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The Relief Society Pleads for Plowshares and Pruning Hooks, 1933

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 25, 2008

Because we know that World War II happened, and that human civilization did survive despite unprecedented atrocities, it may be difficult to see the world of the 1920s and 1930s the way our grandmothers did. Annie Wells Cannon, a member of the Relief Society General Board, expressed their view this way during the semi-annual Relief Society Conference of October 4-5, 1933:

There is no crime so great as war. Any of you who sent your sons or husbands to the Great War realize that. Thousands of people go to the tombs of the Unknown Soldiers in the great capitals of the world and do homage in memory to the thousands of men who were slaughtered in the World War. Thousands of women visit the hospitals all over the different nations, to see the men who were gassed, shell-shocked and crippled, disabled, tubercular – all know of the dreadful things that come through war.


The sisters of the Relief Society were far from alone in their horror of a repeated war and their hopes that something could be done to eliminate, or at least to rein in, the destruction and loss of life of future wars. Six million women from around the world signed a petition circulated by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom calling for world disarmament (really, a limitation on offensive, but not defensive, weapons), especially for the cessation of wartime gassing and the limitation of bombing by air. The president of the WILPF was Jane Addams, the genius of the Settlement House movement and the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

The International Council of Women was a constituent organization of the WILPF, and the LDS Relief Society was a full participant in the ICW.

The petitions of the WILPF (including petitions signed by the ICW, and by the Relief Society) were sent to the World Disarmament Conference held at Geneva, Switzerland, 1932-34. That conference ended in failure, as all such conferences have, in part because during the months of the conference Hitler rose to power in Germany and Japan invaded Manchuria; they, along with nations who didn’t happen to be quite so aggressive at the moment, called for other nations to disarm while insisting that they themselves had the right and the need to expand their “purely defensive” weapons.

But the dream of peace and disarmament was a pleasant one while it lasted, and the Relief Society was as optimistic as anyone else in calling for peace. In that context, Sister Cannon presented the following Resolution to the Relief Society Conference of 1933:

Disarmament Resolution

I move that we, the women of the National Woman’s Relief Society, join the organized womanhood of the world in the effort to bring about world peace and eliminate all wars by using our utmost influence to bear upon the delegates to the Disarmament Conference to be held this month at Geneva, Switzerland, and by urging upon these delegates the adoption of the plan submitted by the International Council Committee as follows:

1. Substantial reduction of existing armaments.

2. No re-armament.

3. Abolition of aggressive weapons within a definite period and with the immediate elimination of all bombing from the air, of the air weapon in general and of poison gas.

4. Limitation of expenditure to prevent rivalries in armaments.

5. Effective supervision of existing armaments and of arms manufacture and trade.

6. A permanent organization to carry out the above provisions and to carry on the work begun by the Disarmament Conference.

This plan to be accepted by all the Great Powers of this Conference to be cabled immediately to the Secretary of the Council Committee at Geneva.

I strongly prefer that any discussion focus on the goals of the Relief Society, or the involvement of Relief Society in such cooperative movements. Please do not allow this to stray into the typical blogging stink over politics and current events. Thanks for your understanding.



15 Comments »

  1. Ardis, we were right in the mainstream of American Protestants on this one, interestingly, which may have put the RS out of sync with the rest of the church in those years with their forward-looking and ecumenical activities. The ICW and other similar organizations were part of a broad-based women’s peace movement in the 1930s – I have just spent part of last month poring over the records of the charmingly named “National Committee on the Causes and Cures of War” which brought in many women’s groups – both denominational and secular – to a campaign to inform the American public about foreign policy options. This is a terrific reminder about Mormon involvement in related causes and groups. We were not unique or alone in those years with this kind of thinking.

    Comment by tona — July 25, 2008 @ 1:15 pm

  2. What impresses me is the Relief Society leaders’ courage in independently standing out on a political and moral issue that was important to them without seeming to worry about the approval or disapproval of other church leaders. My perception is that in general the RS is seen as more ancillary to other church functions and not as much of a separate and independent organization anymore.

    Comment by Carl Youngblood — July 25, 2008 @ 2:34 pm

  3. I’ve reworded the statements a bit, and removed any references that are peculiar to the time:

    1. Substantial reduction of existing armaments, nuclear or conventional.

    2. No re-armament.

    3. Abolition of aggressive weapons within a definite period and with the immediate elimination of all bombing from the air, of landmines in general and of poison/nerve gas.

