Emmeline B. Wells

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Emmeline B. Wells was the 5th general president of the Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often mistakenly called the Mormon Church.

Emmeline B. Wells, Mormon leader

Her full name with marriages was Emmeline Blanche Woodward Harris Whitney Wells. She was born on February 29, 1828, to David and Deiadama Hare Woodward in Petersham, Massachusetts. Emmeline's father died when she was just four years old. She was a bright, precocious and active child who graduated from high school at the age of 14. [1] She taught school briefly before marrying at age 15.

She converted to the Church of Jesus Christ in 1842. She married 16 year old James Harris, also a new member of the church, the following year. In 1844, the young couple, his parents, and other Latter Day Saints from their region migrated to the headquarters of the Church, Nauvoo, Illinois. Her first son died, and her husband left the Church and left Emmeline in Nauvoo. Emmeline returned to school teaching and married prominent Mormon Newel K. Whitney as a plural wife. With other members of the Whitney Family, Emmeline left Nauvoo and made the trek west to Utah Territory in 1846.

Settling in Salt Lake City, Emmeline bore two daughters, and then Newel died in 1850. Emmeline went back to teaching school once more. She mostly provided for her own support the rest of her life. In 1852 she petitioned Daniel H. Wells, also a prominent Mormon and community leader, to become his seventh wife. She bore him three daughters.

Emmeline was the editor of the Utah Women's Exponent, established in 1872. She also wrote numerous short stories and poems, most published. She later compiled her poetry into a single volume, Musings and Memories. In 1912 she became the first Utah woman to receive an honorary degree, in literature, awarded her by Brigham Young University. Emmeline was an advocate for women's rights early in the women's suffrage movement. She served as liaison between Mormon and non-Mormon women and fielded hostile criticism associated with the practice of polygamy, which in most cases, offered women more independence than monogamy.

Emmeline represented Utah women in the National Woman Suffrage Association and the National and International Councils of Women for 30 years. Visiting Washington, D.C., she conferred with the nation's highest leaders. In 1899, Wells was invited by the International Council of Women to speak in London as a representative of the United States.

Church Leadership

Emmeline had a testimony that the Relief Society had been organized by revelation. “We do declare,” she said, “it our purpose to keep intact the original name and initial spirit and purpose of this great organization, holding fast to the inspired teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith when he revealed that plan by which women were to be empowered through the calling of the priesthood to be grouped into suitable organizations for the purpose of ministering to the sick, assisting the needy, comforting the aged, warning the unwary and succoring the orphans.” [2]

In 1876 Prophet Brigham Young assigned her to be in charge of a grain storage program for the Church of Jesus Christ. The program was so successful that the surplus grain was made available for humanitarian aid, with portions being sent to help with a famine in China, the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, California, and a drought in Southern Utah. The Relief Society also sold over 200,000 bushels of wheat to the U.S. government during World War I.

It was Emmeline and her counselors who chose the Relief Society motto, "Charity Never Faileth," that is still in use today. The Relief Society has become the largest and oldest women's organization in the world. Emmeline was 82 years old when she was called to be general president of the Relief Society. She served for 11 years, until shortly before her death in 1921.

Additional Resources