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Women of Conviction

Five People Who Helped Found the Relief Society

James Goldberg

In his letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul compared the disciples of Christ to the different parts of a human body (see 1 Corinthians 12). Just as the various parts of the body work together, he taught, Saints use their different gifts, abilities, and perspectives in the Church to help advance the Lord’s work.

All too often, however, we fail to equally acknowledge the contributions people make. Because some types of work are more visible than others, our histories are often incomplete—and can give a mistaken impression about how the Lord guides us forward.

Fortunately, we have good records about the founding of the Relief Society. Early members kept careful minutes of Nauvoo Relief Society meetings and preserved those records as they migrated west, even through years when the Relief Society was not formally active. Later Relief Society members interviewed original members, giving us valuable insight into the society’s origin.

From their records a clear picture emerges of how different people played unique roles that came together in Nauvoo to create something bigger than any of them had independently envisioned. Studying the beginnings of the Relief Society, we can see the body of Christ in action: a model for our own shared efforts to do the Lord’s work.

Margaret Cook: A Desire to Serve

The Relief Society began with one woman who wanted to do more than her circumstances seemed to allow.

As the winter of 1841–42 drew to a close, the Saints in Nauvoo were preparing to accelerate work on the temple. Most Latter-day Saint men in the city had pledged to give one in ten working days to help with construction. Many Latter-day Saint women also committed to help, either through fundraising or by donating supplies for the workers and their families.

At the time, Margaret Cook was 30 years old, single, and working as a seamstress.1 She didn’t have spare money or goods to give to the temple fund but wanted to find a way to use what she did have—her sewing skills and her time. Her employer at the time was Sarah Granger Kimball, who also wanted to help build the temple. “The subject of combining our efforts for assisting the Temple hands came up in conversation,” Sarah recalled. She was impressed by Margaret’s search for a way to contribute despite her economic limitations: “She desired to be helpful but had no means to furnish.”2

Sarah Kimball: An Ability to Empower

Though Sarah’s economic circumstances were better, she could relate in her own way to Margaret’s dilemma over how to help. “My husband did not belong to the Church at that time,” Sarah recalled. “I wished to help on the Temple, but did not like to ask my husband (who owned considerable property) to help for my sake.”3 She preferred to find ways to contribute that involved her own initiative.  

Sarah was more than happy to give Margaret material to sew into clothes for men working on the temple. This gave both women a way to help, but Sarah thought they could do more. “[I] suggested that others might feel as we did,” Sarah said, so she offered her home as a meeting space for like-minded women. She and Margaret started spreading the word and expanding their efforts. “We then agitated the subject of organizing a Sewing Society,” Sarah recalled, “the object of which should be to aid in the erection of the Temple.”4

Eliza R. Snow: A Gift for Expression

The next Thursday a dozen or so sisters gathered in Sarah’s home to discuss plans for the proposed society. They were enthusiastic about the idea and wanted to start it in the right way. At the meeting, Phebe Rigdon suggested that they reach out to Eliza R. Snow and ask her to draft a constitution and bylaws for the new organization.

Eliza was a natural choice for the assignment. She already had a reputation for her sharp intellect and writing skill: some of her compositions had been included in the first Church hymnbook, and her poems were regularly published in newspapers. After the first meeting, Sarah approached Eliza, who drafted a constitution, which the two of them took to the Prophet Joseph Smith for feedback.

“He pronounced it the best constitution that he ever read,” Sarah recalled, “then remarked, ‘This is not what the sisters want; there is something better for them.’” He told Eliza “to tell the sisters who delegated you that their offering is accepted of the Lord and will result in blessing to them.”5

Joseph Smith: Revelation for the Church

Revelation almost always comes in response to questions, and the organization of the Relief Society was no exception. Margaret Cook’s desire to serve, Sarah Kimball’s enthusiasm for empowering others, and Eliza R. Snow’s care in creating a constitution all helped lead to the revelation that the Church needed more than a temporary organization to support temple construction. “The organization of the Church of Christ was never perfect,” Joseph told Sarah, “until the women were organized.”6

Joseph asked that a core group of interested sisters gather in the upper room of his Red Brick Store the next Thursday to organize the society the Church needed. He attended the first part of the meeting, along with two Apostles: John Taylor and Willard Richards.7

Emma Smith: Leading i​n Council

One of the first items of business at the first meeting, held March 17, 1842, was to select leaders “to preside over the society . . . just as the [First] Presidency preside over the church.” Emma Smith was chosen as president in fulfillment, as Joseph Smith explained, of an 1830 revelation that called her “an elect lady” (D&C 25:3). She chose Sarah Cleveland and Elizabeth Ann Whitney as her counselors.

