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.