Emmeline B. Wells was one of the most important Latter-day Saint women in Utah’s early history. She knew the prophet Joseph Smith, served with Eliza R. Snow, and was friends with Susan B. Anthony. In this interview, Cherry Silver and Sheree Bench talk about their work on the Diaries of Emmeline B. Wells, and share insights from the pioneer suffragist’s life.
Search the diaries of Emmeline B. Wells online.
** Style note: Cherry Silver is the interview participant unless otherwise noted.
Who Was Emmeline B. Wells?
Emmeline B. Wells was the most renowned Latter-day Saint woman of her generation. She was celebrated as an editor, public speaker, community activist, and defender of her faith.
Born in Massachusetts in 1828, she emigrated first to Nauvoo and then from Winter Quarters to Utah in 1848. She edited the Woman’s Exponent from 1877 to 1914, was involved in local politics, and served on the boards of national women’s organizations. She led the Relief Society as its fifth general president between 1910 and 1921 and died in Salt Lake City in April 1921.
Emmeline was married three times and had six children. A son with James Harris died in infancy in Nauvoo. Two daughters with Newel K. Whitney were born in Salt Lake City and became civic leaders. Of her three daughters with Daniel H. Wells, two died of illness as young adults. The third, Annie Wells Cannon, had twelve children and became a state legislator, stake Relief Society president, and member of the Relief Society general board.
When the periodical, the Woman’s Exponent, was founded in 1872, Emmeline Wells began to write articles of social improvement under the pen name Blanche Beechwood and reminiscences of her New England upbringing as Aunt Em.
Eliza R. Snow asked her to fill in as editorialist in 1874. That led to training as associate editor before taking over as editor in 1877. Gradually through her pen and speaking assignments, she became a spokesperson for Latter-day Saint women of the 1880s and 1890s and beyond.1
What makes the diaries of Emmeline B. Wells unique and valuable?
The diaries of Emmeline B. Wells provide a window into the life of a developing society. Forty-seven diaries have been transcribed and annotated. They cover her early church experience and then her activities between 1874 and 1920 while living in Salt Lake City. These are years of social awareness, following the arrival of the railroad, after women received the vote in Utah, and when women were participating in Relief Society and other organizations.
In the diaries she is both history maker (as she meets with presidents and works with national suffrage leaders) and historian (as she documents noteworthy events, daily interactions with her family and members of her community, and tells about her adversities and faith).1
We are fortunate that Carol Cornwall Madsen has written two excellent biographies of Emmeline B. Wells, covering both her public activities and her personal experiences. As a supplement to the biographies, the edited diaries reveal the emotion of her life, the complexities, the variety of daily happenings. Her diaries provide flares of keen observation, while our annotations and biographies seek to clarify the happenings for modern readers.
What is the history of the Emmeline B. Wells diary project—and when did the Church History Library get involved?
Forty-seven diaries were preserved by descendants of Annie Wells Cannon. Later, L. Tom Perry Special Collections at Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, acquired the diaries in two batches. Images of the originals are available online.1
Sheree M. Bench and Cherry B. Silver began transcribing and annotating the Emmeline B. Wells diaries in 2002 at the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History at Brigham Young University. The Wells project was part of a women’s history initiative instituted by Jill Mulvay Derr and Carol Cornwall Madsen.
Sheree and Cherry were given electronic files of a typescript that had previously been prepared by BYU students in an early word processing program. Sheree Bench converted those transcriptions into another program and reformatted them, cleaning up codes and mistakes created in the transition. She then verified the entire text over the course of many years, comparing digitized images of the original diaries to the typescript—word by word and letter by letter—to identify and correct transcription errors. Meanwhile, Cherry Silver took the lead in annotating the diaries to identify persons and places, clarify historical events, and explain allusions.
In 2017, executives with the Church History Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, approved a proposal to publish the transcripts of the Wells diaries on the Church Historian’s Press website. And officials with the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU gave permission for the transcripts to be published by the press.2
Who are some of the people who have made the Emmeline B. Wells diaries possible?
