by Doris White
Eliza Roxcy Snow is one of the most revered women in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (frequently misnamed the “Mormon Church”). She was an incredible woman who, once she found the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, dedicated her life building up the kingdom of God on the earth.
Early Life of Eliza Snow
Eliza was born on January 21, 1804, in Becket, Massachusetts. She was the second daughter of Oliver and Rosetta Pettibone Snow. She was raised in a financially successful home and was well educated. Unusually for the time, Eliza was even employed as her father’s secretary for a period, proving herself quite capable. At different times in her life, she was also employed as a seamstress and schoolteacher.
Eliza is perhaps most famous for her poetry, but if she made any money with her poetry before she joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she did not make money for her poetry after her conversion. She believed it was a gift from God which she had a duty to share for free. Her first poem was published in 1825. Though there was a brief period of intense sorrow in her life, from about 1836 to 1838, where there is no record of her writing any poetry at all, for the most part, she continuously wrote poetry her entire life.
In 1828, Eliza encountered a suitor through her writings. He offended her, however, when he published a very presumptuous poem about her in the Western Courier, of which he was the editor. Though he pursued her with courtship, she denied him. This was several years before she joined the Church, but looking back at her early life, she said:
I remained single; and why, I could not comprehend at the time. But, when I embraced the fulness of the Gospel, in recalling the events of my past life, I felt, and still feel to acknowledge the kind overruling hand in the providences of God in that circumstance, as fully as in any other in my mortal existence; I do not know that one of my former suitors have received the Gospel, which shows that I was singularly preserved from the bondage of a marriage tie which would, in all probability, have prevented my receiving, or from the free exercise of religion which has been, and now is dearer to me than my life. (“Sketch,” in Beecher, Personal Writings, 16.)
Many members of Eliza’s family joined the Church. Eliza’s sister Leonora and their mother, Rosetta, joined first. It took more than four years for Eliza to be certain that was a step she wanted to take herself. She was 31 when she was baptized in 1835. Almost immediately upon being baptized, Eliza and her family began to experience the persecution that was the lot of the early Saints. Over the years, Eliza’s parents and some of her siblings distanced themselves from the Church due to the persecution. Eliza, however, remained faithful and valiant all her life.
Her love of poetry and writing made Eliza a well-known figure among the Saints almost immediately. She published poetry frequently in the Saints’ newspaper, the Deseret News. She also wrote many hymns, some of which are still sung and loved by the Saints today. In Nauvoo, Illinois, she was called to serve as a secretary for the first meetings of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo. This organization, now known simply as the Relief Society, is the largest women’s organization in the world.
In Kirtland, Ohio, Eliza was present at the dedication of the temple there, which experience had a profound impact on her. There are many records of the miraculous things that happened at the dedication, and Eliza counted herself lucky to have been a part of it. She even gave her inheritance to the building of the Kirtland Temple and supported herself by teaching school. It was in Kirtland that Eliza’s younger brother Lorenzo visited her and eventually joined the Church as well. He became the fifth president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1898.
After increased persecution had caused the Saints to flee Ohio and settle in Missouri, tensions began to build in their new communities. These tensions in Missouri culminated in the Saints once again begin driven from their homes. Much later in life, as Eliza was writing for the Juvenile Instructor, a periodical for young Latter-day Saints, she tried to capture the state of affairs in a manner which a child could comprehend. She wrote of her family’s dog, Jack.
We had a very large watch-dog, which my father took with him from Ohio, on purpose to guard the wagons while we were traveling. As soon as my brother Lorenzo [who had been very ill] was strong enough to walk out, and carry a rifle, he amused himself by hunting turkeys, which were very abundant in that part of Missouri. Whenever he went on those little hunting excursions, the watch-dog, Jack, was sure to accompany him. Some dogs seem quite sensible, as my young readers will understand, and Jack was uncommonly smart, and seemed to realize that his master had but little strength—he would walk as stilly as possible, at my brother’s heels, until they came in sight of game, when he would place himself directly in front, and raise his head sufficiently, then hold his head perfectly still for his master to rest the rifle on his head, to shoot.
. . . Jack was highly prized by all the family, and although a dog, he was worthy of respect, because he was a true friend. . . . We had learned that Jack could be trusted, and when we knew that we were surrounded by mobocrats, we could lie down at night, feeling pretty safe, knowing that no one could approach the house, until the faithful dog had given the alarm.
I think by this time, my little friends are feeling enough interest for the dog Jack, to wish to know what became of him. I will tell you. Our Missouri neighbors (if I may call those neighbors who were plotting our destruction) saw that Jack was true to us, and they were afraid of him, and tried to entice him away, but when they found it impossible to coax him to leave us, they shot him. We all felt very sorry to lose poor Jack, and two of my younger brothers dug a grave and buried him with all the formalities that the occasion called for, and, with great childish lamentations, pronounced him a martyr. (Snow, “Little Incidents for Little Readers,” Juvenile Instructor, November 15, 1866, 2; as quoted in Eliza: The Life and Faith of Eliza R. Snow, by Davidson and Derr.)
Days in Nauvoo and Plural Marriage
In late 1838, Joseph Smith personally asked Eliza to once again use her poetry to uplift the Saints. She rose to the occasion, though it was not easy for her, and wrote poetry the rest of her life. After the Saints were driven from Missouri, they settled in what became Nauvoo, Illinois, and, for a brief time, enjoyed peace and prosperity. Eliza loved Nauvoo and enjoyed her time there. She lived with Joseph and Emma Smith for a time.
