Thoughts on Reclaiming the History of Relief Society

Rachel Cope

Rachel Cope, “Thoughts on Reclaiming the History of Relief Society,” Religious Educator 15, no. 3 (2014): 91–101.

Rachel Cope was an associate professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University when this was published.

In 1881 Emmeline B. Wells made an astute observation: “History tells us very little about women; judging from its pages, one would suppose that their lives were insignificant and their opinions worthless. . . . Volumes of unwritten history yet remain, the sequel to the 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.”[1]

In addition to being an early proponent of women’s history, Wells was also a convert to the Church, a polygamous wife, a prolific writer, an advocate of female suffrage, editor of the Woman’s Exponent (the suffrage magazine), and Relief Society General President.[2] Her life goal, as she once noted in her diary, was to “do all in [her] power to help elevate the condition of [her] own people, especially women.”[3]

For Wells, elevating women involved a process of remembering, documenting, preserving, recording, sharing, and teaching. In her mind, personal identity and the establishment of community were an outgrowth of historical consciousness. She thus wanted Latter-day Saint women to value their history so they could recognize their potential, broaden their minds, and make contributions in social, political, and spiritual contexts.

Upon assuming the role of Relief Society General President at the beginning of the twentieth century, Wells became deeply concerned by women’s lack of historical memory, particularly in relation to Relief Society and its purpose—a concern that had also been expressed by Eliza R. Snow when called by Brigham Young to reintroduce the Relief Society organization in 1868. In 2010 Julie B. Beck, then serving as the fifteenth Relief Society General President, echoed the sentiments of Snow and Wells. She explained that after pondering about, praying about, fasting about, and discussing ways to help Latter-day Saint women face their challenges and reach their potential, it became clear to her that “the sisters of the Church should know and learn from the history of Relief Society.”[4] Latter-day Saint women have forgotten “who we are” and “what we are to do,” Beck explained.[5]

As a member of the Relief Society organization, as a historian of women and religion, and as a religious educator, I have been struck by these over-the-pulpit calls to remember women’s history. I am intrigued by the recognition that history is central to understanding Latter-day Saint womanhood—that women’s identity and purpose as a part of the saving work of the Church spring from a connection to the past. At the same time, I recognize the historical forgetfulness that the call to remember implies. Since the history of Relief Society has been documented and shared at key points in time (three examples of which will be considered in this essay), why hasn’t the story been passed down continuously from one generation to another? Indeed, why have different generations of Relief Society General Presidents had to reclaim the history of Relief Society? And, finally, how might we change this pattern of remembering and forgetting and remembering and forgetting?

In order to consider some of the questions just posed, I will provide a brief sketch of the preserving and forgetting of Relief Society history and conclude with a few suggestions about how we might maintain historical consciousness in the future, an important goal if we hope to help our students—male and female—envision their place in the work of salvation.

Relief Society

In 1839 Church members settled along the Upper Mississippi River Valley. There they established the city of Nauvoo, Illinois. During the earliest stages of settlement, they began building a temple—a sacred space dedicated to the performance of salvific ordinances. Throughout the temple’s construction period, Church members donated various resources, and men served as volunteer laborers one day in ten.[6]

In 1842 Sarah Granger Kimball and Margaret Cooke discussed how women, as well as men, might contribute to the construction of the Nauvoo Temple. Both agreed that they could provide shirts for volunteer laborers. As a result of this conversation, Kimball contemplated forming a female benevolent society (a common practice at the time) that would enable Latter-day Saint women to engage in acts of service throughout their community.[7] In March 1842 a small group of women convened in Kimball’s home to discuss the possibility of creating the society she had envisioned. Enthusiastic responses to the idea resulted in a collective decision to organize a benevolent society.

