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RS/MP Lesson 39: “Relief Society: Divine Organization of Women” (Joseph Smith Manual)

Posted by joespencer on July 14, 2009

I fear and tremble a bit before this lesson, on the one hand because, as a male, I worry about how whatever I have to say about it might be taken, and on the other hand because the circumstances surrounding the setting up of the Relief Society in 1842 are much more complicated than the lesson itself lets on, and that makes my task a rather difficult (if not indeed controversial) one. That said, let me try to say something helpful about this lesson.

From the Life of Joseph Smith

The introductory part of the lesson provides a nice synopsis of the original formation of the society: Sarah Granger Kimball and Margaret A. Cook decided to create a charity society. But this took a very different direction when the plan came before Joseph Smith. His response, according to a very late reminiscence, was: “This is not what you want. Tell the sisters their offering is accepted of the Lord, and he has something better for them than a written Constitution.” (p. 449) I don’t know how accurately Sister Kimball remembered the occasion, but the words are significant: Joseph seems indeed to have wanted to replace the “written Constitution” with a living constitution.

Here I should quote from Maureen Ursenbach Beecher: “The society, [Joseph Smith] then instructed, should operate not according to a single written document but on the double base of precedent and present circumstance. ‘The minutes of your meetings will be precedents for you to act upon—your Constitution and law,’ he said at their organizational meeting. He also enjoined what he termed elsewhere a ‘living constitution’: ‘Let this presidency serve as a constitution—all their decisions be considered law; and acted upon as such,’ he said.” (Dialogue 21.4, p. 75; she is quoting the RS minutes of 17 March 1842) That Joseph wanted to organize the women into a “living constitution” is quite significant. In the same years, Joseph would organize the Council of Fifty, which he also referred to as a “living constitution.” He seems to have been creating two “living constitutions” side by side, one male and one female.

The occasion, as page 450 makes clear, allowed Joseph to resurrect D&C 25, a text that had in many ways gone completely neglected. The idea of Emma’s being an “elect lady” was redefined (or perhaps clarified) as she was designated the president of an organization to be structured parallel to the priesthood, and the “living constitution” was moving. The timing for all of this was incredibly significant. Joseph would spend the next few weeks translating much of the Book of Abraham, parts dealing in important ways with the complex relationship between the sexes. A few weeks later, he would begin administering the endowment, which would become intertwined with the sealing ordinance quite quickly. It would not be long before prayer circles were organized in which endowed couples would meet. And, of course, surrounding all of this was plural marriage, which had a complex relationship with the society.

What is clear, at the very least, is that Joseph Smith saw the Relief Society as profoundly intertwined with the ordinances and institutions then being revealed. It is quite clearly for this reason that he met with the Relief Society so often himself to offer instructions. Most of the remainder of this lesson is taken from those instructions.

The Relief Society, organized under the priesthood and after its pattern, is an essential part of the Church.

Much of this first section reinforces what I’ve already tried to suggest historically above. For example, the first paragraph (on page 451): “I will organize the women under the priesthood after the pattern of the priesthood. . . . The Church was never perfectly organized until the women were thus organized.” Or again, in the fourth paragraph (on the same page): “If this Society listen to the counsel of the Almighty, through the heads of the Church, they shall have power to command queens in their midst.”

Most striking, of course, is the fifth or last paragraph in the second (also on page 451), which I’m quite pleased to see has been copied over directly from the original minutes, rather than placed in the lesson in the altered fashion in which it appears in the History of the Church: “This Society is to get instruction through the order which God has established—through the medium of those appointed to lead—and I now turn the key to you in the name of God, and this Society shall rejoice, and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time—this is the beginning of better days to this Society.” (Emphases are added.)

Much can be said about this passage. This was altered when it was inserted in the History of the Church so that it read: “and I now turn the key in your behalf,” likely because there was a concern that the passage would be interpreted to suggest that Joseph had given the priesthood to the Relief Society. So, what is happening here?

I don’t think it is ultimately justifiable to suggest that Joseph was here giving what we usually call “the priesthood” to the Relief Society. But it is quite clear that he was handing over certain keys. The full quotation makes it doubly clear what key in particular was turned over: the key of “instruction.” The Relief Society was to become an organization of divine instruction, but that instruction was to be gotten “through the order which God has established,” namely, “through the medium of those appointed to lead.” This seems to have been a direction to the Relief Society as a whole to keep themselves focused on the presidency of the Relief Society (take a look at the second paragraph of this section: it is clear that the very existence of a presidency in the Relief Society was part of its being established as a parallel to the priesthood), to whom Joseph then delivered the key necessary to allow such instruction. This is clear again from the last part of the quotation: “knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time.”

