On February 29, 1828, a baby girl was born in Petersham, Massachusetts. She was the seventh child of David and Diadama Woodward. Named Emmeline, the child soon showed a talent for writing and a desire to learn, so her parents enrolled her in grammar school. Even after Emmeline’s father died, her mother made sure that Emmeline attended school. Later Diadama remarried, and the family moved to nearby New Salem. This move benefited Emmeline greatly. There her mother was able to raise the money needed for tuition to send Emmeline to a good private school, the New Salem Academy.
While Emmeline was away at school, an elder from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came to New Salem and converted several people. Among them were Emmeline’s mother, her two younger sisters, and a half brother. When Emmeline returned home from school, her mother encouraged her to join the Church too. Despite the objections of Emmeline’s friends and her older brothers and sisters, she was baptized in the Old Morse Creek on March 1, 1842.
After finishing school, Emmeline began teaching in Orange, Massachusetts, for $1.50 a week. However, her teaching career was soon cut short. Fearing that her daughter, standing alone, might not be able to withstand the persecutions against the Church, Diadama arranged a quick marriage in July 1843 between Emmeline and James Harris, a son of the local branch president. The youngsters were both fifteen years old at the time.
In April 1844 Emmeline left Massachusetts with her husband and his family for Nauvoo, Illinois. Upon their arrival in Nauvoo, Emmeline had the privilege of meeting and shaking the hand of the Prophet Joseph Smith, who was cruelly martyred just a few months later.
Times were hard for the Saints, and James’s parents wanted to leave the Church. They entreated their son and his pregnant wife to join them, but the young couple refused. Emmeline and James’s child, a son, was born in September 1844, but he died several weeks later. After losing their child, James left to find work and never returned.
Grieving and alone at the age of sixteen, Emmeline decided to remain in Nauvoo and teach school. She became acquainted with Bishop Newel Whitney, and on February 14, 1845, they were married. In 1848, Emmeline traveled with Newel and his family to Salt Lake City, Utah. Within two weeks of their arrival in the Valley, Emmeline gave birth to a girl.
After living in Salt Lake Valley for two years, Newel died. Once again Emmeline was left alone, and again she turned to teaching. She taught sixty-five children in a log house without desks, blackboard, or books.
Emmeline’s teaching career ended in October 1852 when she married Daniel H. Wells, a prominent Church leader, who later served as a counselor to Brigham Young for twenty years. Daniel and Emmeline had three daughters, and Emmeline was a devoted wife and mother. Secure in her marriage, Emmeline was able to use many of her talents, especially her writing. She wrote letters and poems to friends and relatives. Writing had become for her a “solace in times of trouble and sorrow, something to turn to for relief, and in a way a pasttime.”
Emmeline’s talent for writing soon led her to contribute to the Woman’s Exponent. Later she became its assistant editor and then editor in 1877. She served as an editor for almost forty years. This nationally recognized publication was the second woman’s magazine to be created in the United States and the first one in the West.
While editor of the Woman’s Exponent, Emmeline felt that its major purpose was to educate women about all subjects and to encourage them to be active in public affairs, particularly politics. Women were encouraged to write their thoughts down and to submit them to the magazine.
Through her work Emmeline became known to the national leaders of the suffrage movement. In Utah she was elected vice president of the Women’s Suffrage Association. Emmeline became a personal friend of Susan B. Anthony and corresponded with her regularly. She attended several conventions in Washington, D.C., and met several presidents of the United States, never passing up an opportunity to speak out for women’s right to vote. In an interview with the associated press in Washington, D.C., she said, “For one, I am proud of Utah’s record in dealing with her female citizens. I look forward with eager hope to the day when woman suffrage shall become universal.”
President Brigham Young also knew the power of the written word and the importance of women in the Church. In September 1876 he met with Emmeline in his office and said to her: “I want to give you a mission, and it is to save grain. … I want the sisters to save the grain and I want. … you to begin by writing the strongest editorial that you can possibly write upon this subject.”
In 1876 Emmeline’s first editorial encouraging all women to save wheat appeared in the Woman’s Exponent. A central grain committee was established with Emmeline as chairman. Money was raised to buy wheat, fields were gleaned, and wheat was saved. Children helped the sisters too. During the first year of the program over 10,000 bushels of grain were saved! In subsequent years the wheat was given to the poor as well as to people in southern Utah who suffered from a drought. Flour was sent to San Francisco after the earthquake and fire in 1906, and a year later China received help from the Church during a famine. During World War I, the Relief Society sold more than one hundred thousand bushels of wheat to the United States government.
Emmeline wrote several songs, including “Our Mountain Home So Dear.” In 1896 she published a book of her poems entitled Musings and Memories. She also wrote for the Deseret News, Juvenile Instructor, Millennial Star, and national newspapers and magazines. Emmeline founded two literary societies in Utah.
No matter what Emmeline was doing in her life she always felt that she was serving the Church. At the age of eighty-two Emmeline was called to be the fifth general president of the Relief Society. She served faithfully in that capacity for eleven years. In 1921, three weeks after her release as president, Emmeline died. For the first time in Utah, flags were flown at half-staff to honor a woman—Emmeline B. Wells.