If (when) we see women praying in spring General Conference 2013 (hallelujah!), it may or may not be the result of grassroots efforts. Some will argue that the change was in place long before the efforts of “Let Women Pray in General Conference,” yet those involved will not likely feel that their efforts were of no consequence. Nor should they, they are part of a significant LDS historical tradition.
For a historian, direct causation is always a somewhat difficult sell. I believe change is rarely the direct result of one single action, but the consequence of many concurrent waves. Within a strongly hierarchical organization, like the LDS Church, the power of grassroots efforts is too often overlooked. This is one of the significant paradoxes of the LDS hierarchy. A brief discussion of the history of LDS grassroots efforts reminds us to not disregard those significant efforts whether they bring about immediate change or not.
As I was reminded this weekend with my stake’s lovely reenactment of the organization of the Relief Society, when sisters met in Sarah Kimball’s home to form a benevolent society 171 years ago, they did not know how their grassroot efforts would end. They did not know that Joseph would quickly harness their eagerness and form an official women’s organization within the Church structure. Nor could they guess that Joseph would use that framework to change their theology of women in eternity. They were just doing what women had done in Kirtland and Nauvoo. They wanted to organize themselves to participate in God’s work and take care of people.
Around 1871 the young girls of the Seventeenth Ward in Salt Lake City “spontaneously” went to their bishop requesting that they might be organized into their own society. Not yet old enough to join the newly formed Young Ladies Retrenchment Association, they wanted their own organization. Their bishop met their first request with coldness and a bit of confusion, yet two years later he agreed and allowed these girls to form a Juvenile Relief Society. Though the details are somewhat limited, 1873 appears to be the year of their organization. They organized with a president, counselors, and a secretary after the form of their mother’s Relief Society organization. Eliza R. Snow later praised and blessed them for their initiative.
In 1878, Aurelia Spencer Rogers similarly saw that children in her ward needed instruction and activities while their parents were involved in Church meetings and responsibilities. Rodgers wrote to Eliza R. Snow and the first primary organization was started in Farmington, Utah. By the mid-1880s primaries were popping up all along the Wasatch Front.
In December 1930, Harold B. Lee was called as stake president to the Pioneer Stake in Salt Lake City. He and his two counselors, Charles Hyde and Paul Child, began their tenure in the midst of the destruction of the Great Depression and saw great deprivation in their stake. They immediately went to work to meet the needs of their stake. They asked the presiding bishopric if they could change the regular path of tithing and fast offerings from their stake. Rather than sending the moneys to the general church fund, they asked to keep the funds within the stake to create a resource for bishops to help those in need. They created employment services, gave work to those without, better utilized farmer’s excess crops, and in the process created a pattern for what would eventually become the church wide Welfare Program. [See Paul Child’s own account here and Arrington and Hinton’s account here.]
As a member of the twelve apostles, Spencer W. Kimball felt it was his duty to sustain and uphold church structure as he understood it. He sometimes found himself at odds with some of the more progressive members of his quorum, such as Hugh B. Brown, particularly in regards to the Priesthood Ban. His son, Edward Kimball, writes about his transition from one who didn’t question to one who earnestly sought to effectuate change. In June 1978 that “long promised” change came, transforming the lives of not only those men who could now hold the priesthood, but offering the blessings of the priesthood to Saints around the globe.
While we often focus on the top-down nature of hierarchical LDS church structure, there is a significant and long-standing heritage of efforts bubbling up from the bottom. Those rippling waves can bring change that benefits the whole body of the church.
 Seventeenth Ward, Salt Lake Stake, Manuscript History, LDS Church Archives, September 17, 1873.
 Woman’s Exponent 6 (15 February 1878): 138.
 Carol Cornwall Madsen and Susan Staker Oman Sisters and Little Saints: One Hundred Years of Primary (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1979), 3-4.
 Edward Kimball, “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on the Priesthod,” BYU Studies 47:2: 4-78. Lengthy, but I think important not just in terms of the history of the priesthood ban, but the transition of Kimball himself.