Since the organization of the Relief Society on March 17, 1842 the call for the women of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to care for the needy, feed the poor, gain in spiritual stature and be the light in a world of darkness has been the organization’s constant mission.
From its small beginning in Nauvoo, Illinois to a current membership of 7.1 million women in more than 188 countries, women of the Relief Society, proclaimed by the church as the largest women’s organization in the world, continues to flourish.
While it is impossible to share the names and faces of many the women who have been influential in the church and left a mark on the world, a selected few might give a bigger picture of the women of the Relief Society.
Jane Elizabeth Manning James
LEADING BLACK MEMBERS
Died: April 16, 1908
Jane Elizabeth Manning James joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the fall of 1842, and moved to Nauvoo, Illinois where she served in the home of the Prophet Joseph Smith and Emma Hale Smith. According to her memoirs, during her time at the Smith home she was allowed to see the Urim and Thummim, the translators the prophet said he used to translate the Book of Mormon. On more than one occasion, James was offered to be adopted by the Smiths, and she could be sealed to them in a special ceremony written for her. She declined. After Joseph Smith was martyred, James served in the home of Brigham Young.
It was from his home that she married Isaac James. He was born a free man and was a convert to the church. They moved west and Jane became one of the first documented African American women to come to the Utah Territory. While her marriage to James lasted only a few years, Jane remained faithful to the church her entire life.
Throughout her life she would continue to ask if she could receive her endowments in the temple; she said she was turned down on several occasions. Finally, President Joseph F. Smith, being reminded of the desire of the Joseph Smith and his wife Emma, sealed James as an eternal servant to the Smiths in a special temple ceremony. Joseph F. Smith’s wife, Bethsheba acted as James’ proxy as she was not allowed in the temple. She was endowed by proxy in 1979 in the temple following the revelation through President Spencer W. Kimball that blacks could receive the priesthood.
Susa Young Gates
WORDSMITH AND JOURNALIST
Born: March 18, 1856
Died: May 27, 1933
Susa Young Gates was a daughter of Brigham Young and Lucy Bigelow Young, Brigham’s 22nd wife. She was a good student and musician among other talents. At age 13 she entered the University of Deseret (now the University of Utah). At age 16, she married Alma Dunford. They had two children but within five years divorced.
She went to work at Brigham Young Academy where she founded the music department. In 1880 Susa married Jacob F. Gates. During her life she served a mission with her husband to the Sandwich Islands. She was a prolific writer and founded the Utah Women’s Press Club. She wrote columns for the Deseret News and the Inter Mountain Republican paper. She founded the Relief Society Magazine in 1915. Throughout her life she promoted women’s rights and women’s suffrage.
Belle Smith Spafford
DECADES OF SERVICE
Born: Oct. 8, 1895
Died: Feb. 2, 1982
Belle Smith Spafford, was born in Salt Lake City. Throughout her youth and adult life she was studious and a hardworker. She taught special education class at BYU. While she was there she met and married Earl Spafford, March 23, 1921. Belle Spafford’s noted for her hard work and endless labor as the general president of the Relief Society, the longest serving president of the church. She brought the Relief Society to a new global recognition as they helped with post World War II charitable causes in Europe and elsewhere. Her church biography says the following about her top contributions. Under Spafford’s direction, “Relief Society sisters united to donate more than $500,000 to build the long-desired Relief Society Building in Salt Lake City, Utah. It was dedicated October 3, 1956. In 1970, Relief Societies stopped raising their own funds and were given a budget. This allowed sisters to focus on compassionate service and visiting teaching instead of fund-raising. In September 1971 all sisters (18 and older) in the Church became members of the Relief Society. During Belle’s almost three decades as general president, she served under the leadership of six prophets.” Spafford also served on the National Council of Women for more than 45 years.
Sheri Linn Dew
A MODERN VOICE
Born: Nov. 21, 1953
Sheri Linn Dew, was born in Ulysses, Kansas. She loved sports growing up and particularly basketball. At 5 feet and 10 inches she was a contender averaging 23 points a game and 17 rebounds. She graduated from BYU and found her niche in publishing. She started as an assistant editor at Bookcraft in 1978. She joined Deseret Book in 1988 and has moved her way to the top now serving as executive vice president of Deseret Management and CEO of Deseret Book. Dew served as second counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, and was the first single woman in the church to do so. She is the official biographer for President Ezra Taft Benson and President Gordon B. Hinckley. She continues to be a popular motivational speaker. Dew is considered an example of the powerful women that represent the LDS Church and its doctrine to the world.
