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SALT LAKE CITY — The LDS Church Historians Press has just released a major new book.
"The First Fifty Years of Relief Society" is the first book published by the press since the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Historians believe it is an important read for people inside and outside the faith.
The 800-page volume explores the largely unknown history of the Relief Society through a collection of 78 rarely seen documents. It covers the origins, the purposes, the leading women — some of whom were suffragists — and what happened when the organization was suspended for a time.
The Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is considered one of the oldest and largest women's organizations in the world with now 6 million members in more than 170 nations. Eliza R. Snow began the first record in this minutes book on March 17, 1842. Her notes include the early members' discussions, their contributions and their questions.
"The part that plural marriage played in the early Relief Society, the discussion of women healing — these were questions that 20 years ago were difficult to discuss," said Jill Mulvay Derr, a retired senior research historian for the LDS Church History Department.
"We wanted to work toward a document, a book that could contain these minutes and be in the hands of Latter-day Saints, and be in the hands of scholars, because it is such an important part of our history," Derr said.
The minutes — never before published in their entirety — also contain six sermons from the LDS Church's founder and first prophet, Joseph Smith, directed exclusively to the women of the church and reveal a prophet who encouraged discussion and debate.
"He said, during one counsel meeting, 'I don't want to be surrounded by doe heads.' He wanted debate. He wanted deliberation. He wanted open discussion, and he wanted the Relief Society to model that," said Matthew J. Grow, director of publications for the LDS Church History Department.
The women were encouraged to speak up and speak out, and the minutes and other key documents from 1842 to 1892 reveal how they used their voices and resources for good: building up the kingdom of God, offering relief to those in need, and fighting for the right to vote as suffragists.
"They worked and fought and really had initiative about the causes that they felt were important to God, and were therefore important to them," said Kate Holbrook, a specialist in women's history for the LDS Church History Department.
In 1845, after Joseph Smith's martyrdom, tensions increased between Emma Smith, Joseph's widow, who was still president of the organization, and Brigham Young. Holbrook said this is one of the most dramatic examples in the book.
"Brigham Young, he had just lost his best friend and his prophet, whose people he is trying to look out for are still under attack, when he decides that the Relief Society is no longer going to meet and he shuts it down," Holbrook said.
But it was Brigham Young who also sent Eliza R. Snow to restart Relief Society in the 1860s.
Snow literally carried her original book of minutes across the plains, wrapped in a buffalo robe. It contains biographical sketches of about 400 men and women who play prominent roles in LDS Church history.
Derr said the historians are delighted about the detail that goes with each document in the book.
"We really feel like we have a substantial product here that is both scholarly and of the highest academic standards, and (we're) meeting the needs and standards of the church as well," she said.
Grow believes this new book is important for both members of the LDS Church and those who study it.
"This is the history of the church. This is the history of the Latter-day Saints, and I think we need to understand it," he said.
To understand it and, they say, to learn from it. Historians hope those who read this book will also be inspired.
Holbrook said each of the four historians came to feel a connection to these remarkable women.
"When I read these women's words, they feel contemporary to me. They feel relevant. They feel like they build me up and comfort me and give me direction," she said.
The release of "The First Fifty Years of Relief Society" is timely for several reasons: It comes close to the Relief Society anniversary, celebrated each year in March; President Russell M. Nelson, president of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, delivered a talk in October 2015 general conference encouraging the women of the faith to "speak up and speak out;" and today there are questions about the relationship between Latter-day Saint women and the priesthood.
The book is available at Deseret Book stores, Amazon.com and the LDS Church's official store for $49.95. Some selections of the book are also available for free online at www.churchhistoriansress.org.