The Nauvoo Female Relief Society was organized on March 17, 1842, in the same room where, a day earlier, Joseph Smith and Sydney Rigdon had become Master Masons. Developed from grassroots charity efforts that had been organized by several prominent Nauvoo women, primarily on behalf of the workers on the Nauvoo temple who, largely a poor, immigrant population among whom many lacked adequate clothing. Female benevolent societies and missionary societies were prevalent and influential among Protestants during the 19th Century, most combining religious and social concerns. Under the presidency of Emma Smith, the Nauvoo Female Relief Society was tasked with raising money to care for the poor and widowed, and instructing the Saints in matters of personal virtue and morality; however, Joseph Smith also saw the Relief Society’s potential for preparing women to receive the esoteric rituals and principles that were developing. The Society grew rapidly and met regularly, with over 1,300 women enrolled during the two years it was active (reasons for its discontinuation will be further addressed).
Some scholars maintain that Smith may had intended to eventually ordain women to the priesthood, using language such as Emma Smith being “ordained” (rather than “set apart”) for her calling as the Society’s president, as well as the Smith’s declaration that the women were to be organized in the pattern of the priesthood. Scholars who refute this idea point to frequent use in the early church of the term “ordain” to mean “set apart,” noting that the term did not come into popularity until later. As well, they contend, being “patterned after the priesthood,” may have been referring to the hierarchical of a president, two counselors, and a secretary, making it more of an administrative similarity than authoritative.
Gospel Topics Essay: “Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women.”