Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book

withdrew while the females went into an investigation  of the motion and decided that all present, be adm itted according to the motion, and that
Mrs. Sarah [Ward] Higbee
Thirza [Stiles] Cahoon
Kezia A. Morrison
Abigail Allred
Mary Snider
Sarah Granger
should be  admitted; whose names were presented by Prest. Smith.
Prest. Smith, & Elders Taylor & Richards  return’d and the meeting was address’d by Prest.  Smith, to illustrate the object of the Society— that  the Society of Sisters might provoke the brethren to  good works in looking to the wants of the poor— searching  after objects of charity, and in administering to their wants — to assist; by correcting the morals and strengthening  the virtues of the female community, and save the  Elders the trouble of rebuking; that they may give their  time to other duties &c. in their public teaching.
Prest. Smith further remark’d that an organization to  show them how to go to work would be sufficient. He propos’d  that the Sisters elect a presiding officer to preside over  them, and let that presiding officer choose two Counsellors  to assist in the duties of her Office— that he would ordain  them to preside over the Society— and let them preside  just as the Presidency, preside over the church; and if [p. 7]
On 17 March 1842, JS first formally organized Latter-day Saint women in a group with distinct responsibilities and authority. At JS’s invitation, twenty women assembled in the large room above his dry goods store in Nauvoo, Illinois, to be organized, as one woman recalled his description, “under the priesthood after the pattern of the priesthood” (Sarah M. Kimball, “Auto-biography,” Woman’s Exponent, 1 Sept. 1883, 51). Priesthood quorums—units of men assembled according to priesthood office and usually headed by a president and two counselors—had been organized previously. The women assembled on 17 March elected JS’s wife Emma Hale Smith president, and she selected two counselors; a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles ordained or set apart the three-member presidency to their new callings or offices. These were the first ecclesiastical positions in the church for women.
The name the women selected for their institution, the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, paralleled that of contemporaneous women’s benevolent societies in the United States. Two or three weeks prior to the 17 March meeting, a group of Nauvoo women had met to form a “ladies society” to sew shirts for temple workmen, an effort probably informed by the broader benevolent movement. When JS invited these women to be organized as part of the church structure, they abandoned their plans for an independent society with a constitution and bylaws. JS told them at the initial meeting, “The minutes of your meetings will be precedents for you to act upon—your Constitution and law” (Minutes, 17 Mar. 1842). This record of Relief Society “organization and proceedings” includes minutes for seventeen meetings in 1842, thirteen in 1843, and four in 1844. By the last recorded meeting in March 1844, a total of 1,331 women had enrolled as members, most of them joining the first year (Maureen C. Ward, “‘This Institution Is a Good One’: The Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, 17 March 1842 to 16 March 1844,” Mormon Historical Studies 3 [Fall 2002]: 87–203).
JS attended nine Relief Society meetings in 1842 and addressed six of them. These minutes document his instructions regarding women’s new responsibilities, authority, and forthcoming temple blessings—the only record of teachings JS directed specifically to women. The minutes detail donations for and visits with the poor, contributions for temple construction, and women’s efforts at moral reform and civic activism. Discussions reported in this record refer explicitly or implicitly to tensions mounting in Nauvoo over JS’s political influence and threatened extradition to Missouri, the defection of prominent church and civic leader John C. Bennett, and the tumult surrounding the introduction of plural marriage. The record of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo ends on 16 March 1844; a decade passed before Relief Society meetings resumed in the Salt Lake Valley.