The Church History Department and Relief Society General Presidency recently published Relief Society general board minutes covering the years 1842–2007. The minutes include notes from the first meeting of the Nauvoo Relief Society, preparations for World War II, and the impact of global events. Anne Berryhill explains that the Relief Society minutes also contain accounts of prominent Latter-day Saints such as Emma Smith, Eliza Snow, and Zina D. H. Young.
Introduce the Relief Society General Board Minutes recently released by the Church History Department.
During the inaugural meeting of the Nauvoo Relief Society, on March 17, 1842, Joseph Smith said: “The minutes of your meetings will be precedents for you to act upon—your Constitution and law.” (Minutes, 17 Mar. 1842) The Relief Society General Board Minutes contain records of the meetings and work of the Relief Society General Presidency and Board from its inception in Nauvoo in 1842 and can be seen as the constitution and law of Relief Society globally.
The records represent efforts to organize and administer Relief Society both at a church-wide and local level. They reflect the work of women who sought to care for one another physically, morally, and spiritually. Early welfare efforts, home industry, discourses, and visits are documented. Collaborative work with national and international organizations is detailed within these records.
They cover a wide range of topics and allow one to see how the work of Relief Society grew and evolved over time.
How much work went into preparing the Relief Society Minutes for publication?
In coordination with the Relief Society General Presidency, specialists among Church History Department staff digitized and reviewed each page of the records for sacred, private, and confidential information.
What is the role of a Relief Society General Board member?
The role of a Relief Society General Board member has changed and evolved over time. The first central board members included secretaries and a treasurer whose roles were fairly limited and clearly defined. (Secretaries kept records and managed correspondence. Treasurers managed the finances and properties of the organization. Both secretaries and treasurers seemed to have traveled with members of the presidency, too.)
Beginning October 10, 1892, a general board was organized with 23 members. Board members were to serve for a period of five years and were given responsibility to oversee rules of membership, to establish rules for managing the society’s properties, and visiting stakes.
Over time, and as Relief Societies were established in more areas, responsibilities evolved. General Board members continued to conduct training, manage issues surrounding general membership/finances, write lesson and instructional materials, conduct research, coordinate events, and more.
In many ways, General Board members have been a link between members and general presidencies.
Who were the first Relief Society Board members?
According to the Relief Society minute book, there were five members of first Central Board:
Relief Society Central Board
- Eliza R. Snow (President)
- Zina D. H. Young (First Counselor)
- Elizabeth Ann Whitney (Second Counselor)
- Sarah M. Kimball (Secretary)
- Mary Isabella Horne (Treasurer).
1892 General Relief Society Board
There were also 33 members of the first General Board organized in 1892:
- Zina D. H. Young (President, died 1901)
- Jane S. Richards (First Vice-President)
- Bathsheba W. Smith (Second Vice-President)
- Sarah M. Kimball (Third Vice-President, died 1898)
- Sarah Jenne Cannon (Third Vice-President, appointed 1899)
- Emmeline B. Wells (Secretary)
- M. Isabella Horne (General Treasurer)
- Romania B. Pratt Penrose
- Laura M. Miner (resigned 1898)
- Emilia D. Madsen
- Lucy S. Cardon
- Susan Grant
- Mary Pitchforth (resigned 1901)
- Harriet D. Bunting (died 1893)
- Martha Tonks (resigned 1900)
- Helena E. Madsen
- Elizabeth Howard (died 1893)
- Aurilia Hatch (released 1900)
- Hattie Brown
- Martha B. Cannon
- Emma Woodruff
- Julina L. Smith
- Emily S. Richards
- Minerva W. Snow (died 1896)
- Adeline H. Barber (1893, resigned 1898)
- Harriet M. Brown (1893)
- Rebecca E. Standring (1896)
- Sarah Jenne Cannon (1898, appointed Vice President in 1899)
- Dr. Ellis R. Shipp (1898)
- Julia P. M. Farnsworth (1899)
- Elizabeth J. Stevenson (1900)
- Anny Taylor Hyde (1900)
- Phebe Y. Beatie (1901)
How many total Relief Society general board members were there from 1842 to 2007?
I haven’t tracked a specific number for this. However, between 1892 and 1910, over 50 sisters served as Relief Society General Board members. Several hundred sisters served in this capacity by 2007.
Describe the first meeting of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo
The first meeting, as recorded in this transcription differs somewhat from the handwritten minute book of the Nauvoo Relief Society (since both are digitized and publicly available, I won’t go into the differences here.)
The meeting was attended by Joseph and Emma Smith, John Taylor, Willard Richards, and 20 prospective members. After voting to organize the society, the women heard Joseph Smith speak. (The minutes of the Nauvoo Relief Society mark the only record of his teachings specifically given to women.)
Joseph Smith’s goals for the Relief Society
Joseph Smith explained several goals for the society:
- To provoke the brethren to good works
- To care for the poor, practicing charity towards them
- To strengthen their community by advocating for virtue and moral living.
