Chapter 13: Relief Society: True Charity and Pure Religion

During 2013, LDS members will be studying the latest manual published by their church, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow. We will evaluate this book regularly, chapter by chapter, by showing interesting quotes and providing an Evangelical Christian take on this manual. The text that is underlined is from the manual, with our comments following.


Teachings of Lorenzo Snow

Members of the Relief Society exemplify true charity and pure religion.

The Relief Society was organized … by the Prophet Joseph Smith, under the inspiration of the Lord. … Today it is recognized as one of the most powerful forces for good in the Church. …

The first president of the Relief Society was Joseph’s wife, Emma, who was known as “the Elect Lady” and unanimously chosen for the top office by the initial 27 members of the “Female Relief Society of Nauvoo” on March 17, 1842. Unbeknownst to Emma, though, the Society had a number of women who were secretly married to her husband. In the book Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, 2nd ed. (Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, University of Illinois Press, 1994) the two LDS authors explain in detail how Joseph kept his marriages to these other women secret. On page 108, they describe the Society’s second meeting:

“Emma reported that a young woman, Clarissa Marvel, ‘was accused of [telling] scandalous falsehoods on the character of Prest. Joseph Smith without the least provocation,’ and asked that ‘they would in wisdom, adopt some plan to bring her to repentance.’ She continued, ‘I presume that most of [you] know more about Clarissa Marvel than I.’ There must have been silent consternation among a few in the group who were privy to the teaching of celestial marriage. Joseph’s plural wife Louisa Beaman sat in the meeting as did Sarah Peake Noon and Vilate Kimball. Did Emma know that her husband had approached some women and asked them to become his plural wives?” (p. 108)

According to the authors,

“as previous interviews with [Clarissa Marvel] seemed to prove her innocent, Sarah Cleveland moved that Elizabeth Durfee and Elizabeth Allred should investigate whoever had reported her. Unbeknown to Emma, Joseph had already taught these older women the principles of plural marriage. Sometimes referred to a ‘Mothers in Israel,’ they assisted Joseph by contacting women, explaining the new order of marriage to them, and occasionally delivering marriage proposals. Thus Mrs. Durfee was uncomfortably caught between her role as Joseph’s emissary and her assignment to investigate Clarissa Marvel.” (p. 109)

Emma closed the issue, telling “the women that the ‘disagreeable business of searching out those who were iniquitous seemed to fall on her.’ Emma obviously did not know that her widowed sister-in-law, Agnes Coolbrith Smith, had become a plural wife of Joseph.” (p. 110)

In 1842, Joseph was on a campaign to recruit wives. It didn’t matter if they were married to other men or were teenagers; he appeared to be very flexible.  In April 1842, he asked his friend Sidney Rigdon’s 19-year-old daughter Nancy for her hand in marriage. Competing with another suitor, Dr. John C. Bennett (who had a wife and children in another state), Smith wrote a letter to Nancy (who had initially spurned Smith’s advances), saying, “Happiness is the object and design of our existence. . . . That which is wrong under one circumstance , may be, and often is, right under another. . . . Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.” (p. 111) When confronted by Nancy’s father, Smith lied by claiming that he was only “testing [Nancy’s] virtue.”

Joseph had an active role in instructing the women in the Relief Socity.

“At the April 28 meeting Joseph counseled the women—and not incidentally his wife—how to treat a husband. ‘Let this Society teach how to act towards husbands, to treat them with mildness and affection. . . . If there was a pointed message for Emma, within twenty-four hours she forgot about mildness and long-suffering. Someone apparently told her about Joseph’s involvement in plural marriage.” (pp. 113-114)

When Emma asked Joseph about the stories that

“were being circulated among the women concerning such a doctrine being taught, and that he had told her to tell the sisters of the society that if any man, no matter who he was, undertook to talk such stuff to them in their houses, just to order him out at once, and if he did not go immediately, to take the tongs or the broom and drive him out, for the whole idea was absolutely false and the doctrine an evil and unlawful thing.” (p. 114)

Because Emma trusted her husband, she “’exhorted all who had erred to repent and forsake their sins—said that Satan’s forces were against this church—that every Saint should be at the post. The speech must have confused those women already initiated into plural marriage.” (p. 115) In fact, “almost certainly Emma was not aware that both her secretary and her counselor in the Relief Society had become Joseph’s plural wives” (p. 119) The authors add, “While women who became Joseph’s wives were able to accept the principle of plural marriage as revelation form God, they still had to grapple silently and alone with their betrayal of Emma. To live as a secret wife to a friend’s husband demanded evasion, subterfuge, and deception. For these sincerely devout and faithful women, their duplicity regarding Emma must have prompted guilt and anxiety.” (p. 120)

In the late spring of 1843, Emma finally decided to compromise with the doctrine of plural marriage, allowing her husband to marry other women. Her condition? She wanted to be able to choose his other wives.

