Revolutionary Sisterhood: The Struggle to Sustain a Prophetic Vision

An unusual aspect of early Relief Society history is that the precise date on which Eliza R. Snow became its second General President is ambiguous. Some accounts have her presiding from 1866 until her death in 1887.[1] Others give a date of 1867.[2] Still others claim that she was set apart for that calling in 1880.[3] Some sources, like the “Eliza R. Snow” article in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, are extremely vague, and avoid giving an exact date for her calling.[4] While trying to pin down an exact date, I found an interesting story.

Eliza R. Snow was called as the secretary of the very first Relief Society on March 17, 1842. Shortly before the death of Joseph Smith, his wife Emma, who was the President of the Nauvoo Female Relief Society, began to use her position to preach to the sisters against the doctrine of plural marriage.[5] The Relief Society never met again in Nauvoo. John Taylor later explained, “The reason why the Relief Society did not continue…was that Emma Smith…taught the Sisters that the principles of Celestial Marriage as taught and practiced was not of God.”[6] At another meeting, he elaborated: After the death of the Prophet Joseph in consequence of the confusion then introduced, President B. Young thought it best to defer the operations of this organization and the labours of the Society ceased until he organized the sisters again here in this City.”[7]

After Joseph Smith’s death, Brigham Young, president of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, denounced any attempts of Latter-day Saint women to “meddle in the affairs of the kingdom of God.”[8] Blaming such “meddling” as contributing to the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, he firmly announced that he would be the one to initiate the reestablishment of any women’s organizations in the Church:: “When I want Sisters or the Wives of the members of the church to get up [a] Relief Society I will summon them to my aid but until that time let them stay at home and if you see Females huddling together veto the concern . . .”[9]

But the sisters were “huddling together.” When the Saints came across the plains, Eliza carried along the minutes of the first three years of Relief Society meetings. Emmeline Wells later said: “Sister Eliza R. Snow brought with her the records from Nauvoo which proves that this association was never discontinued since its first organization.”[10] Emmeline believed that though a general leadership had ceased, Eliza’s caring for the physical records preserved the latter-day women’s society which Joseph had restored by revelation. Annie Wells Cannon wrote, “In the forced exodus from Nauvoo the Relief Society women, though separated in different companies coming west, carried the spirit of the work through the journey over prairie, plain, and mountain.”[11]

In those years, the sisters continued to meet in occasional groups they called Relief Societies. There was a profusion of these meetings at Winter Quarters in the spring of 1847 and again in the Salt Lake Valley from the fall of 1847 to the first months of 1848.[12] Members met in private homes where they encouraged and blessed each other. Speaking in tongues, prophesying, and other intensely spiritual experiences were common. “Had a rejoicing time thro’ the outpouring of the spirit of God,” was a typical entry in Eliza R. Snow’s journal in April 1847. “All hearts comforted.”[13]  At these gatherings, procedures were well defined, and different women were called upon to preside at different times. Eliza Snow and Patty Sessions were instrumental in initiating such meetings.[14]

These women advanced the cause of the Relief Society during trying times, working to fulfill the Prophet’s progressive vision of women’s potential. The Prophet conceived of the Relief Society as the mechanism of charity, individual refinement and spiritual progress, and Sisters were unwilling to let this restored organization simply disappear. In an early history of the Relief Society, Emmeline B. Wells stated:

Early in the settlement of these valleys in the Rocky Mountain region, organizations were formed, a natural outgrowth or continuation of the parental organization in Nauvoo , for the same spirit and sentiment still existed and was soon brought into active exercise. During all this time the sisters never lost sight of this institution as it had been established, nor the promises made to them of its future greatness by the Prophet Joseph Smith. [15]

Wells specified that “temporary” Relief Societies were organized as early as 1851-52.[16] Richard L. Jensen’s research showed that “women met most frequently while Brigham Young and other Church officials were traveling.” He suggested that the leaders’ absence may have made the need for mutual comfort and encouragement more acute. On the other hand, the women may have sensed that some of the brethren were not sympathetic to the too-frequent holding of such ‘spiritual feasts,’[17] and therefore chose to meet during times less likely to draw critical attention.

