History 101: Emmeline B. Wells

By the time Emmeline Blanche Woodward was fourteen, she had already lost her father, finished school at the New Salem Academy, become a teacher and was on her way to her first marriage. Her betrothed, James Harris, was the 15 year-old son of the local Mormon leader, and soon Emmeline and her family were baptized members of the LDS Church.

Less than a year later, Emmeline and her family joined the church migration of the Saints to Nauvoo, Illinois. Sadness and grief marked her short time in Nauvoo, where her first child died shortly after birth, and her husband abandoned her. Carol Cornwall Madsen described this time in Emmeline’s life:

“In 1844 they traveled with James’ parents to Nauvoo. Two months later, the Prophet and his brother were assassinated, and soon after, the elder Harrises, Elias and Lucy, left the Church. They urged James and Emmeline, with their newborn son, Eugene, to return with them to Massachusetts, but the young couple refused. When Emmeline and James also refused to allow James’ parents to take the baby with them, until the young parents were more settled, the Harrises left Nauvoo alone, leaving bad feelings behind. The baby, unfortunately, died soon afterwards, and James, unable to find any satisfactory work in Nauvoo, took a boat to St. Louis, promising to return for the bereaved Emmeline as soon as he found employment. Alone in Nauvoo, Emmeline found a place to stay with the Aaron Johnson family, waiting day after day for word from James.

“I hope soon, very soon, to see him and hear words of love and affection,” she wrote in her diary. But those words never came. Nor did James.”

Alone, but not entirely without resources, Emmeline began teaching again. During this time, the revelation concerning plural marriage was received, and Emmeline became plural wife to the much older Newel K. Whitney, who was a bishop in Nauvoo. She joined the extended Whitney family on the exodus to Utah in 1848, at which time she began keeping journals. Emmeline would bear two daughters in her marriage with Whitney, and remained close with the family and other wives even after his death.

In 1850, just twenty-two years old, she became a widow, and found herself in Salt Lake City supporting two small daughters by again teaching school. Her experiences in life had already taught her the importance of being self-sufficient, and she bore the primary responsibility for herself and her children the rest of her life.

In 1852, already the veteran of two marriages, Emmeline approached Daniel H. Wells, a friend of her late husband, about marriage. She became Daniel’s seventh wife, possibly out of financial necessity, and had three daughters with him. After the birth of her fifth (and last) daughter in 1862, Emmeline truly began to find her voice on women’s rights and political issues.

In 1872, at the age of 44, Emmeline B. Wells began editing the semi-monthly publication for Mormon women- the Women’s Exponent, succeeding Louisa Green, who founded the paper in 1872. “I believe in women, especially thinking women,” she wrote, becoming her time’s pre-eminent advocate and proponent of women’s rights and plural marriage. As editor, Emmeline had unparalleled freedom to write about and promote the key issues of the day: suffrage in Utah, education and economic opportunities for women, and reports on the Relief Society, where she served in the general presidency for more than three decades.

Unlike those outside the Mormon world, Emmeline preached plural marriage not as a barrier to women’s equality, but rather as a means of personal freedom and independence. For Emmeline, polygamy could be a way in which women could have social standing and rights of her own, unlike traditional marriage in which a woman’s social and economic standing often rested on that of her husband.

Brigham Young called Emmeline to head a grain saving program, which was eventually so successful that the church was able to sell surplus grain to the US government for World War I. She received a personal visit and presidential commendation from Woodrow Wilson for her efforts.

On the national level, Emmeline had ties to many prominent suffragettes, including both Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In 1879, she became a lobbyist for Utah interests in Washington D.C., and a mediator between Mormon and non-Mormon women, primarily defending and dealing with criticism of polygamy and her religion.

As editor of the Exponent Emmeline faced personal failure as the newspaper faced financial ruin. Emmeline lobbied the Relief Society to officially adopt the Exponent, but was rejected in her attempts. In 1914, while Sister Wells was president, the Relief Society Board rescinded support of the Women’s Exponent, and the publication closed. Seven years later, Emmeline would be the first to be released as Relief Society president, which had previously been a lifetime calling.

In 1921, at the age of 93, three weeks after being released as General Relief Society president, Emmeline B. Wells died. Her daughter is said to believe the release broke her heart, and contributed to her death.

She was eulogized as Utah’s “foremost woman”, and as “unyielding as her native granite in her devotion to duty.” On what would have been her one-hundredth birthday, a bust of her was placed in the rotunda of the state capital, posthumously recognizing her achievements.


This post is a very, very brief overview of what can only be noted as a remarkable woman who lived a truly remarkable life. Please take a moment, or an hour, and look over some of the links to find out more about our foremother, Emmeline B. Wells. We do ourselves a disservice to not know more about her and her life. And frankly, I am appalled that I made it through women’s studies courses in college, and knew next to nothing about her- she isn’t just Mormon history- she is American history.

