smith’s phrase, “I now turn the key to you,” to “I now turn the key in your behalf.” See, for example, “The Female Relief Society in the 14th Ward,” Deseret News, May 20, 1857; “The 14th Ward Female Relief Society,” Deseret News, August 5, 1857; “Fifteenth Ward Female Relief Society,” Deseret News, February 10, 1869; L.D. Alder, “Minutes of the 28th Meeting and First Annual Meeting of the Female Relief Society of the 17th Ward, S.L. City,” Deseret News, April 14, 1869; Emmeline B. Wells, “Heartfelt Farewell,” Woman’s Exponent, February 1914; Louise Y. Robison, “A Tribute,” Relief Society Magazine, 1936; Julia A.F. Lund, “Relief Society Conference: Women in Nauvoo,” Relief Society Magazine, 1930. This phrase, “The Organ of the Latter-day Saints’ Woman’s Relief Society” first appeared on the masthead of the Woman’s Exponent in September 1912. In the concluding edition, editor Emmeline B. Wells wrote, “We love the Relief Society—that great organization this little paper has ever sought to represent and build up. . . The Exponent has striven more than anything else to be the organ of the Relief Society and has published from time to time, reports of ward, stake and general conferences of that organization, their celebrations and their resolutions. Its numbers contain sketches of the lives of Relief Society workers and notices of their deaths. It has surely performed a mission in the midst of Zion for the women of Zion, holding as it does within its leaves the history of their work.” Emmeline B. Wells, “Heartfelt Farewell,” Woman’s Exponent, February 1914.

[5] Both versions are held at the L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

[6] Kimball started this book in 1880 when Eliza R. Snow was officially called and set apart by John Taylor as the president of all female organizations, a position known today as the General Relief Society President. Sarah M. Kimball, “Relief Society Record, 1880-1892,” Church History Library, Salt Lake City.



8 Comments

  1. I’m looking forward to Jill Derr and Carol Madsen’s RS volume! I know that reading Emma Smith’s biography certainly gave a different context to some of the RS history…I wonder how they will contextualize the emergence of polygamy that was going on? Anyway, as you say, better days ahead! It’s wonderful to see so much more history coming to light!

    Comment by Rachael — March 18, 2013 @ 10:31 am

  2. Great stuff, Jenny, and you are the perfect person to do this review.

    Comment by Ben P — March 18, 2013 @ 10:39 am

  3. Good work JR.

    You’ve said this, but it makes me think more about the significance of Pearce’s essay. Dew’s seems to be a kind of standard LDS method–interpret something you don’t understand through twentieth century prophetic statements (which may or may not really apply). In contrast, Pearce works to see historical context as a source of authority as well as her own personal experience as authoritative. I think that although the more complete historical context will be fabulous (we’re all waiting), the fact that the DB imprimatur has authorized this “orthodox feminist approach” is, I think, significant in and of itself. Add that to The God Who Weeps and that could be the beginnings of a different looking DB.

    Comment by JJohnson — March 18, 2013 @ 11:37 am

  4. Thanks, Jenny. I love those examples where women copied the minutes into their own record.

    I have wanted to go through and track which publications used which source for their reproductions of the minutes. Lot’s of interesting things to do with this material.

    I reviewed the Pearce and Dew essays and found the former to be very encouraging. Essentially a performative reading qua revelation.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 18, 2013 @ 12:25 pm

  5. Thanks, Jenny. Very useful review.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — March 18, 2013 @ 9:02 pm

  6. Thanks, Jenny, for sharing this. I look forward to reading it, and I’m hoping that our Bishop will extend our March talks on RS to include talks based on the Nauvoo RS Minutes. I have it on good authority that he will ;)

    Comment by katie blakesley — March 18, 2013 @ 10:49 pm

  7. Nice. Between your review and J.’s, this book is moving its way up my list of books to buy.

    Comment by Amy T — March 18, 2013 @ 11:07 pm

  8. Thanks for the review. I appreciate the comparison between Pearce and Dew.

    Comment by BHodges — March 21, 2013 @ 4:21 pm