General Relief Society President Zina D.H. Young addressed the sisters gathered in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square for their annual conference in October, 1896. Among other topics, she noted that, after having done so much to contribute to the building of public facilities in Utah over the past decades, the sisters had no place to call their own. Her vice president (counselor) Sarah M. Kimball – who might be said to have been the originator of the Relief Society, since it was her desire to organize the women of Nauvoo to help build the temple there – echoed Zina’s thoughts.
It was “a humiliation,” Sarah said, for the sisters “to be without a place of our own.”
We ha[ve] contributed to all public places and at all times. Now we want to have a house, and we want land to build it on, and it should be in the shadow of the temple. It should be a place to receive strangers in when they come, a place where letters can be written from and information given.
I think we should vote on this matter, whether you representative women want this building, or not. We want to put it to vote.
The sisters’ vote was unanimous. The time had come for the women of the Church to build a home for themselves.
By 1900, the Primary and Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association had joined with the Relief Society, gathering support and raising funds to erect a joint building for the auxiliaries directed by women. Church President Lorenzo Snow officially endorsed their project. He did not want the sisters to buy land, he said, but he would give them a lot on which to building “a house that would be an honor to the Church.” He contributed a building site on Salt Lake’s Main Street, directly across the street from the temple, estimating that the lot was worth $18,000.
And he made a promise to the sisters: When they had raised $20,000 toward raising the building, he would give them the deed to that property. They could be as sure of that, he said, “as you will be of happiness when you get to heaven.”
So the women of the Church went to work. They asked all the ward and branch Relief Societies in the Church to donate one-third of whatever cash they then had on hand. Later, they asked the individual women of the Church to make personal donations. The Relief Society did what the Relief Society always did: They organized fund raisers, and donated materials, and donated labor, and gathered funds a dollar at a time.
The opening years of the 20th century were a time of change and in some ways a time of turmoil – the Senate hearings on the seating of Apostle Reed Smoot as Utah’s senator occurred during those years, and the Church still struggled to recover economically from the loss of so much property escheated to the federal government as part of the campaign to stamp out plural marriage. Lorenzo Snow died and was succeeded as president of the Church by Joseph F. Smith in 1901. In the same year, Zina D.H. Young died and was succeeded as president of the Relief Society by Bathsheba W.B. Smith.
But the women continued to raise funds, until by about 1907 they had collected $14,005, well on their way to raising the $20,000 needed to claim the deed to their building lot, as promised by President Snow.
But then …
But then “disturbing rumors reached the ears of President Bathsheba Smith that their plans had been shelved.” The sisters wrote to the First Presidency asking about the status of their project, and they learned that the rumors were fact. Instead of a Women’s Building on that spot within the shadow of the temple, the Church intended to build a building for the business of the Presiding Bishopric. The women could have a few rooms within that building for their offices, but that was all. And, by the way, they were expected to donate the money they had raised toward their own building for this Bishop’s building.
The minutes of the General Board reflect the turmoil felt by the sisters: “Some members felt very much grieved over the way matters stood.” “We felt pledged to those who had contributed the money for a building that was to be their own,” and they felt helpless over “changes for which the board were not accountable.” The sisters’ objections in some cases may have been especially bitter, because at one point the minutes note that “some unnecessary paragraphs” had been “expunged from previous minutes.”
But in the end, the women submitted to the wishes of the First Presidency. They abandoned – for the time being – plans to build their own building, and they contributed their savings to the erection of the Bishop’s building. That building was completed in January 1910, and the Relief Society moved into a four-room suite on the second floor.
