Suspending Relief Society

In early 1844, a few months before the murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, the Relief Society, organized two years earlier and headed by the prophet’s wife, Emma Smith, suspended its operations. The society would not meet again for more than twenty years.

In the weeks before the suspension, a man named Orsimus F. Bostwick had circulated rumors about Hyrum Smith’s practice of polygamy. At Joseph Smith’s instruction. W. W. Phelps wrote a refutation of the rumors entitled “A Voice of Innocence from Nauvoo,” which Emma presented to the Relief Society on March 9, 1844.

She explained that the women had met to lend their collective voice to a proclamation that countered Orsimus Bostwick’s slander of Hyrum Smith. Emma read the “Voice of Innocence from Nauvoo” aloud to the group. … Emma received a unanimous positive vote from the women, who were willing to “receive the principles of Virtue, keep the commandments of God, and uphold the Prest. in putting down iniquity.” With a remark that may have seemed pointed toward Elizabeth Whitney and Vilate Kimball, whose young daughters had married Joseph, Emma told the women, “It is high time for Mothers to watch over their daughters and exhort them to keep the path of virtue” (Newell and Avery, Mormon Enigma, p 173).

She then read the First Presidency’s original letter to the Relief Society on its founding in 1842:

We therefore warn you, and forwarn you … we do not want anyone to believe anything as coming from us contrary to the old established morals & virtues, & scriptural laws. … All persons pretending to be authorized by us … are and will be liars and base imposters & you are authorized … to denounce them as such … whether they are prophets, Seers, or revelators, patriarchs, twelve apostles … you are alike culpable & shall be damned for such evil practices” (Ibid., 173-174).

In a later session that afternoon, Emma emphasized that the church had publicly declared itself opposed to plural marriage in the Doctrine and Covenants and reiterated that the Relief Society’s original charge was to root out iniquity.

[Emma] then presented both the “Voice of Innocence” and the presidency’s letter, stating that the two documents contained the principles the society had started upon, but she “was sorry to have to say that all had not adhere’d to them.” Referring to Joseph’s original charge to search out iniquity, Emma reminded the women that she was the president of the society by the authority of Joseph. The minutes record, “If there ever was any Authority on earth [to search out iniquity] she had it–and had [it] yet.” Emma urged the women to follow the teachings of Joseph Smith as he taught them “from the stand,” implying that his private teachings should be disregarded. Reminding them that “there could not be stronger language than that just read,” she emphasized that those were Joseph’s words” (Ibid., 174).

The Relief Society would not meet again. “When Emma had the women take a public oath with their hands raised in support of virtue, she caused enough consternation in the men’s councils to stop the Relief Society meetings” (Ibid., 174). Church president John Taylor explained that the “reason why the Relief Society did not continue from the first organization was that Emma Smith the Pres. taught the Sisters that the principle of Celestial Marriage as taught and practiced by Joseph Smith was not of God” (174).

Yet the official history of the Relief Society states that the Relief Society’s meetings “were suspended in 1844 due to the various calamities which befell the saints” (174). At the Relief Society’s sesquicentennial. Sheri Dew wrote that “by 1844 Relief Society membership exceeded 1,300. But after the martyrdom, and with increasing persecution, Brigham Young decided to “defer” operations of the society, and it ceased to function” (Ensign, Mar. 1992, 51).

Here’s how the CES Manual “Church History in the Fulness of Times” describes it:

Although at that time Latter-day Saint women had to apply to become members, the Relief Society was very popular and grew rapidly. Membership had grown to over thirteen hundred women at the time of Joseph Smith’s death. Because of the crisis created by the Martyrdom and the exodus to and settlement in the West, there were few Relief Society meetings until the organization was revived in 1867.

Some apologists constantly ridicule critics and former members for stating that the church “covers up” embarrassing history. But this kind of rewriting of history is exactly that. The truth is uncomfortable, so it is swept under the rug, and church members are left to choose to believe Sheri Dew over John Taylor.

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14 Responses to Suspending Relief Society

  1. Odell says:

    Several years ago, I reached the conclusion that the LDS church never tells the whole truth about itself, ever. Although I have resigned from the church, I still feel disappointed that the institution continues to whitewash its past and lie outright or by omission to its members, all the while telling them we are the deceived ones.

  2. Seth R. says:

    What source was “Mormon Enigma” quoting to the effect that Emma’s opposition to polygamy was the reason for disbanding?

  3. runtu says:

    The citation is “Statement of John Taylor, 29 June 1881, LDS Archives.”

    Also, there’s this:

    “Applying her own interpretation to the 1842 epistle against spiritual wifery, [Emma] opposed the practice her prophet-husband was promoting, thus bringing dissent into the inner circles of the Church. With each successive meeting that March, she became more vehement in her demand for reformation, even requiring that the women ‘examin[e] the conduct of their leaders of this Society-that you may sit in judgment on their heads.’ In her strongest claim to validation, referencing the powers conferred on her in the organizational meeting two years earlier, she ended by claiming, as the minute taker wrote, ‘if their ever was any Authourity on the Earth she had it-and had yet.’ Seeds of discord were sown, tares among the gospel’s greening wheat.