Up next in History 101: Eliza R. Snow

New Perspectives on the West, Emmeline B. Wells
An Avocate for Women: The Public Life of Emmeline B. Wells
Official RS Bio Sketch
Women of the West, Museum of the American West
Emmeline B. Wells, Short Bio.
And of course, Exponent II,


  1. cj douglass says:

    Thank you Tracy.

  2. great work. i gotta read that new biography.

  3. Great work Tracy!

  4. Wow, Tracy, I like this.

    You included details that were news to me. I knew about the RS grain storage, but I didn’t know it started with her. I also didn’t know how much personal tragedy she endured. Those must have been some lonely months in Nauvoo after her baby died, waiting for her husband to return. It is hard to imagine.

    Also, this detail says a lot: Emmeline approached Daniel H. Wells, a friend of her late husband, about marriage.

    They really did think of marriage and family relationships in ways that we do not.

  5. Mark IV- I thought it was particularly telling that she approached Daniel Wells, as well. There are tales that her marriage to him was of convenience and full of sadness, but I also read that they became quite close companions as they aged.

    She really is a fascinating woman.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Thank you, Tracy. These brief sketches are the perfect introduction to these women. I learned things about her that I didn’t know. Keep up the great work; I’m looking forward to further entries in the series.

  7. BYUTV runs a play about her life sometimes, Sixth wife

    In this one-woman play, dramatist and historian Joan Oviatt portrays the inspiring story of Emmeline Blanche Woodward Harris Whitney Wells – fifth Relief Socity General President of the LDS Church and one of the most influential women of the 19th century. Friend of suffragist Susan B. Anthony, the play shows Emmeline’s triumph over solitude, depression, social ridicule, and religious persecution.

  8. Oh Wonderful! I’m so glad you’re doing these! Before I started blogging I knew very little about who our promenant Mormon women were, I do know a lot more now (though much of this was new to me) through efforts like yours, but I’m still way too ignorant.

    But even give my own ignorance, I’m surprised at how little history we Mormons know about our past. Just this sunday I was mentioning something about Eliza Snow to my home teachers and they just stared at me and blinked. Idon’t think they’d ever even heard her name before. Sad.

  9. Tracy, well done! How did you manage to do so much research with 3 little ones around? (And no sister wives!!) Here’s a snippet of one of my favorite editorials of EBWHWW:

    “It is proverbial that men do not choose intellectual women for wives. They consider them very appropriate for old maids; this helps them to bear their CRUEL lot with a better degree of serenity; gives them occupation in place of family cares. But for domestic home companions–Oh no! The assertion is widely circulated, among the “fair sex,” that the more shrewd, designing, artful, insinuating and intriguing a woman is, the better chance she stands of filling that exclusive place in a husband’s affections….
    Does not this erroneous state of things call aloud for reform? And ought not those to be commended, who are willing to launch forth upon the stream of public opinion, conscious of the justness of their cause; and with unceasing and unhesitating energy and perseverance, row against the stream, fearless of the storms thy must encounter, or the fierce surging of the angry waves of popularity? If it were possible to awaken each one to her own individual need, would there be any occasion to stand up and advocate reform?
    …There is abundant room for all, and union will lighten the labor effectually; therefore we call upon all who are desirous to see our children better than their contemporaries, to lend a helping hand in this extensive enterprise of rowing against the stream.”

  10. Thanks for this Tracy. This is far better than the official RS sketch. Maybe we should tell them to start adopting your posts for their website.

  11. amri, haven’t you heard!?! Tracy is being called general RS presidency in GC next week.

    All in favor, please signify by clicking the right mouse key.

  12. Steve Evans says:

    *so clicked*, by the usual sign. Great work, Tracy. Emmeline is a daunting figure — you’ve done an excellent job. Who’s next?

  13. “you’ve done an excellent job. Who’s next?”

    Um, is this one a trick question? Cause ya know, my hunch is that it’s the person she mentions at the end of the post . . .

  14. Steve Evans says:

    no, kaimi, who’s next to sustain Tracy M. You lose.

  15. Ardis Parshall says:

    Wonderfully written, Tracy, and a nice selection of events to give a good introduction in a narrow space to an extraordinary life. I look forward to the next in your series, and am right-clicking in enthusiastic support!

  16. Cool post. Thanks for the history lesson. Biography is definitely the way to go for lessons in the Gospel applied.

  17. Great post, and an interesting apologia for 19th century polygamy. (i.e. no polygamy = no EBW, Mormon activist)

  18. Steve Evans says:

    Ronan, whenever I start getting really uppity about polygamy, I think about people like EBW and their perspectives, and I wonder if I’m not completely missing something.