In 1853 and 54, Brigham Young and Parley P. Pratt had been encouraging the Saints in public addresses to do missionary work among the Indian tribes in the area, and save the remnants of the house of Israel.[18] Parley P. Pratt gave a Conference address urging the Saints to feed and clothe the local Indians, who were so destitute, that they had resorted to stealing from the settlers.[19] Several Salt Lake City women responded to this call by forming a Female Relief Society “for the purpose of making clothing for Indian women and children.”[20] This society was organized on February 9, 1854. They elected a president, two counselors, a secretary and treasurer. They opened and closed their weekly meetings with prayers and hymns, took donations, made projects which they sold to buy materials, and sewed clothing for the Native Americans.

On June 4th of that year, Brigham Young preached a Sunday sermon formalizing these sisters’ efforts. Said he: “I propose to the sisters in this congregation to form themselves into societies to relieve the poor brethren and sustain them. We need not have a poor family. I propose to the women to clothe the Lamanite children and women and cover their nakedness…The sisters should meet in their own wards and it will do them good.[21] The first local ward to organize under Brigham Young’s suggestion was the Salt Lake Thirteenth Ward, which adopted the name “Female Indian Relief Society.” The Sixteenth Ward society was referred to as “a benevolent society to clothe the Indian squas.”[22] Bishops were charged to organize societies in their wards, with at least twenty-two Indian Relief Societies organized in Salt Lake City. A few other wards outside of Salt Lake (South Weber, Big Cottonwood, South Cottonwood, West Jordan, and Mill Creek) also founded Indian Relief Societies. As in Nauvoo, ecclesiastical leaders had once again capitalized on a fledgling women’s organization which had been initiated independently to achieve specific goals, and sanctioned its expansion to meet official ends.

Within a year, the Relief Societies were being asked to assist with other projects. In January 1855, Brigham Young notified bishops that he wanted the women to concentrate on aiding the Latter-day Saint poor. His announced intention was that Relief Societies be organized in all Mormon wards or communities.[23] By 1858, Relief Societies functioned in Cedar City, Manti, Provo, Spanish Fork, Willard, and throughout the Salt Lake Valley. Clearly, the pattern became widespread,[24] and the focus was being broadened. Bishop Phillip K. Smith told Cedar City women their organization was “not so much for the supplying of the poor, as for the advancement of the Sisters in the Kingdom of God.”[25] Local priesthood leaders Isaac C. Haight and John M. Higbee blessed the presidency of Cedar City’s Relief Society “with power to wash and anoint the sick, and of laying on of hands.”[26]

Near the end of the decade, Latter-day Saint wards in Northern Utah suffered an organizational setback. Many Saints were evacuated during the 1858 Utah War to avoid U.S. troops who moved into the area. In January of 1859, Isaac Morley told the Saints of Manti (where a Relief Society had continued to function), that they enjoyed the “privilege of meeting to worship while other settlements had not such privileges.”[27] Eliza R. Snow maintained that the Relief Society effort, which eventually became Church-wide under her leadership, continued to function during this time, though much curtailed.[28] The sparse records which exist tend to support that claim. For example, Sarah Kimball was elected President of the Fifteenth Ward Relief Society on Feb. 7, 1857, and was active in that position continuously until her death in 1898.[29] Cedar City’s Relief Society functioned until April 1859, lapsed for nine years, and then recommenced. The Manti Relief Society operated through 1859, and perhaps later. The Spanish Fork Relief Society maintained a continuous existence throughout the 1860s. In the winter of 1860-61 they contributed an ox to the Perpetual Emigrating Fund. By 1864 the Relief Society in Willard and other locations had regrouped after a period of inactivity.[30]

