As Nauvoo was turned from a swamp to a thriving city, temple walls began to rise. Many Mormon men tithed their time, working at the temple at least one day in 10. Mormon women also gave their time to the cause and, in the early months of 1842, met to organize themselves into an independent benevolent women’s movement and began sewing shirts for the workmen.
Sarah M. Kimball recorded in her journal,
“The Nauvoo Temple walls were about three feet high. Strong appeals were being made by the President of the Church and others for help to forward the work.
“Miss [Margaret] Cook … one day in conversation with me on the subject of a recent appeal for provisions, clothing, bedding and general supplies for the workmen and their families, remarked that she would be pleased to contribute needlework if it could be made available. I proffered material for her to make up, and suggested that others might feel as we did. We then [discussed] the subject of organizing a sewing society. The object of which should be to aid in the erection of the temple.
“About a dozen of the neighboring sisters by invitation met in my [home] the following Thursday.”
Priesthood quorums, coordinated groups of men based on priesthood office led by a president and two counselors, had been previously organized throughout Nauvoo. On 17 March 1842, Joseph Smith invited Sarah Kimball’s group of twenty Latter-day Saint women to meet with him and Elders John Taylor and Willard Richards and be organized “under the priesthood after the pattern of the priesthood” (Sarah M. Kimball).
The women assembled elected Emma Hale Smith, Joseph Smith’s wife, as the first president of the newly organized women’s organization. She selected Sarah M. Cleveland and Elizabeth Ann Whitney as two counselors to assist her. Eliza R. Snow acted as the first secretary. Elder John Taylor of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles ordained, or set apart, the presidency to their callings.
In naming the society, Joseph Smith suggested that the word “Benevolent” was a readily recognizable term, but “Relief” might be misunderstood to be relief from punishment. But, Emma Smith opposed the word “Benevolent” as it reminded her of the Washingtonian Benevolent Society, a corrupt institution. “Relief” was different from all other societies of the day. Emma Smith enthusiastically proclaimed,
“We are going to do something extraordinary. … We would consider a boat struck on the rapids a loud call for relief. We expect extraordinary occasions and pressing calls.”
The men yielded on the name. The group named the organization the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo.
Well-ordered, the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo consisted of a constitution and bylaws. At its first meeting, Joseph Smith told the ladies, “The minutes of your meetings will be precedents for you to act upon—your Constitution and law” (Minutes, 17 March 1842).
The women also elected to disband their previous benevolent society, preferring to work within the church structure.
At the meeting’s conclusion, Elder John Taylor said his
“heart rejoice[d]” when he saw “the most distinguished characters stepping forth in such a cause, which is calculated to bring into exercise every virtue and give scope to the benevolent feelings of the female heart.” He also rejoiced “to see this institution organized according to the law of heaven—according to a revelation previously given to Mrs. [Emma] Smith appointing her to this important calling—and to see all things moving forward in such a glorious manner.” His prayer was that “the blessings of God and the peace of heaven may rest on this institution henceforth.”
Growth of Relief Society in Nauvoo
In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today, every woman over the age of 18 automatically becomes a member of Relief Society. At its beginnings, however, membership was not automatic. A woman requested membership and was accepted based on core values, goodness, and virtue. Wildly popular, the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo’s membership reached more than 1,100 women by August 1842. 1,331 women joined the society by the date of the last recorded meeting in March 1844.
Objectives of Relief Society
The Female Relief Society of Nauvoo’s objectives included serving community and assisting building the temple, strengthening homes and families, and personal growth and improvement.
Emma introduced objectives for Relief Society:
To relieve the distressed
Each member should be ambitious to do good
Members should deal frankly with one another
To watch over the morals and be very careful of the character and reputation of the members
Feeding the hungry and clothing the naked
From minutes at the first meeting:
“God is looking down upon you, the angels are recording your secret acts…Let us pray daily, and try to become more refined and visionary and bring up our children to be polite and refined, that they may be useful monuments to society. Endeavor to make home happy…and while you study to dress [your children] neatly, do not neglect to adorn them with those principles which will tend to elevate and ennoble them, and prepare them for future usefulness in the kingdom of our God.”
