“Eliza R. Snow: First Lady of the Pioneers,” Ensign, Sept. 1973, 62
Eliza Roxey Snow looked up from the letter she was carefully composing and stared thoughtfully out the window of her room in the Beehive House. Her deep brown eyes mirrored many reflections scenes of joy, of tribulation, of injustice, of love, of profound sorrow.
Many of the experiences Eliza had yearned for as a woman had been denied her or thwarted. Her beloved husband, the Prophet Joseph Smith, had been cruelly murdered after only two short years of marriage. She had never been blessed with a home or children of her own. All the love and wisdom her heart had stored up had burst into the flame of a poetic fire that inspired and comforted the Saints of her day and of future generations. She clothed her profound theology in verse.
Eliza picked up her pen and continued her letter to Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightener in Minersville, Utah: “Change is the key word to this dispensation. The righteous, like gold, must be seven times purified.”
These words could be a theme of her life, for sorrow and tribulation were no strangers to Eliza; they only refined and ennobled this remarkable woman.
In 1866, when the Relief Society was reorganized, Eliza was set apart as president over the entire sisterhood of the Church. She received many letters from officers in ward Relief Societies, asking about their duties and responsibilities. In 1869, in answer to such a letter, she wrote these words to Mary Lightener:
“Tell the sisters to go forth and discharge their duties in humility and faithfulness and the Spirit of God will rest upon them, and they will be blest in their labors. Let them seek for wisdom instead of power and they will have all the power they have wisdom to exercise!!!”1
What was Eliza R. Snow like? For one thing, she was precise and punctual. She carried a large pocket watch on a gold chain and referred to it often during her busy day. She was meticulous and feminine, and she loved elegant, high-fashion clothes. But to do her greater justice, we should say hers is the portrait of a patriot.
“She was slightly above medium height and of a slender build; her bearing was at one graceful and dignified. Hers was a noble countenance, the forehead being unusually high and expansive and the features of a slightly Hebrew cast, exquisitely cut as those of an artistic specimen of the sculptor’s art. 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. Her conversation was charming, every word being distinctly articulated. … In speech and action she was thoughtful and deliberate. While of susceptible and delicate organism, and in every way womanly, she had great decision of character. So deep were her convictions and potent her sense of morality, that we believe she would more readily have surrendered her life than act in opposition to them.”2
Eliza R. 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. Eliza loved the Bible, and she yearned for the spiritual gifts manifested by the prophets and apostles. In 1806 her parents moved to Mantua, Portage County, Ohio. Here five more children were born, including her beloved brother Lorenzo, ten years younger than Eliza.
The Snow home was a hospitable haven for intelligent, cultured people of all denominations. In her early teens Eliza became acquainted with such noted religious reformers and scholars as Alexander Campbell and Sidney Rigdon. They took pains to help her in the study of the scriptures and theology, for she was a brilliant and avid pupil. An intelligent and eager young girl, Eliza also became proficient in the domestic arts, including needlework, millinery (she won a prize at a fair for her leghorn straw hats), and cooking.
In her childhood Eliza began writing poetry, and her great ability was soon recognized. Many of her early poems were of a patriotic nature. At the age of 22 she wrote “The Fall of Missolonghi,” recounting the battle between Greece and Turkey. Its publication led to fame, and she was asked to write a requiem upon the deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, former presidents of the United States who both died on July 4, 1826. In a sketch of her life she speaks of her patriotism:
“… I was born a patriot—at least a warm feeling of patriotism inspired my childish heart, and mingled in my earliest thoughts, as evinced in many of the earliest productions of my pen. …
“My grandfather on my mother’s side, when fighting for the freedom of our country, was taken prisoner by the British troops, and confined in a dreary cell, and so scantily fed, that when his fellow-prisoner by his side died from exhaustion, he reported him to the jailor as sick in bed, in order to obtain the amount of food for both. …
“This, with many similar narratives of revolutionary sufferings recounted by my grand-parents, so deeply impressed my mind, that 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.”3
“Prove all things and hold fast that which is good” was Eliza’s motto, and when the Prophet Joseph Smith called at her parents’ home during the winter of 1830–31, she 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. It proved to be the spiritual manifestation she had longed for all her life. She wrote in the “Sketch of My Life”:
“… I realized the baptism of the Spirit as sensibly as I did that of the water in the stream. I had retired to bed, and as I was reflecting on the wonderful events transpiring around me, I felt an indescribable, tangible sensation, if I may so call it, commencing at my head and enveloping my person and passing off at my feet, producing inexpressible happiness. Immediately following, I saw a beautiful candle with an unusual long, bright blaze directly over my feet. I sought to know the interpretation, and received the following: ‘The lamp of intelligence shall be lighted over your path.’ I was satisfied.”4
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, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Victor Hugo, Abraham Lincoln, John Greenleaf Whittier, 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, and then Far West, Missouri, during a period of bitter persecution by a savage 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. A member of the mob militia rode up and taunted her with: “Well, I think this will cure you of your faith!” Eliza replied, “No, sir, it will take more than this to cure me of my faith.”5
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. Her description of the Prophet is revealing:
“Again I had ample opportunity of judging of his daily walk and conversation, and the more I made his acquaintance, the more cause I found to appreciate him in his divine calling. His lips ever flowed with instruction and kindness; but, although very forgiving, indulgent and affectionate in his nature, when his godlike intuition suggested that the good of his brethren, or the interests of the kingdom of God demanded it, no fear of censure, no love of approbation, could prevent his severe and cutting rebukes.
