Eliza R. Snow: Wife, sister and aunt

Eliza R. Snow, Mormon pioneer poet, hymn text writer and leader of women's Church auxiliary organizations, seems almost bigger than life because of her lasting impact on LDS history and culture. In a Sept. 9 lecture, historian Jill Mulvay Derr presented an unusually intimate view of Sister Snow as a "wife, sister and aunt."

Eliza R. Snow as wife, sister, aunt was the subject of lecture by Jill Mulvay Derr, senior research historian at Church History Department, given Sept. 9 at the Church History Library, part of the Women's History Lecture Series.
Eliza R. Snow as wife, sister, aunt was the subject of lecture by Jill Mulvay Derr, senior research historian at Church History Department, given Sept. 9 at the Church History Library, part of the Women’s History Lecture Series.

Sister Derr, senior research historian with the Church History Department, gave the third in series of five lectures on women's history in the Church at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City. Her presentation, subtitled "Eliza R. Snow in the Family of Brigham Young," explored her family relationships after she became one of President Young's wives in 1844 and thus became part of his extensive household.

Sister Snow wrote more than 500 poems, was the second general president (succeeding Emma Smith) of the Relief Society and helped organize the young women and Primary organizations of the Church in early days, Sister Derr noted. "She was known as the president of all the women's organizations [in the Church], a title I don't think anyone has borne since that time."

But Sister Derr spoke of a different role for Eliza R. Snow, one she introduced by citing a poem she wrote, written for little Charlotte Talula, daughter of Brigham and Clarissa Decker Young, about the death of a friend, Mamie Tracy. "We see here something of Eliza's concern for children, also a sensitivity to their spiritual sensitivity," Sister Derr noted, reflected in the final lines: "These two deeply, fondly loved each other, Loved as holy beings do." The poem gives a testimony of the resurrection and the fact that Mamie one day would see the Savior's smiling face, she said.

The poem reflects Sister Snow's affection as a sister wife for Clarissa and an aunt for Talula, she noted.

President Young and Sister Snow, married for 33 years, had a relationship with a variety of facets, Sister Derr said. "He was the prophet, she was the poetess who supported prophets. They were husband and wife, and later, as she became general president of the Relief Society, they were president and presidentess." As she did for Joseph Smith she wrote many poems in support of President Young, 29 to be exact.

"Poets during this period played a very public role," she said. "They helped to shape public opinion; they helped to support public opinion." She cited one such poem, written to the Latter-day Saints, that concluded, "And the blessings of heaven will attend you, both in time and eternity, If you strictly adhere to the counsel of Brigham and Heber C."

Eliza's diary, kept while the saints were crossing the plains to the Salt Lake Valley, reflects Eliza's relationship with President Young as a provider and protector who "both arranged for her support and expressed confidence in her ability to act independently," Sister Derr said. "And she did prove worthy of his trust. While riding, sewing, ironing, cooking, picking currants and even submitting her diary to assist in making up the history of the camp for Winter Quarters, Eliza traveled to the Salt Lake Valley and there took charge of her life, despite the fact that she had continuing ill health for much of this trip."

Once in the valley, she became a part of his household, and after she moved into the Lion House, Brigham Young's official residence, in 1856, she remained there for the rest of her life. Beyond their time together in the Lion House, Sister Snow and President Young sometimes went to the theater and socials together.

They were both totally committed to building the kingdom of God, Sister Derr said. Eliza closed a letter of April 3, 1865, by quoting President Young's words, "I am here full of faith, and the kingdom is moving on…. When that goes up, we shall go up with it."

Sister Snow was called by President Young in 1868 to work with bishops in the territory to re-establish the Relief Society, which she did by visiting Mormon settlements. She then established the retrenchment organizations that became the Young Women, likewise traveling the territory for that purpose.

She referred to President Young's other wives as "the female family," and she loved being with them, Sister Derr said. "Caring for one another helped the wives to create a permanent bond. For example, when Eliza felt ill with chills and fever, shortly after she arrived at Winter Quarters, Mary Ann Angel Young was among those who nursed her back to health. The kindness of Mary Ann and six other friends was 'indelibly inscribed upon her memory.'

Two other lectures are scheduled in the series, one for Oct. 14 by historian Britney A. Chapman, "The Travels of Ruth May Fox for the Young Ladies Mutual Improvement Association, 1898-1956"; and the other for Nov. 11, "Emma Smith in the Aftermath of the Martyrdom." The lectures begin at 7 p.m. The library is located at 15 East North Temple Street in downtown Salt Lake City.

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