Relief Society is the women's organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Every adult female member of the church is considered a Relief Society member, a total in 1991 of three million women in more than 14,500 church units in 135 countries. Founded as the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo in 1842, the organization has operated as a charitable, educational, and religious sisterhood for most of the 150 years since its establishment under the direction of Latter-day Saint prophet Joseph Smith.
Its beginning in the Illinois Mormon community of Nauvoo was prompted by the attempt of Sarah M. Kimball, a young LDS matron, to create a sewing society to provide for men involved in building the Mormon temple. Inviting those founding members and others to participate, Smith reorganized the group after the same pattern and with similar functions to those of the existing male quorums of priesthood. The Society's presidency, consisting of Smith's wife Emma, Elizabeth Ann Whitney, and Sarah Cleveland, were to "preside just as the Presidency, [sic] preside over the church," and to "appoint and set apart" officers "as Deacons, Teachers &c. are among us" to do the work of the society, according to the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes of 17 March 1842.
From its beginning with twenty members the society grew rapidly. Within six months more than a thousand women of the 12,000 total population had voluntarily enrolled. Meeting only during summer, the Nauvoo society declined in activity in 1843. Four meetings were held in March 1844, but because of Emma Smith's stance against plural marriage, and her use of the society as a forum for her protests, further meetings were proscribed. In Utah during the 1850s there was a grassroots resurgence of relief societies, which met with church president Brigham Young's approval and support. At his direction every bishop was to inaugurate a society in his ward. Several complied, but the threatened Utah War disrupted most of them.
In December 1866, coincident with the reorganization of the Mormon "Schools of the Prophets," Young called his wife and former Nauvoo society secretary Eliza R. Snow to reinstate the society in each community of Latter-day Saints. Aided by a circle of "leading sisters," she supervised the founding of more than 300 local societies before her death in 1887.
Snow's twenty-year administration saw the expansion of the society's work into various areas. Under her direction the women purchased properties and built Relief Society halls; they also established cooperative and commission stores, set up a grain-storage program and built granaries, provided scholarships for women to attend medical schools, and operated schools for nurses and midwives in the Intermountain area, operated a hospital, founded a newspaper, staged mass meetings to express their views on political issues, and promoted women's suffrage.
Eliza R. Snow was succeeded as Relief Society president by Zina D.H. Young, whose administration consolidated the programs set in place by Snow. Incorporation of the National Relief Society in 1892 continued the slow process which would extend the Nauvoo conception and modernize its programs. Bathsheba W. Bigler Smith, who followed Young in 1901, saw the society expand to include a centrally developed educational program with lessons for the weekly or biweekly meetings. Nursing courses expanded; however, they caused friction with the newly professional career nurses, and so the Relief Society gradually dropped its nurse training program.
By the time of her designation as general president in 1910, Smith's successor, Emmeline B. Wells, had for thirty-five years edited and published the Woman's Exponent, a semimonthly magazine for Mormon women and quasi-official organ of the Relief Society. Wells had also served as secretary of the society, whose central board meetings were traditionally held in her editorial offices. In those two roles, she had for decades kept a constant finger on the Relief Society pulse worldwide. Her presidency, however, coming as it did in a time of upheavals created by progressivism and World War I, saw the abandonment of many of the society's nineteenth-century programs, including the Exponent itself, the cooperative stores, the Relief Society halls, and the grain-storage project which she herself had piloted. When she died in 1921, the last personal link of the Relief Society with its Nauvoo antecedents was severed.
The 1909 move of the society's general offices into a Main Street edifice signalled the increasing business orientation of the society. The present Relief Society Building, which now also houses the Primary and Young Women's organizations of the church, was constructed in 1956 on the same site.
The Relief Society under its twentieth-century leaders adapted its programs to developing professional methods of social work and medical practice. Adoption agencies, programs for unwed mothers, and expanding social services departments replaced the less formal locally administered aid. Courses established by Amy Brown Lyman trained many women in the new techniques. By the 1960s nearly all of the Relief Society's welfare functions had been assimilated into general church programs, using professional staff members under priesthood direction.
The thirty-year administration of Belle S. Spafford (1945-74) solidified the society's businesslike decorum, which had been strengthened during the tenures of Clarissa Williams (1921-28), Louise Y. Robinson (1928-39), and Amy Brown Lyman (1940-45). Spafford was followed in office by Barbara Smith (1974-84) and Barbara Winder (1984-90). Local Relief Societies gradually were incorporated into general ward administration, and returned then to an original emphasis, the spiritual development of church women. The visiting teaching program and the involvement of the local Relief Society president with the bishop in ward welfare work echoed early and mid-twentieth-century programs.
In 1971, when by fiat all female adults in the church were deemed Relief Society members, the Relief Society's traditional weekday weekly meeting was replaced in each ward by a Sunday meeting sandwiched into a three-hour block with Sunday School and the main worship service. Also, one daytime or evening meeting per month was devoted to practical homemaking skills. The woman-to-woman monthly visiting program remained, as did the injunctions to individuals to practice compassionate service to others.
The 1992 sesquicentennial celebration of the Relief Society's founding promoted an outward direction of charitable efforts. Directives from the central administrators, headed by Elaine L. Jack (1990-present), require each local group independently to undertake an ongoing program of community service. This move acknowledges a diversification of Relief Society efforts, enabling local units to address local problems.