Relief Society in Nauvoo
Author: Winder, Barbara W.
Organized in 1842, the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo differed from other contemporary women's church groups in that it was organized under the priesthood direction of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
The society began as a response to the need for provisions, clothing, and supplies for builders of the Nauvoo Temple. On her own initiative, Sarah M. Granger Kimball invited a group of women to her home on March 4, 1842, to discuss the possibility of organizing a sewing society to aid the workers. Eliza R. Snow drafted possible bylaws and a Constitution for the group and submitted them to Joseph Smith. He told her that there was something better for them than a written Constitution and that he would organize the women of the Church as the priesthood was organized. He added that the Church would never be perfectly organized until the women were organized.
Minutes of the charter meeting name twenty women and three men who were present in the upper story of Smith's red-brick store on March 17, 1842. Emma Smith, elected president, chose Sarah M. Cleveland and Elizabeth Ann Whitney as counselors, Eliza R. Snow as secretary, and Elvira A. Cowles as treasurer.
At the first meeting, the Prophet redefined and expanded the object of the society. The women were to look to the needs of the poor, to search after those in need and administer to their wants, and to assist in correcting the morals and strengthening the virtues of the community. He later added the charge to save souls. During a particularly significant address on April 28, 1842, he cited 1 Corinthians 13,from which later members took their motto, "Charity Never Faileth." He then pronounced the much-quoted sentence, "I now turn the key to you in the name of God and this Society shall rejoice and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time" ("Minutes of the Female Relief Society").
The society grew quickly. During its first season, 1,189 women became members. The society received and dispersed money, clothing, provisions, and services to the needy. Its meetings were held first in the upper room and then, for lack of space there, outdoors in "the Grove" until September 28, 1842. When the society reconvened in the following spring, the presidency divided the membership into four wards, which then met separately. Each ward had its "necessity committee," forerunner of the present visiting teachers, who canvassed their area in search of people in need (see Visiting Teaching). Meetings again ceased for the winter of 1843-1844, but presumably the charitable works continued.
Beset with differences between its president and Church leaders-differences related to the introduction of plural marriage-the society ceased to function formally after the meetings of March 1844. Aspects of its operation, however, continued through the last days of Nauvoo and the exodus of 1846-1847 in the acts of charity, the sisterly bonding, the gatherings of women in prayer meetings, and the persistence of spiritual manifestations. The leaders of a revived Relief Society in Utah, which President Brigham Young authorized Churchwide beginning in 1867, conscientiously adhered to the patterns established in Nauvoo and resolutely maintained a continuity of operation.