    4. Limitation of expenditure to prevent rivalries in armaments.

    5. Effective supervision of existing armaments and of arms manufacture and trade.

    6. A permanent, independent international organization to carry out the above provisions.

    Is there anything here that would not be in line with the ideals of the Relief Society today?

    Comment by kevinf — July 25, 2008 @ 2:59 pm

  4. It seems to me that the majority of my RS would balk if asked to sign a disarmament resolution. Too political. We’re making school bags and hygiene kits to send out as our statement to the world.

    Comment by Jami — July 25, 2008 @ 5:42 pm

  5. Interesting, isn’t it, to see how different we were then. Like Jami, I think most RS women I know would object to such a blatantly political statement (unless it involved reproductive behavior in some way), even if they happened to agree with the political position. We (the RS) were mighty autonomous then, Carl — I hadn’t thought of whether the RS was out of sync with the rest of the Church as tona suggests, and I don’t know the answer.

    kevinf, *I* don’t think there’s anything out of harmony with today’s RS ideals, in theory, and I like your modernization. I think, though, that very few American Saints would read it *as* theory. I think almost everyone I know would instantly object to any “independent international organization” carrying out “supervision” of the provisions (I probably would too) no matter how much I abhor landmines and chemical warfare. And that’s just the start of objections, as I think of more and more acquaintances.

    Nevertheless, despite my skepticism that we could engage today in any analogous resolution, no matter how watered down, I applaud the idealism of women worldwide in the 1930s. Their goals were right, I think, but their goals and methods were no more practical then than they would be today. I’d love to be wrong.

    Thanks for comments. I know this kind of post is difficult to comment on, especially when I put limits on discussion. Back to something lighter tomorrow.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 25, 2008 @ 6:29 pm

  6. Would someone please take Ardis’s comment on Tona’s suggestion (that the RS “might” have been out of sync with the rest of the church) a bit further and let us know what the FP of 1933 thought? This is a wonderful thread dealing with a dreadful question. Even on December 6, 1941 there was a substantial part of the U.S. (see the “America First Movement”) that thought that the U.S. had no business being involved in a European or Asian war.

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — July 25, 2008 @ 7:33 pm

  7. This afternoon I read wartime (WWII) conference talks — fabulous ones like David O. McKay’s “The Church and the Present War” (1942) and J. Reuben Clark’s “The Awesome Task of Peace” (1945). While both are unequivocally champions of peace, neither is pacifist.

    DOM, for instance, knocks down one after another the social, political, and cultural — even scriptural — justifications we use for going to war, but says “There are, however, two conditions which may justify a truly Christian man to enter — mind you, I say enter, not begin — a war: (1) An attempt to dominate and to deprive another of his free agency, and, (2) Loyalty to his country. Possibly there is a third, viz., Defense of a weak nation that is being unjustly crushed by a strong, ruthless one.”

    He concluded by looking forward to the paperwork that would someday conclude the war: “As seeds of future wars are often sown around the peace table, may the spirit of the gospel of Jesus Christ and not the spirit of retaliation and revenge actuate those who meet to determine peace terms. When that blessed occasion comes, may the representatives of the nations recognize the inalienable rights of peoples everywhere to govern themselves. It would be appropriate if there were emblazoned in golden letters on the walls in which they meet, and especially cherished as motives in the hearts of those who determine the conditions of peace, the words of Christ our Lord: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you. That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.”

    As for what the thought was ten years earlier, I do not (yet) know.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 25, 2008 @ 7:53 pm

  8. #7 – Ardis, that is an amazing quote. The first sentence, especially, is profound.

    Comment by Ray — July 25, 2008 @ 9:06 pm

  9. Based on the first sentence of that last paragraph from Pres. McKay, I nominate George C. Marshall for the Thomas L. Kane Award (I just invented this, by the way, so don’t go googling for it) for the entire 20th Century, as the person not a Mormon who did more to further the work of the Lord than any other.

    One minor note, the Manchurian Incident–the Japanese takeover of Manchuria–occurred in 1931. And they didn’t invade China proper until 1937. So, about all that happened during the Geneva Peace conference you describe was that they didn’t leave Manchuria.

