Today I woke up thinking how good I feel after having lost some weight and working out regularly, so Mormonism wasn’t on my mind at all. On the way to work, I heard a report from NPR about the prosecution of members of Warren Jeffs’s polygamous clan for food stamp fraud. What I found interesting was that the news announcer specifically read out the Jeffs group’s name, Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and then went on to explain that this group was not related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (she read out the full name here, as well), which she said was more commonly known as “the Mormon church.” I was briefly amused at the effort NPR was making to ensure listeners would not conflate the LDS church with its crazy stepchild, the FLDS church.
Then I got on with my day, until a friend pointed me to an article in the Deseret News (for those who may not know, the Deseret News is owned and operated by the LDS church and is usually a reliable indicator of the church’s public positions). The article in question, LDS Church signals ‘remarkable’ transparency with new book on ‘First Fifty Years of Relief Society,’ announces the publication of a new book about the origins of the church’s Relief Society, which is its organization for adult women (that’s giving it short shrift, but I would imagine most of my readers know what Relief Society is).
According to the article, the new book’s openness with complicated history is
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 [in] 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.”
Before 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 question:
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.”
Let me see if I can unpack this a little. According to the authors, the timeline goes something like this:
- Joseph Smith is killed in June 1844.
- Brigham Young, as president of the Quorum of the Twelve apostles, becomes “the church’s leader.”
- Brigham believes that Emma’s public opposition to plural marriage–and “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.'”
- The widowed Emma works hard to “look after her family’s welfare” and does not support the leadership of Brigham Young and the Twelve.
- By March 1845 Brigham already has negative feelings about the Relief Society organization.
- “Brigham and other church leaders decide that safety for the church will necessitate a move somewhere in the West.”
- “As part of [preparations for the move West] 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.”
To summarize, the article–and apparently, the book’s authors–want us to believe that the suspension took place after the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith in a time of upheaval when a lot of the church’s activities, including missionary work, were temporarily suspended. Unfortunately, this is not what actually happened. The crucial fact that is omitted is that it wasn’t Brigham Young who suspended the Relief Society. As the article notes, Emma was vehemently opposed to the practice of plural marriage, and she began to use the Relief Society organization to publicly denounce the practice.
At the risk of making this post way too long, I’ll just repost here what I wrote before:
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.
I wrote that post almost 7 years ago. To recap, the Relief Society was suspended in March 1844, 3 months before Joseph Smith’s death. At that point, there was no discussion of moving west and no obvious schism between Emma Smith and Brigham Young. The Relief Society was suspended because Joseph Smith was unhappy that Emma was using the meetings to “thwart the practice of plural marriage.” My guess is that Joseph understood that too much investigation would reveal the extent of his practice of polygamy, including the awkward fact that both of Emma’s counselors in the Relief Society presidency were intimately involved in polygamy, with Sarah Cleveland having married Joseph Smith and Elizabeth Whitney having given her daughter Sarah to Joseph as a wife.
Yet here it is 2016, and the church is still insisting that the suspension was Brigham Young’s doing and was a by-product of the move to the West.
So much for “remarkable transparency.”
Correction: The original version of this post listed Elizabeth Whitney as one of Joseph Smith’s plural wives, which is incorrect.