“His expansive mind grasped the great plan of salvation, and solved the mystic problem of man’s destiny; he was in possession of keys that unlocked the past and the future, with its successions of eternities; yet in his devotions he was as humble as a little child. Three times a day he had family worship; and these precious seasons of sacred household service truly seemed a foretaste of celestial happiness.”6
When the Relief Society was organized in March 1842 by the Prophet, Eliza was appointed secretary. Emma Smith, wife of the Prophet, was Relief Society president, and together the two women presented a petition, signed by several hundred Relief Society members, to Governor Carlin at Quincy, Illinois, asking for his protection from the illegal suits pending against Joseph Smith.
Some of the most important events of Eliza’s life transpired in Nauvoo, Illinois, where the Saints had settled. The soul-moving mixture of sublime happiness and inexpressible grief was intense as she recalled the period in which she was married on July 29, 1842, and in which her husband, Joseph Smith, the Prophet of God, sealed his testimony with his blood. “I was sealed to the prophet, Joseph Smith, for time and eternity, in accordance with the celestial law of marriage which God had revealed, the ceremony being performed by a servant of the Most High—authorized to officiate in sacred ordinances. This, one of the most important events of my life, I have never had cause to regret.”7
Along with her poetic nature, Eliza had a profound, exalted, spiritual temperament. Her sublime reverence for God and man’s relationship to him was immortally expressed in her “Invocation, of the Eternal Father and Mother,” which begins with the words “O my Father.” She wrote this poem in a little attic room in the home of Stephen Markham in Nauvoo in the spring of 1845, about a year after the martyrdom of the Prophet. She had been given temporary shelter in the Markham home, and her little room had bare walls and floor, except for a small rag rug beside her bed. On a small bedside table lay the Holy Bible, her beloved Book of Mormon, and a tiny gold pencil the Prophet had given her and with which she wrote this immortal poem. (See Hymns, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, no. 139.)
Eliza was one of the first persons to leave 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. One entry in her journal read: “I saw a funeral train following to its wilderness grave, a little child of Brother Gurley. It was a lonely sight—my feelings truly sympathize with those who are call’d to leave their dear relatives by the way.”
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, one of the three women who traveled west with the first company under President Young.
That first winter Eliza and Clara shared a log room, about 18 feet square, roofed with willows and earth. Eliza’s sense of humor remained with her even in a March rainstorm, when the roof, covered with mice nests, leaked badly. Eliza sat in bed with her umbrella up all night, laughing, while it rained mice and mud.
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 her health would improve if she would accept the call; she did accept, and almost immediately her health and strength returned and she could fulfill her obligations.
Clarissa Young Spencer, a daughter of Brigham Young, wrote of Eliza R. Snow: “She was slight and fragile and always immaculate in dress. I see her now in her full-skirted, lace-trimmed silk dresses, with her dainty lace caps and a gold chain around her neck, looking for all the world like a piece of Dresden china. … 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. Her numerous duties in this capacity earned for her the quaint title of ‘Presidentess.’”8
Though “fragile,” Eliza was an amazing organizer. She served as general Relief Society president for 21 years, from 1866 to 1887. She was also instrumental in organizing the Retrenchment Society, under President Young’s direction. Clarissa said of her:
“She was very extravagant in her own mode of dress, invariably putting yards and yards of material into her skirts and trimming her gowns as elaborately as possible, but she could not bear to see a like extravagance in the younger generation, her feelings on the subject, indeed, amounting almost to fanaticism. I haven’t the least doubt but what she was entirely sincere in the matter, evidently believing that, what was quite all right for a woman of her judgment and experience would fill the heads of the young girls with vain and idle thoughts.”9
And so all the young girls were to “retrench” by eliminating frills, vanities, and frivolities of the world, beginning with their fancy dresses. The organization began with Brigham Young’s daughters and spread throughout the Church, eventually becoming an organization devoted to the cultural and spiritual enlightenment of the young women of the Church.
At a conference of some 6,000 women in Salt Lake City on January 13, 1870, held for the purpose of giving enlightenment to the nation regarding woman’s position in the Church, Eliza made a brilliant 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! the very idea of a woman here in a state of slavery is a burlesque on good common sense … as women of God, filling high and responsible positions, performing sacred duties—women who stand not as dictators, but as counselors to their husbands, and who, in the purest, noblest sense of refined womanhood, are truly their helpmates—we not only speak because we have the right, but justice and humanity demands we should!”10
Before another month had elapsed, the Utah Territorial legislature passed a bill giving suffrage to women.
On Monday morning, December 5, 1887, at five minutes past one, 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.
Eliza had written her own epitaph:
“ ’Tis not the tribute of a sigh
From sorrow’s heaving bosom drawn,
Nor tears that flow from pity’s eye,
To weep for me when I am gone …
“No costly balm, no rich perfume,
No vain sepulchral rite I claim:
No mournful knell, no marble tomb,
Nor sculptur’d stone to tell my name.
“In friendship’s mem’ry let me live, …
For friendship holds a secret cord,
That with the fibres of my heart,
Entwines so deep, so close; ’tis hard
For death’s dissecting hand to part!
“I feel the low responses roll,
Like the far echo of the night,
And whisper, softly through my soul,
‘I would not be forgotten quite.’”11
Despite the sorrows, the frustrations, the hardships and trials, Eliza’s life and letters shone brightly with the refined gold of tested righteousness. May we be comforted by her example and resolve to be pliable and true to the refiner’s fire, the purifying influence of the gospel of Jesus Christ.