The following article is the first in a series about the history of Relief Society.
In the days, weeks and months after being called to write a history of Relief Society for the Church, Sister Susan W. Tanner sat in a small carrel in the BYU library and read everything she could about the great legacy of Latter-day Saint women.
"There was nothing more than four gray walls around me," she said. "That way I could do the reading without any distraction."
As she studied she asked herself one question over and over again: "Is this important to lift women, to inspire women, to help women know who they are and what their purposes are?"
The result of her efforts — and the efforts of dozens of other editors and designers — is the new history of women in the Church, titled Daughters in My Kingdom: The History and Work of Relief Society.
The title of the book is taken from Doctrine and Covenants section 25, where the Lord promises Emma Smith that "all those who receive my gospel are … daughters in my kingdom," said Sister Julie B. Beck, Relief Society general president, and her counselors, Sister Silvia H. Allred and Sister Barbara Thompson.
And the book, which was "heaven directed," teaches women exactly what Sister Tanner hoped it would, said Sister Beck. It is a message to the women of the Church about "their life and purpose and meaning and what the Lord has always thought about them," she explained.
The 208-page book is not a comprehensive history of the Church, nor is it an LDS manual. It is intended as a personal and family resource to support women and their families and strengthen them in their responsibilities, said Sister Beck.
The history is also unique because it is written for an international audience; the heritage of Latter-day Saint women is shared by those who live in more than 170 nations and who speak more than 80 different languages.
Knowing that, Sister Tanner — former Young Women general president who is currently serving a mission with her husband in Brazil — began her work on the history by reading and rereading the minutes of the first Relief Society meetings held in Nauvoo, Ill., in 1842.
"I could hear Joseph Smith saying to the sisters, 'You need to serve others, you need to provide relief to them. You need to help them.' Then he emphasized taking care of their families and saving their families. Then he emphasized that they need to be holy women. They needed to be women who were prepared for a temple and they needed to build on their own personal righteousness."
The themes of strengthening faith and family and giving relief also had meaning to Sister Tanner because they are something Sister Beck and her counselors are emphasizing to women today. "We need to carry on those original foundational principles taught by the Prophet Joseph Smith," she said.
As Sister Tanner continued to work on the project other themes from history emerged that would bless the lives of women today. She kept a journal of her research and began to see patterns. Chapters began formulating in her mind. She determined to organize the book different than a traditional history.
"I felt that Heavenly Father was guiding each step of the process and answering my prayers," she said.
Chapters in the book highlight, among other themes, the worldwide sisterhood of women, the blessings of the priesthood and the importance of the family. Each chapter includes a collection of experiences of faithful Latter-day Saint women.
Sister Tanner said as she was working on the book she began to feel a great love for the women of history. "I wanted to honor them by telling of their beautiful lives and their dedication to their covenants and to their testimonies. I felt like they were becoming my sisters in a very real way, and my friends."
The project also deepened her love for Relief Society, the Lord's organization for women. The Lord "has always cared about women and always used them and needed them in His organized Church," she said. "I came to this with the sense of who women are. I came to it with a sense that we as women are noble and great in our Father's kingdom. I wanted to be able help other women feel that. As I studied about our history and these great women, I felt like I was learning things that would help me deepen my sense of that but that would also help me portray that so that other women could have the sense of who they are and how much our Father in Heaven loves us and how much He needs us. I had a sense in this that He does need us to be His instruments here to bear witness of Him and to bless the lives of others in our sphere."
Over and over in history, and in present times, the Lord reiterates the important place He has in His plan for His daughters, she added.
"He loves them. He cares about them. He needs their help in this great work. He will bless them to be able to fulfill those responsibilities. I think this is what we see over and over again in this history with these great women of the past and the present. They understand their place in our Father's great plan. They are willing to do whatever it takes to fulfill that purpose."
And, she added, every Latter-day Saint woman in the world shares that legacy.
"The gospel of Jesus Christ that we each embrace now in our lives wouldn't be here if it hadn't been for these early sisters who were strong and good and built the Church and built the foundation that we now all have as our heritage. It is a heritage that belongs to everyone."
Still, Sister Tanner said, writing the book was not always easy. In fact, at one point in the process she got really stumped.
"I felt like I didn't know where to go next," she said.
Although not prone to having dreams that she can remember, let alone dreams that are revelatory, she had a dream one night that helped her refocus. "In that dream I was going on a hike and there was someone up ahead who was leading me and he turned a corner and I lost sight of him," she recalled. "I tried to continue on the trail but I found myself lost in an amusement park. There were four walls around me and I couldn't see any way out. I could see over the walls to the place where I needed to be, but I couldn't figure out how I needed to get there."
She woke up in frustration.
Then she began to wonder if the dream was an allegory for her life at the moment.
"I thought maybe it is because I have let too many things of the world encroach upon my spirit, let the amusements of the world encroach upon me."
Just as Emma Smith was taught in Doctrine and Covenants section 25, she wondered if she needed to "lay aside the things of the world" so she could refocus on the project.
Today, she wonders if the lesson was not just a allegory for herself, but also for the women of the world who "have allowed the amusements of the world to encroach upon them too" and who are "lost in an amusement park."
Sister Tanner hopes the history will help give the women of the Church a sense of who they are. "I do think people who recognize their heritage and recognize their legacy have a greater desire and ability to carry that on and be that same kind of person," she said.