Emma Smith: Elect lady
Joseph Smith read the revelation given to Emma Smith (Doctrine and Covenants section 25) and explained the idea of an “elect lady.”
The Prophet set up the organization with the same structure as priesthood quorums (with a president and counselors) and taught them how to conduct their meetings, following parliamentary procedure.
Female Relief Society of Nauvoo
Those in attendance discussed and ratified the name “Female Relief Society of Nauvoo.”
Emma Smith spoke regarding the charitable aims of the society—noting the society was going to “do something extraordinary.”
Was administering to the sick ever discussed in the general Relief Society board minutes?
Yes. The first instance came up during a meeting of the Nauvoo Relief Society in April 1842. Joseph Smith taught:
If the sisters should have faith to heal the sick, let all hold their tongues, and let every thing roll on.
In 1884, we get Eliza R. Snow’s perspective on the topic. Zina D.H. Young spoke briefly on the topic in 1889. Joseph F. Smith added his perspective in 1892. Additional entries can be found within volumes of the minutes and show an evolution of the practice and of the understanding behind it. Many of these entries are called out in volume indices.
What contingencies were planned for the 100th anniversary of the Relief Society during World War II?
Several of the planned events (the celebration in the Tabernacle and campanile bell creation and installation on Temple Square, to name a couple) were delayed, due to limitations on travel and available materials.
The delays allowed for the celebration to occur later and in phases.
Why aren’t post-1950 Relief Society minutes available online?
Post-1951 minutes are not available as we seek to protect information discussed in a confidential setting, especially information pertaining to living individuals.
When considering a timeline for that, and considering legal obligations to protect privacy, both Church History staff and the Relief Society General Presidency felt comfortable with a 70-year window (records of the past 70 years will remain unavailable to protect information regarding living individuals).
What are some examples from the Relief Society minutes that Anne Berryhill finds especially enlightening?
“Sunday egg” fundraising
“Sunday eggs” became a popular method of fundraising throughout Relief Society in the 1890s-1910s. References to these fundraising efforts can be found in different volumes of the minutes.
For example, during April 1893 General Conference, Sevier Stake Relief Society President Elizabeth Bean reported on raising funds for her stake tabernacle with Sunday eggs.1
During the October Relief Society conference in 1896, leaders spoke about raising funds for a Relief Society building “in the shadow of the temple.” Zina D. H. Young described different fundraising efforts utilized by Relief Societies, including Sunday eggs, that led to the erection of a variety of buildings. Annie J. Wixom, from Brigham City, also described fundraising through Sunday eggs, to rebuild the stake tabernacle after it burned.2
Throughout the minutes, one can see the effects of world events on these women and women throughout the Church. These world events included world wars.
One example comes from the December 5, 1945 minutes:
President Spafford reported that a young woman convert from Stutgaart, Germany, who came to this country before the war, had recently called at the office and brought greetings from her mother to the General Board conveyed in a letter just received, the first in several years. This mother, who is the president of the local Relief Society, has conducted Relief Society meetings every week during the ward period. Sacrament meetings have also been held. The Saints in this branch have undergone much privation—she not having even a pot with which to cook—but the influence of the gospel has helped them endure their trials.Relief Society General Board minutes, 1842-2007, volume 25, December 5, 1945, 219
Relief Society programs
It is interesting to see different illustrations of Relief Society programs within the minutes.
For example, in April 1946, Alice H. Osborn reported on the history of the Los Angeles Service Department, beginning in the 1930s. The center sought for the physical and financial welfare of Church members, providing food, job leads, housing leads, and more. Following World Ward II, an influx of returned servicemen needed assistance.
Finding affordable housing in the area was a particular challenge:
While [servicemen] were fighting, they thought we at home were planning for their homecoming. They expected at least a place to live in. They probably wonder why a nation which could wage such a gigantic war, cannot provide housing for the returned men who fought in that war.Relief Society General Board Minutes, 1842-2006, volume 26, 1946-1947, 56-59.
The Los Angeles Service Department provided assistance to these men and their families as they were able.
How does Anne Berryhill hope researchers will use the Relief Society General Board Minutes?
I hope researchers will use the minutes to better understand the ways women led at an executive level in the Church for a century. I hope they will see the ways they navigated working relationships with male Church leaders.
I hope they will gain insight into the role of General Board members over time (a calling that is not well-understood even today). I hope they will catch glimpses of relationships these women built with one another—and how all of them were needed for their unique perspectives and strengths.
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- An Illustration of a Relief Society Healing
- What’s in the Council of Fifty Minutes?
- What’s Really in the Journal of Discourses?
- World War II in ‘Saints 3’
- Emmeline B. Wells Testifies of Joseph Smith
- The Nauvoo Relief Society as an Aristarchic Theodemocracy
Relief Society General Board Minutes resources
- Relief Society General Board Minutes Collection Now Accessible
- The First Fifty Years of Relief Society
- Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book
- Church History Topics: Female Relief Society of Nauvoo
- Eliza Snow in the Relief Society General Board Minutes