Documents feel like treasures to me. They give insight into the past and have to be mined to get everything you can out of them. Because of that, it’s really exciting that the Church has begun to release minutes from the Relief Society General Board. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Kurt Manwaring interviewed Anne Berryhill about the minutes that have been released. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview.
In the interview, Anne Berryhill introduced the meeting minutes as follows:
During the inaugural meeting of the Nauvoo Relief Society, on March 17, 1842, Joseph Smith said: “The minutes of your meetings will be precedents for you to act upon—your Constitution and law.” (Minutes, 17 Mar. 1842) The Relief Society General Board Minutes contain records of the meetings and work of the Relief Society General Presidency and Board from its inception in Nauvoo in 1842 and can be seen as the constitution and law of Relief Society globally.
The records represent efforts to organize and administer Relief Society both at a church-wide and local level. They reflect the work of women who sought to care for one another physically, morally, and spiritually. Early welfare efforts, home industry, discourses, and visits are documented. Collaborative work with national and international organizations is detailed within these records.
They cover a wide range of topics and allow one to see how the work of Relief Society grew and evolved over time.
So, these minutes are an important resource for those interested in studying women in the Church, especially when it comes to the history of the Relief Society. As Anne Berryhill put it:
I hope researchers will use the minutes to better understand the ways women led at an executive level in the Church for a century. I hope they will see the ways they navigated working relationships with male Church leaders.
I hope they will gain insight into the role of General Board members over time (a calling that is not well-understood even today). I hope they will catch glimpses of relationships these women built with one another—and how all of them were needed for their unique perspectives and strengths.
These are documents with great insights into the leadership of the Relief Society.
There are some limitations to what is being shared, as is the case with most records at the Church History Library:
In coordination with the Relief Society General Presidency, specialists among Church History Department staff digitized and reviewed each page of the records for sacred, private, and confidential information. …
Post-1951 minutes are not available as we seek to protect information discussed in a confidential setting, especially information pertaining to living individuals.
When considering a timeline for that, and considering legal obligations to protect privacy, both Church History staff and the Relief Society General Presidency felt comfortable with a 70-year window (records of the past 70 years will remain unavailable to protect information regarding living individuals).
Some limitations are in place that reduce content availability, but there is still a massive amount of information available for the researching.
As to what the Relief Society General Board members do, Berryhill explained that:
The role of a Relief Society General Board member has changed and evolved over time. The first central board members included secretaries and a treasurer whose roles were fairly limited and clearly defined. (Secretaries kept records and managed correspondence. Treasurers managed the finances and properties of the organization. Both secretaries and treasurers seemed to have traveled with members of the presidency, too.)
Beginning October 10, 1892, a general board was organized with 23 members. Board members were to serve for a period of five years and were given responsibility to oversee rules of membership, to establish rules for managing the society’s properties, and visiting stakes.
Over time, and as Relief Societies were established in more areas, responsibilities evolved. General Board members continued to conduct training, manage issues surrounding general membership/finances, write lesson and instructional materials, conduct research, coordinate events, and more.
In many ways, General Board members have been a link between members and general presidencies.
That helps to explain the role of the board and what is being discussed by the board in their meetings.
For more information about the Relief Society General Board Minutes, head on over to read the full interview with Anne Berryhill. There is more about the people who served on the board over the years, the first meeting of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, administering to the sick, and some interesting excerpts from the minutes.
I literally just finished prepping for some training I’m doing tomorrow on effective councils, where the main agenda item is “Lessons from Joseph & Emma” and we’ll be reading from the minutes of the first Relief Society meeting. In particular, at one point John Taylor proposes changing the name to the Benevolent Society, and with Joseph Smith’s support the issue is rushed to a vote which is unanimous in the affirmative. Fortunately Emma Smith voices her objections anyway, at which point Joseph realizes a mistake has been made, moves that the vote be rescinded, and starts an actual discussion of the issue.
The members of the Relief Society Presidency then explain why they think that is the right name, and in the process lay out their vision for the Society. They aren’t all on exactly the same page at first: Eliza R. Snow worries “relief” might suggest they would only do disaster relief “on some extraordinary occasions” and when Emma responds “we are going to do something extraordinary” she means they really are going to do disaster relief. You can see revelation at work as they counsel together, and by the end John Taylor and Joseph Smith declare themselves persuaded that Relief Society is the right name.
So, lessons from Joseph & Emma:
Make sure everyone’s voice is heard
Revelation and consensus come from counseling together.
These minutes are indeed a treasure.