Now, the question is whether this key of knowledge and intelligence, this key pertaining to instruction that essentially structured the Relief Society parallel to the priesthood, is a key of the priesthood. And the answer has to be: if it is a key of the priesthood, then we have to rethink the nature of the priesthood quite drastically. Joseph does not seem to have “conferred” any particular priesthood on any of the sisters. He doesn’t seem to have “ordained” any of them to any particular priesthood office (as those offices are laid out in the D&C). And yet it is clear from the revelations generally that the question of receiving intelligence, etc., is in part a question of the priesthood. So if whatever is happening here amounts to a kind of priesthood authorization, it can only be said to be according to a priesthood that is higher or other than the priesthood that officiates in the day to day affairs (whether temporal or spiritual) in the Church. It would have to be the kind of priesthood that officiates in the temple, where women are prepared to become, according to Joseph, queens and priestesses as much as men are prepared to become kings and priests.

At any rate, this much is clear—and this much is vital—Joseph seems to have had the intention to give the women to pursue the purposes of the kingdom in a way that is ultimately distinct from the one the men pursue. The priesthood and the Relief Society were to work together, in tandem, and they had distinct purposes.

In part—but only in part—this seems to have been a question of the Relief Society’s charge for charitable action. Of course the priesthood has something of a similar charge, but the teachings in the next section single out the unique role the Relief Society has in the work of charity.

The Relief Society enables women to act according to their benevolent natures, giving care to those in need.

The most striking teaching in this next section, in my opinion, comes in its second paragraph (the first full paragraph on page 452): “Said Jesus, ‘Ye shall do the work, which ye see me do.’ These are the grand key-words for the society to act upon.” (Emphasis added here.) Whatever should ultimately be said about the charitable purposes of the Relief Society, it is clear that Joseph saw it as something quite drastic. What marks this point so dramatically is the fact that Joseph makes this question of charity something parallel to the priesthood. The explanation of the second facsimile of the Book of Abraham uses the same phrase used here, though as a question of the priesthood: the figure in question represents “the grand Key-words of the Holy Priesthood, as revealed to Adam in the Garden of Eden, as also to Seth, Noah, Melchizedek, Abraham, and all to whom the Priesthood was revealed.” Just as the priesthood has its “grand Key-words,” which are crucial to one’s exaltation, the parallel “priestesshood-of-sorts” that is the Relief Society has its “grand key-words.” I can only begin to wonder at what Joseph meant when he said this. For the most part, I want to leave it to the sisters to sort out its meaning, because I think it is absolutely vital for them, whatever it means.

Most of the remainder of this section speaks for itself. Joseph commends the “natural” charity the women bear, and urges them to use it. It is certainly important that he tells them to “provoke the brethren to good works” and “to assist by correcting the morals and strengthening the virtues of the community.” (P. 452) Whatever the relationship between the women and the men as Joseph envisioned it, it clearly wasn’t unilateral.

But I want to get on to the next section, which opens with Joseph’s trying to get beyond the oversimplification of the Relief Society as a mere charity institution: “The Ladies’ Relief Society is not only to relieve the poor, but to save souls.” (P. 453)

The Relief Society encourages women to practice holiness and to instruct one another.

Unfortunately, this section of the lesson is relatively short, and the teachings that make it up are not overwhelming. Indeed, the opening one-sentence teaching is the most striking: “The Ladies’ Relief Society is not only to relieve the poor, but to save souls.” (P. 453) Again one finds Joseph calling the sisters to “stimulate the Elders to good works” as before. (P. 453) And one finds Joseph beautifully telling the women that, if they “live up to [their] privileges, the angels cannot be restrained from being [their] associates” and “they . . . can come in the presence of God” (again note the resonances of the priesthood: the women have something like the keys of the ministering of angels, and something like the keys of parting the veil to commune with the general assembly and Church of the Firstborn, etc.). (P. 454)

But I’ll focus just briefly on the teaching that straddles pages 453-454: “President Joseph Smith read the revelation to Emma Smith, from the book of Doctrine and Covenants [D&C 25]; and stated that she was . . . to expound the scriptures to all; and to teach the female part of the community; and that not she alone, but others, may attain to the same blessings.” This, I think, captures the essence of what it means to “save souls,” whether in a female or a male setting: it is to expound the scriptures, and to do it to all, without respect for the distinctions the world draws.

What strikes me about all this is that it would seem to be specifically in expounding scripture that the difference between women and men—“sexual difference”—takes hold: Emma was “to expound the scriptures to all; and to teach the female part of the community.” There is, I think, something rich in all this that needs to be unearthed, though I don’t think I have the space to do it here.

Let me, then, wrap things up by offering a few brief comments on the last section of the lesson.

The Relief Society encourages women to follow the example of the Savior in showing mercy and avoiding strife.