She considered the privilege of receiving her temple endowment in the completed Nauvoo Temple one of the most important of her life. She served as an ordinance worker both in the Nauvoo Temple and later in Salt Lake at the Endowment House, helping other women who were receiving their temple ordinances. She loved the temple and working in the temple.
Another eternally significant event for Eliza took place during her time in Nauvoo. On June 29, 1842, she was sealed to Joseph Smith as a plural wife for time and eternity, “in accordance with the Celestial Law of Marriage, which God has revealed” (Snow, “Sketch,” in Beecher, Personal Writings, 17). Eliza was one of the first women to enter into plural marriage, and the principle was not shared with many until much later because public opinion was so violently opposed to it.
Pretty much everyone who first heard the principle was opposed to it, including Joseph Smith himself. He did not want to implement the practice, and postponed doing so as long as he could, but it is a testament to the truthfulness of the principle that those who were asked to live it had very spiritual, personal witnesses from the Holy Ghost that the principle was from God. Eliza was no exception to this.
She recorded that at the outset the idea was “very repugnant to my feelings.” The thought of Old Testament polygamy would be reinstated was not favorable to nearly anyone raised in a Western culture. However, over time, Eliza said that she became converted through faith and revelation. She said, “As I increased in knowledge concerning the principle and design of Plural Marriage, I grew in love with it.” She defended the principle the rest of her life and called it a “precious, sacred principle” (Personal Writings, 17).
Records show that Emma Smith vacillated in her public opinion of plural marriage. After Joseph Smith’s martyrdom, she declared that he had never taught the principle, which everyone close to him knew to be false. Still, out of respect for Emma, it wasn’t until after Emma Smith’s death and after Brigham Young’s death (Eliza’s second husband) that Eliza took Joseph’s name and was known until her death as Eliza R. Snow Smith. Eliza was a believer in the principle as it was revealed by God and defended it until her death. However, judging from her stalwart behavior, it is more than likely she would have been an advocate for the transition from plural marriage back to monogamy which the Church eventually followed under God’s direction. She believed the prophets were men called of God who spoke in God’s name and followed them in faith.
Persecutions raged so strongly in Illinois that Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were eventually martyred on June 27, 1844. The Saints were once again forced to flee their homes. Those who had killed Joseph expected his death to be the end of the Mormon movement, but they misunderstood the Saints’ faith. It was not Joseph Smith they worshipped. It was and is Jesus Christ who leads His own Church. Brigham Young was called by God to lead the Saints to the West and to be the second prophet of our day. Eliza accompanied the Saints on the long, arduous journey. It was filled with misery and death, but upheld by faith and determination. The journey began on February 12, 1846 and didn’t end until October 1847.
Women had few opportunities to support themselves at this time, and Eliza was married to Brigham Young for time only (until death do they part) in October 1844. A marriage of time gave Eliza protection and a home, though due to circumstances this wouldn’t actually be the case for two more years, once the Saints were settled in the Salt Lake Valley. Mormon doctrine teaches that marriages for eternity are what provide everlasting blessings, but a woman can only be sealed to one man. Since Eliza had already been married to Joseph for eternity, the marriage to Brigham Young was more to provide for her financially than it was to secure those eternal blessings.
The Saints Settling in Utah
Though the experience was a long and difficult one, Eliza did not complain much about the long trek to Utah, nor did the other Saints. Amidst intense suffering, their faith in God was solidified to a point where it could not break. Lifelong friendships were forged which helped to build the kingdom in what became the Utah Territory. It took many years, but the Saints made the desert blossom as a rose.
After living with a few different women, Eliza moved to the Lion House in Salt Lake, Brigham Young’s large home. She had her own room here, but helped with the children and around the house. She recorded that she was very happy there and loved to be with all the children. She was an excellent seamstress and devoted nurse.
Eliza continued to write poetry and published her first volume of poetry in 1856. Brigham Young called on her myriad talents several times to help further organize the Relief Society in 1867–68. Two years later, he called her to establish a new organization for younger women, which was originally called the Retrenchment Associations and then the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Associations. She encouraged women to meet together and to edify their minds. She helped Mormon women develop cooperative stores in the different settlements, produce their own newspaper (the Woman’s Exponent), manufacture silk in their homes, and even helped many women attend medical colleges. Remaining very vocal about the gospel and its doctrine, Eliza continued to use both poetry and prose to reach people who were not members of the Church.
Much later in her life, in October 1872, Eliza had the opportunity to journey with several Church leaders to different parts of Europe and the Holy Land. It was one of the crowning points of her life. She shared her experiences with the sisters of the Church, who had helped fund her trip, by sending them articles and poems to publish in their paper.
It is hard to fathom that a single woman could have accomplished so much in one lifetime, but Eliza did not even stop there. In 1878, she and two other women decided to come up with an organization to help the young children of the Church. With full support from Church leaders, the women began organizing the children in different settlements. These became known as the Primary Associations. Today it is simply called Primary. The organization teaches children the principles of the gospel through lessons, activities, and music.
Continuing her pattern of service until the end of her life, Eliza took a trip from November 1880 to March 1881 to visit five Utah counties and strengthen the people in each. It was a difficult and uncomfortable journey at the best of times, but at her age it must have been an ordeal. She loved to visit with the sisters and the youth, though.
Her death on December 5, 1887, brought sadness to all who knew her. Her absence was felt keenly, but she left a legacy for members of the Church which continues today. Her faithfulness and endurance are an example to the world.
Eliza: The Life and Faith of Eliza R. Snow, by Karen Lynn Davidson and Jill Mulvay Derr.
Doris White is a native of Oregon and graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and a minor in Editing. She loves to talk with others about the gospel of Jesus Christ.