Emmeline B. Wells and Her Presidency
The beginning of this chapter mentions that it was Emmeline B. Wells, fifth general RS President, and her presidency that decided on the motto, “Charity Never Faileth.” Show a picture of the RS seal and ask, “What symbols do you see in this image? Why do you think they chose these particular symbols?”
When someone comments on the wheat, mention this background info: the most long-lived of the society’s economic enterprises was the wheat storage program directed initially by Emmeline B.Wells in 1876, after Brigham Young suggested the Relief Society store wheat against a time of famine. In 1906 the Relief Society donated several railroad cars of wheat and flour to the victims of the San Francisco earthquake. The Relief Society continued to gather and store wheat until the close of World War I (1918), when the Relief Society sold 205,518 bushels of their storage wheat to the U.S. government at its request.
Use this story as a jumping off point to share with your class some info about Emmeline B.Wells, who was an amazing person. (See Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society for more details.)
- As a teen she was abandoned by her husband and lost her son
- She knew Joseph Smith in Nauvoo and then made the trek west
- She was a plural wife to first Newll K. Whitney, and then after he died, to Daniel Wells. She had five daughters from those two marriages.
- She was the editor of the Women’s Exponent for 39 years
- She represented the Relief Society in national gatherings of women
- She was friends with Susan B. Anthony and other national suffrage workers
- She herself was a tireless suffrage worker, writing many editorials about women’s rights
- She was general RS President from 1910 to 1921
As leader of this organization during World War I, Wells guided the women of the RS during a particularly frightening time. I appreciated this quote from Wells:
“do not permit them [children] to imbibe the spirit of intolerance or hatred to any nation or to any people; keep firearms out of their hands; do not allow them to play at war nor to find amusement in imitating death in battle; … if they must needs take up arms in the defense of liberty, of country and homes they shall do so without rancor or bitterness … Teach the peaceable things of the kingdom…” 64
What strikes you about this quote? What do you like about it? It is so easy in a time of war for leaders to rhetorically paint the other side as evil and deserving of hatred and death. But Wells’ quote shows compassion and wisdom and a deep appreciation for peace and tolerance, even in war time.
Relief Society and Social Programs
Under Wells, in 1919 the Relief Society established the Relief Society Social Services Department. The manual states, “Though the Social Service Department, the Relief Society cooperated with wards and stakes in efforts such as helping needy women and girls find employment and placing children for adoption. Its primary purpose, however, was to provide practical training for families…. The social Service Department created a six-week training program in family welfare. … Over 4000 women were trained. “ 67-68
The chapter also talks about the RS sponsoring a programs for training nurses and nurses aids. I was struck by how expansive the work of RS was in the early twentieth century. They were heavily involved in training programs, community programs, social services, etc. Under the next president, Clarissa Williams, the RS even established a maternity hospital. The manual states, ‘Sister Williams saw a great need for advancement in “health, opportunity, and a decent standard of living for all those with whom we come in contact.” (69-70). Do you wish the RS was involved in efforts like this today? Running or sponsoring training, programs, and hospitals for the community? What are the pros and cons of such involvement? What are the pros and cons of the more limited focus of the contemporary RS?
Emmeline B. Wells’ Release: A Break from Tradition
President Heber J. Grant released Emmeline B. Wells from her calling as general RS President 1921 when she was 92. This was a break with tradition. General RS presidents before her had served until death, just as the President of the Church did. Wells was shocked by the release. Women of Covenant states, “She was astonished and hurt, knowing that Joseph Smith had declared that ‘like the first Presidency of the church’ the Relief Society Presidency was to ‘continue in office during good behavior, or so long as they shall continue to fulfill the office with dignity.’… Already ill, and wounded by this final change, Emmeline failed rapidly.” (222-223)
She died within a month of her unexpected release.
What do you make of this new policy to release RS presidencies before death? What are the positives and the negatives with this break in tradition?
World War II: Women in the U.S.
During World War II, Church leaders worked to simplify programs in order to “safeguard the family,” as the war fragmented families and often left women to support their families by themselves. DIMK states,
“As men went to war women had to sustain their families without the immediate help from their husbands and older sons. Church leaders again encouraged mothers with children at home to find ways, if possible, to provide for the children without working outside the home full-time. These leaders encouraged RS sisters to develop foundational skills of self-reliance: quiliting, sewing clothing, growing gardens, and preserving and storing fruits and vegetables.” 75
This quote brought to my mind questions about women staying home to be with children. I myself am home most of the time with my 3 young children. But often I’m not very present. I’m paying the bills, responding to email, trying to pick up, cooking, or looking after the baby. I’m often not really interacting meaningfully with my children as I do these things to keep the household running. In reading the above quote, I was struck by just how much more difficult it would be to be really present for your children if you were also trying to sew for a living, or harvest food, or do these other things mentioned in the quote above. How do moms balance the need to manage the household (or work outside the home) with the idea that moms should be meaningfully interacting with the children? How do we make sure that a parent’s presence is meaningful in children’s lives? What strategies have you come up with to listen, talk, and connect with children in the midst of busy lives?
End the lesson by discussing a few experiences of women in Europe during World War II. At this time, European sisters experienced terrible hardship, but they found ways to serve each other despite the dangers. Share with the class the story of Gertrude Zippro, who visited branch Relief Societies under German occupation at great personal risk. P. 76-77. Share with them the story of the Danish Mission Relief Society, which during the war sent food and packages to hungry Norwegians. P. 78. These are examples of important and brave RS service. We might not have as dramatic examples in our own lives, but no doubt there have been times when the RS or RS sisters have really come through for us in important ways. Ask two or three sisters beforehand to prepare a few words about a time in their lives when they were struggling and when RS sisters helped them in important ways. End by bearing your testimony of sisterhood, of charity, of the mission of the Relief Society
What ideas do you have for teaching this chapter? Please share.