Relief Society

In my intro bio to T&S I said, “In truth a substantial part of my heart is in Relief Society—not for what it is now but for what I feel it can and must yet become.” 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 “blog length” (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.

1—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 Women’s Meeting in September, Pres. Hinckley said, “(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, ‘The organization of the Church of Christ was never perfect until the women were organized.’” (See Nov. 2006 Ensign, p. 115.) I don’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.

2—The Relief Society members in Nauvoo apparently considered themselves a quorum. (There’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 power—sort of like Dorothy’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 structure—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 husband’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 don’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.

3—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, “I now turn a key TO you. . . .” (emphasis added) not “in your behalf” as it has almost always been quoted in the 20th century. “To” or “in behalf of” 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 don’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 women’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 women’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 “consciousness raising experience” 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 ‘tromping around the landscape” for about 20 years now saying that the thing that made the difference for women’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 “to” or “in behalf of” issue.) “When 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.” (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, “We are going to do something EXTRAORDINARY” (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.

27 comments for “Relief Society

  1. December 3, 2006 at 10:03 pm

    “I have been ‘tromping around the landscape” for about 20 years now saying that the thing that made the difference for women’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.”

    Emmeline B. Wells certainly thought so and articulated her thoughts clearly on this matter in her Exponent columns. I posted about her musings here.

    Thanks for this post — I’m a big believer in the divine potential of Relief Society.

  2. December 3, 2006 at 10:25 pm

    I too think Relief Society has a lot of potential, but that most of it is wasted by sisters who want their RS to be a Cookie-Baking-And-Scrapbooking Society.

  3. Naismith
    December 3, 2006 at 10:28 pm

    “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 husband’s priesthood.”

    Too funny! I also know men who claimed that in homes with a single mother, the home teacher holds priesthood keys for that home. Thankfully, Elder Oaks addressed this in a talk recently and sets it straight. A single mother presides in her home, thankyouverymuch.

  4. Marjorie Conder
    December 3, 2006 at 10:46 pm

    I enjoyed your post on Emmeline. Emmeline and Emma are my favorite 19th century Latter-day Saint women. A good portion of my Master’s thesis was doing a content analysis of the Woman’s Exponent.

  5. December 3, 2006 at 10:47 pm

    “A good portion of my Master’s thesis was doing a content analysis of the Woman’s Exponent.” It’s not published somewhere is it? — I’d love to look at it.

  6. December 3, 2006 at 11:02 pm

    this is the first time a Church President has used this quote in about a century.

    Marjorie, a search of the Gospel Library at shows that President Hinckley quoted those lines in April Conference 1997, and in October Conference 2003, and that President Kimball used it numerous times during the ’70s (numerous as in a dozen or more). One of the talks quoted in “Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson” (date uncertain) shows that he quoted it. If you include references by church presidents in articles other than conference talks, and conference talks by apostles, it has been used scores upon scores of times in prominent and significant settings. Perhaps that’s why the lines are so well known.

    I would also discourage claims of woman’s historical position in America as being “little better legally than the family livestock.” This is akin to calling the Mormons’ 1830s Missouri activities “ethnic cleansing” or a “holocaust” (a favorite rhetorical device used on a listserv I used to participate in). It is impossible to evaluate an argument seriously when sensational exaggerations replace evidence.

  7. December 4, 2006 at 12:51 am

    I didn’t mean to halt what was looking like the start of a lively conversation, merely to register some caveats.

  8. Locke
    December 4, 2006 at 1:17 am

    I think your posistion is quite clear as you have labeled yourself as a “resident Feminist”. If women are not aware of thier potential or power it is not due to church posistion. I would argue that most men and women do not realize thier potential for power. I am not quite sure what you are really trying to say. I sense a liberation ideology that you are very attached too. Abigail Adams and the Senneca Falls Coference was one of the most important events in establishing womens rights. You bring up slave ownership and allude to a master-slave dialect as well. What are you really trying to say. Are women in the church are oppressed? What will need to occur to allow the RS to blossom to realize it’s potential?

  9. December 4, 2006 at 6:29 am

    One thing that would help would be if we were able to organize vertically, that is, if the RS functioned as a whole in some respects, as it once did, instead of being entirely ruled by the priesthood in each individual ward and branch, as I understand it is today. We need to be able to develop large projects at the highest levels, and see them through.

