The Order of the Relief Society

This is the final in a series about Mormon Priesthood theology and development. The others can be read here, here, and here although this one is about the Relief Society. No discussion about the Priesthood is complete without a mention of this organization of women.relief society logo true blue

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is for everyone, regardless of birth and station in life. A person does not even have to belong to the Church for the atonement to help in repentance and answers to prayers. The formation by the Lord of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is to have an authorized organization to spread the Gospel and administer the ordinances of Salvation and Exaltation. Church is where the Priesthood is gathered for administration of those ordinances that include baptism and Temple work. For Mormonism, those who do not have the Priesthood are without authorization to administer those ordinances. For believers, Joseph Smith restored the ancient covenants and authority that had been lost since the time of the Apostles. No person or group can claim having the Priesthood unless they can prove an unbroken line directly to Joseph Smith and those he ordained. A revelation to those already in authority or a visit by angels are the only ways those who were not allowed the Priesthood can receive it. What the Lord takes, He can give. What He gives can be taken away, such as Israel in the days of Moses. The Priesthood is forever. Any mortal person’s right to it is not.

When the Priesthood was given to Joseph Smith, the Lord gave it to men and not women. The Scriptures and history indicates it has been that way from the days of Adam and Eve. Men have been tasked with leading the Church and giving the ordinances. It is an awesome responsibility that has not always been appreciated. Sad experience has proven that not all men are worthy of wielding such a precious and powerful tool. Other than the Lord Jesus Christ, no one on Earth is perfect. That is why there is a need for the atonement. Both men and women can partake of this divine gift and prepare for greater blessings. Women may not have the Priesthood as currently understood, but the Lord has provided them with their own authority and responsibility to work along side the Priesthood structure. The Relief Society is much more than a gathering of women in Church. Fully utilized, it can be a powerful influence for good, or as Emma Smith put it, “something extraordinary.”

Over the years arguments have been made that organizing the woman, as distinct from men, is not enough. The claim is that women should be given the Priesthood the same as men. Many Christian churches have with some pride given them the ministry. A few examples from the Bible are pointed out as proof this is the way it can or should be for the genders in Church. Some Mormons quote 2 Nephi 26:33 that, “all are alike unto God,” although out of context. Taking this scripture literally, not only would a theology of Priesthood for all believers be formulated, but it would be given to every person ever born. Ironically, this equality of station interpretation ignores the inclusion of “both bond and free” that does not speak against the implied existence of slaves. There are other problems with using the Scriptures to justify ordination of women.

All of the Scriptures used as evidence that women held the Priesthood at one time can be questioned as not so easily interpreted. One example is women as deacons:

Does not the inclusion of women as deacons, however, prove that they can hold an authoritative office? We have seen that many think that Phoebe is called a deacon in Romans 16:1. It should be noted, however, that the word diakonos, as we pointed out above, is often a general term, and thus one cannot be sure that Phoebe was a deacon. And it is very unlikely that the word prostatis (Romans 16:2) is being used to say that Phoebe was a leader, as an examination of that verse shows . . . It is highly improbable that Paul would say that Phoebe held a position of authority over him. He says that about no one except Christ, not even the Jerusalem apostles (Galatians 1:6-7, 11), so confident is he of his high authority as an apostle (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:37-38; Galatians 1:8-9; 2 Thessalonians 3:14). . . Although the related masculine noun prostates can mean “leader,” the actual feminine noun (prostatis) does not take the meaning “leader” but is defined as “protectress, patroness, helper.”

A popular notion is to include at least one woman, Junia, as an Apostle. The problem is a lack of clarity in the langauge:

Although Andronicus appears in traditional lists of the Seventy, Junia doesn’t. In addition, while the name in Romans 16:7 is probably the feminine “Junia,” it might also, for technical Greek reasons, be read as the masculine “Junias”. . .

But what, exactly, does Paul mean when he identifies Junia and Andronicus as “of note among the apostles”? Is he actually calling them apostles? (No ancient tradition identifies them as members of the Twelve.) Or is he simply explaining that the apostles think highly of them or, at least, know them well?

On this last point, a helpful discussion is “Was Junia Really an Apostle? A Re-examination of Rom 16.7” published in 2001 by Michael Burer and Daniel Wallace in the Cambridge University Press journal “New Testament Studies.” Carefully analyzing the Greek of the passage, this article concludes that it “is more naturally taken with an exclusive force rather than an inclusive one.”

