“Emmeline B. Wells: A Fine Soul Who Served,” Ensign, July 2003, 16–23
At a celebration of her 82nd birthday in 1910, shortly after she was appointed Relief Society general president, Emmeline B. Wells received numerous accolades. “She has traveled tens of thousands of miles to render service in defense of her church and [her] sex,” read one of them, “and [she] enjoys the respect—in many instances the intimate acquaintance and affection—of the leading women, not only of America, but of the world.”1 The tribute was well earned. Early in her life she had committed herself to helping “elevate the condition of my own people especially women.”2 Through her writings, her membership in national women’s associations, and the personal friendships that developed through these connections, Emmeline found many opportunities to perform the mediating and bridge-building mission to which she had committed herself.
Emmeline’s long life began in the small mill village of Petersham, Massachusetts; she was the seventh child of David and Diadama Woodward. At her father’s early death and her mother’s remarriage, the family moved to a home in the nearby village of North New Salem. Years later Emmeline reflected on that time. “Was it under the hemlock boughs or ’neath the hardy old oak,” she tried to recall, that she sat “with proud ambition burning in my soul, ambition to be great and known to fame, when a gentle whisper came. … ‘There is no excellence without labor.’”3 It was a lesson well learned, and the acclaim she eventually received was well deserved.
Emmeline Wells was at once a very private and a very public person—a devoted, almost obsessive family woman and a driven, ambitious professional. She was a poet of sentiment and a pragmatic businesswoman, a thinker and a doer, a romantic and a realist. This duality is evident in her writings. Before becoming editor of the Woman’s Exponent, a newspaper for Latter-day Saint women, she submitted articles under the pseudonym of Blanche Beechwood, advocating recognition of the legal, political, and religious rights of women. She gave up the name soon after becoming editor in 1877 but continued her advocacy for women in her editorials. About the time that Blanche Beechwood disappeared, another persona took her place—the reflective “Aunt Em,” who authored sentimental poetry and nostalgic New England essays. Though poetry remained her first literary love, the Exponent editorials gave her a medium she came to enjoy and an enduring literary legacy. When Eliza R. Snow asked Emmeline to write a particular article, Emmeline hoped she would be able to please her but also admitted, “For my own part, I would not be at all afraid [to write what I wanted], I love this kind of work.”4
Emmeline was favored with educational opportunities not available to most rural New England girls. Noting the early displays of an active mind and budding talent, her mother sent her first to local schools and then to the New Salem Academy, a nearby private high school. While Emmeline was away at school, a Latter-day Saint missionary, Eli P. Maginn, brought the gospel to the people of her village, and her mother and younger siblings were baptized. Three years later Emmeline remembered the turmoil of those days: “As soon as Mormonism began to flourish were they not harassing me on every side did they not tear me from my beloved home and the arms of a tender parent to keep me from Mormonism and then the Good Spirit interposed and provided a way for me to be released from the hands of a cruel guardian who pretended so much respect for me that he did not wish me to associate with my own mother and sister because they were Saints of the Most High God.”5 From the day she was baptized at age 14 until her death nearly 80 years later, Emmeline single-mindedly fulfilled the promise she made on that life-changing day—to devote her life to the Church.
In the spring of 1844, two years after her baptism, Emmeline was on her way to Nauvoo, Illinois, as a young bride. She had married James Harvey Harris the previous summer, and the young couple were accompanying his parents, also converts to the Church, to make their home in Nauvoo. Emmeline’s first meeting with the Prophet Joseph Smith made an indelible impression. Singling him out from those who crowded the wharf to greet the boatload of converts and missionaries, she thrilled at his welcoming handshake. “The one thought that filled my soul,” she remembered, “was, I have seen the prophet of God, he has taken me by the hand.”6
The euphoria of that enthralling moment did not last, however. Within the next few months, the Prophet and his brother were murdered, her parents-in-law apostatized, her first child and only son, Eugene Henri, died after a brief life of six weeks, and her husband left Nauvoo in search of employment and never returned. She was heartbroken, frightened, and alone. “Here I was brought to this great city by one to whom I ever expected to look for protection,” Emmeline confided in her diary, “and left dependant on the mercy and friendship of strangers.”7
Her schooling enabled her to support herself as a teacher, and by the next spring she not only had a classroom of children but had married Newel K. Whitney. The Whitneys warmly welcomed her into their family. But the security and stability she had found with the Whitneys slipped away from her just five years later, in 1850, when Bishop Whitney died suddenly, leaving Emmeline with two young daughters, Isabel, just two, and six-week-old Melvina. Teaching enabled her to survive until her marriage to Daniel H. Wells in 1852.
