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Relief Society History: A Building for the Women of the Church

By: Ardis E. Parshall - November 01, 2011

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.



38 Comments »

  1. Brilliant story, Ardis, thanks.

    Comment by Frank Pellett — November 1, 2011 @ 9:32 am

  2. Thanks for this very interesting post, Ardis

    Comment by Amira — November 1, 2011 @ 10:08 am

  3. Ardis, I think that’s an exceedingly optimistic gloss. I’d like to believe it, but I can’t. The appropriate colloquial expression would be something about whipped cream and manure.

    Sometimes the high road is not the strait and narrow one–sometimes justice requires real, honest airing of grievances. And sometimes very good and honorable men wear big, culturally-imposed blinders; we do them no favors by not helping to remove them.

    Comment by Kristine — November 1, 2011 @ 10:10 am

  4. Thanks!

    Comment by ji — November 1, 2011 @ 10:19 am

  5. I think my acknowledging that I was spinning the story, Kristine, is acknowledgement that I’m not entirely sold on the “exceedingly optimistic gloss.”

    Also, I would note that I have not done the research in sources that would tell me (I don’t think those sources are available, because the only likely place I can think of would be the restricted minutes of the First Presidency) why the change was made. Events are very rarely entirely one-sided; it is possible, even likely, that there were reasons beyond meanness for the decision, reasons that even you could accept as justification for the change. Until we know what those reasons might have been, it’s a poor choice to condemn them.

    And finally, I agree with you that noting and exposing “culturally imposed blinders” can be good. Thing is, though, that there’s not one damned thing you can do to remove those blinders from the eyes of Joseph F. Smith and obtain justice for the sisters of the 19-aughts. Railing about it now doesn’t do a thing for them, and wouldn’t, so far as I can see, do a thing to influence the actions of men in the 20-teens.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 1, 2011 @ 10:19 am

  6. By the way, here is what Daughters in My Kingdom has to say about the whole event:

    .

    .

    .

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 1, 2011 @ 10:29 am

  7. Agreed on all counts, Ardis. However, I think it’s just as likely that, as in the more recent case of the Proclamation on the Family, the Brethren just didn’t think to consider the sisters’ plans before making theirs, and then assumed it was their perfect right to ask the sisters to submit. I hope their is a really, really good explanation somewhere in the FPcy minutes, and I look forward to reading it someday.

    And I guess I think exactly the opposite about the historiographical virtue of optimism–in the moment, I think it’s possible that those sisters’ response was inspired and even necessary. Sometimes unwavering loyalty is the most requisite virtue. (See here:http://bycommonconsent.com/2010/09/24/what-i-said-at-sunstone/) But it seems to me that the benefit of historical hindsight is that we can see what those decisions have meant in the history of the church, and can make some critical evaluations of both leaders’ and members’ actions, as they relate to the ongoing health of the institution. And I think that the willingness of sisters to smile and eat $#@! and the brethren’s continuing assumption that it was not needful to truly counsel with the women of the church has had terrible consquences for the church, from which we are only now beginning to recover.

    But that is far afield from where you probably wanted to go with this discussion, so I will bow out, with apologies for threadjacking so early in the conversation.

    Comment by Kristine — November 1, 2011 @ 10:33 am

  8. An interesting account of how the RS Building was finally constructed is told in LeGrand’Richard’s Biography. (Don’t read it Kristine, until you’ve taken your blood pressure meds.)

    Apparently, after the money was all collected for a second time in late 1940’s, the RS Presidency couldn’t begin construction because the First Presidency did not tell them where to build it. Years passed, the money was depreciating, and building costs rising. Marianne Sharp, a counselor in the RS general presidency, was a daughter of J.Reuben Clark of the First Presidency, and reported that her father said they should wait for further instruction from the Brethren.
    Sis. Spafford went to Bishop Richards for advice.

    “I said, ‘Sister Spafford, Marianne isn’t the President of the Relief Society, and Pres. Clark isn’t the President of the Church. Now, if you will go to President McKay and tell him how embarrassed you are after hurrying the sisters to get their money in, and that the money is depreciating in value and the cost of building is increasing every day, I believe he will give approval for you to commence construction. And if he asks where you want to build, tell him this corner, and if he asks for a second choice, tell him that corner, and if he asks for a third choice, tell him that same corner. It won’t be any harder for them to decide where you can build today than if will be ten years from now.’
    “She went to Pres. McKay and within ten days she had his approval to go ahead.”

    (full account runs from p.218-220)

    Comment by The Other Clark — November 1, 2011 @ 10:48 am

  9. Ardis, just curious as to when the Bishop’s building was demolished? Would the coming depression era have had any impact on why the funds were raided to build the Bishop’s building? I suppose it’s all theoretical as you say due to the reasons being recorded in the restricted minutes of the First Presidency.