In late 1867 Church President Brigham Young publicly called for the reorganization of the Relief Society in every ward. [31]  This was repeated several times in the next few years. In the 1868 April conference he stated: “Now, Bishops, you have smart women for wives, many of you. Let them organize Female Relief Societies in the various wards. We have many talented women among us . . . . You will find that the sisters will be the mainspring of the movement.”[32] In 1869 he counseled: “I have a short sermon for my sisters. I wish you, under the direction of your bishops and wise men, to establish your relief societies, and organize yourselves under the direction of the brethren, and establish yourselves for doing business, gathering up your little amounts of means that would otherwise go to waste and put them to usury, and make more of them, and thus keep gathering in. Let this be commenced forthwith.”[33]

During this time, Eliza R. Snow was assigned to assist local bishops in organizing permanent branches of the Relief Society.

Not long after the re-organization of the Relief Society, Pres. Young told me he was going to give me another mission. Without the least intimation of what the mission consisted, I replied, “I shall endeavor to fulfill it.” He said, “I want you to instruct the sisters.” Altho’ my heart went “pit a pat” for the time being, I did not, and could not then form an adequate estimate of the magnitude of the work before me.[34]

Using the minutes recorded in the early Nauvoo meetings as a Constitution, Snow created a standard model for all local wards that united women in purpose and provided a permanent name and structure to their organization. She and nine other sisters began visiting wards and settlements in 1868, and at the end of the year, organizations existed in all twenty Salt Lake City congregations and in congregations in nearly every county in Utah. Snow provided central leadership both before and after her call as General President in 1880.[35]

Although in several places on the official church website Eliza R. Snow’s tenure as General Relief Society President is reckoned from 1866, the Daughters in My Kingdom manual clarifies that an official call was not given to her until 1880:[36] The Woman’s Exponent offers a glimpse at how that calling took place.

The Sisters Conference of the Salt Lake Stake of Zion was held in the Salt Lake Assembly Hall Friday and Saturday June 18 and 19, 1880. In the Saturday session, then President of the Church John Taylor addressed the sisters. He had brought along the Book of the Law of the Lord, into which had been copied the minutes of the Nauvoo Relief Society. President Taylor had his secretary, John L. Nuttall, read a little from this book, concerning the organization of the Relief Society by Joseph Smith in the “Lodge Room” in Nauvoo. John Taylor had been present on that momentous day. After Brother Nuttall had finished reading President Taylor made explanatory remarks concerning the organization and the powers and duties it gave to woman. He then closed his remarks with a blessing on the sisters “with Sister Snow at their head.”

A remarkable event then occurred. Mrs. M. I. Horne moved, and Mrs. S. M. Kimball seconded the motion that President Taylor publicly appoint “Sister Eliza” as president of all the Relief Societies. President Taylor must have felt somewhat discomfited at this suggestion. But what was he to do? He had just described the restoration of the Female Relief Society at the hands of Joseph Smith, and recounted his own part in setting apart some of the officers. Additionally, Emma Smith had died the year before,[37] and Eliza had been playing the part of a General President for years.

Thinking quickly, President Taylor nominated Eliza and she was sustained as president. Without missing a beat, Sister Eliza immediately chose Sisters Zina D. H. Young and Elizabeth Ann Whitney as her counselors. These two were then nominated by President Taylor and sustained by the conference, together with Sarah M. Kimball as secretary and M. Isabella Horne as treasurer. In the next issue of the Woman’s Exponent, it was announced that “these sisters form a central organization for all the Relief Societies of all the Stakes of Zion.” [38]

One month later, on July 17, 1880, A General Relief Society meeting was held in the Salt Lake City Fourteenth Ward Assembly Hall. President John Taylor’s attendance was expected. He apparently arrived late, and was thereupon invited to address the sisters.  He said:

