The Emmeline B. Wells Diaries

Emmeline B. Wells is a crucial figure in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She was a leader in the Church as a Relief Society president, an advocate for women’s suffrage, a noted periodical editor, an early settler in Utah, etc. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Cherry Silver and Sheree Bench discussed the Emmeline B. Wells diaries that the Church Historian’s Press has published online.

First off, the interview shares some information about who Wells was and why she was notable:

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.

So, she is a very notable figure in late 19th century Mormonism and beyond.

Now, the interview is about the diaries that Emmeline left behind and which have been transcribed and published. The publication of the diaries is the culmination of years of effort by a few different individuals:

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.

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.

A lot of effort went into making the publication of the diaries a reality.

The Emmeline Wells diaries are significant and useful in a number of ways. As explained in the interview:

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). …

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.

As both a history maker and a historian, her diaries open a view into the lived experience of Latter-day Saints in her lifetime.

For more information about the Emmeline B. Wells diaries, including some insight into the ideas and beliefs that led Wells to fight for women’s rights,  head on over to the Latter-day Saint blog From the Desk to read the full interview.