Sister Beck and Daughters in My Kingdom

October 9, 2011 | 7 comments
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Mary and MarthaHaving spent the past eight months in Tunisia, where our tiny L.D.S. group had very little formal structure, I had almost forgotten what it was like to go to a Church meeting without husband and children in tow. Attending the General Relief Society Meeting with a few friends was like a welcome home.

I had found the new Daughters in My Kingdom book at my parents’ house when I arrived a few days before the General Relief Society Meeting, and somehow gotten the idea that it had come out months ago and was more or less required reading before the Meeting. Consequently, the three Relief Society Presidency’s talks, which all quoted extensively from the book, sounded awfully familiar from all my cramming.

I found the book interesting, though, and didn’t mind hearing it rehashed. While I know that Relief Society is “the largest women’s organization in the world,” I’ve certainly been guilty of completely forgetting my membership in it during the week, and feeling sometimes like it’s just a nice, well-decorated, girls-only meeting on Sundays.

So I particularly enjoyed President Beck’s talk, “What I Hope My Granddaughters (and Grandsons) Will Understand about Relief Society.”

My first strong impression from Sister Beck’s talk was her quote that “women were vital participants in the Savior’s ministry.” Yes, the New Testament is full of female cameos, but I had never read it with the purpose of putting together a coherent idea of women’s participation in the Ancient Church.

Chapter 1 of Daughters in My Kingdom paints a picture I’ve not seen before in a Church publication, of women playing key service, economic, and ecclesiastical roles in the Church as organized by Christ. Beck goes on to assert that this pattern of active participation by women was one of the elements of the Ancient Church that was lost during the Apostasy. I will definitely be incorporating elements of this chapter and Sister Beck’s talk into future Family Home Evenings about the Ancient Church and the Apostasy in our home.

To reinforce the idea that women’s participation in the Church was fundamental, Beck points out that it was only a few months after the Church was organized that “the Lord revealed that Emma Smith was to be set apart as a leader and teacher in the Church and as an official helper to her husband, the Prophet.”

I thought it was fascinating that she later referenced Joseph Smith’s statement about a lecture on Priesthood given to the Relief Society after its organization, in which he explained “how [they] would come in possession of the privileges, blessings and gifts of the Priesthood.” While Sister Beck did not bring it up in her talk, part of that lecture on Priesthood she referenced included Joseph’s statements approving the laying on of hands by women to heal the sick, and enjoining those who forbade the women from laying on their hands to “hold their tongues.”

Sister Beck took up a later line in Joseph’s lecture, linking those privileges, blessings and gifts of the Priesthood to the Temple. She briefly references Chapter 2 of Daughters in My Kingdom, which explains the proto-Relief Society as a spontaneous movement that grew out of the desire of several prominent women in Nauvoo to assist in the building of the Temple.

Sister Beck expands this idea in her talk to emphasize the role of the Relief Society currently in preparing women and their families for the blessings of the temple. I loved her image of the Relief Society sisters holding their first meeting in the Red Brick Store facing the hill where the temple was being built, and encouraging modern Relief Society sisters to look to the temple just as their progenitors did.

The focus on a sisterhood of women helping each other to become more holy and prepare for the blessings of the temple was a beautiful and meaningful way for me to understand Relief Society. This temple preparation purpose of Relief Society becomes even more profound when I consider that it continues seamlessly within the temple walls, as women officiate for each other and administer sacred ordinances, both for themselves, and for the women of ages past.

Later chapters of Daughters in My Kingdom describe a Relief Society during the first half of the 20th century that often functioned as a fairly independent organization, and involved itself in community causes and projects, working in tandem with other local and national women’s organizations.

My admiration for the Relief Society grew as I read how during World War I the U.S. government bought 200,000 bushels of much-needed wheat, which had been stored for years by the provident Relief Society. The midwife who delivered my son a few years ago had studied her craft in Utah, and spoke glowingly of the “tradition of Mormon midwives.” I was never quite sure what she meant. So I was interested to find out more about how Sister Zina D. H. Young, herself a midwife, encouraged some members of the Relief Society to study in the eastern United States and then come back to establish a midwifery and nursing program in Utah.

