Spencer: In August 1843, the work of the temple was progressing nicely. One newspaper reported, “The Temple is improving fast; the stones of that building begin to rise tier above tier; and it already begins to present a stately and noble appearance.”
At this same time, Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo were actively participating in proxy baptisms for deceased relatives, and they were performing these vicarious works in the still-unfinished Nauvoo Temple.
I suspect that many of the Saints in Nauvoo were wondering what additional religious rites, or what Saints today call ordinances, Joseph Smith would introduce in his role as prophet once the temple was complete. Would Joseph institute some of these ordinances destined for the temple in advance of the building’s completion, just as he had done with baptisms for the dead?
In fact, Joseph Smith had started introducing some of these ordinances to a small group of church members in preparation for the temple’s completion.
To Joseph and those who were early participants in these temple ceremonies, such ordinances were a fulfillment of what the January 1841 revelation had called the restoration of the fulness of the priesthood. And in such ordinances, as one 1832 revelation had stated, “the power of godliness [was] manifest.”
In this episode, we are talking about the introduction of two of these temple ordinances in Nauvoo. We are talking about the sealing ordinance and the endowment. This is The Nauvoo Temple: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast, and I’m your host, Spencer McBride.
Spencer: Episode 5: Looking toward Eternity
Spencer: For Latter-day Saints, temple ordinances are sacred. And so, I think it is important to note here at the beginning of this episode that in talking about how Joseph Smith instituted some of these ordinances in Nauvoo we are taking great care to be sensitive to and respectful of their sacred nature.
Also, because this podcast is focused on the history of the Nauvoo Temple and how church members understood and thought about the temple in the 1840s, our discussion of temple ordinances will not be a comprehensive examination of the theology associated with each ordinance. Instead, we are focused on how the ordinances came to be and how church members came to participate in them.
So, let’s start with the sealing ordinance.
What do I mean when I say “sealing”? Joseph Smith taught that the keys of the priesthood contained the power to seal something on earth and have it sealed in heaven. In the Bible, Jesus is recorded granting this power to his apostle, Peter, in Matthew chapter 16 verse 19. “And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
As Joseph Smith would teach, this sealing power had been restored to the earth and could be used to seal a marriage between a man and a woman, thus making their marital relationship extend for eternity. Early Latter-day Saints often referred to this doctrine as celestial marriage, and they soon understood the doctrine as sealing not just a man and woman to each other for eternity, but their posterity to them as well.
Now, if we are to more fully understand the history of the sealing ordinance in Joseph Smith’s ministry as a prophet, we need to talk for just a moment about plural marriage. What appears to be in part the result of Joseph Smith trying to understand how several biblical prophets—such as Moses and Abraham—were permitted by God to have more than one wife, Joseph told some trusted friends that he had received a revelation commanding him to practice plural marriage. As a result, Joseph married multiple women and introduced the practice to close associates. It appears to have been a challenging aspect of the restoration for Joseph and others, and one that would easily provoke controversy.
But because Joseph Smith and other church leaders in Nauvoo did not publicize the practice, surviving historical sources are limited. But those that do survive illuminate the practice, the difficulties associated with its implementation, and its place in the Saints’ developing understanding of the role family plays in life after death. This is all to say that we know a fair amount about plural marriage in Nauvoo, but not nearly as much as we wish we did. And, I think it’s important to add here that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints no longer practices plural marriage and that it teaches that monogamy is God’s standing law for marriage. Those who want to know more about plural marriage in Nauvoo can consult the gospel topics essay about it, which is available on the church’s website or in the Gospel Library App.
But I raise the subject here because the history of the sealing ordinance is closely related to the development of plural marriage. Sealing is bigger than plural marriage, of course, but to understand how Joseph received and explained revelations on sealing and how he instituted the practice among church members, we need to understand the historical, and sometimes complex, connection of the ordinance and plural marriage.