Carol Cornwall Madsen has supported the diaries project since its inception and shared her own scholarship on Wells. She has worked intimately with the diaries since they were acquired by L. Tom Perry Special Collections, using them as prime resources for her two biographies of Emmeline B. Wells.
At the Brigham Young University Library, Ryan Lee, director of L. Tom Perry Special Collections has been of special help. In its early stages, library staff members Connie Lamb oversaw women’s materials, Susan Fales arranged for digitizing the diaries, and Brad Westwood provided a research office for Sheree and Cherry.
Managing historian of women’s history in the Church History Department, Kate Holbrook, oversaw the process of bringing the project to the Church Historian’s Press. She furthered progress by helping direct the workflow, reviewing editorial content, and arranging for publicity.
Lisa Olsen Tait, who early on recommended publishing the Wells diaries, succeeded Kate Holbrook in reviewing content and bringing the project to completion.
Matthew J. Grow, managing director of the Church History Department, and Matthew McBride, director of the Publications Division, have provided essential support.
Church historians and recorders Elder Steven E. Snow, Elder LeGrand Curtis, and Elder Kyle S. McKay have joined in promoting women’s history as important to telling the full story of the Church.
R. Eric Smith, editorial manager of the Church Historian’s Press, has provided sound editing judgment and managed resources and workflow. Direction in electronic publishing came first from senior product manager Ben E. Godfrey. He was succeeded by Benjamin Wood who guides product publicity and coordination.
Technical editors on the Wells Diaries have been Jay A. Parry and Angela Thompson. Naomi M. White has provided website management and source checking. Others currently helping with editorial processes are Kaytee Johnson, Nicholas Shrum, and Samuel Lambert.
Patricia Lemmon Spilsbury, assisted by Brenda Homer, and their team of volunteer researchers in the Church History Department have written detailed, sourced biographical sketches for hundreds of the people mentioned in the diaries.2 3
What were some of the challenges (and successes) of transcribing 19th century handwriting?
Sheree Bench: Fortunately for those of us working on her diaries, Emmeline has legible handwriting. Even so, when she used a thick pencil instead of a pen or she was in a hurry or on a train, it can be difficult to discern some letters—especially when it comes to unfamiliar names.
Cherry and I worked from an early transcription done prior to 2002 when we began the project. This transcription had gone through different word processing programs, so I first had to find errors such as the mixing up of zeros with capital O’s, and ones (1s) with lower case L’s.
Once the word processing errors were corrected and the transcript spacing was cleaned up, I went through every word, line by line, and compared it to the diary manuscripts. The last few years of diaries were much more difficult to read since Emmeline’s eyesight was fading. In those years I often had to interpret what was meant by counting upward strokes that could have been an e or an i or a partial letter.
Looking at legible letters and surrounding words for context helped with those interpretations. Sometimes it was a little bit of inspiration!
What gave Emmeline B. Wells the confidence to act as a bridge builder of her faith?
Sheree Bench: What I have observed in the writing of early Latter-day Saint women is that they had a clear understanding of their worth and their potential as daughters of a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother, and this was the foundation for their work for women’s rights.
Emmeline in particular felt it was her calling to advocate for women, and that meant working with suffrage leaders of other faiths and backgrounds. They were able to form close relationships because of their common goal of women having the right to vote. There was mutual respect and admiration between them despite their religious differences.
Cherry Silver: Wells came out of New England with a sense of her own merit as a writer, thinker, and decision maker. Recalling her baptism and young marriage, she gave credit to divine guidance:
“I cannot think of that past without feeling I was mysteriously guided and my way marked out.”Emmeline B. Wells, Diary, 28 July 1894 4
She knew she was blessed with mental and moral resources:
I am truly grateful for every blessing of comfort and happiness that I have had in the later years of my life. I have not had so many privileges as many of the sisters with whom I have been associated but I have enjoyed my own gifts of mind and heart and tried to make myself useful in spreading the truth.Emmeline B. Wells, Diary, 29 July 1902 5
Priesthood blessings resonated with her. At age sixteen at a low ebb in Nauvoo, ill with malaria, she received a blessing from Apostle Brigham Young, promising her a long, fruitful life.
