Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Relief Society's Legacy of Maternal Care - Guest Post by HeatherLady

This guest post comes to you from my collaborator, Heatherlady, who writes Women in the Scriptures.

I’ve been doing a lot of delving into LDS church history, especially women's history, for this book. It has been such an incredible experience for me. Recently when reading “Women of Covenant”, the unofficial “official” history of the Relief Society, I discovered an interesting piece of Relief Society history that I was unaware of.

Clarrissa Williams

In October Conference 1921 Relief Society President Clarissa Williams announced a plan “to establish a maternity home in Salt Lake as a sort of experiment, and later, if this is successful, to extend the work by establishing similar homes in various centers.” She wanted “to encourage motherhood and to make it possible for women in child-birth to have good care at reasonable rates.”

The Relief Society, in a sense, started opening Birthing Centers. These maternity homes were generally houses that were converted into places where women could come to give birth. The one that opened in the Salt Lake Area, called the Cottonwood Maternity Hospital, had 10 beds and was furnished, run and maintained by the Cottonwood Relief Society. Relief Society sisters volunteered their time as nurses, laundresses and anything else that needed to be done. The hospital fee was $40 for the standard two-week stay. Additionally the doctor’s fee was $35, which was $5 less than the doctor fee for home deliveries. The center was dedicated on December 10, 1924 by Elder Melvin J. Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Initially the hospital struggled for acceptance and didn’t have many clients. Home deliveries were still the norm and women either didn’t see the need to deliver at a center or were hesitant of the idea. In fact, when the Relief Society in Snowflake, Arizona opened their own small maternity hospital the stake Relief Society board had to go on a speaking tour through the wards trying to convert mothers to hospital deliveries, which as they later remembered turned out not to be an easy task.

Since the majority of women gave birth at home until around World War II, many stakes and wards responded to President Williams' plea for “a movement in the interest of maternity and motherhood through the church” by preparing maternity loan chests that included bedding and other supplies needed for home deliveries. They also put together layettes and other items for new mothers. President Williams allocated the interest money from the Relief Society’s wheat trust fund (nearly $412,000) for such projects as these throughout the church. In the fall 1921 Relief Society conference Lucy Woodruff Smith reported that in the European Missions almost every branch had a “maternity chest”.

In addition to the “birth centers” and the “maternity chests” Relief Society sisters also participated in a variety of public health events, conferences and campaigns to increase the number of breastfeeding mothers, to educate women on the proper ways to clean baby bottles, hand washing, and proper infant care. In 1924, Johns Wells of the Presiding Bishopric credited the Relief Society for a decreased death rate among LDS children under the age of five—500 lives saved in one year. Historian Thomas G. Alexander also stated that, “Cooperation between the Relief Society and public agencies produced in Utah the greatest reduction in the maternal death and infant mortality rates in the nation. By 1931 Utah ranked with five other states in the lowest group.”

Relief Society Leadership in 1916

It is also interesting to note that by 1959 the demand at the Cottonwood Relief Society’s maternity hospital had grown so much that the LDS church, still under the direction of the Relief Society, built a 2 million dollar hospital with 120 beds on the same site as the original maternity hospital. The LDS church eventually opened other hospitals, including Primary Children’s Hospital, and by 1974 the church was operating 15 hospitals and was one of the largest major hospital operators in the US. (Divett, 174-176) Yet, in September 1974 the First Presidency announced that “After a through study and consideration, the Council of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve have decided to divert the full efforts of the Health Services of the Church to the health needs of the worldwide church membership.” (Divett, 179) In April of 1975 the church transferred all 15 hospitals to Intermountain Health Care, Inc., a non-profit corporation they had established to operate the hospitals. The board of directors consisted of both Mormons and non-Mormons. With the membership of the church increasingly becoming less and less centralized in Utah the church could not longer justify the allocation of resources to run hospitals. Saying that, “ the operation of hospitals is not central to mission of the church.” (Jones, 1992) Instead they chose to expand the number of Health Service Missionaries and to focus on ways to improve the health of all Saints through the world. Today a good portion of these health service missions are being filled by young women missionaries (270 in 1990)-- a fitting way to continue on the Relief Society legacy of improving maternal and child health (Walters, 1992)

Today the original hospital system started by the Relief Society is still run by Intermountain Health Care (IHC) and recently has been recognized as one of the best hospitals systems in the United States. It is also interesting to note that in 2007 the Cottonwood Hospital was closed down and replaced with a new hospital, Intermountain Medical. What a great legacy to those early Relief Society sisters to see what there little maternity hospital had grown into.

Intermountain Medical Hospital, in Murray, Utah.

As I read through all this history I was so impressed by the Relief Society’s success in improving maternal and child health in Utah and surrounding areas. President William’s initiative came at a time when she wanted to ““to encourage motherhood” amongst the women of the church by making sure that they were receiving good care and support during pregnancy and that the support originated from the women around them. The image of these Relief Society sisters banding together to support each other in pregnancy and birth is so inspiring to me.

I can’t help but feel that if President Williams was living in our day she would look at the needs of our mothers and see that there is still a great need for women of the church to “encourage motherhood” amongst themselves. Many of the childbirth “maladies" facing women today are spiritual, emotional and mental rather than physical. There are the young women who postpone motherhood because they are unprepared or misinformed about childbirth, breastfeeding and motherhood and are terrified of it. There are women who have already given birth to children but who had traumatic or negative experiences that makes them scared or unwilling to have more children. There are women, more than most of us realize, who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder after giving birth or have moderate to sever post-partum depression, much of which goes undiagnosed and untreated for years. We might not have women and babies dying in our Wards or in our neighborhoods, but we still have mothers who need the same sort of support and care that Relief Society sisters at the turn of the century provided for each other.