In her talk, Sister Beck provides continuity between the old school Utah-based Relief Society and the current organization by describing these and other dramatic projects undertaken by the Relief Society in earlier days as establishing “patterns of discipleship” and laying the foundation for the much more streamlined structure and work of Relief Society now in the worldwide Church.

I caught a glimpse of the challenge of expanding the Relief Society internationally when I was called into the Relief Society presidency of my tiny branch in Italy. The other members of the presidency were converts (one had been a member for less than a year), and had only ever been members of small, struggling branches.

Although I grew up in the Church, it was my first time having a Relief Society calling, and I was both dismayed and embarrassed when the other sisters looked to me to answer basic questions about the structure and functioning of Relief Society, just because I was from the United States.

I was even more dismayed to find that my vague memories of how things seemed to work in my U.S. wards often actually did turn out to be the best guide we had for implementing Relief Society programs in our struggling branch. I can see the wisdom in jettisoning many of the worthy but complex tasks undertaken by Relief Society in previous generations, in favor of a simpler program that actually has a chance of being implemented more or less similarly everywhere.

(But I’ll never forget the great amusement and delight of a sister in the branch when I brought her cookies one day. She said she had read many times in the Church magazines about people taking each other cookies, but it was such an odd thing to do in Italy that it had never before happened to her. Just doing my part to export Mormon culture to the far reaches of the worldwide Church.)

The final segment of Sister Beck’s talk related to visiting teaching, which seems to come up in the Relief Society meeting as often as my husband says pornography comes up in the Priesthood session. I really loved her comparison of the statistics-based model of visiting teaching with the law of Moses; not a waste, but a preparation to help sisters “learn patterns of watchcare.” Going back to her original theme of women in the church at the time of Christ, she said (about visiting teaching) that “[t]his element of our discipleship should closely resemble the ministry of our Savior.”

The sense I got was of a raising of the bar, and a plea to take full responsibility for watching over the women who have been assigned to our care, and their families. Her threefold injunction to “sincerely come to know and love each sister, help her strengthen her faith, and give service,” inspired me to recommit myself to really taking my visiting teaching as an assignment straight from Christ to care for the “one” as he would do it.

All in all, I felt that my affection for and identification with Relief Society was strengthened by Sister Beck’s talk, and by the new Daughters in My Kingdom book. The many interesting historical vignettes, interwoven with words of prophets and past Relief Society presidents, and tied together by modern commentary, make Daughters in My Kingdom a valuable little book. Looking back on my clueless experience in the Relief Society presidency of our little Italian branch, I wish I’d had it then. I imagine that this book will provide a useful and inspiring point of reference for Relief Societies all over the worldwide church.

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7 Responses to Sister Beck and Daughters in My Kingdom

  1. Amanda on October 9, 2011 at 10:00 pm

    Thanks for this review. Makes me want to finish the book. I have had mixed feelings about it-so your positive reaction makes me want to look at it again differently. I had the feeling that Sister Beck was asking us to step up on our visiting teaching while I listened but I didn’t quite get the vision of Christ caring for the one-thanks for that image.

    I wonder if this book would be helpful to give to the young women the year before they enter Relief Society-as an introduction to the organization that they are about to be a part of? Get them excited about it?

  2. Amira on October 10, 2011 at 12:37 am

    Thanks, Sarah. I read DiMK partly from an international perspective too and I think that’s where the book is most useful. And I love your cookie story.

  3. James Olsen on October 10, 2011 at 12:59 am

    Sarah, my anecdotal gut level impression is that RS leaders like Sister Beck are more frequently and substantively using (quoting from, referring to, taken up in a principle-guiding manner, etc.) Joseph Smith’s two foundational talks to the RS. This can’t but encourage women in the church generally to go back and read and take seriously the Prophet’s counsel to the RS. But it seems to me that there is such a stark and undeniable contrast between the culture if not the theology of what Joseph sets out and how the RS functions and is understood today that it’s bound to cause conflict. What do you think? Am I overstating either the contrast or the contrast’s potential to create tension? As an outsider, I’d like to know what sorts of conversations RS members have about this – do you all talk about laying on of hands to heal others? Do you speak about the RS being organized after the pattern of the Priesthood? That the Temple couldn’t be established without the women first being organized and ordained? Are these things already a part of RS self-understanding or is this a change? One might almost look at the way Sister Beck describes female discipleship under Christ, followed by apostasy and eventual restoration under Joseph Smith and see the same pattern taking place internally in our own dispensation.

