The Relief Society was organized on March 17th, 1842 and on March 17th 2013 it will have its 170th Anniversary. This women’s organization was originally called the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo. Before the first meeting began, there was found a scrap of paper laying on an open Bible. On this paper was written the words:
“O, Lord! help our widows, and fatherless children! So mote it be. Amen. With the sword, and the word of truth, defend thou them. So mote it be. Amen.”
This prayer is one of many clues to understand the purpose and structure of the Relief Society. There is a key phrase that is repeated twice, “So mote it be.” This phrase is an archaic form of “So may/might it be.” It comes from Freemasonry. The idea of helping the widows and fatherless children is also strongly connected to Masonry. The phrase “defend thou them” comes from Psalms 5:11. There are probably other scriptural connections that could be made.
It is also important to note that the Relief Society’s first meeting was in the Masonic Hall where Joseph Smith became a Master mason the night before. I suggest that Joseph Smith left the Bible there, and wrote this prayer on the scrap of paper and placed it on the open Bible. It was all prepared for them to find it that day. There may even be some Masonic connection associated with that act. However I don’t know enough about masonry to try and make a connection. Nevertheless, before the first meeting even starts we can see the intense connections to Freemasonry.
In my piece Understanding Priesthood Keys, I attempted to clarify Joseph Smith’s understanding of Priesthood Keys. I demonstrated that, even from the early years, Joseph’s concept of priesthood and keys was tied to Freemasonry. The association that Mormonism has to Freemasonry was not a Nauvoo innovation, but has been there since before the church was founded. It is no surprise to find the Relief Society organized following the same model.
But wait, isn’t Masonry only for men? It’s not. In about 1740 a branch of Masonry was developed in France. It was called ” Maçonnerie d’Adoption” or “Adopted Masonry.” It was developed to allow women to participate in a female branch of Masonry. Its is apparent that the highest rank in Adoptive Masonry is that of “Elect Lady.” In July 1830 a revelation was given, which became Section 25 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Emma is referred to by this title. In our modern editions of the scriptures it is written thus:
3 Behold, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou art an elect lady, whom I have called.
It could just be a coincidence. Since “elect lady” is not capitalized it is probably not referring to a title. However, I looked up the original revelation in my Facsimile Edition. In the original revelation it is written this way:
Behold thy sins are for given thee & thou art an Elect Lady whom I have called
Elect Lady is capitalized in the original revelation. Being capitalized it is far more likely referring to a title and calling. In addition to Emma Smith being referred to as an Elect Lady, some Relief Society Presidents after her were referred to as Elect Lady.
During the first meeting of the Relief Society Joseph Smith initially Presided and suggested that they elect a presiding officer. That officer would then choose two councilors. Joseph Smith then said he, “would ordain them to preside over the Society.” Joseph also instructed them that the Presidency of the Relief Society would preside “just as the Presidency, preside over the church.” I suppose this could be interpreted as meaning that the Relief Society Presidency was to preside in the same manner as the First Presidency. However, those are very powerful words to use. I think it puts the Relief Society Presidency on a much more powerful footing than simply being in charge of the girls club.
Emma Smith was elected unanimously to be the President of the Relief Society. The “Presidentess Elect” then chose Sarah M. Cleveland and Elizabeth Ann Whitney to be her Counselors. Joseph then read the revelation to Emma Smith which had been received twelve years earlier. He then “stated that she was ordain[e]d at the time, the Revelation was given, to expound the scriptures to all; and to teach the female part of community; and that not she alone, but others, may attain to the same blessings.”
I searched the word “expound” on scriptrues.lds.org and found that every entry in the Doctrine and Covenants was associated with some ordination, calling, or priesthood office/responsibility.
Joseph Smith further hits his point home about Emma’s position by reading the first verse of 2nd John which also refers to an elect lady. Emma was not simply called an elect lady because she was a special person. She was an Elect Lady because that referred to her office as a President. After Emma’s election John Taylor then ordained the two women* to be councilors to “the Elect Lady.” President Emma Smith and her two councilors then took charge of the meeting only deferring to Joseph when they needed instruction on how to conduct the meeting.
We can see further Masonic connections in the 3rd Meeting of the Relief Society on March 30th. Joseph Smith was in attendance and was worried that they were growing too fast. He instructed them that they should, ”grow up by degrees.”
In an Epistle sent on March 30, 1842, Church leadership was going to disclose some confidential information to the Relief Society but they weren’t sure that the Relief Society could ensure it’s confidentiality. They are worried that “there may be some among you who are not sufficiently skill’d in Masonry as to keep a secret.” They then close the epistle with, “Let this Epistle be had as a private matter in your Society, and then we shall learn whether you are good masons.”
Masonry is very closely tied to the nature of the Relief Society. The Endowment was an Appended Body to the Blue Lodge degrees of Masonry. It was often called “Celestial Masonry.” Emma Smith was ordained to a Masonic title in 1830; and the parallel women’s organization, which was established in 1842, has definite Masonic ties. It would actually be very surprising to find that it didn’t have those ties.
Women and Gifts of the Spirit
Gifts of the Spirit are those acts which are fruits of the Holy Ghost. They come through the Spirit to be a proof that the a person is a true believer. In 1 Corinthians chapter 12 these gifts are listed as: the word of wisdom, the word of knowledge, faith, healing, working of miracles, prophecy, discerning of spirits, divers kinds of tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. These gifts were abundant in the Relief Society. On April 19, 1842 during their fifth meeting, Sarah Cleveland said that she felt things in her heart that she could not express in our language; so she powerfully spoke in tongues. Another women then gave the interpretation of what had been spoken. During that meeting it was recorded that, “The meeting was very interesting, nearly all present arose & spoke, and the spirit of the Lord like a purifying stream, refreshed every heart.”