Emmeline’s five daughters—three more were born to her after marrying Daniel—occupied her time for the next 20 years. She occasionally taught a family school and wrote a little poetry, but family affairs dominated her attention. The advent of the Woman’s Exponent in 1872, however, awakened her literary impulses and marked a distinct turning point in her life. It became the vehicle that carried her into the public realm and a life devoted to serving women and the Church.
Emmeline was well equipped for the labor that would bring “excellence to her ambition.” Her dominant characteristic, one contemporary noted, was “her supreme will.”8 Barely five feet tall and less than 100 pounds, she was described as “exquisitely delicate and dainty, in her writing, her living, and in her life.” The fragile exterior, however, camouflaged “an exceedingly frank” nature, according to one associate. She could be “sarcastic at times, not to say caustic,” but such expressions were always softened by a show of repentance afterwards.9 She was noted for her intelligence, her ability to get things done, and her empathetic counseling of the women who crowded her Exponent office day after day to talk about their problems and concerns. She was also credited with a faultless memory and often provided forgotten pieces of information, especially regarding Church history, when others’ memories failed. Young and old congregated regularly at her home to enjoy the company, conversation, and congeniality of Emmeline and her popular daughters.
By the end of the 1870s, Emmeline was considered one of the “leading sisters” of the Church. Her association with the Exponent had made her name well known in Latter-day Saint circles, and her written contributions to eastern women’s papers, refuting the misconceptions about LDS women, had brought her name to the attention of national suffragists. She reminded the readers of these papers that Latter-day Saint women could vote, when most of them could not; that LDS women were educated at local colleges and were engaged in many professions, including medicine and law, when most other women were not; and that they headed their own organizations and contributed to the economic welfare of their communities.
As a result of these newspaper exchanges, suffragist leaders decided to invite Latter-day Saint women to their national convention. Emmeline and Zina Young Williams were selected to attend the 1879 meeting of the National Woman Suffrage Association held in Washington, D.C. While there, they also personally solicited the help of U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes in forestalling punitive action against the Latter-day Saints for the practice of plural marriage. Though unsuccessful in their appeal, Emmeline’s introduction to Susan B. Anthony initiated a 30-year friendship with the national suffrage leader, and Emmeline’s intelligence and sincerity won the respect of other eastern women’s leaders. They became allies in the campaign to prevent the removal of woman suffrage in Utah, a continuing congressional threat.
Many more visits to Washington followed, and Emmeline joined other Latter-day Saint representatives in appearing before various House and Senate committees in defense of their religion. When woman suffrage was finally repealed in 1887 as part of additional congressional legislation against the Church, Emmeline assisted in organizing a territorial woman suffrage association to ensure the right of women to vote when Utah became a state. She was serving as president of the association when woman suffrage did indeed become part of the Utah Constitution in 1895.
Despite disappointment in her national lobbying efforts, Emmeline continued to build bridges with national women’s organizations. Back in Washington in 1891 to attend a meeting of the recently organized National Council of Women, her presence was acknowledged by reporters who declared her to be “one of the most interesting women at the Council” and noted that “her advocacy of wronged women and the equality of the sex has been particularly fearless.”10
One of many national recognitions came to her in connection with the National Council’s participation at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. Emmeline not only spoke at one of the meetings but was invited to conduct a plenary session. Only her diary knew how pleased the honor made her. “This morning I presided over the General Congress in the Hall of Columbus,” she proudly noted, “an honor never before accorded to a Mormon woman.” Then she wryly added, “If one of our brethren had such a distinguished honor conferred upon them, it would have been heralded the country over and thought a great achievement.”11
A highlight of her national work for women was her attendance at the meeting of the International Council of Women held in London in 1899. As assistant recording secretary of the National Council, she met many international delegates and spoke at one of the sessions. Years later, the longtime president of the International Council, the Countess of Aberdeen, visited Utah, hosted by Emmeline and other Utah women. At the conclusion of her daylong visit, the countess declared her pleasure at having had “the honor of being introduced twice in one day by a queen, for in my brief visit here I have quickly observed that ‘Aunt Em’ is the Queen of Utah.”12 Emmeline had a gift for making enduring relationships and instilling respect as well as genuine friendship. Long after Emmeline had curtailed her national work, a comember of the National Council of Women refused to sign her name to an anti–Latter-day Saint petition because of her regard for Emmeline. “I really feel very much attracted to the dear old lady,” she wrote. “She sent me a volume of her poems at Christmas. … I never go back on my friends and while hating polygamy I cannot help admiring the grand old lady who has seen so much.”13
Emmeline’s bridge-building efforts found fertile ground in Utah as well as in the East. Her interest in promoting the kindergarten movement, an innovative educational program, brought her in contact with Emma J. McVicker, a prominent non–Latter-day Saint educator. Emmeline’s membership in the Utah Federation of Women’s Clubs gave her numerous friends among local clubwomen, and her leadership in preparing exhibits for the Woman’s Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago brought her the lasting friendship of a number of women of other faiths. She developed a close friendship with eastern transplant Margaret Blaine Salisbury, a well-regarded women’s leader in Utah. In 1894 Mrs. Salisbury invited her to attend a meeting of the Salt Lake Ladies Literary Club, one of the first invitations given to a Latter-day Saint woman by a club member.
