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