From The Encyclopedia of Mormonism
Author: Boyer, Marian R.
Visiting teaching is an organized means whereby the women of the Church receive regular instructional and compassionate service visits-usually by personal contact in the home-from other female members of the Church. The purpose is to promote sisterhood, present inspirational messages, and note instances of need wherein the temporal and spiritual resources of the Church might be helpful.
In practice, the ward Relief Society president or those assisting her assign pairs of visiting teachers to keep in contact with specific families over a period of several months or even years. More frequent contact is made with women and families exhibiting special needs, such as those new to the Church, the less active, single parents, the divorced, the widowed, the aged, and those faced with illness, death, or other difficulties.
The need for such visitors was recognized soon after the founding of the Relief Society in 1842. At the second meeting of the society on March 24, Emma Smith, wife of the Prophet Joseph Smith, suggested appointing persons to wait upon the poor. On July 28, 1843, a Necessity Committee of sixteen was named "to search out the poor and suffering, to call upon the rich for aid, and thus as far as possible, relieve the wants of all." The original functions of this committee were twofold: "to ascertain the condition of the families visited, and to accept contributions for charitable purposes" (General Board, 1942, pp. 43-44; 1966, p. 68).
In the early years of the Church in Nauvoo, Illinois, visiting teachers reported their visits at the regular Relief Society meeting before all members present, citing specific instances of need. It was also customary for visiting teachers during this period to apportion and distribute to needy families the commodities donated to the society.
In 1921 visiting teachers were relieved of the personal responsibility of both ascertaining and meeting the material needs of families, but since then they have continued to report confidentially (to the ward Relief Society president) any instances of illness or need requiring attention. Upon hearing such reports, the Relief Society president either visits the family herself or designates the visiting teachers or someone else to give aid as a representative of the society. In cases of economic need, the Relief Society president and ward bishop confidentially inquire concerning the family's condition to arrange for any needed assistance from Church resources and for means to remedy the situation causing need. This modification of assignment brought visiting teachers into the more agreeable role of friendly visitors carrying messages from the society to the home, yet still fulfilling the original assignment from the Prophet Joseph Smith to "provoke the brethren to good works in looking after the wants of the poor-searching after objects of charity, and in administering to their wants" (General Board, 1966, p. 18).
An observation of Eliza R. Snow, an early president of the Relief Society organization, encapsulates the spirit of visiting teaching: "Many times a kind expression-a few words of counsel, or even a warm or affectionate shake of the hand-will do more good and be better appreciated than a purse of gold" (General Board, 1966, p. 40).
The importance of visiting teaching has been consistently reemphasized by Church Presidents. Spencer W. Kimball exhorted visiting teachers to do as the priesthood teachers do: "Watch over the Church always"-not twenty minutes a month but always-"and be with and strengthen them"-not a knock at the door, but to be with them, and lift them, and strengthen them, and empower them, and fortify them-"and see that there is no iniquity, neither hardness, backbiting, nor evil speaking" (D&C 20:53-54) . How glorious is the privilege of two sisters going into a home, soft-pedaling anything that could be detrimental, and instead, building up all the authorities of the Church, the Church itself, its doctrines, its policies, its practices-"And see that [they] meet together often, and do their duty" (D&C 20:55) [Ensign, June 1978, p. 24].
Visiting teaching allows every sister to serve in the Church. Whether active or inactive, single or married, newly baptized or a member of long standing, each can serve effectively as a visiting teacher.
Because of their sensitivity to the home and family and their consequent ability to identify needs that might otherwise go unobserved, visiting teachers give complementary support to the bishop and Relief Society president. They can also become a readily organized corps in times of emergency, crisis, or death. Countless recorded stories demonstrate the effectiveness of the visiting teaching program in extending essential service, love, and compassion to members, particularly the sisters of the Church. [See also Compassionate Service.]
General Board of the Relief Society. A Centenary of Relief Society. Salt Lake City, 1942.
General Board of the Relief Society. History of Relief Society-1842 -1966. Salt Lake City, 1966.
Relief Society Handbook, pp. 3-4. Salt Lake City, 1988.
MARIAN R. BOYER