(Photo courtesy Mormon Newsroom)

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.

12 Responses

  1. My mother, Nell C. Alleman, served as Ward RS President 4 different times and places- from Virginia to California. While I was a teen, she organized monthly dinners to raise funds for our new chapel, and the Sisters made a hooked-rug carpet for the RS room. And yes, I do remember the bazaars and the 50 cent dues!!

  2. The Relief Society used to donate money, purchase and store mass quantities of wheat. They used to have many grain silos and elevators.

  3. I remember evening “homemaking” meetings where we learned various handy skills. I learned
    how to cut up a whole chicken from a brother in the ward who was a butcher and I learned how to quilt. Also we had a class, open to every one, to learn CPR taught by paramedics from
    our local fire station. Sure miss that part of Relief Society….

    1. I remember all of that and wished they still did some of that. The ward I live in only has extra meetings once every 3 months but they are more like a social not learning things. One of the other wards in our building has monthly meetings and they have lots of fun learning activities.They always have posters all over the building about their classes. I wish ours would do that.

    2. I miss it too. How to cut my boy’s hair, decorate cakes, and time to just sit and talk while quilting or crafting.
      Remember the grapes!
      Remember crushed glass window hangngs?
      We dcorated our tree with beautiful handicrafts.
      Visits to homes for dinners where we had one dish at each home and shared our home decorating talents.
      Wonderful meals a group would all prepare together as we chatted.
      Miss it, but life has sure changed!

      1. Yes and they need to bring that part of Relief Society back… all of those wonderful classes and learning opportunities.

    3. In March 2006, at the conclusion of Gospel Doctrine class, a sister I’d been serving with in Cub Scouts got up and wrote on the chalkboard something like: “Bread Baking, Saturday 10:00 a.m.” I called out: “Sister Huffman, may I come?” Continuing to write she replied: “Yes, Brother Hight, you may come” in a voice tinged with amusement. Mentally engulfed in a great Gospel Doctrine lesson I’d absent-mindedly missed (my sisters would suggest other etiologies:-) what then dawned on me: she was the new Relief Society president and I was sitting in the Relief Society room and the meeting was about to begin!

      Thanks to the sisters in my ward I learned to bake bread! (My mother would have taught me but interest had not intersected with opportunity until that week!)

  4. My mother joined the church in 1973. I was about 3/4 years old. It’s hard to recall a time when a quilt-in-progress wasn’t attached to the big wooden hand made quilting frames. It was not unusual at all to have Relief Society Sisters several times a week, all sitting around the frames, working on a quilt, with their young children playing throughout the house, watched by the careful eyes of MerryMiss Young Women. I also remember the first time I proudly received Relief Society Manual, slid the donation ( we used tithing slips) slip out and filled in the “other” section ” R.S. Manual”. I still recall how humble and blessed I felt when I slid it under the bishopric door. Our Relief Society today is different, just as times are different. Memories are treasures that are meant to be shared.

  5. I remember the weekly morning classes. The sisters were so welcoming and we learned and did so much. I felt part of something heavenly. That is one of the reasonsi joined the Church that and the truth of the Book of Mormon, the prophet, priesthood. I felt none of that now. They usually read the lesson from the manual. I still love Relief Society.

  6. I think we should continue to teach one another our skills to pass along. I read of s young lady this morning who has leukemia, and thought it’d be great if I had a stash of quilts made that could be donated to fundraisers for such things. I just finished going through treatments and I feel the need to pay it forward, after our ward took such good care of us! Our presidency is very open to class suggestions. By the way, canning is still a necessary skill. Don’t believe it? Wait til the power goes off. Everything in the freezer will ruin if you don’t have a generator.

  7. Currently, I am in our ward RS presidency as the counselor over midweek activities. Our committee loves to plan monthly activities, especially with mini-classes and socials. We would love to go back to the time when weekly activities were the norm and well attended, but the truth is that our sister’s lives are busy and sometimes complicated. Getting together once a month is even challenging. Our hope is that in the future, our sisters look back to this time and remember friendships that began, skills that were learned, and testimonies that were strengthened. Just like we are doing now!

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