Sharalyn Howcroft, the project archivist of the Joseph Smith Papers, explains this connection:
Sharalyn: Most of the early sealings were in fact plural marriages, and so when we talk about sealing, we can’t divorce it from plural marriage. They’re just very much a part of the same discussion. But these sealings, they occurred in a number of ways. There were sealings for life only, there were sealings for eternity only, or for time and eternity. And the problem that we have in even trying to explain sealings and, by default, plural marriage during this time frame is that we have a dearth of contemporary sources on plural marriage. It makes it really problematic to identify the type of sealing that is occurring in every circumstance. What we do know is that Joseph Smith privately taught the principles of celestial marriage and sealing to individuals. He would approach a family member about sealing prior to approaching the particular woman of that family about being sealed to him. Sealings were performed by Joseph Smith himself or with Joseph Smith’s permission. There was one point where Hyrum Smith ended up sealing a couple and Joseph wasn’t aware of it, and he rebuked his brother because Joseph was not aware of the sealing and Joseph had not given his permission for the sealing to occur. So, this was a very important component of the sealing, it had to be sanctioned by Joseph Smith himself. And this sealing could be extended to people through priesthood holders who were appointed by Joseph Smith. But the sealings were generally kept secret. Most members of the church weren’t even aware that they occurred.
Spencer: So, when, under the direction of Joseph Smith, did the first sealings occur? That’s unclear. Some scholars argue that they occurred as early as the 1830s. We know that Joseph Smith was teaching about the endurance of marriage in the next life to some church members then, but the actual performance of sealings at that time is not documented. However, we do have records of sealings being performed in Nauvoo in 1841.
Sharalyn: The broader context that we have for sealings occurring is in 1841 when Joseph Smith was sealed to three women, Louisa Beaman, Zina Huntington Jacobs, and Presendia Huntington Buell. Now, Joseph Bates Noble sealed Louisa Beaman to Joseph Smith. From that event, Noble recounts that Joseph taught him the principles of celestial marriage, and that Joseph Smith had received a revelation from God about it. Joseph also taught Marinda Nancy Hyde about celestial marriage in 1841. He was not sealed to her at that time; he was eventually sealed to her in 1843, but all in all, prior to Joseph Smith’s death, we only have approximately 100 men and women who were sealed in addition to Joseph being sealed to his wives. So again, we have a very, very small number of people who are being sealed.
Spencer: But were all sealings in Nauvoo plural marriages?
Sharalyn: No, they’re not. Some of them are life marriages of couples who had been civilly married who ended up being sealed, that Joseph extended the sealing blessings to them. There’s other individuals where we have a woman who is a church member who is civilly married to a man who’s not a member of the church, this woman is extended the blessings of the sealing to a man who is a member of the church. Part of the sense of this is that the sealing was granted these women an opportunity of exaltation that they simply did not have with the husband that they were civilly married to.
Spencer: And this seems to be the driving force behind the introduction of the sealing ordinance, this desire to connect the human family together in order to ensure that as many people as possible had the opportunity to receive ordinances that Latter-day Saints believed were essential for eternal life.
But it was often messy. This desire to connect the human family for a larger, spiritual purpose was a simple desire but not one that was always easy to implement.
Sharalyn: That speaks volumes of a pattern that happens repeatedly in Joseph Smith’s life, not just in regards to sealing but numerous times even about other doctrinal or principles that are revealed to Joseph Smith is this sense of, he gets this revelation, and then he has to deal with the complicated logistics of how do we implement this. And we see this repeatedly in Joseph’s life, where there’s this revelation and then there’s the messiness of trying to figure it out, trying to figure out how the revelation is integrated into the lives of the Latter-day Saints, and sometimes this is really, really messy. It’s very, very complicated. Sometimes we see this in even in Kirtland, where there’s kind of the contention of who has jurisdiction when it comes to priesthood and priesthood office, and there is the sense of inter-fighting or kind of contention of, how do we integrate this? What is the hierarchy of the administration of priesthood, and councils, and that kind of thing? And so, we see this very much also in just the workings of sealings. How does this happen? How does this work day in and day out?
