Daughters in My Kingdom: The History and Work of Relief Society briefly introduces each of the fifteen faithful women who have served as general Relief Society presidents. Many readers are acquainted with the earlier presidents, Emma Hale Smith, and Eliza R. Snow, as well as the later ones who have served over the last 40 years, including Belle S. Spafford, Barbara B. Smith, Barbara W. Winder, Elaine L. Jack, Mary Ellen Smoot, and Julie B. Beck. Those “middle” presidents are likely less well-known. Taken from the book Faith, Hope, and Charity: Inspiration from the Lives of General Relief Society Presidents, the following accounts relate in more detail the lives of three remarkable presidents: Zina D. H. Young, Clarissa S. Williams, and Louise Y. Robison.

Zina D. H. Young (1888-1901)

zina_d_h_youngAfter Zina Diantha Huntington Young’s father, a church-going man, had diligently studied the Bible, he declared that none of the churches he knew were right. When he heard about a “new and golden Bible” and a prophet in nearby Palmyra, New York, he acquired a copy of the Book of Mormon. When young Zina returned from school one day, she saw “the Book of Mormon, that strange, new book, lying on the window sill of our sitting-room.” As she picked it up, the Holy Ghost conveyed to her, “This is the truth, truth, truth.”[1] From that moment, Zina had an unwavering testimony of the gospel and served the Lord throughout her long and sometimes difficult life.

The Huntingtons joined the Saints in Kirtland, Missouri, and then Nauvoo. When the majority of the family became ill with cholera, Joseph and Emma took them into their home to nurse them. Nevertheless, Zina’s mother died in 1839. Zina deeply mourned her mother’s death, becoming almost inconsolable. Her mother’s words came into her mind one evening: “Zina, any sailor can steer on a smooth sea. When rocks appear, sail around them.”[2] Many rocks appeared in Zina’s life, but like a good sailor, she learned to sail around them.

Zina was sealed to the Prophet Joseph and wrote about the Martyrdom: “My pen cannot utter my grief nor describe my horror. After a while a change came to us to comfort us in the hour of dreadful bereavement. Never can it be told in words what the Saints suffered in our days of trials, but the sweet spirit of the Comforter did not forsake us.”[3]

Zina had two sons from an earlier marriage and a daughter when she was later married to Brigham Young. Though as a young mother, she felt she could never become a stepmother, she lovingly raised four of Brigham’s children, whose mother had died, as her own.

Since medical care was quite primitive in pioneer Utah, Zina took an obstetrics course  from a visiting doctor. As a midwife, she delivered hundreds of babies. Combining her great faith with her medical skill, she was known throughout the Utah Territory as an “angel of mercy.” Zina was instrumental in establishing the Deseret Hospital and a nursing school.

Another critical need of the pioneers was fabric. Thus, Brigham Young promoted sericulture, or the production of silk, as a way to provide fine material. He asked Zina to establish the silk culture in the early 1870s. Although silkworms were particularly abhorrent to Zina—in her words, a “terror,” she faithfully carried out her charge, traveling from Logan to St. George to instruct Relief Society sisters on how to care for the delicate eggs, feed the ravenous silkworms, and to spin the slender threads.

Zina served as a counselor to Eliza R. Snow, the second general president. The two, though very different in personality, were close friends and were referred to as the “head and heart” of Relief Society. Upon Eliza’s death in 1888, Zina was called as the president. During her years of service, the Relief Society program began to spread beyond the Intermountain area. Zina campaigned for women’s suffrage and Utah statehood and further sought to improve medical care. She became the matron of the Salt Lake Temple following its dedication in 1893. Zina served as Relief Society president until her death in 1901. Fittingly inscribed on her gravestone is the motto, “Charity never faileth.”

Clarissa S. Williams (1921-1928)

clarissa_s_smithClarissa Smith Williams, sixth general president of the Relief Society and the first native Utahn to fill the office, enjoyed the benefits of being a third-generation Latter-day Saint. She had a secure home life, educational opportunities, and financial stability not known by her five predecessors. Yet through her experiences and sympathetic concern for others, Clarissa focused her energies on improving the lives of Relief Society members.

The daughter of Apostle George A. Smith and Susan West Smith, Clarissa was born in 1859, some 12 years after the pioneers first entered the Salt Lake Valley. She showed leadership ability even as a young girl, and her brother affectionately called her “the Little General.” After graduating from the University of Deseret, Clarissa opened her own private school. She married William Newjent Williams, and they became the parents of 11 children. William was a successful businessman and involved in numerous church and civic commitments. Still, he fully supported and helped with family responsibilities while Clarissa served as stake Relief Society president and in various service and civic organizations.

