Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Ancient "Relief Society" of the New Testament

Samaritan Women by Mandy Jane Williams

When was the last time you opened up your copy of "Daughters in My Kingdom", the book about the history of the Relief Society?

If it has been awhile then you should go and grab yours off the shelf and open up to the the first chapter. I want you to notice that the title of this chapter is called, "Relief Society: A Restoration of an Ancient Pattern", meaning that the Relief Society is not a modern organization. It is something that has existed every time that God's church has been organized on the earth. As Lorenzo Snow, the fifth president of the church, taught,
“You [ Relief Society sisters] have ever been found at the side of the Priesthood, ready to strengthen their hands and to do your part in helping to advance the interests of the kingdom of God." 

The history of the Relief Society, doesn't begin with the women in Nauvoo when Joseph Smith organized the women there. It begins with the women of the New Testament, the ancient "Relief Society". It was Christ who organized it, set its mission, endowed women with power, and enlisted their aid in doing His sacred work. Women were involved then, just as women are involved now.

In fact, I think that one of the most powerful parts of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ is knowing that when Christ was on the earth He included women in the organization of His church. The Prophet Joseph Smith declared,

“The Church was never perfectly organized until the women were thus organized.”

Eliza R. Snow, the second Relief Society general president, also taught this when she said:
“Although the name may be of modern date, the institution is of ancient origin. We were told by our martyred prophet that the same organization existed in the church anciently.” (From "Daughters in my Kingdom" chapter 1).
Knowing that there would have been an ancient equivalent of the "Relief Society" in Christ's day, and in the early Christian church, completely changes how one reads and understands the stories of women in the New Testament. In fact one of the most famous stories from the New Testament, the story of Mary and Martha being invited to "choose that good part", teaches us much about how women were involved in Christ's church. In "Walking with the Women of the New Testament" I wrote this about Martha and Mary:
"Christ's statement to Martha that Mary was choosing "that good part" was not a reprimand but rather an invitation. He was extending to both Mary and Martha an invitation to do mare than fulfill physical needs but to be involved in fulfilling the spiritual needs of God's children.  
President Julie B. Beck points this out as the moment that Christ organized the ancient Relief Society. In her remarks at a BYU women's conference, she explained, "Relief Society is a restoration or a bringing back of an ancient pattern and practice of discipleship." Then she explained how one of the  first times in the scriptures where we see Christ inviting women to be part of his work is in Luke 10. This is the chapter where Christ organized His church: First he called His apostles and outlined their responsibilities. Then the Seventy were called and sent out to share the gospel, cast out devils, and perform miracles. In the same chapter, Christ gave the parable of the good Samaritan and taught that when we serve the Lord with all our hearts and love our neighbors as ourselves we are qualifying for eternal life. 
And then, as Sister Beck stated, "Immediately following that is this great misunderstood story of Mary and Martha... The Savior took this opportunity to invite both Mary and Martha to be official participants in His work of discipleship and He said that this was the "good part". It was the needful part that would never be taken away from them. When you read that with spiritual understanding... you will learn that this was the Savior inviting them officially to be part of His work, not to by bystanders, but to be included in what He wanted to accomplish." Sister Beck then stated, "The Lord can't build His kingdom without Relief Society." (pages 88-89)

Martha by Mandy Jane Williams

Understanding that women have always been formally organized in God's work illuminates the scriptures and women's roles in them.  President Julie B. Beck taught that,

 "The word society has a meaning nearly identical to that of quorum. It connotes “an enduring and cooperating . . . group” distinguished by its common aims and beliefs."  (Source

I think it is so important for us to remember that Relief Society is not just a class, or a nice place for women to go on Sunday. The Relief Society is essentially the female quorum of the church, a place where women go to fulfill their priesthood (aka. priestess) responsibilities. It is a responsibility that God expects from His righteous daughters, because our work is a vital part of Christ's church.

One of my favorite parts of studying the New Testament is looking for "bread crumbs", or small clues, about what the Relief Society of the New Testament would have looked liked. Here are just a few of my favorites:

"Sisters" in the Gospel

In the LDS church we refer to one another as "brother" and "sister". For example, the kids at church call me "Sister Farrell". The Prophet Joseph Smith was often referred to as "Brother Joseph." It is a term we use to indicate that we are all literally children of God, and have been born again (through baptism) into His eternal family. As Jesus taught in Matthew 12:50,
"For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother."
It is interesting to see that this same pattern of addressing one another as "brother" and "sister" existed in the ancient church as well. Several times in his epistles Paul used the term "sister" to refer to female believers. For example, when speaking of a woman named Phebe he wrote,
"I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea:" (Romans 16:1)
Also in speaking about those called on missions Paul wrote, 
"But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace." (1 Corinthians 7:15)

Modern Day "Saints"

Paul also referred to the Christians as "saints" dozens of times throughout the epistles. For example, in his words about Phebe he instructed the members in Rome to,

" ...receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints" (Romans 16:2). 

Then at the end of his letter to the Romans he wrote,

" Salute Philologus, and Julia, Nereus, and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints which are with them." (Romans 16:15).  
The word "saint" is a meaningful one for us because it aligns with the name of our church-- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We are saints in the same way that the early members of the church were saints-- those who desire to become sanctified by Jesus Christ. In fact, saint is taken from the word sanctified. Yet, we are latter-day saints because we live in the latter-days, the final dispensation of Jesus Christ's church.