    “Emma’s actions, like the highly publicized dissent of other prominent Saints in Nauvoo, threatened the essential order and unity without which the Church could not survive. Following the Prophet’s martyrdom in June 1844 and the subsequent contention regarding the succession of church leadership, Zina Jacobs would painstakingly transcribe into her journal the words of Brigham Young: ‘He spoke of Union and said that it must be by this principle we are saved, by this the Saviour would come and reign, by union the authority of the Priesthood stands, and holds its Dominion.’

    “In pitting her authority against that of the prophet through whom her authority had come, and in planting disorder and disunity among the sisters, Emma Smith had erred egregiously. Joseph had warned that “all must work in concert or nothing can be done”; Emma’s actions were out of harmony. Though she closed the March 16, 1844, meeting by announcing her intent to call another when a ‘suitable place can be obtained,’ no further meetings of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo are recorded.

    “The women who stood to be most anguished by Emma Smith’s opposition to plural marriage, those who were or would be participants in the new order, understood and forgave her. Eliza Snow, who ‘dearly loved “Sister Emma,”‘ later credited her with noble motives, suggesting that it was Emma herself who disbanded the Nauvoo Relief Society: ‘Emma Smith gave it up so as not to lead the society in erro[r],’ she told a new Relief Society group in Utah in 1868. In 1880 John Taylor, remembering Emma Smith’s attitudes and actions, concurred only that it was because of Emma’s opposition to polygamy that the society had to be discontinued: ‘Sister Emma got severely tried in her mind about the doctrine of Plural Marriage and she made use of the position she held to try to pervert the minds of the sisters in relation to that doctrine.’

    “The Relief Society as an organization, for the time being, ceased to be.”

    — Jill Mulvay Derr, Janath Russell Cannon, and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), 62-63.

    • One of the things I found odd when among the Mormons was the complete lack of willingness to discuss Emma. It was as if she never existed. (There is a similar lack of mentioning Mary, the mother of Jesus…but that’s a question for another time) I felt really sorry for Emma and all she had to have gone through.

      If I remember my history correctly, after Joseph Smith died, Young and his followers went to Utah to form the church that is now the LDS church. But Emma, her son(s) and their followers went on to form the reformed LDS church. They had a cool spiral temple in Missouri (?). Anyway, did the practice/doctrine of polygamy end in the rLDS since Emma disapproved? Not sure if you’d know the answer.

      • Seth R. says:

        I believe the RLDS church has never practiced polygamy – from the beginning. And for a long time, they argued strenuously that Joseph Smith never did either. Some of them still do.

        And to be fair – the Catholics tend to “mention” Mary quite a lot.

      • Thanks for the answer Seth.

        True, Catholics do tend to talk about Mary FAR more than some other Christian denominations and it is neither good nor bad. I wasn’t trying to be unfair, and I hope I didn’t sound that way. I didn’t realize what bits of a religion and associated culture I had internalized as the norm until experiencing another faith. It was just one of the things that was a bit disorienting.

        I also realized since I last posted that I “misspoke”. The r in the RLDS church was for Reorganized not Reformed…sorry. Also, apparently the church is now the Community of Christ.

  4. […] the topic of “Zion’s Sisterhood,” Runtu found an interesting story about how the Relief Society got suspended because Emma Smith was using her bully pulpit to […]

  5. Bull says:

    I also love it when the apologists claim that if you don’t know this stuff it’s your own fault. Never mind that it is misportrayed in the manuals and that members are discourage from attending symposia and that teachers are discouraged from using any sources other than church approved manuals in their lessons.

    The church isn’t dishonest; we were just ignorant.

    I’m glad to be enlightened enough to see through the church’s deceptions now.

  6. Brigham says:

    “the church is perfect, but the people are not”

    This quote is so true in history and especially now. Why don’t we focus on the faults of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln? It is this same reason why church history does not reflect these “gray” areas of history. You just sound like a bitter person looking to pick a fight. Good luck with that.

    • runtu says:

      Brigham,

      No one is “focusing” on faults, and the idea that I’m bitter or picking fights is silly. Are you trying to pick a fight? 🙂 Anyway, the suspension of the Relief Society is a fascinating episode in church history made even more so by the modern church’s attempts to sanitize it.

  7. Did you catch the latest General Conference Relief Society meeting, Runtu? Henry B. Eyring said:

    Because of hard circumstances, for nearly four decades the Relief Society ceased to function as a Churchwide organization.

    I suppose having the organization shut down because Emma Smith was using it to oppose polygamy and the men weren’t having that could qualify as “hard circumstances.” Nope, no white-washing here.

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  9. […] few years ago, I wrote a blog post about the disbanding of the LDS Relief Society, which I thought was interesting. I noticed today that a number of people had read that piece, and […]

  10. […] I read the article, I was curious as to how the book would treat the suspension of Relief Society in 1844, a subject I have written about before. Fortunately, the article answered my […]

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