A reader recently asked what I thought our Relief Society leaders had in mind with regard to the history that was mentioned in this year’s Women’s Conference, and what we were supposed to learn from that history. While I think the answer is broader than this, I think their purpose must include giving us models of righteous women whose actions typify the purpose of Relief Society, and who might inspire us to live up to – even exceed – their example.
This program, a sort of readers’ theater, which I wrote for my ward’s Relief Society anniversary evening back in 1990, ties the actions of past and present Relief Society sisters to Jesus Christ, our ultimate model of love and charity.
“Ye Shall Do the Work Which Ye See Me Do”
Time: 30 minutes
Narrator A (reads mostly historical material)
Narrator B (reads scriptures and some quotations from Joseph Smith)
Readers (3 to 12, sharing stories of Relief Society actions)
The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning
Inasmuch as Ye Have Done It (from City of Joseph)
Come, Let Us Rejoice in the Day of Salvation
Narrator A: The time, early spring, 1842. The setting, a parlor in Nauvoo. The subject, several women, members of the Church, discussing the possibility of forming a Ladies’ Society in order to combine their efforts to aid workers on the Nauvoo Temple. At the request of these ladies, Eliza R. Snow drafted the constitution of a proposed Society, and submitted it to the Prophet Joseph Smith.
Narrator B: It is the best I have seen, he said, but this is not what you want. Tell the sisters the Lord has something better for them. Invite them all to meet me next Thursday afternoon, and I will organize the sisters under the Priesthood, after a pattern of the Priesthood.
Narrator A: Accordingly, 18 women met with Joseph Smith on Thursday, March 17, 1842, in the upper room of Joseph’s store. “The spirit of God” was sung, and the meeting was opened with prayer.
(Organ should begin softly playing “The Spirit of God” during the rest of this speech, timed to accompany the singing of the hymn at the end of the speech.)
Narrator A: Joseph then addressed the sisters. In this and later meetings, he spoke of the mission of Relief society:
Narrator B: This Society of the sisters is to provoke the brethren to good works, to look to the wants of the poor, to search after objects of charity. All I shall have to give to the poor, I shall give to this Society. I now turn the key to you in the name of the Lord, and this Society shall rejoice, and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time henceforth; this is the beginning of better days to the poor and needy, who shall be made to rejoice and pour forth blessings on your head. If you live up to these principles, how great and glorious will be your reward in the celestial kingdom! If you live up to your privileges, the angels cannot be restrained from being your associates.
Said Jesus, “Ye shall do the work which ye see me do.” These are the grand-key-words for the Society to act upon.
Hymn (Congregation): “The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning.”
Narrator A: “Ye shall do the work which ye see me do.” From the first weeks of the new Relief Society, the sisters of the Church took their mission seriously. Minutes of early meetings reveal some of the actions taken by the sisters:
(The following should be read rapidly enough to suggest the eagerness of the early Relief Society sisters to provide a variety of services.)
Reader 1: Sister Stringham offered to make men’s clothes and take work on the Temple.
Reader 2: Sister Felshaw proposes to give some soap.
Reader 1: Mrs. Granger is willing to do anything – knit, sew, or wait on the sick, as might be most useful.
Reader 3: Mrs. Smith proposed getting wool and furnishing old ladies with yarn to knit socks to supply the workmen on the Temple next winter.
Reader 2: Sister Farr has flax which she will contribute.
Reader 3: Sister Whitney spoke of a young man from England, who has been ill for a year now at her house.
Reader 1: Sister Jones said she is willing to take the sick man to her house if it is thought wisdom – only her house is not so still as desirable for a sick person.
Reader 2: Mrs. Pratt mentioned the needy circumstances of a widower with nine children.
Reader 3: Sister Lyons will give one bunch cotton yarn.
Reader 1: Sister Green will give some flax, and Sister chase will spin it.
Reader 3: Sister Woolley said she has red yarn which she purposed for a carpet, but thinks it will do more good in mittens, and will contribute it for the sisters to knit.
Reader 2: Sister Granger is willing to do anything that is needed.
Narrator A: The system of visiting teaching best illustrates the concern of the Relief Society for reaching those in want, and for attending to their needs. The practice of calling regularly on all persons who might have need of help began with the second year of the Society. Emma Smith suggested the appointment of a committee “to search out the poor and suffering, to call upon the rich for aid, and thus, as far as possible, relieve the wants of all.” “In each meeting, reports were given by those whose duty it was to visit from house to house and inquire into the circumstances of the sick and destitute, and donations were received.”
For 147  years, these Necessity Committees, now the visiting Teachers, have proved the most effective method of carrying out the charge to “do the work which ye see me do.”
Narrator B: And Jesus taught: Then shall the King say … Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you. … For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took em in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. (Matt. 25:34-36)
Musical Number: “Inasmuch as Ye Have Done It,” from City of Joseph.
Narrator A: And in all these years, the Relief Society has done the work which we saw Him do:
Narrator B: And when it was evening, his disciples came to him, saving … send the multitude away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves victuals. But Jesus said, … give ye them to eat … And he commanded the multitude to sit down … and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave. … And they did all eat, and were filled. (Matt. 14:15-20)
Narrator A: The Relief Society began to store grain in 1876 at the request of President Brigham Young. The sisters were urged to “secure as much as possible and garner it carefully, and when the right time comes to use it, the proper method of disbursement will be revealed to those who hold it in trust for Zion.” (Woman’s Exponent, 15 October 1877, 77)
The sisters of the Relief Society responded by raising wheat, gleaning fields, and buying wheat with funds raised through the sale of quilts, rugs, jam, and Sunday eggs.
This gathering and storing of wheat continued until 1918, when the Relief society sold its 205,518 bushels of grain to the United States government. Before then, however, the Relief society’s wheat had been used to feed multitudes:
Reader: At the time of the earthquake and fire in San Francisco, April 1, 1906, the Relief Society was among the first agencies in the United States to offer relief. Its contribution consisted of a carload of flour and more than a carload of bedding and hospital supplies. Between the hours of 11 a.m. and midnight on the fatal day, a car was completely filled with supplies and was soon on its way to the devastated area. Later, additional supplies were sent. The carload of flour sent by the Relief Society was the first that reached the sufferers. (Relief Society Handbook, 1931, ____)
Narrator B: And he entered into Simon’s house. And Simon’s wife’s mother was taken with a great fever. … And he stood over her, and rebuked the fever; and it left her. (Luke 4:38-39)
Narrator A: Throughout its history, the Relief Society has regarded the care of the sick as a vital part of its work. The Prophet Joseph Smith set apart a number of women to go among the sick in Nauvoo. These women and others later served as midwives and nurses in the camps of Israel and during the settlement of the West.
The women received the best training possible in the circumstances: In 1849, Dr. Willard Richards held a nursing class for women. In 1873, Brigham Young requested Relief Society presidents throughout the church to appoint women from each ward and settlement to study physiology and nursing, and he asked the bishops to see to it that these women were supported during their time of study. And into the 20th century, the Relief Society General Board conducted a Nurse School and a nurse’s aid course at LDS Hospital.
Even when these formal training efforts ceased, the Relief Society continued to keep a list of members with various nursing credentials. This information has proven invaluable in times of emergency, as shown by this 1962 report from a Melbourne, Australia stake Relief Society president:
Reader: “Recently we had shocking brush fires which encircled our city, and a national emergency was declared. After the fires had been raging for two days, the Red Cross Society found that we keep a list of nursing sisters, and we were thrilled to be able to send some of our wonderful sisters to the rescue at very short notice. The Relief society organization is truly wonderful, and I sometimes feel that we could say that we are prepared for any emergency.” (Relief Society Magazine, May 1962, 314)
Narrator B: Then said Jesus unto them … Lazarus is dead … Then when Mary was come where Jesus was, and saw him, she fell down at his feet … When Jesus therefore saw her weeping … he groaned … and was troubled and … wept. Then said the Jews, Behold how he loved him! (John 11:14, 32-36)
Narrator A: Many of the purposes of Relief Society have been accomplished by the united efforts of the entire organization. Others can only be met by the personal service of the sisters. Nowhere is this more true than in times of mourning:
Reader: Sister Karla Hoyt had just moved with her family to a small town in southwestern Missouri. Their home was still filled with boxes, and the furniture only shoved into corners, when their baby daughter became suddenly ill, was taken to the hospital, and died within hours. Sister Hoyt and her husband returned home to care for their other children. She writes:
“And then the angels came. … Beautiful Relief society angels brought in food all day. My visiting teacher told me later that as she called to make food assignments, the sisters answering the phone would say, ‘It is prepared, and I am on my way.’ Wonderful new neighbors came, with heartfelt condolences, flowers, and food. We had agonized over the thought of how we would ever make order of our home in time to receive relatives who were to come for the funeral. When our families arrived, our new friends took them to their homes. These and other angels attended Joanna’s beautiful and uplifting services. The Relief Society choir sang in a most heavenly manner. After the services, we found gifts of food and flowers at our home. My mother, a non-member, told me later that she had never before met such loving, caring people.” (Ensign, July 1982, 65)
Narrator B: And … there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there: And both Jesus was called, and his disciples, to the marriage. And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, They have no wine. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what wilt thou have me to do for thee? that will I do. (John 2:1-4, verse 4 from JST)
Narrator A: Sharing the celebrations of life is a joyous opportunity to build sisterhood. Relief society visiting teachers often know exactly what is needed, as reported by Sister Genny Potts of Idaho:
“About a year after we joined the church, my husband and I decided to take the temple preparation classes. My wonderful visiting teachers shared our excitement. They answered a lot of our questions, and went out of their way to make our temple experience one I will always cherish.
