It’s a little overdue, but in March we celebrated the Relief Society’s 174th birthday by throwing a party for our Relief Society group. We had each of our committees host exhibition tables that showed what work they did in the Relief Society and community as a whole, and our decorations reflected women who our girls esteemed as inspirational. We ate pioneer style food and played old time-y games.
We also took the opportunity to teach the history of this organisation by way of showcasing its sixteen General Relief Society Presidents. Girls dressed as these women and walked a “fashion show” as we told their history- as researched and written by women in our RS the previous weeks. I learned a lot about our organisation as I read their words and thought about these strong women who have led the Church in pivotal ways, caring for the needy and looking for ways to build the kingdom of God.
I was reminded of something Sheri Dew said of Latter-day Saint women today (Awake and Arise), and shared with our girls:
We are here to influence the world rather than to be influenced by the world. If we could unleash the full influence of covenant-keeping women, the kingdom of God would change overnight. No one has more influence on husbands than wives, on children than their mothers, or on young men than young women. Show me the women of any family or community, and I will show you the character and soul of that family and community. I repeat, if we would unleash the full influence of covenant-keeping women, the kingdom of God would change overnight.
This is why Satan has never underestimated us. He knows we are at the heart of the
Father’s plan. So from the beginning, Lucifer has worked with a vengeance to distort the very definition of womanhood and to confuse everyone about us, including us.
Here are just a few of Lucifer’s lies: That men are smarter, have all the power, and are
more important, so if we want to have influence we should be more like them; that
marriage and family are confining; that motherhood is menial and a waste of any talented woman’s time; that women are perpetually frazzled and failing; and that a woman’s value is based on her size, shape and what she accomplishes outside the home.
Too many women have bought these lies… Sisters, we’re smarter than this. We know too much to fall for Lucifer’s lies. If the world can’t look to us for a true definition of womanhood, where can it look?
… For twenty-nine years, we have been quoting a prophecy President Spencer W. Kimball made about us. Let’s quote it one more time: “Much of the major growth that is coming to the Church in the last days will come because many of the good women of the world . . . will be drawn to the Church in large numbers. This will happen to the degree that the women of the Church reflect righteousness and articulateness in their lives and to the degree that the women of the Church are seen as distinct and different—in happy ways—from the women of the world” (Ensign, November 1979, 103–4).
It has been three decades since that call to action. Are we all that different from the other good women of the world? Are we ever going to do more than just quote President Kimball? We have the gift of the Holy Ghost, a living prophet, spiritual gifts that magnify us, access to priesthood power, ordinances that endow us with knowledge and power, unique leadership training, and the gospel of Jesus Christ in its fullness. We should be far more distinctive than even the very finest women in the world. But are we? In our everyday lives, do we talk of Christ, rejoice in Christ, preach of Christ, and testify of Him (2 Nephi 25:26)? Are we women on a mission to build His kingdom?
Here is the narration of the RS Presidents’ lives, as researched and written by the women in my RS:
On Thursday March 17 1842, Joseph Smith, Prophet of the church, announced the creation of a women’s organisation after the pattern of the priesthood. Emma Hale Smith was charged to preside over the women. As she spoke, she explained that those first women were going to be truly a part of something extraordinary. They named the organisation the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo. A year after the creation of the organisation, the Necessity Committee was formed. It was developed and ordered to seek out those who were poor and suffering. It offered an opportunity for women to form friendships and grow from one another’s experiences. We now know the Necessity Committee as the Visiting Teaching organisation. After Emma’s husband was slain in Carthage, Emma felt she could no longer continue to lead the women. She and her family stayed in Nauvoo rather than travel West with the saints. The sisters who had come to love her as an Elect Lady took with them memories of a woman, eager to be a blessing to those whom she served.