Spencer: And there were several monogamous marriages that were sealed through this ordinance, as well. In addition, several were also sealed to deceased spouses, making the sealing the second ordinance that Latter-day Saints performed for deceased relatives, baptisms for the dead being the first.
Sharalyn: So, there were individuals that were sealed by proxy prior to the completion of the temple. In 1843, Joseph Smith sealed several couples by proxy in an upper room of his home. Hyrum Smith, Brigham Young, and Willard Richards were married for eternity to their living wives: Mary Fielding Smith, Mary Ann Angell Young, and Jennetta Richards Richards. But additionally, Mercy Fielding Thompson was sealed for eternity to her husband Robert B. Thompson, who had died in 1841, and then Hyrum Smith was sealed for eternity to his first wife, Jerusha Barden Smith, who had died in 1837, with his second wife, Mary Fielding, serving as proxy.
Spencer: A July 12, 1843, revelation from Joseph Smith, what today is Doctrine and Covenants section 132, describes both plural marriage and sealings. The Joseph Smith Papers has published an annotated version of this revelation with a historical introduction for those who are interested in studying this history in greater detail.
But for now, I will point out that it was only a small group of Latter-day Saints who were introduced to the sealing ordinance prior to the completion of the temple. In time, Saints would pour into temples throughout the world to be sealed themselves and to perform that ordinance vicariously for their deceased loved ones. But in Nauvoo during the 1840s, all that was far in the future. In the 1840s, their minds were just starting to turn to such a conceptualization of the human family and eternity.
Spencer: Now let’s talk about another temple ordinance that Joseph Smith introduced in Nauvoo even before the temple was completed. Let’s talk about the endowment.
Do you remember in episode 2 of this podcast when we talked about why Latter-day Saints built temples? We spoke about a general endowment of power, a gift of power, that would occur within the temple, an endowment that Latter-day Saints understood as coming closer to God. And the Saints felt that they had achieved this purpose in the Kirtland Temple. But, in Nauvoo, Joseph’s religious teachings took this notion further.
The endowment ritual consists of a re-enactment of the creation of the world. In the process, those participating in the ceremony make several covenants, promising to keep specific commandments of God, and are promised certain blessings in return. At the end of the ceremony, participants are symbolically welcomed back into the presence of God.
And while this ordinance is symbolic, Latter-day Saints then, and now, believe that keeping the covenants made in the endowment will in fact empower men and women to return to God’s presence after they die.
In describing the purpose of this ordinance, Brigham Young publicly stated, “Your endowment is, to receive all those ordinances in the house of the Lord, which are necessary for you, after you have departed this life, to enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels, being enabled to give them the key words, the signs and tokens, pertaining to the Holy Priesthood, and gain your eternal exaltation in spite of earth and hell.”
In 1842, even before the completion of the Nauvoo Temple, Joseph began to share the endowment ordinance with a small group of church members. He taught that it was revealed to him by God. We do not know much about that revelatory process. For instance, we don’t know if it was given to him all at once or over an extended period of time. And we don’t know to what extent experiences in and around Nauvoo served as catalysts to that process. But what appears clear from his history is that for some time before the completion of the temple, Joseph was preparing the Saints in Nauvoo to receive this ordinance. It was part of the restoration of the “fulness of the priesthood” that the January 1841 revelation had promised.
In my conversation with Sharalyn Howcroft, she explained the gradual unfolding of the endowment ordinance in Nauvoo.
Sharalyn: Joseph is doing several things to prepare the Saints for the endowment before he even gives it to them. He gives the women of the Nauvoo Female Relief Society a lecture in late April, in which he tells them how they would receive the blessings and the gifts of the priesthood. Then on May 1, 1842, Joseph is speaking to a group of Saints assembled at the Grove, and he speaks to them about the keys of the kingdom, and that the keys are signs and words used to detect false spirits, and that these signs and words couldn’t be revealed to the elders until the temple is built. And so, you have this preparation, these texts that Joseph is presenting orally to prepare the Saints for that which will come, and also to instill in their minds immediately the necessity of the temple.
