What Eliza R. Snow and Emmeline B. Wells learned about unity and persistence amid hardship in late 19th century

About six weeks after Eliza R. Snow’s death, Emmeline B. Wells had a dream of being with Eliza and others in her room in the Lion House in Salt Lake City, Utah. 

“She said to me, after asking us all to kneel down around her bed, Sister Wells I want you to be mouth in prayer,” Emmeline wrote in her diary on Jan. 14, 1888

“I began to pray very earnestly, when she impressed me without speaking by her manner and presence to pray for mighty faith, that the sick might be healed and great things done by the women of Zion.”

Cherry Silver, co-editor for the Emmeline B. Wells diaries project, said of this entry, “That was a motif Emmeline could live up to — let ‘great things be done by the women of Zion.’”

The Church Historian’s Press has recently announced the online publication of additional Eliza R. Snow discourses (October 1873-May 1875) and volumes of Emmeline B. Wells’ diaries (1881-1888). The first groups of Eliza’s discourses and Emmeline’s diaries were released earlier this year, and more will be added in the coming months and years. 

Eliza and Emmeline are known as some of the most influential Latter-day Saint women of their time. A renowned poet and prolific speaker, Eliza was the first secretary of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo and served as the second Relief Society general president from 1880 until her death in 1887. Two decades younger, Emmeline was a women’s rights activist and editor of the Woman’s Exponent who followed Eliza’s example in later serving as fifth Relief Society general president from 1910 until her death in 1921. 

The latest release of Eliza’s discourses and Emmeline’s diaries provide insight into their teachings, service and personal lives as they strive for unity and to let “great things be done by the women of Zion.”

Eliza R. Snow discourses: October 1873-May 1875

When this newly published group of discourses begins in October 1873, Eliza is back home in Salt Lake City after an extended voyage to Europe and the Middle East. 

Studio portrait of Eliza R. Snow by Charles W. Carter, circa 1875.
Studio portrait of Eliza R. Snow by Charles W. Carter, circa 1875. Credit: Church History Library

“She comes back from that trip with a much wider view of the world but also with a narrow concept of what Latter-day Saints are and should be,” said Jenny Reeder, 19th century women’s history specialist in the Church History Department. This concept is apparent in her discourses as she makes “a sharp distinction” between the responsibilities of Latter-day Saints and the rest of the world. 

As the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 brought increased outside influences, President Brigham Young was concerned about the Saints remaining self-reliant and staying out of debt. 

“Eliza talks a lot about that, about ‘home industry’ and the importance of women and children and youth learning how to braid their straw hats and make their own clothes,” Reeder said. Eliza often referred to the efforts of the United Order, an economic system encouraging Saints to pool their labor and income to be self-sufficient and work together to provide for all members. 

Cooperation and unity between women and men was another theme in Eliza’s discourses. She told Relief Society sisters in Grantsville, Utah, on Sept. 16, 1874, “In this Church and Kingdom there was no such thing as dividing the interests of Man and Woman[,] that they were identical[,] that they are coworkers in this Church for the building up of the same and strengthening of each other.”

Who was Eliza R. Snow? Read her discourses to learn how she empowered women

Not only did the Relief Society leader emphasize connection and collaboration between women and men but also women and heaven.

“She often mentions the presence of angels in the Relief Society meetings and explains to the women that they can tap into this amazing power of divinity,” Reeder said. “She really encourages women to collaborate with God as well as with men. And I think that is significant. I think she’s trying to empower women to receive revelation and to act on it.” 

Reeder noted that similar ideas can be found in recent general conference messages from President Russell M. Nelson and Relief Society General President Jean B. Bingham — who have encouraged women to increase their understanding of priesthood power and men and women to be united in accomplishing God’s work

In addition to the connection between women and men and women and heaven, Eliza’s example — especially in later years as she worked with fellow leaders like Emmeline — can teach Latter-day Saint women today about unity between “woman and woman,” Reeder said. 

Though Eliza and Emmeline were 24 years apart, came from different generations and had different points of view, “I think Eliza recognized Emmeline’s strengths and Emmeline recognized Eliza’s strengths, and they worked together in a way that those strengths could be collaborative.”

Emmeline B. Wells’ diaries: 1881-1888

Jumping forward about five years from the end of the newly published group of Eliza’s discourses, this new section of Emmeline’s diaries begins in 1881 as she continues to advocate for women on local and national levels. 

Official Relief Society portrait of Emmeline B. Wells, fifth Relief Society general president. Painting by Lee Greene Richards.
Official Relief Society portrait of Emmeline B. Wells, fifth Relief Society general president. Painting by Lee Greene Richards. Credit: Church History Museum

The way Emmeline responds to political turmoil and personal loss during this time shows her characteristic persistence, as well as her “loyalty to the Church and her people” and “faith that God would guide them,” Silver said.

As Latter-day Saints faced political pressure for practicing polygamy, Emmeline was sent to talk with Rose Cleveland, sister of U.S. President Grover Cleveland, in Washington D.C. in 1886, and she later joined Dr. Ellen B. Ferguson to personally present to President Cleveland a memorial from the women of Utah. 

However, the Church’s political efforts were unsuccessful, as the 1887 Edmunds-Tucker Act disenfranchised Utah women and men involved in plural marriage. Emmeline’s efforts would now turn to statehood.

Read more: Emmeline B. Wells’ diaries give insight to women’s suffrage movement

On the personal front, Emmeline’s youngest daughter, Louie Wells Cannon, died unexpectedly in May 1887. Not long after, Emmeline lost her home of 30 years when her husband, Daniel H. Wells, sold it to pay his debts. 

“In January of 1888, she’s going through boxes in her attic and sorting things out and looking at mementos of her now two deceased daughters. It’s a time for weeping and sadness. But she doesn’t let it show on the outside,” Silver said.

“She says, ‘I have to press on. People don’t know the pain I’m suffering inside. But you just get back to work and carry forth.’”

Emmeline B. Wells lived in this two-story home at 243 State Street (or First East), Salt Lake City, between 1856 and 1888. She entertained many friends in the home, including friends of her daughters, and the Wasatch Literary Association was formed here.
Emmeline B. Wells lived in this two-story home at 243 State Street (or First East), Salt Lake City, between 1856 and 1888. She entertained many friends in the home, including friends of her daughters, and the Wasatch Literary Association was formed here. Credit: Church History Library

Emmeline found hope as she developed her relationship with her husband, who became president of the Manti Utah Temple following its dedication in May 1888. She arranged time to go down and stay with Daniel, and they discussed literature, culture and life experiences. He encouraged her to take time to go to the temple, which proved to be a “soul-healing experience for her,” Silver said. 

Amid the personal trials Emmeline faced, she also lost her friend Eliza, who died on Dec. 5, 1887, at the age of 83. She later wrote of Eliza on her 105th birthday: “One of the greatest women of this dispensation[,] a poet, a writer, an author … a special friend of mine.”

Transcripts of Emmeline’s diaries and Eliza’s discourses can be found on churchhistorianspress.org