Friday, March 17, 2017

Sophia Bundy Packard

Sophia Bundy Packard and her husband, Noah, were introduced to the church by their neighbors, the Jolly family. They had originally pitied the Jolly family for their belief in the “gold bible,” and decided to visit them to be friendly (and set them straight about the error in their ways). Mrs. Jolly rose to the occasion, taking the scriptures Noah quoted to her and showing how they fit into the Mormon understanding of the scriptures. He could not refute her arguments.

When Mrs. Jolly later offered Noah a Book of Mormon, Sophia and her husband read it out loud together. On their second reading, the couple received a powerful spiritual confirmation of its truth, and they were baptized. They moved first to Kirtland, with many stretches where Sophia was left to manage as best as she could while her husband served several missions, and the family was often impoverished. After a few short stops in other places, the family settled down in Nauvoo in 1840.

Sophia was present at the first Relief Society meeting, and after Elizabeth Ann Whitney motioned that Emma Smith be named President of the Relief Society, Sophia seconded the motion.

When the Relief Society organized four “necessity committees,” designed to “search out the poor and suffering – To call on the rich for aid and thus as far as possible relieve the wants of all,” Sophia was named to one of these committees. These committees would eventually transform into our current visiting teaching program. At a later meeting, Eliza R. Snow records Sophia stating that “she desird [sic] to do her duty and magnify her calling faithfully,” and Sophia did this, bringing attention to the needs of sisters on several occasions captured in the Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, and donating resources to help the poor.

She travelled to Utah in 1850 in the Warren Foote company, and settled the next year in Springville, Utah. She died in 1858, as her husband puts it, “her life in all probability shortened by over-exertion in taking care of the sick in the move that took place that season from the north to the south.”

I’m thankful for her example of dedicated service, and for the visiting program she pioneered – it has blessed my life immensely.


The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-Day Saint Women’s History, eds. Jill Mulvay Derr, Carol Cornwall Madsen, Kate Holbrook, and Matthew J. Grow.

Warren Foote Company (1850), Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel Database, 1847-1868.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Sarah M Kingsley Howe Cleveland

When Joseph Smith called for suggestions on the name for the women’s organization of the church, Sarah M Cleveland, newly ordained to serve as a counselor to Emma Smith, brought forward the name “The Nauvoo Female Relief Society.” After some debate, her choice of the word “relief” stood. The Relief Society leadership liked that the term set them apart from benevolent societies of the world, and that it spoke to the scale of the effort these women would undertake.  

This was the first of many ways that Sarah left her mark on the society. As I’ve read the Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, she strikes me as a woman that seems at ease in her leadership role, comfortable giving counsel, leading, and acting as one given authority from God. She conducted meetings in Emma’s absence, gave women opportunities to share their spiritual experiences, and used spiritual gifts including the gift of tongues and healing. In fact, one woman was so pleased with a healing blessing she received from the RS presidency that she declared that “she never realized more benefit thro’ any administration – that she was heal’d, and thought the sisters had more faith than the brethren.”

She had long had close ties to Emma Smith. After Joseph had been imprisoned in Liberty Jail, Emma and her children lived in Quincy, Illinois with Sarah and her husband John Cleveland, who was friendly to the church but never did join it. After Joseph and Emma settled in Nauvoo, they selected a lot across the street from their home for the Clevelands, where John and Sarah settled for a time, eventually leaving Nauvoo to find work a little over a year after the Relief Society formed. Although the family returned to Nauvoo later on, she is not found anywhere in the Relief Society minutes after this move.

While we don’t have official documentation, it is likely that she was sealed as a plural wife to Joseph Smith – Eliza R Snow’s sealing happened at Cleveland’s home (and usually only those that had committed to polygamy were witnesses to these sealings), she was resealed to Joseph in two temples, and some contemporary sources cite her as a plural wife. She continued to live with John for the rest of her life. Some sources imply that she was sealed for eternity only, which does fit the historical data well, but can’t be confirmed.

When the saints left for Utah, Sarah stayed behind with her husband. Different sources give different reasons, but according to her family’s biographer, Sarah had originally left her husband to join a camp that was leaving Nauvoo, but Brigham Young counseled her to stay because her husband was “a good man, having shown himself kind ever helping those in need.” She seems to have joined a protestant revivalist religion before her death; regardless of how she viewed her membership in the church at that stage, she was the kind of woman that would need a community to worship within.