In other words, Paul’s words should be understood as saying that Junia was “well known to the apostles rather than outstanding among them.”

The old Testament is not any more decisive on the matter. The woman Deborah, for example, is a prophetess and judge in Israel. This places her in a position of authority, but conditionally:

The only passage that creates any difficulty for such a supportive and complementary view of prophecy is Judges 4, where Deborah commands Barak what to do and is a judge in Israel. But there are several reasons why this is in harmony with the notion of male headship explained in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16: Deborah is a special case because she seems to be the only judge in Judges who has no military function. The other judges also lead Israel into victory in battle, but Deborah receives a word from the Lord that Barak is to do this (Judges 4:6-7). Deborah is not asserting leadership for herself; she gives priority to a man. (2) There is an implied rebuke of Barak because he is not willing to go to battle without Deborah (Judges 4:8). Because of his reluctance, the glory that day will go to a woman (Judges 4:9), but note that the woman is not Deborah but Jael (Judges 4:17ff.). In other words, Deborah did speak the word of God, but her attitude and demeanor were such that she was not asserting her leadership. Instead, she handed over the leadership, contrary to the pattern of all the other judges, to a man.

Because women were prominent Prophets, that doesn’t mean they held leadership over the Church:

Both Deborah and Huldah (2 Kings 22:14-20) exercised their gift of prophecy differently from the men who possessed the gift. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and other male prophets exercised a public ministry where they proclaimed the word of the Lord. But note that Deborah did not prophecy in public. Instead, her prophetic role seems to be limited to private and individual instruction. Judges 4:5 says, “And she used to sit under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the sons of Israel came up to her for judgment” (NASB). Note that Deborah did not go out and publicly proclaim the word of the Lord. Instead, individuals came to her in private for a word from the Lord . . . The prophetic ministry of Miriam is no exception to this, because she ministered only to women. “Then Miriam, the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her, with tambourines and dancing. Miriam sang to them …” (Exodus 15:20) . . .

Also, prophecy differs from teaching. Prophecy is based on spontaneous revelation (1 Corinthians 14:29-33a), while teaching is an exposition of received revelation. A prophet, therefore, does not hold the same office as a teacher. Prophets speak forth God’s revelation to the people, but the people go to the priests in the Old Testament to receive authoritative instruction based on tradition (Leviticus 10:11; Deuteronomy 21:5; Malachi 2:6-7). It is instructive to note in the Old Testament that some women were prophets, but never priests. It is the priests who had the more settled and established positions of leadership in Israel. This is not to deny that the Old Testament prophets spoke with great authority. Indeed, they criticized priests who abused their authority. The point is that prophecy is a different kind of gift from teaching, and when women functioned as prophets they did so with a demeanor and attitude that supported male leadership.

There is a similar lack of evidence for woman holding or some day receiving the Priesthood as the ban on Blacks. Despite the Priesthood leadership roles conferred on men, there is still a lot of authority given women. Many ancient and modern women were titled Prophetess like Deborah and Mariam. Eliza R. Snow has often been described as a Prophetess, and Emma Smith an Elect Lady of equal spiritual stature . Joseph Smith taught:

John the Revelator says that the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy [see Revelation 19:10]. Now if any man has the testimony of Jesus, has he not the spirit of prophecy? And if he has the spirit of prophecy, I ask, is he not a prophet? And if a prophet, will he not receive revelation? And any man that does not receive revelation for himself must be damned, for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy. For Christ says, ask and you shall receive; and if he happens to receive anything, I ask, will it not be a revelation? And if any man has not the testimony of Jesus or the spirit of God, he is none of his, namely Christ’s. And if not his, he must be damned.

Women can be just as inspired as any man, and clearly they must by the day of judgement. The gifts of the spirit as outlined in 1 Corinthians 12:7-11 and D&C 46:10-26 are for all members of the Church, so long as they strive to receive them in faith. Because the Lord wants to bless all His children, an organization was prepared under the guidance of Priesthood for the women. If used properly by the women and the Church as a whole, it can bring about Zion.