I was not aware until last evening of this meeting, at least I had forgotten, and had arranged to leave this City this afternoon going North to attend meetings at Ogden during the Weber Stake Conference. I understand that one of the objects of this meeting is the ordination of officers of the Relief Society who were elected at your Conference held of Saturday June 19, 1880, at the Salt Lake Assembly Hall.[39]

President Taylor then reminisced about the organization of the Relief Society by the Prophet Joseph Smith at Nauvoo, at which he was present. In fact, President Taylor noted, he had personally “ordained” Emma Smith’s counselors on that occasion. Addressing the thorny issue of women’s ordination, he hastened to add:

The ordination then given did not mean the conferring of the Priesthood upon those sisters, yet the sisters hold a portion of the Priesthood in connection with their husbands.[40] Sisters Eliza R. Snow and Bathsheba W. Smith stated that they first understood it in Nauvoo and have looked upon it always in that light.[41]

The Relief Society established in Nauvoo was as progressive and as revolutionary as the faith which had birthed it. In subsequent years, that faith would scale back on many of its innovative notions, for the sake of its own survival. During this period, the incipient woman’s organization which promised to make of its members a “Kingdom of Priests” had the potential to compromise efforts to stabilize ecclesiastical authority. Consequently, the Relief Society as an organization was discouraged after the death of the Prophet Joseph, and ignored in the early years in the Salt Lake Valley.

Yet, even without direct Church sanction and support, women continued to meet under the auspices of the Society, and Church leaders eventually saw the wisdom of utilizing such untapped potential. The reason that Eliza’s calling is so shrouded in mystery is because the story that the Relief Society just discontinued and suddenly started again at a precise moment in time is fiction. Rather, the size and scope of the Society and its work waxed and waned with the varied political and theological fortunes of the Church. Eliza began to act as a leading force in the Relief Society in the 1860s, and by the time she was set apart, many women had already considered her for some years to be the de facto General President of the Society.

With this election and setting apart in 1880, the seed planted in Nauvoo and jealously guarded and nourished for nearly 40 years had at long last borne fruit; the hard work and persistence of many in the face of numerous obstacles had won for these sisters the approval and support of one of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s associates in the Priesthood, who arrived to ordain those women elected to their places by the voice of their peers.

[1] Eliza R. Snow article on LDS Church website.

[2] David L. Paulsen and Martin Pulido, “A Mother There” A Survey of Historical Teachings about Mother in Heaven, BYU Studies 50, no. 1 (2011), 71.

[3] Eliza R. Snow article at Mormon Women’s History website.

[4] Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, “Eliza R. Snow,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, (New York: Macmillan, 1992) 1364. “In December 1866, following the Civil War, President Young once more saw need for the women to be organized, and called Eliza R. Snow to “head up” the movement, this time on an all-Church basis. Thus began the Relief Society as it has continued to the present: a central board setting directions to be followed by stake and ward officers wherever the Church has members. Loosely organized at first, the movement took advantage of existing networks of women until lines of responsibility were firmly established. Always at the center was “Sister Snow,” or “Aunt Eliza,” visiting or sending envoys to the various settlements to instruct, aid, and encourage.”

[5] See Nauvoo Relief Society Minutes (16 March 1844) 125; in 1880 John Taylor was quoted as saying: “I think that some of those circumstances should be known. Sister Emma got severely tried in her mind about the doctrine of Plural Marriage and she made use of the position she held to try to pervert the minds of the sisters in relation to that doctrine. She tried to influence my first wife and to make her believe the revelation was not correct. Sister Taylor was very much troubled thereat and asked me what it meant. Soon after, the Prophet Joseph was in my house. And I spoke to him in my wife’s presence, in relation to what Sister Emma had said, and Joseph replied, “Sister Emma would dethrone Jehovah to accomplish her purpose if she could.” Woman’s Exponent, 1880-09-01 vol. 9 no. 7, 53.

[6] John Taylor statement, June 29, 1881, DHC, in Valeen Tippetts Avery, “Emma, Joseph, and the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo: Unsuspected Arena for a Power Struggle,” paper presented at Mormon History Association annual meeting, Rexburg, ID, 2 May 1981, p. 12.