I appreciate Sarah’s charitable & confident leadership. She believed in the goals of the Relief Society and its divinely-ordained status, and thrived in her service.  We have been blessed through the foundation she laid.


The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-Day Saint Women’s History, eds. Jill Mulvay Derr, Carol Cornwall Madsen, Kate Holbrook, and Matthew J. Grow.

Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith

Friday, March 3, 2017

Philinda Clark Eldredge Merrick Keeler

Philinda Merrick had known tragedy by the time she joined that first Relief Society meeting. Driven from her home in Missouri in 1838, her family had stopped in Haun’s Mill on its way to gather to Nauvoo. The mill was attacked by an anti-Mormon armed mob that same day, and Philinda watched her husband’s murder. Her oldest son was mortally wounded by the mob because “nits make lice.” He died the next month. She was penniless, as the mob had stolen their savings from the sale of their home, and she had a wounded son and three other children to care for.

As her husband’s body was lowered into the ground, a man that had survived by running and hiding exclaimed, “There goes some of your foolhardy bravery.” Her reply: “I would rather have him lying there than standing in the coward’s shoes you stand in.” She honored his bravery and wanted it for her children; she told her sons, “I am always ready to help you unless you come to me with a wound in the back. In that case, I just would not be interested.”

She stayed at the mill until her son died. She had a choice – her father-in-law offered to take them in and care for them if she would renounce her faith. She stayed true, and Brigham Young arranged for her travel to Nauvoo.

She took in sewing and lived in the Smith home. Emma personally invited her to come to the organizational meeting of the Relief Society, declaring that Joseph had said that “the work of women in the Church is just as important as the work men have to do. He wants to organize us under the power and authority of the Priesthood that we may have the same Heavenly Guidance and direction in our lives the men now have. You have been chosen to be with us at the time.”

Again and again, the leadership in the church showed concern for her on an individual level. During that first meeting, Emma Smith called attention to Philinda’s financial plight. She declared that she “is a widow – is industrious – performs her work well, therefore recommend her to the patronage of such as wish to hire needlework – those who hire widows must be prompt to pay and inasmuch as some have defrauded the laboring widow of her wages, we must be upright and deal justly.”

She became a plural wife of Vinson Knight in 1842 and was widowed the same year. In 1846, she married Daniel Hutchinson Keeler, with whom she had two children. They moved to St. Louis when they were driven from Nauvoo, where they lived between 1847 and 1852. She was so anxious for her children to gather to Utah, she embarked on the trip west in the midst of an active case of consumption. She died in Fort Laramie in 1852.

I love Philinda’s courage, dedication, and industry. I also love how her presence in the society and the body of the church mattered. It would be easier to see her as an object of charity than a giver of it, but her presence in the society mattered despite this, or maybe even because of it. What mattered was her integrity and resolve in the face of crippling opposition.


Eggman-Garret, Carla. Escape From Utah, pages 4-7.

Kofford, Paul Ernest, Biographical Sketch, Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel 1847-1868,, accessed 2/24/2017.

The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-Day Saint Women’s History, eds. Jill Mulvay Derr, Carol Cornwall Madsen, Kate Holbrook, Matthew J. Grow. The Church Historian’s Press, pages 30, 36, and 660).  

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

2017 Theme: In the beginning

175 years ago, twenty women sat together in the upper room of a red brick store. They were organized under the pattern of the priesthood, and counseled by Joseph Smith to encourage “the brethren to good works in looking to the wants of the poor – searching after objects of charity, and in administering to their wants – to assist by correcting the morals and strengthening the virtues of the female community.” They called themselves the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, and Emma Smith declared, “We are going to do something extraordinary … We expect extraordinary occasions and pressing calls.”

This month, I want to tell their stories.

In honor of the 175th year of Relief Society Celebration, I’ve decided to highlight the twenty founding members of the Relief Society. If you’ve noticed my current production rate, you’ll realize I won’t finish this in the month of March – I’m shooting for once a week during women’s history month, and the rest as life allows.  

The format will also be a little different this time because of the fact these twenty women lived very different experiences. Some stayed in the church until they died; others did not. Some lived very public lives; others left few records. My usual format of sharing how their stories have influenced me won’t always apply.

