When Belle Spafford was called as Relief Society president in 1945, the one hundred thousand members were primarily English-speaking. When she was released nearly thirty years and six Prophets later, membership was close to a million, spread throughout sixty-five countries. And to think that she had to be converted to Relief Society!
Born October 8, 1895, two months after the death of her father, Marion Isabelle Sims Smith was the youngest of seven children. Thanks to a monthly income received from her husband’s business, Belle’s mother, Hester, was able to stay home, though times were tight. Still, Belle and her siblings never felt as though she lacked a father; her mother frequently reminded her that her father was watching over them from Heaven, that her Heavenly Father was taking care of them, and that the father of their ward – the Bishop – was also available to them.
Belle attended the Brigham Young University Training School, where she met World War I soldier Willis Earl Spafford. The two were sealed March 23, 1921 in the Salt Lake Temple. They had two children. Earl was supportive of Belle in her various callings, and recommended that she take courses in social work, a passionate interest for her, throughout their marriage.
When the Spaffords moved to Salt Lake City in 1926, Belle had little interest in an “old woman’s organization” such as the Relief Society. She attended meetings only at the urging of her visiting teachers and was surprised when, at the age of thirty, she was called to be a counselor in the Relief Society presidency. She stated, “That organization is for my mother, not for me,” and told her Bishop that she lacked experience and had “no desire to learn.” She accepted the call, although she asked to be released after three weeks, and then again after a car accident. Both times, the Bishop refused. She went on to serve on her Stake Relief Society board, and was called to the general board in 1935, under Louise Y. Robison. She spent eight years as editor of the Relief Society Magazine, and improved the formatting by increasing the type and enabling older sisters to read more easily.
Belle was called as counselor under Amy Brown Lyman in October 1942. In April 1945, she was called by J. Reuben Clark, Jr. as the ninth president of the Relief Society. When she asked about a rumor she had heard that presidencies would serve for only five years, President Clark told her, “You may not last that long, Sister.” She went on to serve for twenty-nine and a half years. So much for rumors!
As President, she oversaw the construction of the Relief Society building in the shadow of the Salt Lake Temple, a goal the Relief Society had struggled for since 1901. She participated in women’s organizations throughout the world, and in 1968 was nominated to be president of the National Council of Women. When she turned the nomination down due to her commitment as Relief Society President, the council refused to accept her answer and urged her to talk to the church president. President David O. McKay counseled her to accept the nomination, and she was the first Latter-day Saint to hold that position when she was unanimously elected to serve from 1968 to 1970.
As Relief Society president, Belle directed social service agencies throughout the southwest, and supervised various social programs. She played an important role in passing legislation to establish university programs to educate social workers. Under her tenure, the Relief Society Magazine was discontinued in 1970 as adult church members were encouraged to read the Ensign. The Relief Society, along with other auxilaries, no longer bore responsibility to raise its own funds when the priesthood correlation program was established in the 1970s; instead, it could focus more on compassionate service. Visiting teachers no longer went to the sisters homes with the intent of collecting money; the calling became more spiritually inclined.
Belle was released on October 3, 1973. She had served under Presidents Heber J. Grant, George Albert Smith, David O. McKay, Joseph Fielding Smith, Harold B. Lee, and Spencer W. Kimball. After her release, she continued to serve in the National Council of Women and the American Regional Council of the International Council of Women. She passed away less than nine years after her release, on February 2, 1982. She led women in and out of the church through times of change and upheaval, and held strong to the principles of the Relief Society.