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Emmeline B. Wells’ diaries open window into life of a Latter-day Saint leader and suffragist

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Emmeline B. Wells was a Latter-day Saint leader and women’s rights activist.

Church History Library

SALT LAKE CITY — In a year commemorating the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment and the 150th anniversary of Utah women being the first in the country to vote under equal suffrage law, it seems only fitting that the life of one of the state’s most influential Latter-day Saint women’s suffrage leaders comes to the forefront.

Emmeline B. Wells, whose life spanned from 1828 to 1921, was a writer, editor, public speaker and a nationally recognized champion of women’s rights. She also served as the fifth general Relief Society president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Historians know about many of her experiences and travels in great detail because Wells was a diligent diarist, leaving behind 47 handwritten volumes.

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Emmeline B. Wells was a writer, editor, public speaker, women’s suffrage activist and Latter-day Saint leader.

Church History Library

This week the Church Historian’s Press announced the online publication of six volumes of Wells’ diaries, covering 1892 to 1896, including an annotated transcript of the volumes. The first six diaries, covering 1844 to 1879, were published in March. Eventually, all 47 volumes will be available online.

Project co-editors Cherry B. Silver and Sheree M. Bench started work on the project in 2002 and believe Wells’ diaries will prove to be a great resource in the years to come.

“Emmeline B. Wells is an example of a woman who was motivated, had a clear purpose and believed in women,” Bench said. “She was very dedicated to the suffrage cause not only for the right to vote but for the right for women to hold office. She worked at that constantly ... with a determination to see it through. She’s someone worth modeling our lives after.”

People in many circles trusted Wells, Silver said.

“Because of her integrity and hard work, national leaders turned to Utah and said, ‘We can trust you and we want you to work for our causes,’” Silver said.

Lisa Olsen Tait, a historian and specialist in women’s history in the Church History Department, said Wells’ accomplishments stand parallel to those of other prominent American women of her generation.

“Emmeline was one of the most well-known, prominent Latter-day Saints of her day, both because of her suffrage and national work and also because of her leadership within the Relief Society and within the church,” Tait said. “So from the perspective of church history, she is someone that Latter-day Saints should know about. Just like we can list off names of a lot of male leaders of the past that people are familiar with, Emmeline belongs on a short list of the most important and most influential Latter-day Saints for her time period.” 

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Through her support of women’s suffrage, Emmeline B. Wells (standing near center of photograph, with white scarf) won the respect of national suffrage leaders, including Susan B. Anthony (front row, third from right). Anthony and Wells maintained a lifelong friendship. 

Church History Library

Born in Massachusetts on Feb. 29, 1828, Wells listened to Latter-day Saint missionaries as a young woman and gathered with the Saints in Nauvoo, Illinois, and Utah. She married three times, including two plural marriages, and was the mother of five daughters.

Along with being the editor of the Woman’s Exponent newspaper for 37 years, she helped link Latter-day Saint women to the national women’s organizations and suffrage movement while sharing her talents in wide range of arenas and platforms.

Wells’ diaries describe her meetings with U.S. presidents and church leaders, as well as interactions with prominent figures like Susan B. Anthony. She documented noteworthy events and daily interaction with her family and friends in the community. She also opens up with thoughts about her faith and personal trials.

On Jan. 13, 1879, she met U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes.

“In the morning went to see the Chief Executive of the Land. ... He was with his secretary and one other gentleman yet he invited us into his library — and I said what I had time to say.”

On Wednesday, April 6, 1892, Wells wrote about being present when the capstone was placed on the Salt Lake Temple.

“The temple yard was being crowded people standing everywhere. I had an opportunity to go on to the platform where the reporters and editors were at tables, sat near to the First Presidency and Apostles. It was a most grand occasion Pres. Woodruff was the hero and more than that even. He touched the button and the capstone was laid by electricity. Wonderful discovery of science. The Hosannas from the assembled multitudes were the crowning ceremony of the day forty thousand or more joining in the chants.”

On May 20, 1893, Wells wrote: “This morning I presided over the General Congress in the Hall of Columbus – an honor never before accorded to a Mormon woman.” 

In May 1895, she hosted Anthony and Anna Howard Shaw in Utah for the Rocky Mountain convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

On Jan. 4 and 6, 1896, she recorded her observations as Utah celebrated its statehood.

“The morning dawned bright and clear and very beautiful ... while I was making ready to go to the office, the guns fired a salute, the whistles began to blow and I knew the President of the United States had signed the Proclamation. I flew as it were over to Belle’s and gave them the news; they had not noticed the whistles until then, bells were pealing out vigorously and all was joyous noise, I took the first car and found the city streaming with flags and banners. All was gaiety and I was soon joined by other women anxious to participate in the demonstration of joy and gladness.”

Along with biographical information and images, “The Diaries of Emmeline B. Wells” website has a searchable database of names mentioned in her diaries.

“People can look up an ancestor’s name and see if they crossed paths or were in the same circles that Emmeline traveled in,” Bench said. “We hope people will be curious enough to explore the diaries.”

The publication of the second batch of Wells’ diaries come less than a month after Church Historian’s Press announced the publication of “The Discourses of Eliza R. Snow,” although the projects were not coordinated.

Even so, it’s interesting to note the connection. The two leaders knew each other and did work together.

“Eliza was very much a mentor for Emmeline,” Tait said. “She helped her to find her footing and her voice as a public figure in the church and beyond. Once you get both of these sources out there, you are going to have some rich resources with a lot of fascinating overlap.”

The Church History Department is hosting a special online event, “Emmeline B. Wells and the Road to Suffrage,” on Tuesday, Aug. 4, at 7 p.m., where Silver, Bench and Katherine Kitterman will give a virtual lecture highlighting the life and impact of Wells’ life on women’s equality in Utah on Facebook live. The event will also be stored online.

Digital images of the original diaries are available on BYU’s L. Tom Perry Special Collections website. Visit “The Diaries of Emmeline B. Wells” at churchhistorianspress.org/emmeline-b-wells.