This is the first publication from The Church Historian’s Press other than the Joseph Smith Papers. It is a collection of documents brought together for the first time that cover the first fifty years of the Relief Society, starting in Nauvoo, restarting in Utah, and then spreading throughout LDS settlements as far away as Canada. The book format and production procedures (transcription, verification, etc.) are very similar to how the Joseph Smith Papers are being done, and at least some of the staff (including editor Matthew J. Grow) are involved in both. And as with the JSP project, much of the book is available for free online. It is accessible at https://www.churchhistorianspress.org/the-first-fifty-years-of-relief-society
The book contains a general table of contents, then a Detailed Contents listing each document, followed by a list of illustrations, a general introduction, and a description of the editorial method. The main section is split into four parts, covering the time periods of 1830 and 1942 to 1845, then 1854 to 1866, 1867 to 1879, and finally 1880 to 1892. The end matter contains reference material including lists of the different Relief Society, Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association, and Primary Association presidencies from 1842 to 1892, a biographical directory, works cited, acknowledgments, and then a pretty thorough index spanning 50 pages.
The main feature of this book is the Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, which was kept by Eliza R. Snow and then brought to Utah by her, where it was used in getting the Relief Society going again. This is the first time it has appeared in print, although it was included in the Selected Collections DVD set published in 2002, and more recently has been included in the online documents for the JSP project. Among other things, it has the only sermons given by Joseph Smith to the women of the church.
In one of these sermons, on April 28, 1842, Joseph Smith addressed speaking in tongues and administering to the sick:
“…Prest. Smith continued the subject by adverting to the commission given to the ancient apostles ‘Go ye into all the world” &c.— no matter who believeth; these signs, such as healing the sick, casting out devils &c. should follow all that believe whether male or female. He ask’d the Society if they could not see by this sweeping stroke, that wherein they are ordaind, it is the privilege of those set apart to administer in that authority which is confer’d on them—and if the sisters should have faith to heal the sick, let all hold their tongues, and let every thing roll on.
“…Respecting the female laying on hands, he further remark’d, there could be no devil in it if God gave his sanction by healing— that there could be no more sin in any female laying hands on the sick than in wetting the face with water— that it is no sin for any body to do it that has faith, or if the sick has faith to be heal’d by the administration.”
“…If any have a matter to reveal, let it be in your own tongue. Do not indulge too much in the gift of tongues, or the devil will take advantage of the innocent. You may speak in tongues for your comfort but I lay this down for a rule that if any thing is [p. ] is taught by the gift of tongues, it is not to be received for doctrine.
“Prest. S. then offered instruction respecting the propriety of females administering to the sick by the laying on of hands— said it was according to revelation &c. said he never was plac’d in similar circumstances, and never had given the same instruction.”
The introduction explains that many of the converts came from evangelical congregations where speaking in tongues and faith healing by women were practiced. Joseph Smith’s sermon was prompted by their initial disagreement about whether they should engage in these practices. Healing blessings were performed by both women and men, in the name of Jesus Christ. It wasn’t until later that men began invoking the priesthood. Eliza R. Snow stated that “Women can administer in the name of Jesus but not by virtue of the Priesthood the promise which Jesus made was to all not to either sex.” Healing by women stopped by the 1940s as church leaders clarified that the appropriate method is for men ordained to the priesthood to give blessings, as James 5:14 says to “call for the elders of the church.” (page xxv)
There is an interesting debate between the women and the men in the first Relief Society meeting about what to call it. “Counsellor Cleveland” and “Counsellor Whitney” suggested the name “The Nauvoo Female Relief Society.” Elder Taylor thought “The Nauvoo Female Benevolent Society” would be more appropriate, which “Prest. Smith” (Emma) objected to. Joseph Smith then talked about the difference between “relief” and “benevolent,” and how “relief” could have a negative connotation. The women then pointed out that there were other societies in the world that used the word “benevolent,” but were corrupt. They preferred not to follow the world, but that “as daughters of Zion, we should set an example for all the world.” It was eventually agreed that “relief” was the right word, and then Eliza Snow suggested that it actually should be called “The Female Relief Society of Nauvoo,” which everyone then agreed to. (pages 34-45)
The Nauvoo Relief Society only allowed members that had been vetted. They also checked up on rumors slandering Joseph Smith and other leaders with charges of immorality. Since polygamy was being taught and practiced secretly, there was much confusion among those that had not been taught about it. The women guarded their reputations and W. W. Phelps drew up a document for them called “The Voice of Innocence from Nauvoo” which gave them “a means for responding to insulting rumors and…allegations” (page 152.) This document may have actually made things worse for Joseph Smith who said he “never had any fuss with these men until that Female Relief Society brought out the paper against adulterers and adulteresses” (page 153.)
The book includes a couple of poems by Eliza Snow. One of which is in our current hymnbook as “O My Father.” The original name was “My Father in Heaven.” Another poem, “The Female Relief Society of Nauvoo – What is it?” explains her feelings about the organization:
It is an Institution form’d to bless
The poor, the widow, and the fatherless—
To clothe the naked and the hungry feed,
And in the holy paths of virtue, lead.
To seek out sorrow, grief and mute despair,
And light the lamp of hope eternal there—
To try the strength of consolation’s art
By breathing comfort to the mourning heart.
To chase the clouds that shade the aspect, where
Distress presides; and wake up pleasures there—
With open heart extend the friendly hand
To hail the stranger, from a distant land.
To stamp a vetoing impress on each move
That Virtue’s present dictates disapprove—
To put the tattler’s coinage, scandal, down,
And make corruption feel its with’ring frown.
To give instruction, where instruction’s voice
Will guide the feet and make the heart rejoice—
To turn the wayward from their recklessness,
And lead them in the ways of happiness.
It is an Order, fitted and design’d
To meet the wants of body, and of mind—
To seek the wretched, in their long abode—
Supply their wants, and raise their hearts to God.
After the death of Joseph Smith, the Relief Society was disbanded for some time. Brigham Young went as far as to say it “relieved us of Joseph and Hyrum” (page 171). But it was eventually started up again in Utah, initially as a way to provide aid to the Indians. It then was organized on a ward level for the first time.
Most of the remainder of the book consists of minutes from various wards, reminiscences from journals, letters, and discourses given on various topics. It also includes excerpts from the “‘Mormon’ Women’s Protest” and “Minutes of ‘Great Indignation Meeting’” which defended polygamy and protested against actions being taken by the federal government.
I was pleased to find references to some of my ancestors. One was a document from the San Juan Stake, which was made up of people who had gone through the “hole in the rock” near Bluff, Utah. Another was Margaret Curtis Shipp Roberts, who was first married as a plural wife, divorced, then eventually became a plural wife of B. H. Roberts. She practiced medicine in Salt Lake City and helped create Relief Society nursing classes and a school.
This book is a very large collection of documents that many people would find interesting, whether their interests are church history in general, the history of women in the church, or the Relief Society. And if you collect books from the Joseph Smith Papers project, it fits right in with them and is a must have.