According to the handbook, Relief Society Birthday activities are no longer a required annual event. However, many Relief Societies choose to hold events to commemorate the organization of Relief Society on March 17, 1842.
The First Relief Society Meeting
In the spring of 1842, the Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo, Illinois, worked enthusiastically to build a temple in their city. The Prophet Joseph Smith encouraged everyone to help. Men did the actual construction of the temple, and women eagerly sought ways to contribute as well. Sarah M. Kimball recounted:
“The Nauvoo Temple walls were about three feet high. Strong appeals were being made by the President of the Church and others for help to forward the work.
“Miss [Margaret] Cook … one day in conversation with me on the subject of a recent appeal for provisions, clothing, bedding and general supplies for the workmen and their families, remarked that she would be pleased to contribute needlework if it could be made available. I proffered material for her to make up, and suggested that others might feel as we did. We then [discussed] the subject of organizing a sewing society. The object of which should be to aid in the erection of the temple.
“About a dozen of the neighboring sisters by invitation met in my [home] the following Thursday.”
On [Thursday] 17 March 1842, Joseph Smith first formally organized Latter-day Saint women in a group with distinct responsibilities and authority. At his invitation, twenty women assembled in the large room above his dry goods store in Nauvoo, Illinois, [often called “the red brick store,”] to be organized, as one woman recalled his description, “under the priesthood after the pattern of the priesthood” (Sarah M. Kimball, “Auto-biography,” Woman’s Exponent, 1 Sept. 1883, 51). Priesthood quorums—units of men assembled according to priesthood office and usually headed by a president and two counselors—had been organized previously. The women assembled on 17 March elected JS’s wife Emma Hale Smith president. The Prophet then encouraged his wife to choose counselors who, with her, would “preside over this society, in taking care of the poor—administering to their wants, and attending to the various affairs of this institution.” Sister Smith chose Sarah M. Cleveland and Elizabeth Ann Whitney as her counselors. Elder Taylor later set apart each counselor by the laying on of hands to act in her office in the presidency. These were the first ecclesiastical positions in the church for women.
The name the women selected for their institution, the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, paralleled that of contemporaneous women’s benevolent societies in the United States. (Joseph Smith Papers and Daughters in My Kingdom)
Rather than pattern a Latter-day Saint women’s organization after the women’s societies that were prevalent and popular at that time, the Prophet Joseph Smith organized them in a divinely inspired and authorized manner.
Early in the meeting, he told the sisters that they were 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.”
As the meeting continued, Joseph Smith said that his wife’s calling fulfilled a prophecy revealed to him about 12 years earlier, in which the Lord spoke to her as “an elect lady, whom I have called” and told her that she would be “ordained under [Joseph Smith’s] hand to expound scriptures, and to exhort the church, according as it shall be given thee by my Spirit.” Joseph Smith read that entire revelation, which is now D&C 25, to those in attendance.
In the revelation, the Lord told Emma of privileges that were to be hers, such as being a scribe for her husband and compiling hymns for the Saints. The Lord also counseled Emma to heed warnings, to be faithful and virtuous, to not murmur, to comfort her husband and be of help to him, to teach from the scriptures and exhort the Church, to write and learn, to “lay aside the things of this world, and seek for the things of a better,” to keep covenants, to be meek and beware of pride, and to keep the commandments.
At the conclusion of the revelation, the Lord declared that what He had said to Emma was not for her alone but was His “voice unto all.” With prophetic authority, Joseph Smith reiterated this point, emphasizing that the counsel and warnings in this revelation applied to all members of the newly organized society. He said “that not [Emma] alone, but others, may attain to the same blessings.”