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The Historical Context of Emmeline B. Wells’s Diaries

The Emmeline B. Wells diaries contain a small percentage of content that might surprise today’s readers. This page notes social usages and terminology that reflect the times in which Wells lived. It also points out some of the practices and customs in which Wells and her friends participated that vary from teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today. For example, racial and class stratifications were accepted as normal during Wells’s life, whereas today the church president asks members to “lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice.”1

Wells sometimes made special note in her diary when she saw African American people, and she used the language of the time to do so: Negro and Colored. Both whites and African Americans used these terms, though they did so with varied cultural and political understandings, and today we advocate against their use.2 Demographic studies show that the number of African American people emigrating to the Intermountain West increased after the Civil War.3 Wells mentions enjoying eating the chickens that Sister Chambers, “the colored woman,” had given her, and she describes the citizens of Salt Lake City welcoming Colored Troops to the community.4 On her travels in Massachusetts and Idaho, Wells notes seeing “Negro” waiters in hotels and clubs.5

Terminology for domestic workers has also changed. Until well into the twentieth century, most middle-class homes in America employed one or more household workers.6 Without appliances such as washing machines, gas or electric stoves, vacuums, or even automatic furnaces, chores were arduous and time-consuming. Where financially feasible, mothers of young children, including Annie Wells Cannon with her twelve, relied on hired help. Wells called those who worked in her home, each of whom was apparently of European descent, “servants,” “servant girls,” “hired girls,” or simply “girls.” Some came from small towns looking for work in Salt Lake City before they married. Others she engaged were widows, single mothers, or students in the Relief Society nursing program.

Additionally, some spiritual practices have evolved. In the tradition of women in the Nauvoo Relief Society, Wells 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 Wells 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.7 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.

On occasion, Wells and her family and friends showed interest in fortune-telling through the reading of palms, tea leaves, or horoscopes. Divination, the practice of determining hidden meanings or foretelling the future, is found in civilizations ancient and modern, and practices such as those Wells described in her diary were quite popular in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and remain of interest to many today. These activities could be seen as simple entertainment or as reflecting a serious desire to connect with the supernatural. While Wells showed enough interest to record some of the elements of the fortunes she was told, it is unclear how seriously she took them or how much faith she placed in these practices. Since at least the early twentieth century, church leaders have counseled Latter-day Saints not to engage in superstitious practices. Instead, they have advised seeking spiritual guidance from the Holy Ghost.8 

Finally, during Wells’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. Wells 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 these drinks as part of a normal diet.9

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The Historical Context of Emmeline B. Wells’s Diaries, The Diaries of Emmeline B. Wells, accessed July 19, 2024