The first Mormon women: Polygamy, healings, and more

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"The First Fifty Years of Relief Society"

“The First Fifty Years of Relief Society”

March was both the anniversary of the founding of the Relief Society AND women’s history month, but this woman was too crazy-busy to write about it until now.

I did find time to peruse the fabulous new door-stopping tome The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women’s History, which was released a few weeks ago.

Before reading this book, I actually thought I knew a little something about nineteenth-century Mormon women’s history. Ha! There were actually lots of interesting things I’d not encountered before.

So I interviewed two of the book’s four editors: Kate Holbrook, Specialist in Women’s History, and Matt Grow, Director of Publications of the Church History Department, to learn more. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation. — JKR


RNS: I had several eye-opening moments when I read this and I had to stop and say, “Wait. What?” (For example, I never knew that Relief Society membership wasn’t automatic like it is today; you had to apply and be known for your good works before being accepted.) Was anything surprising to you?

Holbrook: For me, I didn’t realize how much the Relief Society organization oversaw the development of Primary and Young Women. Relief Society was sort of the umbrella organization for all of it. The general president of the Relief Society was called the “president of the women’s organizations”—the key leader of all the women, and the women’s auxiliary organizations, in the church.

Grow: A surprise for me was how deeply the Relief Society was involved in health care. I had some sense that Mormon women had been sent back east for medical training, but not that individual wards would set women apart under the Relief Society to be midwives. And the Relief Society established a hospital, the Deseret Hospital, that functioned in Salt Lake City in the 1880s.

Minutes from the Nauvoo Relief Society, March 1842 to March 1844. © 2016 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.

Minutes from the Nauvoo Relief Society, March 1842 to March 1844. © 2016 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.

Holbrook: In looking these documents over, I’ve seen how seriously these women took the Relief Society, and how they saw their purpose as helping the poor and saving souls. You see how seriously they took both those things in the Nauvoo minute books (photo at left). They’d say, “so-and-so is sick down by the river, can’t get out of bed, and her kids don’t have anything to eat.” And then the women would just start volunteering whatever they could do to help the family.

RNS: Tell me about “the ones that got away” — Relief Society ventures that were an important part of the past, like grain storage or sericulture, that we no longer engage in.

Holbrook: I think those activities were really important, and they gave Relief Society members a concrete sense of vision and how to spend their time. They were really meaningful activities in that way. On the other hand, the women weren’t trained to do this work. So they are complicated stories.

When the Relief Society ended up, under duress, selling their wheat to the U.S. government during World War I, the wheat they had gathered were all different varieties and they didn’t all ground up well together. People complained that it wasn’t easy to process or use. Earlier the women delivered their wheat to China when there was famine there, but by the time it arrived it was no longer needed.

The first issue of the Woman's Exponent, which ran from 1872 to 1914. © 2016 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.

The first issue of the Woman’s Exponent, which ran from 1872 to 1914. © 2016 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.

And sericulture was a real challenge. We have a document of diary entries from Jane Blood in Kaysville. She was a Primary president and also in the Relief Society presidency. You can see from the diary how much the sericulture really took over her life. The silkworms always needed more leaves, or you had to do some steps every day to turn it into cloth. It was a huge sacrifice that maybe didn’t pay off in the product, even though it was meaningful for them to be engaged in it and to be working for financial independence in Utah.

RNS: What do the documents have to say about plural marriage in this period?

Holbrook: I saw it more woven into their lives. You see how it impacts their relationships and the way they lead. For example, with the Shipp sisters, one could go to medical school and the other could take care of the children, and then they switched.

Grow: Here’s one thing I found poignant. So often we think about the difficulties of the beginnings, but there were also challenges with the end of plural marriage. Document 4.25 in the book is a stake Relief Society meeting a couple of weeks after the [1890] Manifesto where they are trying to grapple with exactly what that means. Joseph Dean is talking about the reaction in the Tabernacle to the Manifesto:

Many of the saints seemed stunned and confused and hardly knew how to vote, . . . many of the saints refrained from voting either way. . . A great many of the sisters weeped silently, and seemed to feel worse than the brethren. (571).

If you had supported plural marriage and then suddenly that was not going to be happening in the future, that was difficult for families and communities.

RNS: What do the primary sources have to say about the history of women giving blessings and healings?

Holbrook: In the early Nauvoo minutes, you see mention of women having given a healing blessing. And then at the next meeting, Joseph Smith comes and says some people had disparaged this practice of women giving blessings, and he said it was all right. In the April 28, 1842 entry he said, “If the sisters should have faith to heal the sick, let all hold their tongues, and let every thing roll on.”

But over time you see the women start to carefully distinguish between faith healing through prayer and healing blessings given through priesthood authority by the elders. We like to think a lot about healing as a particular spiritual gift. We want to remember that these women were seeking a multitude of spiritual gifts, including healing and charity and speaking in tongues. The gifts were the signs of the followers of Jesus.