That said, I believe wholeheartedly that all their stories need to be told, because isn’t this the form our Relief Societies take?  We come from different backgrounds, we bring different skills to the table, some thrive in the limelight while others move in quiet ways, and yes, some leave our ranks.

They all make up our story. It is a story of miracles, heartbreaks, progress, setbacks, faith, questions, love, strength, revelation, and uncountable acts for good. It is a story that matters deeply to me, and that has shaped me into who I am and how I see the world.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Emmeline Wells

A few years back, my ward celebrated the Relief Society’s birthday by having several women perform a brief biography in character and lead a breakout group discussion following. I was asked to do Emmeline Wells because, well, I have an unhealthy obsession. Remember my 6-part series on her? Yes, obsessed.

In my table’s discussion, I was honest about both her successes and her heartbreaks. She had a lot of both. After hearing the heartbreaks, a friend of mine asked, “Wait, so she was essentially the red-headed stepchild wife and died heartbroken over her release as general RS president? Why am I supposed to leave this meeting feeling empowered about the Relief Society?”

I gave a short and inadequate answer at the time, so this is my more articulate answer. Because I have covered her life in great detail earlier, this post will be an exploration of why having Emmeline Wells’ story in my life matters, rather than providing new details about her.

Emmeline Wells speaks to me because her life was an example in taking the world in its messiness and seemingly impossible choices and creating a space where she can have what matters most. When Emmeline Wells was baptized, she assumed she’d be giving up a lot. She did. But she also maintained the things that were most important to her – her intellect, her desire to cause positive change, and a deep spiritual life. 

I encountered Emmeline Wells’ story during a period when I was exploring what it meant to be an LDS woman of faith, what I wanted out of my life, and how those two explorations fit together. I felt like the narratives presented to me were too rigid and narrow, too either/or, and that I would have to shrink or deform myself to fit within any of them. Emmeline Wells just wrote a new narrative and took the women around her along for the ride.
Wells possessed a deep and life-changing faith in the gospel, and felt God powerfully in her life. She used that faith to enrich all the things she valued before joining the church. Her faith enriched her suffrage work, her mind, her service, and her leadership. She worked tirelessly to use her leadership and intelligence to better the women around her and improve her church.

Something that I only began to comprehend when I encountered Wells, but I have thought deeply about in later years, is the way that being a part of something larger than yourself both expands and restricts you. When you become a part of something larger than yourself, you are given opportunities to become and create something larger, more powerful, and more beautiful than you could on your own. At the same time, you are pouring your soul into something you can influence, but ultimately not control. It is rarely a perfect fit. So, what do you do?

Wells claimed what was good and beautiful and could not be had any other place. From there, she took the opportunities she had to build the rest. She taught me to live within seeming contradictions, and shattered my notion that faith meant shoving myself into what I saw, rather than working with God to see what we could create together. Not that I’ve done anything revolutionary, but still, the world is a beautiful place when you can see it as both/and, and when you are given freedom to create a narrative of your mutual choosing.

Emmeline Wells taught me that faith is complicated. Polygamy, and her church membership as a whole, both expanded and limited her life. It would be a mistake to disregard either side of that equation. But I love that she opted for the path that expanded her life and built from there.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Eliza R Snow

Most elements of my girls camp experiences were fairly similar from year to year – skits, first aid certification, hikes, pranks, devotionals, testimony meetings, etc. However, we did something a little different one year. During one of our devotionals, we listened to an audio recording about the life of Eliza R Snow.

This was my first memorable encounter with Mormon women’s history. The details are a little fuzzy. I remember thinking it was odd that we were using technology during a week when we were supposed to be communing with nature. I remember thinking the script was a bit cheesy. I remember thinking it was interesting to learn about someone that had written a lot of hymns.

What made this devotional stand out is that it briefly discussed the fact that she became a polygamous wife of Joseph Smith.

This was the only time I was told Joseph Smith was a polygamist before college. During my undergrad, my Doctrine and Covenants teacher mentioned one time that Joseph Smith was a polygamist (in his defense, he said he planned to talk about polygamy in more detail during our discussion of OD1, and we didn’t make it that far in the syllabus). Until I started searching things out on my own during grad school, that’s it. No one else talked about it.

