What I learned about feminism from my remarkable Relief Society ancestors
In a world where womanhood, motherhood, and feminism are often discussed by opinionated and conflicting voices, I’m constantly pondering questions about a woman’s role in society. Do I need a career to make a valuable contribution to the world? Is my service at home looked down upon? How can I balance homemaking with raising with my children? When my children are grown, what will be my work? What is a woman’s role in the church?
I found inspiration and answers to questions this week when I learned about my female ancestors’ membership in the Relief Society of Nauvoo.
Relief Society is an organization for female disciples of Christ. In Daughters in My Kingdom: The History and Work of Relief Society, women are encouraged to be like Mary and Martha, ancient disciples who learned from the Savior.
In an age when women were generally expected to provide only temporal service, the Savior taught Martha and Mary that women could also participate spiritually in His work. He invited them to become His disciples and partake of salvation, “that good part” that would never be taken from them…As women participate in Relief Society, they serve as valiant disciples of Jesus Christ in the work of salvation … Sister Julie B. Beck, the fifteenth Relief Society general president, taught: “Through Relief Society we practice being disciples of Christ. We learn what He would have us learn, we do what He would have us do, and we become what He would have us become.” 
Biblical Womanhood and the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo
I discovered the connection between my ancestors’ membership in the Nauvoo Relief Society at the perfect time. These womanhood questions have been on my mind this month as I’ve been reading A Year Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans for a book club. Evans discusses the Christian women’s movement of “biblical womanhood” that elevates homemaking as the best way for women to serve God. Evans concludes, however, in one of the chapters, that women can find God in whatever vocation they undertake:
If God is the God of all pots and pans, then He is also the God of all shovels and computers and paints and assembly lines and executive offices and classrooms. Peace and joy belong not to the woman who finds the right vocation, but to the woman who finds God in any vocation, who looks for the divine around every corner.
It’s not in homemaking alone, or any one vocation, that a woman finds her highest purpose, but in discipleship. For now, my discipleship leads me to serve my husband and children at home during most of my time. Yet I also want follow the teaching of Joseph Smith that when we are filled with the love of God, we are not content with blessing our families alone, but range through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race.
I love Relief Society’s vision to bless the whole world through the teachings of the Savior and charitable service. The Relief Society’s “I Was a Stranger” refugee campaign is one exemplary part of this vision. Through Relief Society, I have grown to realize that I can make a difference by serving not just my own children, but the kids on their soccer team, neighborhood children, and my children’s friends. Not only the sisters in my family, but my sisters in Relief Society, in the community, and throughout the world.
For now, my most pressing service is to my young children. I love teaching them and connecting with them. But when they are grown, I know that I will still have a contribution to make. Sometimes it seems difficult to find the right balance between the service I give at home and the service I give outside of my home, yet I know as I strive to serve God, He will guide me.
While reading A Year of Biblical Womanhood, I decided that my next book to help me learn about the roles of women would be an inspirational biography about an exemplary LDS woman who served in the Relief Society (which book I had yet to choose). Imagine my delight when I discovered the FamilySearch campaign to discover my own ancestors who helped build the Relief Society in the early days of its organization and read about them in the original records of the Church History Library.
This year is the 175th anniversary of the organization of the Relief Society in Nauvoo. On March 17, 1842, Joseph Smith gathered with twenty Mormon women who had desired to form a society to serve the temple workmen. He invited them to be organized in a divinely inspired and authorized manner, not after the pattern of women’s benevolent societies that were popular at the time, but “after the pattern, or order, of the priesthood,” that is, with a president and two counselors, ordained by the laying on of hands. The new presidency would make decisions and set precedents that would serve as the society’s constitution, and they would also expound the scriptures and exhort the members to righteousness and good works.”
As the Relief Society began their work to aid the poor and contribute to the building of the temple, many more women in the city petitioned to join. Among those women were my ancestors Phoebe Odell Merrill and Elizabeth Runyon Merrill. In order to join the Relief Society, each applicant was required to show virtue and godliness. The society then received the new applicants with a vote.