  19. Swisster says:

    Wonderful. Somehow I got the idea that James’ parents intercepted letters James wrote to Emmeline while he was away, and she found this out later (ouch). Does that sound right to anyone? I saw the _Sixth Wife_ several years ago; maybe it was in there, or some license was taken with the James-Emmeline relationship. Thanks, Tracy.

  20. How did you manage to do so much research with 3 little ones around? (And no sister wives!!)

    My “siter wife” on this one was Supergenius, who was kind enough to be my editor- and point out a few glaring omisions I had made!

    Can I UNsustain myself? Nooooooo presidencies for me!

  21. Wells said, “History tells us little about women; judging from its pages one would suppose their lives were insignificant and their opinions worthless … yet the future will deal more generously with womankind, and the historian of the present age will find it very embarassing to ignore woman in the records of the nineteenth century.”

    Thanks Tracy for contributing to the effort of bringing us more women’s history.

  22. Swisster- there are rumors of his parents intercepting letters, but as far as I could dig, it could not be substantiated. Of course, I am far from an authority! Anyone have any more reliable info on that?

  23. Here is a quote from In History: A Journey of Discovery by Carol Cornwall Madsen, who we can probably agree is the authority on EBW

    “I hope soon, very soon, to see him and hear words of love and affection,” she wrote in her diary. But those words never came. Nor did James. Emmeline carried the heartache of his desertion throughout her life, and I assumed this chapter of her life was closed. Then, in one of those cases of pure serendipity, a diary came into my hands that had not been deposited in the archives. In it Emmeline recorded her return to New England 40 years after leaving it. Besides giving me details about her early life there, as she revisited the scenes of her girlhood, the diary picked up the thread of the James Harris mystery. While in New Salem, Emmeline visited her former mother-in-law, Lucy Harris, then Mrs. Blackinton. The visit was cordial if awkward, but it reconnected the two women and opened the door for another visit to the Blackinton home a few years later, after Lucy’s death. While there the second time, Emmeline came across a packet of letters. They were from James–addressed to her–written before his death at sea. His mother had never forwarded them. Emmeline drove directly to Lucy’s grave and, in the words of her sister and niece who were with her, the diminutive Emmeline “raised her arms to heaven and called down a curse upon her mother-in-law that made us tremble–and no doubt caused the wicked one to writhe in her shroud” (quoted in a letter from Geneva Ramsey Kingkade to Carolyn Chouinard, 24 August 1970, copy in possession of author).

  24. Short biography, I know, so stuff has to be left out. Did she divorce husband #1?

    Re: the statement Kristine quoted–it’s interesting that Sister Wells juxtaposes “intellectual” and “shrewd, designing, artful, insinuating and intriguing”. (I suspect, by the way, that her “intriguing” is likely meant as “involved in intrigues–plots–rather than our current “interesting”.)

    I would think that a 21st century complaint about men seeking wives from among the non-intellectual would likely describe intellectual women as “shrewd, designing, artful, insinuating and intriguing.”

  25. Kris, that’s a fabulous link. Thanks, and thanks for the clarification.

  26. This is great. Thanks Tracy for putting this together.

  27. Melissa De Leon Mason says:

    Tracy, awesome job. Between your informative post and the additional tidbits that everyone has been adding (I especially like the quote Kristine posted) this is a great way to whet the appetite on Mormon women’s history. I definitely want to learn more on my own now and I’m looking forward to your next post.

  28. kris, #23,

    …called down a curse upon her mother-in-law that made us tremble…

    Yes, I have heard a few of those myself.

  29. Yeah, Mark B., I noticed that too–those words have a completely different valence now.

  30. Kevin Barney says:

    Great quote, Kris; man, was she ever P.O.’d! And rightfully so. Seems like she had the MIL from hell.

    This stuff really makes her come alive.

  31. re # 23: it was a releif to learn that Harris hadn’t abandoned her but rather the MIL had intervened destructively. It rehabilitated him in my mind. Do we have any indication about the content of the letters? What did Harris say to her in those letters that the anti-Mormon MIL refused to forward?

  32. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this. I really, really appreciate it!

  33. They should have shown that scene in the Lucy Harris South Park. Smart smart smart doesn’t make up for mean mean mean.

  34. Awesome. Thank you, Tracy.

  35. molly bennion says:

    Tracy, thanks. Keep this up.

    Yes, ultimately it was in polygamy that Emmeline found financial security but she knew the price. Consider her diary entry of Sept 30, 1874: “O if my husband could only love me even a little and not seem so perfectly indifferent to any sensation of that kind. He cannot know the craving of my nature. He is surrounded with love on every side, and I am cast out. Oh my poor aching heart. Where shall it rest its burden, only on the Lord, only to Him can I look every other avenue seems closed against me. O help me Father in heaven to overcome and resist temptation in every form or shape.”


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