The first discussion Emma and her counselors led was about what to name the society. Sarah Cleveland, possibly reflecting earlier plans, proposed that it be named “The Nauvoo Female Relief Society.” John Taylor recommended changing the words “Relief Society” to “Benevolent Society” to better fit with the names of other charities of the time.

At first the sisters were inclined to simply accept the Apostle’s recommendation, but Emma encouraged them to discuss the issue before making a final decision. The wisdom of her impulse to counsel is apparent in the minutes of that first Relief Society meeting, as the discussion became a valuable exploration of the society’s purpose. Several sisters noted that the common use of the word benevolent in the names of charities might actually be a reason not to use it. “As daughters of Zion,” Eliza R. Snow said, “we should set an example for all the world, rather than confine ourselves to the course which had been heretofore pursued.” At the same time, Eliza reasoned, the word relief might not be best because it evoked images of rescue from crisis, of “extraordinary occasions,” instead of everyday needs. Emma’s visionary response is well known: “We are going to do something extraordinary,” she said. “We expect extraordinary occasions and pressing calls.”8

The Relief Society’s​ Legacy

Over the course of its history, the Relief Society has faced more than a few “extraordinary occasions,” and these challenges have come in more forms than those early members could have anticipated. Relief Society sisters have acted in times of war and natural disaster as well as in times of peace. In addition to meeting everyday needs, the organization has been active in numerous fields, including education, health care, economic development, and publishing. Now, as then, the Relief Society brings together women with different talents and different backgrounds in pursuit of a unique vision. The legacy of the founding Nauvoo Relief Society members lives on in the actions of Relief Society sisters around the world.

 

Footnotes

[1] Sarah Kimball’s account of the founding of the Relief Society mentions a “Miss Cook.” Recent research by Patricia Spillsbury strengthens the argument for a common assumption that this Miss Cook was Margaret Norris Cook Blanchard and gathers together other documentation about her life. See Jill Mulvay Derr, Carol Cornwall Madsen, Kate Holbrook, and Matthew J. Grow, The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women’s History (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2016), 637–38.

[2] Augusta Joyce Crocheron, comp., Representative Women of Deseret, a Book of Biographical Sketches, to Accompany the Picture Bearing the Same Title (Salt Lake City: J. C. Graham & Co., 1884), 26–27.

[3] Crocheron, comp., Representative Women of Deseret, 25.

[4] Sarah M. Kimball, “Early Relief Society Reminiscence,” Mar. 17, 1842, in Relief Society Record, 1880–92, 29, Church History Library, Salt Lake City; spelling standardized; see also “Sarah M. Kimball, Reminiscence, March 17, 1882,” in Derr, Madsen, Holbrook, and Grow, The First Fifty Years.

[5] Kimball, “Early Relief Society Reminiscence,” in Relief Society Record, 30; capitalization and punctuation standardized; see also “Sarah M. Kimball, Reminiscence, March 17, 1882,” in Derr, Madsen, Holbrook, and Grow, The First Fifty Years.

[6] Kimball, “Early Relief Society Reminiscence,” in Relief Society Record, 30; spelling standardized; see also “Sarah M. Kimball, Reminiscence, March 17, 1882,” in Derr, Madsen, Holbrook, and Grow, The First Fifty Years.

[7] See “1.2.1 March 17, 1842,” in Derr, Madsen, Holbrook, and Grow, The First Fifty Years.

[8] See “1.2.1 March 17, 1842,” in Derr, Madsen, Holbrook, and Grow, The First Fifty Years.