Ten Fascinating People You Will Meet in the First Fifty Years of Relief Society

R. Eric Smith
30 August 2018

I recently traveled to a city I had never visited before. On my trip I enjoyed meeting some of the locals, trying their food, walking around town, and getting the “vibe” of the place. On a couple of nights, I spent several hours looking out of the floor-to-ceiling windows of my hotel room at the beautiful cityscape, the lights in the various buildings burning like nearer stars. I returned home rejuvenated and with my mind and heart enlarged by new perspectives. Since then, I have often found myself studying a picture that I took of the city on one of those nights, trying to recapture that vivid scene, but the picture is only a poor representation of what I actually saw and felt there.

I have recently completed another sojourn as well, and one of more significance—this one not to a distant place but to another time. This journey began more than two years ago when I was invited to be part of the editorial team for the book The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women’s History, which at that time was mostly drafted and ready to be edited. As one with little background in women’s history, I had no idea when I started working on this project how riveting and inspiring I would find the early history of the Relief Society to be.

This book, which has now been published by the Church Historian’s Press in print and as an e-book (portions of which are available online), is a collection of letters, newspaper articles, meeting minutes, journal entries, and other documents that trace the history of the Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from the society’s founding in 1842 through its Jubilee celebration 50 years later. The selection was made primarily by historians Jill Mulvay Derr and Carol Cornwall Madsen, two of the world’s foremost experts on the history of the Relief Society. They, along with historians Kate Holbrook and Matthew J. Grow, are our tour guides through the book, informing us who wrote the documents and why and detailing what else of relevance was going on at the time the documents were written.

After having read and reread the documents in this collection numerous times over the course of two-plus years, I am left with deep feelings of awe and respect and love for many of the remarkable Latter-day Saint women and men I encountered in the documents. I have found the adjective “towering” useful in describing many of these figures because of their extraordinary energy, gifts, and dedication.

In the absence of time machines or live video recordings, the best way for us to travel to the past is through documents. They remove all the filters and let us experience the past through the eyes and in the words of those who were witnesses. The roughly four score documents in this book have the effect, if we read and immerse ourselves in them, of carrying our souls backward in time to the beginnings of Church history and into the company of the extraordinary women and men who founded and built the Relief Society.

As a way of introducing you to this book, I would like to share with you some information and observations about 10 fascinating people I met and was inspired by as I worked on the book (there are many hundreds of other interesting people I won’t be able to cover here). The summaries I share here are like snapshots from a trip. They give a glimpse of what I have learned but are no substitute for you undertaking your own journey through the pages of this remarkable new collection.

The information found in this gallery is drawn from the documents and historical introductions in The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women’s History.

1. Mary Isabella Horne

Just the bare facts of Mary Isabella Hales Horne’s service to the Church are staggering. In 1869 Brigham Young assigned Sister Horne, then 51 years of age (and the mother of 15 children), to lead the women of the Church in an effort to simplify their meal preparation and sewing so that they could focus on spiritual development. Sister Horne served as the only president of this initiative, called General Retrenchment, for its 34-year history, from 1870 to 1904. During much of this period, she also served as president of the Salt Lake City 14th Ward Relief Society, president of the Salt Lake Stake Relief Society, treasurer of the Relief Society general board, and chair of the executive committee of the Deseret Hospital. Emmeline B. Wells described Sister Horne as a “general among women and indeed in this respect might surpass most men. . . . A woman of great force of character, and wonderful ability, such a one as might stand at the head of a great institution and carry it on successfully.” In 1886, Sister Horne, whose husband practiced polygamy, was appointed chair of a meeting of two thousand Latter-day Saints who met to protest federal legislation that would restrict the practice of polygamy. At the meeting, she described the value the protest would have in this way: “If it does no other good, it will be a matter of history, to be handed down to our posterity, that their mothers rose up in the dignity of their womanhood to protest against insults and indignities heaped upon them.”

2. Sarah M. Kimball

Sarah Melissa Granger Kimball was one of a number of Latter-day Saint women who, after joining the Nauvoo Relief Society in the first half of the 19th century, lived long enough to become key Relief Society leaders in the closing decades of the century. Perhaps the Lord extended the lives of many of these women so that they could teach and model righteous living to younger generations while the Church was in its infancy. Sister Kimball spoke frequently in her later years about the Nauvoo Relief Society, the organization of which can be traced ultimately back to her, for she was the one who suggested, in early 1842, that the women form a society to provide clothing for workers on the Nauvoo Temple. In one of these later accounts, she remembered Joseph Smith saying that “the organisation of the Church of Christ was never perfect until the women were organised.” One of Sister Kimball’s chief accomplishments was building a separate Relief Society hall for the Salt Lake City 15th Ward Relief Society, of which she was the president for more than three decades. The hall, which provided space for society meetings and a cooperative store, became a pattern for scores of other Relief Society halls built across the West in the ensuing half century.

3. Emma Anderson Liljenquist

Photograph courtesy of International Society Daughters of Utah Pioneers

Emma Anderson Liljenquist is one of hundreds of women and men mentioned in the documents in The First Fifty Years who did not hold prominent leadership positions in the Church. In 1887, during a period when Church leaders were routinely encouraging women to receive medical training, Sister Liljenquist was appointed by her bishop to study obstetrics and nursing. She accepted and moved to Salt Lake City for six months, leaving her husband and three children at home in northern Utah during this time. She trained with Dr. Margaret C. Shipp, a graduate from the Woman’s Medical College in Pennsylvania who had recently started offering midwifery courses in Utah. As a nurse and midwife, Sister Liljenquist tended to sick patients and delivered over a thousand babies. She also was the mother of nine children, six of whom she bore after becoming a midwife. Of the relationship between her roles as mother and as midwife, she wrote, “It made my heart ache when I had to leave my babies [her own children] and very often I could hear them crying as I walked down the street, but I had to go with a smile on my face and bring happiness into the sick room, for I have never refused anyone who needed my assistance. . . . You might ask why I left them, but I had been called by the Church to perform this service and I felt that it was a special calling.”

4. Franklin D. Richards

In early Relief Society history, a number of husband-and-wife teams played important roles, with the wife serving as a ward, stake, or general Relief Society president and the husband at the same time supporting the Relief Society in his role as a bishop, stake president, or general Church leader. For example, Franklin Dewey Richards served both as president of the Weber Stake (in Ogden, Utah) and as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles while his wife Jane Snyder Richards was ward Relief Society president in Ogden. In 1877 Brigham Young appointed Jane as president of the Weber Stake Relief Society, making her the first female stake officer of any kind in Church history. Both Franklin and Jane were strong proponents for the advancement of women. At a gathering held in the Ogden Tabernacle in July 1888, Franklin spoke of the importance of the Relief Society and criticized men who felt it was not a woman’s place to serve in leadership positions: “Sisters, be diligent in all things, no matter how the brethren may look upon you. Your organization is just as important as any other in the Church, outside of the priesthood. It has been instituted by the highest authority on earth in this dispensation. It was appointed and established by the Prophet Joseph Smith, in Nauvoo. Sister Emma Smith was the presiding officer of that institution, and she was blessed under the hands of Presidents Joseph Smith and John Taylor, to expound the Scriptures and administer to the Saints in this holy office and presidency.”

5. Emma Hale Smith

Emma Hale Smith was an indispensable figure in the Restoration of the gospel in the last days, both in her own assignments and as a support to her husband. She was a scribe for the Book of Mormon and compiled the first edition of Latter-day Saint hymns. She factors in The First Fifty Years primarily in her role as the first and only president of the Nauvoo Female Relief Society, a position to which she was unanimously elected by the women of the society on March 17, 1842. Joseph Smith and others saw her presidency as a fulfillment of the revelation given to her in 1830 (now section 25 of the Doctrine and Covenants), which stated that she would be “ordained” to “expound Scriptures & exhort the Church.” Under Emma Smith’s direction, the Nauvoo Relief Society grew to more than 1,300 members by 1844. The minutes of the Nauvoo society provide insight into Emma’s abilities as a leader, administrator, and orator. On the day the society was founded, she declared, “We are going to do something extraordinary—when a boat is stuck on the rapids with a multitude of Latter-day Saint women on board we shall consider that a loud call for relief—we expect extraordinary occasions and pressing calls.” While in her day the rapid flow of the Mississippi River near Nauvoo presented literal perils for steamboats, in our day the imagery of dangerous water, foundering vessels, and rescuers on the shore symbolizes the rescuing work of the Relief Society.

6. Joseph Smith

When Eliza R. Snow showed him a constitution and bylaws she had drafted for a proposed women’s sewing and benevolent society, Joseph Smith famously replied, “Tell the sisters their offering is accepted of the Lord, and he has something better for them.” He had in mind organizing women to work with priesthood leaders in assisting the poor and in strengthening the Saints spiritually—of giving women their own ministry within the Church, which up to that point had no female officers. The new organization was formed on Thursday, March 17, 1842, in the large room above Joseph Smith’s store in Nauvoo. Twenty women were present, in addition to Joseph Smith, John Taylor, and Willard Richards. Joseph Smith proposed that the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, as the new society was named, be organized “after the pattern of the Church”—meaning, with a president and two counselors. His wife Emma Smith was unanimously elected president, and she then appointed two counselors. Joseph Smith attended meetings of the Nauvoo Relief Society nine times in the year 1842 and spoke at length in six of those meetings. These six sermons, all of which are contained in The First Fifty Years and are available online, were reproduced and quoted from widely by Latter-day Saints in the ensuing decades. In these sermons Joseph Smith discussed the objectives of the Relief Society, exhorted the women to live righteously, and shared a vision of the possibilities for women both in Church service and on the world stage generally. On April 28, 1842, he said to the women: “This Society is to get instruction thro’ the order which God has established—thro’ the medium of those appointed to lead—and 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.”

7. Eliza R. Snow

Eliza Roxcy Snow is one of the most essential figures in all of Church history. As a founding member and the first secretary of the Nauvoo Relief Society, she took minutes of many of the meetings and was the custodian of the Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, the single most important record in the history of the Relief Society. After being commissioned by her husband, Brigham Young, to assist in reestablishing the Relief Society in the spring of 1868, she carried the Nauvoo minute book from ward to ward to teach women and bishops how to structure ward Relief Societies and how to keep records. Like both of her husbands (she was sealed to Joseph Smith in 1842), Eliza R. Snow had a gift for building and organizing the kingdom of God. She traveled extensively to visit and organize women, including an intense 1,000-mile journey through southern Utah when she was nearly 80 years old. Under her direction, the Relief Society grew to include more than 300 branches by the time of her death in 1887. A tireless worker, she served as head of female temple officiators for many years, wrote and published prolifically, helped found the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association and the Primary Association, and had key roles in establishing grain storage, the Deseret Hospital, the Woman’s Exponent, and other undertakings. Sister Snow wrote in 1868: “What is the object of the Female Relief Society? I would reply—to do good—to bring into requisition every capacity we possess for doing good, not only in relieving the poor but in saving souls. United effort will accomplish incalculably more than can be accomplished by the most effective individual energies.”

