One of the editors of the Church's groundbreaking new book, The First Fifty Years of Relief Society, explained her sojourn through this incredible book, and the wonderful experience she has had reading over key Church documents and the histories of the remarkable women of the Church. In an article published on the Church History site, she shared these insights, along with a list of 10 Church leaders who helped shape the early days of the Relief Society, eight of who are women:
After having read and reread the documents in this collection numerous times over the course of two-plus years, I am left with deep feelings of awe and respect and love for many of the remarkable Latter-day Saint women and men I encountered in the documents. I have found the adjective “towering” useful in describing many of these figures because of their extraordinary energy, gifts, and dedication. . . .
As a way of introducing you to this book, I would like to share with you some information and observations about 10 fascinating people I met and was inspired by as I worked on the book (there are many hundreds of other interesting people I won’t be able to cover here). The summaries I share here are like snapshots from a trip. They give a glimpse of what I have learned but are no substitute for you undertaking your own journey through the pages of this remarkable new collection.
Emmeline B. Wells
Emmeline B. Wells, a gifted and incredibly productive writer, served as editor of the Woman’s Exponent, a Mormon women’s newspaper, from 1877 until the paper was discontinued in 1914. She advocated prominently for women’s suffrage and women’s rights and held many positions in national women’s organizations. Beginning in 1876, Wells also led the Church’s grain storage program, which was designed as a protection against possible food shortages.
Eventually the effort culminated in the sale of over 200,000 bushels of Relief Society wheat to the U.S. government during World War I, when Wells was serving as Relief Society general president. While personal lives are not the focus of The First Fifty Years, it is noteworthy that many of the women mentioned in this gallery lived in a wide variety of family situations, many of which were severely challenging. Emmeline B. Wells’s first husband, James Harris, deserted her within two years of the marriage.
She then married Newel K. Whitney, a man more than 30 years her senior, as a plural wife. He died five years later, in 1850, leaving her with two young daughters. Two years later she married Daniel H. Wells, who held several demanding community and Church positions and already had six other wives. Emmeline experienced profound loneliness in this marriage, as she and Daniel rarely saw each other until the very last years of Daniel’s life. Daniel died in 1891; Emmeline lived another three decades.
The variety and complexity of the challenges faced by these women shows that living the gospel does not immunize us from hardship but can strengthen us in adversity and unite us regardless of individual circumstances. In 1881, Emmeline B. Wells combined a harsh critique of contemporary historical writing with a stunning prediction: “History tells us very little about women; judging from its pages, one would suppose their lives were insignificant and their opinions worthless. . . . Volumes of unwritten history yet remain, the sequel to the written lives of brave and heroic men. But although the historians of the past have been neglectful of woman, and it is the exception if she be mentioned at all; yet the future will deal more generously with womankind, and the historian of the present age will find it very embarrassing to ignore woman in the records of the nineteenth century.” This new book on Mormon women’s history is undoubtedly one fulfillment of Wells’s prediction.
Lead image from history.lds.org.
Find out more about the incredible women in the Church from The First Fifty Years of the Relief Society.