“Something Extraordinary”: The Beginnings of the Relief Society

5 September 2018

In early 1842, Nauvoo bustled with activity as work on the temple progressed. The Prophet Joseph Smith invited everyone to help, whether with the actual construction or with contributions to help support the workmen and their families.

Two women, Sarah M. Kimball and Margaret Cook, discussed how they could make clothing for the workmen, and they invited about a dozen women to join them in forming a sewing society. When they told Joseph Smith about their idea, he praised their efforts but told them that the Lord had “something better for them.”1

On March 17, 1842, Joseph Smith and other priesthood leaders met with 20 women in the upper room of the Red Brick Store to organize this “something better.” Eliza R. Snow was elected as secretary of the group, and she and others carefully recorded the proceedings of each meeting in this minute book.2

Joseph Smith told the women at their first meeting, “The minutes of your meetings will be precedents for you to act upon—your Constitution and law.”3 The minute book records 34 meetings between March 1842 and March 1844. During this time, a total of 1,331 women enrolled as members, most of them joining during the first year.4

The minutes record the group’s discussion about what to call their new society. It was originally proposed to call it the Benevolent Society, a term that was popular among women’s groups at the time. Emma Smith, the group’s newly elected president, objected to the term because she did not “wish to have it called after other Societies of the world.”5 Eliza R. Snow agreed, saying, “As daughters of Zion, we should set an example for all the world.” She objected to the title “Relief Society,” however, because it sounded as though they were responding to “extraordinary occasions instead of meeting the common occurrences.” Emma replied, “We are going to do something extraordinary— . . . we expect extraordinary occasions and pressing calls.”6

The Relief Society had a much grander vision than other ladies’ societies of the time. More than a social club or a charitable organization, Joseph Smith taught, “the Society is not only to relieve the poor, but to save souls.”7 The Prophet invited the women, in addition to seeking the poor and relieving the needs of others, to help the leaders of the Church by “correcting the morals and strengthening the virtues of the female community.”8 The minutes detail charitable donations and visits with the poor, contributions for temple construction, and women’s efforts at moral reform.9

Perhaps of most value today are the notes of Joseph Smith’s instruction to the Relief Society. He taught at six meetings, encouraging the women to “become a holy people” and to “be at peace with the Lord, with those around them, and with themselves.”10 His teachings are reflected in what are still the purposes of the Relief Society today: to increase faith in Jesus Christ, to strengthen homes and families, and to seek and help those in need.

The Relief Society was dissolved in 1844 as trouble in Nauvoo grew, but it was reorganized in Salt Lake City in 1867. Today, millions of women around the world participate in Relief Society, following the principles and examples of the Society’s founders, as outlined in this minute book.