Emmeline B. Wells



Mormon Lectionary Project

With this post, the MLP inaugurates something we’ve been meaning to do for a while: use the lectionary format to celebrate specific LDS figures. In the spirit of the 1978 First Presidency statement noting the contributions made by non-LDS religious leaders and philosophers to the spread of light and truth, we’ll also be expanding the series to honor a broad spectrum of people who have contributed to the advancement of the human family from a smaller capacity to a greater one. We’re also increasing the amount of LDS scripture in each post, to include selections from the Small Plates, the abridgments of Mormon and Moroni, and the Doctrine and Covenants or Pearl of Great Price.

Emmeline B. Wells

Ruth 1:8-18, 2:4-17 (NRSV); Psalm 119:41-48 (1662 BCP); Luke 18:1-8 (NRSV); 2 Cor. 8:1-9 (NRSV); 2 Ne. 25:21-23; Ether 12:23-28; D&C 88:117-26

The Collect: O God, thou who givest us both daily bread and holy light to feed our minds and spirits, grant that we, like thy servant Emmeline B. Wells, may, through the grace of thy Son, Jesus Christ, write, teach, serve, and lead, that our sisters and brothers might forever be established in the strength of thy Holy Spirit. Amen.

On this day we honor the example of Emmeline B. Wells, whose deep commitment to the gospel drove decades of devotion to the cause of women’s rights.

Her faith was tested severely at a young age. After joining the Church in Massachusetts and marrying while still a teenager, she came to Nauvoo, only to be abandoned by her husband. Then, when Joseph was killed, her in-laws decided to return to Massachusetts, but rather than leave the Church with them, Emmeline made Ruth’s choice:

Do not press me to leave you
   or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
   where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
   and your God my God. 
Where you die, I will die—
   there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
   and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!

The Restored Gospel was her Naomi.

Then a second, but brief, marriage as a plural wife to Newel K. Whitney left her a 22-year-old widow with two young daughters in the newly established Salt Lake City. It was 1850.

To support herself and her daughters she became a teacher—a career she’d already begun as a teenager in Massachusetts and practiced again in Nauvoo. Much like Ruth’s gleaning in the fields, she worked to “seek diligently … and teach … out of the best books words of wisdom.”

Her income from teaching apparently insufficient, she again took Ruth-like initiative and approached Daniel H. Wells about becoming his seventh wife. He agreed, and they had three daughters together.

Marriage to Wells afforded her for a time with the comforts of life, even though she saw much less of her husband than she wished. The reality of his frequent absence and the eventual deterioration of his financial situation, along with her lack of a son to provide support, compelled Emmeline to become increasingly independent.

The independence that she showed on this and other occasions is key to her life as a strong advocate for the Church and especially for women. Like the woman in Christ’s parable of the unjust judge, she was indefatigable in her quest for women’s rights, especially when this quest put her, as a defender of the Church and its practice of polygamy, at odds with mainstream American society.

Women’s independence and polygamy were also closely linked on the question of suffrage. An 1867 editorial in The New York Times first suggested the idea that the key to ending polygamy was giving women in Utah the vote (Madsen, 119). Congress never pursued the idea, but the Utah legislature enfranchised women in 1870. The franchise was then taken away by the Edmunds-Tucker act in 1887, only to be regained with statehood in 1896. These swings of fortune helped, however, to connect Emmeline and other prominent Mormon women into the national suffrage movement.

In 1879 the Church sent Emmeline and Zina Young Williams to Washington, D.C., to lobby against some of the legislation then under consideration in Congress. As a polygamous wife (twice!) she had to fight against the powerful narrative imposed by the national press, according to which she was oppressed and exploited. As BCC’s own Tracy M. put it, though, “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.”

The Psalmist captures much of her Washington experience. “So shall I make answer unto my blasphemers” conveys the steel in her spine, as does “I will speak of thy testimonies also, even before kings”—or at least before President Rutherford B. Hayes, who received her warmly but turned out to be hostile. Truly, Emmeline delighted in the commandments and lifted up her hands in prayer to their Giver. To those who called her oppressed she could say: “I will walk at liberty / For I seek [God’s] commandments.”