    I see the RS involved in the third world in a big way, with microlending, microinsuring, training, educating, and strengthening the sisters worldwide to help make their families prosperous and safe. Something like Kiva plus the PEF, plus enrichment made specific for the local sisters in each area. That’s our charter. We need to be making our neighborhood (this planet) a safe nurturing place for humanity, and fulfilling our stewardship to take good care of the earth our home.

  10. Matt W.
    December 4, 2006 at 11:21 am

    I have to confess, in my 8 years of membership, I’ve never been made aware of the “I now turn a key TO you…” quote. Can someone point me to this concept in context? I would be extremely interested. It sounds awesome.

  11. JrL
    December 4, 2006 at 12:10 pm

    Nearly 70 years ago, President Stephen L. Richards, in an oft-quoted talk (here’s a recent version from Elder Perry:,5232,49-1-479-8,00.html), described a quorum as “three things: first, a class; second, a fraternity; and third, a service unit.” It seems to me that his description (changing the gender of the second point, of course) applies perfectly to the Relief society. It doesn’t apply nearly so well to Primary and Sunday School.

  12. Margaret Young
    December 4, 2006 at 4:49 pm

    Fascinating post, Marjorie. I am especially intrigued by the conversation the male temple workers had. I do not remember specific words spoken to me when I was set apart to be a veil worker. But I do know that there are settings in the Church where a woman says, “Having authority…” We are very keen on the “line” of authority for men, (do men still have those charts listing who ordained them, who ordained the ordainer, etc.?) but there is no such line for women. Interesting thoughts to ponder.

  13. j.a.t.
    December 4, 2006 at 4:57 pm

    Margaret Y,,
    Are you saying that women temple workers are set apart by other women temple workers or by the matron? I thought they were set apart by someone in the temple presidency? Just a little confused—


  14. Jenny W
    December 4, 2006 at 5:42 pm

    Interesting post—the thinking here reminds me of a conversation my husband and I had over dinner last week. My question: if there was one thing you could give to or do for women in the church, what would that be. His response: he’d put women in positions where, essentially, men would “have” to listen to them. His logic: many men “tune out” sisters when they speak in church, conference, etc., because the men assume that they’re talking to other women or to the children. But, he says, women have interesting and important things to say, so men should see in them in corresponding positions of power and then they’d pay attention.

    Needless to say, the coversation went a bit long to relate here, but I thought it was interesting that he thought men needed to see women having power in men’s terms (the equivalent of being the presiding priesthood leader, for example) in order to really respect them/pay attention to them. My thoughts ran parallel to the second point in your post: women do have power, it just might not be understood in the context of a culture that equates visible structures such as ordination and official/biblical organization with power. In terms of fulfilling the potential of Relief Society it seems like we need to both recognize and reevaluate power as a society—power from God seems like a rather complex concept and very likely isn’t as clear-cut as a simple equation: power from God = priesthood.

    PS I realize this dinner conversation makes many generalizations and assumptions about both men and women and that they might not hold true for the church as a whole (and even less likely for the bloggernacle). But it was dinner—if you can’t make sweeping generalizations there, where can you?

  15. Margaret Young
    December 4, 2006 at 6:06 pm

    JAT–I was set apart by a member of the Temple presidency. The phrase “Having authority” refers to something else which I won’t detail here.

  16. Margaret Young
    December 4, 2006 at 6:29 pm

    I’d like to further Jenny’s generalizations. I think your husband made a valid point. Though his point is obviously general and full of assumptions, I suspect it’s truer than it should be that men “tune out” women speaking from the pulpit–whether it’s in Sacrament Meeting or General Conference. I have heard wonderful talks by women, but my expectations, unfair though they be, lead me to be pleasantly surprised when a woman speaks powerfully about doctrine (preferably in a talk which is more than just an arrangement observations and scriptures around long GA quotes) rather than about her cute kids and their antics, or the way she met her husband.
    My sense of women speaking in General Conference is that their talks tend to focus on children or domestic issues–certainly appropriate for a General Primary president, but still something men might well tune out. Exceptions would include talks by Sheri Dew, Aileen Clyde (a brilliant woman), and Chieko Okazaki (who was uncomfortably liberal for some). I wonder if men tuned in to their talks or not. I wonder if, in the past, men tuned in to Eliza R. Snow’s or Zina Young’s or Susa Young Gates’s.