Eliza Rocxy Snow was called to be the second general Relief Society President in 1866. When she learned of the restored gospel Eliza wrote, “It was what my soul hungered for, but….I considered it a hoax—too good to be true”. When the Prophet Joseph Smith visited their home in 1831, she studied his face and determined it was an honest one. After four years she joined the church. Throughout her 83 years, she was known as a “Priestess, prophetess, president and Zion’s poetess”. She was a talented poetess and she used her poetry to strengthen the saints during their trials in transition and settling in the west. She wrote ten of our hymns. When the first Relief Society was organized in Nauvoo, she was called to be secretary. She served as President for 21 years during which she helped to found the Primary and Young Ladies Associations. She assisted the Bishops in organising a Relief Society in every ward across the western United States. She is a woman we love to honour as a true Latter-day Saint.
As the daughter of a prosperous New York farmer, Zina D. H. Young enjoyed a comfortable childhood yet longed for excitement and to be a part of something more dramatic. Little did she know that she would later assume a major role in the unfolding of the restored church. Like the prophet Joseph, her family also battled with the question as to which church they should attend. Curiosity led her father to meet with Joseph Smith and bring back a copy of the Book of Mormon. Remarkably Zina recorded that she knew of its divinity before she even read it. She held it in her arms and remarked that the sweet influence of the Holy Spirit accompanied it to such an extent that it caused her to murmur ‘this is the truth, truth, truth’ She was baptised by Hyrum smith in 1835. Zina was educated in medicine and was instrumental in establishing and encouraging others to build hospitals and nursing schools. She also campaigned for women’s voting rights. It was said that ‘friendliness was as natural to her as breathing. She loved people and they loved her. She died in 1901 after serving as relief society president for 13 years. Her head stone was engraved with the Relief society motto “charity never faileth”
Bathsheba W. Smith was the youngest women present at the first ever Relief Society meeting in 1842. She was among the first to be endowed in the Nauvoo Temple and served as a temple worker there for three months until she and her family left Nauvoo for the West. During her presidency, the relief society reached over 40,000 members. She introduced the first organised lessons to be given throughout the entire church. They called the lessons “mother’s classes”. These lessons included instruction in marriage, pre-natal care, child-rearing, industry, obedience, honesty, and reverence. She also helped support the national women’s suffrage association and wrote articles for the Mormon-supported magazine, the Woman’s Exponent.
In 1910 after Bathsheba passed away, Emmeline B. Wells became the fifth general relief society president. She was married at age 15 and lost her first baby after 3 months of giving birth. She was married three different times. She was able to raise 5 daughters and kept 46 journals. Emmeline might be most well known for her efforts to start the wheat storage programme in 1876. She encouraged the women to gather the wheat in their surrounding areas. The wheat project continued to grow over the years and as a result became one of the most successful long term relief society projects. As a result, Utah grain eased the effects of the drought that ravaged southern Utah in 1899; helped the survivors of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and fed thousands during WWI. This programme continued under the Relief Society until 1978 when General RS president Barbara Smith turned it over to the First Presidency. At that time the programme had over 225,000 bushels of wheat, with a net worth of over $1.6 million dollars. Because of the successes of the wheat programme under the relief society, wheat is pictured in our relief society symbol, which has also adopted the motto, Charity Never Faileth. Emmeline met Queen Victoria when she visited London to speak at Westminster Hall. Emmeline was Editor of a magazine called the Woman’s Exponent for many years and was the first woman to be given an honorary degree from BYU. When she died her funeral was held in the Tabernacle on Temple Square, all flags were flown at half-mast in Utah. The first time it had ever been done in honour of a woman.
Clarissa Smith Williams was the oldest of 5 girls in her family. Clarissa graduated with a teaching certificate from the University of Utah, and following graduation established her own private school. During this time, Clarissa began dating a handsome blond Welshman, William Williams. When William received a mission call to Wales, realising their love for each other, they got married the next day, before William left for his mission the day after. Clarissa missed William and said that being without him was like ‘eating beef steak without salt”. When William returned from his mission, they had 11 children together. Clarissa was an expert cook and often gave food to those in need. There was a mark on the tree in her front yard letting homeless men know, to approach the door as she was very generous. Clarissa also really loved people and had excellent leadership skills. At age 62, Clarissa was Appointed RS President by President Heber J Grant. Clarissa served as president for 7.5 years before being asked to be released due to her failing medical condition. Clarissa was known for her work in improving social service programs within RS, specifically establishing camps for children who were handicapped or underprivileged, health examinations for pre-school children, a free milk fund and courses in hygiene and the care of the sick.