Emmeline’s greatest legacy belongs to her role as the editor of the Woman’s Exponent from 1877 until it ceased publication in 1914. Indeed, she “labor[ed] diligently to write” as a fervent defender of the gospel and, like Nephi, “these things … [have been] kept and preserved,” in BYU’s digital collections. Whatever her “weakness in writing,” God’s grace has been more than sufficient.

In 1910, to her surprise, Emmeline was elected the fifth General Relief Society President. During her tenure she instituted the now-famous motto of the organization: “Charity never faileth.” Her experience with charity was long, involving not only her work as a suffragette, but also the assignment she received in 1876 from Brigham Young to start and manage a grain-saving program. These food stores were able to help people in distress as far away as China. Like the Macedonian saints praised by Paul, Emmeline and the women under her direction “voluntarily gave according to their means,” excelling in “this generous undertaking.”

In Emmeline’s tireless devotion to women’s rights, her public efforts on behalf of the poor and distressed, and her faithful service in the Church, her testimony shines forth. In giving so much of herself she was following in her Savior’s footsteps, “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

May we, on this day when we honor the life of Emmeline B. Wells, look to the example of Jesus as manifest in her and then go and do likewise.

For the music I have chosen a suffragette classic, “The March of the Women.” Although this song comes out of the British suffrage movement, many of the images in the video depict Americans. Indeed, at 2:20 some women appear holding a sign alluding to the suffrage granted women in the west, looking to our foremothers as examples.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LCtGkCg7trY]


I am indebted to the following sources for information about Emmeline B. Wells:

Carol Cornwall Madsen, An Advocate for Women: The Public Life of Emmeline B. Wells 1870-1920 (Provo: BYU Press, 2006), especially chapters 2, 3, 6, 7.

The Relief Society’s brief biography.

Tracy’s earlier post here at BCC.


  1. Thanks for this great write-up. Whenever it’s my turn for FHE lesson, I do it on a woman from Church History or the Scriptures. Looks like Emmeline B. Wells will be my next.

  2. Jason K. says:

    You’re welcome. We’ll be honoring quite a few women in the coming months, so keep checking back. Due up next week: Emma Smith.

  3. This really is perfect. A great first step into the territory in which the Mormon Lectionary will be truly at home. Thank you for leading the way on this.

  4. (And let me just say that your “Gospel” selection, from Luke 18:1-8, was truly perfect — I found it very moving in this context.)

  5. Perfect next steps, and three cheers for Emmeline.

  6. Emmeline deserves much more attention than she gets in our history-telling. I’m fascinated by her and for awhile was considering starting a fundraising campaign to replace her pitifully tiny headstone in the Salt Lake Cemetery with something more attention-catching (though nothing could compete with the enormous marker for her third husband, which looms over hers). But if she were here, I think she’d call that wasted effort. As long as her efforts to serve are emulated by the living, she would be happy.

    I believe it turned out that her first husband did not abandon her, but rather died overseas trying to get work to support her and their baby, and his letters to her telling her of his whereabouts were intercepted by his mother (who disliked Emmeline) and hidden from her. She learned about the letters late in life after paying a visit to her former mother-in-law, in an effort to forgive her for her long-ago rejection. As the story goes, the forgiveness shattered under that new wave of hurt. She endured a lot and kept moving forward and reinventing herself and the scope of women’s service. Remarkable person.

  7. Jason K. says:

    Thanks for filling in this detail about her first marriage. All I had known was that he left for St. Louis, and she never heard from him again. Knowing that she had to endure that pain on top of everything else she went through just increased my respect for her even more.

    (Let me take this opportunity to say that I welcome such corrections. Many readers of this blog know their Mormon history much better than I do, so let’s celebrate Emmeline by letting your collective knowledge expand on and, where necessary, correct what I’ve written in the OP.)

