On November 12, 2015, I spoke at a symposium at Utah State University entitled, "Mormon Women, Authority and Leadership," sponsored by the school's Department of Religious Studies and the Center for Women and Gender Studies. In my remarks, printed below, I reexamined the Relief Society's two founding mandates - to "relieve the poor" and "save souls" - and I attempted to evaluate how our women's organization of today fares in meeting those mandates. I engaged in a thought exercise in which I imagined the Relief Society of today (re)gaining ecclesiastical authority over the Church's welfare efforts, the effects of which I dream as being widespread as it would give the women's organization institutional authority in an area that is already built into its namesake mandate.
At the time of my presentation, it seemed like a far fetched exercised with far fetched, imagined results. But on Saturday night, at the general Women's Session of conference, that far fetched vision seemed to take a giant leap toward reality. While it might be some time before the Relief Society takes over the ecclesiastical and managerial administration of the Church's Welfare Department, the spirit of our namesake mandate was stronger than I've ever experienced it in my life. The creation of a new section on LDS.org, I Was A Stranger, although not sponsored outright by the Relief Society, clearly speaks to women from our sister leaders. My heart was so full on Saturday as I participated in the meeting with my mother, mother-in-law and daughters, and a a hushed reverence uncommon in the huge Conference Center fell over all as the remarkable multinational choir sang its opening song. I pray it is the beginning of the unfolding of a remarkable vision of what Relief Society and women's authority can truly be.
November 12, 2015
Eccles Conference Center, Utah State University
On March 17th, 1842, the prophet Joseph Smith formally organized the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo. Early in the minutes from that organizational meeting, we read about the Society’s two-fold purpose as Joseph Smith described it: first of all, that the sisters might “look to the wants of the poor, searching after objects of charity and administering to their wants.” In short, they were to “relieve the poor,” as the mission was later phrased. And the second council was “to assist by correcting the morals and strengthening the virtues of the female community.” In other words, to attend to the spiritual welfare of the sisters in their care, or, in the Prophet’s words, “save souls”.
This two-fold purpose of the Relief Society has been consistent since its very first days, with evidence of the women’s active engagement in these purposes throughout the 19th century church. In the administration of wants, we can point to efforts like the establishment of LDS Hospital, the cooperative store, the silk manufacturing and the grain storage as profound examples of how seriously our foremothers took this mandate to search for objects of charity. They were industrious in making their community better not just for each other but any who might need of their assistance. In addition, they left ample evidence to suggest they did not see a spiritual vs temporal division in their two missions or their activities. Running general stores was next to preparing themselves for temple worship and overseeing the moral health of their community in worthy spiritual endeavors.
Similarly, we know that they looked to the spiritual welfare of each other by blessing each other, encouraging virtue within the community, and even honoring the divine potential of women by becoming actively engaged in the global fight for woman suffrage. Evidence exists in the early Relief Society minutes themselves to demonstrate how intently the women took on this role of spiritual guardianship: Joseph actually reproved the women for being “subject to overmuch zeal” in their efforts to root out sin in their midst, causing them to be “rigid in a religious capacity.” He urged a more merciful stance to those who took his second mandate of “correcting morals and strengthening virtues” too contractedly.
In the October 2015 general conference, Elder D. Todd Christofferson offered a modern spin on these same prophetic mandates in his talk “Why The Church.” Although speaking of the Church generally and not just the Relief Society, Elder Christofferson’s outline of the jobs that the Church is set up to do closely mirror the two roles that Joseph Smith outlined for the Relief Society. Listen to his descriptions of the Church’s two main responsibilities. He starts by saying:
"It is important to recognize that God’s ultimate purpose is our progress. His desire is that we continue 'from grace to grace, until [we receive] a fulness' of all He can give. That requires more than simply being nice or feeling spiritual. It requires faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism of water and of the Spirit, and enduring in faith to the end. One cannot fully achieve this in isolation, so a major reason the Lord has a church is to create a community of Saints that will sustain one another in the 'strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life.'"
He continues: "One of the greatest blessings of being part of the body of Christ, though it may not seem like a blessing in the moment, is being reproved of sin and error. We are prone to excuse and rationalize our faults, and sometimes we simply do not know where we should improve or how to do it. Without those who can reprove us 'betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost,' we might lack the courage to change and more perfectly follow the Master. Repentance is individual, but fellowship on that sometimes painful path is in the Church."