    Comment by Cliff — November 1, 2011 @ 10:55 am

  10. TO Clark–Thanks! That’s a terrific story, for all kinds of reasons.

    Comment by Kristine — November 1, 2011 @ 11:11 am

  11. Sadly things like this happen any time leadership changes in organizations. When, as in this case, leaders of both groups change and that many years pass it’s not that surprising. Still, I can’t help but wonder why they couldn’t have found a different lot once that one lot was gone and why the money was expected to go to that building. Lots of unanswered questions.

    Comment by Clark — November 1, 2011 @ 11:18 am

  12. Imagine if women had a voice in the leadership of the church….oh well…

    Comment by Dan — November 1, 2011 @ 11:24 am

  13. Cliff, the Bishop’s building came down in 1962. There’s a picture of the building (whole), and a particularly gory picture of his demolition, in this old Wrecking Ball Blues post.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 1, 2011 @ 11:28 am

  14. Thanks for the fascinating post. The story is symbolic of the experiences I’ve had after years of serving in Church leadership, including stake and ward R.S. president. Women in the Church are clearly demeaned and even–at times abused–by the decisions of patriarcy in the Church. Sadly, if such abuses are disclosed, one is in danger of being excommunicated.

    Comment by Chris — November 1, 2011 @ 11:52 am

  15. Thank you for this post!

    Reading this made me think that the big tests in life often try my my charity and not just my faith.

    So many things to ponder from the events that transpired. I also appreciate the comment by The Other Clark.

    Comment by Marie — November 1, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

  16. While I want to welcome readers of all kinds to Keepa, I’m going to ask you all to review Keepa’s comment policy found at the About/Contact link in the upper lefthand corner of the page. The relevant lines are:

    “Comments are solicited. Please remember, though, that I am a believing Mormon writing chiefly for others of my faith, and all comments must respect that orientation. I am the idiosyncratic court of final appeal as to suitability.”

    Blanket condemnations of the church skirt the far edge of my tolerance. Long-time supporters of Keepa have more leeway than first-time commenters.

    Specifically, I object to suggestions that the Church routinely demeans its women, and particularly that the mere “disclosure” of decisions with which one disagrees courts excommunication. That’s too glib, even for anonymous internet discourse. Please don’t go there.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 1, 2011 @ 12:28 pm

  17. Ardis,

    You are the bomb.

    Comment by Chris H. — November 1, 2011 @ 12:53 pm

  18. Chris H.: I’m rubber, you’re glue; whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you! :)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 1, 2011 @ 1:02 pm

  19. Ardis, fascinating. And Other Clark, thanks for your addition to the story.

    My mother served in the RS in our ward from very shortly after our family was baptized in 1967. I remember her frustration when serving as RS president that the high council met in the RS room, since the RS had raised the funds to furnish that room.

    When that building was enlarged (many years later) to include a stake wing, the RS room was turned into a Family History Center and the RS then met in the High Council room.

    Comment by Paul — November 1, 2011 @ 1:07 pm

  20. Wow. I can understand change of plans regarding the specific site. But to say, “oh, and give us all your money” is harder to accept.

    For the new building, The Other Clark’s addition seems to suggest that the sisters went about raising their own money a *second* time, but, Ardis, the original post says they were repaid. Any more clarification on that? Was the arrangement to be repaid made clear during the deal to hand over the first batch of money, or did that come later?

    Comment by Cynthia L. — November 1, 2011 @ 3:07 pm

  21. The money paid for the original building was refunded to be used in building the second building. But the Relief Society Building was built decades after the first one, and the costs of the new building far outstripped what the women had paid pre-1910. The women of the 1950s still had to raise an awful lot of money beyond what had been refunded.

    They asked $5 from every Relief Society member; a lot of women paid their own $5 and the same amounts for their daughters and granddaughters so that they could have a claim to having helped to build the new building. If you visit the Relief Society Building today, they’ll show you a register with the names of all the women who paid, or in whose names money was paid.

    I’ll have some stories sooner or later about some of the activities the sisters engaged in, in order to raise their allotments. $5 may not sound like so much, even in 1950s dollars, but it was quite a commitment for some wards to raise their quota.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 1, 2011 @ 3:12 pm

  22. This was really interesting. Any idea on how the accrual of money worked? ie- did they collect $10k in 1900 but only $4k over the following 6 years? I think an understanding of the current state of their fund raising went would give better visibility to this story. ie- Is it possible that the Church was being generous to combine the financial ability of the two organizations to erect a needed building, which the RS would not have had means to buy for another 10-20 years, while their money was depreciating and the cost of land was getting higher?