  4. Sarah on October 10, 2011 at 6:12 am

    Amanda – I think giving the book to the Young Women would be a great idea. I know that as a teenager attending RS for the first time at BYU ten+ years ago, I certainly didn’t get the perception of Relief Society that the book gives.

    James – You raise several interesting questions. From the discussions I’ve heard lately in Relief Society, I haven’t really noticed women going back and reading Joseph’s counsel, other than the bits included in lessons and talks like Sister Beck’s. I’ve heard the story of the laying on of hands by Mary Fielding Smith on her oxen, for example, but only in the context of an interesting historical curiosity; how they did things back then.

    I do remember a discussion in my Irish Relief Society where women without a worthy Priesthood holder in their homes said they prayed over their sick children (no laying on of hands). In general, though, I think people just assume that RS always functioned more or less as it does, and interpret the JS quotes in that context. A lot of them (like the one Sister Beck quoted) are vague enough to support various interpretations, but the one pretty much always taken is the conventional one.

    It’s true that a large portion of my Relief Society experience has been abroad in small branches, where the members are still learning basic Church doctrines and struggling to even get visiting teaching organized or have a few activities during the year. I don’t know how many non-official Church publications they even have translated or readily available, so no, not a lot of tension there.

    In the various San Diego wards I’ve attended, the focus in Relief Society seems to be mostly on fitting everything into busy lives. I don’t get the sense that the Church makes up such a huge percentage of people’s social lives as perhaps it does in Utah. When everyone is so busy with careers, heavily scheduled children, and whatever else it is that makes Southern California such a “busy” culture, there is really no room for thinking about different roles. Let alone agitating for things that might make women even busier.

    I’d be interested to hear opinions from those who’ve had different Church experiences from mine.

  5. Blackbird on October 10, 2011 at 7:58 pm

    Thanks for your encouragement to read this book, Sarah!!!

    When I was offered this book by my husband (who, is the Bishop of our ward) my reaction was “oh no, not another church book”!!! As a somewhat flurried councilor in Primary, I declined the offer of this small tome, as my husband handed copies to the rest of the Primary Presidency. There was an amused chuckle all round, as each laughed at what they observed as typical behavior on my part!!! I am a minimalist!!!

    My thoughts at the time, were, that I would grab a copy when I had more hours in the day … Your observations have whetted my appetite and I will certainly have a more enthusiastic approach to this interesting piece of Relief Society history.

    Some background and stream of consciousness, musings …

    My Relief Society role, in Primary, as a counselor, has tended to obscure the immediacy of what happens in the front-line of Relief Society. Working in Primary is time consuming and emotionally taxing for one reason and another. So, it is often challenging to keep myself motivated about anything to do with Relief Society itself. Primary, is in my view, an extension of the role of Relief Society … it simply involves a different clientele – children, who are taught the messages of Christ. Thus, I tend to shut out too much additional information about Relief Society and focus on Primary … hence my lack of interest in the new “Daughters in My Kingdom”

    With the values of Relief Society in mind, I nevertheless, do my visiting teaching and adopt as natural, a Christocentric approach to this responsibility as possible; rather, than a chase statistics attitude. (Sister Beck’s comments about visiting teaching were appropriate, timely and encouraging.)

    Relief Society, for me, has always been an encompassing Christ centred organization; which has all the women’s auxiliaries and the subsequent callings, (Sunday School, Young Women and Primary) in it’s loving embrace. Indeed, the mission of Relief Society as per Wikipedia, alludes to this encompassing role; but, curiously leaves out Young Women and Primary ( Nursery). In reality, Relief Society is more than just the activities and visiting teaching etc. that are organized – it is the penultimate Christian state of mind, wherever you happen to serve or function in life!!! (Wikipedia: The motto of the Relief Society, taken from 1 Corinthians 13:8, is “Charity never faileth”.The official purpose of Relief Society is to “prepare women for the blessings of eternal life by helping them increase their faith and personal righteousness, strengthen families and homes, and help those in need. Relief Society accomplishes these purposes through Sunday gospel instruction, other Relief Society meetings, visiting teaching, and welfare and compassionate service.”)

