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 for, she took classes to learn what she needed to know. For example, when she became editor of the Relief Society Magazine, she enrolled in English composition; and while serving as chairman of a Church history curriculum committee, she took a class at the University of Utah on the westward movement. Her friends and family members knew they should not telephone after nine o’clock in the evening, for that was her study time. She read the scriptures and numerous books. When asked why she formed this nightly study habit, she replied: “One, because it is a commandment, and two, because when I get to the other side I want to have something to talk about with some of the prominent men and women in history.”
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.
A Relief Society Convert
As a young woman Belle taught Sunday School and a religion class, a forerunner of seminary, and at age 17 was president of a ward YWMIA. She was 30 when the Spaffords moved to Salt Lake City, and participating in an “old women’s organization” like Relief Society was the farthest thing from her mind. Belle was more interested in joining a literary club. However, when her visiting teachers invited her to Relief Society, she remembered her own mother’s devotion to the organization and agreed to go to the Tuesday morning meetings. Though Belle attended the meetings regularly, she was shocked when called to be a counselor in the Relief Society presidency. She responded to the bishop by saying, “That organization is for my mother, not for me.” She told him that she had no experience for the calling and said, furthermore, that she had “no desire to learn.”
Although she accepted the call, her experiences did not soften her feelings toward Relief Society. Because the chapel was being remodeled, weekday Relief Society was held in the furnace room in the basement. After three weeks of taking her children to Relief Society in the cold, drafty, cement-floored room, she decided to quit, saying, “Never, never will I come another day.” She asked the bishop to release her. He listened patiently to her complaints and then said, “Sister Spafford, you know I somehow don’t feel impressed to release you. I wish you would try a little longer, and eventually we’ll have our meetinghouse finished and the furnace fixed. And I just don’t feel to respond to your request.” Belle agreed to stay on.
She agreed, that is, until her accident. When the Spaffords’ car hit a telephone pole, Belle’s face was severely cut by shattered glass. The pain from the resulting infection was so intense one Sunday evening that Earl called a doctor to come to the house, but because the abscess was too close to her facial nerves, the doctor could not lance it. Bishop George Bowles stopped to see Belle that evening and gave her a blessing. Belle asked, “Bishop, now will you release me from Relief Society?” He told her he would pray about it. A few days later he returned and said, “I’m not impressed to release you from Relief Society. You stay.” Belle conceded, saying, “Well, if that’s your feeling under these circumstances, I’ll stay and I’ll quit complaining and I’ll do my best.”
Belle continued to serve in her ward Relief Society presidency, then in the stake’s organization. In 1935, she became a member of the general board during Louise Y. Robison’s presidency. Belle was much surprised with her specific assignment. “Sister Robison immediately assigned me to the one division of work for which I was not qualified—homemaking,” she later recalled. “I used to go to the quiltings in my own ward and the sisters wouldn’t let me quilt. So when Sister Robison asked me which committee I would prefer to be on I said, ‘Any but the homemaking. They won’t let me quilt and I’m not a good seamstress, and I’d rather be on one of the educational committees.’
So I was assigned to serve on the homemaking committee. What a wise president to give me that opportunity to catch the vision and the importance of the homemaking program. I worked very hard to make a contribution on this committee. I think the Lord prepares us every step of the way for our callings. He puts the opportunity before us, and if we take it and make the most of it we see the time when it was important for us to have it.” Two years later Belle was assigned to be the editor of the Relief Society Magazine, a position she held for eight years. In October 1942, Amy Brown Lyman, Louise’s successor, requested that Belle as one of her counselors.
Ninth Relief Society President
When Belle was asked to come to the office of President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., in April 1945, she expected to be released as a counselor. To her surprise, she was called to be the ninth general president of the Relief Society. Prior to her call, she had heard a rumor that the auxiliaries would be reorganized and that presidencies would serve for a term of five years. When she asked President Clark about the rumor, he peered at her over the rim of his eyeglasses and said, “You may not last that long, Sister.” Then he added, “We hope that as you administer the affairs of the Relief Society, you will do so with the concept that the Relief Society is a companion organization to the Priesthood.”
At the Relief Society conference [each auxiliary held its own conference] in October 1945, the first conference over which Belle presided and the first to be held in three years due to World War II, President George Albert Smith spoke on the purpose and blessing of Relief Society. Belle was emotionally stirred by his prophecy that in a few years women from Europe, South Africa, China, and the South Seas would attend Relief Society conference in the Tabernacle and that they would come by airplane in just a few hours. Belle asked President Smith after the meeting if he thought this could happen during her administration. When President Smith replied, “It very well could happen during your administration,” Belle asked how women could possibly come to Salt Lake City from various parts of the world in just a few hours, President Smith responded, “I don’t know that you need to worry about that. The Lord will take care of that.” Three years later, the Relief Society presidency hosted a special session for international sisters during general conference. Belle noted that every part of the world President Smith had mentioned in his prophecy was represented.