Spencer: But it wasn’t long before Joseph started administering the endowment to others. This first occurred in the room above Joseph’s store.
Sharalyn: Then, just a few short days later, Joseph introduces the endowment ordinance to nine men that include Hyrum Smith, Newel K. Whitney, Brigham Young, Willard Richards, and others. But prior to the administering the ordinance, Joseph enlists the help of several individuals to prepare the upper room of his mercantile store for the ordinance. And these men were given explicit instructions from Joseph on how to cut the canvas to create partitions in the room, that they needed to build an altar, and they needed to arrange plants and shrubs and trees to represent the inside of a temple. And then Joseph ended up dedicating the space for the ordinance. Those who receive their endowment that day, they later described their experience. Willard Richard said that Joseph gave instructions on the principles and order of the priesthood, and he communicated the keys of the priesthood, and participants received their washing and anointing and their endowment. Now, Willard Richards—who also experienced the endowment at this time—he said that Joseph stated that everything that was made known to these men would be made known to the least of the Saints in the last days as soon as they were prepared and able to receive it. Brigham Young noted the cramped quarters of the space. He details how he was washed and anointed in this very small office, and then he went into the larger room that was partitioned with canvas, and he went from department to department receiving his key words, signs, and tokens from Joseph Smith.
Spencer: How did Joseph determine who was to receive the ordinances first, even before the temple was finished?
Sharalyn: The first people to receive the endowment then in May of 1842, they were some of the most trusted leaders in the church. They were some of Joseph’s most trusted confidants and friends. So, take for example, Hyrum Smith, he’s Joseph’s brother, and he was also the assistant president of the church. Newel K. Whitney, he was a bishop of the church. William Law was a member of the first presidency, and three of the participants that day were members of the Quorum of the Twelve, so this is very much the inner circle of people who know Joseph Smith. And so, these are very respected and very trusted individuals in Joseph Smith’s life. Now, the wives of these leaders received their endowment at a later time, but in terms of the people who receive this endowment first, or the people who receive this endowment prior to the dedication of the temple, there were approximately 70 men and women who received this. Compare that number to the number of people who received their endowment in the temple. There was approximately 5,500 people that received their endowment prior to the western exodus. So, we have a very, very slim margin of people that are receiving their endowment prior to the temple being built.
Spencer: Similar to baptisms for the dead and other ordinances that Joseph Smith introduced from revelation, the endowment ceremony evolved over time. The core features and covenants appeared to be constant, but Joseph, working with apostle Brigham Young, made adjustments as needed in 1842 and 1843.
Sharalyn: Initially, Joseph Smith alone administered the ordinance, but Brigham Young recalls that after he had received his endowment from Joseph Smith, he was asked to systematize the ceremony, and Brigham Young speaks of witnessing the ceremony repeatedly and as he witnessed it each time he gathered a little more information, he gleaned a little bit more, and he started organizing it so much so that he felt that by the time the temple was completed, they had it pretty much correct. Once other Latter-day Saints started to receive their endowment, Joseph supervised the ordinance numerous times while it was performed, and he provided instructions and corrections as needed, and as I said, Brigham Young was part of this experience where he would be supervised and corrected by Joseph Smith as this occurred. But really, there is this evolution of the endowment.
Spencer: In September 1843, Emma Smith became the first woman to receive her temple endowment. Other women followed shortly thereafter.
And when the temple was finally finished in 1846, this group of men and women who had already received their endowment, this Quorum of the Anointed, as they were called, they were ready to officiate in the temple and to administer the ordinances to their fellow Latter-day Saints.