I remember being surprised no one had talked about it before. However, I was young enough to simply say, “well, if I can joke about Brigham Young’s polygamy, I guess it isn’t that different if Joseph Smith was a polygamist too.” This knowledge didn’t become a problem for me because I gained straightforward information of some complicated church history from someone that was 100% sympathetic to the church, and it came before I had any illusions of possessing a solid understanding the core elements of our history.

This was a huge blessing to me. Church history is full of some wild things, and they look mighty crazy out of context. Frankly, they can be uncomfortable in context as well. But learning about Eliza R Snow taught me that if this church is true, it can hold up to an honest gaze. Truthfully, as I’ve unpacked things in our history that have made me uncomfortable, more discomfort came from feeling deceived or betrayed than the actual facts – feeling like historic figures weren’t who I had been taught they were, and that I had to form a new opinion of them based on this knowledge (spoiler alert: I still believe they were called of God).

I am intensely grateful to the leader that selected this activity. She may have thought it was weird. She may have been a little nervous that there would be push back from the parents. She may have thought people would consider her lazy for just sticking in a tape (yes, I’m old enough we were listening to audio tapes at girls camp).  But she gave me a solid framework for being honest and considering context when I learn about our history, and I’m grateful she trusted her inspiration and gave me that gift. I have used it repeatedly in my studies of Mormon women. And can I just say I’m grateful’s gospel topics essays offer this gift to everyone with the internet? Check them out if you haven’t already.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Sarah Granger Kimball

I’d planned to go sequential and show my spiritual development over time through my involvement with women’s history this month, but after watching Tyler Glenn’s video, my heart is breaking, and this is what I have today.

In 1842, Joseph Smith taught Sarah Granger Kimball the doctrine of plural marriage, a doctrine only taught at that time to those that were being asked to live it. At the time, she was married to a non-member (who had made a substantial donation to the Nauvoo Temple’s construction the year prior). Her reply to the prophet: “I asked him to teach it to someone else.” He furthered his case, saying that God had commanded him to teach it to her. Still nothing. He ended by saying he would not cease to pray for her. She never changed her mind.

What happened from here? Was her life filled with ruin? Was she shunned as an apostate by other church members? Did she leave the church and become a vocal opponent of polygamy?

None of the above.

The year following, she initiated the formation of the Relief Society, an organization that would go on to promote spiritual growth, advocate for female suffrage and education, feed the hungry, and strengthen families. Millions have benefitted from her contributions.

She served for over 40 years as a Relief Society President in a Salt Lake City ward, and served for 12 years as general secretary of the Relief Society during Eliza R. Snow’s administration. She held positions of prominence in Utah, including serving as the president of the Utah Woman Suffrage Association.

Her husband joined the church and died while actively serving in it.

In short, she followed her own light, and created a life full of spiritual power and social force.

Did she hide her disagreement with the prophet? No, she did the opposite. She included the encounter in her autobiography, PUBLISHED IN THE RELIEF SOCIETY’S MAJOR PUBLICATION. I should also note that when she published it, polygamy was still in force. Despite her disagreement with the prophet, she stayed true to both her faith and her conscience, while giving her fellow saints the freedom to follow their faith and consciences.

I’ve been trying to channel my inner Sarah Granger Kimball these past few months. It has been a rough time for our LGBT+ members, and my heart has been breaking at the lack of empathy our leaders have been showing this group. It is not my job to declare what the doctrines should be, but there are ways to implement doctrine with compassion and understanding, and we’ve stopped doing it.

I cannot be a person of integrity and deny that I have felt God’s power through priesthood channels, and that He communicates with me as often as I’m listening through living my faith. I cannot be a person of integrity and say that the way our leaders are behaving towards our LGBT+ members and their families is OK. It is not. It has broken my heart repeatedly to hold these two truths. But I’m doing my best to hold them both.

So, I’m striving to emulate Sarah Granger Kimball - committed to my faith, a dedicated servant in building the church, but true to myself (which implies listening, trying to promote understanding, and creating safe spaces in my realm of influence). I cannot support our leaders’ callousness of late, and I will not pretend that I do. But I will not deny that God’s power is in this church, and I will not deny myself the blessings that come through living it to my utmost.