Belle Smith Spafford was the ninth General President of the Relief Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, serving from 1945-1974. Belle worked during the administrations of six presidents of the church and was the most traveled Relief Society general president to date. During her time as president, the Relief Society grew from an organization of 100,000 members, largely in the western United States, to nearly 1 million members in 65 countries.
Belle's thirty-year tenure makes her the longest serving Relief Society general president.
Belle was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, to John Gibson Smith and Hester Sims Smith on 8 October 1895, the youngest of their seven children. Belle's full name was Marion Isabelle Sims, but she was known throughout her life simply as Belle. Belle's father died suddenly seven months before she was born, and her widowed mother raised the family to value frugality and independence.
Belle graduated from the Normal School (teacher education) at the University of Utah. She later studied at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, where she also worked as a special instructor in remedial work for disabled children. Following her 1921 marriage to Willis Earl Spafford, recently returned from service in World War I, Belle continued working at BYU for some time. This experience gave her a great sympathy for the less fortunate, and Belle used her talents to direct social service programs for the Relief Society in Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. Among the services Belle oversaw were programs for unwed mothers, adoptive services, care for neglected children, and youth guidance services. Belle also participated in the Church's Native American foster care program.
Belle and Earl had two children, Mary and Earl, Jr. Belle experienced extreme personal tragedy when in 1963, her husband died of a heart attack. Within a year, her daughter Mary died also.
After moving to Salt Lake City in 1935, Belle was named a member of the General Relief Society Board. Not long afterwards, she became editor of The Relief Society Magazine. She served as counselor to President Amy Brown Lyman from 1942-1945, and upon Amy's release in 1945, Belle was called as General President of the Relief Society.
Belle retired from the Relief Society General Presidency in 1974 and died February 2, 1982, at age 86.
Events during Belle's service as Relief Society President
- Membership in the Relief Society grew from 100,000 members mainly in the Intermountain West to nearly 1 million members in 65 countries.
- After World War II, the Relief Society helped with relief efforts for the people suffering in Europe. The organization shipped clothes, bedding, soap, and other necessities to war-torn areas.
- During the 1950's the Relief Society increased its emphasis on education, especially homemaker education and social services.
- Belle Spafford expanded and professionalized the delivery of social services by the Relief Society in cooperation with the Church Welfare Program. Social service programs were later moved to other departments, including LDS Family Services, during her tenure.
- Belle asked the 100,000 Relief Society members to each donate five dollars in order to begin construction of the new Relief Society Building in 1945. After Relief Society donations surpassed the $500,000 dollar goal in a single year, matching funds were contributed by the Church, and a building lot was selected east of the Salt Lake Temple. Construction began in 1953, and the building was dedicated on 3 October 1956. The building now houses the offices of the Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary organizations.
- When Belle was called as president, women paid annual dues to be part of the Relief Society. Beginning in 1971, all Mormon women age 18 and older were considered members, and Relief Society operating funds were received from ward budgets. Prior to this time, one of the duties of Visiting Teachers was the collection of dues. Now, they were directed to provide service instead of gather money.
- For years, each Church auxiliary had published its own magazine. The Relief Society Magazine, of which Belle was editor for many years, was replaced by the Ensign in 1971. This change was especially difficult for Belle, but she observed, "Adjustment is painful in changing an old pattern into a new one, but we must make the new patterns fit."
"If a thing is worth doing, I want to put all I've got into it."
Stories from the Life of Belle Spafford
- Belle once asked her grandmother, Isabella M. Sims, if she'd give Belle her gold watch when she died. Her grandmother answered, "I'll give you something else that I brought all the way from Scotland that will serve you in the eternities—I'll leave you my testimony of the gospel" (Janet Peterson and Connie Lewis, “Making a Difference for Women: Belle S. Spafford,” Ensign, Mar. 2006, 44).
- In 1926, Belle was surprised when her bishop called her to be a counselor in the ward Relief Society presidency and responded, "That organization is for my mother, not for me." Belle asked for release after three weeks of service and again after an automobile accident, but her Bishop, after prayerful consideration, refused her request. Belle agreed to do her best. She observed, "we needed to enroll more young women and have programs a little more meaningful. We needed to do something on the homemaking day besides quilting.... So I worked toward these goals along with my president and the other counselor" (Janet Peterson and Connie Lewis, “Making a Difference for Women: Belle S. Spafford,” Ensign, Mar. 2006, 44).
- Elder Boyd K. Packer related the following story about Belle Spafford:
- In April of 1945 Belle Smith Spafford became the president of the Relief Society. Only a week or two after she had been sustained, a letter came from the National Council of Women, announcing their annual meeting to be held in New York City.
- Sister Spafford had attended those meetings before, and in view of her previous experience, she and her counselors carefully considered the invitation for several weeks. They decided to recommend to the President of the Church that the Relief Society terminate its membership in those councils. They prepared a statement of recommendation, listing all of the reasons for so doing.
- Trembling and uncertain, Sister Spafford placed the paper on the desk of President George Albert Smith, saying, “The Relief Society Presidency wishes to recommend that the General Board terminate its membership in the National Council and in the International Council of Women, for the reasons listed on this paper.”
- President Smith carefully read the paper. Had they not held membership for well over half a century? he inquired.
- Sister Spafford explained how costly it was to go to New York, the time it took, and described the humiliation they occasionally experienced. She recommended that they withdraw because “we don’t get a thing from these councils.”
- This wise, old prophet tipped back in his chair and looked at her with a disturbed expression. “You want to withdraw because you don’t get anything out of it”? he questioned.
- “That is our feeling,” she replied. “Tell me,” he said, “what is it that you are putting into it"?
- "Sister Spafford,” he continued, “you surprise me. Do you always think in terms of what you get? Don’t you think also in terms of what you have to give?”
- He returned that paper to her and extended his hand. With considerable firmness he said, “You continue your membership in these councils and make your influence felt.”
- And so they did! Sister Spafford took the gentle correction from that wise prophet, and the day came that she was president of that organization.
- Now, I pass that same message to each sister in the Church. If you are absenting yourself from Relief Society because “you don’t get anything out of it,” tell me, dear sister, what is it that you are putting into it"? (Boyd K. Packer, “The Relief Society,” Ensign, Nov. 1978, 7)
Awards and Achievements
Belle S. Spafford received a number of recognitions and achievements during her lifetime. A selection of those follows:
- Member, National Advisory Committee to the White House Conference on Aging, January 1961
- Second Vice-President, National Council of Women of the United States, 1948-1956
- President, National Council of Women of the United States, 1968-1970
- Vice President, American Mothers Committee, Inc., 1965
- Honorary Lifetime Membership, Utah Conference of Social Work
- Board Member, Latter-day Saint Hospital
- Board Member, Brigam Young University Board of Trustees
- Second Vice-President, National Association for Practical Nurse Education
- Distinguished Service Award, Crusade for Freedom
- Honorary Doctor of Humanities, Brigham Young University, 1956
- Distinguished Alumni Award, University of Utah, 1967