The last section of the lesson deals, to put it a bit frankly, with the unfortunate tendency of the tongue. Whether Joseph was justified in being concerned about this specifically is something I leave for others to decide.

I’ll just quote the relevant phrases:

“Sisters of the society, shall there be strife among you? I will not have it. You must repent, and get the love of God. Away with self-righteousness.” (P. 454)

“Put a double watch of the tongue: no organized body can exist without this at all.” (P. 455)

“Search yourselves—the tongue is an unruly member—hold your tongues about things of no moment—a little tale will set the world on fire.” (P. 455)

“If you have evil feelings, and speak of them to one another, it has a tendency to do mischief.” (P. 455)

“Do not injure the character of anyone. If members of the Society shall conduct themselves improperly, deal with them, and keep all your doings within your own bosoms, and hold all characters sacred.” (P. 455)

Might we all observe such restraint!

8 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 39: “Relief Society: Divine Organization of Women” (Joseph Smith Manual)”

  1. Kristine said

    One of the things I really like about JS’ counsel to the women is that he takes their sins seriously. In the contemporary church, there’s some felt need to put women on the proverbial pedestal and to talk soothingly to them in terms that will make them feel better about themselves. Of course, putting someone on a pedestal is often just the nicest way to tell them to shut up, and telling someone they’re too “naturally spiritual” to seriously sin deprives them of the power of their agency. I like it that Joseph takes stereotypically feminine sins of gossip and a too-narrow view of their responsibilities seriously enough to rebuke them.

  2. joespencer said

    Kristine, thanks for saying this. As a male, I worry about the response I would get if I were to say exactly what you said. Perhaps this means that I’ve got a ways to go before I am at all like Joseph. But I appreciate Joseph’s words in the last part of this lesson for the very same reasons you mention.

  3. Kristine said

    Yeah, Joe, you’re right to be worried. Even as a female, I’m not sure how bold I’d be about saying it in RS. Actually, I probably would say it, which is exactly why I don’t get asked to teach :)

  4. mle said

    I enjoyed your comments and would love for you to enlighten us on what you wanted to unearth in the “expounding scripture” portion. Regarding the comments on the last section — from another female perspective — this last section really bothered me when I first read it. Yes, I was mad. Women are frequently get labeled as gossipers, and back biters. I dislike the stereotypes as much as the pedestal! After the first read through I felt like this was a cheap shot – even if the prophet said it, why is that the closing focus of the lesson? I imagined the chuckles in the men’s quorums about the busy bodies in Relief Society. I was able to swallow it better in light of the service that Relief Society provides. At times information about a situation needs to be shared in order to be able to serve best. So, naturally, information is passed. I can understand or justify the caution in that context, to protect the character of those being served and whose information is shared. But regarding taming the tongue, speaking ill of others, saying hurtful/mean things, casting stones – I do not believe this exclusively a female weakness. Maybe this is why it is included in a manual for both men and women??

  5. joespencer said


    In a moment, I’ll offer a few words on “expounding scripture.” First, though, let me offer a few other thoughts on the gossip question.

    Yesterday, after reading your comments, I went to the elders quorum where I’m visiting (I’m out of town for a couple weeks), and the lesson was this one on Relief Society. So I found myself, because I had read your comments so recently, watching specifically for the teacher’s approach to the question of gossip, etc. Interestingly, the instructor entirely skipped the issue, something that seems to have derived from his rather progressive nature. But because I was so, let us say, attuned to the question, I had at least one insight that seems important to me.

    Might we say that Joseph Smith is here (at least in the way the lesson has been arranged, but really in a still broader sense, given that all the teachings I’m about to cite come from his addresses to the Relief Society) suggesting that gossip and charity are somehow connected? That is, whatever it is that impels one to get involved with others, to break with one’s own interests in a compassionate attempt to better the situation others face, is the same thing that can, under temptation, become an overinvolvement in the affairs of others, leading to gossip and the like. In other words, might it be that charity and gossip are the positive and negative versions of what Joseph describes as women’s naturally benevolent nature?

    Again, I fear and tremble to make such comments because I’m conscious of and very resistant to patriarchy as such, but I think there’s something important here. In essence, I see Joseph suggesting that, as is always the case, one’s weakness is one’s strength: the propensity to gossip is the weakness that should be recognized as the strength of being interested enough in others’ welfare to do something charitable. That Joseph doesn’t here dwell on the particular weakness and its associated strength tied to the male sex doesn’t mean that he doesn’t see one—indeed, his comments on that weakness-and-strength ended up being canonized! (See D&C 121:34-46, of course.)

    Anyway, I think it is something like this that I saw in Kristine’s comment. Joseph might be much more progressive and productive here than it is too easy to give him credit for.

    But setting all of that aside, I want to respond to your request for something more about expounding scripture. Let me do it in a separate comment.