Although her second husband, Newel K. Whitney, died in 1850, and she was widowed at age twenty-two with two small children, she remembered Whitney’s prophecy that she would “devote [her] whole time to writing” and would “converse with the nobles of the earth and tell them of the Gospel.”6
Reflecting in her diary more than twenty years later, Wells wrote:
I realize more and more what opportunities I had in my young life of that kind, in the society of Bishop Newel K. Whitney & Brigham Young & Heber C. Kimball and others of the foremost men of the Church as well as women whose names stand for good works on the rolls fame– chosen of God in these latter days to fill important positions and whose destiny is to be waymarks for others to follow.Emmeline B. Wells Diary, 1 July 1910. 7
Outside observers commented on her character as well. Marguerite Hamm, a national magazine reviewer in May 1894 described Wells as “a smiling, demure, and well-bred woman. Nevertheless she is one of the crack debaters of the Council. She brings to the task an inexhaustible memory, a neat delivery, and a perfect self-possession.”8
Under the surface, not all was rosy. In her diaries, Wells recorded suffering from overwork, grieving for the loss of loved ones, lack of appreciation from others for her efforts, and rejection of her beliefs. She is all the more credible as a life narrator because of her perseverance in the face of obstacles.
Who are some of the famous Americans Emmeline Wells records meeting?
Cherry Silver: As editor of the Woman’s Exponent, Emmeline Wells corresponded with other women editors, like Lucy Stone of the Woman’s Journal, Clara Bewick Colby of the Woman’s Tribune, and Abigail Scott Duniway of the New Northwest. Lucy Stone and her husband Henry Brown Blackwell welcomed her into their home on Wells’ first trip to Boston in 1886.9
Sheree Bench: Emmeline formed a close relationship with Susan B. Anthony. She was also well acquainted with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Belva Lockwood, and Sara Andrews Spencer. She corresponded and met with later suffrage leaders like Anna Howard Shaw, Rachel Foster Avery, and Carrie Chapman Catt. Other notable women include Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Cherry Silver: Sara Andrews Spencer, secretary of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association, saw the value of building relationships between national suffrage leaders and the Latter-day Saint women of Utah.
When Wells and Zina Young Williams traveled to meetings in Washington DC in January 1879, Spencer introduced the Utah women to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony; she accompanied them to meet legislators and government officials. The bonds with respected women leaders strengthened over the years. When Wells reported on Utah’s hope for obtaining the vote in February 1895, Susan B. Anthony stood up with her arm around Emmeline’s shoulder to endorse what she had said.10 11
Wells, in turn, promoted the standing of the woman’s rights leader among Utah citizens, calling Anthony “a woman as great or greater than any American woman.”12
Throughout the years Wells hosted visiting suffrage leaders when they traveled to the West and met in their councils in the East. She spoke familiarly with Rachel Foster Avery, Carrie Chapman Catt, Fannie Humphreys Gaffney, J. Ellen Foster, May Wright Sewall and others.
Among those Wells talked with at meetings of the International Council of Women, were European notables whom she helped entertain when they later came to Salt Lake City, including Aletta H. Jacobs and her husband C. V. Garritsen of the Netherlands.13 Also Ishbel Marjoribanks Hamilton-Gordon, Lady Aberdeen, and her husband Lord Aberdeen of Scotland.14
Wells had a passion for building relationships with noted authors. When Helen Hunt Jackson came to the city in 1883, Wells took her to meet church president John Taylor.15 She performed vicarious temple work for Jackson, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), and Dinah Mulock Craik in 1887.16 17
A great disappointment came in 1886 when Wells made a personal visit to The Gates Ajar author Elizabeth Stuart Phelps and received a scornful rejection. A few days later, however, New England poet John Greenleaf Whittier welcomed her into his study to talk sympathetically about the pending Edmund-Tucker act against Latter-day Saints.