[7] John Taylor statement, July 17, 1880, from minutes of General Meeting held in Fourteenth Ward Assembly Hall, in The Woman’s Exponent, 1880-09-01 vol. 9 no. 7, p. 53.

[8] Seventies Record, Minutes for 9 March 1845, LDS Church Archives.

[9] Seventies Record, Minutes for 9 March 1845, LDS Church Archives.

[10] The Woman’s Exponent 1911-10-01 vol. 40 no. 3, p. 24.

[11] Annie Wells Cannon, “Achievement,” Relief Society Magazine 23 (March 1936): 159

[12] Richard L. Jensen, “Forgotten Relief Societies, 1844-67,” Dialogue Journal, 106.

[13] “Pioneer Diary of Eliza R. Snow, 26 April 1847, in Eliza R. Snow, An Immortal, p. 322. See also entries for 14 March 1847 through 6 April 1848, ibid, pp. 320-64; Patty Bartlett Sessions Diary, 4 Feb. 1847-26 April 1848, LDS Church Archives.

[14] Richard L. Jensen, “Forgotten Relief Societies, 1844-67,” Dialogue Journal, 106.

[15] Emmeline B. Wells, “History of the Relief Society,” The Woman’s Exponent 1903-06-01 vol. 32 no. 1, pp. 6-7. Wells also had access to Salt Lake City 14th Ward Relief Society records, organized September 17, 1856, which later disappeared.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Richard L. Jensen, “Forgotten Relief Societies, 1844-67,” Dialogue Journal, 107.

[18] Synopsis of Brigham Young address, 9 Oct 1853, Salt Lake City Deseret News, 24 Nov 1853.

[19] Address by Parley P. Pratt in Minutes of General Conference Address, 9 Oct 1853, Deseret News, 15 Oct 1853.

[20] “Record of the Female Relief Society Organized on the 9th of Feby in the City of Great Salt Lake 1854,” Louisa R. Taylor Papers, Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University. An almost identical record is found in the papers of Amanda Barnes Smith, Church Archives.

[21] Minutes of Meeting, Salt Lake City, 4 June 1854, Thomas Bullock Minutes Collection, LDS Church Archives.

[22] Thirteenth Ward Indian Relief Society Minutes, (7 June 1854); Patty Sessions Diary, 10 June 1854, LDS Church Archives.

[23] In 1857 Wilford Woodruff reminded the bishops of Salt Lake Valley: “President Young had expressed a desire that in every ward there shall be a Female Relief Society established, which would be of great service to the Bishops, by relieving the poor.” Minutes of Presiding Bishop’s Meetings with Bishops, 17 Feb. 1857, LDS Church Archives.

[24] Cedar City Relief Society Minutes, 1856-75, LDS Church Archives; Manti Ward Historical Record, 1850-59, LDS Church Archives; Spanish Fork Ward Relief Society Account Book, 1857—89, LDS Church Archives; Lucy Meserve Smith, “Historical Narrative,” in Kenneth W. Godfrey, Audrey W. Godfrey, and Jill Mulvay Derr, Women’s Voices: An Untold History of the Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book 1982), p. 268; Brigham City First Ward Relief Society History, 1868-1915, in Brigham City First Ward Relief Society Account Book, 1912-20, LDS Church Archives. Curiously, the Brigham City First Ward records give the best information available about the society organized in Willard.

[25] Cedar City Relief Society Minutes, 3 Dec. 1856. Bishop Smith’s name is sometimes given as Klingonsmith.

[26] Cedar City Relief Society Minutes, 2 Nov. 1856. See also Linda King Newell, “A Gift Given: A Gift Taken: Washing, Anointing, and Blessing the Sick among Mormon Women,” Sunstone 6 (Sept.-Oct. 1981): 16-25.

