171 years ago, a woman named Sarah Granger Kimball wanted to do all she could to help build the Nauvoo Temple. She started by persuading her affluent and not-yet-Mormon husband to make a much-needed financial donation towards building the Nauvoo temple. As they gazed starry-eyed at their newborn son, she asked her husband if the baby was worth a thousand dollars. He agreed. She replied that it was great news, because the boy was half hers, and she wanted to pay tithing on him. Resourceful girl, right? He went for it, and after bantering with Joseph Smith about if that meant the boy would be church property, he made a hefty donation.
Sarah could have put up her feet and said she'd done her part to build the temple, but she didn't stop there. Sarah and a friend decided that they should sew shirts for the temple workers. She realized other women would want to help, so she had a meeting about organizing a Ladies' Society in Nauvoo. She asked the eloquent Eliza R Snow to write a constitution, and they presented it to Joseph Smith. Joseph told them that they were the best he had ever seen, their offering was accepted of the Lord, but “he has something better for them than a written Constitution.” He invited them to a meeting the next week. At that meeting, he organized the Relief Society, an organization about which he proclaimed “the Church was never perfectly organized until the women were thus organized.”
I want to draw attention to a few elements of this story.
First, Sarah Granger Kimball was proactive. She didn't sit around waiting for people higher in the hierarchy to give her something to do. She felt inspired to do good, and she brought her ideas to the priesthood so they could work together. Think about that: a crucial step to the church being “perfectly organized” and progressing came because she acted on personal revelation that came from a desire to do good, and then worked in connection with the priesthood.
Second, she invited others to join her, recognized their talents, and allowed them to serve in meaningful ways. She could have tried to hoard the glory for her service brainchild, but she didn't. She recognized Eliza R Snow's literary gifts and considerable clout in Nauvoo culture, and brought her on board. When Joseph called Emma Smith as president, and she was not called as a counselor, Sarah didn't huff off. She remained thoroughly involved in the Relief Society throughout her life, serving as a Relief Society President in Salt Lake City for over forty years, where she would continue to create innovative ways to serve that would spread throughout the church. She kept giving.
Third, she started by recognizing needs in her community. She didn't set out to feed starving populations in Asia (although the Relief Society has certainly done that in notable ways throughout its history). She saw a need, saw something tangible she could do to fill that need, and she did it.
More than a sewing society came from her efforts. Little by little, woman by woman, new forms of service came about: providing food for the temple workers; boarding temple workers; caring for the sick. As time progressed, something monumental and far-reaching came out of this pattern of seeing a need and filling a need.
Throughout the history of the Relief Society, countless forms of service have been given. The Relief Society has cared for the hungry and sick. It instituted a grain storage program so successful that it not only met local needs, but fed thousands of victims of earthquakes, famines, and wars. It built hospitals, and educated women to be doctors, nurses, and midwives. It partnered with prominent organizations like the Red Cross, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and the International Council of Women in bringing about positive change in the world. It has educated women in everything from self-reliance to Shakespeare. It has done remarkable good
And it all started with a woman who felt a desire to do good, took the initiative to propose a solution, and surrounded herself with the best people possible.