RNS: How can women today take strength from or learn from the sisters in the book?

Grow: One of our hopes for the book is that by providing relatively easy access in this document format, and emphasizing that it’s both in print and also online, we’ll see more use of women’s voices and experiences in the cultural life of Latter-day Saints in lessons, talks, manuals, or popular histories. As a culture, we haven’t done a great job in the past of incorporating women’s voices and experiences enough in all sorts of settings, and we hope this is a step in the right direction.

Holbrook: Some qualities that we see -– resilience, flexibility, fortitude — and the examples of the women have been so important to me. The service that I’ve mentioned, just that constant focus outside the household. They cared for the people in their homes and more broadly, they were working to improve life all around the world, for women everywhere. You see women who were nervous about public speaking who then became good speakers.

Sometimes they did things imperfectly, like combining different varieties of wheat. But they used money the US government paid for wheat to improve the quality of maternal and infant care in Utah. So even the imperfect efforts could become important and make a difference.

  • anon

    I always wondered why the Relief Society was discontinued after Joseph’s death, and if I understand the situation correctly as stated in the book, Brigham Young blamed Joseph’s death on “Emma Smith’s efforts to thwart the practice of plural marriage,” which “contributed to the furor against Joseph and Hyrum.” Brigham Young was quoted as saying, “I am determined to stay these proceedings (Relief Society} for by it our best men have been taken from us.” He continued saying, “Relief society – going to meet again – I say I will curse every ,man that lets his wife or daughters meet again until I tell them. What are Relief Societies for? To relieve us of our best men – They relieved us of Joseph and Hyrum – I don’t want the advice or counsel of any woman – they would lead us down to hell. God knew what Eve was.” This book is full of interesting information!!

  • Yowza. Just found the quote you mention on page 171. So BY actually seemed to blame the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum on the women of the Relief Society. So absurd and harmful.

    It gets even worse after that: “There is no woman on the face of the earth that [can] save herself — but if she ever comes into the Celestial Kingdom, she must be led in by some man . . . .”

    [blogger plants head on desk]

  • Anon

    Yes, I remember that passage as well, and like you, didn’t appreciate it. I hope your head recovers (after planting it on your desk)!

  • Pete

    That explains a few things about the temple liturgy and mechanics. 🙁

  • Jana, Thank you for sharing this with us. It is so good that some of this very uncomfortable history comes out. But the uncomfortable parts are really overshadowed by the bravery, diligence, perseverance, intellect and faith these early sisters had and generally what wonderful things they accomplished.

  • hoffbegone

    The reality is no man can save himself, either. So don’t take BY’s statements too hard. I am sure it was an emotional time for everyone.

    While I am at it, please note that the scriptures, OT, NT, etc do not contain every word people said during their life. I am sure we would be shocked if we knew the words, thoughts, and ideas of every biblical/scriptural character like we do with our current leaders and prominent people.

    JMHO and sometimes we get TMI.

  • I’ve been compiling information for the General Relief Society for the Fellowship, creating their new website (, and I have to say that I am amazed that the things these women did back in that day! It saddens me that some of the branches of Mormonism took away many of the blessings that this great organization once had. I am prayerfully hopeful for the new directions the Society will go in as the Fellowship grows and hope that it can be an example to the women’s and young women’s programs of our sister branches in Zion. I can’t wait to read this book now. I’ll be interested to see the LDS branch’s take on the Sisterhood’s origins.

    (I’m dyslexic, so if you check out the GRS site, please excuse the many typos I’m sure are still on there. They will be fixed once the Lord calls the Elect Lady to take on the role of leadership as prophetess, high priestess, seer, and revelator for the Fellowship.)

  • Pete

    And yet we continue to get the Disney version in our manuals.

    A post at the Juvenile Instructor has a link to another early Relief Society document that shows Joseph Smith bad-mouthing Emma to John Taylor because of her opposition to polygamy. Taylor reports that Joseph said “Sister Emma would dethrone Jehovah to accomplish her purposes if she could.”


  • Anon

    Pete – I tried to find the quote of Joseph’s with regard to Emma and am not sure how to locate it. Could you let me know which of the CR 11 175 pages it is on? Thank you.

  • hoffbegone

    Wow Perfect Pete, what a revelation. Joseph Smith was a man just like any other man – imperfect and saying things he probably did not mean.

    I am sure your family history is full of Disney tales, too, or is it just full of the bad things you did?

    That’s a reason some leave the church – because they get their feelings hurt. Are you a Millennial Generation or Generation Y?

  • Pete

    Anon, it’s CR 11175 f001_00012.

  • Anon

    Thank you, Pete.

  • In wanting to discover how a lot of the offerings in the storehouses were handled, and to get a good sense of how Mormon women reacted to polygamy, a good book to read is “Wife No. 19” by Ann Eliza Young, Brigham Young’s 19th wife.