Episode 24 – Daughters in My Kingdom Chapter 2 – The Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, Part Two

Join Alyssa as she interviews George Miller, an expert in historical research about the connections between Mormonism and Masonry. This episode is part of the Daughters in My Kingdom series, a monthly series devoted to exploring a scholarly, uncorrelated history of women in the church. In this two-part episode, they discuss the history of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo (1842-1844). In the second episode, George and Alyssa discuss the strong Masonic imagery that Joseph Smith employed when addressing the Relief Society and what these allusions reveal about Joseph Smith’s possible intentions for the future of women in the church. Also be sure to check out part one!

Image credit: A photograph of the first page in the Official Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, containing a frontispiece that was reportedly found open on the Bible when the Nauvoo Relief Society was first formed. This frontispiece is a Masonic prayer used to open a new lodge: “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.”

Related Links:

Episodes in George Miller’s podcast series on Mormons and Masonry:

D. Michael Quinn’s “Mormon Women Have Had the Priesthood Since 1843”


10 thoughts on “Episode 24 – Daughters in My Kingdom Chapter 2 – The Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, Part Two

  1. Fascinating stuff. Thanks, George and Alyssa. Technical difficulties aside, I’m actually glad that this topic got its own podcast. I may be chiming in too late to get a response, but I have a note and a quick question.

    Note: Last week at D.I. I picked up a copy of the official “History of the Relief Society 1842-1966” that was compiled by the RS General Board and published in 1967. I was intrigued to notice that the book openly identified the original meeting place of the FRSoN as the “Masonic Hall” over Joseph Smith’s store, and thereafter as the “Lodge Room”. Perhaps the fact that JS was involved with Masonry wasn’t considered so scandalous in 1967.

    Question: I’m trying to get the 1842 timeline figured out. That well-known quote from Sarah M. Kimball has Joseph Smith meeting with them “next Thursday”, ie March 17, 1842. I understand from your podcast and other sources that the Masonic lodge was organized two days prior on March 15. Yet you, George, also mentioned that JS waited at least a month before the original request and the day the RS was organized so that he would have time to conduct the Masonic business. Where is that month coming from, and what were the exact dates of these events? Thanks in advance for any light you (or anyone) can shed on this question.

  2. Hello Anna – I am glad you enjoyed the podcast. Let me see if I can answer your question. You noted that in 1967 that the “History of the Relief Society” notes that the original meeting place for the RS was the “Masonic Hall” and the “Lodge Room”. You asked if in 1967 this seemed less scandalous than today. While this is possible, I think that it may simply be that whoever wrote the history was just being a good historian. As I have started to study the Mormon-Masonic connection, it seems like the church was distancing itself from a Masonic connection prior to 1967. For example Anthony W. Ivins, who was ordained an apostle in 1907 and was called as the 2nd counselor in the first presidency, largely denied Joseph Smith was borrowing from Masonry and sought to distance the two institutions in a book published in 1934 called “Relationship of Mormonism and Freemasonry”.

    That being said, there is an interesting story here that might interest you. After the RS was organized, the Mormons would build a beautiful Masonic Hall. According to reports describing the edifice, it was a beautiful building and the lodge room was impressive. Because of the wording of the minutes, it was the belief among some historians of the RS that it was in that building (now called the Cultural Hall by Nauvoo Restoration) that the RS was organized instead of the top floor of Joseph Smith’s store.

    As to your second question, remember that I was largely talking extemporaneously without notes with Alyssa. That being said, let me see if I can clear up the timeline a bit. The organization of the lodge and the formal installation of its officers occurred on March 15, 1842. It was on the 15th and 16th that Joseph Smith was initiated, passed, and raised to the sublime degree of Master Mason. The formation of the Relief Society took place the next day on March 17, 1842. However, that was NOT the first meeting of the group.

    Sarah M. Kimball reports that prior to this that “about a dozen of the neighboring sisters by invitation met” in her home to begin organizing the society; and that Eliza R. Snow was asked to write up some constitutions and bylaws. I am unsure of the date of this meeting, and if anyone could let me know of the exact date I would appreciate it, and when I said “about a month” I was referring to that meeting. It has been my understanding that Emma Smith was at that meeting, and therefore Joseph Smith would have been aware of the going ons of the society early on in its inception. Even if Emma was not present, we do know that the leading officers of the emerging Relief Society were also already, or soon to become, Joseph Smith’s plural wives. IOW it is likely that Joseph Smith heard about the women’s society at a very early date.

