Relief Society and Social Welfare

I have been fascinated with RS Pres. Amy Brown Lyman’s journey in organizing the Relief Society’s work in Social Work. It’s an amazing story and shows what our Relief Society is capable of doing when leaders go the extra mile by focusing on saving souls.

Relief Society has been in the humanitarian business for 170 years. Think about that. Then think about how much welfare we are surrounded by. How do we go about teaching people how to fish, rather than doing the fishing for them?

Pres. Amy Brown Lyman

Sis. Lyman said in 1942:

Among the dominant ideas which were developed during the last half of the century are the following: that organized relief should replace indiscriminate giving; that the causes, and that destructive forces should be singled out for special attention and attack; that prevention of poverty, disease, and crime is much better and much cheaper than relief or cure; that old-fashioned charity which was largely palliative and paid attention only to those already in trouble should be replaced by modern welfare which calls for the getting to the very roots of the trouble; that mass betterment should go hand in hand with individual betterment; that the broad aim of social work should be that each individual shall be able to live a normal life according to the standards of the period and the community, rather than the narrower object which is merely the care of those who through misfortune or fault cannot gain this for themselves; that rehabilitation should be the goal in philanthropy; that wholesome recreation is necessary; that suggestive steps in family welfare are relief of existing distress, prevention of new distress, and the raising of human life to its highest level.


With her efforts, and the organized efforts of the sisters, she was able to make this statement: “Relief Society, wherever it has functioned, has been a beneficiary as well as a factor in this development.” It takes a RS leader to organize those around her to bring about this needful development.

Visiting teachers have always been at the forefront in finding out the needs of ward members. At one time, it was the visiting teachers sole responsibility to care for the family in need. That changed in 1916, when teachers were then expected to contact the RS President personally, so the bishop could organize some kind of relief through the ward.

Sis. Lyman was the General RS President during World War II. She had seen how, during the first World War, and the depression years, family problems multiplied, local agencies were overwhelmed, and better health and welfare services were desperately needed. Sis. Lyman focused her time as Board Member, Secretary, Counselor, then President of the General Relief Society, on training the sisters into action, and bettering the population with more concerted efforts toward social welfare.

The Relief Society organization restated, and reemphasized, their views during this time: “that the able-bodied should work and, where necessary, work should be provided for them; that the aged should be properly cared for; that the dependent mother with minor children and dependent, neglected children should be helped adequately and intelligently; and that Relief Society welfare workers should be willing to better train themselves by study and practice in order to know when to help and how to help constructively, and to minister in all things to the strength rather than to the weaknesses of those who are in distress and trouble.”



Sis. Lyman, and the Relief Society, joined forces with the Red Cross. She, and others, attended special courses in family welfare work, in Colorado, sponsored by the Red Cross. Upon their return, they trained the sisters in their wards and stakes.

In 1919, a social welfare department was established at Relief Society headquarters in the office of the general secretary (who was Sis. Lyman, at the time). The objective of the department was to serve 1) as a center for cooperative work in Salt Lake City between stakes and wards, and between Latter-day Saints and non-Latter-day Saint agencies in the interest of Latter-day Saint families in distress; 2) as a center for Latter-day Saint transients and non-residents in need; 3) as a Latter-day Saint confidential exchange and clearing house; 4) as an employment center or bureau for women and girls; 5) as a training center for Relief Society women engaged in charity and relief work; 6) as the official child-placing agency of the Church.

The following year, the General Relief Society Board conducted an intensive six-weeks’ course in family welfare work at Brigham Young University. Out of eighty-three stakes, existing in the Church at the time, sixty-five were represented. Follow-up work was later carried into the local wards where additional classes were held to train every sister. “Lessons in social problems, health, and related subjects, given in weekly meetings, have created interest and stimulated helpful community projects.”

The department grew rapidly, and by 1921, was given its own space, separate from the offices of the Relief Society, yet still run by the the General Relief Society Board.

LDS Hospital, in Salt Lake City, requested “the welfare department” (of the Relief Society) to begin a course of lectures in social welfare for the graduating classes, to be taught by Relief Society sisters. This continued for seventeen years. The courses were eventually moved to the University of Utah hospital. The U of U hospital has continued its reputation as one of the leading teaching hospitals in the nation.

A storehouse for clothing and supplies was established in 1921 by the Salt Lake City stakes for their own benefit. It was later taken over by the Relief Society General Board, where clothing and furniture were received, renovated, and remodeled for distribution. This was the beginning of what would become Deseret Industries.

During this time, a statement from the Presiding Bishopric was issued: “The bishopric should invite the Relief Society presidency to meet with them monthly, or oftener if necessary, to consider general relief work and to discuss plans for looking after the poor, the sick, and those in distress.”

Understanding that sickness and poverty are interrelated, causing vicious cycles to incapacitate a family, the Relief Society next established milk depots in school buildings. This supplied babies, and young children, with plenty of milk for strengthen growing bodies. Mothers could pay for the milk, but if they couldn’t afford it, the milk was furnished free of cost. In addition to supplying milk, babies were examined, calls were made at the homes, and classes for mothers were held. From this came Well-Baby Clinics. Expenses for this undertaking were furnished by the city and Relief Society

Well-Baby Clinic


At the Relief Society April conference in 1922, upon recommendation of President Clarissa S. Williams, nearly one-half million dollars of wheat funds, collected by the Relief Society, was offered to the Presiding Bishopric’s Office, to be held by them. The interest from this fund would be used for health, maternity, and child welfare purposes.

Sis. Lyman served as a member of the House of Representatives in 1923 introducing the Sheppard-Towner Act which “promoted the welfare and hygiene of infancy and maternity.” With this Act came even more work for the sisters. Maternity chests were established in local wards, and filled with maternity bundles and layettes.

American Fork Training School

Sis. Lyman wasn’t finished with her crusade though. Utah was one of the last states to establish an institution for the care and training of the feeble-minded. Relief Society women were the major factor in the introduction of a bill in the 1929 legislature providing for the establishment of such an institution, and in the passage of the bill. The school would be built in American Fork, across from where now stands the Mt. Timpanogos Temple.


Sis. Lyman stated:

Relief Society women of today, never lose sight of the fact that a large number of Latter-day Saint women have graduated in medicine; that two hospitals have been established by the Society–the Deseret Hospital in early days (1882), the forerunner of our Church hospitals, and the Cottonwood Maternity Hospital (1924)…and that large donations of bed and table linen and sewing service have been contributed by them to our Church hospitals.

It is also important to note that Relief Society women worked unitedly for national prohibition in 1918. Prohibition was an important piece of social legislation that freed women from abusive situations that made them helpless and defenseless.

The work of Relief Society continues, but only if our leaders see the vision of caring for families in this world of economic woe. Women can still find great satisfaction in developing training classes for new brides, mothers, and caretakers. Our society hasn’t changed much from Sis. Lyman’s day, but our resources have. There is still much we can do for our families, our community, and our world.

(Information found in The Relief Society Magazine, July 1942, Amy Brown Lyman’s Autobiography–In Retrospect)