“Sister Nokleby brought us books on the temple, and she and Sister Pincock took me on a surprise shopping trip to pick out my temple dress. When we couldn’t decide on the perfect dress, they took me to a fabric store and had me pick out material. Another sister, who sews for a living, made the dress, along with a little white outfit for my small son.
“We did not own a car, so Sister Pincock and her husband used their van to drive our family and some special friends to the Logan Temple, about 275 miles away.
“But their friendship extended beyond our temple experience. They often offered me rides, and they remembered my birthdays. And after my baby girl was born, both came to see me in the hospital. They have added so much to these very special times in my life.” (Church News, 13 November 1983, page 3)
Narrator B: For Christ also … went and preached unto the spirits in prison: which sometimes were disobedient. Because of this, is the gospel preached to them who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live in the spirit according to the will of God. (1 Peter 3:18-19, JST 1 Peter 4:6)
Narrator A: The original inspiration for a ladies’ society was to support those building the Nauvoo Temple. The Relief Society as an organization has contributed to many temples, both in funds and in the creation of the hundreds of yards of handmade carpet used in the pioneer temples. Even today, Relief Society sisters donate the most priceless examples of their handiwork for use as altar cloths.
Additionally, members of the Relief Society have shown their concern for the dead by compiling the records of thousands of their ancestors. From 1914 to 1920, Relief Society women studied genealogical lessons on a regular basis, and genealogy has been an occasional focus of study since that time.
This report from 1915 illustrates the concern of the sisters for their dead:
Reader: “In Minnesota, since they have commenced the study of genealogy, one sister has obtained 100 names, and all of the sisters have secured from twenty to thirty each. Beside this, every one has prepared a family record, and some of the best testimony meetings that I have ever attended have been held in those two cities where they have opened their hearts to this work. One sister, who seemed to feel it was impossible to make a start, was one day cleaning in her attic, and in an old trunk discovered letters that gave her the genealogy of her grandparents.” (Relief Society Magazine, February 1915, 77)
Narrator B: And verily I say unto you, that ye are they of whom I said: Other sheep I have which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice … behold, ye … are my sheep, and ye are numbered among those whom the Father hath given me. (3 Nephi 15:21, 24)
Narrator A: For several years, cultural refinement lessons focusing on women in many lands helped to foster an international sense of sisterhood. Relief Society has now become a part of the Church program in every organized unit of the Church – and it even reaches some areas where the Church has not yet penetrated!
Reader: Sister Cherry Silver, an American, was living with her husband on the ivory Coast. By custom, by language, by appearance, she felt separated from her African neighbors. As the wife of the director of a sugar cane plantation, she found herself without the traditional housework, Church and community responsibilities she had been used to.
“Time became an albatross around my neck,” she writes, “and I had to find a way of reaching out. Thinking of the satisfactions of Relief Society, I invited the wives of the eighty company office workers, managers, and foremen to an afternoon social, and proposed meeting monthly for a kind of cultural refinement lesson, a logical choice since among us we included Vietnamese, Mauritian, British, American, French, and Malagasy women, as well as the Africans of the Ivory Coast. They agreed. One woman also proposed a Christmas party for the youngsters. That project convinced me that given a goal, some handicrafts, and a chance to sit down and work together, women worldwide could weld bonds across cultural barriers and reduce their feelings of difference.” (Ensign, June 1978, 41)
Narrator B: And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren … casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. (Matt. 4:18-19)
Narrator A: Relief Society sisters have a unique opportunity to imitate the Savior by helping to bring souls unto Him:
Reader: Dolores Suarez was contacted by two sister missionaries in Manila, Philippine Islands, in May 1963. although her daughter joined the Church, Mrs. Suarez did nto find the time to attend any meetings.
