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Emmeline B. Wells and the Relief Society Grain Saving Movement

By Emily Peterson, Better Days Research Assistant


Image of a brick building from the 1880s.

A granary built by the Relief Society in Ephraim, Utah, one of the few that still stands today. It’s used as a local art center. Credit: Granary Arts Center.

Beginning in 1876, members of the Relief Society, the women’s organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, began a mass effort to grow and store grain. Emmeline B. Wells, editor of the Relief Society magazine The Exponent, wrote an article encouraging women to grow wheat as a way to prepare for potential future disasters. Women across the state of Utah eagerly pitched in, using their own funds to build granaries, buy seeds, and harvest the grain.

Wells would help oversee efforts to store grain, with each congregation often forming its own committee to coordinate local efforts. Little did the Relief Society know that their program would assist not only their fellow Utahns but soldiers and civilians overseas!

Seal of the Relief Society with grains of wheat in the borders.

Relief Society seal in 1942 with heads of wheat.

During the program’s early years, the Relief Society used its wheat supply to feed the poor, assist farmers during times of drought, and even sent some to China when people there were experiencing a difficult famine. For many, the wheat program became central to the mission of the Relief Society, which would adopt wheat as one of its official symbols.

 The outbreak of World War I in 1914 caused a shortage of wheat globally, as farms in Europe were disrupted by fighting, and countries including the U.S. tried to prioritize providing grain for their troops.

Several people including a man in a top hat in a car with a U.S. flag draped over it.

President Woodrow Wilson and his wife, Edith (L) in Salt Lake City, 1919.

Emmeline B. Wells and other Relief Society women saw this moment as an opportunity to utilize the resources they had put so much effort into preserving. Drawing on the Relief Society supply, the Church sold over 200,000 bushels (enough to cover 43 basketball courts) to the United States government to assist with the war effort. The massive donation earned Emmeline B. Wells a personal visit from President Woodrow Wilson after the end of the war, who thanked her for the Relief Society’s willingness to support the country during its time of need.

In addition to their efforts to save grain, Relief Societies across Utah worked to assist with the war effort during what was known as the “Great War.” Relief Society members grew food for emergency shelters, shared tips on adjusting to food rationing, donated funds to assist relief efforts, invested in Liberty bonds, and prepared sheets, clothes, towels, and other supplies for hospitals, soldiers, and refugees affected by the war. One ward in Roosevelt Utah even won a prize for growing over 39,000 pounds of potatoes! 

Emmeline B. Wells writing at a desk.

Emmeline B. Wells, c. 1915–1920. LDS Church History Library.

Relief Society leaders took the lead in many of the state’s war efforts. Clarissa S. Williams, as head of the Utah Council of National Defense Women’s Committee, rallied Utah women in food production and conservation, loan campaigns, fund drives, sanitation, and child welfare work. The Relief Society Magazine published articles related to food conservation and the war effort. Amy Brown Lyman, another future Relief Society general president, was appointed by the governor to serve as an official Utah delegate to the 1917 National Conference of Social Work, where the Federal War Department and American Red Cross led discussions about addressing the needs of military families affected by the war.

After the war, the Relief Society was one of the driving organizations to expand charity work in Utah, including establishing social work programs and temporary shelters for women and immigrants. The decades of work by Emmeline B. Wells to organize Latter-day Saint women’s grain-saving efforts ultimately developed into an expansive welfare program and shaped the mission of the Relief Society organization.

Emily Peterson recently graduated from BYU with a degree in history.

Sources

Sisters Be in Earnest,” Woman’s Exponent, Oct. 15, 1876, 5:76. 

“The Grain Question,” Woman’s Exponent, Nov. 1, 1876, 5:81. 

Annie Wells Cannon, et. al., “A Brief History of the Grain Storing by the Women of Zion,” letter to the First Presidency, April 3, 1906, LDS Church History Library, First Presidency Administrative Files, Relief Society, CR 1 169, p. 32-59.

“Grain Saving in the Relief Society,” and “The Mission of Saving Grain,” Relief Society Magazine 2, no. 2 (Feb. 1915): 47–52.

“Church Wheat Taken Over By Government,” Box Elder News Journal , 24 May 1918, 1.

“President and Mrs. Wilson Make Informal Call on Aged Leader, Aunt Em Wells,” Deseret Evening News, 24 September 1919, p.11.

Carol Cornwall Madsen, “Emmeline B. Wells: A Voice for Mormon Women,” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal, vol. 2 (1982), pp. 11-21.

Hefner, Loretta L. “This Decade Was Different: Relief Society’s Social Services Department, 1919-1929.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15, no. 3 (1982): 64-73.