Of course, back then it wasn't called the Church Welfare Program. When it began in 1876, it was the Relief Society wheat project, and it stayed as the Relief Society wheat project until it was incorporated into the church welfare program in 1978.
Technically, the Church Welfare Program was implemented church wide in 1935 by Harold B Lee and inaugurated in 1936 by David O McKay. However, I am still counting Emmeline Wells a founder of the Church Welfare Program because the programs she implemented had already been doing much of the Church Welfare Program's work for decades.
Brigham Young had been agitating for a wheat storage program for years. The problem? He couldn't get a fire under the men to do it. Consequently, in 1876, he asked Emmeline Wells to organize the grain storage programs. And let me tell you, Emmeline Wells was a woman who got things done.
At the beginning, the women had complete autonomy over the wheat program. Relief Society sisters began by gleaning from existing wheat fields, then used that money to buy their own fields. They controlled their own fields. They built their own granaries. They decided when to sell their wheat. They decided how to use the money. As time went on, the program's autonomy dwindled, but in its early history, it was fully the Relief Society's project.
The Relief Society used their wheat and their money from its sales to bless the world. Their wheat fed survivors of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, and their donation to the US Government to assist in the war-time efforts was so gratefully received by President Woodrow Wilson that he arranged a personal visit to Wells to thank her for the society's donation. After Wells' death, the Relief Society used wheat money to finance maternity hospitals.
Emmeline Wells also beat the Church Welfare program to the punch in its employment training and efforts to encourage members to live welfare principles. In 1919, under her leadership, the Relief Society Social Services Department worked with wards and stakes to help women find employment and provided six week training programs in family welfare.
Although she died before its organization, what do you think about when you think about the Church Welfare Program? The iconic grain silo on Welfare Square? Emmeline Wells started the church's grain storage program. Sending aid to countries impacted by natural disasters, or other forms of distress? Emmeline Wells was already doing that. Educating members about welfare principles and helping members find employment opportunities? Emmeline Wells did it earlier. Church Family Services program? Emmeline Wells was doing part of that, too – the Relief Society Social Services Department also did adoption placement. Wells had already demonstrated the power of a centralized force of faithful members that want to do good.
Wells was a woman of remarkable talent and drive, and I'm grateful for the programs she implemented.
Sources:LDS Women of God: Relief Society Wheat Project
Daughters in My Kingdom
Daughters in My Kingdom
Emmeline B. Wells: A Fine Soul Who Served, by Carol Cornwall Madsen.