In the last post (Part 4) we discussed how the Keys of the Church have been given to all of us (including women).
That may sound strange. But it should not be surprising or controversial when it was done way back in 1842 by Joseph Smith.
So this is not really something "new."
A Vision of Eden
One of the things Joseph Smith tried to restore during the Nauvoo period was a fuller vision for female authority.
I guess we've dropped the ball somewhere along the line. At the beginning of the Restoration, the windows of heaven parted, filling the new dispensation with knowledge and revelation and truth. But it seems harder, now, to imagine the marvelous work and wonderful destiny God had in store for all of us, including his daughters.
At the first meeting of the Relief Society, Emma Smith stood up and prophesied to the sisters, "We are going to do something extraordinary."
Has that prophecy been fulfilled?
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On March 17, 1842 Joseph Smith organized the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo.
I want to take a close look at the minutes they kept of their initial meetings so we can get a glimpse at was happening at the outset.
The quotes, below, are taken from the Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, 17 Mar. 1842–16 Mar. 1844; and can be read online at the Joseph Smith Papers, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/transcript/nauvoo-relief-society-minute-book.
Beginning of the Relief Society
Let's start at the very beginning (a very good place to start). When you read you begin with A-B-C; when you preside you begin with priesthood keys, do-re-mi.
In the King Follett discourse, Joseph Smith said, "If we start right, it is easy to go right all the time; but if we start wrong we may go wrong, and it will be a hard matter to get right."
Did the Relief Society "start right?"
March 17, 1842
At their inaugural meeting, the minutes record:
[Joseph] propos’d that the Sisters elect a presiding officer to preside over them, and let that presiding officer choose two Counsellors to assist in the duties of her Office— that he would ordain them to preside over the Society— and let them preside just as the Presidency, preside over the church; and if they need his instruction— ask him, he will give it from time to time.
Well, what did we learn from this?
1. The relief society president was to be elected by the members of the Society (all women).
2. The relief society president was to hold an "Office."
3. The female president was to be "ordained."
4. The Relief Society Presidency was to preside "just as the [First] Presidency" did over the church.
If number 4 sounds weird, then this elaboration may help:
[Joseph] then 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 &c. like the first Presidency of the church.
So the Relief Society Presidency was supposed to be "like the first Presidency" for women.
5. This is demonstrated by the fact that Joseph explicitly limited his role to giving them "instruction" when the women asked for it.
President Smith read the Revelation to Emma Smith, from the book of Doctrine and Covenants [Section 25]; and stated that she was ordain’d at the time, the Revelation was given, to expound the scriptures to all.
6. Emma's ordination occurred by "Revelation" from God.
7. What was her ordination for? Well, her office was "to expound the scriptures to all."
Whatever the majority of the house decide upon becomes a law to the Society.
8.What were the governing laws of the Relief Society? Whatever the members voted upon and decided themselves.
March 31, 1842
A couple of weeks after their first meeting, the newly constituted Relief Society met again.
[Joseph Smith said] all must act in concert or nothing can be done . . . Said he was going to make of this Society a kingdom of priests a[s] in Enoch’s day.
9. Do people need the priesthood to be "priests?"
April 28, 1842
[Joseph Smith said] the church is not now organiz’d in its proper order, and cannot be until the Temple is completed . . . He ask’d the Society if they could not see by this sweeping stroke, that wherein they are ordaind, it is the privilege of those set apart to administer in that authority which is confer’d on them — and if the sisters should have faith to heal the sick, let all hold their tongues, and let every thing roll on.
10. What authority to "administer" was Joseph referring to?
What Joseph says next is fascinating. After telling them, "Who knows the mind of God? Does he not reveal things differently from what we expect?", Joseph proclaimed:
He spoke of delivering the keys to this Society and to the church — that according to his prayers God had appointed him elsewhere . . . .
Did Joseph Turn the Key?
At the Relief Society meeting on April 28, 1842, Joseph declared:
[T]he keys of the kingdom are about to be given to them, that they may be able to detect every thing false — as well as to the Elders . . . . This Society is to get instruction thro’ the order which God has established — thro’ 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.
11. Was the comment about "those appointed to lead" referring to the Relief Society Presidency, or the First Presidency?
12. What does it mean for Joseph to "turn the key" and give the keys of the kingdom to the Relief Society "as well as to the elders?"
What About the First Presidency?
Someone might ask, "But aren't they still under the umbrella authority of the First Presidency?
May 26, 1842
The following quote was given to the Relief Society at their May 1842 meeting (of all places):
Prest. J. Smith rose, read the 14th Chap. of Ezekiel— said the Lord had declar’d by the prophet that the people should each one stand for himself and depend on no man or men in that state of corruption of the Jewish church— that righteous persons could only deliver their own souls— app[l]ied it to the present state of the church of Latter-Day Saints— said if the people departed from the Lord, they must fall— that they were depending on the prophet hence were darkened in their minds from neglect of themselves.
13. Instead of encouraging greater reliance on his [Joseph's] priesthood authority, why was Joseph trying to get the sisters to depend less on him?
Steadying the Ark
"Slow down," someone is saying. "We have been taught our whole lives to depend exclusively on the Prophet and the authorized servants of God . . . and now you're saying we shouldn't? Isn't that steadying the ark, muchacho?"
How should we deal with the things in this Minute Book of the Relief Society? Does it matter how things were done back in Nauvoo? What difference does it make? Why do we care at all what Joseph and Emma did back then?
[M]en cannot steady the ark— my arm can not do it— God must steady it. -- Joseph Smith
I don't think we need to worry about upsetting the turnip truck. If the Prophet himself cannot steady the ark, I doubt we can.
In a jam? In a scrape? And you think "No escape!" Do not fear, we'll be here Courageous, are we!
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So What Happened?
Well, things got crazy in Nauvoo and then Joseph died.
His vision for the Relief Society apparently died with him. Prest. Emma Smith did not follow Brigham Young (who didn't trust the relief society, anyway).
And so the Nauvoo Relief Society no longer exists.
In its place is the Relief Society that was reborn under Eliza R. Snow and Brigham Young in the 1860s, and subsequently overhauled during the correlation movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
The rest is history. Extra Credit
I recommend reading:
1. Jessie L. Embry's, "Grain Storage: The Balance of Power Between Priesthood Authority and Relief Society Autonomy," Dialogue, accessed https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V15N04_61.pdf
2. Tina Hatch, "Changing Times Bring Changing Conditions," Dialogue, accessed https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V37N03_75.pdf