  17. December 4, 2006 at 7:25 pm

    Margaret, I see two points in your #16 that ring true to me: (1) men often tune out women speakers; (2) we (men and women) are pleasantly surprised when a woman speaks powerfully about doctrine. Of these, I think that the first is the most serious. It is often true in our public meetings. It is often true in ward council, welfare meeting, and our other closed meetings.

    The second is complicated. It is a result of many cultural and historical things, including the things that inculcate men in the direction of tuning out women. Unfortunately, however, it then becomes one of the causes of the things that cause it: we are surprised when a woman speaks powerfully on doctrine because it happens so seldom, and it happens so seldom because we often don’t listen to women.

    So, I’m just repeating what you have said. Perhaps doing so will help me remember.

    I would add only that in my experience it isn’t unusual for women also not to listen to other women. That is partly why women too are surprised when other women speak powerfully.

  18. Erika Haglund
    December 4, 2006 at 9:05 pm

    Ardis (#6), I think you misread Marjorie’s statement about the “key” quote. The point was that the line has been quoted *inaccurately*, not that no one has quoted it in 50 years.

  19. December 4, 2006 at 9:15 pm

    #18: Nope. I was responding to the statement about the “organization” quote in point 1. The “key” quote is point 3.

  20. Marjorie Conder
    December 4, 2006 at 9:54 pm

    Deborah–I only know of three copies of my thesis, at the U of U, the Church Archives and my copy.

    Ardis–Thanks for the heads up on the quote. While I do have access to GospelLink I have never figured out how to use it in any meaningful way. I’m pretty lame when it comes to technology.

    The “family livestock” analogy may be sensational, but it is still pretty close to the truth. Of course many women and men lived happy lives in peace and harmony. Whatever the laws were or weren’t was of little consequence to them. The point is that when things did not go well, women had virtually no legal leverage. Women had remarkably few economic and political rights in early America (and it was better here than other places). For example, in general she had no claim on most resources she brought to a marriage, or earnings made after. She had no claim on her children if there was a divorce. Such state of affairs was what radicalized Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for example, as a young and privileged girl, witnessing how women fared in her father’s (and other) courtrooms

    Locke–I agree neither men nor women understand power issues in a productive way. BTW to reiterate, my definition of feminist, it is, one who sees arbitrary, systematic and especially structural discrimination against the female half of the race, and works to correct it. I am certainly not anti-male in any degree. I have a good and kind husband, five now adult sons and our first 13 grandchildren were boys–all of whom I dearly love and hope for the best for their futures. I feel I work equally well with my male and female colleagues. And I have on occasion even come to the defense of guys who I thought were being dumped on when I had potentially productive capital to spend in their behalf.

    Any contemporary American history book will link participation in the Abolition movement by certain privileged American women and what happened to them during their attendance at the London conference to the Seneca Falls convention. Incidentally the London conference was in 1840 and the Seneca Falls convention was in 1848. Joseph Smith “turned the key” between these two events in 1842.

    I think I’m on solid historical ground here.

    Yes, some women in the Church are structurally oppressed, but by the “philosophies of men” which are still too much with us and not by anything the Gospel of Christ mandates. What needs to change? Perception. Our perceptions of all kinds allow us to marginalize and oppress others whether that oppression is based on race, gender, economics, religion, etc., etc. I think the gospel calls us to go beyond the easily invoked perceptions of our culture.

    Tatiana—I don’t think the RS is really a “women’s organization”. It is more properly “the Church organization for women”. While it is true that the RS was more autonomous in some periods of its history, right from the beginning men also played a substantial part. I don’t believe that RS can operate and be truly separated from the priesthood. However, I would agree that we need to figure out better ways to work together. I think some of the things that have been significant losses, such as giving blessings, may only be temporary. In the early 20th century the RS was usually the most going outfit in the Church in the wards and the priesthood quorums seemed quite lackadaisical. Maybe some things (like giving blessings) were taken away from women so men would have to step up to the plate. Perhaps the root and top needed to be kept in better symmetry (see Jacob 5 on the importance of balance). In any case healing blessings don’t seem to be strictly a priesthood function. The “gift to heal” is listed among gifts of the Spirit (not necessarily priesthood) in both D&C 46:10-33 and Moroni 10:8-19.

    Matt W—Women of Covenant by Derr, Beecher and Cannon, published by Deseret Book in 1992 is the best single source on the history of RS, including the key quote to date.

