Emmeline B. Woodward Wells

Fifth General President
of the Relief Society

1910–1921


 

Emmeline B. Woodward Wells

Emmeline B. Wells, fifth general president of the Relief Society, had a testimony that the Relief Society had been organized by revelation. “We do declare,” she said, “it our purpose to keep intact the original name and initial spirit and purpose of this great organization, holding fast to the inspired teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith when he revealed that plan by which women were to be empowered through the calling of the priesthood to be grouped into suitable organizations for the purpose of ministering to the sick, assisting the needy, comforting the aged, warning the unwary and succoring the orphans.”1

In 1876 President Brigham Young put Emmeline in charge of a grain-saving program in which Relief Society sisters worked together to procure and store grain. Over the years, Relief Society sisters were able to share their wheat with those in need. Recipients included drought victims in southern Utah, earthquake survivors in California, and people of China who were suffering from a famine.2 The Relief Society also sold over 200,000 bushels of wheat to the U.S. government during World War I.3

Emmeline knew that there was much to be learned from the Relief Society’s early members. “It is [my] strongest desire that our young women of today be made to comprehend the work of the early members who,” she said, “without the facilities of the present time, comforted the sad and distressed, visited the widow and fatherless, and were like ministering angels.”4

To capture the inspired origins and founding principles of the society, Sister Wells and her counselors chose the scriptural declaration “Charity never faileth”5 for the Relief Society motto. The motto became especially meaningful as, within years of its announcement, World War I began. During this time, sisters responded to Emmeline’s urgings for charity by being kind to friends and enemies alike, volunteering in community efforts, and seeking the pure love of Christ.

Early Life

Born February 29, 1828, Emmeline Blanche Woodward was born to David and Diadama Hare Woodward of Petersham, Massachusetts. She was the seventh of nine children. Clearly an intelligent young woman with aspirations of becoming a writer, Emmeline was the only sibling afforded a private education. She earned her teaching certificate. At the age of 14, she joined the Church. Her mother and three youngest sisters had also accepted the gospel.

Marriage and Family

Emmeline married James Harvey Harris on July 29, 1843. The couple moved to Nauvoo, where their first child died. James left to look for work and did not return, and she had to earn an income by teaching school. On February 17, 1845, she became a plural wife of Newel K. Whitney and later crossed the plains with his family. When Bishop Whitney died in 1850, Emmeline was once again left to take care of herself. She turned again to teaching. On October 10, 1852, she became the seventh wife of Daniel H. Wells. She had five daughters, two of whom she outlived. Emmeline died on April 29, 1921.

Highlights of Service

Emmeline was one of Utah’s greatest leaders of women’s suffrage, which encompassed religious freedom. “I desire to do all in my power to help elevate the condition of my own people, especially women,” she wrote.6 “I have desired with all my heart to do those things that would advance women in moral and spiritual as well as educational work and tend to the rolling on of the work of God upon the earth.”7 In 1877 Emmeline became the editor of the Woman’s Exponent, a newspaper written for the benefit of Latter-day Saint women. For 37 years she made her voice and that of LDS women heard across the country. Emmeline was 82 years old when she was called to be general president of the Relief Society. She served for 11 years, until shortly before her death.


Notes

  1. Emmeline B. Wells, Clarissa S. Williams, and Julina L. Smith, “Resolutions of Relief Society,” Woman’s Exponent, Nov. 1913, 79.
  2. See Jill Mulvay Derr, Janath Russell Cannon, and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society (1992), 165–66.
  3. See “Church Wheat to Be Turned Over to Government,” Deseret Evening News, May 20, 1918, 1.
  4. Relief Society Bulletin, May 1914, 3.
  5. 1 Corinthians 13:8; Moroni 7:46; see also General Board Minutes, 1842–2007, July 3, 1913, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.
  6. Diary of Emmeline B. Wells, Jan. 4, 1878, Harold B. Lee Library Special Collections, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah; punctuation standardized.
  7. Diary of Emmeline B. Wells, Aug. 1, 1895.

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