Eliza R. Snow and Emmeline B. Wells were two of the most influential and articulate Latter-day Saint women of the 19th and early 20th century — and among the most prolific writers of their era.
Though both were physically petite, they were giants in the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Snow was a poet and a preacher, a plural wife of founder Joseph Smith and a defender of polygamy, the second president of the women’s Relief Society, a powerhouse at the pulpit and a champion of women.
Wells, a generation younger than Snow who looked to the older woman as a mentor, was a three-time wife, mother of five daughters, a writer and editor of the Woman’s Exponent, the Relief Society’s fifth general president, and, perhaps above all, a zealous advocate for suffrage and women’s rights.
It has taken years of painstaking work, combing through hundreds of sources, including 1,600 handwritten minute books and assorted newspapers, to find all Snow’s 1,276 speeches between 1840 and 1887. It took an equally long time deciphering cursive penmanship, transcribing writings, and tracking down every name mentioned (more than 2,000) in one of Wells’ 47 extant journals from 1844 to 1920.
On Thursday, the Church Historian’s Press announced it has completed the online publication of “The Discourses of Eliza R. Snow” and “The Diaries of Emmeline B. Wells.”
Researchers set out to create “a female Journal of Discourses” as a kind of parallel to the official “Journal of Discourses,” which is filled with male voices, Jennifer Reeder, Snow biographer and lead historian and editor of the “Discourses” project, said at a new conference in the Church History Library in downtown Salt Lake City.
Snow always encouraged other women, even young women, Reeder said, to “speak up and speak out.”
Sometimes, the female preacher spoke as many as three times a day. She often talked of church founder Joseph Smith, even lugging the minutes of the first Relief Society meeting with her, telling the sisters, Reeder said, that “the priesthood would never be fully organized until the Relief Society was.”
Latter-day Saint women in the Kanab Relief Society welcomed Snow and her counselors as “lady pioneers,” “mothers in Israel,” “as the elect lady and her counselors,” “president of all the feminine portion of the human race,” and as “leading priestesses.”
That dynamo leader traveled to many out-of-the-way Utah settlements that rarely had visitors from the capital. Reeder said. “Each time, she would look into their faces and fill them up with hope, rekindling their light. Each location would add to her understanding of the place of women in the kingdom.”
By the time she died in 1921, Wells was one of the last members who had met Smith and would “talk about her experience and testify of him,” said Lisa Olsen Tait, a historian manager and specialist in women’s history at the Church History Department. “So there was this great continuity between the pioneer generation of Eliza and the just younger generation. Emmeline would carry on these themes well into the 20th century.”
She lived during a “transformational time,” Tait said, between the end of polygamy and the push to join the rest of the nation.
The inexhaustible leader wrestled with what was crucial to hold onto from the past, Tait said, and what could be embraced going forward.
Through it all, Wells advocated for women — and, the researcher said, it was her faith that prompted her to do so.
“Historians of the past have been neglectful of woman, and it be the exception if she be mentioned at all,” the Exponent editor wrote in 1881. “And yet the future will deal more generously with womankind and the historians of the present age will find it very embarrassing to ignore woman in the records of the 19th century.”
Pay attention to the term “woman,” Tait said. This was Wells’ way of using “woman” as “the collective reflection of women in general.”
In the end, women’s history “is Latter-day Saint history,” Matt Grow, managing director of the Church History Department, said Thursday. “If we are to accurately understand our past, if we want to truly benefit from our history, we need to listen to women’s voices and take seriously women’s experiences.”
These collections, he said, will go a long way toward serving that purpose.