  21. Craig V.
    December 4, 2006 at 10:39 pm

    Majorie, I don’t understand much of what you posted. This is no reflection on your post but is because, not being Mormon, I lack the background and context of many of the terms you use. One thing I think I understand, however, is that you are claiming that Joseph Smith, in “turning the key to” did something that brought about the emancipation of all women, not just women in the LDS church. Would you be able to explain a little further what this “turning the key to” means? A purely secular account of what happened at Seneca Falls would emphasize the power of the ideas themselves to bring about change. You rightly point out that the ideas were already present in Abigail Adams. What, then, in addition to the power of the ideas, needed to take place? What did Joseph Smith do that gave the ideas power?

  22. December 4, 2006 at 11:34 pm

    Craig V., to my understanding, what Joseph Smith did was unlock the power of God to the emancipation of women. This means that ideas clearly articulated yet ignored before suddenly had power to move men’s hearts and minds. Marjorie may have more to say, but I believe that is the gist of the idea.

  23. Craig V.
    December 5, 2006 at 1:11 am

    Thanks Tatiana,

    That’s what I thought Majorie was saying, but I wasn’t sure I was really following her. What did this unlocking look like? Was it the institution of the Relief Society (I’m not sure exactly what the Relief Society is)? Is this perhaps a mission of the Relief Society, to bring emancipation to all women?

  24. Jenny W
    December 5, 2006 at 2:15 am

    Margaret re: #16 I found it somewhat amusing (and somewhat depressing) that after our little dinner conversation I asked my husband which of the women speakers/talks from General Conference he remembered. His (somewhat sheepish) reply? “Umm, no one particular. I kind of tuned them out.” He’s a good guy and fairly aware of the issues surrounding women and the church, but in the end he still wasn’t listening to those women.

    But I think that Jim F brings out an important point in #17—I think that women in the church are just as or nearly as likely as men to tune out women speakers and therefore be surprised when a woman speaks powerfully. He casts the problem in terms of our ability to listen to women. I think another way to look at it is in terms of how we listen to women: what are our expectations and even our demands? What does it mean to demand powerful doctrine from a speaker? If that expectation is in place, would we (both men and women, listeners and speakers) be more likely to fulfill it?

    I don’t find it unusual to assume that Pres. Hinckley can and will teach me something, but I also take it as my responsibility to listen carefully, study his words, and ask for the Spirit to teach me. I’m sure I don’t always make the same assumptions (or put in the same effort) to learning from women speakers. I’m trying to imagine what a church where it would not be a surprise to hear powerful doctrine preached by women would be like …

  25. Marjorie Conder
    December 5, 2006 at 11:00 am

    Here is a parable I heard about 25 years ago about (at least some) men not listening to women and the difference it might make.

    A Parable, instantly understood by virtually every woman

    Once there was a woman pregnant with her first child. She felt very strongly that she wanted to have her baby at home, and she found a doctor who was willing to come to her home for the delivery. Of course, her husband who would also be present had never been at a birth before either.

    The woman also had two friends who asked if they could come too. One had adopted several children, but had never been part of a birth experience. The other friend was older and never married, and so, of course, she had never witnessed a birth either.

    The day came when the woman went into labor. Her husband called the doctor, and the two friends– all of whom arrived about the same time. The doctor checked the woman and confirmed that she was indeed in labor and then told her that because this was her first baby, it would be many hours until it would be time to deliver. He assured her that he would return later in the day to check on her.

    The doctor, the husband and friends spent some time chitchatting and then just as the doctor was heading out the door, the woman called out, “WAIT! WAIT! Something is happening.” The doctor turned back to her, and without physically checking, verbally assured her that she still had hours to go and that he would return when it was time– and he left.

    BUT– the baby was coming and would not wait. So three women and a man, none of whom had ever been present at a birth, delivered the baby; and the doctor arrived back in time to help clean up the mess.

    The doctor was not there, not because they didn’t want him. They very much wanted him to be there. He was not there because he was so sure of himself and that he and he alone was the expert and in control. He couldn’t hear loud and clear messages [data] coming from a person who experientially knew something was happening but was not usually a person he would consider as a significant source of information.

    Moral of the story– Some things of great importance cannot wait until those who assume they are in charge say so.

  26. Craig V.
    December 5, 2006 at 1:12 pm

    Thanks for the parable; that was great. I hope you don’t mind if I use it some day as a sermon illustration.

  27. April Schauer
    January 19, 2007 at 12:39 pm

    I think Dallin H. Oaks\’ talk in the May 1992 Ensign entitled \”The Relief Society and the Church\” explains a lot about what we are talking about here.

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