    After its first meeting in the home of Sarah Kimball and before its official organization in March 17th, 1842, the woman of the nascent society sought formal approval of their constitution and bylaws. At that meeting Joseph was reported to have said that they were “the best he had ever seen. ‘But,’ he said, ‘this is not what you want. Tell the sisters their offering is accepted of the Lord, and he has something better for them than a written constitution. I invite them all to meet with me and a few of the brethren … next Thursday afternoon, and I will organize the women under the priesthood after the pattern of the priesthood.’”

    While it is possible that this Joseph Smith made the decision to reorganize the group according to his own plan on a whim, and this was the first time the idea came to him, there are multiple reasons to suggest this is not the case. In particular, Joseph Smith was playing with the ideas of queens and princesses as early as the Kirtland period during his translation of the Book of Abraham; and he was in fact reviewing and adding to this material in March of 1842. In addition, one of the papyrii was interpreted by Joseph Smith as Jacob and his wives with one of the wives wearing a dress (or apron) with Jacob’s ladder, a prominent Masonic symbol on many Masonic aprons (including Joseph Smith’s) and trestle boards, on it. All of this suggests to me that Joseph had conceived of women’s involvement in Masonic organizations long before March of 1842.

    I hope that this answers your query, and if you, or other, have any further questions I would be happy to respond.

  3. Hi
    What an excellent podcast. So many thoughts are running through my mind and so many questions.
    1. Did the other women in the first RS presidency know the others were secret wives of Joseph Smith?
    2. Who provided for these wives? Where did they live? How did Joseph ‘manage’ them all? Did other members of the church have secret wives? Was Emma really the last to know?
    3. Did these wives get financial support after Joseph’s death?
    4. Did they try and get a portion of Joseph’s property as Emma had done? I believe she and Brigham fought over the property. Perhaps I’m wrong.
    5. What happened to this RS presidency once Joseph’s secret came out?
    6. Is there any record of communication between Emma and the first presidency about the secret marriages? Did any say sorry to Emma?
    7. Do we have any letters written by Joseph to his other wives? Was he writing to them when he was in jail too?
    8. What do you think of D&C 132 when you read it now with this sort of background information? It refers to Joseph’s ‘trespasses’ but says Emma needs to accept it or else…. How much of these verses are direct revelation from God or just Joseph trying to smooth over a difficult situation and get Emma to be on board?
    9. I am so proud of Emma for trying to stamp out polygamy. She knew it was wrong. It must have been awful to find your husband had been marrying and sleeping with so many women and some of whom she called friends. What betrayal from an eternal companion (who claimed in the Wentworth letter in 1842 to be ‘honest, true, chaste’) and members of her community ! Why would anyone want to go out west with them?

  4. Hi KBA. I am not a professional historian, and I haven’t studied enough of the primary documentation to be able to fully answer your questions, but I’ll say what little I do know.

    The first thing to keep in mind is that it’s of course very difficult to reconstruct all of the facts around Joseph Smith’s polygamy because it was obviously kept very secret. My understanding is that very few of his communications to and from his plural wives are no longer extant (or are contained in private collections and are not publicly available). Many of the few letters we do have contain instructions to burn the letters after being read, which was probably a standard instruction he added to any letter that mentioned polygamy. It’s remarkable that they were not all burned (for whatever reason). Because of the intense secrecy surrounding Nauvoo polygamy, it’s very difficult to reconstruct how Joseph Smith interacted with his wives. My personal hunch would be that he did not support them financially and that they made no claims on his property after his death. I would assume that they continued to live the same lifestyle they lived as single women: living with family and earning money through sewing, taking in boarders, teaching school, etc. After Smith’s death, most of them were cared for by remarrying other church leaders. (Eliza Snow married Brigham Young, for example.) It was only when polygamy began to be openly practiced in Utah (publicly announced in 1855) when husbands began to be under obligation to provide for their plural wives (which we’ll probably get into in our next podcast in the series). I’d recommend reading Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness for more information.

    As for what happened to the RS presidency when the secret came out, I’m not sure what you mean by that question. What counts as the secret “coming out”? Emma’s discovery of it? The first expose’ written about it? The publication of the first edition of the Nauvoo Expositor? In any case, I doubt we have any kind of extant material that can tell us what happened to the RS presidency in relation to the polygamy.

