Madsen, “Emmeline B. Wells: An Intimate History” (reviewed by Gregory Kevin Seppi)


Title: Emmeline B. Wells: An Intimate History
Author: Carol Cornwall Madsen
Publisher: The University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, Utah
Genre: Biography
Year: 2017
Pages: 548
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN-13: 978-1-60781-523-5
Price: $49.95 Rating: 5 Stars

Reviewed by Gregory Kevin Seppi for the Association for Mormon Letters

Once in a while a reviewer receives a book that truly astonishes his or her expectations due to its author’s wit, depth of research, the book’s timeliness with regard to contemporary issues, and intriguing subject matter. This is just such a book. Author Carol Cornwall Madsen is “professor emerita of history at Brigham Young University”; she has written numerous articles and books on 19th and early 20th century LDS women. She previously authored An Advocate for Women: The Public Life of Emmeline B. Wells (2006). This book is essentially a companion volume to that one, providing a picture of Emmeline’s private life to contrast with her outpouring of public works, though one need not have read it to appreciate the work under review.

The field of Mormon women’s history is one of the most promising areas of Mormon studies today, and historians and bloggers alike would do well to pick up Carol Cornwall Madsen’s biography of Emmeline B. Wells. Rarely has a biographer in any field done more to reconstruct the life and experiences of their subjects than Madsen does here. Of course, few subjects have lent their biographers so much aid in reconstruction. Despite a significant gap in Emmeline B. Wells’ journals from 1846-1872, her 1844-45 and 1873-1920 diaries and substantial collections of correspondence provide numerous access points into Wells’ life.

With the possible exception of Wilford Woodruff and James E. Talmage, who both wrote extensive journals and whose writings and public utterances constitute essential records of the Church’s 19th (and, for Talmage, early 20th) century activities, precious few individuals have produced records more significant for our understanding of the actual experience of Mormons in the 19th and early 20th centuries than Emmeline B. Wells. Emmeline’s journals record her experiences in Nauvoo in the 1840s, the heartbreak she felt when her first husband abandoned her, her first polygamous marriage to Newel K. Whitney (who was essentially the presiding bishop of the church until his death in 1853), her experiences traveling to Utah with the Saints, her second polygamous marriage to Daniel H. Wells (a confidant of Brigham Young and later mayor of Salt Lake City), the struggles the Latter-day Saints faced in establishing settlements in Utah, Emmeline’s key position in the establishment of a strong woman’s rights and suffrage movement among LDS women, and her efforts to maintain the Woman’s Exponent, the main journal for LDS women from 1872 until the advent of the Relief Society Magazine in 1915.

She served on the Relief Society General Board as the secretary for decades, and would later be called to serve as the 5th General President of the Relief Society in 1910. Even beyond these major events and contributions, Emmeline raised daughters, consoled grieving friends and neighbors during times of heartache, and exchanged correspondence with numerous associates. She was involved with the women’s suffrage movement from the late 1870s until her death, and also played an important role in securing the vote for women in Utah during the state’s constitutional convention in 1896.

Given the extent of her journals and her close association with early LDS leaders, it should come as no surprise that this thorough and carefully written appraisal of her life and efforts sheds a great deal of light on the complexities of 19th century Mormonism and life in Utah. As such, this book is not merely an excellent autobiography—it is a must-read for those who are interested in LDS history to any degree. Given Emmeline B. Wells’ extensive activities in association with the suffrage movement, it is also an important contribution to the history of women’s rights in the U.S., and readers interested in women’s history more than Mormon history will also find this book to be interesting.

Yet it is not only Madsen’s intensive research into Wells’ papers that makes this volume a must-buy for anyone even loosely interested in the history of Mormonism; Madsen’s style absolutely justifies the use of the word intimate in the book’s subtitle. Indeed, some critics may take issue with Madsen’s interpretive approach, which tends to put the reader in Wells’ shoes. The difficulty modern biographers face in writing history is that the illusion of the past constructed by an author who really gets into her subject’s head is at best a partial fiction, at worst self-deception and misrepresentation. Fortunately, such accusations in this case would completely fail to take into account the care with which Madsen reconstructs Emmeline’s history. Madsen often poses questions that may appear in the reader’s mind, demonstrating her own frustration with the limits of historical sources without violating the integrity of the historical record. For example, when she describes Emmeline’s month-long wait for a response to her marriage proposal to Daniel H. Wells, she writes:

“He considered it for a full month while Emmeline endured the torment of waiting. Did she avoid him at public events? Did she remain secluded? Did she disclose her actions or explain her feelings to anyone?” (p. 107; unless otherwise noted, all references are to the text under review).

Questions such as these may give some readers the sense that the intimacy noted in the title may apply just as well to the way Madsen addresses the reader. As I considered parallels to Madsen’s work, I think that David McCullough’s John Adams biography is possibly the cleanest comparison. Both are highly readable, get into their subjects’ heads, and provide insight into key historical moments and situations while providing a good deal of detail on their subjects’ private lives.

This is that rare Mormon book that anyone interested in the contours of social life in the 19th century could enjoy. While someone unfamiliar with Mormonism might struggle to connect all the historical trends and events occurring around Emmeline B. Wells, the quality of the writing and the truly “intimate” look into a significant LDS woman’s life would carry the reader through. Few historians have written as well or as much on Mormon history as author Carol Madsen, and in this work she does not disappoint in the least. Required reading for anyone associated with Mormon studies as well as researchers studying 19th century American religion more generally or women’s history, and certainly recommended for anyone who enjoys a good biography.

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