Another interesting connection was with Dr. Rosetta Luce Gilchrist, who toured Utah and enjoyed the hospitality of its townspeople before publishing an anti-polygamy novel called Apples of Sodom in 1883. Not deterred by that insult, Wells built links with this adversary of the church. She corresponded with Gilchrist about their shared views on women’s rights and had dinner with her at the Columbian Exposition in 1893.
Following that encounter, Gilchrist published an article reprinted in the Woman’s Exponent, speaking warmly of the hospitality of Latter-day Saint women to her despite her earlier stance.18
Wells stopped to see her “friend” in Ohio in 1899 and introduced Gilchrist to President Joseph F. Smith during her stopover in Salt Lake City in 1909.19 20 21 22
Long-term loyalties mattered for Wells.
Because of shared interest in advancing the cause of women, Wells struck up acquaintances with public figures who came through Utah on lecture tours. Wells referred to Clara Barton as the “great Red Cross woman” when she visited her home in Glen Echo, Maryland, in 1901.23
Julia Ward Howe, author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” agreed to an interview with Wells and Dr. Romania B. Pratt in Salt Lake City in 1888.24 Wells wrote editorials about Howe’s group, the Association for the Advancement of Women, and called her “a very talented writer and a remarkable woman for her age in many respects.”25
She met Howe again in Chicago in 1900,26 and Emmeline B. Wells felt rewarded when “a Jewish lady had said I was as great as Julia Ward Howe. Surely a compliment.”27 Jane Addams, social reformer and founder of Hull House, which Wells had visited in 1902,28 sought out Wells when she lectured in Salt Lake City in 1918.29
How closely was Emmeline B. Wells associated with the Church leadership of her era?
Cherry Silver: Emmeline B. Wells pointed out that she was acquainted with every president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from Joseph Smith to Heber J. Grant. She met Joseph Smith in Nauvoo when her party arrived from western Massachusetts in May 1844. She told stories of the emotion among townspeople when he was martyred and testified to his wonderful personality.30 31 32
Brigham Young presided at her marriages to both Newel K. Whitney and Daniel H. Wells.33 In Salt Lake City, President Young asked her to lead the women’s grain storage movement in 1876. And when she became editor of the Woman’s Exponent, he challenged her to make that paper a history of the women of the church.
John Taylor (president of Quorum of the Twelve and of the Church from 1877 to 1887) delegated Wells and Zina Young Williams to represent women of the church in Washington DC in January of 1879. Under his direction, Relief Society, Young Ladies Mutual Improvement Association, and the Primary Association received general presidents and central boards for the first time in 1880.
Wilford Woodruff frequently participated in social events around Salt Lake City with his wife Emma Smith Woodruff who was active in women’s affairs. Emmeline Wells recorded his laying the capstone of the Salt Lake Temple in April 1892. She consulted with him, as in 1894 and 1895, when the return of women’s voting rights in Utah was an issue.
We had a talk about the Relief Society and then about the politics of the people– such a pleasant interview and did me so much good.Emmeline B. Wells, Diary, 24 July 1894 34
I have written notes to President Woodruff and to Jos. F. Smith in reference to some articles in my paper and received favorable answers.Emmeline B. Wells, Diary, 7 June 1895 35
As church president, Lorenzo Snow counseled the women on Relief Society affairs and set apart Wells and others to attend meetings of the National Council.
He responded positively to their request for a woman’s building on church property facing the temple, giving them hope to achieve this in a few years:
Went to see Prest. Snow who was very gracious and talked lovely about the building‒ said we should have deed to the land as soon as we had twenty thousand dollars to begin with‒ and he spoke beautifully to me of my trip to Washington. seemed to feel that I had been of great interest and had done fine work in behalf of our people.Emmeline B. Wells, Diary, 26 Mar. 1901 36
Relief Society women saw Joseph F. Smith as an ally in public affairs as well as church matters. When he set Wells apart as Relief Society general president, he “said to me I will come and see you and make some suggestions that will be helpful.”37
She felt a freedom to go to the office of the First Presidency for counsel:
Sister M. [Martha] H. Tingey and myself went to see the President this morning and we arre very well satisfied with the advicce received. We find President Smith feeels much as we do about the reform work” [EBW, Diary, 20 Jan. 1912;Tingey was general president of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association] Joseph F. Smith awarded her an honorary doctorate of letters from Brigham Young University on her birthday in February 1912. After enjoying a close association all during his presidency, she felt “greatly grieved” at his death and wrote an article of tribute for the Relief Society Magazine.Emmeline B. Wells Diary, 19 Nov. 1918; 38
Did Emmeline B. Wells live at the same time as Eliza R. Snow?