Spencer: Social developments in Nauvoo in 1842 also provide context for the introduction of the endowment ordinance, including the founding of organizations. One of these was the Freemasons, a fraternal organization to which several male church members belonged. Alex Smith, a historian on the Joseph Smith Papers Project, explains:
Alex: When we look at the developments of the church in the early 1842 months, I think that there are three organizations, if you will, that we have to compare. One is the installation of a lodge of Freemasonry in Nauvoo. The second is the creation of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo. And the third is the introduction of what we consider the temple endowment ceremony to a small group of people. I think that we have to look at all three of those in conjunction in order to really understand what’s happening with these temple ordinances. So, Freemasonry in Nauvoo, to start with that one because it’s the earliest chronologically, that’s first really considered in December 1841. Some members of the church, Hyrum Smith and others who had been Masons and were, saw the creation of a lodge in Nauvoo that they could be part of. And so a temporary lodge is created in December ’41, but by March of 1842, attempts are being made to actually really formally install a lodge, and that happens on the 15th of March. I’m going to be very specific about these dates because this matters. Often, we can get bogged down in dates, but when we’re talking about Relief Society, Freemasonry, and temple endowment in Nauvoo, these dates really matter. So, bear with me here. On the 15th of March, the Nauvoo lodge under dispensation is installed in Nauvoo. Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon become members of it that day. The following day on the 16th, they are raised to Master Mason, incredibly quick, almost unheard of. The day after that, the 17th of March, what happens? The Female Relief Society of Nauvoo is created. Six weeks after that, Joseph reveals the endowment to the first group of people who receive it in Nauvoo.
Spencer: A lot of people have come up with a lot of different conclusions about the connections between Freemasonry, the Relief Society, and the endowment. Some are probable, others, not so much. Many are just speculative. But as historians we are focused on the documentary record. We are focused on what surviving documents tell us about what, if any, connection the people who lived in Nauvoo at this time understood.
Alex: There is documentary evidence from the time that they viewed these as connections. So, when we look first at Freemasonry and Relief Society, I think we see very close parallels. First of all, not only chronologically, the lodge created one day, the Relief Society two days later, but we have Joseph actually referring to the Relief Society members as Masons. So, in a letter two weeks later on the 31st of March, he writes to the sisters and says, “There [are] some among you who are not [yet] sufficiently skilled in Masonry.” He’s making a direct comparison. What does he mean by that? Why is he referring to sisters as Masons in that way? Well, both these organizations are kind of after the same thing at the outset, and they look quite similar. So, we consider the Relief Society of the church today as an open organization that every female member of the church who is an adult belongs to, but it doesn’t start that way. It was a closed society, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. I just mean membership was limited to those who had actually been invited and interviewed essentially into the organization. Compare that to Freemasonry. They’re inducted into the organization based on being deemed of good character, people who are willing to help build the community. Both these organizations, from the outset, I think it’s important to recognize they’re interested in safeguarding the morals of the community.
Spencer: And in some ways, both Masonry and the Relief Society helped prepare men and women for what lay in store for them in the temple. Historical documents demonstrate that those who received the endowment from Joseph Smith saw clear similarities between the ceremonies of Freemasonry and the endowment. For instance, Joseph Fielding wrote in his journal that he understood Masonry to be a “stepping stone or preparation” for the endowment. Apostle Heber C. Kimball believed the rites of Freemasonry were derived from ancient ceremonies and that the endowment restored them to their correct state.
Now, the similarities between Masonic rites and the endowment were really in the mode of presentation, the mechanics, rather than the substance. The content of the endowment was rooted in Joseph Smith’s revelations and inspired translations. But the presentation style of the Masonic ceremonies offered an example of one way to deliver important teachings and covenants. Ultimately, surviving sources on this subject are limited. But Alex Smith offered one possible way of thinking about the connection between Masonry and the temple.
Alex: Freemasonry is not a religion, but Joseph uses Freemasonry as a format, as a vehicle that his church members will be familiar with as a way to introduce and teach doctrines and teachings, even though it’s not a religious organization itself. And so, when we look at the connections between temple ceremony ritual ordinances and Masonic ritual rites, I think we have to recognize that even though we see parallels, it’s because Joseph is using something that he knows people will be familiar with. I mean Christ did, of course, the same thing with parables, he’s using a structure and format that they’re familiar with as a way of introducing new doctrines and a way of revealing them.
Spencer: Alex spoke of the founding of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo in 1842. Many Latter-day Saints are familiar with the organization as it exists today, but I wonder how many are familiar with its founding, its original and continuing mission, and the connection the Relief Society initially had in preparing the women of the church to be full participants in the ordinances of the temple.
To better understand the history of the Relief Society, I spoke with Jenny Reeder, a historian at the Church History Department who has spent years immersed in the history of the organization.
Jenny: I love that the founding of the Relief Society in Nauvoo is centered around the temple. It was Margaret Cook, the seamstress of Sarah Kimball, who noticed that the men working on the Nauvoo Temple had raggedy clothes, and she suggested that they start a ladies society to make shirts for the men working on the temple. So, Sarah Kimball said, Great, I have the money, you have the skills. Let’s do it, but actually let’s do something bigger than just the two of us, let’s get a group of women together and make a ladies sewing society. Now, this is an interesting fact because so many women at the time in America were totally into creating these women’s organizations, women’s societies, whether they be sewing societies or moral reform societies. This trend actually started in the 1790s on the East Coast in big cities like New York and Boston. So, they wanted to be like them. They gathered a bunch of neighbor women one Thursday in March at Sarah Kimball’s house, and they decided that one of the proper ways to start a society was to write a constitution, which was something that they all did, and bylaws. So, they decided to invite Eliza R. Snow to write this constitution. Eliza really was a good choice for this because she had worked as a secretary for her father when he was justice of the peace in Ohio, so she knew legalese, she knew parliamentary procedure, so she wrote a constitution and bylaws, and she decided she wanted the approval of Joseph Smith. So she went to Joseph Smith and showed him her constitution for this ladies sewing society. And Joseph said, you know, this is the best constitution I’ve ever seen, but I have something better for you. And so, he invited the women to come to the upper room of the Red Brick Store the next week on Thursday, March 17th, 1842.
Spencer: That first gathering was small, but the consequences of that meeting were monumental.
Jenny: And so, there were 20 women that gathered. His wife, Emma, was one of them. So, they gathered together, and Joseph says I want to organize you according to the order of the priesthood, meaning a president and two counselors. So, Sarah Kimball later said that Joseph said that the church was never fully organized without the organization of the women and the Relief Society.
Spencer: There is a particularly intriguing—and telling—moment in that first meeting of the Nauvoo Relief Society. It’s when the women gathered to discuss what their organization should be called, and the significance of the name to their mission.
Jenny: It was moved by first counselor Sarah Cleveland, and then seconded by second counselor Elizabeth Ann Whitney, to name the organization the Nauvoo Female Relief Society. So that was indeed the first suggestion, but then John Taylor, who was there, who was an apostle, suggested that it be called the Nauvoo Female Benevolent Society with a more definite idea of purpose, and then Sarah Cleveland the first counselor seconded that motion, but then we have Emma Smith, who is, in fact, the president and has been elected or voted in or chosen, who says, Wait a minute, I want to discuss this with you, John Taylor, this idea of relief and benevolence. Joseph Smith then chimed in and said that benevolence is a popular term, and relief is not popular among societies. Joseph said that relief is a broader term and could mean providing liberation to culprits and enemies. And benevolence seemed to just be caring for the poor. Well, Emma was very educated on what was going on in the country, and she was concerned of the popularity of the word benevolence. She brought up the idea of The Washingtonian Benevolent Society, a very popular society started by Martha Washington, but plagued with corruption. And she said, We are not like other societies of this world. It kind of reminds me of what Joseph told Eliza, I’m going to make something better of you. And Joseph Smith said, well, I have no objection to the word relief, but let’s have a debate about it. Sarah Cleveland said, “We design to act in the name of the Lord to relieve the wants and the distress and to do all the good we can.” Eliza R. Snow concurred with Emma, and she said, “as daughters of Zion, we should set an example for all of the world,” but she said one objection to relief is the idea associated with some great calamity and extraordinary occasions rather than the common occurrences that they would have in Nauvoo. And this is where we get Emma’s famous line. And I love this line. She says, “We are going to do something extraordinary—when a boat is stuck on the rapids with a multitude of Mormons on board, we shall consider that a loud call for relief—[and] we expect extraordinary occasions and pressing calls,” and John Taylor then conceded that he said he was persuaded by their arguments. And I love that, I love that Emma took charge from the very beginning with the name of the society. I love that they listened and they all shared their thoughts and ideas, and that their biggest concern was to be something different than the societies of the world.
