Latter-day Saints believe that, as the Bible attests, Jesus Christ performed a mortal ministry as a healer, a teacher and the Savior and Redeemer. During His ministry, Christ also established a church. Through His authorized and ordained apostles, Christ prepared a way to spread the gospel, continue teaching the Saints (followers of Christ) and make accessible the necessary ordinances of salvation (such as baptism). As affirmed by scriptural accounts, the original fledgling church relied on the participation of female disciples such as Mary, Martha, Tabitha, Priscilla and many others to strengthen and sustain the church.[ii]
Mormons believe that in 1830 Joseph Smith Jr. was called by God to reestablish the ancient church and its priestly authority, teachings and ordinances. As part of this “Restoration,” an organization of women was established after the order and “pattern of the priesthood” believed to be a part of the ancient church. Joseph Smith declared, “The Church was never perfectly organized until the women were thus organized.”[iii] Eliza R. Snow, the second Relief Society general president, later affirmed: “Although the name may be of modern date, the institution is of ancient origin. We were told by our martyred prophet [Joseph Smith] that the same organization existed in the church anciently.”[iv]
The Relief Society, as this institution came to be called, was originally organized to administer welfare needs and quickly expanded to encompass the spiritual as well as temporal needs of the Saints. By the 20th century, John Widtsoe, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, summarized the Relief Society’s purpose as pursuing the “relief of poverty, relief of illness; relief of doubt, relief of ignorance — relief of all that hinders the joy and progress of woman.”46 The early Relief Society worked to fund medical training for women, make and market homemade goods, make their own silk, store grain for relief, build hospitals, secure suffrage and establish adoption services and programs of loans and grants to women. The early to mid-20th century, Relief Society expanded relief efforts and community involvement with public and private welfare agencies (including the Church’s own) and included a “more varied and extensive educational program.” After mid-century, with the accelerated growth of the Church, the focus has often included an emphasis on local congregations and empowering members to find opportunities for “service, learning, sisterhood and spiritual growth.”[v]
The mission of Relief Society includes increasing personal faith and righteousness, strengthening homes and families and seeking out and helping those in need. Today, the Relief Society creates a sisterhood for women in the Church and opportunities for rendering service to all members of the congregation, as well as to the global community. Relief Society women serve in leadership roles, share the gospel, provide service, teach, train and deliver sermons. The Relief Society women pair together to visit other sisters and families in the congregation to offer service and support as well as to ensure that their temporal and spiritual needs are being met. Local Relief Society presidencies in congregations throughout the world work with the bishopric to help those who have special needs because of old age, physical or emotional illness, emergencies, births, deaths, disability, loneliness and other challenges. They also work to help foster self-reliance, literacy and other needed skills for individuals. At a regional level, Relief Society leaders supervise regional welfare efforts and Relief Society-supported emergency relief. General Relief Society leaders conduct training for local leaders around the globe and assist with general welfare services and Church educational boards, among other responsibilities.
Resources on LDS Women and LDS Women’s History
There have been recent efforts to shed more light on the role and history of women in the Church. The following resources may prove helpful to those interested in learning more about these topics:
Daughters in My Kingdom — A volume, published in 2011, that describes the history and the work of Relief Society, the adult women’s organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in scriptural, anecdotal and biographical accounts. The record describes the “heritage of Relief Society, not just the women who lived in the past; but also about women all over the world today who make and keep covenants within the Church.”
Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book — As a part of the comprehensive works entitled the Joseph Smith Papers project (see link), the detailed minutes of the 34 Relief Society meetings held in Nauvoo, Illinois, are now available online. The records document the organization of the group in March of 1842, the six doctrinal sermons Joseph Smith presented and other details about the efforts to assist the poor, to contribute to the Nauvoo Temple construction and to describe the rising tensions or persecutions faced by the residents.
Women of Faith in the Latter Days — Edited by Richard E. Turley Jr. and Brittany A. Chapman. A seven-volume series, divided into time periods from 1775 to 1970, is intended, as Turley explains, to “fill the gaps” of women’s voices and increase awareness of the contributions made by women in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Chapters, created by volunteer contributors, include a biographical sketch and experiences of each woman in the selected time period. The broad invitation for submissions to the work ensures an eclectic but representative group of women of that particular era. Turley summarizes the work with an invitation “to join with us in celebrating the many Latter-day Saint women whose lives should be an inspiration to readers in the present generation and in generations to come.”
[ii] See Daughters in My Kingdom, chapter one, https://www.lds.org/relief-society/daughters-in-my-kingdom/manual/relief-society-a-restoration-of-an-ancient-pattern?lang=eng
[iii] Joseph Smith, quoted in Sarah M. Kimball, “Auto-biography,” Woman’s Exponent, Sept. 1, 1883, 51; see also Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (2007), 451.
[iv] Eliza R. Snow, “Female Relief Society,” Deseret News, Apr. 22, 1868, 1; punctuation standardized.
[v] “Relief Society,” by Janath Russell Cannon and Jill Mulvay Derr in Encyclopedia of Mormonism (New York: Macmillan, 1992). http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Relief_Society