Who was Eliza R. Snow? Read her discourses to learn how she empowered women

Recognizing the need for women to be unified in their new communities in the West, President Brigham Young asked Eliza R. Snow in 1868 to help bishops reorganize ward Relief Societies and instruct the women of the Church. 

As the first secretary for the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, Eliza understood the purpose of the Relief Society better than most. But teaching the women — at a time when women didn’t speak publicly — was a daunting assignment. 

“It scared her to death,” said Jenny Reeder, 19th century women’s history specialist in the Church History Department. “In her life sketch, she wrote that her heart would ‘pit-a-pat’ at the thought of instructing women.”

Despite Eliza’s reservations and lack of experience in public speaking, “she quickly learned how important it was to teach doctrine and to connect with women throughout the Church,” Reeder said. 

Studio portrait of Eliza R. Snow by Charles W. Carter, circa 1875.
Studio portrait of Eliza R. Snow by Charles W. Carter, circa 1875. Credit: Courtesy Church History Library

One of the most influential Latter-day Saint women of the 19th century, Eliza was a prolific speaker and poet who served as the second general Relief Society president from 1880 to 1887. She helped found the Ladies’ Cooperative Retrenchment Association, Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association (later renamed Young Women) and Primary. 

Nearly 1,200 of Eliza’s discourses given from 1840 to 1887 have been compiled from organizational minute books, newspapers and personal journals. Transcripts of her 1868-1869 discourses were published digitally on July 13 and are now available to the public at ChurchHistoriansPress.org/eliza-r-snow. More discourses will be published in the coming months and years.

Eliza’s discourses provide insight into her life and role as a female Latter-day Saint leader as well as Church history, doctrine and culture of her time. Many of her teachings are applicable to Latter-day Saints today. 

An ‘avid traveler’

The year 1868 seemed like “a good place to start” in publishing the initial group of discourses so Latter-day Saints can be reminded of the purpose of Relief Society, said Julie Russell, a project manager in the Church History Department. “That purpose was, as she emphasized, saving souls.” 

As Eliza taught the purpose of Relief Society, she helped women understand their significance in the Church, in their communities and in their families.

Timeline of Eliza R. Snow's life. Source: Joseph Smith Papers.
Timeline of Eliza R. Snow’s life. Source: Joseph Smith Papers. Credit: Church News graphic

Russell described Eliza as “compassionate” and “loyal to the truth.” She spoke “to the point” and encouraged women to speak up and stand for what they believe in. She lived what she taught and had “an intense passion for the gospel.” Her service to women was a manifestation of her service to God.

“You can see that in some ways, as Eliza is traveling well into her 80s, across these rugged roads in Utah — she was even driving a buggy sometimes herself in this terrible weather — because it was that important to her to go out and to make sure that all of these little settlements had the truth,” Russell said.

Sometimes speaking three times a day, Eliza kept a vigorous schedule as she traveled throughout the Utah and Idaho territories. 

She worked to develop and maintain relationships with every settlement, bringing them notices from Salt Lake and taking back to Salt Lake the settlements’ conditions and concerns, Reeder said.

In Kanab, Utah, women honored Eliza as the president “of all the feminine portion of the human race.”

“They had such respect and excitement for her,” Reeder said. “It was so exciting for them to hear and to learn from a woman they often just heard about from the Woman’s Exponent (newspaper edited by and for Latter-day Saint women) and other records.”

Church history, doctrine and culture

As a plural wife of both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, Eliza was well-versed in Church doctrine. “She had a very close relationship with them,” Reeder said. “She could testify of Joseph Smith’s role as the Prophet of the Restoration and also instruct the women according to how Brigham Young saw fit.” 

Though most of her discourses focused on the organization of women, Eliza often spoke to both men and women, said Elizabeth Kuehn, a Church historian and documentary editor for the project. 

“She was a powerful and profound speaker. The men that were her contemporaries recognized that. They recognized that she was such a wonderful source for essential truths and gospel knowledge,” Kuehn said. 

Eliza taught men and women of their responsibility to “work out their own salvation” and work together in building the kingdom of God. She encouraged them to study the scriptures and teach their children the gospel.

“She would talk often about the temple, and the importance and power that women have in being endowed and having temple blessings,” Reeder said. 

Another consistent theme throughout Eliza’s discourses is ministering. Speaking to the Salt Lake 17th Ward Relief Society on March 12, 1868, she taught, “the responsibility resting on the Visiting Committee, that the wants of the body were not all the poor needed, that the sisters visiting their respective blocks, could speak a word of kindness, to some drooping or desponding soul, that a word spoken thus to cheer the spirit, is worth more than a purse of gold.”

A group portrait of the Deseret Hospital Board of Directors, circa 1882. Eliza R. Snow (seated in center) served as the first president of the board.
A group portrait of the Deseret Hospital Board of Directors, circa 1882. Eliza R. Snow (seated in center) served as the first president of the board. Credit: Courtesy Church History Library

Russell said she hopes Latter-day Saints understand through reading Eliza’s messages that “the gospel is the gospel.” Though cultures and traditions change, “you will see that a lot of these women were dealing with the same kinds of issues we’re dealing with now.”

Historical context

Eliza’s discourses were captured by secretaries, clerks and editors in hundreds of record books and newspaper articles. Some kept precise minutes, while others recorded summaries of Eliza’s remarks. Each discourse transcript links to the corresponding source in the Church History Catalog. Where possible, a photograph is included of the location where she spoke.

Kuehn encouraged readers to study the context when reading some of Eliza’s discourses. For example, Eliza taught 19th century ideas about Eve and the Fall that Latter-day Saints no longer believe. 

The “Historical Context” tab in the Reference Material section of the website includes clarification on topics such as Eve and the Fall, Adam’s altar in Adam-ondi-Ahman, plural marriage, Eliza’s use of the word “gentile,” and women and priesthood. 

Also featured on the Eliza R. Snow discourses website is an interactive map highlighting locations where she spoke. Colored dots on the cities represent the different decades. When clicked, a dot will link to the respective discourse. An additional two maps show her extended tours to visit the small settlements. 

“We really want these discourses to be used in talks and in lessons and in other ways,” Reeder said. “We really want this to be a usable place. … Her words are powerful for everyone, for men, women and children.”

Additional discourses will be published quarterly in groups of about 100

Excerpts from Eliza R. Snow discourses 1868-1869

Original writing style and grammar are preserved.

  • “The Society should be like a Mother with her Child, she does not hold it at a distance, but draws it near, and folds it in her bosom, showing the necessity of union and love.” (April 30, 1868)
  • “By doing good, ‘Our peace would be as a River, and our Righteousness as the waves, constantly flowing.’” (May 12, 1868)
  • “Brother Joseph used to say, the Sisters who lived their religion, provoked their Bretheren to good works.” (May 14, 1868)
  • “Our calling is great & noble. We are called not only to work, but to instruct, counsil & console. The mind needs food as much as the body— indeed must have it, or it will dry, wither & perish.” (May 26, 1868)
  • “When you meet with trials, dont flinch.” (June 3, 1869)