Throughout her life, Louisa Yates Robison was reserved and shy, but fastidious and lady like. Her English mother believed that “A lady does not leave home until her gloves are fastened and her veil adjusted”. She seldom went out without gloves and veil, even in her small pioneer home town. At age 17, Louise married Lyman Robison who worked as a traveling corset salesman, an occupation he neither enjoyed nor prospered in. Despite their humble circumstances, her six children never remembered feeling poor as their resourceful mother creatively and joyfully celebrated holidays and birthdays. She was deathly insecure of her lack of formal education, and studied from 4-6 every morning before going to a full day of work. A “common” woman, she had such strong faith in the Lord that she overcame extreme shyness and fear of public speaking to address audiences throughout the world. Called to the presidency at a stressful economic time, she established programs that helped lift the financial burdens of many Relief Society sisters. Her practical spirituality and refined humility made her an effective president for the era in which she served.
Amy Brown Lyman followed sister Robison as the eighth general relief society president. Amy led the Relief Society’s Social Welfare Department for 15 years and functioned as an officer in the Relief Society for 32 years. She also served a term as a member of the Utah House of Representatives.
She served as the Relief Society General President from 1940-1945, under President Heber J. Grant. Amy had a strong philosophy of providing “relief of existing distress and preventing new distress.” Being called just three months after the outbreak of World War II in Europe, she had many opportunities to put this philosophy into practice, including care packages for soldiers, bandages for Red Cross, and sewing and mending for those in need.
With fathers and sons around the world taken out of the home to fight, Sister Lyman encouraged mothers to do all they could to fortify their families. Amy Brown Lyman was a hardworking and caring woman who believed that, “No work could be more important and satisfying than that of helping to raise human life to its highest level.”
Amy’s successor Belle Spafford was an educated woman who taught special education classes at Brigham Young University, however she wasn’t always converted to Relief Society. As a young married woman she was always involved in the Young Women’s organisation, and she rarely attended Relief Society before the age of 30. Later she became a counsellor in her ward Relief Society, but she tried many times to be released. Finally she decided to quit complaining and give it her best try. Finally she admitted that RS was not just for old women, and she eventually served for 29 years as the general RS President. Perhaps her most known accomplishment was the dedication of the RS building on temple square in Salt Lake City. She also became president of the National Council of Women. During her presidency, the church’s welfare programme was created, and the RS helped to turn over many of its duties to be a shared effort of the churches men and women. The relief society was re-designed to spend more time on compassionate service and teaching the gospel.
Barbara Bradshaw Smith, the 10th Relief Society president of the Church, was an optimist and very independent – traits she learned from her mother and grandmother. Sister Smith was called as the general Relief Society president in 1974. During the United States’ equal rights amendment debate, Sister Smith advocated women’s rights whilst defending the essential calling of womanhood. She faithfully led women around the world in embracing their divine purpose as women. She became the most widely travelled Relief Society president, visiting sisters in many countries in almost every continent. During Sister Smith’s administration, membership in the Relief Society doubled in size.
From a young age Barbara Winder got stuck in with the work and forever had her shoulder to the wheel. With her family, with her garden, and with the gospel. Not to mention, some room for her love of her Grandma’s pie. Barbara got engaged to a Richard Winder two weeks after she met His family for the first time. They had four children. She was called while her husband was serving as a mission president in San Diego. She had mixed emotions about her calling as her husband had to sacrifice and leave his mission to support her in her calling as the 11th general relief society president. Sister Winder’s greatest trait was her compassion for all things. She came from a large-hearted family, and jumped at the chance to be Christ like; all attributes we aspire to have.
