Emmeline B. Wells
The forty-seven volumes of diaries kept by Emmeline B. Wells provide a window into the life of one of the most influential Latter-day Saint women in the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In them she documents her life and her labor for the causes and organizations that matter most to her—both secular and religious. She is both historymaker, as she meets with presidents and works with national suffrage leaders, and historian, as she records noteworthy events and her daily interactions with and impressions of prominent members of her community. She provides glimpses into her relationships with family, friends, and church leaders. She declares her faith in God even in the face of tragedy. The diaries are a record of her perceptions and philosophies, and they are valuable not only to historians but also to those simply curious about this remarkable woman and the time in which she lived.
Emmeline Blanche Woodward was born in Petersham, Franklin (now Worcester) County, Massachusetts, on 29 February 1828. Although her father, David Woodward, died when she was four years old, her mother, Diadama Hare Woodward, made it possible for Emmeline to receive a good education. Following her mother’s counsel, Emmeline listened to Latter-day Saint missionaries and on 1 March 1842, at age fourteen, was baptized a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In the ensuing eight years she married and migrated to Nauvoo, Illinois, gave birth to and lost an infant son, was abandoned by her young husband, married Newel K. Whitney as a plural wife, crossed the plains to Utah, gave birth to two daughters, and became a widow.
Still a young woman, Emmeline surveyed her prospects and wrote a subtle letter of proposal to Daniel H. Wells, a prominent citizen and friend of her late husband. He waited a month to answer her, then agreed to add Emmeline to his family. She became his sixth plural wife on 10 October 1852. Together they had three daughters, born between 1853 and 1862, and Daniel established Emmeline in a two-story home with a garden, where she encouraged education and literary expression in the friends of her daughters who gathered there.
In 1873 Emmeline began writing articles for the Woman’s Exponent. She was enlisted as associate editor and then had the paper turned over to her in 1877. The Exponent continued as her financial support through hard times in the 1880s and following Daniel Wells’s death in 1891; she terminated the paper in 1914. Brigham Young, who had appointed Emmeline to head the grain-saving mission for the church in 1876, charged her as editor to write and publish the life sketches of women, which she did. (For additional information on this newspaper, see the series of Church History Library articles highlighting the contributions and breadth of the Woman's Exponent.)
Already interested in women’s rights, Emmeline B. Wells helped link Latter-day Saint women to national organizations and championed the achievements of the women of Utah to leaders and members of these organizations. She worked as a committee member for the National Woman Suffrage Association (later National American Woman Suffrage Association), the National and International Councils of Women, and the National Woman’s Press Association. In the state, she headed the Utah Territorial Woman Suffrage Association. She served as secretary of the board of the Deseret Hospital Association. She served her political party and ran for state senate, though she was not elected. She organized two local women’s clubs and supported the beginnings of the Daughters of the Revolution and Daughters of the Utah Pioneers. She shared her talent for organization and meeting management with a broad range of church and civic leaders.
Her aptitude for public speaking and keen memory served her well in church service. Starting modestly in her ward Relief Society, she directed the monthly meeting of visiting teachers. She assisted general Relief Society president Eliza R. Snow as a secretary and often traveled with her to visit wards and stakes. Under general president Zina D. H. Young, she was named corresponding secretary and wrote countless letters by hand. With Bathsheba W. Smith as general president, Emmeline was called as general Relief Society secretary, a role in which she acted much like an executive director of the board as she set up meetings and arranged travel schedules. In 1910, at the death of Bathsheba Smith, church president Joseph F. Smith and his counselors called Emmeline B. Wells as fifth general Relief Society president.
Recognition came to Emmeline B. Wells in her later years. In 1912 she received an honorary degree from Brigham Young University, which she accepted as an honor to her gender as well as to herself personally. The following year, she was asked to unveil the Seagull Monument on Temple Square and speak at its dedication. Her book of poetry, Musings and Memories, originally published in 1896, was reprinted with the help of friends in the Utah Woman’s Press Club in 1915. She lived to see the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which brought voting rights to women in the United States in 1920.
Emmeline B. Wells died on 25 April 1921 at age ninety-three. Flags were flown at half-staff, and her funeral was held in the Salt Lake Tabernacle. In 1928, the hundredth anniversary of her birth, a bust of Emmeline was placed in the Utah State Capitol with the inscription “A Fine Soul Who Served Us.” (For information on primary sources at the Church History Library documenting the life and contributions of Emmeline B. Wells, see the research guide titled Emmeline B. Wells: A Leader among Her Peers.)