During construction of the temple in Nauvoo in the spring of 1842, a small group of women got together to come up with ways to help. They wanted to contribute with homemade items and giving supporting comfort to hard working men. Sarah M. Kimball, Margaret Cook, and Eliza R. Snow were among those who first gathered to decide how best to organize the efforts. Like other women’s organizations at the time, they developed bylaws and rules to follow. They met with and sought the approval of the prophet Joseph Smith who was pleased with what they wanted to accomplish. As was his ways, he took their plans and a week later had them meet to form an even better society under the Lord’s pattern. They formed what is called the Relief Society, and Joseph Smith, “suggested the propriety of electing a Presidency to continue in office during good behavior, or so long as they shall continue to fill the office with dignity like the first Presidency of the church.” The organizational structure of the Relief Society had the potential to mirror that of the main Priesthood held by the men. This does not mean they would gradually be integrated. To the contrary, their purpose was a a supporting role.

Speaking at one of the founding meetings, Joseph Smith explained the object of the Relief Society, “might provoke the brethren to good works in looking to the wants to the poor”, and “correcting the morals and strengthening the virtues,” of the females. The hope was that doing this would give the Elders more time to preach and perform other responsibilities. In essence they would be a “helpmeet” for the Church leadership. This extended to the domestic sphere of the home. The Relief Society needed to teach the women to succor and support the men in their lives and duties, “when the mind is going to despair, it needs a solace.” When Joseph Smith taught this, he probably was equally making a personal plea for his wife Emma to take care of him. He extended this request to all women. They were not to work as the men, but along with them:

Rather than organizing the Relief Society according to male priesthood rankings, Joseph divested that prerogative to Emma as part and parcel of the priesthood key he turned over to her. “If (emphasis mine) any Officers are wanted to carry out the designs of the Institution, let them be appointed and set apart, as Deacons, Teachers &c. are among us.” The Elect Lady chose not to implement the male pattern. It is very possible that Emma preferred the more horizontally orientated structures of female co-operation and friendship, to appropriating a male model dependent on verticality and hierarchy

A theme that often came up during the Relief Society organization is that the full Priesthood could not be complete without organizing the women in some form. This is not a club built to keep them out of the men’s hair. Joseph Smith said that it should, “move according to the ancient Priesthood, hence there should be a select Society separate from all the evils of the world, choice, virtuou[s] and holy— Said he was going to make of this Society a kingdom of priests an in Enoch’s day— as in Paul’s day.” At another founding meeting, Bishop Whitney explained, “In the beginning God created man male and female and bestow’d upon man certain blessings peculiar to a man of God, of which woman partook, so that without the female all things cannot be restor’d to the earth; it takes all to restore the Priesthood. It is the intent of the Society, by humility and faithfulness; in connection with those husbands that are found worthy.” The Temple is where the fullness of the Priesthood can be found, and both men a women receive the promised covenant blessings in its ordinances. When Joseph Smith turned over the keys to the Relief Society, he granted them their own holy order of equal importance to the male Priesthood it supports. Only when the Temple work was fully instituted was the proper order of the Church, for both the Priesthood and Relief Society, realized. The women may not have the keys of Church leadership, but the Spirit of the Lord should rest on them just a much.

If a woman in the Church is dissatisfied with their position, the answer is not to seek to covet what the men have. That goes against the authorized order set up since the start of the Restoration. It also uses the World’s values as a template for the Kingdom of God. The Spiritual power is already given to women in the Relief Society charge to charity and moral uprightness. President Joseph F. Smith, nephew to Joseph Smith Jr., testified it is, “divinely made, divinely authorized, divinely instituted, divinely ordained of God” (TPC: Joseph F. Smith). Perhaps over the years there has been unfortunate devaluing of this great organization. That leaves no excuse for abandoning the core mission as revealed to Joseph and Emma Smith during the first months of its development. The Lord will not ask what position a person held, but what hand in a time of grief and need.

President Thomas S. Monson added in October 2013 his testimony:

I too love Relief Society. I testify to you that it was organized by inspiration and is a vital part of the Lord’s Church here upon the earth. It would be impossible to calculate all the good which has come from this organization and all the lives which have been blessed because of it.

Relief Society is made up of a variety of women. There are those of you who are single—perhaps in school, perhaps working—yet forging a full and rich life. Some of you are busy mothers of growing children. Still others of you have lost your husbands because of divorce or death and are struggling to raise your children without the help of a husband and father. Some of you have raised your children but have realized that their need for your help is ongoing. There are many of you who have aging parents who require the loving care only you can give.

Wherever we are in life, there are times when all of us have challenges and struggles. Although they are different for each, they are common to all.

