On March 17, 1842, minutes after Emma Smith was elected president of the new Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, she stood and spoke on the purpose of that society: “To seek out and relieve the distressed,” she said. A few months later, her husband Joseph repeated the idea that the society should minister to both bodies and spirits: “The Society is not only to relieve the poor, but to save souls.”
Members of Relief Society were enthusiastic about this purpose as they sought opportunities to do good. Before 1971, female Church members did not automatically belong to Relief Society; they had to join. Joining meant choosing to live worthily and to actively engage in the work of Relief Society.
In Nauvoo, Relief Society visiting committees scouted the city looking for those in need. They recounted what they found at meetings, describing the situations of those “in extreme want” and mentioning people by name: “Sister Langdon’s family [is] sick and without food.” Members volunteered what they could in response to these reports. A sewing society was formed to make clothing and bedding for those who needed it. Others donated goods and other services. Margaret McDougall, for example, offered to work for a widow named Martha Knight.
Relieving the distressed and saving souls were overlapping endeavors. In doing good for those around them, members of the Relief Society became better themselves. They also preached to each other, shared their testimonies with each other, and encouraged righteous habits among other members.
After the Saints moved to Utah, the Relief Society continued working to save souls and attend to needs. Some societies focused on giving bedding and clothing to local Indian women and children. Societies ministered to arriving immigrants, including the surviving members of the Willie and Martin handcart companies, by providing supplies, food, and medical care.
Relief Society members also expanded their efforts to various projects, including producing silk, lobbying for women’s right to vote, establishing the Primary organization for children, and gathering and storing wheat. The Relief Society sent some of its wheat to China during the 1907 famine and donated some to people living on an Indian reservation that same year. During a wheat shortage near the end of World War I, the Relief Society was forced to sell its wheat to the U.S. government.
At this point in Relief Society history, relieving the distressed focused on social work and, in particular, the welfare of mothers and newborn babies. Under the direction of women like Clarissa Smith Williams and Amy Brown Lyman, the Relief Society used the interest earned from selling the wheat to substantially reduce the maternal and infant mortality rate in Utah.
Lyman’s training in social work included studying with Jane Addams at her precedent-setting Hull House organization in Chicago. In 1918, Church President Joseph F. Smith asked Lyman to start a social services department within the Relief Society, and as part of that work, she taught courses that trained Relief Society members in the methods of social work. Clarissa Smith Williams, who was the new General President, announced in 1921 that the Relief Society would focus on maternity and motherhood. They promoted nursing in rural communities, published articles in the Relief Society Magazine on topics such as nutrition and breast feeding, funded clinics for pregnant women and young children, sponsored health care education classes for the public, and stockpiled clean bedding and supplies for giving birth.
The Relief Society also cooperated with and received money from government agencies to improve maternal and infant care. Of all the industrialized nations at this time, the United States had the highest death rates for mothers and infants. In response, the government passed the Sheppard-Towner Act, which provided money for programs to improve these statistics. Lyman ran for the Utah state House of Representatives and won a seat in 1923. She ran in large part because she wanted to help Utah benefit from the Sheppard-Towner Act. She became chair of the public welfare and education committees and continued to coordinate government and Relief Society programs. By 1928, these efforts had reduced infant death rates by 19 percent and maternal death rates by 8 percent.
Soul-saving Relief Society work during this time included making temple clothing, performing temple ordinances, child-rearing, visiting teaching, and publishing the Relief Society Magazine, which contained discourses, inspirational fiction and poetry, Relief Society curriculum, and reports on lives well-lived in the Church’s various stakes and missions.
Through the following decades, Relief Society members continued to serve their local communities while also engaging in welfare work by working with the Red Cross and other aid efforts during World War II. They also continued their support of the National and International Councils of Women, both of which were originally organized in 1888 for “the overthrow of all forms of ignorance and injustice, and to the application of the Golden Rule to society, custom and law.”In fact, Belle S. Spafford was president of the National Council of Women from 1968 to 1970 with an office in New York at the same time she continued her work as Relief Society General President.
A process of correlation took place around this time as Church leaders increased their efforts to streamline Church programs and emphasize priesthood authority. Auxiliary organizations stopped keeping their own independent financial accounts, some Church magazines combined (the Relief Society Magazine and the Improvement Era ended and the Ensign began), and Relief Society increasingly pursued its welfare and social service efforts through the official Church welfare program. As Church membership outside of the United States grew dramatically, members of Relief Society looked to the particular needs of their own communities to determine how best to fulfill the service aspects of Relief Society’s purpose. Relief Society service projects were thus transitioning in some respects from a top-down model to a grassroots model.
When it came time to celebrate Relief Society’s 150th anniversary in 1992, the general board wished to honor the organization’s purpose to provide relief and the need for individual units to determine what projects would be relevant for their particular situations. The General Presidency, which consisted of Elaine L. Jack, Chieko N. Okazaki, and Aileen Clyde, asked each Relief Society throughout the world to complete the service project it thought best. In Nigeria, local member Cecilia Paul organized sisters to clear a path to the waterway. Villagers had to walk the path barefoot several times a day to get water, so removing stones and bettering the path significantly improved the experience of that frequent task.
A Relief Society leader in the Caracas Venezuela Stake worried over what the members in her stake could contribute; they were already stretched thin trying to provide for their own families’ needs. But they heard of a facility for the elderly in desperate need of aid, and they decided to help. When they arrived at the facility, they were shown to a room of women who had no visitors to care for them. The women were lying curled up on the floor, and they weren’t wearing any clothing. Some of the Relief Society members left the room to cry. Then they helped dress the women in clothing they had brought and fed them cookies and hot chocolate. They gave them comfort. On later visits, other members brought them more food and clothing, also helping them to bathe, clipping their nails, and cutting their hair. As little as they initially felt they had to give, it was a tremendous blessing to the elderly women living in destitute conditions in that place.
Relief Society history can be a powerful source of motivation and understanding for Church members. In 2009, Susan W. Tanner was set apart to write the book Daughters in My Kingdom: The History and Work of Relief Society. Using earlier, unpublished history as a foundation, and working closely with Julie B. Beck and her counselors, Tanner wrote an approachable book that begins with women in Christ’s day and then focuses on modern Saints, both little-known and famous.
Current Relief Society General President, Linda K. Burton, issued a call at the April 2016 general conference for Church members to provide concrete aid to the world’s refugee populations. She invited Church members to study how they could help. She invited them to pray, asking God what they could best contribute in their individual circumstances. Sister Burton also regularly addresses Relief Society members’ spiritual obligations. Her presidency has reformulated the language explaining Relief Society’s purpose in Handbook 2: Administering the Church: “Relief Society helps prepare women for the blessings of eternal life as they increase faith in Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ and His Atonement, strengthen individuals, families, and homes through ordinances and covenants; and work in unity to help those in need.” These calls reaffirm the purpose Relief Society has had since its start in Nauvoo. The language is new and intended for the particular circumstances of today’s Church members, but the intent is as old as the organization. Relief Society members minister to both bodies and souls.
Zina D. H. Young organized the Church’s first Relief Society general conference on April 6, 1889. She made a statement there that described her vision of Relief Society’s purpose and what happens when women engage in its work: “The Relief Society . . . was first organized nearly half a century ago . . . to dispense temporal blessings to the poor and needy: and to give encouragement to the weak, and restrain the erring ones, and for the better development, and exercise of woman’s sympathies, and charities, that she might have opportunity to attain spiritual strength, and power for the accomplishment of greater good in the work of the redemption of the human family.” The more we do this work, the more we gain spiritual strength, charity, and power to do good.