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LDS Church signals ‘remarkable’ transparency with new book on ‘First Fifty Years of Relief Society’

SHARE LDS Church signals ‘remarkable’ transparency with new book on ‘First Fifty Years of Relief Society’

SALT LAKE CITY — The release of a new book by an important, official LDS Church press is a signal that a current era of bold transparency about the church's history is still in full swing.

The rich, colorful beginnings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are captured in new ways through rarely seen and largely unknown documents that portray how Mormon women and church leaders worked through the creation of new institutions in turbulent times in "The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women’s History."

For example, the book tells the story of how and why Brigham Young decided in Nauvoo, Illinois, to disband the women's organization known as the Relief Society for a decade after the death of Joseph Smith, and how he dedicated himself to reestablishing it after the Latter-day Saints resettled in Utah.

Few Mormons know that story or about many of the other accounts provided by leaders and women, in their own words, beginning with the establishment of the Relief Society in 1842 — remarkable on its own at a time when in the rest of the United States women couldn't vote or own property and within the church didn't speak in sacrament meetings or serve missions. The book covers an era in which the church navigated a succession crisis, polygamy and an epic move across the American West.

The publication also is a landmark in the history of the Church Historian's Press. For the first time, the official church imprint appears on a book outside of the volumes published as part of the Joseph Smith Papers project.

"'The First Fifty Years of Relief Society' demonstrates the power of transparency and the church's commitment to transparency," said co-editor Matthew Grow, director of publications for the Church History Department. "We are in a remarkable historical moment, with the Joseph Smith Papers, with the Gospel Topics essays, with this book, in which the church is saying, here's our history, here are the documents, come and study it, come and learn from it, we're certainly not afraid to tackle any issues within our history, and we're willing to expend the resources to understand that history, to make that history available, because we believe there's power in this history."

Brigham and Emma

The 800-page book features 78 documents, including — and published in full for the first time — the Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, a record of all 33 of the meetings of the Nauvoo Relief Society. The documents illustrate the development of the Relief Society.

"The average person's understanding, and even many scholars' vision of church history, is incomplete," said co-editor Kate Holbrook, a specialist in women's history in the Church History Department, "and this gives a more complete picture of the period from 1842 to 1892. I hope that our manuals and our curriculum, our lessons, our talks will all reflect a more complete history by including some of the material that's in this book."

One of the lesser known stories, published before but in stark contrast in the new book, is the schism that developed between Emma Smith, Joseph Smith's widow, and Brigham Young, who as president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles became the church's leader after Smith was shot to death in June 1844.

Emma was known as an "Elect Lady" and the first president of the Relief Society. As she sought to look after her family's welfare and supported others who opposed the Quorum of the Twelve and wanted to assume church leadership, President Young worked to stabilize the church.

The book's four co-editors wrote that, "President Young believed that Emma Smith's efforts to thwart the practice of plural marriage" — including the use of Relief Society meetings as a forum for her objections — "contributed to the furor against Joseph and Hyrum Smith and helped lead to their deaths."

"What are relief societies for?" President Young said in March 1845, nine months after Joseph and Hyrum were killed. "To relieve us of our best men. They relieved us of Joseph and Hyrum."

"Brigham feels under siege," Grow said. "He's grieving. Emma Smith is also grieving, and they said hard things about each other in that grief. Brigham and other church leaders decide that safety for the church will necessitate a move somewhere in the West. As part of that they make a number of changes in church activities, including suspending the Relief Society. They suspend missionary work for a time. We have to see it in that context, that other things are being suspended, closed in at the same period of time so that there can be this focus on moving to the West."

History that is human

That story and others are refreshing to Melissa Inouye, a Latter-day Saint who is a lecturer at the University of Auckland and an associate editor of the Mormon Studies Review.

"In the first place, it shows that the LDS Church is willing to own its women’s history," Inouye said. "This history as presented by the documents in the book is rich, complicated, inspirational and often troubling. To bring these documents out via the most mainstream channel of church historical discourse demonstrates Mormonism’s growing maturity as a religious movement. Every religion has a human history. We are becoming more comfortable with ours."

It's important to portray that history of humanity because of what it teaches us, said Jill Mulvay Derr, one of the book's co-authors and a retired senior historian in the Church History Department.

"In this book we're able to discuss the way that plural marriage was confidential at that moment time and some of the confusion caused by that confidentiality. ... The issues are very complex, and I think in this volume we're able to address them, maybe not to everyone's satisfaction, but at least in ways that are transparent and that show you the humanity of these people and the way they understood things differently."

That has changed the way Derr, also a Mormon, sees her own faith.

"We just see the rich nuances here of human beings interacting, and I think for me that's been the most instructive things in terms of my expectation for what my church experience will be. I see it will be full of human relationships and ups and downs and people who occasionally offend and ways to reconcile and to move on. That is our history."

Out West

Derr and Carol Cornwall Madsen, a professor emerita of history at BYU, started the project about 15 years with no idea who might publish it. The Church Historian's Press didn't exist until 2008. Madsen and Derr wanted to publish the entire Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book and place it in larger context than just the two-plus years and 33 meetings the society existed to show how the records were used, interpreted, implemented and regarded over time.

The book outlines how Young suspended the Relief Society in March 1845. It sprung up again in various congregations in Utah in the mid-1850s, but petered out due to the Utah War in the late 1850s. President Young called for the permanent reestablishment of the Relief Society in late 1867.

One of the standout features of the book is its portrayal of Eliza R. Snow. First a plural wife of Joseph Smith and then of Brigham Young, she recorded the Nauvoo Minutes. By the time President Young calls on her to reestablish the Relief Society, few church members know anything about it, so she took the Minutes Book she had carried across the plains and began to travel from congregation to congregation to instruct local church leaders.

"You also see in Brigham Young his tremendous growth as a leader," Grow said. "Brigham Young, the man who suspends Relief Society and says some difficult things about it in 1845 — he says tough things — becomes a great champion of Relief Society in the Utah Territorial period. It's Brigham Young who commissions the Relief Society's reestablishment. It's Brigham Young who advocated for women's education, for women to pursue medical degrees, for women to have the right to vote."

Healing blessings

Another feature of the book that will draw some attention is the pervasive references to faith healings performed by early LDS women. Like many parts of the book, the knowledge that Mormon women used laying on of hands to give blessings of healing and comfort has been published before.

LDS women began performing healing blessings in the 1830s. Many LDS converts came from evangelical congregations that practiced healing by faith and prized spiritual gifts, which they saw as a manifestation that Christ's gospel was restored, Derr said.

"They did it all the time," Holbrook said of women performing healings. "It was really meaningful."

Some Mormon women disagreed about whether they should engage in the practice. Joseph Smith sanctioned female healing in a talk at a Relief Society meeting in 1842.

Church leaders, men and women, made clear that "women's ministrations were performed through faith rather than priesthood authority." As explained in a Gospel Topics page released last fall on Joseph Smith’s teachings about priesthood, temple and women, the practice of female blessings waned in the early 1900s as church leaders determined to follow the biblical injunction "to call for the elders of the church."

"I think the message of the book is that context is absolutely essential to understanding those Nauvoo Minutes," Grow said. "We know there's great interest in these issues. I would certainly say that reading the context either in that Gospel Topics essay or in greater depth here is essential to understanding those topics."

Mormon narratives

Grow and Derr said the book complicates two typical narratives of church history.

"In both scholarly circles and popular circles there is sometimes a narrative of loss when it comes to Mormon women's history," Grow said. "I think that narrative is really mistaken in a few ways because it focuses on a few things to the exclusion of many others. So, yes, we don't do faith healing like we used to do, or it's true that Relief Societies used to control their own budgets, or things like that, but we have to remember all the many things that women in the church do now that they didn't do in the 19th century. They speak and teach in mixed-gender settings. They go on missions. They're not plural wives. It's a mistake to focus on a couple of things, and therefore there's a narrative of loss. It's a real oversimplification of the history and I think it's an oversimplification that's done harm."

For Derr, the idea of history as a simple march of forward progress is also mistaken.

"We also sometimes tell a story of triumph, of neverending progress and all is well and harmonious," she said, "and I think this book successfully complicates both of those narratives."

That Relief Society existed so early in LDS history, before many of the things church members take for granted today, such as temple work for the dead, is remarkable, the co-editors said.

"During this period, Relief Society was a way for women to have influence outside of the domestic sphere," Holbrook said. "And there really weren't opportunities outside of Relief Society to make a difference in the world."

For Grow, the book also changes the way scholars must engage with early LDS history.

"This is very much like what the Joseph Smith Papers does," he said. "Most of the documents in the Joseph Smith Papers also have been available previously. What it does is gather in all the documents, adds some that haven't been available before, but then it adds the rich contextualization and precision. It enables a book like this or the books like the Joseph Smith Papers to be important in the scholarly dialogue going forward. So on the Joseph Smith Papers we say no one can ever again write on Joseph Smith without going through the documents he wrote.

"Never again can people write on Mormon women's history in the 19th century without going through the documents they wrote, without grappling with their voices, without hearing them in this unfiltered sort of way. What a documents book like this does is make it almost mandatory for a historian writing in the field, writing on Mormon women, writing on the church in the 19th century, to have to listen to those voices, to have to wrestle with what they're saying."


LDS women today can be inspired by their spiritual ancestors, the co-authors said.

"My hope," Madsen said, "is that women will reach a point if they read this book or read parts of it where they say, 'This is my history, this is the fundamental document that gave ecclesiastical identity to the women of the church, this gave them place within the structure of the church."

The book also reveals how the church developed over decades.

"You learn of change over time," Holbrook said. "You learn that nothing is static in this church. This was a particular exciting time in the church because so much was new and being developed, and they were experimenting and figuring out best practices, but we're still in some instances figuring out best practices."

Added Madsen, "This is the first generation of Mormons. They're on the cutting edge. They're experimenting really with what works and what doesn't work, and trying to formulate some kind of a system in the organization. I think that's what happened with Relief Society. They were given a great deal of autonomy because beyond Nauvoo and what Brigham Young's interest in the Relief Society at the time he reestablished it, there weren't a lot of models for how to do this.

"I've always figured it was trial and error and beginning to develop an organization with some kind of a system, and that took time. It certainly happened with the priesthood quorums and what the ages would be of the different officeholders."

Derr hoped the book will inspire readers.

"I think women's faith and access to divine power that comes through very clearly," she said. "At the same time, these women worked within so many limitations. The suspension of Relief Society, they weren't speaking in sacrament meeting, they weren't going on missions as our women do today. They lived in very different circumstances. What's inspiring for me, is that they look at the parameters in which they can operate and they make the most of it. They are diligent stewards and very proud and humble at the same time about making their presence felt. You see that in this book again and again, that there is a willingness to accept certain limitations but work within them in such positive and meaningful ways. That's one message I've really taken from this book, that you can find ways you can serve others and feel the Spirit in ways that make an impact regardless of some limitations that you might feel.

Madsen said that in spite of limitations, early Mormon women remained focused on Joseph Smith's teaching that Relief Society was essential.

"I think the women had that sense, and that's why they weren't defeated when things didn't go the way they wanted or they ran into various obstacles along the way and couldn't always implement everything they always thought they should."

That has played out in Derr's and Madsen's lives with the release of "The First Fifty Years of Relief Society."

"From Carol's and my perspective," Derr said, "we've been working in women's history a long time. It's always been this topic a little bit apart. This signifies bringing women's history into the mainstream so that it's not women's history, it's a part of our church history, and it's significant that it's published through the Church Historian's Press, not necessarily as a women's history volume, but as a part of church history."

Digital selections of the book are now available for free online at https://churchhistorianspress.org. Additional digital selections will also be released online in the coming months.

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com