    Thanks for your encouragement to read this book, Sarah!!!
    When I was offered this book by my husband (who, is the Bishop of our ward) my reaction was “oh no, not another church book”!!! As a somewhat flurried councillor in Primary, I declined the offer of this small tome, as my husband handed copies to the rest of the Primary Presidency. There was an amused chuckle all round, as each laughed at what they observed as typical behaviour on my part!!! I am a minimalist!!!

    My immediate thoughts, were, that I would grab a copy when I had more time … Your observations have whetted my appetite and I will certainly have a more enthusiastic approach to this interesting piece of Relief Society history.
    Some background and stream of consciousness, musings …
    My Relief Society role, in Primary, as a counsellor, has tended to obscure the immediacy of what happens in the front-line of Relief Society. Working in Primary is time consuming and emotionally taxing for one reason and another. So, it is often challenging to keep myself motivated about anything to do with Relief Society, itself. Primary, is in my view, an extension of the role of Relief Society … it simply involves a different clientele – children, who are taught the messages of Christ. Thus, I tend to shut out too much additional information about Relief Society and focus on Primary … hence my lack of interest in the new “Daughters in My Kingdom”

    With the values of Relief Society in mind, I nevertheless, do my visiting teaching and adopt as natural, a Christocentric approach to this responsibility as possible; rather, than a chase statistics attitude. (Sister Beck’s comments about visiting teaching were appropriate and encouraging.)

    Relief Society, for me, has always been an encompassing Christ centred organization; which has all the women’s auxiliaries and the subsequent callings, (Sunday School, Young Women and Primary) in it’s loving embrace. Indeed, the mission of Relief Society as per Wikipedia, alludes to this encompassing role; but, curiously leaves out Young Women and Primary ( Nursery). In reality, Relief Society is more than just the activities and visiting teaching etc. that are organized – it is the penultimate Christian state of mind, wherever you happen to serve or function in life!!! (Wikipedia: The motto of the Relief Society, taken from 1 Corinthians 13:8, is “Charity never faileth”. The official purpose of Relief Society is to “prepare women for the blessings of eternal life by helping them increase their faith and personal righteousness, strengthen families and homes, and help those in need. Relief Society accomplishes these purposes through Sunday gospel instruction, other Relief Society meetings, visiting teaching, and welfare and compassionate service.”)
    Thanks, also for reminding me of the historical aspects of Joseph Smith’s organizational input in organizing Relief Society; as, this information has been part of my background awareness. However, I have tended to let this knowledge lapse amongst the collage of a million thoughts in the back of my mind.
    Once again, Sarah:
    Thanks for your thoughts. Your remarks were like drinking from a deep well of cool water …

    Once again, Sarah:
    Thanks for your thoughts. Your remarks were like drinking from a deep well of cool water …

  6. Blackbird on October 10, 2011 at 8:01 pm

    Sorry … not sure why the ‘double up’ comments occurred??? My editing must have gone awry!!! Hope that doesn’t confuse readers of this column …

  7. michelle on October 11, 2011 at 1:20 am

    James,

    Here’s my take on the book and on the history it highlights. To me, the book actually helps with the tension (where there might be one perceived), because to me it helps one see how the RS has changed somewhat in function over time, but how the mission and divine purpose have not. I think often people focus on the things that have changed (and see that as a negative), rather than on the things that have stayed the same. To me, that is a key purpose of this book — to help us see the consistency and patterns (Sister Beck calls them “patterns of discipleship”) in the faith and vision of the our foremothers and understand how that legacy is (or should be) carried on today.

    I like how this post highlights Sister Beck’s General RS Meeting talk. I think to get the full measure of what this book has to offer, reading all of her recent talks will help, particularly starting last fall, into BYU Women’s Conference, and now this year’s RS broadcast. Her visit to Idaho is also worth a read. The book brought all of her messages together in a powerful way for me. It made her mantle become more clear in my mind, and helped me understand all the more the urgency of what she has been trying to say to us while serving in this calling.

WELCOME

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