A REEL STAR
Born: Oct. 13, 1920
Died: Nov. 10, 2007
Laraine Day, born Laraine Johnson, was active in the LDS church all of her life. Her great-grandfather was Apostle Charles C. Rich. When she was a young girl her family move to California where she graduated from the Polytechnic High School in Long Beach. She became a well-known actress and made her last name “Day” for the stage. She was an actress of stage, movies, radio and television. Some of her leading men included; Ronald Reagan, Joel McCrea, Robert Mitchum, Brian Aherne, Gene Raymond, Cary Grant and John Wayne. According to her biography she was known as the “First Lady of Baseball” following her marriage to famous baseball manager Leo Durocher. She took great interest in his career, although they were married only 13 years. In her later life she moved to Ivins, Utah to live with her family and died there in 2007.
PRACTICING SUPREME LAW
Born: Aug. 3, 1945
Christine Durham grew up in Southern California but took her studies to the eastern states. She attended Wellesley, the popular all-women’s college, where she met George Durham. Following their marriage she studied law at Boston College, while her husband finished undergraduate work at Harvard. She eventually graduated from Duke Law School in 1971. She practiced law and was named as a justice on the Utah Supreme Court in 1982. She served as Chief Justice from 2002 until her retirement in November of 2017. Durham has served on several law boards and associations and her list of awards are impressive. Mary C. McQueen, president of the National Center for State Courts compared Durham’s character and qualities to former U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Durham has honorary degrees from the Univerity of Utah, Utah Valley University, Weber State University, Salt Lake Community College and the College of Central Utah.
SONGS OF PRAISE
Born: May 28,1944
Baptist gospel singer Gladys Knight in a convert to the church and was baptist in 1997, following in the footsteps of her son and daughter, according to LDS church information. She is one of the most successful female music artists in the history of American popular music. Known as the “Empress of Soul” Knight sang with her brother Merald Knight and two cousins Edward Pattan and William Guest. The men were known as “The Pips”. Knight’s two number one singles include “Midnight Train to Georgia,” and “That’s What Friends are For”. She is on the list of Rolling Stone Magazine’s 100 greatest singers of all time. On June 1, 2018, Knight, a seven time Grammy Award winner, and her Saints Unified Voices choir brought lively gospel music to the Salt Lake City LDS Conference Center during the 40th anniversary celebration on the revelation on the priesthood. She married William McDowell in 2001 and they reside in North Carolina. At last count, they have 17 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
Rose Marie Reid
SUITED FOR BUSINESS
Born: Sept. 12, 1906
Died: Dec. 16, 1978
Rose Marie Reid, was born in Cardston, Alberta, Canada. Her family moved to Idaho in 1916. She was an accomplished seamstress and designed swim suits. Over the years her swimsuit lines were some of the most worn through the world. She believed that every woman should feel glamorous in a swimsuit. She designed many popular styles including the swim dress. Between 1952 and 1959 her company went from producing 1,000 swimsuits a day to 10,000 suits a day. She had offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, New York City, London, Amsterdam and Paris. According to BYU Magazine she was the first woman in the U.S. to fly 500,000 miles. Always an active missionary for the church, Reid had many Jewish friends and developed a lesson plan explain the LDS Church doctrine to Jewish investigators. The church asked Reid to redesign the temple garment. It was Reid’s two-piece garment design that continues to be used today. In her later years she move to Provo to live with family.
Amy Brown Lyman
WELFARE TO THE WORLD
Born: Feb. 7, 1872
Died: Dec. 5, 1959
Amy Brown Lyman, was born in Pleasant Grove. In her autobiography “In Retrospect” Lyman said during her childhood she lived around many of the original pioneers including members of the Mormon Battalion and Zion’s Camp. Her church biography says, “While attending Brigham Young Academy, she met Richard R. Lyman. Intellectual and spiritual equals, the two fell in love and married on Sept. 9, 1896, in the Salt Lake Temple. They had two children. Amy led the Relief Society’s Social Welfare Department for 15 years and functioned as an officer in the Relief Society for 32 years. She served a term as a member of the Utah House of Representatives as well.” She was called as the eighth general president of the Relief Society three months after the start of World War II in 1940 and served until 1945. Richard, who had become an apostle was excommunicated from the church on Nov. 12, 1943, he returned to full fellowship upon his rebaptism, on Oct. 27, 1954.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
A PULITZER PRIZE
Born: July 11, 1938
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, was born at the end of the Great Depression in Sugar City, Idaho. She graduated as valedictorian from the University of Utah majoring in English and Journalism. In 1971 she received her Master’s degree in English from Simmons College and in 1980 a Doctorate in History from the University of New Hampshire. Information from the Harvard History Department notes that in 1991 she won the Pulitzer Prize for her historical work on “A Midwifes Tale”. In 1995 she became the director of the Charles Warren Center of Studies In American History at Harvard University. She was the president of the American History Association from 2009-2010 and the Mormon History Association from 2014-2015. Ulrich considers herself an active feminist and member of the LDS Church. She co-edited with Emma Lou Thayne “All God’s Critters Got a Place In the Choir” a collection of essays on LDS Women. In January 2017 she released her book “A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism.