In my intro bio to T&S I said, â€œIn truth a substantial part of my heart is in Relief Societyâ€”not for what it is now but for what I feel it can and must yet become.â€ I have been asked both on and off line to elaborate. It has taken me awhile to distill ideas that I have written and especially spoken about at some length to something that might be â€œblog lengthâ€ (and that I actually have time to do right now.) I am especially interested in three happenings of the somewhat recent past that seem like harbingers of better days to come.
So here are the nubs of three big ideas about Relief Society.
1â€”The Relief Society is not really an auxiliary, although at the present time it seems to be nothing more than an auxiliary among auxiliaries. However, in the most recent General Womenâ€™s Meeting in September, Pres. Hinckley said, â€œ(Relief Society) is a God-given creation. Joseph Smith spoke and acted as a prophet when he organized the Relief Society in 1842. At that time he said, â€˜The organization of the Church of Christ was never perfect until the women were organized.â€™â€ (See Nov. 2006 Ensign, p. 115.) I donâ€™t think such a thing could be said about the Sunday School, scouts, or even my beloved Primary. While this quote is a well-known piece of Relief Society history (for those who know anything at all about Relief Society history) to the best of my knowledge this is the first time a Church President has used this quote in about a century.
2â€”The Relief Society members in Nauvoo apparently considered themselves a quorum. (Thereâ€™s a word to make some shudder!) However, Pres. Packer in the Dec. 2006 Visiting Teaching message, (December 2006 Ensign p. 58) appears to be equating the Relief Society and priesthood quorums in function. It appears to me that ordained priesthood, which some men have been given can function independently of quorums. (Most of the prophets in the scriptures do not seem to be part of anything like a quorum.) Unordained female power, which it appears virtually all women come to earth with, has almost always been without the support of something like a quorum, only family and friends. And I will also allow that most women have no idea that they have power, let alone the nature of the powerâ€”sort of like Dorothyâ€™s red shoes in the Wizard of Oz.
Quorums, whether priesthood or Relief Society, are ways to organize power. They bring us together for more effective action and service. Imagine trying to get something as supposedly simple as Home or Visiting teaching done without quorum structureâ€”its hard enough trying to get it done with quorum structure. Also, Charity Never Faileth could as easily be the motto of priesthood quorums as Relief Society. (D&C 121:41-46)
My husband is a temple ordinance worker. Recently he told me about a conversation he and some other (guy) temple workers had as they speculated on how women could have authority to officiate in the temple as ordinance workers. They decided the women were functioning under their husbandâ€™s priesthood. I was appalled at this conclusion, and especially that my guy, who has had a resident feminist in his life for most of his life, still bought this idea. I asked him about several single sister ordinance workers we both know, and a couple of them are even supervisors. How did they get to do the things they do? All temple workers are set apart, but only the guys need a specific earthly ordination to function in priestly ways. As I have listened carefully, especially in the temple, I have come to appreciate the concept of ordained and unordained priesthood (or power.)
I donâ€™t think priesthood quorums or the Relief Society do much with the idea of power (with a capital P) at the present, but they are organized in such a way that they could almost seamlessly do so.
3â€”The start of the most quoted and misquoted quote in all of Relief Society history, appears in the original Relief Society minute-book (which I have seen with my own two eyes) as, â€œI now turn a key TO you. . . .â€ (emphasis added) not â€œin your behalfâ€ as it has almost always been quoted in the 20th century. â€œToâ€ or â€œin behalf ofâ€ are polar opposites, like the old story of giving a man a fish or teaching him how to fish.
A short history lesson. Starting in the 19th century and continuing to 1940 both versions of the key quote resided more or less side by side. From January 1940 to March 1992 without any exceptions of which I am aware in any official Church source, this quote was simply wrong. One very significant gift of the Relief Society sesquicentennial was that in the First Presidency Message in the Ensign in March 1992, written by President Hinckley, the quote appears correctly for the first time in over fifty years. We are now in a time similar to the years before 1940 when both versions reside side by side (and most people donâ€™t even seem to think there is a difference.) But many who do know are using this quote correctly. Now that you know, I would encourage all of you to use this quote correctly and explain the difference if need be.
If I had the time to go on for pages, I would remind you in some detail about womenâ€™s history and her position throughout time. (Basically little better legally than the family livestock.) I would tell you about Abigail Adams, a brilliant, articulate woman with the best network possible, who was unable to move womenâ€™s rights forward as the American nation was being formed. I would then talk about the Abolition Movement and how the international conference in London became a â€œconsciousness raising experienceâ€ for the American women attending. They realized that their own privileged lives were only made possible by the generosity and goodwill of their husbands and that legally they had no more standing than the Negro slaves. How eight years later some of these women met in Seneca Falls, New York and basically wrote a parody of the Declaration of Independence, which is now credited as the effective start of the women’s rights movement. They succeeded where Abigail Adams had not.
I have been â€˜tromping around the landscapeâ€ for about 20 years now saying that the thing that made the difference for womenâ€™s rights between Abigail Adams and Seneca Falls was that a prophet of God had turned a key to women making it possible to do things which had been impossible before.
I really like this quote from President George Albert Smith given in the Relief Society Conference October 4, 1945. (Note how he sidesteps the â€œtoâ€ or â€œin behalf ofâ€ issue.) â€œWhen the Prophet Joseph Smith turned the key for the emancipation of womankind, it was turned for all the world, and from generation to generation the number of women who can enjoy the blessings of religious liberty and civil liberty has been increasing.â€ (Relief Society Magazine Dec. 1945, p.717). We have all been and continue to be witnesses to this process.
As recorded in the original Relief Society minutes from Nauvoo, on the very day the Relief Society was orgainized, Emma Smith said, â€œWe are going to do something EXTRAORDINARYâ€ (emphasis in the original). I believe this to be so. Many wonderful things have happened worldwide because of the Relief Society, but I think they are only a shadow of things to come.