After Emma Smith, the beloved wife of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, Eliza R. Snow may be the best-known woman in Latter-day Saint history.
Snow was a dominating presence in 19th-century Mormonism. She was at the founding meeting of the faith’s female Relief Society and later became its president. She championed women’s suffrage and heralded women’s voices. And she penned the words to one of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ most famous hymns, “O My Father,” which ironically laid out a theological argument for a Heavenly Mother.
Beyond these biographical bare bones, though, few know much more about Snow the poet, the writer, the speaker, the thinker.
That is about to change.
On Wednesday, the church is launching the first digital collection of Snow’s nearly 1,200 speeches, sermons, newspaper columns and magazine articles covering 1840 to 1887. The initial batch includes 50 pieces from 1868 to 1869, and future releases — including some of her poetry — will be made quarterly.
In the addresses, the popular speaker “taught religious doctrine, emphasized practical principals, shared her political opinions, and conveyed love and encouragement for church members,” according to the new website, The Discourses of Eliza R. Snow.
“She was a rock star,” says Latter-day Saint historian Jennifer Reeder, editor of the massive collection.
The poet-preacher ventured to nearly every Mormon settlement in the West, including outposts where no male leader was willing to go, Reeder says. “The breadth of her travels blew my mind. In her 80s, she sometimes spoke three times a day.”
When she journeyed to Kanab near the Arizona border in 1881, no top church authority had ever visited there, the researcher says. “They called her ‘president of all presidents and queen of the world.’”
The publication of Snow’s papers marks “an exciting opportunity for members of the church to learn more about her personality and her leadership style,” says Kristine Haglund, former editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.
Many Latter-day Saints have “a vague notion that she was a leader, even if they are unaware of the details of her roles and accomplishments.”
They also “will be surprised that she has some sharp edges,” Haglund says. “She was opinionated and ambitious and not particularly willing to suffer fools gladly, which may surprise those who expect a stereotypically soft-voiced and nurturing ideal.”
On the other hand, Snow was also in many ways “quite conservative and deferential to [male] priesthood leadership, which may disappoint those looking for a protofeminist role model.” As to Snow’s prodigious literary output, Haglund says, “she was, like most writers, sometimes brilliant and often in desperate need of an editor.”
Whatever Snow’s quirks, she says, “the fuller portrait of a skilled and powerful leader that emerges from these documents will be illuminating.”
A life in context
Snow was a plural wife to two Latter-day Saint prophets — Smith and, after he was gunned down, his immediate successor, Brigham Young.
She saw them in their “prophetic roles,” and fully supported and defended them to “women in the hinterlands,” Reeder says, while bringing back to the men the women’s concerns.
Female members “trusted Eliza,” the historian says. “Some saw Brigham Young as the ‘lion of the Lord’ and Eliza as the ‘lioness.’”
Still, she was known for her independent accomplishments rather than her connection to men.
In 1868, Young assigned Snow to travel around, helping bishops organize local Relief Society groups, which she did with gusto.
She was “super into the power and role of women,” Reeder says. She regularly mentioned that Joseph Smith preached that the church wasn’t fully restored until the Relief Society came into being.
Snow envisioned the women’s society as a “quorum of the priesthood,” and, according to the historian, often told her female listeners, “You are responsible for your own salvation; you can’t rely on your husbands, brothers or fathers.”
This was, of course, in an era when the church taught and members practiced polygamy. And Snow, who never had children, was an ardent defender.
“We had to make a historical context page that explains her historical time and perspective,” Reeder says, and emphasizes that the Utah-based faith no longer practices plural marriage.
A living witness
Snow participated in Mormonism’s founding era and events. That gave her a valued place in the community, Reeder says. “She’s been there.”
In 2016, historians were buzzing about a report that Snow was sexually assaulted during Latter-days Saints’ tensions with their neighbors in Missouri in the 1830s.
Andrea Radke-Moss, who teaches history at Brigham Young University-Idaho, argued in an academic presentation that the future Relief Society president was gang-raped by eight Missourians.
The allegation is based on the recollections of Alice Merrill Horne, the granddaughter of Bathsheba W. Smith, one of Snow’s closest friends. Horne wrote that, as a child, she had heard her grandmother talk about the rape.
“It is a strong possibility,” Reeder says. “Some of her poems after that time [in Missouri] were very angry.”
But the “source is problematic,” says the historian, given that Horne was writing from memory decades after allegedly hearing the stories.
Then there’s the race issue.
Snow, like many of her church associates, particularly Young, believed that Black members bore the “curse of Cain” — a teaching the faith has disavowed.
After the Latter-day Saint prophet defended slavery in a speech to the Utah Legislature in 1852, Snow crafted a poem that included a line, saying “the curse of the Almighty rests upon the colored race.”
That is why some Black members today do not see Snow as a hero or role model.
For her part, Reeder has seen nothing in the sermons that touch on Black members. “There are,” she says, “no discourses on race.”
In the future, Reeder and her colleagues will be publishing poems from 1840 to 1856.
“We will deal with that,” she says, “when we get ready to post them.”
On the whole, this new collection offers a fresh and nuanced view of the woman revered but not fully realized.
Snow’s words are “much more than quaint relics,” the website states. “They open a wide window into the life and personality of an important American religious figure and into a half-century of Latter-day Saint history and culture.”