At another meeting later in the year “Mrs. Chase” prophesied that if the sisters are faithful the gifts of the spirit would be with them. Thus showing that the gift of prophecy was also present among the women.
During the sixth meeting on April 28, 1842 Joseph Smith spoke to them. He had heard that members of the Relief Society were saying that women shouldn’t be laying their hands on the sick and healing them. Joseph addressed this concern saying that people should rejoice that the sick could be healed. He went on to say that the Gifts of the Spirit should follow all who believe whether male or female; and that “if the sisters should have faith to heal the sick, let all hold their tongues, and let every thing roll on.”
Joseph gave further approval of women laying on their hands to heal the sick by saying that if God gave his sanction, in that the person was healed then, “there could be no devils in it.” Dealing the final blow to settle the matter concerning whether women should heal the sick he said, “there could be no more sin in any female laying hands on the sick than in wetting the face with water— that it is no sin for any body to do it that has faith, or if the sick has faith to be heal[e]d by the administration.”
It is important to remember that there is a distinction between laying on hands to heal the sick and laying on hands for a priesthood blessing. They are two different things.(D&C 42:43, 44)
Even though some members of the Relief Society, and probably the church in general, doubted that women should be able to exhibit these spiritual gifts; Joseph corrected this misconception. If women are believers in Christ they too should exhibit the gifts that follow believers. The Relief Society in these years was filled with the exhibition of these spiritual gifts. Women were healing and being healed, they were speaking in tongues, and they were prophesying.
Women and the Priesthood
There is a strong correlation between Joseph Smith’s views on priesthood and Masonry. With the Relief Society’s close ties with to Masonry could it be possible that priesthood plays into this? This is actually exactly what we find. During the very first meeting of the Relief Society Joseph Smith instructed them that officers should “be appointed and set apart, as Deacons, Teachers, &c. are among [the church].”
During the meeting on March 30, 1842 Joseph Smith said that “the Society should move according to the ancient Priesthood” He also said that he “was going to make of this Society a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day— as in Pauls day.”
Sarah Kimball recalled Joseph Smith’s invitation to the first assembly of women. She recalled his description that the Relief Society would operate “under the priesthood after the pattern of the priesthood.”
Later, on April 28, 1842 Joseph visited the Relief Society and spoke to them, “respecting the Priesthood, and give instructions for the benefit of the Society.” It is recorded that his instructions were intended only for the Relief Society. Later during this meeting he read from the twelfth chapter of 1st Corinthians and instructed them concerning the different offices. Thus seeming to indicate that those offices were to be present in the Relief Society
28 And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.
It seems that the climax of Joseph Smith’s discourse to the Relief Society was when he most clearly “spoke of delivering the keys to this Society and to the church.” He continued by stating “that the keys of the kingdom are about to be given to them, that they may be able to detect every thing false— as well as to the Elders.” Not only was Joseph Smith going to give the Keys of the Priesthood to the Quorum of the Twelve(Elders) but also to the Relief Society. Following those statements he reaffirmed, for a third time, his intent of giving the keys by saying “I now turn the key to you in the name of God and this Society shall rejoice and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time.”
Elder Reynolds Cahoon addressed the Relief Society on August 13, 1843 and said that he was “perfectly satisfied with the order of this society.” He also compared the Relief Society to other organizations in the world by saying, “There are many Benevolent Societies abroad design[e]d to do good but not as this[;] ours is according to the order of God connected with the priesthood.”
We can further see the Relief Society’s role as a parallel priesthood organization in Cahoon’s statement that “the organization of this Society & the Church is similar[,] according to the mind & order of God.” The church leadership(First presidency, Elders, Priest, teachers, Deacons, etc.) are to be mirrored in the Relief Society. Joseph established it this way to be a parallel priesthood organization for women. This follows the Masonic model and also manifests the complimentary male-female duality of humanity. When some people discuss women and the priesthood they expect it to be some androgynous concept with women in the First presidency, and potentially men in the Relief Society Presidency. But this is not the case as it does not preserve the unique qualities of each.
The biggest problem in people’s minds is that they view genders as competitive. They believe that there must be women in the First presidency or else women are not equal with men. This is because they view the Relief Society as lesser than that First Presidency. But they are not. Remember what Joseph Smith stated about the Relief Society Presidency; that they should preside “just as the Presidency, preside over the church.” The Relief Society is the female priesthood counterpart to the male priesthood offices. One is not higher than the other, rather they are complimentary. Just as males and females are complimentary to each other.
The following quote sums up the nature and purpose of both men, women, and their priesthoods. It was given by Bishop Newel K. Whitney in the presence of Joseph Smith during the May 27, 1842 Relief Society meeting:
In the beginning God created man male and female and bestowed upon man certain blessings peculiar to a man of God, of which woman partook, so that without the female all things cannot be restored to the earth. It takes all to restore the Priesthood.
* Cleveland was ordained to be a Counselor to “the Elect Lady”; and Whitney was ordained to be a Counselor to “Mrs. Smith, the Prest. of the Institution.”
Most of these quotes were taken from the Nauvoo Relief Society minute Book which can be found here.