The Williamses were gracious hosts and entertained frequently; Clarissa made her guests feel genuinely welcome in her home. A generous woman, she often served meals to uninvited guests. One of her daughters remembered the many hobos who would knock at the back door for a handout. Clarissa asked one of these men why so many people came to her home. He told her that “there is a mark on the tree in your front yard that tells us that you are generous with your food. We have marks that let our friends know about mad dogs, gun crazy men, and good victuals. You ought to be proud, Ma’am, of your generous reputation.”[4]

Clarissa served as the general president for seven years, from 1921-28. During her progressive administration, she instituted modern accounting procedures for handling Relief Society funds. One of her major contributions came in her emphasis on social services. Concerned about infant and maternal mortality rates, the high number of child and adolescent deaths, lack of opportunities for the handicapped, and the low standard of living for many women, she expanded the Social Service Department of the Relief Society. Clarissa suggested that the funds accrued from the Relief Society’s grain storage program be used for health, maternity, and child welfare services. Clarissa traveled extensively in the United States and abroad, visiting the ever-growing number of stakes of the Church.

In her last address as president, Clarissa said, “Now I like to feel that I have no regrets, that I have done my work as well as I could, that I have tried to have the spirit of the Lord with me at all times.”[5]

Louise Yates Robison (1928-1939)

louise_y_robisonLouise Yates Robison, shy, self-effacing, and with little education and material wealth, never could have imagined as a young girl or even an as a young mother that one day she would preside over the general Relief Society.


 

 

 

Born in 1865, Louise grew up in the settlement of Scipio, Utah. Though the Yates’ family experienced the hardships of pioneering the arid land, Louise thought of her childhood as happy and her parents, Thomas and Elizabeth Yates,  as “splendid, . . . refined, spiritual and loving.”[6] Louise’s mother valued fine things, having given up her wagon seat to walk across the plains rather than throw out her trunks of fabric, lace, and fine china. She taught her daughters that a “lady does not leave home without her gloves fastened and her veil adjusted.”

Louise and her husband, Lyman Robison, had six children. Although financially hard-pressed, the Robisons provided a happy home environment for their children, who claimed they never noticed a lack of material goods. Louise was a cheerful person, often singing as she worked, and she had a delightful sense of humor.

When Louise was diagnosed with facial cancer as a young mother, her stake patriarch administered to her before giving her a patriarchal blessing. In the latter, she was told that her voice would be heard in many parts of the world. It was an extraordinary blessing as Louise was the secretary of the YWMIA and had had no other Church callings. Her face healed without surgery, and her voice would indeed be heard in many lands.

Louise served in the Granite Stake Relief Society presidency for several years. While attending the general Relief Society conference in 1928, President Heber J. Grant announced the new Relief Society general presidency: Clarissa S. Williams, Jennie Knight, and Louise Robison. Louise was happy for her good friend Clarissa but was surprised that the second counselor had a name so similar to hers. Later, when she realized she was the new counselor, she did not think she had the ability or background for this calling.

Seven years later, President Grant extended a call to Louise to serve as the seventh general president. Sustained on the eve of the Great Depression, Louise was a woman for her time. Acutely aware of her own lack of formal education and of material wealth, she focused her concern on those in similar circumstances. One of her significant accomplishments was establishing the Mormon Handicraft Shop, which provided an outlet for women to market their home crafts. Another of Louise’s programs was the Singing Mothers Chorus, inspired by one of Louise’s favorite quotations, “A singing mother makes a happy home.” Always keeping women of modest means in mind, Louise insisted on a uniform of dark skirts and white blouses because she believed that most women would own a skirt and blouse and would not have to spend money on new outfits.

The promise in Louise’s patriarchal blessing was fulfilled as her voice was heard in many parts of the world. She was the first Relief Society president to visit many of the branches and districts of the Church in England and in Europe. By virtue of her position as Relief Society president, Louise was a member of the National and International Councils of Women and spoke at various conventions.

Louise Y. Robison lived by the motto, “Welcome the task that takes you beyond yourself.” An unschooled, “common” woman, she had such strong faith in the Lord that she overcame extreme shyness and fear of public speaking to address audiences throughout the world. Called to the presidency at a stressful economic time, she established programs that helped lift the financial burdens of many Relief Society sisters. Her practical spirituality and refined humility made her an effective president for the era in which she served.

Faith, Hope, and Charity: Inspiration from the Lives of General Relief Society Presidents by Janet Peterson and LaRene Gaunt (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications) can be purchased at www.deseretbook.com.

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[1] Zina D. H. Young, “How I Gained My Testimony,” Young Woman’s Journal 4 (April 1892): 317.

[2] “Mother,” Young Woman’s Journal 22 (January 1911): 45.

[3] Oa Jacobs Cannon, “Zina Diantha Huntington Young,” Relief Society Legacy Lecture, 1982.

[4] Personal history of Eva W. Darger.

[5] Tributes to Clarissa Smith Williams,” Relief Society Magazine 16 (May 1930): 226.

[6] Jennie Knight Brimhall, “Louise Yates Robison,” Relief Society Magazine 16 (January 1929): 3.