Relief Society, Relief Societies, and the Future

Benevolence movements in antebellum America were a way for Protestant women to shape culture in a nonconfrontational, indirect way. These organizations began from a variety of personal and group motivations. Of course there was genuine care and concern for the needy. But there was also a certain anxiety about living in increasingly urban environments that contained ever larger numbers of the poor. Add to that the community minded who saw the lower edges of society as a drag on the economy and public culture. It’s not clear how the Nauvoo Female Relief Society fit this framework but one has to assume that different members saw it in different terms. The obvious difference was the quasi-priesthood aspects of Relief Society.

Benevolent societies were not really private efforts, in the sense that they influenced public policy. The private institutional values pressed into the public sphere through local government cooperation. I won’t go into recent government linkage to private religious groups, but there ought to be something there for discussion. It is certainly true that for Protestants there was no such thing as strictly private behavior.

Women were the engines of benevolence and they frequently crossed even deep denominational differences. Those differences were the territory of men in large part. Women had more practical concerns that stemmed from their domestic identities as mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters. The charitable service not only bridged denominational chasms but harsh realities of capitalism and the frantic expansion of ghettos in new cities and towns. In taking this approach, women gained a kind of self-made power but the substance of power in both government and religion eluded them. The establishment of the Nauvoo Female Relief Society had a different foundation. Admittedly, it began with both a pattern and motivation very much in the mold of the Protestant versions in the east. But with Joseph Smith’s vision of the program it gained a different cachet. It was a kind of spiritual domain. Still not intersecting the core of power, it nevertheless become a part of it. But the Nauvoo Relief Society came to an unremarkable end over conflicts centered around both that joining and that failure. In this its trajectory found similar strains in American benevolence. The societies were invaded by men-folk and even the semblance of female power drained away in the post war decades in that particular arena.

Mormon Relief Society found loyalists among strong independent souls like Eliza Snow, but Church leaders were cautious over establishing even the old semblance of power outside the Presidency and Twelve. It was only the threat of losing control of public morality — if anything, the Protestant concept of no barrier between public (government) and private morality was even stronger in Utah Mormonism — and an attendant growth in population and some increasing diversity in that population that pressed not only Relief Societies into service but other vestiges of Nauvoo – the Young Men and Ladies societies. There is some irony here in that these “auxiliaries” nearly took over the Church. I mean in the sense that much, even most Church innovation and activity centered around these organizations. Succeeding decades saw a retrenchment (embodied in correlation) deleting the extra-hierarchical powers and activities of Relief Society. Like some other trends, these cycles tend to repeat in a damped form. What’s next? I don’t know, but the separation of the public and the private in America and the periodic resistance to that promises to play out in the way both the Church and Relief Society explore their linked futures.

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