Mormon Retrenchment Association

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In 1869, one Mormon husband and father saw that some members of his family were becoming too concerned with things of the world. So he decided to do something about it. The father’s name was Brigham Young, and he was the second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—sometimes inadvertently called the Mormon Church. As the prophet and leader of The Church of Jesus Christ, Brigham Young knew that the members of the Church looked to his family as an example. He organized what he called a “retrenchment” movement, beginning in his household. This movement encouraged women of The Church of Jesus Christ to “spend more time in moral, mental and spiritual cultivation, and less upon fashion and the vanities of the world.”[1] Two similar yet distinct organizations emerged from President Young’s retrenchment movement—the Retrenchment Association for women and the Young Ladies’ Department of the Co-Operative Retrenchment Association. Although they functioned separately, both organizations operated under the parent association, which was called the Senior and Junior Cooperative Retrenchment Association.[2]

Mormon History

The Retrenchment Association for women was similar to the Relief Society—the official women’s organization of The Church of Jesus Christ—and yet was entirely separate.

This amorphous gathering endured for thirty-five years, mainly through the perseverance of a few devoted women, some of them the "leading sisters" or higher echelon of LDS female leadership. The Retrenchment Association served as an agent of orthodoxy to motivate and inspire and to provide a spiritual bulwark against an encroaching world. As first-generation Latter-day Saints, these women were self-appointed keepers of the faith, who by their own commitment sought to spur commensurate fidelity among all the Saints.[3]

The Young Ladies’ Retrenchment Association, however, became the Church’s official program for girls ages 12-18 and is known today as the Young Women program.

Brigham Young’s Retrenchment Movement

Both retrenchment organizations had the same goals: to separate the women of The Church of Jesus Christ from the vain and foolish things of the world. The word “retrenchment” reflected President Young’s desire for the women of the Church to “retrench in everything that is bad and worthless, and improve in everything that is good and beautiful … to live so that you may be truly happy in this life and the life to come.”[4]

The late Elder Delbert L. Stapley, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles—with the First Presidency, the governing body of The Church of Jesus Christ—explained the significance of the name “retrenchment.” He said:

The word retrench may to this generation sound rather archaic and outmoded. The dictionary defines retrench: to cut down, reduce or diminish, curtail, to economize.
[This] quotation is thus made more meaningful. “Retrench in everything that is bad and worthless, and improve in everything that is good and beautiful.” [1]

The Church’s pioneers crossed the plains and settled in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. The first years in the West were difficult, but for nearly two decades the Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake were sheltered from the outside world. They built homes, churches and schools. They planted crops and cultivated the land, and were reaping the benefits of their years of labor. They were no longer eking out a living in the barren desert, they were seeing their desert blossom like a rose. But Americans were pushing West, and Brigham Young knew their peaceful isolation would not last. He realized—and supported—the coming of the transcontinental railway through the area. But he knew that the influx of outsiders would bring even more temptation. The pioneer women had forged their faith in the fires of adversity, but their daughters had not. He realized that unless the rising generation of women strengthened their own faith and belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ, they would find it difficult to withstand the wiles and temptations of worldly things.[5]

President Young said:

… I desire to organize my own family first into a society for the promotion of habits of order, thrift, industry, and charity; and, above all things, I desire them to retrench from their extravagance in dress, in eating and even in speech. The time has come when the sisters must agree to give up their follies of dress and cultivate a modest apparel, a meek deportment, and to set an example before the people of the world worthy of imitation.
I am weary of the manner in which our women seek to outdo each other in all the foolish fashions of the world. For instance, if a sister invites her friends to visit her, she must have quite as many dishes as her neighbor spread on a former occasion, and indeed she must have one or two more in order to show how much superior her table is to her neighbor's. This silly rivalry has induced a habit of extravagance in our food; it has involved fathers and husbands in debt, and it has made slaves of the mothers and daughters. It is not right. It is displeasing to the Lord, and the poor groan under the burden of trying to ape the customs of those who have more means.[6]

The Retrenchment Association for Women

The Retrenchment Association for women was unique among auxiliaries of The Church of Jesus Christ. It apparently was independent of the Relief Society but also an extension of it. While the Relief Society functioned under the direction of the priesthood (which is the power and authority that God gives to man to act in all things for the salvation of His children), the Retrenchment Association was not under any specific line of authority. All women in the Church belong to the Relief Society and meet in groups determined by the geographic boundaries of the ward, or congregation, in which they live. But the Retrenchment Association was open to everyone, regardless of where they lived. The general Relief Society president often used this organization to coordinate some of the efforts of the Relief Society—including implementing and supervising silk manufacturing, grain storage and straw braiding.[7]

