The Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints turns 175 years old on March 17th, and women around the world are celebrating with activities, service projects, dinners and more.
But the original members of the Relief Society — those who were in Nauvoo in 1842 when Joseph Smith founded the organization — may not recognize today’s Relief Society as the group that was formed that day. Like the rest of the Church, the Relief Society has evolved to meet the needs of a worldwide membership and to help women with today’s challenges.
Here are seven things the Relief Society once did that it doesn’t anymore, along with three things that have only gotten better with age.
1.We no long elect our presidents.
When the Relief Society was first organized, the women elected Emma Smith as president. This could be at least partial fulfillment of the revelation in the 25th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, in which Emma is called “an elect lady.” She selected two counselors, and the three of them were set apart. Other positions in the group were also appointed. Today, everyone in the organization is called by priesthood leaders.
2. We don’t gather donations and pay dues anymore.
If you think visiting teaching today is hard, imagine asking for money. Visiting teachers were originally dispatched to collect donations that supported the group. At the time, the Relief Society managed its own finances and even built its own buildings. (This was later discouraged in an increased effort to correlate the Church’s many organizations.) Later in 1898, members were required to pay annual dues. This was discontinued in 1970.
3. The Relief Society doesn’t finance the education of its members anymore.
Instead, the Church’s Perpetual Eduction Fund is a way to help Church members gain an education. But in decades past, the Relief Society was involved in several economic activities, including helping to finance the training of women who were studying to become midwives or doctors, the making and selling of homemade goods, and establishing a system for storing grain.
4. Actively participate in politics.
The Church has a strong neutral stance in most political matters today, but in the Relief Society’s early days the organization played a strong political role. The Relief Society sponsored meetings to express opposition to proposed anti-polygamy legislation, encouraged women to vote and campaigned for women suffrage, and supported legislation that allowed women to hold office in the new state of Utah. The Relief Society was also affiliated with the National Woman Suffrage Association, the International Council of Women, and the National Council of Women.
5. Hold ‘Mothers Classes.’
Beginning in 1902, the Relief Society held “Mothers Classes” to support and educate women in their responsibilities. Today, Relief Society meetings center on a wider range of topics.
6. Relief Society no longer establishes and operates maternity hospitals.
Beginning in the early 1920s, stake and ward relief societies sponsored health clinics for expectant mothers, infants and children. Two even ran their own maternity hospitals. Relief societies adapted this practice for branches in Europe by creating “maternity chests” to help mothers and provide needed supplies for home deliveries.
7. The Relief Society no longer directly assists women in starting businesses.
Mormon Handicraft was established in Salt Lake City in 1938 through the Relief Society to help women learn how to sell handmade goods on consignment.
But some things never change.
1. The Relief Society still cares for the poor and needy.
At the inception of Relief Society, Emma Smith said, “We are going to do something extraordinary. … We expect extraordinary occasions and pressing calls.” Over the last 175 years, her words have proved prophetic. When Relief Society general president Linda K. Burton announced updates to the purpose of the Relief Society last week, she emphasized that Relief Society sisters are to “work in unity to help those in need.”
2. The Relief Society still uses visiting teachers.
Though they are no longer asked to collect money, visiting teachers form friendships, establish connections among women in the Relief Society, and provide help in times of need.
3. The Relief Society still provides relief in times of crisis.
When handcart companies needed to be rescued on the plains, Relief Society sisters immediately donated “petticoats, stockings, and everything they could spare, right there in the Tabernacle” (Quoted in “Go and Bring then In,” Ensign, December 2006). The Relief Society later helped provide assistance to Saints struggling in postwar Europe and Japan. Today, Relief Society sisters around the world are assisting refugees in response to a call from president Linda K. Burton to do so.
For more information about the history of the Relief Society, see “Relief Society” in “The Encyclopedia of Mormonism,” which was the main source for this article.