One of Belle’s significant and most tangible accomplishments as president was the construction of the Relief Society Building. She suggested that every member of the Relief Society in the Church, which then numbered one hundred thousand, donate five dollars to the building fund. She also encouraged men to make gifts to honor their wives, mothers, or sisters. With sacrifice and effort, the Relief Society reached its half-million-dollar goal, and construction began in 1953. At the dedication on October 3, 1956, Belle spoke of “the beauty of its artistic decor, the simple elegance of classic design, the beauty of the bronze, marbles, and woods, and its spirit of love and peace. . . . The building is a magnificent symbol of faith, diligence, and devotion of all women.”
Along with her work in Relief Society, Belle became an influential leader in women’s organizations throughout the world—most notably the National Council of Women and the International Council of Women, organizations established in 1888 to promote women’s suffrage, to examine current women’s issues and problems, and to protect the interests of women and children.
Yet Belle’s first experience with the National Council of Women was not a pleasant one. As a general board member, she represented the Relief Society at meetings of the council at its headquarters in New York City.
At a luncheon, Belle attempted to find a seat at several tables where there were empty chairs, but at each table, the women, knowing she was a Mormon from Utah, told her the seats were taken. After being refused a seat at every available table, Belle approached the council president and said, “Where would you like me to sit? It seems that all the chairs are taken.” The president, assessing the situation, graciously asked Belle to sit next to her at the head table.
Belle had been skeptical of the value to the Relief Society of membership in the council, so when she became the Relief Society president, she recommended to President George Albert Smith that the Relief Society withdraw. “President Smith thoughtfully read through our statements,” she recalled. “In defense of our actions, I added, ‘President Smith, it’s costly for us to go to New York to attend their annual meetings and we really get nothing from the councils, either the National or International Council.’. . .
“He said ‘You surprise me. Do you always think in terms of what you get? Don’t you think it’s well at times to think in terms of what you have to give? Now I feel that Mormon women have something to give to women of the world and I believe also that you may learn from them. Rather than to terminate your membership, I suggest you take two or three of your ablest board members and attend the meetings and continue your membership in these organizations.’ . . . As I arose to leave, he extended his hand across the desk and grasping my hand firmly he said in a positive voice, ‘Attend the forthcoming meetings and make your influence felt in those organizations.’ “
Belle followed his counsel and made her influence felt. She was a member of the National Council of Women for 42 year and was also a delegate to the International Council of Women. In 1968 when Belle was nominated to be president of the National Council of Women, she turned the nomination down, believing that she could not serve effectively as president of both the council and the Relief Society. The council refused to accept her answer and asked Belle to talk with the president of her church about the matter. When she discussed this with President David O. McKay, he counseled her to accept the nomination and promised her more help with her Relief Society work, adding that his door would always be open to her. Belle was unanimously elected and served as president from 1968 to 1970, the first Latter-day Saint to hold that position.
In all her spheres of influence, Belle was skillful in handling differences of opinion without compromising her standards and beliefs. Elder Marvin J. Ashton of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said of her, “She knew how to disagree without being disagreeable. She wore a velvet glove yet her grip was of steel.”
A special interest of Belle’s during these years was social service. As Relief Society president, she directed social-service agencies in Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and Idaho, and supervised programs for abused children and unwed mothers, adoptive services, youth guidance services, and Indian foster-care services. She was instrumental in getting legislation passed in the state of Utah to establish university programs to educate social workers, legislation that became a model for other western states. For her pioneering efforts in social services, the Utah State Conference of Social Work awarded her an honorary life membership and the University of Utah established the Belle S. Spafford Endowed Chair in Social Work.
Her community service included a wide range of organizations: National Advisory Committee to the White House Conference on Aging; vice-president of the American Mothers Committee and Advisory Board; the first female member of the Board of Governors of LDS Hospital and of the Board of Trustees of Brigham Young University; board of directors of the National Association for Practical Nurses; lecturer at the School of Social Work at the University of Utah. She received honorary degrees from Brigham Young University, Ricks College, and the University of Utah; the Distinguished Service Award for the Crusade for Freedom; and the Pursuit of Excellence Award from the LDS Student Association. She was one of 10 outstanding women from Utah cited in Famous Mothers in American History, 1776-1976, and one of seven named to the Salt Lake Council Women’s Hall of Fame. While she was grateful for such honors, she was quick to attribute them to those who gave her so much behind-the-scenes support, especially her co-workers in the Relief Society and her family.
