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Emmeline B. Wells Begins Her Service as Relief Society General President in Newly Released Diaries

SALT LAKE CITY—The Church Historian’s Press today announced the online publication of six additional volumes of the diaries of Latter-day Saint leader and women’s rights activist Emmeline B. Wells, covering 1909 to 1914. For the first time, an annotated transcript of these volumes is available for free to the public at churchhistorianspress.org/emmeline-b-wells.

During the years 1909 through 1914, Emmeline B. Wells achieved the most notable public recognition of her long life of service in the church and community.

In her diary for December 1909, Wells recorded moving her office into rooms assigned to the Relief Society on the second floor of the newly constructed Bishop’s Building. She remembered that this building sat on the same land east of Temple Square where the Whitney wagons had camped after their arrival in the Salt Lake Valley and where she had delivered her first daughter, Isabel M. Whitney, in November 1848. Church leaders dedicated the Bishop’s Building on January 27, 1910, for use by the Presiding Bishopric and the general officers of the Relief Society, Young Ladies, and Primary organizations. Wells also watched the demolition taking place of the old Tithing Office, the Deseret News building, and the little Wells house behind the adobe wall where she herself had once lived. Workmen cleared the corner site for building a new Hotel Utah.

During the summer of 1910, Relief Society general president Bathsheba W. Smith declined in health. After Sister Smith died on September 20, President Joseph F. Smith called Wells as the fifth general president of the Relief Society. Church members sustained Wells and her counselors in general conference on October 6, 1910. Thereafter, Wells often bore witness of the prophetic calling of church founder Joseph Smith. She was the last Relief Society president to have personally met him.

In February 1912, President Joseph F. Smith conferred on Wells an honorary doctor of literature degree from Brigham Young University, the first honorary doctorate awarded to a woman by that institution. Members of the Utah Woman’s Press Club as well as members of the Relief Society general board held programs in her honor and hosted receptions for her eighty-fourth birthday, at which hundreds came to shake her hand. Another honor came in October of 1913, when she spoke at the unveiling of the Seagull Monument on Temple Square.

An unexpected health event complicated her role as Relief Society president and community leader. Her eyesight began to fail toward the end of 1911. Wells felt hampered by her inability to read books, write letters, and correct her own writing. To compensate, she relied on help from her daughters and granddaughters in her office work and home life. Fortunately, Wells’s voice remained strong and she felt inspired in speaking to both large Relief Society meetings in the Tabernacle and Assembly Hall and to smaller groups in stakes and wards.

Wells and her associates responded to the war conditions in Europe by signing national petitions for peace. They also prepared to give practical assistance. In the fall of 1914, for instance, Wells met with a representative of the American Red Cross in the governor’s office to discuss cooperative measures. She renewed emphasis on Relief Society women’s storing wheat and other foodstuffs.

In February 1914, Wells ceased publication of the Woman’s Exponent. Her decision came abruptly, yet it followed years of negotiation in which she hoped to convince the Relief Society board members to take on management and financing of the Exponent, while leaving her and her daughter Annie Wells Cannon as editors. Board members, however, envisioned a more contemporary-style publication. The monthly Relief Society Magazine that followed included lesson outlines, articles, editorials, poetry and fiction, and reports from the field printed on slick paper with illustrations. It became a classic in its own right during its publishing life from 1915 through 1970.

About the Church Historian’s Press

The Church Historian’s Press was announced in 2008 by the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Joseph Smith Papers was the first publication to bear the imprint. The press publishes works of Latter-day Saint history that meet high standards of scholarship. For more information, visit the Church Historian’s Press website.