The Young Ladies’ Retrenchment Association

For the young women of The Church of Jesus Christ, President Young wanted “to form a suitable organization … which should provide them with a training school, as it were, for their spiritual and intellectual development.”[8] President Young wanted the young sisters of the Church to gain a knowledge of the gospel for themselves. To his daughters, President Young said:

…Our daughters are following the vain and foolish fashions of the world. I want you to set your own fashions. Let your apparel be neat and comely, and the workmanship of your own hands. ... Make your garments plain, just to clear the ground in length, without ruffles or panniers or other foolish and useless trimmings and styles. I should like you to get up your own fashions, and set the style for all the rest of the world who desire sensible and comely fashions to follow. I want my daughters to learn to work and to do it. Not to spend their time for naught; for our time is all the capital God has given us, and if we waste that we are bankrupt indeed.
I have long had it in my mind to organize the young ladies of Zion into an association so that they might assist the older members of the Church, their fathers and mothers, in propagating, teaching and practicing the principles I have been so long teaching. There is need for the young daughters of Israel to get a living testimony of the truth.[9]

President Young asked Eliza R. Snow, who oversaw the Relief Society at the time, to organize Young Ladies’ Retrenchment Associations in every congregation that she visited. There was no general presidency or approved guidelines for the organization. Each congregation’s association created their own bylaws and functioned independently.[10] This lasted from its creation in 1869 until 1880. In 1880, President John Taylor—the president and prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ who succeeded Brigham Young—called a meeting of all the sisters in the Church and announced a separate general presidency for the Relief Society, Young Women and Primary (the organization for children). Elmina Shepard Taylor became the leader of the renamed Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association. [2]

From Retrenchment to Young Women

Under this new leadership, President Elmina Taylor and her central board met periodically. They also visited congregations, giving instructions and gathering ideas. They developed an organizational structure with a centralized presidency, uniform lessons and divisions for different age groups as well as a magazine, achievement awards, music and dance festivals and a camping program. By 1900, approximately 20,000 young women were enrolled in these programs across the Western United States as well as in Canada, Mexico, England, New Zealand and Hawaii.[11]

In 1934, the name of the organization was changed again, this time to more fully parallel the name of the Church’s Young men’s program. It became the Young Women’s Mutual Improvement Association. The Church of Jesus Christ and its leaders continued to refine the structure of the young women organization, and they made adjustments in leadership roles on both the general and local levels.[12]

In the 1970s, the Young Women’s Mutual Improvement Association was combined for a brief time with the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association, forming the Aaronic Priesthood MIA Young Women. But this change was short-lived. After the organizations were again separated, they were renamed Young Men and Young Women—by which they are still known today.

Though the Young Women organization has evolved in name and in form through the years, its purpose has remained to help young women draw closer to their Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. [2]


  1. Woman's Exponent 11 [Sept. 15, 1882]:59.
  2. Carol Cornwall Madsen, "Retrenchment Association," Encyclopedia of Mormonism, [1992] 1223-1225.
  3. Carol Cornwall Madsen, "Retrenchment Association," Encyclopedia of Mormonism, [1992] 1223-1225.
  4. History of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association, 9–10.
  5. Susa Young Gates, History of the Young Ladies' Mutual Improvement Association, [1911], 3.
  6. Susa Young Gates, History of the Young Ladies' Mutual Improvement Association, [1911], 8-9.
  7. Carol Cornwall Madsen, "Retrenchment Association," Encyclopedia of Mormonism, [1992] 1223-1225.
  8. Susa Young Gates, History of the Young Ladies' Mutual Improvement Association, [1911], 5.
  9. Susa Young Gates, History of the Young Ladies' Mutual Improvement Association, [1911], 8-9.
  10. See Janet Peterson, “Young Women of Zion: An Organizational History,” in A Firm Foundation: Church Organization and Administration, ed. David J. Whittaker and Arnold K. Garr [2011], 277–94).
  11. See “Young Women of Zion”).
  12. See “Young Women of Zion”).