Emmeline B. Wells

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 and often felt searingly lonely. 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 (even if her own experience of polygamy was not altogether positive). 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.” It is true that marriage to Wells gave Emmeline her position in society, but in time her writing and her Relief Society work gave her standing in her own right. 

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.

MLP

MLP

Mormon Lectionary Project

Emmeline B. Wells, editor and General Relief Society President, 1921

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.

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.

Notes

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.

Comments by mmiles and Amy T on the earlier version of this post.

Comments

  1. My youngest daughter is named after this great lady. Thank you for this!

  2. Stephanie says:

    Fascinating! Thank you for sharing.

  3. This is fantastic. As I think about what it means to be a Mormon woman, we have in our own history a woman whose families fell short of the ideal (indeed, not a “proclamation family”), yet was able to rise up and accomplish great things. It is a reminder to me that I can do likewise, knowing that women like Emmeline today and ensure that women like Emmeline today are

  4. *accidently posted early
    …knowing there are women like Emmeline today whose voices belong in the church.

  5. I loved this. Like thisgreatdeep I wish we heard these over our pulpits and in our classrooms. Thank you for keeping us in touch with her.

  6. Stories that need more telling. Thanks, Jason.

  7. it's a series of tubes says:

    Like x100.