Phoebe’s Unique Gifts
In the Nauvoo Relief Society Minute book, I found my 5th great grandmother Phoebe Odell Merrill being received as a new member on May 12, 1842:
“Minutes of the Proceedings of the Seventh Meeting of the Society, Lodge Room, May 13th. [12th]. The meeting opened with singing, “Thy mercy my God is the theme of my song.” &c.
Pray’r by Prest. Joseph Smith. The following names were then presented to the Society and were unanimously receiv’d— to wit.”
I tried to imagine myself there in the room with my ancestor Phoebe, at a relief society meeting in Nauvoo. I found the hymn “Thy mercy my God is the theme of my song” in this page of the Nauvoo Hymnal:
I looked up the song on YouTube and found a beautiful arrangement by Sandra McCracken. Others in the comments mentioned they had sung the song to the tune of “How Firm a Foundation.” I found music for the song in another hymnal from the 1800s using Hymnary.org:
As I listen to this song, I feel connected to Phoebe, who worshiped through song with her sisters in God in those early Relief Society meetings in Nauvoo.
Reading stories about Phoebe on FamilySearch, I learned that she was a talented nurturer. She had a talent for discovering sick or discouraged people and nursing them back to good health. She was knowledgeable about herbs and medicine due to her experience with frontier living. She must have found great joy as a member of Relief Society seeking out those who needed her unique gifts and serving them as the Savior would.
In a Nauvoo Relief Society meeting on June 23, 1842, one of the women present “prophesied that henceforth, if the sisters are faithful, the gifts of the gospel shall be with us, especially the gift of healing— &c. &c.”
That this gift was passed down as the special contribution that Phoebe made to her community is evidence to me that God magnifies women who seek every good gift in order to bless and uplift others.
Phoebe’s story makes me want to find my unique talent and reach out to all within my sphere of influence who I can help.
A month later, Phoebe’s daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Runyon Merrill, was received into the Relief Society. Elizabeth is my my 4th great grandmother. On this occasion, June 9, 1842, the Prophet Joseph taught the sisters about acceptance, mercy, and kindness. He said,
“Nothing is so much calculated to lead people to forsake sin as to take them by the hand and watch over them with tenderness. When persons manifest the least kindness and love to me, O what pow’r it has over my mind, while the opposite course has a tendency to harrow up all the harsh feelings and depress the human mind.”
Elizabeth left comfort behind, pioneering the frontier. She must have found great joy in her discipleship, knowing she was gaining eternal rewards for her present discomfort. Her fortitude is a pillar to me.
Where did Elizabeth go to strengthen her faith against the trials that would come? The Female Relief Society of Nauvoo held meetings often where they strengthened each other through the word of God. The first leaders of the Relief Society were Emma Smith, President, and counselors Sarah M. Cleveland and Elizabeth Ann Whitney.
Elizabeth likely attended the Relief Society meeting on June 23, 1842. The society’s secretary, Eliza Snow, wrote in the minute book that Counselor Cleveland “spoke about living by faith alone— the pow’rs of darkness were array’d against us, but said she fear’d nothing.”
The early Mormon women who left Nauvoo when mobs threatened seemed to fear nothing as the uprooted and traveled over a thousand miles to their new home in what would become Utah. Elizabeth and her husband Samuel fled in February 1847, crossing the the Mississippi River on ice. One of their oxen fell off of the raft and was drowned. They settled in Council Bluffs, Iowa, for two years to prepare for the trek west. Elizabeth gave birth to a son there in 1849. In 1850, they and left Iowa for Utah with five children, ages 12, 9, 7, 4 and 1.
