Retrenchment Association

See this page in the original 1992 publication.

Author: Madsen, Carol Cornwall

The retrenchment movement, conceived in 1869 by President Brigham Young to encourage LDS women to "spend more time in moral, mental and spiritual cultivation, and less upon fashion and the vanities of the world" (Woman's Exponent 11 [Sept. 15, 1882]:59), spawned two similar but distinct organizations. Mary Isabella horne, appointed by President Young to head the initial movement, established semimonthly women's meetings in Salt Lake City to promote the "reformation." Shortly thereafter, Brigham Young organized his daughters into a Young Ladies Retrenchment Association as a model for similar organizations in each ward of the Church, appointing Emma Young Empey as president (see Young Women). Though the young women's retrenchment societies held independent ward meetings, the parent association, calling itself the Senior and Junior Cooperative Retrenchment Association, remained a single, overarching entity that superintended the subsidiary societies while pursuing its own agenda.

Despite its similarity to the Relief Society, the Retrenchment Association was unique among Church organizations. As an ad hoc auxiliary, it was attached to no ecclesiastical unit, had no geographic boundaries (its meetings were open to all LDS women), and functioned under no specific line of ecclesiastical authority. Conducted by President Horne or one of her six counselors, another innovation, the meetings were largely extemporaneous. Members of the congregation (sometimes numbering two hundred) expressed religious sentiments or spoke impromptu on themes suggested by the presiding officers. Timid members were urged to participate, for it was "as essential for the sisters to learn to preach as for the brethren" (Minutes, Feb. 6, 1875).

In its first decade, the Association's principal objectives were reform in "diet and dress" and avoidance of all forms of "worldliness." Affirming LDS distinctiveness from the world became an impassioned and persistent theme. Home industries also fell within the stewardship of the Association. Before the organization of general and stake Relief Society boards, Eliza R. Snow, general head of the Relief Societies, used the Retrenchment Association to coordinate the branches of home industry that Brigham Young had assigned to the ward Relief Societies in 1868. Committees were organized in the retrenchment meetings to implement and supervise silk manufacturing, grain storage, straw braiding, and women's commission stores, all part of President Brigham Young's design to develop a cooperative and self-sustaining economy. Recruiting women to study medicine (see Maternity and Child Health Care), urging them to vote (Utah women were enfranchised in 1870), and soliciting contributors and subscribers to the woman's exponent also found place on the Association's agenda. This initial task orientation brought LDS women firmly into visible kingdom building.

If retrenchment marked the Association's first decade, "circling the wagons" reflected the spirit of its second. Besieged by punitive anti-polygamy legislation, women affirmed their commitment to the principle of plural marriage, declared their acceptance of persecution as a refining process, and asserted their belief in God's overruling hand. The Association assuaged the family and religious dislocations imposed by the prolonged federal campaign and provided women an oasis of stability and mutual reassurance during a time of crisis.

In its final years the "ladies semimonthly meetings," as the gatherings were then called, became even more self-consciously faith-promoting. This focus was only briefly interrupted by a revived interest in home industries in response to a national economic slump and the loss of Church properties and funds mandated by the Edmunds-Tucker Act. The aging of first-generation Latter-day Saints prompted redoubled efforts to prepare a second generation of standard bearers. In fervent declarations of faith, affiliated women continued to evoke images of distinctiveness even as many of the elements that made them distinctive gave way to powerful federal and social forces.

This amorphous gathering endured for thirty-five years, mainly through the perseverance of a few devoted women, some of them the "leading sisters" or higher echelon of LDS female leadership. The Retrenchment Association served as an agent of orthodoxy to motivate and inspire and to provide a spiritual bulwark against an encroaching world. As first-generation Latter-day Saints, these women were self-appointed keepers of the faith, who by their own commitment sought to spur commensurate fidelity among all the Saints.

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