What ways do you see that women in the church could emulate our sisters of the past and “encourage motherhood” and improve the care new mothers receive?

Side Note:

As I was reading through historical documents I discovered that the State Health report in 1912 is the first accurate statement of maternal and child deaths in Utah and it showed that the maternal mortality rate in Utah was 14 deaths per 100,000 births and that the infant mortality rate was 110 deaths per 100,000 live births (Divett, 197). I was curious to know what the maternal mortality rate is today and was a bit shocked when I saw that, a hundred years later, the US's overall maternal mortality rate is 17 per 100,000 and places like Washington D.C. have a maternal mortality rate of 34.9 per 100,000 and the State of Georgia has a 20.5 per 100,000 maternal mortality rate. Utah currently has a 8.9 per 100,000 maternal mortality rate, and is ranked 20th in the nation in terms of maternal safety during childbirth. It is always hard to compare statistics across generations because of the different ways in which numbers were gathered and counted, but those numbers were still a bit shocking to me.


Derr, Jill Mulvay, Cannon, Janath Russell, Beecher, Maureen Ursenbach. (1992). Women of the Covenant: The Story of the Relief Society. Deseret Book: Salt Lake City, Utah.

Divett, Robert T. (1981). Medicine and the Mormons: An Introduction to the History of Later-day Saint Health Care. Horizon Publishers & Distributors: Bountiful, Utah

Jones, William N. (1992). “Hospitals” in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism: Volume 2. Edited by Daniel H. Ludlow. Macmillian Publishing Company: New York, pg. 660.

Walters, Christine Croft. (1992). “Maternity and Child Health Care” in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism: Volume 2. Edited by Daniel H. Ludlow. Macmillian Publishing Company: New York, pg. 867-68


  1. I find the history so interesting! Thanks for sharing! Taking new mothers meals is a great thing (I know I was extremely grateful for it the day we came home from the hospital with our first), but I think there is so much more we can do to "encourage motherhood." I love the idea of being able to bless the sisters in my ward with my doula and CBE services.

  2. I can tell you I was terrified of birth and motherhood as a YW. I'm not sure how one goes about teaching that birth doesn't necessarily have to be terrifying though. But we can definitely do MUCH more to encourage motherhood, too many sisters are being led astray by worldly ideas in this regard.

  3. Whenever anyone asks how many children we are going to have, I always respond with "However many God wants to send us, whenever He wants to send them." I don't push my ideals on others, but let them be known, so if anyone has questions about homebirth, extended breastfeeding, etc., they know they can ask me. I also go out of my way to make sure the women in my life know that I don't judge them harshly for making different choices than me in regards to birthing and feeding.
    Heather, thanks for the post. It was fascinating to me. My husband's grandfather was a pioneer in modern obstetrics in the state of Utah. He delivered 16,000 babies during his practice. We have come a long way as far as physical advancements but I agree that the emotional, spiritual, and mental have regressed. There's a difference between using available technologies when needed and "trusting in the arm of flesh" instead of trusting in God.

  4. I've noticed that women have the general impression that it was common that women died in childbirth "back then" and they base their trust in technology on that. How interesting to find an example where childbirth was less dangerous than it is now. The US' infant mortality is 6.3 per 1000 right now compared to the 1.1 per 1000 cited in this article. (I'm sure that under certain conditions and in certain places, childbirth was as bad as our culture's impression is.)

    I've thought about speaking to the YW about birth to just give them confidence, but I haven't acted on that yet. This blog has given me lots of ideas of what to share, though.

  5. Ooh. Laura, we have a great guest post by Brittany Cromar about how to prepare Young Women for pregnancy and childbirth. It's called We Are Daughters

    Enjoy. Thanks for reading.

  6. Laura,

    It was really interesting for me to find those stats too. It seems that from a lot of the research I read-- and I'm not claiming to be an expert on this-- that most of the decrease in maternal and infant mortality rates happened BEFORE birth moved into hospitals. That public health initiatives like sanitation, hand washing, clean baby bottles, sterilization of instruments made a HUGE difference and that the development of anti-biotics also made another big dent, but not quite as big as the public health changes. It is so interesting!

  7. Thank you for the history on Cottonwood Maternity Home. I was born there in July 1957. I was recently reading "Daughters in My Kingdom, The History and Work of Relief Society" when I came across a paragraph about the work of the Relief Society in opening this maternity home. It is amazing to find out history about the place where one was born. I never even knew the home was linked to the church or the Relief Society.
    Diana Gray (Norwalk Ward, California)

  8. There is a much earlier source of child mortality available. Salt Lake Cemetery interment book quotes sources starting in 1850 to well into the railroad period. The cause of death is included. In most cases the child dies as a result of ''teething''. Older children drown. I saw only 2 women die of childbirth 1850. The biggest killer of adults seems to be a variant of scarlet fever native Ams. suffored from. Adults also die of food borne illness and being un-climatized to Valley environment.
    If you look at the pix of the board of directors of Deseret Hospital you will see many founding members of the Relief Society are directors, as well as all the Dr.'s in the pix being women. Bathsheba W. Smith was a spearhead for woman's health from 1860 onwards



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