8. Emmeline B. Wells

Emmeline B. Wells, a gifted and incredibly productive writer, served as editor of the Woman’s Exponent, a Latter-day Saint women’s newspaper, from 1877 until the paper was discontinued in 1914. She advocated prominently for women’s suffrage and women’s rights and held many positions in national women’s organizations. Beginning in 1876, Wells also led the Church’s grain storage program, which was designed as a protection against possible food shortages. Eventually the effort culminated in the sale of over 200,000 bushels of Relief Society wheat to the U.S. government during World War I, when Wells was serving as Relief Society general president. While personal lives are not the focus of The First Fifty Years, it is noteworthy that many of the women mentioned in this gallery lived in a wide variety of family situations, many of which were severely challenging. Emmeline B. Wells’s first husband, James Harris, deserted her within two years of the marriage. She then married Newel K. Whitney, a man more than 30 years her senior, as a plural wife. He died five years later, in 1850, leaving her with two young daughters. Two years later she married Daniel H. Wells, who held several demanding community and Church positions and already had six other wives. Emmeline experienced profound loneliness in this marriage, as she and Daniel rarely saw each other until the very last years of Daniel’s life. Daniel died in 1891; Emmeline lived another three decades. The variety and complexity of the challenges faced by these women shows that living the gospel does not immunize us from hardship but can strengthen us in adversity and unite us regardless of individual circumstances. In 1881, Emmeline B. Wells combined a harsh critique of contemporary historical writing with a stunning prediction: “History tells us very little about women; judging from its pages, one would suppose their lives were insignificant and their opinions worthless. . . . Volumes of unwritten history yet remain, the sequel to the written lives of brave and heroic men. But although the historians of the past have been neglectful of woman, and it is the exception if she be mentioned at all; yet the future will deal more generously with womankind, and the historian of the present age will find it very embarrassing to ignore woman in the records of the nineteenth century.” This new book on Latter-day Saint women’s history is undoubtedly one fulfillment of Wells’s prediction.

9. Brigham Young

In early 1845 Brigham Young, as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, suspended operations of the Nauvoo Relief Society. This came during a period when Church leaders were preparing to evacuate Nauvoo. Other Church activities, including missionary work, were also streamlined during this era. Brigham Young’s later actions show that his objection to the Relief Society was only temporary. In 1854, in the Salt Lake Valley, President Young called for women to again organize themselves in ward Relief Societies, initially to provide clothing to American Indians. A number of Relief Societies were formed at that time in Utah Territory. Conflict between the Church and federal officials later disrupted this start and most Relief Societies ceased operations. President Young again called for the organization of ward Relief Societies in 1867 and commissioned Eliza R. Snow to teach bishops and women how to organize and run these organizations. This time the reestablishment was widespread and permanent. Brigham Young saw that the Relief Society could help relieve the poor and suffering and would give women opportunities to develop their talents and become more self-sufficient. He gave the Relief Society responsibilities for such large-scale Church programs as grain storage and silk production; encouraged women to open stores and receive training in medicine, business, and domestic arts; and supported giving Utah women the right to vote. Shortly before his death, he appointed the first stake Relief Society president in the Church and called for stake Relief Societies to meet in quarterly conferences.

10. Zina D. H. Young

Like several other prominent Latter-day Saint women from this period, Zina Diantha Huntington Young had a dizzying number of important assignments, including serving as first counselor to Eliza R. Snow in the Relief Society general presidency (1880–1887), vice president and president of the Deseret Hospital (1880–1892), Relief Society general president (1888–1901), and head of female officiators in the Salt Lake Temple (beginning in 1893). She also served as the president of the Deseret Silk Association, whose purpose was to encourage and assist the Saints in becoming more self-sustaining through silk production. Though she was repulsed by silk worms and reportedly had nightmares about them, she put great effort into this assignment and worked with the worms with her own hands. On April 6, 1889, Sister Young presided over and addressed the first Relief Society general conference in Church history. As is the case with many of the sermons from women and men included in The First Fifty Years, her teachings are still relevant today. Addressing the mothers present, she said: “Let us be careful to speak with wisdom before our little ones, avoiding fault-finding, and slang phrases, and cultivate the higher attributes of our nature, that will tend to elevate, refine and purify the heart, and make the home the centre of attraction, where the spirit of love, peace and unity will dwell.” She encouraged stake Relief Society presidents to “plead for wisdom from above to direct their efforts, that the greatest possible good may be accomplished,” and then added, “Where sisters can do so, it would be desirable and we think profitable, to visit each other’s organizations and become acquainted; it will tend to union and harmony, promote confidence, and strengthen the chords that bind us together, for there is more difference in our manner of speech, than in the motives of our hearts.”