The Church recently released a historic and unprecedented new project: a compilation of Church documents—many of which are written by women and many of which have never been published before. These documents detail the formation of the largest women's organization in the world: the Relief Society.
Within this incredible new resource come many key insights into how women in the early days of the restored gospel had a shaping role and voice in the formation of the Church and stood for their standards in the face of political persecution.
The book examines many fascinating topics, such as the way early women in the Church viewed polygamy and saw their role within the priesthood; key doctrine Joseph Smith revealed to women during sacred meetings; the formation of the Relief Society as an inspired, unprecedented institution; and the many women who helped shape public policy and influence early decisions in the Church.
“They’re not just sunbonnet pioneer women that just kind of trudged along in the dirt with their covered wagon. They were well read. They were articulate. They knew what they believed in. They knew how to move forward," Carol Cornwall Madsen, a professor emerita of history at Brigham Young University, says in the book.
In fact, Fillmore Stake President Thomas Callister views the women and the wonderful organization they ran as a "school of prophetesses"—one to match the school of the Prophets lead by Joseph Smith (pg. 239).
To give you a few insights into these incredible women and their history, here is just one excerpt from the book, describing pioneer women's views on polygamy and how they were willing to fight to protect their marriages, beliefs, and rights:
Although Latter-day Saints achieved some degree of economic independence [in Utah], the political autonomy they hoped for was far more elusive. . . .
Plural marriage figured prominently in the escalating antipathy, and legislative and judicial attempts to end the practice provoked Mormon women to publicly defend their convictions and their marriages. The church first officially acknowledged its doctrine and practice of plural marriage in 1852, triggering a continual barrage of criticism and ridicule from pulpits and presses in America and abroad.
The 1856 Republican Party platform denounced slavery and polygamy as the "twin relics of barbarism," and in the 1862 the U.S. Congress passed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, intended "to punish and prevent the Practice of Polygamy in the Territories of the United States." . . .
Latter-day Saints were outraged by three successive bills proposed (but never passed) to reinforce and implement the Morrill Act—the Wade Bill (1866), the Cragin Bill (1867, 1869), and the Cullom Bill (1869, 1870). The bill, authored by Illinois representative Shelby Cullom, chair of the U.S. House Committee on Territories, included such extreme provisions as denying citizenship to those who practiced plural marriage.
In response, Mormon women staged a series of protests in the early months of 1870. Their mass meetings of indignation marked a pivotal moment of politicization for the Relief Society and for Mormon women. They broke the silence they had largely maintained in the public debate over polygamy, but they did not denounce it, as critics had long anticipated they would. Rather, they publicly spoke in support of plural marriage, representing themselves as strong, decisive, and free women, fully committed to their religious beliefs. Their new visibility demonstrated a reality different from the pervasive stereotypes of Mormon women as subjugated and deluded. Reporting on speeches he had heard at the “indignation” meeting in Salt Lake City, a correspondent New York Herald wrote, “In logic and in rhetoric, the so-called degraded ladies of Mormondom are quite equal to the women’s rights women of the East.”
Women’s defense of plural marriage became an integral part of their presence in the public sphere in the late nineteenth century, a presence facilitated by the recently reestablished Relief Society. The more than one hundred local Relief Societies operating throughout Utah in 1870 provided a new and stable structure for mobilizing women en masse. In local or ward societies women honed their organizational skills and public speaking abilities, and as these units acted collectively Latter-day Saint women exercised new political influence.
However, their activism did not halt further federal legislation to curtail the practice of plural marriage. . . .
The women’s 1870 mass meetings had been pivotal, however, and in their wake Latter-day Saint women maintained a political voice. Their familiarity with and interest in the mounting movement for women’s rights fueled their nascent activism. . . .
Utah Territory thus became only the second territory or state in the nation to extend suffrage to women. Latter-day Saint women delivered to the acting governor a formal expression of thanks for signing the bill. If Mormon women were interested in the larger movement for women’s rights, some of the movement’s most vocal national leaders likewise took interest in the newly enfranchised women of Utah. While traveling in the West, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton visited Salt Lake City early in July 1871. . . .
Latter-day Saint women were not of a single mind regarding women’s rights and woman’s sphere. They could speak and act collectively, but they also had individual ideas and experiences that increasingly found expression on the pages of the Woman’s Exponent. . . .
The Relief Society reemerged in the 1860s and 1870s as a cohesive, visible, and permanent organization. Under its auspices, women assumed new ecclesiastical, economic, and political roles in the expanding Mormon community.
Religious faith remained at the heart of their multiplying activities, from straw weaving to suffrage.
While we might not fully understand polygamy from a modern perspective, we can respect and relate to the fact that these women were willing to fight for their beliefs and their religious freedom, despite popular views or public policy. (To better understand the role of polygamy within the Church, check out the Church's Gospel Topics Essay on plural marriage.) And this challenge to their way of life brought with it a way for women to grow, to share their opinions, and to strengthen their voices and influence, even in politics.
In fact, when a bill in 1886 threatened to deprive women in Utah the right to vote, a committee of women came together to write a memorial for Congress. "Emmeline B. Wells and Ellen B. Ferguson personally delivered the memorial in Washington D.C. to Congress and President Grover Cleveland. . . . [Later] Senator Henry W. Blair, a Republican from New Hampshire, presented the memorial before the Senate on April 6, 1886, asking that it be printed in the Congressional Record" (pg. 518).
Despite popular belief, the early women of the Church were strong leaders who greatly influenced the world and the Church they were a part of. For, as Emmeline B. Wells stated in a letter to Zina D.H. Young, "the Women of Zion must become leaders, and to be such must not confine themselves to any narrow sphere of thought, or feeling.”
Lead image from LDS.org of Elizabeth Ann Whitney, Emmeline B. Wells, and Eliza R. Snow (left to right).
This collection of original documents explores the fascinating and largely unknown history of the Relief Society in the nineteenth century. The story begins with the founding of the Nauvoo Female Relief Society, and the complete and unabridged minutes of that organization are reproduced in this book for the first time in print. The large majority of the volume covers the lesser-known period after the Relief Society was reestablished in territorial Utah and began to spread to areas as remote as Hawaii and England. Not only did Relief Society women care for their families and the poor, they manufactured and sold goods, went to medical school, gave healing blessings and set apart Relief Society officers, stored grain, built assembly halls, fought for women's suffrage, founded a hospital, defended the practice of plural marriage, and started the Primary and Young Women organizations. Prominent in the documents are the towering figures of Mormon women's history from this period—Emma Smith, Eliza R. Snow, Emmeline B. Wells, Zina D.H. Young, and many others.