“Any of Joseph’s other wives, who by now numbered at least sixteen, would have been more comfortable if they had had Emma’s approval. Emma chose the two sets of sisters then living in her house, Emily and Eliza Partridge and Sarah and Maria Lawrence. Joseph had finally converted Emma to plural marriage, but not so fully that he dared tell her he had married the Partridge sisters two months earlier. Emily said that ‘to save family trouble Brother Joseph thought it best to have another ceremony performed. . . . [Emma] had her feelings, and so we thought there was no use in saying anything about it so long as she had chosen us herself.’” (pp. 142-143)

What many Mormons may not know is that, after the foundation of the Relief Society, it had been disbanded, thanks especially to the controversy over polygamy. Brigham Young did not allow it to return to existence until 1867. Brigham had remarked,

“. . . relative to things in which any of our Sisters have been engaged they have no right to meddle in the affairs of the kingdom of God. . . the(y) never can hold the keys of the Priesthood apart from their husbands. When I want Sisters or the Wives of the members of the church to get up Relief Society I will summon them to my aid but until that time let them stay at home & if you see Females huddling together veto the concern and if they say Joseph started in tell them it is a damned lie for I know he never encouraged it. . . .’ The Relief Society would not organize again under church direction until Brigham Young called Eliza R. Snow to be president in 1867.” (pp. 352-3)

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. Its basis is true charity, which is the pure love of Christ [see Moroni 7:47], and that spirit has been manifested in all the ministrations of the Society among the people. The Apostle James said that “pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this: To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” [James 1:27.] 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 can testify that there are no purer and more God-fearing women in the world than are to be found within the ranks of the Relief Society.

The women who were married to Joseph Smith kept their secret hidden from Emma. Were these some of the “purer and more God-fearing women in the world” to whom President Snow refers?

Relief Society sisters work with priesthood holders to advance the interests of the kingdom of God.

It has always been a source of pleasure to me to notice how faithfully you sisters of the Relief Society have stood by the servants of the Lord under all circumstances. You have ever been found at the side of the Priesthood, ready to strengthen their hands and to do your part in helping to advance the interests of the kingdom of God; and as you have shared in these labors, so you will most certainly share in the triumph of the work and in the exaltation and glory which the Lord will give to His faithful children.

Female Latter-day Saints are unable to attain the prize in Mormonism, called the Celestial Kingdom, without the authority of their husbands. According to First Presidency member Charles W. Penrose,

“In the resurrection, they stand side by side and hold dominion together. Every man who overcomes all things and is thereby en­titled to inherit all things, receives power to bring up his wife to join him in the possession and enjoyment thereof” (Mormon Doctrine Plain and Simple, p. 51).

Penrose also explained,

“When a woman is sealed to a man holding the Priesthood, she becomes one with him. Sometimes the man is the one and some­times he is not, but she receives blessings in association with him. The glory and power and dominion that he will exercise when he has the fulness of the Priesthood and becomes a ‘king and a priest unto God,’ she will share with him. Sisters have said to me sometimes. ‘But, I hold the Priesthood with my husband.’ ‘Well,’ I asked, ‘what office do you hold in the Priesthood?’ Then they could not say much more. The sisters are not ordained to any of­fice in the Priesthood and there is authority in the Church which they cannot exercise; it does not belong to them; they cannot do that properly any more than they can change themselves into a man. Now, sisters, do not take the idea that I wish to convey that you have no blessings or authority or power belonging to the Priesthood. When you are sealed to a man of God who holds it and who, by overcoming, inherits the fulness of the glory of God, you will share that with him if you are fit for it, and I guess you will be.” (Conference Reports, April 1921, p. 198)

Consider what Apostle Erastus Snow said about women in the church:

“Do you uphold your husband before God as your lord? ‘What!— my husband to be my lord?’ I ask, Can you get into the celestial kingdom without him? Have any of you been there? You will re­member that you never got into the celestial kingdom without the aid of your husband. If you did, it was because your husband was away, and some one had to act proxy for him. No woman will get into the celestial kingdom, except her husband receives her, if she is worthy to have a husband; and if not, somebody will receive her as a servant.” (October 4, 1857, Journal of Discourses 5:291)

Twelfth President Spencer Kimball wrote,

“Priesthood is the means to exaltation. The priesthood is the pow­er and authority of God delegated to man on earth to act in all things pertaining to the salvation of men. It is the means whereby the Lord acts through men to save souls. Without this priesthood power, men are lost. Only through this power does man ‘hold the keys of all the spiritual blessings of the church,’ enabling him to receive ‘the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, to have the heav­ens opened’ unto him (see D&C 107:18-19), enabling him to en­ter the new and everlasting covenant of marriage and to have his wife and children bound to him in an everlasting tie, enabling him to become a patriarch to his posterity forever, and enabling him to receive a fullness of the blessings of the Lord.” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 494)

The Bible, however, says in 1 Peter2:9 that all people have access to the “royal priesthood.” In Galatians 3:26-29, Paul writes,

“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

Thus, all are equal before God, regardless of a person’s age or sex. There will be no chance to rest upon the laurels of any other person after death. Having to depend on another human for eternal life is not a biblical teaching and ought to be rejected.

I feel to say, God bless the officers and members of the Relief Society. You are performing a grand mission, and I would exhort you to not weary in well doing [see D&C 64:33]. We are all aiming for celestial glory, and the grandeur of the prospects before us cannot be expressed in human language. If you will continue faithful to the work in which you are engaged, you will attain unto this glory, and rejoice evermore in the presence of God and the Lamb. This is worth striving for; it is worth sacrificing for, and blessed is the man or woman who is faithful unto the obtaining of it. God bless you all.

To attain the Celestial Kingdom that President Snow promises here, a woman must:

  • Be married in the temple
  • Have a husband who remains faithful throughout life
  • Both husband and wife are required to live a celestial law.

As written in many other chapter reviews, attaining the Celestial Kingdom is an impossible gospel.


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