    Comment by Matt W. — November 1, 2011 @ 3:26 pm

  23. I don’t have actual dollar amounts except those two figures in the story. But the women seem to have done quite well in the few years they had been accumulating money, and the change in plans came as a surprise, not as relief (the way we might expect if they felt their goal was unachievable). And I don’t think the cost of land affected them, because the Church already owned the promised lot.

    But whether or not this was a specific factor, it’s a good example of the kind of question that needs to be asked before anybody can fairly claim to know all the relevant influences in the decision.

    (By the way, Joseph F. Smith’s signature was on the same letter as President Snow’s promising the lot upon the raising of $20,000 toward building costs — so one of the factors was *not* the possibility that Joseph F. Smith was unaware of the promise.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 1, 2011 @ 3:45 pm

  24. The women of the church that I have associated with through the years, never needed a Great and Spacious building to help them serve others,

    Comment by Gretchen — November 1, 2011 @ 6:34 pm

  25. What is up with Keepa and bad Book of Mormon metaphors?

    Comment by Chris H. — November 1, 2011 @ 6:43 pm

  26. Are you trying to raise a title of liberty against such things, Chris?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 1, 2011 @ 6:52 pm

  27. Watch out, commenters! Ardis’ moderation policy is tight, like unto a dish!

    Comment by Cynthia L. — November 1, 2011 @ 7:56 pm

  28. I have seen her wield the sword of justice like Nephi taking the Sword of Laban to Laban’s neck.

    Okay, I am not very good at it.

    Comment by Chris H. — November 1, 2011 @ 8:10 pm

  29. Ardis: I’d love to know if such a financial record existed. from the sounds of things, it is kind of like the Church Historian’s group in Arrington’s years, where the church leaders did what they thought was best without communicating along the way.

    Comment by Matt W. — November 1, 2011 @ 8:29 pm

  30. Ardis, for what it’s worth, Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition states that Lorenzo Snow died intestate, that the Church had no corporate entity and its’ own attorneys were admitting that clear title to many Church properties may actually lie with Snow’s heirs, and that at least some of the Snow family was none too helpful in sorting out the mess. (pp. 98-99, online at Google Books.)

    Without more research, I think it’s at least fair to ask 1) whether the First Presidency was even in a position to honor Snow’s commitment, and 2) whether doing so may have exposed the Relief Society to a claim against the contributed funds by the Snow estate.

    Comment by JimD — November 1, 2011 @ 8:33 pm

  31. Jim, that’s another example of the kind of question to ask — thanks. In this case, I would be surprised to learn that President Snow’s personal finances had a bearing, though, because the Church didn’t hesitate to put their own building on that lot, or to use Relief Society funds to help with construction (i.e., if the RS were to be exposed to any claim by the Snow estate by building there themselves, they would have been at the same risk of losing the funds they invested in the Bishop’s building).

    Jim and Matt have both raised questions that hadn’t occurred to me — whether or not these played a part in the decision, they are the kinds of questions to ask.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 1, 2011 @ 8:44 pm

  32. JimD, if clear title to the land by the church were an issue, why would the church tell the sisters to donate their money to build a different church building on the site? It seems they were quite confident the land was theirs, and they just had other plans for it.

    Comment by Cynthia L. — November 1, 2011 @ 9:10 pm

  33. As usual, a masterly telling of a complex story. Thank you, Ardis.

    Comment by lindberg — November 1, 2011 @ 10:13 pm

  34. Your interesting post prompted me to look through some general conference addresses during the same period for mention of the building. I found a reference to the building by Joseph F. Smith in October 1903. I’m not certain how it fits into the story.

    Comment by Justin — November 2, 2011 @ 9:11 am

  35. Thank you, Justin.The date of this suggests that the changed intention was much earlier than I had realized, and made very early in JFS’s administration. It suggests that one reason for the change was, perhaps, efficiency — he’s concerned about debt, and a single administration building would likely have been far less expensive than building individual headquarters for all the various quorums and auxiliaries. I also think I see hints of an awareness by JFS that the RS had already expressed unhappiness at having lost control of their work, because he reassured them that their money was still their own — while nevertheless firmly stating that they would be called upon to contribute to the new building.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 2, 2011 @ 9:37 am

  36. Wow — a fantastic post by Ardis, and then an appearance by the great Justin! Yea, it is like unto two sticks being joined together.

    Comment by David Y. — November 2, 2011 @ 12:55 pm

  37. Justin’s link alludes to the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, a brainchild of JFS, which was overruled to build the Hotel Utah.

    You could say that JFS got the last laugh, but he had to wait 80 years–twice as long as the RS sisters.

    Comment by The Other Clark — November 2, 2011 @ 1:14 pm

  38. Wow. That is so fascinating. And Frustrating. Thank you for writing this.

    Comment by css — November 2, 2011 @ 10:31 pm

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