[27] Minutes for 9 Jan. 1859 in Manti Ward Historical Record, 1850-59, LDS Church Archives.

[28] Eliza R. Snow: An Immortal: Selected Writings of Eliza R. Snow (np: Nicholas G. Morgan, Sr., Foundation, 1957), 38-49; Eliza R. Snow, Brief Sketch of the Organizations conducted by the Latter-day Saint Women of Utah, Salt Lake City, 1880, holograph, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, California: microfilm, LDS Church Archives.

[29] Sarah boasted that she had been Fifteenth Ward Relief Society President for twenty-five years, “longer than any president living.”

[30] Cedar City Relief Society Minutes, 1856-75; Brigham Young to Rhoda Snell and Adelia S. Richards, [Spanish Fork], 9 Feb. 1861; Young Letterbooks; Spanish Fork Relief Society Account Book, 1857-89; Brigham City First Ward Relief Society History, 1868-1915; Manti Ward Historical Record, 1850-59.

[31] Richard L. Jensen, “Forgotten Relief Societies, 1844-67,” Dialogue Journal, 105, 124.

[32] Journal of Discourses 12:201.

[33] Remarks by president Brigham Young in the new tabernacle, afternoon April 8 1868, in Journal of Discourses Vol. 12, page 201.

[34] Brigham Young, quoted in The Personal Writings of Eliza Roxcy Snow, ed. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher (1995), 35.

[35] Wikipedia, “Relief Society.” accessed March 13, 2013.

[36] President Young called Sister Snow to serve the Church by traveling throughout the territory, helping bishops organize Relief Societies… In addition to asking Sister Snow to work with priesthood leaders in each ward, President Young expanded her assignment. He said, “I want you to instruct the sisters.”  Although she would not be set apart as the second Relief Society general president until 1880, she was given the same responsibilities the Lord had given Sister Emma Smith: “to expound scriptures, and to exhort the church, according as it shall be given thee by my Spirit.”

[37] Carol Cornwall Madsen suggests that “the title “elect lady” in reference to Emma Smith developed a mystique that curtailed its use for others until after her death, despite her dissociation with the Relief Society and the Church. Though Brigham Young authorized Eliza R. Snow to organize Relief Societies throughout the Church and direct its activities in 1868, she was not officially set apart ‘to preside’ as the new ‘elect lady’ until 1880, the year after Emma’s death. [April 30, 1879].” See Carol Cornwall Madsen, “The ‘Elect Lady’ Revelation (D&C 25): Its Historical and Doctrinal Context,” in Sperry Symposium Classics: The Doctrine and Covenants, ed. Craig K. Manscill (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2004), 117–133.

[38] The Woman’s Exponent 1880-07-01 vol 9 no 3, p. 21.

[39] The Woman’s Exponent 1880-09-01 vol. 9 no. 7 p. 53.

[40] As Brigham Young noted: “Now, brethren, the man that honors his priesthood, the woman that honors her priesthood, will receive an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of God” (Brigham Young, 28 June 1874, Journal of Discourses 17:119.

[41] The Woman’s Exponent 1880-09-01 vol. 9 no. 7 p. 53.



Revolutionary Sisterhood: The Struggle to Sustain a Prophetic Vision — 9 Comments

  1. Very interesting and well researched article Cheryl! I didnt’t realize there were various incarnations of relief society in different times, places and for different reasons.

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  3. “Still others claim that she was set apart for that calling in 1800.[3]” Well, that would be extraordinary.

    I guess you meant to say 1880.

    Very interesting, thank you!

  4. Nicely done. Your piece highlights a number of significant if often-overlooked points, I think. A quick question for you: was your title for this post influenced in any way by Stephen C. Bullock? Enquiring minds, and all that. 🙂

  5. Fascinating and very well-researched. Just the other day I ran across Emmeline’s claim that the Society had never been discontinued, so this post is timely and I learned a lot. You’re a wonderful writer, Cheryl!

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