14 thoughts on “The Order of the Relief Society

  1. Alas, my knowledge of details of 1842 will forever inform my understanding of what Joseph and Emma were trying to do. It was everything they said it was. But there were other secret purposes that involved challenging the women to remain pure, and that involved giving succor to women who had previously been unable to sustain their families on their own.

    Although I don’t feel a need for women to be granted priesthood keys, I do think the early Relief Society was in some ways a more powerful entity that we have today. I think there are ways the Relief Society could support the mission of the Church that are not currently used. I think we are already seeing hints of an expanded role for Relief Society from the Church PA folks, as they responded to the issues related to Kate Kelly’s questions and eventual excommunication from the Church.

  2. I think I just figured something out that has been bothering me. More than once you refer to women, Relief Society’s purpose as to be a support for men, the Priesthood. In and of itself, this is not wrong, but to one sensitive like me due to being raised where male/priesthood authority was grossly abused, stating that our ‘only’ (inferred) purpose is as ‘servant’, ‘lesser’: supporting role inclines me to distress. How does it fit that women/daughters of God are equal if we’re only support staff?

    But then I’ve come across quotes and posts that actually indicate the equality and glory of what it means to be a mother and I think of how the whole purpose of the church is to build and strengthen families. And the woman has an incredible place of honor and responsibility in the salvation of her family through loving and teaching and holding her family together.

    So it seems to me that the problem lies not in the messages but in the division of the messages. The Priesthood is to support and enable the eternity that the women are working for. Mutual support is a no-brainer because it’s all for the same goal. History has just separated genders for so many centuries that we just don’t think of putting the sides together. It is Yin/Yang. One has little meaning without the other and so speaking of only one side of the whole will naturally leave a feeling of imbalance. Not because it is wrong. Just incomplete.

    This issue has troubled me for many months. It’s such a relief to finally see it clearly, completely. Hope you guys don’t mind my thinking out loud in the comments. 🙂

  3. Katie, if one was to read only this one post I can see where it could trouble those concerned about gender inequality in the Church. One of the reasons I wrote this series is because I feel too many members don’t understand the whole picture on the why and how of Priesthood, filtering much of it through the 21st C. ideas of power and authority while ignoring the theology. Its of much larger significance and practical application than who has what office. Men, women, and children could all be given the Priesthood, and the Church’s mission would still fail if the family disintegrated. No success can compensate for failure in the home is much more than a prophetic slogan about the dangers of working hard for a living to climb the corporate ladder.

  4. Completely separate from the matter of priesthood and Relief Society, there are at times folkways amongst Mormons that are odd.

    A couple of recent examples are:

    1) Had the missionaries over for dinner. They asked my husband what he does for a living. When my husband said he was the stay at home parent, the missionaries just clammed up. It would have been natural for them to ask what I do for a living. Then again, we got onto the subject of bugs and Mormon crickets, so perhaps they just didn’t find the occupation of the breadwinner in the family as exciting as learning about crickets getting eaten and then vomited by seagulls.

    2) Youth Conference was this weekend. At some point they separated the YW and YM and talked with each group about modesty and porn. Except they mostly told the girls to be modest and told the boys to avoid porn. I’m not rage-face about this like one denizen of my household, but in our days of 50 Shades of Grey (mostly being bought by women), it might seem a bit more appropriate to tell both YW and YM that they should avoid porn, that they should dress so as to not entice arousal, and they should learn how to say no, no matter what the provocation. Oh, and in the case of those potentially unable to enforce a “no,” a bit of training on methods to make sure “no” is understood as “NO!”

    Families do better when those entering into a relationship can actually deal with the possibility of “individual adaptation.” And families do better when they aren’t jump-started by teenage hormones or reacting to sexual wounds inflicted during youth because either gender wasn’t given *all* the tools necessary to protect their sexuality until it could appropriately be expressed in marriage.

  5. I think I would expound a little more on some things. First, when women and men are sealed in the temple, they share the Patriarchal Priesthood. Pres Packer explained this with a parable that I shared here recently:

    As with Meg, I think the original Relief Society was much more than what we have today. Today it is folded under the priesthood arm, however in Nauvoo, it was not. It had its own key(s) given by Joseph Smith. Sisters were able to anoint, bless and heal one another. They had other great things they could do then, which they cannot do today.

