RS/MP Chapter 13: Relief Society: True Charity and Pure Religion (Lorenzo Snow Manual)
Posted by Robert C. on July 5, 2013
I’m really excited to teach this lesson. I find the topic deeply therapeutic. The strains and tensions of Mormon gender relations have recently been common topics in certain Mormon circles (esp. across the Bloggernacle). In that light, the idea of teaching the Priesthood about the Relief Society (RS), and its core focus on humanitarian service, strikes me as deliciously ironic (though, “irony” isn’t quite the right term here) and subversive. I’ll try to explain what I mean as I go.
President Snow baldly proclaims on page 169,
The mission of the Relief Society is to succor the distressed, to minister to the sick and feeble, to feed the poor, to clothe the naked, and to bless all the sons and daughters of God. No institution was ever founded with a nobler aim.
Back in 2009, there was an announcement that a fourth mission would be officially added to the current three. That is, in addition to perfecting the saints, proclaiming the gospel, and redeeming the dead, a fourth mission was to be added “to care for the poor and needy.” I don’t believe this intention to make this a fourth mission has been formally carried out. I hope more of this will be made at some point in time, but suffice it to say that I think Pres. Snow’s words, being studied at this particular point in time, are provocative. Less cryptically, here’s my thought: if the Church’s priesthood leaders were to declare a fourth mission, which very closely aligns with the RS, I wonder if there isn’t an important sense in which this wouldn’t be overstepping the boundaries that properly belong to the RS. I won’t elaborate on this thought much more, because I think it distracts from the main thrust of the lesson. But suffice it to say that I think we male priesthood holders in the Church should think quite carefully about how we can support the RS, and follow the example of the RS, in caring for the poor and the needy, arguably the most important work to which we are called as disciples of Christ.
Pres. Snow continues on page 169, after reading in James that pure religion is visiting the fatherless and widows,
Accepting that as true, the members of the Relief Society have most surely exemplified in their lives pure and undefiled religion; for they have ministered to those in affliction, they have thrown their arms of love around the fatherless and the widows, and they have kept themselves unspotted from the world.
I think it’s important that Pres. Snow’s words here be understood as being perfectly sincere. As I read this, it isn’t Pres. Snow putting the RS on a pedestal, so-to-speak. Rather, it’s a kind of acknowledgment that gender roles have historically evolved in such a way that women have ultimately played a greater role in building the Kingdom of God, and not just because of the role women play as mothers, but because of the RS’s ability to fulfill this crucial work of pure religion. (And, in this sense, I would suggest that this work of pure religion is ultimately more important than the three-fold institutional responsibilities of the Church. That is, I’m inclined to think that caring for the poor and needy is a higher calling than the other 3 missions, but the Church-as-institution has a particular responsibility to see to these other three missions because caring for the poor and needy is a kind of ubiquitous calling that all Christians are peculiarly called to….)
Consider the first suggested question for this lesson, on page 172:
President Snow declared that it would be difficult to imagine the progress of the work of the Lord without the women of the Church (page 167). In what ways do women contribute to the work of the Lord today?
I am very grateful for the peculiar Mormon characteristics of women that I have experienced in my life. I have seen tremendous examples, among my grandparents, and aunts, and my own mother, of strong women who have enough self-confidence to devote themselves to serving others in a genuine, sincere, and whole-hearted way. These women have ultimately been more Christ-like than any of the male examples I’ve seen. Also, compared to these self-confident, strong, and selfless examples of service, I am deeply dismayed by the contrast in values I see espoused in the culture more broadly.
Don’t get me wrong, I think sexism is an important and deep problem in our culture, Mormonism and otherwise. But I also think that focusing on sexism can be a distraction from focusing on higher callings and higher values, and on the numerous examples we have in Mormon culture and history to look toward for inspiration and guidance.
In what ways do women contribute to the work of the Lord? I do research on economic and business organizations, and men have had disproportionate influence in leading these kinds of organizations. But these organizations are typically run for the purpose of obtaining profit and/or power. Women, on the other hand, have had disproportionate influence in charitable organizations, including formal non-profits as well as informal networks of care. In my experience, the Spirit of God is seldom found in the more common, formal, for-profit organizations, but found much more frequently in these informal organizations that are much more attuned to caring for others and being mindful of the unfortunate and marginalized in society. This is how I see women contributing to the work of the Lord.
In this sense, I think of motherhood is very important, but more as a metaphorical calling than simply a literal one. Nurturing/succoring is perhaps the single most important work that Christians are called to, whether male or female, and in our modern competitive global economy, this work of nurturing/succoring doesn’t pay very well, at least by worldly standards. But against worldly organizations, and even against the often bureaucratic demands of the institutional priesthood and Chruch, the RS stands in sharp relief, focused exclusively on caring for the needy, wherever they might be found.
This, to me, is perhaps the greatest beacon of light that Mormonism has to offer the lone and dreary world that we moderns find ourselves in. And, because of this, I enthusiastically echo Pres. Snow’s words, “Thank God for the women of this Church!” (p. 167)
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