In 1963, Belle’s beloved husband, Earl, had died of a heart attack, and within a year her daughter, Mary, also died. Belle was deeply grieved by these deaths, yet she adapted courageously to her change in lifestyle. Earl had taken care of so many details for her that as a widow she found it hard to remember to do such things as filling her car with gas. But she knew that adjusting to loss was part of living. She took an active part in raising Mary’s five boys and became even more immersed in Relief Society.
In 1970, the Relief Society Magazine was discontinued as part of the revision of the Church magazine system; adult members of the Church would be encouraged to read the Ensign. When Belle reported the discontinuance of the Relief Society Magazine to her general board, she said, “I’ve always been sure of two things: death and taxes. Now I’m sure of three things: death, taxes, and change.” Though she regretted that the women had lost their magazine, she supported the decision to consolidate the Church’s periodicals, commenting, “Adjustment is painful in changing an old pattern into a new one, but we must make the new pattern fit.”
Another change the Relief Society adjusted to was the loss of its financial independence when the priesthood correlation program was established in the 1970s. Belle agreed with the General Authorities that Relief Society members would be able to devote more time to compassionate service and teaching the gospel if they were no longer concerned about generating and managing their own funds. She said, “This life is a life of choices. We sometimes don’t like to get out of the groove that’s been pleasant for us and step into a new groove that might present a few adjustments for us. We have to consider which in the ultimate is going to be the greatest benefit for the greatest number. Always I find that the decisions of the Brethren are right.”
The three decades of Belle Spafford’s administration were years of unprecedented change in the world and in the lives of women. A few months before to her release, she said in an interview:
“Tremendous changes . . . have taken place in the social, economic, industrial, and educational life of most countries in the world since Relief Society was founded. And I don’t think any change in the world has been more significant than the change in the status of women. At the time the Relief Society was founded, a woman’s world was her home, her family, and perhaps a little community service.
Today a woman’s world is as broad as the universe. There’s scarcely an area of human endeavor that a woman cannot enter if she has the will and preparation to do so.
“Yet in the midst of all this change, the organizational structure of the Relief Society, the basic purposes for which it was established have remained constant, and the Church programs that have implemented these purposes have been adaptable to the needs of women in each succeeding era. Through the years, Relief Society has been just as constant in its purpose as truth is constant. The purposes that were important for a handful of women in Nauvoo are still important to women world-wide. That is the miracle of Relief Society. I’ve worked in Relief Society many years, and I’m just beginning to get an insight into its greatness.”
President Spencer W. Kimball, the sixth prophet under whom Belle served, announced her release at the Relief Society conference in October 1974. He noted that she was “a beautiful Latter-day Saint wife and mother. Her voice has been heard in places where it has taken insight, courage, and forthrightness at times when she has stood almost alone.”
After her release, Belle continued to serve as an advisor for several major enterprises of the Church. She also remained active in the National Council of Women and the American Regional Council of the International Council of Women. When she retired from her positions with the NCW, the council designated a “Belle S. Spafford Day” in honor of “her capable, influential, and gracious leadership.” The council also endowed a fellowship at New York University.
Belle had often said of people, “There are no strangers, only friends we have yet to meet.” After her death in 1982, many women came to visit her family, each saying that Belle was her best friend. They echoed the sentiments of a nonmember friend, who once wrote to her: “Many claim you in your church and in your family, but my dear Belle, you belong to the world.” At her funeral Elder Boyd K. Packer said, “When all of the tomorrows have passed, Belle S. Spafford will stand as one of the greatest women of this dispensation.”
Belle Smith Spafford, once converted to Relief Society, immeasurably influenced its course for more than half a century. She led women, in both the Church and national and international society, through an era of tremendous change. A dynamic leader, she was understanding and tactful, but forthright on principles and issues. A woman, a sister, a friend, and a church leader, she truly belonged to the world.
Belle S. Spafford Oral History, LDS Archives, 2.
Church News, February 24, 1973, 5.
Janet S. Nimer [Wilson] Relief Society Legacy Lecture, March 1982, 3.
 “Tribute to Belle S. Spafford by Her Family,” scrapbook, in possession of Janet S. Nimer [Wilson].
Oral History, 11-13.
 Gayle M. Chandler, “Belle S. Spafford: Leader of Women,” master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1983, 18-19.
Telephone interview with Florence S. Jacobsen, April 28, 1989.
Chandler, “Belle S. Spafford: Leader of Women,” 23.
Oral History, 206.
“Relief Society: A Conversation with Belle S. Spafford,” Ensign, June 1974, 15.
“Report of Relief Society Conference,” Ensign, November 1974, 120.
Nimer, Legacy Lecture, 3-4.
 Ibid., 5.