Elaine L. Jack served as a counselor in two general Relief Society Presidencies and one general Young Women’s Presidency before being called to serve as General Relief Society President from 1990-1997. As the twelfth General Relief Society President of the church, she was called to lead the women of the church at a time of great challenge and opportunity. She instituted the ongoing Gospel Literacy Program and reemphasized and strengthened the visiting teaching program. It was at the 1995 Relief Society Broadcast that sisters were the first to hear President Gordon B. Hinckley announce “The Family, A Proclamation to the World.”
Elaine was described as one who could dream of the ideal and set her sights on the stars, yet had the ability to be realistic and practical as she kept her feet on the ground. During her presidency there were over 3 million rs sisters in 135 countries and territories worldwide. In her counsel she always spoke to women as though they were old friends, and always reminded them that they were daughters of God.
The life and presidency of Mary Ellen W. Smoot is marked by service. As she grew up during the Great Depression, she learned to work hard and attend to the needs of those around her. She and her husband, Stanley, had seven children. During her years as a homemaker, she was a member of several charity and civic organizations. In the sixties, she began working on the editorial board of the Children’s Friend magazine, and later worked on the Church writing committee. She is passionate about history and organized the Centerville Historical Society as well as co-authoring a history of Centerville. Throughout her five years as the general Relief Society president, she sought to expand the reach of Relief Society service. She was a keynote speaker at the 1999 World Congress on Families in Switzerland, where she shared the principles of The Family: A Proclamation, and received a standing ovation. Under her direction, the Relief Society Declaration was written both to help women outside the Church understand Relief Society’s purpose and to help Relief Society sisters themselves understand their own “meaning, direction, and purpose.”
Bonnie Parkin was called in 2000 to be the fourteenth general president of the Relief Society. To prepare her for that calling, she served as second counselor to General RS presidency in 1994, before being released to become a mission mother in the London south mission, just next door! During the mission, she had huge difficulties with her health that she struggled with resulting in the loss of her hearing in one ear. Due to this, she learned to listen more closely, better understanding the words and feelings of those around her.
Julie B. Beck is a native of Salt Lake City. From the ages of 4-9, she lived in Sao Paulo Brazil, where her father was mission president. During that time, she learned Portuguese, and as an adult she learned Spanish. During her presidency, she and her counselors became aware that women in the Church were losing their sense of identity. Their response was to teach women about their heritage through a history of the Relief Society, both in ancient times and since the Restoration. Under her direction, the landmark book Daughters in My Kingdom was written and published. Sister Beck calls it a “book written by the women for the women.”
As a teenager, Linda K. Burton, from Salt Lake City Utah, lived in New Zealand as her father served as a mission president of the New Zealand South Mission. She met her husband at university. They were married in the Salt Lake Temple and are the parents of one son and 5 daughters. Her husband served as a mission president over the Korea Seoul mission for 3 years. One of the greatest accomplishments she felt as a mother was when she was able to see all her 6 children get sealed and married in the temples of the lord to worthy eternal companions. Seeing her children happy and choosing worthy spouses filled her with joy as she knew part of her great work on earth was done.
Before her call as the 16th Relief Society general president, Linda served as a member of the relief society and primary general boards. She is humble, sweet-spirited, kind and makes everyone who comes into contact with her feel loved and special. Last October she came to London and visited with the Britannia Relief Society Presidency and a few of its members.
Currently, under Sister Burton’s direction, there are 5.5 million women in the Relief Society in 170 countries.
We closed our meeting the same way that the very first RS meeting was closed in 1842- by singing The Spirit of God. We were accompanied by a single violin, played expertly by Caitlin, our Music Committee chair. The feeling of the spirit in that moment was so unifying- a real reflection in gratitude of the sacrifices that our leaders have been making for us and for womankind for generations.