So the sister missionaries organized a small neighborhood Relief Society. They made invitations, they visited their contacts to make sure that all would feel welcome, they planned a program to outline the history, duties, and responsibilities of Relief Society. Articles made in Relief Society work meetings were brought in to illustrate the skills taught by Relief Society.
Twenty-five women – and one man – attended the first meeting. Dolores Suarez led the music for the second meeting. She conducted the third meeting, and also bore her testimony. On September 14, 1963, she was baptized: the only meetings she had attended were Relief Society meetings. (Relief Society Magazine, October 1964, 746-47)
Narrator A: At no other time in our history have the sisters of Relief society performed more exemplary service in saving souls than during the war in Europe. This report of extraordinary service was presented in the first Relief Society Conference following World War II:
Reader: “Today, I wish to pay tribute to our sisters in Europe … since the fall of 1939, when the European Saints sang “God Be With You Till We Meet Again,” while waving goodbye to the missionaries on board ships sailing to America, our European brothers and sisters … have had very little direct communication with the church authorities … They have suffered tribulation beyond our comprehension.
“Can you imagine our wards with none of the brethren present to conduct the meetings – to administer the sacrament? Quite generally throughout the European missions, the men belonging to the Church were in service or had gone underground. The Relief Society women were called to hold the people together, to conduct all the meetings,. The Relief Society visiting teachers were given added responsibility as there were no men to do ward teaching. Where it was possible and there were older men holding the priesthood, they would visit the branches periodically and administer the sacrament. At all other times it was the Relief Society women who carried the full responsibility of keeping the Church membership together.
“Sister Zippro, the Netherlands Relief Society president, knowing of the terrible destruction of Rotterdam, concluded to ride her bicycle sixty miles from Amsterdam to Rotterdam. She found many of the families had lost all earthly belongings when their homes had been completely destroyed by bombs. She immediately ascertained the needs and started to raise funds. Her bravery and devotion to the ideals of Relief Society merit our highest admiration.” (Relief Society Magazine, December 1945, 745)
Narrator B: And … he wept, and the multitude bare record of it, and he took their little children, one by one, and blessed them, and prayed unto the Father for them. (3 Nephi 17:21)
narrator A: The care and training of children has long been a special concern of the Relief society. In fact, the first formal studies initiated by the Relief Society were the Mothers’ Classes begun in 1902. The Relief Society Magazine frequently promoted the March of Dimes. And of course, compassionate service often involves children:
Reader: In 1980, Kathryn Farnsworth’s infant son, Ricky, became gravely ill with infant botulism. The poisons ravaged his nerves so thoroughly that he could not breathe for himself, and even his pupils could no longer dilate. Sister Farnsworth writes:
“For two months, the Relief Society sisters in our ward welcomed our six-, four-, and two-year-old boys into their homes every day so I could go to the hospital. These women loved my children for me, and they taught them for me. They prayed for my baby, and they asked their children to pray for him. Many times I came home from the hospital and found dinner prepared for me. Many times I found warm bread at our doorstep. Many times friends called and just let me talk myself out.
“After nine long weeks, Ricky was ready to come home. Unfortunately, I was running the fever of a bad cold that week. Ricky could come home, but not to our house. We turned again to the Relief Society, and a ward family opened their home to him. The Relief Society sisters went in around the clock to care for him.
“I know that easing pain and aiding others are more than Relief Society goals. They are the heart-beat of the gospel.” (Ensign, March 1982, 33)
Narrator A: “Ye shall do the work which ye have seen me do.” The Relief Society, as an organization, as visiting teaching partnerships, and as individual sisters, has carried out this charge for a century and a half.
Let us go back to that first meeting, on March 17, 1842, and close as our sisters did: With the prayer of John Taylor that “the blessings of God, and the pace of heaven may rest on this institution henceforth,” and with their closing hymn, “Come, Let us Rejoice in the Day of Salvation.”
Hymn: “Come Let Us Rejoice in the Day of Salvation.”