At the request of the other women in attendance at the meeting, Eliza R. Snow drafted a constitution for their fledgling organization. She subsequently shared it with Joseph Smith. Delighted by the idea of a women’s society, the Prophet Joseph encouraged the prospect, while also suggesting that the women of the Church could expand the scope of their society by incorporating spiritual as well as temporal work into its mission.[8]

On March 17, 1842, twenty women met with Joseph Smith, John Taylor, and Willard Richards to officially establish their new society. In this meeting, the Prophet explained that he would organize the women of the Church under the pattern and direction of the priesthood; in essence, he was suggesting that their society could transcend traditional benevolent organizations through its placement within a soteriological framework.[9] In addition to engaging in acts of service and charity, the Prophet Joseph explained that Latter-day Saint women should also commit themselves to the work of salvation. Of this discussion, Elizabeth Ann Smith Whitney recalled, “President Joseph Smith had great faith in the sisters’ labors, and ever sought to encourage them in the performance of their duties which pertained to these Societies, which he said were not only for benevolent purposes and spiritual improvement, but were actually to save souls.”[10]

The women attending the March 17 meeting elected Emma Smith as president of the society and agreed to name it the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo. The Prophet Joseph Smith’s references to organizing women under the pattern and direction of the priesthood and committing them to the work of salvation suggested that women were as essential as men to the work of God and that both sexes had access to the spiritual power, blessings, and gifts of the priesthood.[11]

From its inception, then, Relief Society encouraged women to place themselves within a larger cosmological history; it defined their purpose here and in the hereafter. Relief Society also provided a space in which women could give and receive religious instruction. Emma Smith, for example, heeded the revelatory counsel, now canonized as Doctrine and Covenants 25, to “expound scriptures” and “exhort the church.”[12] Furthermore, Joseph Smith—who had previously focused on instructing and training men—met with and taught members of the Relief Society about their role in the plan of salvation and prepared them for the covenants they would eventually make within the walls of the temple. Up to that point, women’s involvement with the temple had been focused on providing furnishings, handiwork, and clothing for the laborers. The Prophet’s interest in organizing a society for women became an invitation to them to participate in temple worship. In the context of Relief Society meetings they also learned about the priesthood and about spiritual gifts. They came to recognize that the temple gave them access to the saving ordinances of the gospel and allowed them to perform baptisms for the dead in behalf of their deceased loved ones. For women, as Carol Cornwall Madsen so aptly noted, this “opened up a new concept of spiritual participation relating to the ‘privileges, blessings and gifts of the priesthood’ which not only enhanced their position in the church but offered limitless potential in the hereafter.”[13]

Eliza R. Snow

As secretary of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, Eliza R. Snow—who had experience as a recorder, transcriber, and published poet—kept a meticulous record of the society’s early meetings, which she titled “A Book of Records. Containing the proceedings of The Female Relief Society of Nauvoo.” By creating this book, Snow explicitly became a historian of Relief Society. As scholars have since noted, her “precision indicates her belief that she was constructing a significant, enduring record.”[14]

Snow kept the minutes of Relief Society meetings that were held in 1842 and in early 1843. Aware of their particular import, she recorded the sermons that Joseph Smith gave to members of the Relief Society—the only extant accounts of his teachings as specifically addressed to women.[15] Although Snow moved twenty-five miles south of Nauvoo in early 1843, thus precluding her from regular attendance at subsequent Relief Society meetings, she left the record she had been keeping in Nauvoo so other women could detail the proceedings she missed. Phoebe M. Wheeler, Hannah Ells, and an unidentified scribe took notes in Snow’s place.[16]

In 1844 Relief Society meetings were suspended owing to controversies associated with plural marriage. Shortly thereafter, Joseph Smith was murdered, and two years following his death, Church members began their migration west. During this tumultuous period, Snow reclaimed the Relief Society record and took it with her as she left Nauvoo for the Rocky Mountains. She recognized the importance of the document she had created and was committed to preserving it.

