A few readers may remember when Belle S. Spafford served as Relief Society general president. But likely, many do not know much about this remarkable woman. She is noted in Daughters in My Kingdom: The History and Work of Relief Society for her clear understanding of visiting teaching’s purpose as well as the “healing mission” of Relief Society. She strived to help sisters to become righteous women and mothers. Serving as general president from 1945 to 1974 (for twenty-nine and a half years to be exact), the longest term of any Relief Society president, Belle Smith Spafford was a tremendous influence not only on the sisters of the Church, but also on the women of the world. The following is excerpted from Faith, Hope, and Charity: Inspiration from the Lives of Relief Society Presidents by Janet Peterson and LaRene Gaunt.
The three decades that Belle Smith Spafford served as Relief Society general president saw sweeping changes in the world and in the status of women. She was a constant and steady guide through this tumultuous era, both in the Church and in the national and international world of women. During her administration, the Relief Society grew from a largely English-speaking organization of 100,000 members to a worldwide organization of nearly a million sisters in 65 countries. As a young woman, however, Belle had to be converted to Relief Society herself.
Belle was born on October 8, 1895, the seventh and last child of Hester Sims and John Gibson Smith. She was named Marion Isabelle Sims Smith, but was always known simply as “Belle.” Her father died seven months prior to her birth, and while her mother had many struggles, Hester raised her family with faith and courage. "Mother never allowed us to feel that we were without a father," Belle said. "She would often say to us (and all of us remember this), ‘Why, you're not without a father. You have a father. He's not with us, but he is taking care of us, I'm sure. And you have a Heavenly Father, and you have the father of the ward who is the bishop.’ ” Belle’s oldest brother was 16 and held the Aaronic Priesthood when John died. Hester asked him to sit at the head of the table in "Pa's chair," then told her children, "We do have the priesthood in our home. And he sits at the head of the table."
Although Hester received a monthly income from John's business and did not have to work outside her home, money was generally in short supply. She taught Belle and her other children to work and to be careful with money, but she also told them, "I don't want you to be stingy. I want you to be thrifty, and there's a difference between thrift and stinginess."
Belle recalled another important lesson her mother taught her. One of Belle's childhood friends was the daughter of the president of a neighboring stake. One night when Belle joined the family for dinner, the conversation focused on some of the General Authorities. Family members told amusing, but uncomplimentary, stories. When Belle repeated the stories to her mother, Hester exclaimed, "Oh, don't we feel sorry for those children, that their parents would allow them to tell stories like that about the General Authorities? Tonight in our family prayer we must remember to pray for those children."
Hester shared with her children her love of music, art, and good books and firmly implanted in their minds the importance of education. Belle and her brothers and sisters took music lessons, served missions, and earned college degrees.
Hester's Scottish mother, Isabella McMurrin Sims, for whom Belle was named, significantly influenced Belle's life. Living with the Smiths after Belle's father died and a very strong personality, Grandmother Sims was the final word in advice or counsel. She often told her grandchildren that whenever they received praise or a compliment, they were to "see that ye're desairvin’."
Belle could not remember a time when her grandmother did not wear a black silk dress to church meetings, and as a young girl she used to sit and look at her in Sunday School and think she was the most elegant woman in the Church. Isabella often pinned to her dress a gold watch, which Belle greatly admired. One day she said, "Grandmother, when you die will you will me your beautiful watch?" Isabella replied, "By the time I'm gone the watch will be gone also. I want to leave you something far more precious that I brought from Scotland. I want to leave you my testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel."
Courtship and Marriage
While a student at the Brigham Young Training Academy, Belle met Willis Earl Spafford, who had just returned from service in World War I. They soon found that they had much in common, courted, and were married in 1921. Early in her marriage, Belle taught courses at Brigham Young University in remedial work for handicapped children---what would later be known as special education. This experience laid the foundation for her deep interest in social work and her ongoing concern for human needs.
The Spaffords had two children: Mary and Earl. The children grew up in a home where their mother believed that "the most valuable contribution that a woman can make to society is to rear children who have internalized a sense of worthwhile values through the family teaching that would enable them to function as responsible citizens." Mary became a teacher and social worker and Earl, an attorney.
When the children were small, Earl suggested that Belle take classes at the University of Utah. He hired help for her at home, which gave her time to pursue her studies in social work. Whether formally or informally, she continued to learn throughout her life. Whenever she received a new call or assignment that she felt unprepared
Her son, Earl, recalled Belle's devotion to her family as her most important assignment. "Throughout my life mother has enjoyed a position of prominence and respect in both the church and world community," he said, "but those of us who are close to her, her children, her grandchildren, and her husband, when living, have always viewed her not in the light of prominence, but as a warm and affectionate woman who always seemed to have time for the little things. She has cooked with her daughter and granddaughters, she has taught us social graces, she has been our tutor, our comforter, our counselor and our confidante.