Question: Who is Eliza R. Snow, and what role did she play in the early days of the Church?
Answer: Eliza Roxcy Snow was born at Becket, Massachusetts, on January 21, 1804, the second of seven children born to Oliver and Rosella Leonora Pettibone Snow. Her parents were Baptists, although they were directly descended from Puritan stock of New England. In 1806 her parents moved to Mantua, Ohio. Here five more children were born, including her beloved brother Lorenzo, ten years younger than Eliza, who later became the fifth president of the Church.
In her childhood Eliza began writing poetry, and her great ability was soon recognized. Many of her early poems were of a patriotic nature. She was asked to write a requiem upon the deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who both died on July 4, 1826. In a sketch of her life she speaks of her patriotism: “... as I grew up to womanhood I fondly cherished a pride for the flag which so proudly waved over the graves of my brave and valiant ancestors.”
“What was Eliza R. Snow like? For one thing, she was precise and punctual. She was slightly above medium height and of a slender build;...The most striking feature of all [was] those wonderful eyes, deep, penetrating, full of meaning and intelligence, often illumined with poetic fire. They were indeed the windows of a noble soul...” (“Life and Letters of Eliza R. Snow Smith,” Juvenile Instructor, 1888)
When the Prophet Joseph Smith called at her parents’ home during the winter of 1830–31, Eliza had the opportunity to examine firsthand the principles of the gospel as taught by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She wrote in her journal that the Prophet had an “honest face,” and after careful investigation, she was baptized on April 5, 1835.
The year 1835 was a critical year in Eliza’s life, for with the publication of her beautiful poems, she had become famous and sought after. Her autograph album contains the priceless signatures of Queen Victoria of England, Charles Dickens, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Susan B. Anthony, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, to name but a few.
In January 1837 Eliza bade farewell to her family to join the Saints in Kirtland, Ohio. When Eliza arrived in Kirtland she boarded with the family of Joseph Smith and taught his daughter and nieces in a “select school for young ladies.” She was one of the first women schoolteachers in the Church, and it is noteworthy that the Prophet insisted that the girls be taught as well as the boys.
Eliza would move with the Saints to Far West, Missouri, during a period of bitter persecution. She suffered severely at the hands of the mob. Leaving Far West on a bitter cold winter day in 1838, she walked ahead of the teams in an effort to warm her freezing feet.
She found happiness being with the Saints in Nauvoo. When the Relief Society was organized in March 1842 by the Prophet Joseph, Eliza was appointed secretary. Emma Smith, wife of the Prophet, was Relief Society president.
Some of the most important events of Eliza’s life transpired in Nauvoo, Illinois. Her poetry was published in the Times and Seasons and she loved the new doctrine being taught by Joseph, including that of having a loving Heavenly Mother. She was not very receptive to plural marriage. She later wrote, “The subject was very repugnant to my feelings—-so directly was it in opposition to my educated prepossessions . . . As I increased in knowledge concerning the principle and design of plural marriage, I grew in love with it.” She was sealed on June 29, 1842, as a plural wife to the Prophet Joseph, “One of the most important circumstances of my life, I have never had cause to regret.” On June 27, 1844, he was martyred.
In 1845, she wrote the words of the poem, that later became the hymn, “O My Father.”
Eliza left Nauvoo in February 1846. This was the third time she had left a home for the sake of her beliefs. From the time she crossed the Mississippi until she arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, she attended the sick, assisted new mothers, wrote poems of consolation to those who lost loved ones on the trek west, and kept a daily journal. Brigham Young, who, solicitous of Eliza’s welfare, had married her in Nauvoo, arranged for her to travel with the Robert Peirce family and to live in the valley with his wife Clara Decker Young. That first winter Eliza and Clara shared a log room, about 18 feet square, roofed with willows and earth.
Exposure and hardship, coupled with lack of good food, had weakened Eliza, and she suffered with poor health for many years. But in May 1855, when the Endowment House was dedicated, President Young asked Eliza to preside over the sisters’ work there. She reminded him of her ill health and doubted if she would be physically able to do it. The President blessed her and told her that her health would improve if she would accept the call; she did accept, and almost immediately her health and strength returned.
Clarissa Young Spencer, a daughter of Brigham Young, wrote of Eliza R. Snow: “She always sat on Father’s [Brigham Young’s] right at the dinner table and also in the prayer room. He valued her opinion greatly and gave her many important commissions, especially in relation to the women’s organizations of the Church.”
Eliza oversaw the reestablishment and operation of ward relief societies from 1868-1880 in Salt Lake City. Eliza then served as the second General Relief Society President from 1880-1887, Emma Smith being the first. The Relief Society sent women to medical school, trained nurses, opened the Deseret Hospital, operated cooperative stores, promoted silk manufacture, saved wheat, and built granaries. Eliza was also instrumental in organizing the Retrenchment Society, under President Young’s direction. The organization began with Brigham Young’s daughters and spread throughout the Church, eventually becoming an organization devoted to the young women of the Church.
At a conference of some 6,000 women in Salt Lake City on January 13, 1870, Eliza made a speech: “Our enemies pretend that, in Utah, woman is held in a state of vassalage—that she does not act from choice, but by coercion. What nonsense! I will now ask of this assemblage of intelligent ladies, Do you know of any place on the face of the earth, where woman has more liberty and where she enjoys such high and glorious privileges as she does here as a Latter-day Saint? No!!” Before another month had elapsed, the Utah Territorial legislature passed a bill giving suffrage to women.
In 1872-1873, Eliza went on a mission to Palestine, with her brother Lorenzo, to witness the rededication of that land for the return of Jews.
On Monday morning, December 5, 1887, Eliza died. She wasn’t ill with any special disease, just old age--nearly 84 years. She had requested that no black be worn at her funeral, and the Assembly Hall on Temple Square was decked in beautiful white draperies and white flowers. At her death, she was one of the reknown women in the Utah Territory at that time.
She is buried in the Mormon Pioneer Memorial Monument in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah, sometimes known as the Brigham Young Cemetery.
Sources: Ensign, September 1973, “Eliza R. Snow” by Jaynann Morgan Payne; Joseph Smith Papers; Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Towards a Better Understanding