Sheree Bench: Yes, Emmeline was Relief Society corresponding secretary for President Eliza Snow and often traveled with her to Relief Society conferences and retrenchment meetings. Eliza was a generation older than Emmeline and in many ways she was her mentor.
The timing of the diaries publication has coincided with the publication of Eliza R. Snow’s discourses, so we now have easy access to the words of two of the most influential Latter-day Saint women of the 19th century.
Emmeline was at the meeting of Eliza R. Snow and Aurelia Spencer Rogers when the idea of a children’s organization was first discussed, which resulted in the establishment of Primary. It was also Eliza R. Snow who encouraged Emmeline to publish her poetry.
How is the story of 19th century Utah different if we exclude the voices of women?
Sheree Bench: Without the voices of 19th-century Utah women the historical picture is incomplete at best. These women were central to the church and to the community as they actively worked to establish Relief Societies, organizations for young ladies and children, retrenchment associations, and suffrage and press associations.
They were active in the medical community as doctors, nurses, and midwives, and they established and sat on the boards of the Deseret (now LDS) and Primary Children’s Hospitals.
How can the Emmeline B. Wells diaries benefit Latter-day Saints?
Cherry Silver: Through the diaries we view lived religion in Wells’s time period. Some actions are familiar to contemporary Latter-day Saints: Women offered help to those in need, the sick and dying. They nurtured their families and counseled their children. They also enjoyed good times—trips to the Great Salt Lake to bathe, dine, and dance.
Dedications of houses, observances of wedding anniversaries, ice cream socials, picnics, parties at the park, family dinners. They gathered from near and far for general conference twice yearly, loved good choir music, and attended the temple.
Some activities were peculiar to the times: visiting a sister imprisoned for not revealing the name of the father of her infant to protect him from being prosecuted for cohabitation. Wells slipping out after dark to visit her husband when he was on the Underground. Speaking or singing in tongues and asking a friend to interpret. Using their faith and authority to anoint and bless women preparing to give birth. Championing women’s most basic political rights.
My conclusions are that Latter-day Saint women took their privileges seriously. They extended respect to their husbands and priesthood leaders—and, in turn, were consulted by them.
Priesthood leaders knew the sisters were a driving economic force and put them in charge of major projects like grain, silk, and dress reform. Local women started a kindergarten movement, suggested the Primary Association, and for years ran a hospital and a woman’s commission store. They founded women’s clubs for self-improvement and chapters of genealogical societies. They welcomed visitors with national reputations to their city, always hoping to demonstrate that Latter-day Saints could be trusted to think and act for social good.
The Emmeline B. Wells diaries reveal the underlying feelings of the people in both prosperous times and difficult ones. Wells, as a thoughtful, articulate woman, lets her opinions be known in sometimes tender and often outspoken ways in these pages.
How has the Emmeline B. Wells diaries project impacted those who worked on them?
Sheree Bench: Emmeline has inspired me to do my part on behalf of women and to encourage the next generation to do the same. I love Emmeline’s vision of women’s potential. She believed in women and their ability to accomplish great things, and she recognized the necessity and importance of women’s involvement in a broad range of activities, from education, to journalism, to medicine, to politics.
She saw herself as a child of destiny. She felt she had a purpose in life, and she wanted to contribute. She didn’t start out immediately as the influential woman we’ve come to know. From an early age she had aspirations to be a great writer, but that work is done more in the private sphere.