Spencer: Yet, despite its name and the bold mission that came with it, the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo had additional purposes as well.
Jenny: It was in part a charitable society, but Joseph taught them that the purpose of the Relief Society was to, number one, relieve the poor, but then number two, to save souls, and so there was this sense of holiness or salvation that was associated with the Relief Society.
Spencer: Jenny told me that the minutes of the Relief Society in Nauvoo are a treasured record for a number of reasons, including the fact that they contain the only accounts of Joseph Smith’s words given directly to the women of the church. Joseph attended Relief Society a total of nine times and spoke on six of those instances. On at least one of those occasions, his remarks appear to have been geared toward preparing the women of the Relief Society to receive the ordinances of the temple.
Jenny: On April 28, 1842, when Joseph spoke to the women about spiritual gifts, he also introduced the participation of both women and men in the temple liturgy to receive the keys of the kingdom. He spoke to make observations respecting the priesthood and give instructions for the benefit of the society, which was what his clerk recorded in his journal that day. But I love this, he says to the women, “I now turn the key to you in the name of God and this Society shall rejoice [in] knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time—this is the beginning of better days, to the Society.” Now, there are so many interpretations of that. But the idea of Joseph turning the key from God to the women, giving them the authority and that knowledge and intelligence would flow down upon them is really indicative of what would happen to the women in the temple.
Spencer: And then, on September 28, 1843, Emma Smith became to first woman to participate in the endowment ordinance. Soon thereafter, other women followed, including several members of the Relief Society.
Spencer: The more I learn about the history of the Relief Society, the more impressed I am that it played an essential role in Nauvoo and that it continues to play a vital role in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today. To better understand how the Relief Society today draws from its early history, I spoke with Sister Jean B. Bingham, the General President of the Relief Society. She is the seventeenth woman to serve in that capacity since the organization’s founding in 1842.
Today, the Relief Society is a global organization consisting of more than 7 million Latter-day Saint women. I spoke with Sister Bingham about the similarities that she sees in the Relief Society today and the Relief Society in Nauvoo.
Sister Bingham: There are many more similarities than differences. Some of those similarities is that women are an essential part of the structure of the church. President Joseph Smith brought women into the formal structure of the church by organizing the sisters, as he said, after the pattern of the priesthood. And initially that meant it was organized with a president and two counselors who are set apart by priesthood leaders, which is exactly the same as any other priesthood leadership. I think then, and now, women are understanding that Relief Society is a companion and complement to the ecclesiastical structure of the Melchizedek Priesthood.
Spencer: As we have discussed in this episode, the organizing of the Relief Society in Nauvoo was done in part to prepare women to participate in the ordinances of the temple. Is preparing women to receive the full blessings of the temple still part of the Relief Society’s focus today?