    Comment by Mark B. — July 25, 2008 @ 9:30 pm

  10. Mark B., are you familiar with the Thomas L. Kane Award given each year by the Mormon History Association, to someone outside the Mormon tradition who has made a significant contribution to Mormon history? It is “presented in the grand tradition of Thomas L. Kane, the Pennsylvania native who, in 1857, put his reputation on the line in behalf of compromise and peace” and was awarded this year to …

    … Bill MacKinnon.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 25, 2008 @ 10:06 pm

  11. I’ve posted David O. McKay’s “The Church and the Present War”.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 25, 2008 @ 11:06 pm

  12. Arrington’s “Modern Lysistratas” is the only article with which I am familiar that treats this topic (but I haven’t searched). He describes strong, public First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve support for peace initiatives up to US entry in WWI. Although his title claims “1899-1939,” he glides over the 20s and 30s in a paragraph:

    After the end of hostilities, in November 1918, there seems to have been no systematic effort to revive the peace movement until the 1930s, when a series of articles in the Church’s Improvement Era recalled the International Congress of Women and their earlier efforts to promote peace and arbitration. The series seems to have been prompted by the meeting of the International Congress of Women in the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago in 1933-1934, and the publication of Inez Haynes Irwin’s exciting book, Angels and Amazons: A Hundred Years of American Women.[He lists Mormon women who participated in the conference.]

    Arrington footnotes four Improvement Era articles from October 1933 to February 1934. Leonard J. Arrington, “Modern Lysistratas: Mormon Women in the International Peace Movement, 1899-1939,” Journal of Mormon History 15 (1989): 89-104.

    Comment by Edje — July 26, 2008 @ 10:09 am

  13. Thanks, Edje; I wasn’t familiar with that article before reading it from your link.

    Arrington’s work could be updated for the 1920s with help from articles in The Relief Society Magazine, like the 1924 report I posted a couple of weeks ago by Emma Ray Riggs McKay on “Woman’s Power to Remove the Cause of War”. There’s a lot of material in The Magazine for anybody casting around for a paper topic.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 26, 2008 @ 11:59 am

  14. J. Reuben Clark, Jr.’s “The Awesome Task of Peace” is posted. Some highlightes:

    We have come to our task of self-assumed duties while hate yet smoulders in our hearts, with some amongst us trying to fan it into flame. We are not without a spirit of conquest, nor has the feeling of retaliation yet left us. …

    God will not, cannot come where hate meets hate, and revenge meets revenge. Where these things dwell, righteousness cannot abide, and where righteousness is not, the powers of evil command. …

    We end the war with the use of the most destructive weapon the mind of man has yet conceived. It can literally destroy nations, apparently with a degree of horror and misery and suffering heretofore unknown. Humankind, the beasts of the field, the fowls of the air, the fish in the sea, — all can be wiped out and it may be the earth itself made lifeless. … My heart is heavy with foreboding, because the nations (ourselves among them) are proposing to arm on a scale never before equaled i the history of the world; and armed nations have always been fighting nations. I fear Armageddon is not yet fought, and, if fought with this weapon, we shall pray the Lord to fulfil his promise:

    “And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened.” …

    We pray for wisdom and guidance that we and they we now rule, shall come to a oneness of purpose that shall bring peace, permanent peace, to all men.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 27, 2008 @ 7:44 pm

  15. This is a very interesting thread. During the interwar period, many in the LDS leadership, as with most of the United States, moved toward isolationism and expressed their views in public fora. Individual leaders from the FP and the 12 publicly condemned rearmament and warfare in general–i.e. Heber J. Grant, J. Reuben Clark, Reed Smoot and Joseph F. Merrill. (Unfortunately, I am on vacation and do not have access to specific comments by these leaders at present). In December, 1936, the RS called for a ban on “war” toys. The RS argued that it was inappropriate to give children “war” toys (toy guns, etc.) on the occassion where we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace.

    I have gotten the impression that the RS in the 1920s and 1930s was much more independent and liberal than today. It was more akin to the Progressive Era womens’ organizations. In fact, several of the RS leaders had traveled to Chicago and worked with Jane Addams at Hull House (if my memory serves).

    Comment by Steve C. — July 28, 2008 @ 9:01 am

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