    This is not to say they will someday receive the Melchizedek or Aaronic Priesthood. I do not believe so. They will receive greater power in their own form of priestesshood. We are seeing this now occurring step by step, as the prophet has given greater power to the sisters in missionary work, and a greater presence at General Conference, in ward councils, etc.

    Elder Oaks noted that sisters serve in callings and as mothers with the power and authority of priesthood, even if they are not in a priesthood office.

    As I see history, Joseph Smith set up several organizations in Nauvoo that could ostensibly replace him in the long run. It also gave people power to be greater than they were. These included the Quorum of the Anointed, the Council of 50, and the Relief Society. He also gave greater power to the 12.

    When Joseph died, suddenly there was a succession crisis, because there were so many powerful organizations (including the First Presidency with Sidney Rigdon). Brigham Young and the 12 apostles had to step up quickly to establish the proper succession. Brigham saw that he would have to consolidate power in the 12, and so eliminated the Relief Society, the Quorum of Anointed and the 50, etc. This is how the Church changed dramatically between Joseph and Brigham. Joseph sought to disseminate his priesthood power and authority. Brigham saw the sudden need to consolidate it, in order to save the Church from chaos and breaking into a bunch of divided groups.

    Emma insisted that if she were to go West, she would have to be established as the Elect Lady, being the president of the RS and a member of the Quorum of the Anointed. Brigham would not allow challenges to the authority of the 12, and so the rift between the two began. It would be a decade before Brigham would allow the RS to be reorganized by Eliza R Snow, only this time with less self-autonomy and power as it had in Nauvoo.

  6. Next to the ward house of the Salt Lake City Nineteenth Ward that I attended in my early childhood sat a small brick building designated as the Relief Society building. Next to the Church but separate. As a young woman I spent many hours preparing art and craft items to be sold at an annual bazaar with the purpose of providing funds for Relief Society functions ranging from charity to paying babysitters for the meetings. Relief Society was financially independent from the ward. Many lamented the change that included Relief Society in the ward budget and brought about a closer correlation with the priesthood. The change in emphasis from spending the bulk of time on fund raising to studying doctrine was dramatic. There is a reason that couples often choose to have ring ceremonies or weddings in the Relief Society room. The room is usually decorated with a few nice prints and is quite attractive compared to other secondary meeting rooms. The seats are usually upholstered. On Sundays there are often flower arrangements on the cloth covered table next to the podium. I find it interesting that temples include a lovely dressing room especially for brides that is noticeably elegant with special decorative touches.
    If you regard treating men and women different as being sexist then this attention to feminine preferences could be decried, but I say ‘vive la difference’. I participated in ward councils both before and after the change in funding for Relief Society and it really made a difference in emphasis. Previously fund raising was a major focus of concern for the Relief Society leadership. Afterwards concerns about charity and outreach took center stage. Women are as intelligent and capable as men, or sometimes more so, but relieved of the burden of being self sufficient, Relief Society can focus on its central message: Charity Never Faileth.

  7. RAM,
    You continue to spread a falsehood about the RS founding that I thought Elder Oaks had cleared up decades ago… Keys are not bestowed upon organizations, but upon individuals. Maybe Kate Kelly will be contacted by Mark Hoffman soon, who will miraculously find a document in prison where he sits, that actually gave the keys of priesthood ordination to the relief society. Those foolish enough to believe it, will then feel vindicated.

  8. h_nu,
    Doesn’t the Quorum of the 12 collectively hold the same keys as the Prophet, but none of them hold the same keys individually? In essence when Joseph “rolled” the work onto the Q12’s shoulders isn’t that what he was doing? Transferring authority to the 12 as a body, but no particular one individually. I believe you could make the same argument about the RS, if you were so inclined.

    Although, from my view, the RS does not hold the Priesthood, but rather operates under the authority of the priesthood. The RS has always been referred to as an auxiliary to the organization of the Priesthood — as in an organization that’s sole function is to assist the Priesthood.

    Case in point, the RS, without the Priesthood could do nothing. The Priesthood, without the RS, could organize another organization with authority to do certain things.

  9. Yes, back in the day RS was a more autonomous organization, however, not every female member of the church was allowed to be a member either, and you had to pay to be in. No one ever mentions that. But, we’re not in 1842 anymore, and we should trust that RS is just the way it needs to be for 2014, and if and when changes are needed, they will be made. Presently, all women over 18 are members of the RS, for free — isn’t that more important?

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