“Emmeline B. Wells,” Church History Topics
“Emmeline B. Wells”
Born in Petersham, Massachusetts, in 1828, Emmeline Blanche Woodward showed promise early in her education with a gift for writing. When she was about 14 years old, her mother and two younger sisters joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Emmeline wrestled with her own decision about whether to follow. She was intimidated by the intense opposition to the Church in her community but drawn to the message of the Restoration. She chose to be baptized in a frozen-over brook in March 1842.1 After finishing her studies and teaching for a term, Emmeline married James Harvey Harris and moved with the Harris family to Nauvoo. When she stepped off the steamboat in Nauvoo in May 1844, Joseph Smith was there to greet the new arrivals. “The one thought that filled my soul,” she later wrote, “was, I have seen the Prophet of God.”2
Emmeline’s commitment and strength were sorely tested over the next few months: Joseph Smith was murdered, the Harris family became disaffected from the Church, Emmeline’s first child died shortly after birth, and her husband, James, left Nauvoo to seek employment and never returned. Emmeline found support among the Nauvoo Saints, especially the Newel K. and Elizabeth Ann Whitney family. In 1845 she was sealed as a plural wife to Newel, then crossed the plains with the Whitneys. However, Newel, father of Emmeline’s two oldest daughters, died in 1850. Emmeline showed her independent spirit by proposing to and marrying Daniel H. Wells (later Brigham Young’s counselor in the First Presidency) as his third plural wife.3 Together they had three daughters. She recorded in her journals the challenges of living in plural marriage to a husband who had time-consuming civic and church responsibilities.
In 1873, after years of caring for her family, Emmeline began a career in journalism by submitting an article to the newly-minted Woman’s Exponent. By 1875 she became an associate editor of the Exponent and soon assumed full editorship. Through four decades with the Exponent, publishing editorials, reports, poetry, and biographies of numerous women, Emmeline reached both Latter-day Saints and women of other faiths, advancing both civic and religious causes. She also published her compiled poetry in a volume called Musings and Memories.
Through her work with the Exponent, Emmeline became well-acquainted with leaders of the Relief Society, Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association, and Primary. She traveled with them throughout the territory, teaching and training local leaders. In 1876 Brigham Young called her to lead a Churchwide grain storage program.4 She also energetically participated in the national movement for female suffrage, establishing relationships with leaders like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She collaborated with the National and International Councils of Women, representing women’s organizations from the West.5 During her public work she met six U.S. presidents.6 Emmeline wrote in her diary in 1878, “I desire to do all in my power to help elevate the condition of my own people especially women.”7
After the Relief Society central board was organized in 1880, Emmeline served as secretary through three different presidencies. In 1910 she was called as the fifth General President of the Relief Society, and in 1913, under Wells’s leadership, the Relief Society general board established the motto “charity never faileth.”8 Emmeline served as president until shortly before her death in 1921.