Emmeline B. Wells: A Leader among Her Peers

by Jennifer Barkdull, Church history specialist
22 September 2020

In this post, Church history specialist Jennifer Barkdull takes us on a tour of Church History Library collections about Emmeline B. Wells, the fifth General President of the Relief Society.

Recently, the Church Historian’s Press published the diaries of Emmeline B. Wells, who served as the fifth General President of the Relief Society. Emmeline was more than a Church leader, though. She was a wife and mother, a prolific writer, and a proponent of women’s rights, especially during the woman suffrage movement in the United States.

Because of Emmeline’s lifetime of service in the Church and her participation in state and national politics, she has attracted the attention of many researchers, and the Church History Department receives numerous requests for additional information about her. Fortunately, the Church History Library is replete with documentation about Emmeline. This post is designed to help you identify and use the many digitized collections we have about her.

Thirteenth Ward Relief Society presidency, 1872

Relief Society

Emmeline B. Wells was a committed member of the Relief Society throughout her life. Before being called to serve as General President of the Relief Society in 1910, a position she held for 11 years, she served as secretary in the Relief Society General Presidency for 30 years. Prior to that, she had served in her local ward’s Relief Society in the greater Salt Lake City area.

The following sources give a glimpse into Emmeline’s Relief Society leadership:

This is a collection of notes made by Emmeline during her time as secretary to the Relief Society General Presidency and board. At the time, the General Presidency was discussing topics as diverse as wheat storage, woman suffrage, and silkworm cultivation. (Did you know that many pioneer-era Utahns tried raising silkworms?)

Emmeline was responsible for keeping this record of donations made for the construction of a Relief Society headquarters building in Salt Lake City. The funds, however, were ultimately used for the construction of the Bishop’s Building, which housed the Presiding Bishopric. (The Relief Society General Presidency was given space on the second floor of the Bishop’s Building for its offices.) The Relief Society Building would not be completed until 1956. More information can be found at our online exhibit A Home of Our Own.

This is a letter written by Emmeline B. Wells to Emma Smith, the Relief Society president of the Snowflake Stake, in 1894. (So no, not that Emma Smith.) While the letter was written to discuss the payment of annual dues, it also shows how friendly Emmeline was in her daily correspondence.

Relief Society General Presidency and board, 1916

Wilford Woodruff wrote this letter to Emmeline B. Wells on April 27, 1888, to discuss the qualifications a woman should have to be called as a Relief Society president. He also answered a question Emmeline had posed to him earlier about the best way for Relief Society sisters to minister to pregnant women in their wards.

Emmeline wrote to Bathsheba Smith about the Relief Society on May 15, 1899. This letter showcases the interaction between Emmeline and Bathsheba, the fourth Relief Society General President, whom Emmeline succeeded.

Emmeline B. Wells, circa 1915–1920

Writer and Editor

Emmeline was a prolific writer and a talented editor. She used her writing and editing as a platform to share the talents of women, support women’s rights (especially suffrage), and correct mistaken beliefs about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Woman’s Exponent was a newspaper written for women by women. Emmeline became the editor of the Woman’s Exponent in 1877, a position in which she would remain until the newspaper’s final issue in 1914. Emmeline often contributed articles, both as editor and under the pen names “Aunt Em,” “Emile,” and “Blanche Beechwood.” Sometimes she would just sign articles with her initials.

This volume of poetry and prose was presented at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. Emmeline acted as editor and contributed one of her own poems too. The book also includes work by Eliza R. Snow and other Latter-day Saints of the era.

Emmeline also acted as editor for this volume of essays describing several charities and philanthropies in Utah in which women took a supervisory role, such as various areas’ Relief Societies, the Deseret Hospital, and the Women Physicians of Utah. This publication was also created for the World’s Fair in 1893.

This is a book of poetry—over 300 pages’ worth—written by Emmeline. She wrote poems on a variety of subjects, but she especially liked to write about nature.

Emmeline maintained a regular correspondence with Susa Young Gates, a fellow Latter-day Saint writer and women’s rights advocate. We have many of these letters in the library’s collection of Susa’s papers. This is an example of one of those letters.

Several Presidents of the Church corresponded with Emmeline, including John Taylor. This letter asks his advice on what to do with the Saints’ food storage.

Deseret Hospital Board of Directors, 1882

Suffragist and Advocate for Women’s Rights

As previously mentioned, Emmeline is well known for her advocacy of women’s rights. For example, she used the Woman’s Exponent to support woman suffrage and to report on her activities as a member of the National Council of Women (NCW), the International Council of Women (ICW), and the National Woman’s Press Association. Other documents, too, reflect her lifelong pursuit of advancing women’s rights.

This collection includes letters from Emmeline about the ICW, an international women’s rights organization founded by American suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Emmeline proposed that Romania B. Penrose, the first Latter-day Saint woman to become a physician, be a delegate to the ICW’s international conventions in Europe beginning in 1908.

For those researchers tracing Emmeline’s affiliations as a women’s rights activist, here she is listed as a member of the NCW, the oldest nonsectarian women’s organization in the United States.

This letter from the Relief Society General Presidency was written in 1920 (when Emmeline was President) to stake Relief Society presidents around the United States, calling them to participate in a 50th-anniversary celebration of woman suffrage in Utah. (Utah women first received the right to vote in 1870.)

Emmeline B. Wells home, Salt Lake City, Utah, circa 1890

Friend and Example

The library holds many letters that Emmeline wrote to family and friends. In them we can see that she was celebrated for her many years of service in the Church and the Relief Society.

This is the transcript of a blessing given to Emmeline B. Wells by Junius F. Wells, her “nephew.” (Junius was the son of Emmeline’s husband, Daniel H. Wells, and Wells’s fourth plural wife, Hannah Corrilla Free.) In it she is blessed that her descendants will have the “spirit of faith” with them.

Emmeline wrote to President Grant expressing her love and support of him as President of the Church. Interestingly, she notes that “I have known for several years that the [position] would come to you in due time.”

Even though she was incredibly busy, Emmeline still found time to keep in touch with friends and relatives. She wrote this congratulatory letter to the Whitneys shortly after their marriage.

This is a pamphlet soliciting donations to sculpt a marble bust to honor Emmeline after her passing. The bust, inscribed “A Fine Soul Who Served Us,” was donated to the Utah State Capitol Building, where it has since been on display in the rotunda.

Emmeline B. Wells, date unknown

These collections are just a sampling of what you can find at the Church History Library. Browse our catalog to find more. (There is even a film clip of Emmeline!) You can search by names, places, or events. If you have questions, please use our Ask Us service. Your questions will be answered by knowledgeable staff members.

Top Image: Emmeline B. Wells, 1879