Sister Bingham: Very much. The temple today is a focus for current members of the Relief Society as much as it was for the Relief Society sisters in Nauvoo. In Nauvoo at the time, they had to wait for the temple to be constructed before they could participate in the ordinances there. And most of those who were finally able to receive their endowment in a temple did so immediately before they left on their very difficult journey west. They somehow understood that the gift of power they would receive there would help them deal with the challenges they would face throughout their lives. And they were only, most of them, able to go through the temple only once in their lifetime. Now, of course, today we have temples around the world, and many of us have been able to go to the temple often for our ancestors. President [Russell M.] Nelson has said that every woman can draw upon the power she receives in the temple, and if we really understood and acted on that knowledge, I believe we would experience greater spiritual insights, greater peace in the world in the midst of turmoil, and greater joy in the journey, just like the women of Nauvoo experienced as they left to go west.
Spencer: In our conversation, Sister Bingham reflected on the history of the Relief Society, specifically how studying this history has broadened her understanding of the relationship between women and the blessings of the priesthood.
Sister Bingham: Do you know, it’s been fascinating. We have, through research and study, we’ve learned that the Relief Society members in Nauvoo began to be taught and understand that they were organized under priesthood keys. They were taught that by President Joseph Smith. He taught the women that there is an essential interdependence for men and women in order to become all that each of us are designed to be. I love this quote by Mary Isabella Horne, who was a member of the original Nauvoo Relief Society. She expressed her feelings of joy when she understood that women are “co-laborers with our brethren in building up the Kingdom of God.” And that’s exactly how we feel today. Then, as now, women officiate in the ordinances offered in the Nauvoo Temple, and that happens in all the temples around the world, today. I think also through our study, we’ve recognized that women leaders who are called today by authorized priesthood key holders have that same measure of divine authority in the leadership and instruction of the women of the church. We’re also more fully appreciating that every woman who makes and keeps covenants with God can draw upon priesthood power in her own life. That is so powerful.
Spencer: And that connection of all members of the church, male or female, to the blessings of the priesthood culminates in the temple.
Sister Bingham: I think that is something that we have not understood very clearly for a long time. I think, of course, President Joseph Smith knew all of that and tried to help the people at the time and could only give them as much as they were able to receive, and I think President Nelson today is helping us to understand more and more how the power of the priesthood blesses every single individual. And when you think about the ordinances of the temple, the highest ordinances are only received with a man and a woman together. The priesthood is the overarching power that everything is accomplished by in the church, and not one individual is left out of the priesthood. We all have the opportunity to have priesthood power in our lives.
Spencer: At the end of our conversation, I asked Sister Bingham what she finds most inspiring about the history of the Relief Society and its origins in Nauvoo.
Sister Bingham: You know, when we understand the story of our origin, it really gives us an appreciation that Relief Society is not just a club for women or a class we attend on Sunday, or even a gathering of good women who do charitable work. Relief Society was organized to help women become true partners in the work of the Lord with our Melchizedek Priesthood brethren. I think learning about how the sisters in Nauvoo organized to fulfill their dual purposes of relieving suffering and saving souls helps us understand how to keep those purposes a priority in all that we do today. They persisted in trying to make spiritual progress and helping others to do the same, and I think as we understand the why they did what they did, we can put those eternal principles into practice in our daily lives. For me, learning about their sacrifices and their difficulties gives me courage. If they could move forward during such difficult times, so can we.
Spencer: The ordinances that Joseph Smith introduced in Nauvoo, particularly baptisms for the dead, the endowment, and the sealing, all had the effect of turning the attention of the Latter-day Saints to eternity. These ordinances and the focus of many of Joseph’s sermons invited church members to expand the way that they thought about their families—and about the human family. These ordinances and teachings focused on preparing men and women to return to the presence of God, which really is a central concept in all of Christianity. But Joseph was asking something more. He was asking these men and women to view their preparation to meet God to be a family endeavor, even a communal one. It was an endeavor that could—and should—link the entire human family.
But for this to happen, the Latter-day Saints needed to finish the temple. As the height of the temple rose in late 1843 and early 1844, so too did local hostility toward the Saints. In fact, the hostility increased to the point that many Latter-day Saints began to wonder if they would be able to stay in Nauvoo long enough to finish the temple. We’ll talk about that in the next episode of The Nauvoo Temple: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.