Shortly after settling in the Rocky Mountains, a small group of Latter-day Saint women established societies “of females for the purpose of making clothing for Indian women and children.”[17] Because other groups of women soon followed their example, a resurgence of Relief Society occurred in many wards. During the reformation that swept over the faith in the mid-1850s, a strong spiritual component was infused into the charitable labors that members of the Relief Society engaged in. This period of renewal “reaffirmed the sisters’ sense of united purpose and continuity with their Nauvoo roots.”[18]

As a result of the Utah War and the Civil War, the revival of Relief Society eventually waned, and the organization essentially disappeared for a second time.[19] On December 6, 1867, however, Brigham Young called on each bishop to organize a Relief Society group within his ward, hoping this would help improve the temporal affairs of the Saints. Noting the tenuous nature of the society’s reorganization, the prophet Brigham then asked Eliza R. Snow to facilitate the renewal of Relief Society.[20]

In her efforts to reestablish Relief Society, Snow engaged in a thorough study of the book of records she had kept in Nauvoo. She believed that reorganization required historical awareness—she had to understand the purpose of Relief Society in order to help other women grasp its significance. Snow thus “carried [the record] and cited it when she addressed Relief Society women in Utah.”[21] She relied on the minutes she had kept to shape women’s memory of Relief Society origins so they could “reclaim the vitality and spirit” of this sacred organization.[22] In particular, Snow stressed the salvific scope of Joseph Smith’s teachings, underscoring the idea that Relief Society was more than a benevolent society or a relief organization. She taught that it was a way for women to engage in the work of salvation and a means to reach their rightful place in God’s kingdom. As one of the earliest historians of Latter-day Saint women, she created, preserved, and encouraged a familiarity with the past, hoping to “invest Mormon women with a sense of the spiritual power that Joseph opened to them.”[23]

Emmeline B. Wells

Although Emmeline B. Wells was a teenager when the Relief Society was organized in Nauvoo, she was familiar with and intrigued by its history. Like Snow, she had a strong sense of historical consciousness and hoped to preserve and disseminate the history of Relief Society specifically and the history of Latter-day Saint women generally. In 1872, therefore, Wells made a verbatim copy of the Relief Society minutes and then used them to expand the work Snow had initiated.[24]

As an author and an editor, Wells found creative ways to increase women’s exposure to their history; she hoped that this awareness would legitimize and extend their participation in the Church as well as in broader society. In order to accomplish this goal, she authored and published over fifty articles in the Woman’s Exponent that highlighted, analyzed, and interpreted central themes detailed in the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes.[25] Her efforts made the information recorded in these important documents readily accessible to women for the first time.

In addition to sharing the history of Relief Society through the written word in the Woman’s Exponent, Wells served as the fifth general president of the organization—the last president to have been acquainted with Joseph Smith and to have personal connections to Relief Society origins. During her tenure as president, therefore, Wells hoped to “transmit the memory and meaning of Relief Society beginnings to a second generation of Mormon women.”[26] She believed that those who remembered their history would come to recognize the power and influence they could have in various spheres; in her mind, women had the capacity to make a difference within and without the home.[27]

Although Snow and Wells acted as early historians of Latter-day Saint women, few present-day Church members are aware of their efforts to preserve such an important dimension of Church history. Snow created and preserved the words of the Prophet and sought to make his teachings to women familiar and, by extension, life changing.[28] Wells built on and expanded the scope of Snow’s work, making Relief Society history accessible over the pulpit and in print. Both found ways to infuse the Relief Society organization with meaning and purpose, to highlight its role within the scope of salvific work, and to carry its memory to present and future generations of women.