    As for communications between Emma and the first presidency, at the time of Joseph’s death, Joseph, Hyrum and Sidney Rigdon were the members of the first presidency. Of course, we have multiple records of Hyrum discussing section 132 with Emma at length. More than anyone else, he was the most successful at persuading her to sometimes consent to believe in it (sort of). I am not aware of any communications between Rigdon and Emma and I’m not certain what their relationship was. But, of course, Rigdon did not become Joseph Smith’s successor, so his story kind of departs from Emma’s at this point. As you are no doubt aware, Brigham Young and Emma did not get along and she was very much vilified by the “Brighamites” (which became today’s LDS church) after they migrated to Utah. There was an old joke that was told among the Saints about how Joseph Smith once said he would go to hell and back for Emma if he had to—and “that’s exactly where he’ll find her!” This vilification remained a strong part of the narrative in Mormon culture up until the last decade for complex cultural reasons. I think the writers of Mormon Enigma do a good job of defending Emma’s good name and showing how much of the criticism she received was unwarranted.

    As for D&C 132, I must honestly say that I personally never read D&C 132 in its entirety until I was an adult and after I had learned about Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy. For fairly obvious reasons, there are not very many opportunities in official church settings to read D&C 132 and I just never came across it on my own until I began to be interested in Mormon studies as an academic. So, today I pretty much read it for what it is: the LDS doctrine of polygamy as taught by Joseph Smith, still officially included as part of the canon of LDS scripture—with all the historical, emotional, intellectual, and cultural baggage that comes with it. I personally feel that other members of the church should be more aware of their own scripture and history for many reasons—if not just to get things out on the table where we can learn how to deal with it (cope with it?) as a culture. The church can sometimes set people up for pretty painful faith crises when they don’t acknowledge it more openly.

  5. Thanks so much Alyssa for your comments. I have personally found the truth about Joseph Smith difficult to digest. I’m not surprised at Joseph Smith because men in power are often promiscuous. However, what really bothers me, is church propaganda.
    Today in church we briefly talked about polygamy in RS as we introduced Lorenzo Snow. The African sisters don’t have a problem with it as many in their homelands practice it. But a lot of the white sisters refuse to accept it. After RS, I chatted to some members. And the same lies about polygamy surfaced.
    1. Only a small percentage practised it.
    2. The men didn’t really want to practice it, particularly Joseph Smith
    3. They always had their wife’s permission.
    I listened to this play out in front of me. And I felt guilty all of a sudden for knowing more than they did (I only found this out a few months ago). They were still blissfully naïve about Joseph Smith. I thought, should I burst their bubble, or continue the charade? I decided to speak up and tell the truth. It’s not a sin, for crying out loud.
    I told them that Joseph Smith had 33 or 34 wives and that these were confirmed by the LDS church and that you could check the records etc.
    “Oh, but didn’t some get sealed to him after his death?” they asked.
    I then told them the not so nice history of the church and polygamy. They were surprised to say the least. The thing is, I felt guilty for exposing Joseph Smith. Why? Coz, we want to believe that he was whiter than white.

  6. Quick correction to my comment above: I misspoke and should have said that most of Joseph Smith’s communications with his wives are no longer extant. It’s strange that I said they were. Typo, I guess.

    Anyhow, thanks, KBA. It takes a lot of chutzpah to talk about Joseph Smith’s polygamy with other church members. I applaud you for being more bold than I am about discussing these kinds of issues with church members and I hope they respond in the best possible way (by being filled with a desire to research it on their own and hopefully make up their own minds about it).

    I’ve been faced with a similar choice about whether to discuss “church problems” with others many times and it’s always an anxiety-ridden, impossible choice for me to make. I admire people who have both the strength and sensitivity to have those kinds of “foyer discussions,” as Dan Wotherspoon calls it. I think these dialogues have the potential to be transformative and enlightening. I’ve had a few experiences where I’ve tried to engage other people and, unfortunately, those early experiences didn’t go terribly well. Usually the conversations were affable, but not productive in terms of getting them to reflect more deeply about their beliefs. Since that time, I’ve never quite had the courage or the right quality of relationships with other people to continue engaging with them, so I’ve tended to avoid those discussions with my ward members (which also causes a part of me to feel chagrined).

    I think another aspect that gives me pause is that I know how painful a faith transition can be. It’s really tough to have a sudden, violent paradigm shift like that—in which you have to re-examine, revise and in some cases remove your most cherished beliefs about the world and the church. While I’m very happy to help people who are already in the middle of a faith crisis, I don’t necessarily want to be the catalyst for one. I dislike causing people to experience the pain of a faith crisis if they haven’t chosen it for themselves. (That’s why I put the disclaimer at the beginning of these episodes, in fact.) It’s constant source of internal tension for me.

  7. I love, love, love this series of podcasts. Are the chapter-by-chapter podcasts of DIMK going to continue?

  8. I really appreciated the podcast. It was very insightful. I tried to access George’s podcasts on Mormonism and Masonry via the above links but to no avail. I then tried searching for them on the Mormon Expressions site again to no avail. I was hoping you could provide links directly to the podcasts? Thanks for the help!

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