It didn't escape my notice that this blog is starting on the 173rd anniversary of the founding of the Relief Society. Here is something I wrote for the occasion several years ago.
Today is the anniversary of the original founding of the Relief Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In 1842, women associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo, Illinois, saw a need for a charitable organization, and wrote a constitution and by-laws. They presented the documents to Joseph Smith for review, and he suggested that their organization looked good, but that the Lord had something more important for women and that he would organize them as an auxiliary of the church.
The Female Relief Society of Nauvoo met first on March 17, 1842. Emma Smith was president of the organization with Sarah Cleveland and Elizabeth Ann Whitney as counselors, and Eliza R. Snow as secretary. The women worked together for "the relief of the poor, the destitute, the widow and the orphan, and...the exercise of all benevolent purposes."
The Relief Society quickly became a large and useful organization which visited homes and solicited help for the poor. The organization last met in March 1844 and did not hold meetings as the church moved west.
Ten years later, women in Salt Lake City saw the need to provide clothing for Native Americans, and resumed meeting for several years. In 1866, Brigham Young appointed Eliza R. Snow to reorganize the Relief Society throughout the church. She consulted her original minute book and traveled from ward to ward and taught three guiding principles: taking care of the poor, taking care of the Church, and becoming economically self-sufficient.
The Relief Society took on a variety of projects including blessing the sick, teaching, storing wheat in case of a time of need, running cooperative stores, sending women to medical school in the East, and training midwives and nurses. Here is some biographical information about one of the Relief Society-trained midwives: Margaret Jarvis.
Many women have made their membership in Relief Society an integral part of their lives, and the story of their lives in aggregate is really the story of the Relief Society, including the story of Elizabeth Hayward's involvement in the suffrage movement. Working for women's suffrage and women's rights was one of the major projects of the Relief Society for many years under the direction of President Emmeline Wells and the Relief Society newspaper, the Woman's Exponent. "The Rights of the Women of Zion, and the Rights of the Women of all Nations," was the text on its masthead. The Relief Society published the Woman's Exponent from 1872 to 1913.
The Relief Society made some changes in 1913 and 1914. It adopted the motto, "Charity Never Faileth," and started publishing the Relief Society Magazine instead of the Woman's Exponent. The Relief Society continued in its local and national and worldwide relief efforts. They are too numerous to list here, but some efforts included being the first organization to provide relief to the victims of the great San Francisco Earthquake, providing 200,000 bushels of wheat to the United States government in a time of crisis during World War I, assisting in Red Cross efforts during both World Wars, and providing relief to Japan and the nations of Europe after World War II.
Most of the Relief Society efforts remained local, though. Women cared for each other and for families in their communities and visited and taught each other. It was a major part of life for many women, and continues so today as one of the oldest and largest women's organizations in the world.
The image of Emma Smith is from Wikipedia. The image of Margaret Jarvis is from family collections. This post is very loosely based on an article I wrote for Paul Reeve and Ardis Parshall’s Mormonism: a Historical Encyclopedia (2010). The best comprehensive history of the Relief Society is Derr, Cannon, and Beecher's Women of Covenant: The Story of the Relief Society (1992). The official Church history of the Relief Society is the book and website Daughters in My Kingdom.