She was a little tentative about public leadership in the beginning, but she was willing to work, beginning in her own ward Relief Society (13th Ward) as assistant secretary in 1870. She gained experience and confidence in writing and public speaking as she took on more responsibilities as head of the Relief Society grain storage project, secretary of Relief Society general presidencies, and editor of the Woman’s Exponent.
She ended up representing Latter-day Saint women in the halls of Congress. I think that’s inspiring to those who of us who may be hesitant to step forward because we’re unsure of our own abilities. Emmeline would say just be willing to step up, and the experience and confidence will come.
Cherry Silver: I feel I have a new set of friends revealed through the diaries whose perspectives on gospel living expand mine. From their efforts, I see better what it means to work out our salvation in a religious tradition. And how civic progress comes from achieving common goals within a community of people who may hold differing outlooks.
I realize that we all have a place in history. Wells wrote about the celebration of the Relief Society Jubilee on 17 March 1892. I had the chance to participate in the Sesquicentennial of the Relief Society on 17 March 1992 and help write its story. Fortunately, the tradition of action and accountability bridges from one century to another.39
- How did Emmeline B. Wells Testify of Joseph Smith?
- What Was the Relationship Between Emmeline Wells and Susan B. Anthony?
- What’s in the Relief Society General Board Minutes?
- The Discourses of Eliza R. Snow
- What Did Spencer W. Kimball Write About in His Journal?
- The Diaries of Emmeline B. Wells (Church Historian’s Press)
- Photos of Emmeline Wells (Church Historian’s Press)
- Emmeline B. Wells Chronology (Church Historian’s Press)
- Select Publications of Emmeline B. Wells (Church Historian’s Press)
- Read the Words of Two Early Latter-day Saint Women Leaders (Church Newsroom)
- “About,” Diaries of Emmeline B. Wells, Church Historians Press website.
- “Project History,” EBW Diaries, Church Historians Press website.
- “People,” EBW Diaries, Church Historians Press website
- EBW, Diary, 28 July 1894
- EBW, Diaries, 29 July 1902
- EBW, Diaries, 13 June 1888
- EBW, Diary, 1 July 1910
- EBW, Diary, 6 May 1894, fn. 2
- EBW, Diary, 13 January 1886
- EBW, Diary, 30 Jan. 1895
- EBW, Diary 2 Feb. 1895
- EBW, Diary, 27 Mar. 1908
- EBW, Diary, 5 – 7 Oct. 1901
- “Tribute Paid by Clubwomen,” Salt Lake Herald-Republican, 12 December 1915, 28.
- EBW, Diary, 29 May 1883
- EBW, Diary, 29 Nov. 1887
- EBW Diary, 2 and 3 Dec. 1887
- “The World’s Fair: Another Interesting Letter from Our Correspondent,” [Ashtabula News Journal May 23rd, 1893, copied] Woman’s Exponent, 15 June 1893, 21:177].
- EBW, Diary, 25 May 1893
- EBW Diary, 24 Jan. 1898
- EBW Diary, 21 Apr. 1900
- EBW Diary,1 and 16 Aug. 1909
- EBW, Diary, 2 Mar. 1901.
- EBW, Diary, 23-26 June 1888
- “Representative Women of the Convention,” Woman’s Exponent, 15 Mar. 1891, 140.
- EBW. Diary, 6 May 1900
- EBW, Diary, 28 Jan. 1908
- EBW, Diary, 14 Mar. 1902
- EBW, Diary, 1 Apr. 1918
- EBW, Diary, 27 June 1897
- EBW Diary, 14 Dec. 1899
- EBW Diary, 1 Oct. 1913
- EBW, Diary, 24 Feb. 1910
- EBW, Diary, 24 July 1894
- EBW, Diary, 7 June 1895
- EBW Diary, 26 Mar. 1901
- EBW, Diary, 1 Jan. 1911
- EBW, Diary, 19 Nov. 1918; Relief Society Magazine, January 1919
- Cherry B. Silver, “The Sesquicentennial, So What? An assessment a Quarter Century Afterward,” Journal of Mormon History (2022) 48 (4): 136-145.