A modest announcement appeared in the January 1910 Woman’s Exponent:
Relief Society Headquarters
The Relief Society has established headquarters in the Bishop’s Building, No. 40 N. Main Street, Salt Lake City, just opposite “The Temple.” The Society apartments are appropriately and tastefully furnished, there is a large reception room, fitted up for regular meetings and general purposes, for the President and Board of Directors, and the President has also a private room, adjoining, opening out of the reception room, for her personal use, and there is another room adjoining which will be suitable for entertaining and other purposes; also an office for the Secretary and the transaction oaf business pertaining to the Society and its interests, and another large room for Committees and where the School of Nurses hold regular sessions during eight months of the year. The apartments are quite suitable, and it is very satisfactory to be able to say that there is a place where the Relief Society has permanent headquarters.
It is the first time in all its history where the General Society has had rooms for the transaction of business pertaining to the great work of this, the first and largest organization of women in the Church.
The General Conference of the Relief Society will be held, as heretofore in the Salt Lake Assembly Hall. At the Conference in April the sisters from all the several Stakes and Missions will have an opportunity of calling at the new headquarters, where they will be cordially welcomed by the General President and members of the Board, and in all probability an official reception will be given during Conference week, conditions being favorable for such a social event.
it is a matter for congratulation that after so many years there is a suitable place for those who come from a distance as well as those residing nearer, to come and visit the President and those associated with her in the work that is so dear to the heart of every member of this large and influential Society.
In the same issue, Bathsheba Smith reminded the sisters of what really mattered about their Society:
… It is the ardent wish and desire of my heart at this time to impart to you some of my thoughts and feelings of the spirit of true Relief Society work as I understand its significance. It is to care for the poor, the needy, the sick and distressed in body or in mind, to console the sorrowing, to comfort the mourner, to minister to the dying, to perform the last sad rites for the dead before the burial. These are some of the arduous, active duties that belong to the work of this precious society; and in the performance of these duties in the spirit of meekness and humility the riche4st blessings will assuredly follow, and joy will abound in your hearts, the true comfort that follows those who devote the energies of their lives to the service of others. …
And this message I bring to you that you love one another, that you cease evil speaking, that you observe the Sabbath day, and the Word of Wisdom, that you be circumspect in all your ways, that you honor and reverence the priesthood, and teach your children all these principles, that we may have a generation that will serve the Lord and keep His commandments, and be prepared to withstand all the evils that are prevalent in the world, that they may be worthy to stand upon the land of Zion and receive their inheritance therein.
And again I exhort you to keep the commandments of the Lord and teach by example as well as by precept, and never grow weary in well doing, pray without ceasing, uphold those who preside over you, and remember the words of the Savior, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, ye have done it unto me,” and now peace, joy and love be and abide with you always is my prayer for all those engaged in this glorious organization of the Relief Society.
Two generations later, the women of the Church finally did build their own building, the Relief Society building, a few hundred feet north of the site of the now-demolished Bishop’s building, and still directly across the street from the Salt Lake Temple. Traces of the hurt feelings remaining from that first building can be found in the story told by Belle Spafford of being approached by an elderly woman from Southern Utah who wanted to hand her own $5 contribution directly to the current Relief Society president. That sister claimed she had also paid $5 toward the first building, and she wanted to know what had become of that donation. Sister Spafford told her that that contribution had been given for the erection of the Bishop’s building, in which the Relief Society had received offices rent-free for more than 40 years, and that the Church had repaid the Relief Society’s funds, which had then been used to build the modern Relief Society Building. “You know, I’m glad I came!” the woman is reported to have said. “I’m glad to know the brethren are honorable men.”
It would be easy for us to see this episode as a case of broken promises, of the powerlessness of women and the oppression of men within the Church – and over the years some have in fact made this the point of the story. Rather than that, though, I prefer to think of it as a case of delay in keeping a promise that was eventually fulfilled. More than that, it is an illustration of the willingness of our sisters a century ago to choose to take the high road. Rather than deepening a division between the men and women of the Church, rather than prolonging the feelings of injury justly felt by the sisters, they made the best of the situation. As much as my curiosity would love to know what had been originally part of those expunged minutes, I’m kind of proud of the sisters for editing their original intemperate words – how many times have I wished I could retract my own comments online? Your mileage may vary, but that’s how I’m spinning the story.