The Emmeline B. Wells diaries collection consists of forty-seven volumes spanning the years 1844 to 1920. They begin in Nauvoo and include her Iowa trail dairy, with a gap from 1846 to 1874 (other than some genealogical information and brief notes she recorded at various times in her first diary). Since Emmeline was a consistent diarist, recording regular entries from 1874 to 1920, it is possible she also journaled during this gap but that the diaries are missing.
Emmeline’s handwriting is legible for the most part, and as a schoolteacher turned newspaper editor, she was a good speller. End punctuation was optional for her; she frequently used dashes or simply began the next sentence. Her handwriting is more difficult to read in entries made while she was traveling and entries made when she was in her eighties and her eyesight faded. Her daughters Annie Wells Cannon and Belle Whitney Sears took over writing daily entries for their mother in the last volumes, 1917 to 1920.
Some of the content of the diaries might be surprising to today’s readers. In the tradition of women in the Nauvoo Relief Society, Emmeline and her contemporaries treasured spiritual gifts. One of the gifts was speaking or singing in tongues, which women often did when they met together. One would speak or sing and another would interpret. As Emmeline accompanied older Relief Society leaders who valued the practice, she was sometimes asked to interpret. Another spiritual gift, more widespread in this era, was for women to extend blessings of comfort or of healing to other women through the laying on of hands. Sometimes these blessings involved anointing with oil; the diary references “administering” to those who were ill, dying, or expecting to give birth soon.1 This practice was fading toward the end of her life. In her own illnesses, she usually asked men to give her priesthood blessings for spiritual uplift as well as healing.
During Emmeline’s lifetime, church members interpreted the Word of Wisdom in a variety of ways. Leaders condemned heavy drinking and hard liquor, but even some of them continued to partake of milder alcoholic drinks such as beer and wine. Emmeline herself spoke against drunkenness, but in her diaries she mentions wine, champagne, and beer being offered as gifts and at social occasions. Some members at this time abstained from coffee and tea, but many accepted them as part of a normal diet.2
Most of Emmeline’s diaries have soft leather covers in shades of burgundy or brown with pages edged in gold, red, or the feathery decorative pattern commonly found in nineteenth-century books. A few of the diaries have hard covers wrapped in leather or cloth. Some have a loop or a slot for a pen, and a few have pockets for postage or tickets, serving as a kind of organizer. Many of the diaries measure about 6 inches high by about 3½ or 4 inches wide, about the size of a billfold. Volumes range in size from 12 by 7½ inches down to 4 by 2½ inches—this last being only a little larger than a credit card. Most of the diaries have preprinted dates with a blank page for each day of the year; others have smaller preformatted spaces for two or three entries per page. Many volumes include almanac entries and general useful information at the beginning, with formatted pages for memoranda, cash accounts, and other types of information at the end. Excelsior seemed to be a favorite brand of diary.
The diaries were preserved by descendants of Annie Wells Cannon. Later, L. Tom Perry Special Collections at Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, acquired the diaries. The diaries came in two batches. The majority are filed under MSS 510, while two later acquisitions are filed under MSS 805. Images of the originals are available online at Digital Collections, Brigham Young University.
For information on the effort to publish Wells’s diaries, please see the Project History. For information on the editorial approach used in preparing the diaries for publication, please see Editorial Method.
Cherry Bushman Silver taught literature and composition as a visiting professor at Brigham Young University and was a researcher with the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History. She served as a member of the general board of the Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She holds a PhD in English literature from Harvard University.
Sheree Maxwell Bench teaches academic writing at Utah Valley University and courses in global women’s studies and Latter-day Saint women’s history at Brigham Young University. She previously worked as a researcher with the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute at BYU and is the coeditor of Discoveries: Two Centuries of Poems by Mormon Women. She holds BA and MA degrees from Brigham Young University.
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1 Derr et al., First Fifty Years, xxi–xxv; “Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women,” Gospel Topics, accessed 28 Feb. 2020, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/joseph-smiths-teachings-about-priesthood-temple-and-women?lang=eng.
2 Alexander, “Word of Wisdom,” 78–88; Woodworth, “Word of Wisdom,” 183–191.