Wells’s death in 1921, however, “broke the connecting chain of memory” to Relief Society origins.[29] Because the historical witnesses of the organization of the Relief Society no longer lived, forgetfulness eventually ensued—an all-too-common pattern in women’s history. Indeed, even though women have been documenting their experiences at least since medieval times, historian Gerda Lerner has explained how every generation of women seems to be unaware that women from the preceding generation had already “amassed collections of ‘women worthies.’”[30] Owing to this lack of a historiographical precedent, each generation of women is left to reinvent the wheel.[31] Sadly, many twentieth-century Latter-day Saint women fell into this same category of historical forgetfulness.[32] Since remembered history has typically centered on male leaders (this is true within and without the Church), far too few were familiar with the documents Eliza R. Snow preserved and the articles Wells published. And thus the vital messages they contained—particularly the need for women to engage in the work of salvation—were largely forgotten. Recently, however, another Relief Society General President has recognized the need for women to recover their history.[33]

Julie B. Beck

From 2007 to 2012, Julie B. Beck served as the fifteenth General President of the Relief Society. Throughout her tenure, many of the talks she gave seemed to be laced with a historical undertone: over and over again, she highlighted the purpose and significance of the Relief Society organization.[34]

In the 2010 general meeting, Beck’s historical consciousness became increasingly clear. Prompted to rectify the problem of forgetfulness, she announced that a historical account about Relief Society was being written and would eventually be distributed to members of the Church.[35] The purpose of this work, she explained, was to restore a sense of identity and purpose, to initiate positive change, and to unite women together in the work of salvation.[36] As if echoing the thoughtful sentiments of Gerda Lerner, she reminded a vast and diverse audience of women—united by a common faith—that “not having a history truly matters.”[37]

Like Snow and Wells, Beck stressed the salvific purpose of Relief Society.[38] By turning to the records of the past, she was able to reclaim the words and the vision of the Prophet Joseph Smith in relation to this fundamental organization. She understood that modern women needed the reminder that Relief Society is more than a social club or an organization that performs temporal acts of service—it is a spiritual organization that has been given the charge to save souls.[39] Relief Society is, as Beck later explained in a BYU devotional, akin to priesthood quorums—both were designed to “help us become who our Heavenly Father needs us to become.”[40]


Although Julie B. Beck recently reclaimed the history of Relief Society, we cannot assume that historical forgetfulness will not follow in succeeding generations. (Surely Eliza R. Snow and Emmeline B. Wells assumed, or at least hoped, that their efforts to preserve Relief Society history would impact every generation of Latter-day Saint women.) Remembering is active. It requires thoughtfulness, awareness, and creativity. It encourages us to think about old topics in new ways and to open our minds to a more expansive and complex narrative.

As religious educators, we are responsible to invite all of our students to engage in the work of salvation. And the possibilities for that engagement are ever increasing: our students are serving missions at younger ages, and more of those students are women. Consequently, women are also receiving their endowments at younger ages. They are being given greater leadership responsibilities as missionaries—their stewardships are increasing.[41] Indeed, they are being given, more than ever before, opportunities to fulfill the mission of Relief Society, as taught by Joseph Smith.

To aid with the ever-increasing work of salvation, and to avoid previous patterns of historical forgetfulness, each of us needs to make a greater effort to “know and learn from the history of Relief Society” and to teach its importance to our students, male and female.[42] What if, for example, we incorporated Joseph Smith’s teachings from the Relief Society minutes into some of our lessons? We could also draw on stories from the scriptures and from Church history that are about women as well as men. We could read and quote from talks given by female leaders, thus helping our students recognize the importance of the work they do and the counsel they provide, as well as the significance and import of the auxiliaries they represent.[43]

If we teach younger generations of students to consider the importance of Relief Society history—to value God’s salvific work as engaged in by women—then remembering will inevitably follow. If it becomes a part of who they are and how they understand the gospel, they will preserve it, they will teach it, they will make it the norm. “As we move the Lord’s work forward,” Sister Beck suggested, “the history of Relief Society will continue to be written by faithful sisters [and faithful brothers] throughout the world.”[44] And forgetfulness can become a thing of the past.


[1] Emmeline B. Wells, “Self-Made Women,” Woman’s Exponent, March 1, 1881, 148.