This description sounds a lot like the Prophet Joseph’s mandate to correct the morals and strengthen the virtues and attend to the spiritual welfare of the community. To save souls. And Elder Christofferson goes on:
"There is a second major reason the Savior works through a church, His Church, and that is to achieve needful things that cannot be accomplished by individuals or smaller groups. One clear example is dealing with poverty. It is true that as individuals and families we look after the physical needs of others, 'imparting to one another both temporally and spiritually according to their needs and their wants.' But together in the Church, the ability to care for the poor and needy is multiplied to meet the broader need, and hoped-for self-reliance is made a reality for very many. Further, the Church, its Relief Societies, and its priesthood quorums have the capacity to provide relief to many people in many places affected by natural disasters, war, and persecution."
Again, we hear the overtones of Joseph’s call to “search for objects of charity.” And “relieve the poor.” So we see remarkable consistency over 180 years as to the purpose of our organizational mandates.
So how is the Relief Society of today doing in answering the mandate both of our former prophet and our current ones? How would we evaluate the women’s organization’s current fulfilling of these two mission statements? And if the Relief Society’s mission and the Church’s mission overlap so neatly, how can the Relief Society set itself apart from the larger organization and find a unique identity and purpose for itself? These are the kinds of questions I’ve been asking recently and which I’d like to challenge us to think about today.
My favorite definition of “authority” comes from the book The Silent Sex by BYU political science professor Chris Karpowitz. He defines “authority” as the “expectation of influence”. You say something – express an opinion or a desire – and you expect that the opinions or desires of others will change as a result. They might not necessarily change in your favor, but you can expect that what you say and stand for will have an impact on a collective conversation. It seems clear from our historical understanding of our foremothers that they expected to have influence on their communities and on their brethren from the sheer list of projects and organizations and meetings they were involved in. Journal entries I recently read of Ruth May Fox’s dating from 1894 to 1895 testify to the influence Mormon women expected to have at that time. Granted Ruth May Fox was an exceptional example of an influential woman of her time, but her journal entries reveal the sheer number of causes and civic activities women of her time were engaged in, inside and outside of Church governance, and how what we today would call "temporal" and "spiritual" pursuits held no such distinction for women like her.
In what arenas do Mormon women expect to have influence today, either within the Church or outside? A survey of the talks from the most recent Women’s Session of general conference demonstrate that Mormon women expect to have influence in shaping the home life. They exercise authority in the arena of developing families. Listen to the names of the four talks given by our female leaders in the April 2015 women’s session: The Family is of God, The Family is Ordained of God, Defenders of the Family Proclamation, and Filling Our Homes with Light and Truth. Ever since Leah Widtsoe shaped her husband John A Widtsoe’s thinking about motherhood being a woman’s institutional domain to complement men’s priesthood responsibilities, motherhood and families have been areas in which Mormon women have felt comfortable exercising authority.
If we want to assign this arena of influence – shaping of the home environment - to one of the Prophet Joseph’s two directives for the women of the Church, it feels like it could fit into the category of “correcting morals and strengthening virtues.” However, if this were the entire breadth of the divinely approved arena in which women can expect to have influence and exercise authority, I doubt Elder Russell M Nelson would have felt the need to give a talk entitled “A Plea to My Sisters” in the October 2015 general conference. He wouldn’t have felt the need to say, “We need your strength, your conversion, your conviction, your ability to lead, your wisdom, and your voices.” If our women today expect to have influence – if they exercised authority – we would likely not need an apostle of the Lord to ask us to step up. Something is missing. We are not getting something, as women in the Church today. Joseph’s reprimand about being “contracted in our views” could apply not just to the way women treat other women, but in the limited way women claim the rights and opportunities that are already ours. Our authority is not supposed to stop at the walls of our homes!
This observation leads me to the second mandate from the Prophet Joseph and Elder Christofferson: to look to the wants of the poor and administer charity. How would we score ourselves as women and as a Relief Society institution on this charge? This mandate very clearly directs us outside of our homes, to those who are not already among us. From my experience, the Relief Society of today may do a fine job of administering to the wants of the poor in spirit as we try to be attuned to those who need love and attention, but I have seen very little institutional effort to answer the Relief Society namesake purpose: to administer not just to the widow and the new mother, but to the poor. There is a special challenge that exists with this mandate because the Church’s own mission so closely aligns with that of the Relief Society: the larger Church institution has in place a massive effort to look to the wants of the poor, from Deseret Industries to LDS Charities to the humanitarian missionaries. It is a mammoth and impressive program that is underheralded. But it has little to do specifically with the Relief Society, whose special purpose is to attend to the needs of the poor. How and when did this namesake purpose get folded into the larger organization of the Church, becoming almost exclusively male in its administration? I am currently studying the history of how women's welfare administration diminished. But for our purposes today I feel comfortable saying that looking to the wants of the poor is no longer an area in which the Relief Society has institutional authority. We do not experience nor expect Relief Society-sponsored action on behalf of needy people outside of our community. We do not even expect the Relief Society to have influence over how our own Welfare and Humanitarian departments take care of the poor. We take casseroles and tie fleece blankets and perhaps do food or coat drives, but for the largest and oldest global women’s organization, the average Relief Society sister's ability to participate in institutional global relief efforts is woefully poor.