  8. I love this. What always makes me so sad about the end of Wells’ life, is that when she was released as General Relief Society President (the first one to be released rather than die in the role), she was heartbroken and sure that she had done something wrong or offended Heber J Grant in some way. She died within a few weeks of her release, those who knew her best said it was from a broken heart.

  9. J. Stapley says:

    Seriously, with the Luke. Thanks as ever.

  10. How much money do you think we’re talking about, Marie? I enjoyed the post. Thank you. By the way, Emmeline penned the words to hymn 33, a hymn that is a bit harder to get away with scheduling in Sacrament Meeting outside of Utah, perhaps.

  11. Susan W H says:

    Thanks for this post, especially that great video. I’m working on a paper to present at the MHA in June on LDS participation in international peace and suffrage conferences in 1908-9, which will include a discussion of a militant British Mormon suffragette. I’ve been immersed in Emmeline’s career, so this post is much appreciated.

  12. Enjoyed this post very much. Thank you!

  13. A little push back, “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.”

    Her social and economic standing was still very much dependent on her marriage. Note she approached Wells because he was wealthy, for instance. We should also expect that being a wife of a prominent church leader carried more clout than being married to other men, Because women were sometimes forced to be more independent in polygamous marriages out of shear numbers does not mean they were afforded more freedom. It came out of necessity.

  14. sheer.

  15. Jason K. says:

    A fair point. The marriage to Wells did launch her into a degree of social prominence she had not experienced before. The trick here is that the quoted idea seems to have been part of her own defense of polygamy. It’s perfectly legitimate, and probably accurate, for us to critique this position as patriarchalist and not really that liberating, but at the same time we ought, from a historical point of view, to try and understand her position in its own terms. Regrettably, I did not have time last week to spend with her diaries (which are in BYU Special Collections), but perhaps someone who has done that can shed some further light here.

  16. From her diaries, her attitude toward polygamy was quite different than her public defense of it.

  17. Do elaborate. As stated above, I welcome correction or further clarification from those more knowledgeable than myself.

  18. Her diaries are a great read, if you ever have the opportunity. She was very lonely under polygamy, so hard for such a romantic, but she turned that loneliness into action and performed many great services for her community. And what a complicated life she lived, worthy of an entire series of historical novels: her marriages, her involvement in the suffrage movement, her visit with the President of the U. S., the sad story and death of her daughter Louie. Her life had all the themes and conflicts of great literature.

    Joanne, as Marie said, I think that doing service in her name would be the best way to remember “Aunt Em,” rather than spending thousands of dollars and the effort of tracking down the family’s permission to replace her gravestone. She is memorialized elsewhere, and remembrances such as this blog post serve to keep her in our hearts, which may well be how she would best like to be remembered.

  19. Try here, http://rsc.byu.edu/archived/supporting-saints-life-stories-nineteenth-century-mormons/12-emmeline-b-wells-romantic
    “O if my husband could only love me even a little and not seem so perfectly indifferent to an 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 O 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. . . . I have no one to go to for comfort or shelter no strong arm to lean upon no bosom bared for me, no protection or comfort in my husband.”

    ““Anniversary of my marriage with Pres. Wells. O how happy I was then how much pleasure I anticipated and how changed alas are things since that time, how few thoughts I had then have ever been realized, and how much sorrow I have known in place of the joy I looked forward to.” Mormon Polygamy, page 94 http://www.amazon.com/Mormon-Polygamy-Richard-Van-Wagoner/dp/0941214796

  20. Jason K. says:

    Amy and mmiles: thanks for the input. Those quotes are searing!

  21. Fairchild says:

    Over ten years ago I saw the one-woman play “The Sixth Wife” about Emmeline B. Wells shown on BYUTV. According to the play, her husband did turn toward her later in his life and realized what a true friend she could be. She also struggled with depression throughout her life according to the play. It’s easy to see why! She had a very difficult life but did amazing things. She was responsible for the grain storage program that was sold to the U.S. government during wartime.

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