The following excerpts from meeting minutes demonstrate the ladies’ focused service.
“Mrs. Hawkes spoke of the Drury family—still sick needing our prayers—if nothing more.”
“Sister Joshua Smith … went and visited Sister McEwen and Sister Modley. Found them and their families in suffering want. They need attendance every day.”
“P. M. Wheeler … would recommend to the charity of this society Sister Francis Lew Law, who is sick and without a home, an aged widow lady at present destitute of money.”
“Sister Peck reported Mr. Guyes and family as sick and destitute. Administered to their relief. … Mrs. Kimball stated a Mr. Charleston and family were sick, his wife very low and in great need of a nurse. Said she had assisted them.”
“The women would churn and cheerfully send their butter to the workmen on the Temple and eat without any on their own tables.”
“Sis. Jones said she would be willing to go about and solicit material, if counseled so to do—she also offered to board one to work on the temple.”
“Mrs. Durfee said if the heads of the society wished, she is willing to go abroad with a wagon and collect wool etc. for the purpose of forwarding the work.”
“Mrs. Smith suggested that merchant’s wives donate material that others may be employed.”
“Miss Wheeler said she is willing to give any portion, or all of her time—“
“Mrs. Granger [is] willing to do anything, knit, sew, or wait on the sick, as might be most useful.”
“Miss Ells said she had felt willing to go out and solicit donations etc.”
“Mrs. Angell said she was willing to repair old clothes if necessary when new material cannot be obtained.”
“Mrs. Smith proposed getting wool and furnish old ladies with yarn to knit socks to supply the workmen on the temple next winter.”
“Sis. Stringham offered to make men’s clothes and take work on the temple.”
“Sis. Felshaw proposes to give some soap.”
“Sis. Stanley proposed giving every tenth pound of flax, also one quart milk per day.”
“Miss Beman will make clothes.”
“Sis. Smith proposed getting muslin etc. from merchants not belonging to the Church, who were friendly.”
“Sis. Geen offered to donate thread of her own spinning.”
The Prophet Joseph Smith attended nine Relief Society meetings and addressed the women at six of them. Following are a few of his comments to the women as recorded in the minutes.
“I now turn the key to you in the name of God, and this society shall rejoice and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time—this is the beginning of better days to this society.”
“The [Relief] Society is not only to relieve the poor, but to save souls.”
“There should be a select society, separate from all the evils of the world, choice, virtuous, and holy.”
“The sisters are always first and foremost in all good works. Mary [Magdalene] was first at the resurrection; and the sisters now are the first to work on the inside of the temple.”
“You are now placed in a situation where you can act according to those sympathies which God has planted in your bosoms. If you live up to these principles, how great and glorious!”
“Don’t be limited in your views with regard to your neighbors’ virtues. … You must enlarge your souls toward others if you’d do like Jesus. … As you increase in innocence and virtue, as you increase in goodness, let your hearts expand—let them be enlarged towards others—you must be longsuffering and bear with the faults and errors of mankind. How precious are the souls of men!”
“We can only live by worshipping our God—all must do it for themselves—none can do it for another.”
“Sisters … shall there be strife among you? I will not have it—you must repent and get the love of God.” “Not war, not jangle, not contradiction, but meekness, love, purity, these are the things that should magnify us.”
“Let this society teach how to act towards husbands, to treat them with mildness and affection. When a man is borne down with trouble—when he is perplexed, if he can meet a smile, not an argument—if he can meet with mildness, it will calm down his soul and soothe his feelings. When the mind is going to despair, it needs a solace. … When you go home never give a cross word, but let kindness, charity and love, crown your works.”
“The nearer we get to our Heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs.”
“Nothing is so much calculated to lead people to forsake sin as to take them by the hand and watch over them with tenderness. When persons manifest the least kindness and love to me, O what power it has over my mind, while the opposite course has a tendency to harrow up all the harsh feelings and depress the human mind.”
The recorded minutes of the Relief Society meetings from 1842-1844 are perusable at Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book.