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“Emma Smith as an ‘Elect Lady’ and the Relief Society Rooted in Revelation and Power”

By Fiona Givens

In the first verse of his second letter, the apostle, John, addresses “the choice Kyria” and “her children.” 1 The Greek title, Kyria (Lady) is from the same root word as Kyrie—Lord—as in Christ, addressed in the expression:“Kyrie eleison” – Lord, have mercy (upon us). In all likelihood, therefore, the Lady is a title, expressing ecclesiastical stewardship and the children to whom John refers comprises the congregation over whom she presides. At least this is how the Prophet, Joseph, understood it.

During the inaugural meeting of the Relief Society, after reading 2 John 1:1 Joseph stated that “this is why she [Emma] was called an Elect Lady is because [she was] elected to preside.” 2 The nascent Christian Church “radically altered the position of women, elevating them to a partnership with men unparalleled in first-century society.” 3 It appears that Joseph was attempting to reconstitute the same collaborative society among the inchoate latter-day saint community of mid-nineteenth- century America. Not only is Emma elected to preside, Joseph states, she is encouraged to elect officers among her “children”: “If any Officers are wanted to carry out the designs of the Institution, let them be appointed and set apart, as Deacons, Teachers & so forth, are among us.” 4 On April 28, 1842, after reading 1 Corinthians 12 to the society, Joseph continued to give “instructions respecting the different offices, and the necessity of every individual acting in the sphere allotted him or her; and filling the several offices to which they were appointed.” 5

Thus, we find that the striking degree of collaboration between men and women in the early Christian Church is replicated in the founding of the LDS Church. In this regard, Bishop Newel K. Whitney’s words are significant: “It takes all to restore the Priesthood . . . without the female all things cannot be restor’d to the earth.” 6

This implies a much broader role for women in the Church structure than temple service alone. In Joseph’s journal account following the Female Relief Society meeting of Thursday, April 28, 1842, he writes: “Gave a lecture on the pries[t] hood shewing how the Sisters would come in possession of the priviliges & blessings & gifts of the priesthood—&c that the signs should follow them. such as healing the sick casting out devils &c.” 7 Commenting on Doctrine and Covenants 25, which Joseph read at the inaugural meeting of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, he stated that Emma “was ordain’d at the time, the Revelation was given”—that is, Emma was ordained not by man but by God to the position of Elect Lady (“and thou art an elect lady, whom I have called” [D&C 25:3]) as Joseph was ordained by God to the position of First Elder. It is clear from Emma’s remarks two years later at the Female Relief Society meeting of March 16, 1844, that she recognized that her ordination to the position of Elect Lady with its attendant power, privileges, and authority were divinely bestowed: “if thier ever was any authourity on
the Earth [I] had it—and had [it] yet.” 8

The second Relief Society president, Eliza R. Snow, who gained and retained possession of the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes, also recognized that Emma’s authority to preside over the Female Relief Society gave the women’s organization independence: “The Relief Society is designed to be a self-governing organization: to relieve the Bishops as well as to relieve the poor, to deal with its members, correct abuses, etc. If difficulties arise between members of a branch which they cannot settle between the members themselves, aided by the teachers, instead of troubling the Bishop, the matter should be referred to their president and her counselors.” 9 Reynolds Cahoon, a close affiliate of Joseph, understood “that the inclusion of women within the [ecclesiastical] structure of the church organization reflected the divine pattern of the perfect union of man and woman.” Indeed, Cahoon continued, “the Order of the Priesthood . . . which encompasses powers, keys, ordinances, offices, duties, organizations, and attitudes . . . is not complete without it [the Relief Society]”). 10

The source of women’s ordination, Joseph suggested, was the Holy Spirit. He understood the women to belong to an order comparable to or pertaining to the priesthood, based on the ordinance of confirmation and receipt of the Holy Spirit. To the Nauvoo women, he suggested that the gift of the Holy Spirit enabled them to “administer in that authority which is conferr’d on them.” 11 Peter preached that “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10:38). And to the Relief Society sisters Joseph “ask’d . . . if they could not see by this sweeping stroke, that wherein they are ordained, it is the privilege of those set apart to administer in that authority which is confer’d on them . . . and let every thing roll on.” 12 He called this authority “the power of the Holy Priesthood & the Holy Ghost,” in a unified expression. 13 Elsewhere he stated that “There is a prist-Hood with the Holy Ghost and a key.”14 Indeed, Joseph presses the point even further. In a Times and Seasons article, he wrote that the gift of the Holy Ghost “was necessary both to ‘make’ and ‘to organize the priesthood.’” 14

For Joseph, the organization of the Female Relief Society was fundamental to the successful collaboration of the male and female quorums: “I have desired to organize the Sisters in the order of the Priesthood. I now have the key by which I can do it. The organization of the Church of Christ was never perfect [complete/whole/entire] until the women were organized.” 15 It was this key 12 On April 28 Joseph again visited the Relief Society meeting and discoursed on the topic of“different offices, and the necessity of every individual acting in the sphere allotted to him or her.” Given what follows it is evident that Joseph is addressing the different spiritual gifts allotted to each member of the community. For, he continues that “the disposition of man [is] to look with jealous eyes upon the standing of others” and “the reason these remarks were being made, was that some little thing was circulating in the Society,” complaints that “some [women] were not going right in laying hands on the sick & so forth,” instead of rejoicing that “the sick could be heal’d” (Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, 35-36). Joseph “turned” to the Elect Lady, Emma, with which the gates to the priesthood powers and privileges promised the Female Relief Society could now be opened. That the Female Relief Society was inaugurated during the same period and setting as the founding of the Nauvoo Masonic Lodge is helpful in understanding its intended purpose. Joseph had been raised to the Third Degree of Freemasonry (Master Mason) the day before this auspicious meeting. 16 A

