How can we define that elusive something men call greatness?
Terms such as the following are often used: one who gives of self, who does what needs to be done and understands the dignity of work. One who serves others in such a way that he leaves them better than he has found them. One who possesses a light within, as well as the quiet consistency of faith.
On Jan. 20 we marked the birthday of Ellis R. Shipp and on Jan. 21 was that of Eliza R. Snow. All of the above apply abundantly to both of these extraordinary Mormon women.
Ellis Reynolds gave of herself to her family after the early death of her mother. She served in faith, hoping the day would come when she would be able to fulfill her own cherished goal of obtaining an education — and it did. Through the encouraging invitation of Brigham Young, she came to live in his Beehive House as one of his daughters, and received the inspired instruction of Karl G. Maeser. She drank in the wisdom and goodness of this remarkable man’s spirit as well as the knowledge his lessons imparted.
After marrying Milford Shipp and growing deeply involved in the bearing and rearing of children, Ellis yet persisted in her efforts to educate both her mind and her spirit. Many entries in her journal such as the following reveal that fact:
“I am still following out my plan of early rising and constant study whenever circumstances will permit — from four to seven will be my principle time and perhaps all that I can spare from other duties. ... Oh how I long for knowledge and wisdom” (see "Early Autobiography and Diary," p. 87).
Against all odds (which included her husband’s reluctance, a lack of financial resources and serving her last year as a student while pregnant with her sixth child), Ellis Shipp graduated with honors from the Woman’s Medical College of Philadelphia in March of 1878, at just 31 years of age.
Then she returned home, gathered her little ones around her and contrived to live the life of a wonder woman. A year and a half earlier the doctors at the college had examined her and told her that her heart was actually skipping beats and she may not live six months longer. Now she proceeded to give her heart and soul to the work, relying only upon the one power she had come to know and trust.
Earlier in her life she had written: “I must become more energetic in my religion, and press onward with a stronger and firmer determination than ever. I desire to overcome, and I know this can be accomplished save but one way — by the power and spirit of my Father and God, and this I will seek for with all my might, mind and strength. It may take years and perhaps a lifetime for me to arrive at that state of perfection that I desire.”
Ellis gave birth to three more children, and buried three. She practiced medicine and taught nursing for 60 consecutive years, helping, teaching, lifting — always serving a little above and beyond, often with scanty compensation or none at all.
Her own life did not become easier nor her burdens lighter, but she pressed on with faith in the pursuit of “that state of perfection” which she desired. Near the end of her life she wrote: “Reverently unto God I give my gratitude for the successful practice of medicine for the span of more than 50 years. For more than 6,000 times have I felt the exquisite bliss of seeing the mother’s smile when for the first time she clasped her treasure in her arms” ("Late Autobiography," Ellis Reynolds Shipp, M. D., p. 282).
No one understood the spirituality of service and self-denial more than Eliza R. Snow. Coming from a family of strong-minded intellectual seekers, Eliza embraced the gospel of Jesus Christ on every possible level. Her mind was keen, and her spirit was supple and willing. She suffered persecutions and uncertainties with the rest of the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, served wherever she could — and waited upon the Lord. She learned to rely upon her Father in Heaven for succor and strength.
She told the sisters: "The Spirit satisfies and fills up every longing of the human heart."
The challenges of leadership placed upon Eliza were many and diverse. In December 1866, Brigham empowered her to reorganize the Women’s Relief Society among the Saints. She tirelessly visited the settlements throughout Utah, establishing not only women’s groups, but helping in the organization of the LDS Church's Young Ladies Mutual Improvement Association and the children’s Primary. Eliza also organized women’s co-operative stores and classes to instruct women in nursing and hygiene. She encouraged the sisters to train as doctors, and served as the first president of the Deseret Hospital. And, despite poor health and weakness, she accepted the call and the blessing of the Prophet and served with loving enthusiasm as the first matron of the Endowment House.
At Brigham’s request, Eliza also established the Woman’s Exponent, a bi-monthly magazine, overseen by her young niece, Lulu Greene Richards, then later, Emmeline B. Wells.
It was fitting that the Prophet Joseph Smith named Eliza “Zion’s Poetess,” for poetry was truly at the heart of her being. As well as publishing letters and journals (such as the one from her journey to the Holy Land); a biography of her brother, Lorenzo Snow; and a children’s story of the birth of Jesus, Eliza published two volumes of poetry. Many of her 500 poems were written to offer friends hope, encouragement and praise. On her third day in the Salt Lake Valley — after attempting to sleep beneath a leaky roof that rained down mud and mice as well as water — she managed to compose 11 letters to send back to friends left behind in Winter Quarters.
Eliza was excellent at practical advice, but it was always beautifully laced with the ideal. To one sister, discouraged about her responsibilities as a mother, she wrote: "In establishing in their hearts the principles of life and salvation, you are laboring for Zion, and if you succeed in training them to faithfulness you will have accomplished a great and mighty work" (see "Women of Faith in the Latter Days, Volume 1," p. 404.).
Despite the breadth and extent of her responsibilities, Eliza never forgot the importance of “the one.” To Mary E. Lightner she wrote: “It is a source of constant gratification to me to think of the settlements of the Saints ... their feet planted in the nooks and corners among the ‘everlasting hills.’ I retain the vivid impression of every settlement I visited, engraven on my mental map, and I pray for them daily” ("Women of Faith in the Latter Days, Volume 1," pp. 405-6).
Near the end of Ellis Shipp’s life her daughter wrote: “Is there any end to the marvels about Mother? Love — endurance — sacrifice. She had absolutely conquered herself. Her every thought is for the other person" (see "Not In Vain: the Inspiring Story of Ellis Shipp, Pioneer Woman Doctor," p. 186).
Eliza R. Snow boldly stated: “To be able to do Father’s will is what I wish to live for.”
“Lives of great men all remind us we can make our lives sublime,” the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow reminded us. How fortunate we are. The light of these two remarkable women, how strongly it glows and warms us still.
Susan Evans McCloud is author of more than 40 books and has published screenplays, a book of poetry and lyrics, including two songs in the LDS hymnbook. She has six children. She blogs at susanevansmccloud.blogspot.com.