Not Only Relieve Poor, but Save Souls
Posted: 17 Apr 2009 12:00 AM PDT
“From its beginning, the Relief Society has led out in charitable work. At the first meeting, President Emma Smith said, ‘Each member should be ambitious to do good.’ (Minutes of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, 17 Mar. 1842, p. 13.)

The minutes of those initial meetings are filled with accounts of how the sisters obtained work opportunities for the needy, took in the homeless, and made donations to help those in need of food, shelter, and schooling.”A decade after the departure from Nauvoo, sisters trained in the principles of the Relief Society were still leading in efforts to provide for those in need. In a session of conference, President Brigham Young announced that the Saints in two handcart companies were stranded by early snows and suffering in the mountains of Wyoming. He called for immediate help to rescue them, and before they left the Tabernacle many sisters had begun to gather clothing to send to the Saints in the mountains. (See Kenneth W. Godfrey et al., Women’s Voices: An Untold History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1982, p. 269.)

“In the initial meetings of Relief Society the Prophet Joseph Smith taught that the society ‘is not only to relieve the poor, but to save souls.’ (Minutes, 9 June 1842, p. 63; History of the Church, 5:25.) A later First Presidency explained: ‘One of the purposes of the organization of the Relief Society was that a system might be inaugurated by which study of religious subjects, or Church doctrine and government, might be pursued by women. The administration of charity under the direction of the Bishopric . . . was to be part of their active work. But this was not intended to absorb their activities to the exclusion of the development of faith, and the advancement of women in literary, social and domestic activities of life.’ (James R. Clark, comp., Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965-75, 5:217.)”

‘To save souls opens the whole field of human activity and development,’ Elder John A. Widtsoe later declared. ‘Relief of poverty, relief of illness; relief of doubt, relief of ignorance—relief of all that hinders the joy and progress of woman. What a magnificent commission!’ (John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1987, p. 308.)

“That commission included teaching. In a revelation given in 1830, the Lord told Emma Smith that the Prophet would authorize her ‘to expound scriptures, and to exhort the church, according as it shall be given thee by my Spirit.’ (D&C 25:7.) When she was later selected to lead the Relief Society, her prophet husband referred to this revelation that she would ‘expound the scriptures to all’ and ‘teach the female part of the community.’ He declared ‘that not she alone, but others, may attain to the same blessings.’ (Minutes, 17 Mar. 1842, p. 8.)”

Dallin H. Oaks, “The Relief Society and the Church,” Ensign, May 1992, 34–35