That the Female Relief Society was inaugurated during the same period and setting as the founding of the Nauvoo Masonic Lodge is helpful in understanding its intended purpose. Joseph had been raised to the Third Degree of Freemasonry (Master Mason) the day before this auspicious meeting. 16 A
plausible argument has been made that the prophet considered
the principal tenets of Masonry—Truth, Friendship, and Relief—to be in complete harmony with the reclamation of the original Church. 17

The name the founding mothers chose for their organization was the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, suggesting their recognition that what was being organized was the full and equal counterpart to the already operating male
quorums. 18 John Taylor’s suggestion to name the female quorum “The is choice of the Masonic Lodge as locus for the organization of the Female Relief Society, together with the association of Masonic thought with “Relief,” and for Nauvoo Female Benevolent Society” was rejected outright by the female presidency. “The popularity of the word benevolent is one great objection…. We do not wish to have it call’d after other Societies in the world” [for] “we design to act in the name of the Lord—to relieve the wants of the distressed, and do all the good we can.” 19

It appears that the second president of the Female Relief Society recognized exactly that. As Eliza R. Snow told a gathering of Relief Society sisters on May 12, 1868 the Relief Society “was no trifling thing, but an organization after the order of Heaven.” 20

1. 2 John 1:1

2. Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, 9, retrieved from http://josephsmith-papers.org/paperSummary/nauvoo-relief- society-minute- book.

3. Stanley R. Grenz and Denise Muir Kjebo, Women in the Church: A Biblical Theology of Women in Ministry (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 78.

4. Ibid., 8.

5. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith (Orem, Utah: Grandin Book Company, 1991), 115.

6. Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, 58.

7. Joseph Smith, Journal, Apr. 28, 1842, in Andrew H. Hedges, et al., eds., Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, Volume 2: December 1841-April 1843, edited by Dean C. Jesse, et al. (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2011), 52.

8. Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, 126.

9. E.R. Snow Smith, “To Branches of the Relief Society (republished by request, and permission of President Lorenzo Snow),” The Woman’s Exponent 27, no 23 (Sep. 15, 1884): 140, retrieved from http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/WomansExp/id/33963/rec/1.

10. Quoted in Jill Mulvay Derr, Janath Russell Cannon, and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1992), 39, 50.

11. Ehat and Cook, Words, 115. As Ehat and Cook pointed out, there seems little alternative to reading the “confirmation” in his expression as a reference to the gift of the Holy Spirit (141).

12. On April 28 Joseph again visited the Relief Society meeting and discoursed on the topic of “different offices, and the necessity of every individual acting in the sphere allotted to him or her.” Given what follows it is evident that Joseph is addressing the different spiritual gifts allotted to each member of the community.  For, he continues that “the disposition of man [is] to look with jealous eyes upon the standing of others” and “the reason these remarks were being made, was that some little thing was circulating in the Society,” complaints that “some [women] were not going right in laying hands on the sick &c,” instead of rejoicing that “the sick could be heal’d” (Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, 35-36).

13. Ehat and Cook, Words, 7.

14. Joseph Smith, “Gift of the Holy Ghost,” Times and Seasons, Jun. 15, 1842. Quoted in “The Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2011), 52. Quoted in “The Holy Priesthood, The Holy Ghost and the Holy Community,” Mormon Scholars Foundation Summer Seminar paper, Brigham Young University, July 23, 2015.

15. Sarah Kimball, “Reminiscence, March 17, 1882,” in The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women’s History, edited by Jill Mulvay Derr, et al. (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2016), 495; emphasis mine.

16. Cheryl L. Bruno, “Keeping a Secret: Freemasonry, Polygamy, and the Nauvoo Relief Society, 1842-44,” Journal of Mormon History 39, no. 4 (Fall 2013): 159.

17. Don Bradley has illuminated these connections in “The Grand Fundamental Principles of Mormonism: Joseph Smith’s Unfinished Reformation,” Sunstone (Apr. 2006): 32-41.

18. Considering the male priesthood to be the “Male Relief Society” is no stretch. The profound influence of Masonry on Smith, h

19. Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, 11-12.

20. Eighth Ward, Liberty Stake, Relief Society Minutes and Records, 1867-1969, vol. 1, May 12, 1868.  In First Fifty Years, 270.

About Fiona Givens

Fiona Givens was born in Nairobi, Kenya, educated in British convent schools, and converted to the LDS church in Frankfurt am Main. She earned degrees in French, German, and in European History while co-raising six children. Fiona has worked as a lobbyist, a translator, and as chair of a French language program. She is a frequent speaker on podcasts and at conferences. She now works as an independent scholar, having published in Exponent II, LDS Living, The Journal of Mormon History, and other venues. In addition to co-writing The God Who Weeps (Ensign Peak, 2012), she is the joint author of The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith (Deseret 2014). She currently resides with her husband and Zoe, a dog that belongs to their son, Andrew, in Montpelier, Virginia.

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