A mere slip of a girl, born in February of 1828, Emmeline Blanche Woodward made a remarkable place for herself, both in the early history of the LDS Church and in the women’s rights movement, by the sheer force of her intelligence, her indefatigable spirit and her faith.
Emmeline received her teaching certificate at the age of 14, joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints along with her mother and younger sisters. Then married her sweetheart, James Harris, the branch president’s son, when they were both just 15!
Bold in her loyalty to the new church her friends derided, Emmeline was delighted at the prospect of traveling with James and his parents to Nauvoo, leaving her family and her teaching position in Orange, Mass., to join with the main body of Saints. After a month-long trip, their boat touched on the upper landing at Nauvoo, and among the group gathered along the banks to meet them was Brother Joseph, himself. The young girl recognized him for what he was at once. "His majestic bearing, so entirely different from anyone I had ever seen, was more than a surprise ... The one thought that filled my soul was, I have seen the prophet of God," she wrote.
With a mature perception, she recorded priceless insights, the following but a fragment: "He was beyond my comprehension. The power of God rested upon him to such a degree that on many occasions he seemed transfigured. His expression was mild and almost childlike in repose; and when addressing the people, who loved him it seemed to adoration, the glory of his countenance was beyond description."
How brief were the young wife’s days of joy and anticipation! Two months later the Prophet Joseph and his brother, Hyrum, met a martyr’s death, and the world of the Saints was in chaos. Among the many who faltered and left the faith were James’ parents, who attempted to persuade the young couple to return to the East with them. But Emmeline had just given birth to their son, and the two desired to remain — only to experience, a brief five weeks later, the bitter anguish of their baby’s death.
Frightened and uncertain, James went up the river to secure some kind of employment with which to support them, but he never returned. After months of agonized waiting and watching, Emmeline agreed to become the plural wife of Newel K. Whitney. She was two weeks shy of 17.
She carried the anguish of her double loss with her, but she knew how to endure and go on with gratitude.
Her first daughter was born in a wagon, in the midst of a wild winter storm. Her second daughter was only five weeks old when Bishop Whitney died on Sept. 23, 1850, leaving her a widow at 22.
“For truth is ofttimes strange,” wrote Lord Byron, “stranger than fiction.”
Emmeline proved the saying true when, in 1852, she approached Daniel H. Wells, a dear friend of her husband and asked him to consider the lonely state of his friend’s wife and marry her. Wells had six other families, was mayor of Salt Lake and counselor to Brigham Young. He kindly welcomed her into his circle, but he had little time for her, and her life continued to be one of loneliness and struggle.
But, she moved forward; she had too much to give to sit still!
She represented Utah women in the National Woman Suffrage Association for nearly 30 years, lobbying in Washington, D.C., for statehood for Utah, met with several presidents in the White House and represented American women in international conferences — even having the opportunity of meeting Queen Victoria in London in 1899. She gave all the energy of her creative soul as editor of the Woman’s Exponent for 37 years, accepted Brigham’s challenge to head an effort to save and store thousands of bushels of wheat, which were largely used for relief during and after World War I. President Woodrow Wilson, visiting Salt Lake in 1919, paid her a personal visit in her rooms in the Hotel Utah to thank her for her work.
Emmeline wrote the hymn “Our Mountain Home So Dear,” published a book of outstanding poems and left her life’s record in 46 diaries!
Emmeline struggled with strong emotions and with more than her share of heartaches and trials, among them the death of two of her cherished daughters, and the loss of her little home: the one thing she had clung to through all the years, planting lovely gardens and orchards that were dear to her.
While she was yet a young woman, Bishop Whitney had prophesied of the great work she would do in her life, so she clung tight to the faith that reminded her of her Heavenly Father’s awareness of her.
In her later years, she was rewarded by a close, tender relationship with Daniel Wells and — in 1910, at the age of 82 — by the call as general president of the Relief Society. She was forward-looking and innovative, and during her administration the motto “Charity Never Faileth” was adopted.
After 11 years of service, in April 1921, Emmeline had just turned 93 and was released by President Heber J. Grant, only to suffer a stroke and die three weeks later. On April 29, the flags in Utah were flown at half staff — one of the first time ever in honor of a woman in the state.
We but skim the surface of this remarkable life that reads like a story! But Emmeline did not live it as a story — she faced it and triumphed in it one challenge after another, one day at a time.
“Her mind is keen, her intellect sure, her powers unbending,” wrote Susa Young Gates. “She possesses a rarely beautiful spirit ... is an eloquent speaker, a beautiful writer ... is exquisitely pure — no unclean thing could enter her presence or remain in her atmosphere. She is beloved by all who dwell in the church, all who know her and their name is legion.”
Sources: “Musings and Memories,” poetry of Emmeline B. Wells. George Q. Cannon & Sons Co., 1896; "Emmeline B. Wells 1910-1921” from "Elect Ladies," by Janet Peterson and LaRene Gaunt, Shadow Mountain Publishers, 1990, GospeLink; “Emmeline B. Wells: Romantic Rebel”, from "Supporting Saints: Life Stories of Nineteenth-Century Mormons," by David J. Whittaker and Donald Q. Cannon, Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1985; “Emmeline B. Wells,” by Carol Cornwall Madsen, BYU Studies, vol. 22 (1982), GospeLink; “President Emmeline B. Wells,” by Susa Young Gates, Improvement Era, 1921, GospeLink; “Believing In the Light After Darkness: Emmeline B. Wells” by Elaine L. Jack, in "Heroines of the Restoration," edited by Blythe Darlyn Thatcher and Barbara B. Smith, Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1997, GospeLink; "Representative Women of Deseret: Emmeline B. Wells,” MormonWomenHistory.org;“The West: Emmeline B. Wells,” PBS.org; “Emmeline B. Wells,” Wikipedia.com; “Emmeline B. Wells, Diary Excerpts,” GospeLink; “Emmeline B. Wells” from "They Knew the Prophet," by Hyrum L. Andrus and Helen Mae Andrus, Bookcraft, 1974, pp. 156-158.
Susan Evans McCloud is author of more than 40 books and has published screenplays, poetry and lyrics, including two songs in the LDS hymnbook. She has six children. She blogs at susanevansmccloud.blogspot.com.