[2] See Carol Cornwall Madsen, An Advocate for Women: The Public Life of Emmeline B. Wells, 1870–1920 (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2005). See also Carol Cornwall Madsen, “Emmeline B. Wells: Romantic Rebel,” in Supporting Saints: Life Stories of Nineteenth-Century Mormons, ed. Donald Q. Cannon and David J. Whittaker (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1985), 305–41.

[3] Emmeline B. Wells, diary, January 4, 1878, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah (hereafter Perry Special Collections).

[4] Julie B. Beck, “‘Daughters in My Kingdom’: The History and Work of Relief Society,” Ensign, November 2010, 114.

[5] Beck, “‘Daughters in My Kingdom,’” 114.

[6] See Glen M. Leonard, Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, a People of Promise (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002), 237.

[7] See Lori Ginzberg, Women and the Work of Benevolence: Morality, Politics, and Class in the Nineteenth-Century United States (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990).

[8] Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, March 31, 1842, See also Jill Mulvay Derr, Janath Russell Cannon, and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), 79; Jill Mulvay Derr and Carol Cornwall Madsen, “Preserving the Record and Memory of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo,” Journal of Mormon History 35, no. 3 (2009): 88–117; and Jill Mulvay Derr and Carol Cornwall Madsen, “‘Something Better’ for the Sisters: Joseph Smith and the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo,” in Joseph Smith and the Doctrinal Restoration (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), 123–43.

[9] See Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, March 31, 1842.

[10] Carol Cornwall Madsen, In Their Own Words: Women and the Story of Nauvoo (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1994), 200–201.

[11] This principle has been confirmed by modern-day Apostle M. Russell Ballard, who said, “In our Heavenly Father’s great priesthood-endowed plan, men have the unique responsibility to administer the priesthood, but they are not the priesthood. . . . In the eternal perspective, both the procreative power and the priesthood power are shared by husband and wife.” M. Russell Ballard, “This Is My Work and Glory,” Ensign, May 2013, 19. See also Dallin H. Oaks, “The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood,” Ensign, May 2014, 49–52.

[12] Doctrine and Covenants 25:7.

[13] Carol Cornwall Madsen, “Mormon Women and the Temple: Toward a New Understanding,” in Mormon Women in Historical and Cultural Perspective, ed. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher and Lavina Fielding Anderson (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 83–84.

[14] Madsen, “Mormon Women and the Temple,” 92.

[15] See Madsen, “Mormon Women and the Temple,” 94.

[16] See Derr and Madsen, “Preserving the Record,” 94.

[17] “Record of the Female Relief Society Organized on the 9th of Feby in the City of the Great Salt Lake 1854,” holograph, Louisa R. Taylor Papers, Perry Special Collections.

[18] See “Relief Society in the Early Days,” Woman’s Exponent, July 1, 1895, 21; Susa Young Gates, “Relief Society Beginnings in Utah,” Relief Society Magazine 9, April 1922; “Record of the Relief Society from First Organization to Conference Apr. 5, 1892, Book II,” cataloged as Relief Society Record, 1880–1892; Eliza R. Snow, “Relief Society,” Deseret Evening News, April 18, 1868, 2; and Derr, Cannon, and Beecher, Women of Covenant, 79.

[19] See Derr, Cannon, and Beecher, Women of Covenant, 59–82.

[20] See Derr, Cannon, and Beecher, Women of Covenant, 83–126.

[21] Derr and Madsen, “Preserving the Record,” 90.

[22] Derr and Madsen, “Preserving the Record,” 104.

[23] Derr and Madsen, “Preserving the Record,” 105.

[24] Holograph copy in Emmeline Wells Papers, Perry Special Collections.

[25] See, for example, “Sermons and Writings of the Prophet Joseph, His Teachings to the Relief Society,” Woman’s Exponent, August 15, 1884, 44, 52; “The Relief Society: Extracts from the Records,” Woman’s Exponent, November 1905, 36–38; and “The Relief Society (Copied from the Original Records), Eliza R. Snow, Secretary,” Woman’s Exponent, February 1911, 49.

[26] Derr and Madsen, “Preserving the Record,” 90.

[27] See, for example, Emmeline B. Wells, diary, January 4, 1878, and May 23, 1908, Perry Special Collections; “A Noble Woman,” Deseret Evening News, March 5, 1910, 4; Blanche Beachwood [Emmeline B. Wells penname], “Real Women,” Woman’s Exponent, June 1, 1874, 118; and Blanche Beachwood, “Real Women,” Woman’s Exponent, April 1, 1976, 118. See also Carol Cornwall Madsen, An Advocate for Women: The Public Life of Emmeline B. Wells, 1870–1920 (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2005); and Carol Cornwall Madsen, “Telling the Untold Story: Emmeline B. Wells as Historian,” in Telling the Story of Mormon History, Proceedings of the 2002 Symposium of the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History at Brigham Young University, ed. William G. Hartley (Provo, UT: Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History, Brigham Young University, 2004).

[28] The content of the Relief Society minutes is readily available through the Joseph Smith Papers Project (including scans of the original and a transcription) at and is also available as a recent Deseret Book publication: Sheri L. Dew and Virginia H. Pearce, The Beginning of Better Days: Divine Instruction to Women from the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Desert Book, 2012).

[29] Derr and Madsen, “Preserving the Record,” 113.

[30] Gerda Lerner, Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-seventy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 210.

[31] See Lerner, Creation of Feminist Consciousness, 166.

[32] Latter-day Saint women’s history has become a thriving academic field with the rise of women’s history in the 1970s; however, it remains comparatively unfamiliar to lay readers.

[33] This statement is not intended to suggest that other Relief Society General Presidents have not acknowledged the history of Relief Society, nor is it meant to imply that the organization of Relief Society has not been discussed and celebrated throughout the Church. The statement is, however, making note of a recent example of a Relief Society General President who made a concerted effort—akin to Snow and Wells—to reclaim a forgotten history.

[34] See the following by Julie B. Beck: “Fulfilling the Purpose of Relief Society,” October 2008 general conference; “Relief Society: A Sacred Work,” October 2009 general conference; “‘Daughters in My Kingdom,’” October 2010 general conference; “What I Hope My Granddaughters (and Grandsons) Will Understand about Relief Society,” October 2011 general conference; “The Vision of Prophets regarding Relief Society: Faith, Family, Relief,” April 2012 general conference; and “Why We Are Organized into Quorums and Relief Societies,” Religious Educator 14, no. 1 (2013):19–33.

[35] See Susan W. Tanner, Daughters in My Kingdom (Salt Lake City: Intellectual Reserve, 2011).

[36] See Beck, “‘Daughters in My Kingdom.’”

[37] Gerda Lerner, Why History Matters: Life and Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 208.

[38] See Derr, Cannon, and Beecher, Women of Covenant, 79; Derr and Madsen, “Preserving the Record,” 88–117; Derr and Madsen, “‘Something Better’ for the Sisters,” 123–43; Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, March 30, 1842; and Dew and Pearce, The Beginning of Better Days.

[39] See Beck, “‘Daughters in My Kingdom.’”

[40] Julie B. Beck, “Why We Are Organized into Quorums and Relief Societies,” BYU devotional, January 17, 2012,, 29.

[41] In addition, the roles and leadership responsibilities of mission presidents’ wives are increasing, and the scope of international leadership is expanding with the recent announcement that international board members are being called to serve with the Young Women organization. See “Mormon Women Leaders Announce International Board Members,”

[42] Beck, “‘Daughters in My Kingdom,’” 114.

[43] For more ideas, see Neylan McBaine, Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact (Sandy, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2014).

[44] Beck, “‘Daughters in My Kingdom,’” 115.