In 1910, at an age when most men and women have been long retired, the 82-year-old Emmeline Wells entered into what she considered the most important work of her long public career, the general presidency of the Relief Society. She was the last Relief Society president whose Latter-day Saint experience included Nauvoo and a personal acquaintance with the Prophet Joseph Smith. Throughout her tenure as president, she attempted to maintain the spiritual focus of the Relief Society and to adhere as closely as possible to the foundation the Prophet had laid for it in Nauvoo. In addition to the Relief Society’s benevolent work, the Prophet had formed the organization to elevate the women of the Church in both mind and spirit, and this mission underlay Emmeline’s leadership for the 11 years she presided. Though most of her public work had involved non–Latter-day Saint women’s organizations, she was not a newcomer to the Relief Society. She had served as general secretary for more than 20 years, had headed numerous committees, had planned its jubilee celebration in 1892, and had implemented the legal incorporation of the Society that same year. But her service to the Relief Society had begun even earlier. In 1876 Brigham Young had given her charge of a grain-saving program for the Church, a daunting task which she performed through Relief Society channels and reports in the Woman’s Exponent. The capstone to the program came during World War I, when the Relief Society, under Emmeline’s presidency, sold more than 200,000 bushels of wheat to the United States government. After the war, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and his wife personally visited Emmeline to express appreciation for turning over the stored grain to the nation during its hour of need.
One of the great sorrows of Emmeline’s life was giving up the Exponent. On 12 January 1914, after 37 years as its editor, owner, and publisher, she wrote a single sentence in her diary: “I had to get my editorial ready for the paper.” It would be the last and would serve as a testament to Emmeline herself. “The aim of the paper,” she wrote, “has always been to assist those who needed assistance in any or every line. … We love women and would ever strive to uplift and help them to attain their ideals.” She concluded with a remarkably acute assessment of its value. The Woman’s Exponent, she wrote, “has surely performed a mission in the midst of Zion for the women of Zion, holding as it does within its leaves the history of their work.” She ended with a personal note. “Though the pen may be idle, the mind will ever gratefully remember all the associations which this little paper has been instrumental in creating.”14
Emmeline quietly endured many sorrows and disappointments. Besides losing her son and husband in Nauvoo, she suffered the loss of two daughters, Emma and Louisa, in their young womanhood. Three times she outlived a husband, her last by 30 years, obliging her, even before his death when his financial holdings failed, to lose her beloved home and to earn her own living. Her release from the Relief Society presidency at age 93, just three weeks before her death, seemed to her to be a personal affront, since her three immediate predecessors had all died in office. Yet through the trials of her long life, she managed to carry on with her public activities. “It may seem strange that I can go on my regular routine with the overwhelming trial through which I am passing,” she wrote to a trusted friend after Louisa’s death, “but I must not sink under it, and if I gave way I should. … Pray for me that I may not fall short.”15
Her years of service brought Emmeline Wells much satisfaction and many tributes. Public receptions marked each birthday as she aged. The popularity of her book of poetry, Musings and Memories, required a second edition. In 1912 she was selected to unveil the Seagull Monument on Temple Square at its dedication. That same year, she was awarded an honorary doctor of literature degree at Brigham Young University, the first woman in Utah so awarded. And she was privileged to have her funeral in the Salt Lake Tabernacle. The speakers, who included Church President Heber J. Grant, characterized her as “one of the finest products of ‘Mormonism’” and “as unyielding as the granite of her native New England in her devotion to that which she considered her duty.”16 A posthumous tribute would have pleased her most. On 29 February 1928, the 100th anniversary of her birth, a number of community organizations representing the women of Utah of all political and religious persuasions commissioned a marble bust of Emmeline Wells to be sculpted and placed in the rotunda of the state capitol. It was inscribed simply, “A Fine Soul Who Served Us.”
A woman of enormous energy and drive, she early set the course of her public work and lived to see many of her goals fulfilled. Though her life deviated from the path she originally envisioned, she never regretted her decision to become a Latter-day Saint nor doubted the importance of her work in behalf of women and the Church. She once wrote that she hoped historians would “remember the women of Zion when compiling the history of this Western land.”17 Emmeline B. Wells is one who should not be forgotten.