Women who Followed Christ by Mandy Jane Williams
Relief Society in Action

I have been especially intrigued by the group of women who followed Jesus Christ. The four gospels speak repeatedly of the women, "Who also, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered unto him;) and many other women which came up with him unto Jerusalem."  (Mark 15:41) 

This group of women is a significant presence in the New Testament, with Mary Magdalene seeming to be its leader. These women not only followed and served Christ, but were present at the triumphal entry and the crucifixion. We also know that several of these women-- among them Joanna, Salome, Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James and Joses-- were also the first to see and touch the resurrected Christ.

These women weren't just bystanders in Christ's story, they were a powerful force and likely made up the core what would be come the "ancient' Relief Society of the New Testament. After Christ's death we see evidence of them praying, teaching, preaching, ministering, serving, traveling and serving as missionaries throughout the world. It is inspiring to think about the things that these ancient Relief Society sister accomplished, and I think it should inspire us as modern day Relief Society members to broaden and expand our idea of what our mission and purpose is.

Phebe, by Mandy Jane Williams

Phebe, Woman with Authority

One of my very favorite women in the New Testament is Phebe whom Paul calls a "deaconess" and a "prostatis", which means"a woman set over others; a female guardian, protectress, patroness, caring for the affairs of others and aiding them with her resources." As I was studying Phebe I read dozens of commentaries by scholars confused over the words Paul used for her. They are powerful words that connote authority and position within the church. Many scholars assert that these words indicate that Phebe held an ecclesiastical position and must have been ordained to the priesthood like the apostles and other male leaders. Yet, when one understands that there would have been an ancient Relief Society, a space in which women would have held ecclesiastical positions and would have acted with authority, without being ordained like the men, then her story becomes illuminating.  In fact, I think the strength of the words that Paul used to describe her position in the church should help us better understand the power, opportunity, and authority that is inherent in the Relief Society. (If you want to read more on Phebe see this post).

Elect Ladies

The other "bread crumb" I love from the New Testament is the story of the Elect Lady in 2 John. I have written more about her here, but will briefly summarize why she is interesting. The term "elect lady" is one that John uses in addressing an unknown woman who, apparently was serving the church in some official position. Her identity and position are largely a mystery, but when Joseph Smith called Emma Smith to be the leader of the Relief Society in Nauvoo he called her "the elect lady", specially mentioning that she was like the "elect lady" in 2 John. He also said,  "...that why she was called an elect lady is because she was elected to preside." His words imply that Emma Smith was assuming a position, as leader of the Relief Society, that was similar to the one that the "elect lady" of 2 John held and presided in.

 There are so many little "bread crumbs" like this through the New Testament that give a glimpses of how Christ's ancient Relief Society would have operated and the type of responsibilities and power these sister wielded. We have much to learn from their examples. I think that too often we treat Relief Society like a class, or a church activity group. When in reality it is the sacred responsibly that God has given to His daughters-- our quorum if you will. It is  place for Christ's  female disciples to develop and use their spiritual gifts, to lift and serve on another, to relieve the suffering of the world, and to save the souls of His children.

When it comes to Relief Society I almost feel like we need our own women's version of "Rise Up, O Men of God", but instead with the words "Rise Up, O Women of God" sounding something like this:

1. Rise up, O Women of God!
Have done with lesser things.
Give heart and soul and mind and strength
To serve the King of Kings.

2. Rise up, O Women of God,
In one united throng.
Bring in the day of sisterhood
And end the night of wrong.

3. Rise up, O Women of God!
Tread where his feet have trod.
As sisters of the Son of Man,
Rise up, O women of God!

As women in God's church we have access to so much spiritual power. Our sisters in the New Testament demonstrate to us the type of discipleship that is possible. I know that their examples have inspired me to be a little better and develop my spiritual gifts a little more-- to be a prophetess like Anna, a missionary like Pricsilla, a prostatis like Phebe, a humanitarian like Tabitha and a disciple like Mary... all of whom are my fellow Relief Society sisters. Oh, how I love them.


  1. You have such a GIFT for words, insight, meaning, and being able to share that with the world in easy to understand terms. Thank you for sharing your uplifting gifts! :)

  2. I loved this. Thanks. Sister Beck recently spoke at the church history symposium about how Daughters in My kingdom came about, the miracles and purposes and context behind its creation. Have you read that yet? it's powerful!

    1. Ooh, I will have to find that. I love everything that comes out of her mouth!

  3. This was absolutely beautiful. Thank you for sharing this!! I love reading your posts.

  4. Last Sunday, Bishop Bradley had the seniors in our ward speak on the Women in the Scriptures. He referred them to your website. They did a marvelous job of relating to us the examples women in the scriptures are to us. Thank you for adding to our Sacrament Meeting yesterday!! We love you! Here is a link to our facebook page where their talks were posted.

  5. Thank you for this essay! I am preparing to give a mini lesson about the first chapter of "Daughter's in my Kingdom," this week at our relief society activity, and I knew you would have some great insight! The relief society is more than just a craft club!! I can't wait to share these ideas with the sisters in my ward. Thank you!