This week in 1842 Joseph Smith — the founding leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — organized the Relief Society. Today it is the largest women’s organization in the world, representing the 7.4 million women of the church.

While many women in the East were waiting for things to happen, the women of the Relief Society, living the in the wilderness of the Western United States, were busy making things happen. They were following the old adage, “We couldn’t wait for success to come our way, so we went on without it — and made our own.” 

Principles learned and skills acquired through the Relief Society fostered within the women of the West, including immense talent in speaking, organizing projects, evaluating the needs of others and executing plans. The structure of the Relief Society actually provided unique and powerful support to the suffrage effort in the late 1800s. That basic structure continues to strengthen the women of the Relief Society today and the countless communities where they contribute, serve and make a difference.

Women have always responded powerfully to a ‘tap on the shoulder’

In a recent address on the history of the women’s suffrage movement, Jean B. Bingham, current president of the Relief Society, shared several examples of women not waiting for something to happen but making it happen instead:

In 1876, then church President Brigham Young had unsuccessfully tried to create a wheat storage program. He turned to Emmeline B. Wells, the general secretary of the Relief Society widely known for her executive talents, to lead and organize the effort. She asked each local Relief Society to begin a grain storage program and to send reports on their work to a central committee.

The Relief Society program became so successful that it amassed enough wheat to donate significant amounts to the survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and to people in China who were suffering from a famine, as well as those starving in Europe after both world wars. The wheat fund program lasted for 100 years, and when the Relief Society’s assets were incorporated into the general church welfare funds in 1978, they turned over wheat valued at more than $1.5 million and assets amounting to three-quarters of a million dollars.

In South Africa in 1955, Julia Mavimbela’s husband was killed in a car accident and blame was unjustly placed on him because of his race. Julia became bitter about the ongoing unfair treatment of blacks. However, when she saw the harsh effects of bitterness and hatred in her own children and other black youths as they rioted in anger against the government system of apartheid, she reconsidered. 

Mavimbela began to gather the children and teach them how to plant and care for community gardens. She would say, “Let us dig the soil of bitterness, throw in the seed of love, and see what fruits it can give us.” In 1984, Julia co-founded Women for Peace, a group for all races that aimed to have a peaceful transition to true democracy in South Africa. 

Over the past several years, many people around the world have been involuntarily displaced, forced to flee from the only home they have ever known. Relief Society members the world over, from Canada to Costa Rica, Greece to Uganda and Australia to Argentina, have organized efforts to help refugee women from a variety of cultures and countries adjust to their unfamiliar environment.

There are literally thousands of stories like these of women who have improved the lives of those around them through the organization of the Relief Society. Around the world, Latter-day Saint women have significantly contributed to community food pantries, programs to shelter the vulnerable, made or donated items for those in need and provided emotional support in a wide variety of situations. Other Relief Society women have involved themselves in local and national government, working to protect and strengthen families through legislative efforts. 

Just like the early members of the organization, the women of the Relief Society today carry the legacy of taking action that lifts individuals in homes, communities and countries throughout the world.

Latter-day Saint women don’t wait for things to come their way — they make them happen. Millions of women have taken to heart Emma Smith’s statement at that first Relief Society meeting that “each member should be ambitious to do good.” The world is better for it.