    • jlq said

      Here is a great conference talk supporting your idea that gossip and charity are connected. It is “The Tongue Can Be a Sharp Sword” by Marvin J. Ashton, Ensign May 1992.

    • CEH said

      Years ago while researching a paper for a graduate class I happened upon a MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) study that addressed how men and women solved problems. The basic premise was to determine whether each addressed problem solving based on logic or emotion. While you may think the result is obvious, the fact is that few of us make decisions based solely on logic or emotion. The tendancy is that men generally depend more heavily on logic, and women on emotion. For instance a given man may weigh his decision based 60% on Logic and 4o% on emotion, whereas a given woman may base her decision 60% on emotion and 40% on logic. While this is enough to generalize that women make decisions based on emotion, there is more to the story. Some women make decisions more based on logic (like the majority of men) and some men make decisions more based on emotion (like the majority of women). As I recall, the result is that you can say (for instance) that perhaps 35% of the women make decisions based on criteria similar to that used by 65% of the men, and vice versa.
      So what does this have to do with anything? Well, if a family has the primary breadwinner umemployed, for instance, the men (quorum leaders) are more likely to look at the facts (is there enough to eat, is the house warm, do the kids have coats) and the women are more likely to look at the emotional issues (how is this affecting the family, marriage relationship, self esteem, etc). When you begin to delve into these emotional issues there is a greater liklihood to start talking about personal issues that can lead to “gossip”. Using the same criteria as above, you could also infer that 65% of women may have a greater tendency toward gossip where 35% of men are likely to be strongly tended toward gossip. In my observations, I think this is a valid appraisal. The result is that some of us need to guard firmly against gossip, while others are less tempted. None of us, male or female, is entirely immune.

  6. joespencer said

    Okay, “expounding scripture.” But let me warn you that because what follows is extremely speculative, overly philosophical, remarkably pedantic, and perhaps entirely wrongheaded, it might well be taken as reason to regard me as a nincompoop.

    In the Proclamation to the World on the family, the Brethren have (somewhat controversially, though I find the proposition fascinating and immensely productive) announced that gender is eternal. I don’t think that we as Latter-day Saints have really begun to grapple with that claim. If gender is eternal, then it is not something merely biological (as it is assumed to be as much in psychoanalysis as in biology). Nor again is it something merely cultural or sociological (as it is assumed in most of the rest of academia). If gender is eternal, then it has to be something effectively spiritual, perhaps (since Joseph Smith said that it is the “mind” that is as eternal as God) mental. One might even suggest that the biology and the sociology—to some extent, though obviously not completely!—follow from the spiritual reality of gender.

    Now, I’m not at all sure what this really means, but I think it is worth thinking carefully about this possibility: gender is a question of thought.

    Could it be that what ultimately marks sexual difference is an actual distinction between ways of thinking? Of course I recognize that there is a significant way in which biology affects thinking, and of course I recognize that there is a very significant way in which culture and situation affect thinking, but I wonder if, beneath these merely accidental effects of one’s situatedness, there isn’t a still more foundational distinction between feminine and masculine thinking.

    Now—and this is vital—if I am going to suggest that this is the case, we have to bracket biological and cultural questions, which means that the difference between ways of thinking can’t be reduced to questions of biology (women think in maternal ways, etc.) or culture (women are more “feminine” than men, etc.). These would have to be subtracted from the question.

    All that said, how does one proceed? I’m not entirely sure. And I don’t at all pretend even to have really taken the first step in the direction of coming up with answers to the questions I’m trying to raise here. (Indeed, the only thinker I’ve come across who seems to me at least to provided anything like an answer to this question, while bracketing both biology and culture, is Alain Badiou in his provocative “What Is Love?”) But I do want to raise one possibility for a pathway of inquiry: if sexual difference is rooted in a difference of thought, then it is in thinking that the difference can be discovered. This means, I think: sexual difference will be uncovered when two genders address their thought to the same material reality—and scripture seems to me to be an ideal “material reality” here. In fact, I think scripture might be privileged here because it might be said, through its canonicity, to be subtracted precisely from biological and cultural questions. At any rate, it can be thought as such, and it seems to me that the scriptures themselves call for such a subtractive thinking of scripture.

    All of that said, I want to play around with the possibility that it is specifically in expounding scripture that eternal sexual difference can ultimately be uncovered. I certainly find that it is in the drastically emancipatory work of reading scripture with my wife—an experience in which every kind of hierarchy is leveled when we give ourselves without reserve to the text—that we most experience the (eternal?) difference between us, and it is the rediscovery again and again of that difference that is the very marrow of our love.

    Or something like that. At any rate, I’m only playing around with philosophical possibilities here, and mostly in a realm that has not yet really been touched. So my apologies again for it all.

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