In the Salt Lake Valley, they settled in a dug-out with a dirt floor and no windows. Her oldest son, Adelbert, died at age 19 in 1856. Elizabeth outlived three of her children – by 1900, 6 of her 9 children were living. A history of Elizabeth’s son, my 3rd great grandfather Orrin Jackson Merrill, tells about their difficult frontier experiences:
In 1859 the Merrill family moved to Smithfield, Utah … They arrived in Smithfield in the spring of 1860 and began at once to construct dugouts which they lived in the next summer. The dugouts were made by digging a hole in the ground, preferably on a side hill, covering it with timber, then applying a thick layer of clay for a roof. The dugouts also had dirt floors, and one door and very often no windows. The men built small log houses for the winter usually two room affairs with dirt roofs. They would also fill the cracks in the walls with clay. …
The saints organized a company of men known as the “minutemen.” The men in this company were ready at all times to defend the people against the marauding bands of Indians. ….
One night an Indian stole one of the pioneer’s horses, so the Indian was put in one of the log huts and a guard was set to watch him…On the 23rd of July, a band of Indians rode into town to get their imprisoned comrade. The people would not let him go, so the Indians began shooting around the town. The guard running to stop the Indians gave the prisoner a chance to escape, but the Indian was shot and killed while running from his prison. This angered the Indians greatly and they killed one of the whites, and shot at another. They were finally driven from the town. These Indians started across the country for Franklin. They met two Merrill boys who were going to Smithfield. They killed one and wounded the other severely.
About this time the grasshoppers began coming in great hordes so fast that at times the sun was almost black with them. They were ravenous and devoured all of the green things that they came upon. The grasshoppers soon finished the already poor crops of the settlers… During the spring and summer the people had to exist on greens, sago roots, and other herbs that they were able to obtain.
[Orrin’s] sisters had two dresses at one time, a Sunday dress and an everyday dress. The everyday dress was made from the Sunday dress of the year before. His sister’s petticoats were made by taking her old dresses and padding them with cotton batting, and sewing two of them together.
Elizabeth’s faith and discipleship gave her strength despite terrifying conditions and the loss of loved ones. She lived into her late 80s. Her life story makes me want to focus on what matters most – faith in God during trials and relationships with precious family members.
When membership in Relief Society was not automatic for all LDS women, Phoebe and Elizabeth joined. Their service motivates me to shake off societal and cultural opinions about women.
I want to discover my unique talents like Phoebe, stand strong in the face of adversity like Elizabeth, and be anxiously engaged in blessing the whole human race as a member of Relief Society and disciple of Christ.
At different times in my life, I have been a student, teacher, single woman, wife, employee, homemaker, and mother. Someday, I will be an empty-nester. I may become a schoolteacher again. As my roles in life change, one thing remains the same – my discipleship. I cling to my identity as a follower of Christ as the highest purpose of my life.
This does not change whether I work or stay at home, when I have a new baby, or when the children grow up. My purpose in life comes from being a follower of Christ, not from my homemaking skills, my career, or from any one of the other roles that I fill during my life. I find purpose, strength, and connection through my discipleship – discipleship which finds full expression in being a member of Relief Society. This 175th anniversary of Relief Society video beautifully shows the meaning that I find as a member of Relief Society.
Today is the general women’s session of LDS General Conference for all women ages 8 and up. I look forward to learning from the general presidency of the Relief Society and learning about our purpose as disciples of Christ.
Click here for a step by step tutorial: How to Find Your Ancestors in Early Relief Society Records
 Julie B. Beck, “What Latter-day Saint Women Do Best: Stand Strong and Immovable,” Ensign, Nov. 2007, 109. Quoted in Daughters in My Kingdom, p. 7.
 Holy Homemaking: A Response from Rachel Held Evans, www.ChristianityToday.com
 History of the Church, 4:227; from a letter from Joseph Smith to the Twelve, Dec. 15, 1840, Nauvoo, Illinois, published in Times and Seasons, Jan. 1, 1841, p. 258; this letter is incorrectly dated Oct. 19, 1840, in History of the Church. Cited in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, (2011), 423–34
 “Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book,” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 25, 2017, http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/nauvoo-relief-society-minute-book/66
 “Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book,” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 24, 2017, http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/nauvoo-relief-society-minute-book/59
 “Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book,” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 25, 2017, http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/nauvoo-relief-society-minute-book/65