What if this were to change? Indulge me for a minute in a thought exercise as we imagine what it might look like for the Relief Society and women of the Church to claim institutional authority over their namesake mission. To do this in more than just name, let’s imagine the Relief Society takes over the administration of the Church’s Welfare department. There is a woman already at the head of LDS Charities - Sharon Eubank - so this isn’t as outlandish as it sounds, although she works under a professional calling and not an ecclesiastical one. But in my mind, women – the spiritual descendants of Eliza R Snow, Martha Hughes Cannon, Emmeline Wells – have an ecclesiastical responsibility to administer the efforts, the funds, and the human capital now claimed by the Welfare department. The government of the Relief Society now in place, strengthened with similar tenures and benefits as members of the Quorums of the Seventy and with the addition of a vast network of employed and volunteer women and men, would have primary responsibility for any church effort to “relieve the poor.”
The connection with the global efforts to relieve the poor would allow local Relief Societies to evaluate and contribute to real needs beyond their own communities. It would also allow local Relief Societies to feel a connection with other women beyond their geographic congregations. Imagine, for instance, if the global Relief Society leadership emphasized addressing illiteracy in our relief efforts. Local Relief Societies around the globe could join in that worldwide effort. It would be so glorious to be bound together in love and productivity that gets outside of ourselves and brings us together as women in service to others.
This is a vision of the Relief Society claiming authority for relieving the poor. It is a vision of women exercising the power to act in God’s name – the power we already have – to fulfill our divine mandate. It’s a vision of women expecting to have influence beyond their own homes, and feeling not only the institutional and divine permission but the very command to speak up, to contribute and to be heard. Importantly, this would allow women to save souls in a way that is separate and apart from the men’s unique mandate. As holders of not only priesthood power but also priesthood keys, men currently fulfill the mission of the Church by administering saving ordinances. Claiming a different sphere of authority would mean women don’t have to be given those same priesthood keys in order to do God’s work on earth and to be the means of someone’s salvation. The temporal service and spiritual service could work hand in hand, allowing both men and women to fulfill the mission of the Church but in distinct ways that meet their unique divine mandates. Rather than doing what the men do, women could have a meaningful avenue of communal salvation that allows us to get outside ourselves and our families, experience a worldwide sisterhood and to be God’s hands on earth.
Some may argue that the Relief Society is much more engaged in global service than I credit here. Some may argue that women individually are more engaged in relieving the poor than I credit here. And I do not deny for a moment that Mormon women around the world are engaged in massive, organized efforts to relieve the poor: I have interviewed dozens of women for the Mormon Women Project over the past six years who have started non-profits or NGOs because of the divine power they claim to make the world a better place for those in need. From women selling handmade goods out of their homes and sending the proceeds to microlending organizations, to the founders of large organizations like Rising Star Outreach and Days for Girls, Mormon women are absolutely relieving the poor. But I’m seeking an institutional blossoming of the Relief Society – of our society – to give women an alternate avenue of authority that works hand and hand with men. We do not have this today and we are feeling the effects of it dearly.
I will leave us with the influence of one of my heroes, Emmeline B Wells, who served as the fifth general president of the Relief Society starting in 1913.
With a testimony that the Relief Society had been organized by revelation, Sister Wells and her counselors, Clarissa S. Williams and Julina L. Smith, were committed to preserving the principles upon which the society had been founded. In October 1913 they said:
“We do declare it our purpose to keep intact the original name and initial spirit and purpose of this great organization, holding fast to the inspired teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith when he revealed the plan by which women were to be empowered through the calling of the priesthood to be grouped into suitable organizations for the purpose of ministering to the sick, assisting the needy, comforting the aged, warning the unwary, and succoring the orphans.” (Emmeline B. Wells, Clarissa S. Williams, and Julina L. Smith, “Resolutions of Relief Society,” Woman’s Exponent, Nov. 1913, 79.)
Let us too have a testimony that the Relief Society was organized by revelation as an arena in which women can exercise the authority needed to save souls and relieve the poor. Our authority does not need to be the same as men’s, but it does need to be unearthed, revived, even resurrected.