She was known as “Zion’s Poetess,” but there is more to Eliza Roxcy Snow than her poetry.
She did write more than 500 poems, including words to 10 hymns in the current LDS hymnbook like “O My Father,” “In Our Lovely Deseret” and “How Great the Wisdom and the Love.”
She kept the minutes of the Female Relief Society, which was organized on March 17, 1842, in Nauvoo, Ill. After members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had moved to the Salt Lake Valley, she was asked by President Brigham Young in 1868 to help re-organize the Relief Society, and she traveled from ward to ward doing that. She also helped organize the Young Women and Primary organizations.
Eliza “encouraged the women of the church to enlarge their sphere to include education, public speaking, commerce and leadership,” wrote Karen Lynn Davidson in an email interview. Davidson co-authored with Jill Mulvay Derr a biography titled “Eliza: The Life and Faith of Eliza R. Snow” (Deseret Book, $27.99).
Davidson and Derr use Eliza’s journals, her autobiography, her published book of poems and other published works to share her life and writings in the seven-chapter biography.
“Eliza” includes photos of her and some of her belongings, including her watch and images of her handwritten poems. Davidson and Derr also include what was going on historically to put her writings and life in context.
“What stays with me is Eliza’s determination to ‘see the game through, and enjoy the scenery,’ even in the most difficult times of her life,” Davidson said. “Her faith, combined with her vivid poetic imagination, gave her a concrete image of promised blessings.”
She was the second of seven children and received an education as a young girl in Mantua, Ohio, having a formal classroom education that was reinforced at home. Also, she worked as an assistant to her father when he served in elected posititions, including justice of the peace and county commissioner. Usually, that position was given to a young man.
“Though her early experience had been on a much smaller scale, she knew she could comfortably work with both men and women and in her different spheres,” according to her biography.
Eliza was 31 when she joined the LDS Church in 1835, four years after her mother and sister were baptized by Joseph Smith. She taught school and worked as a seamstress as she moved with the Saints from Kirtland, Ohio, to Missouri, to Nauvoo, Ill., and Winter Quarters and, ultimately Salt Lake City. She was part of the company that arrived on Oct. 2, 1847, just months after the first company, and watched the growth in the valley.
“She grew up in a comfortable and secure home, with many advantages, and went on to live a life that often included hardship, insecurity and heavy responsibilities,” Davidson said. “She never looked back, but always remained grateful.”
Eliza worked in the Endowment House to help women receive their ordinances. Later, when she traveled to organize women or one of their enterprises, she would speak to various groups.
“I think most Latter-day Saints are fascinated by this most iconic of Mormon pioneer women, and I had always wanted to know more about her,” Davidson said.
In the two years the pair intermittently worked on the biography, Davidson had several delightful discoveries about the life of Eliza R. Snow.
“In her mid-20s, she met and finally rejected a suitor who later went on to become famous!” Davidson wrote.
When Eliza was 68, she traveled with a delegation of Saints to Europe and to the Holy Land.
“In gratitude to her Relief Society sisters for having helped fund her travels, she shared her experience with her sisters by writing poems describing her journey and sending them back to be printed in Woman’s Exponent (magazine),” Davidson wrote.
Eliza also helped organize the Primary, and the last journey of her life was to southern Utah to meet with Relief Societies and Primaries, Davidson said. “She would allow the Primary children to hold in their hands the watch that Joseph Smith had given to her.”
Eliza’s “poems serve as a wonderful snapshot album of early Mormon history,” Davidson said, as Eliza wrote about what was happening to her and her community.
Davidson had previous helped compile and edit a volume of Eliza’s poetry — all 507 poems, running more than 1,300 pages. “Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry” was published jointly by Brigham Young University and the University of Utah in 2009.
In the 178-page biography, Davidson and Derr have included some selections of her poetry “when they give insight into her feelings.”
In the era in which Eliza lived, poetry was commonly used in written communication.
“Poetry was just a more common happening, with more people writing it and more people reading it than today," Davidson wrote. "Poetry often appeared on the front page of newspapers, with Eliza’s often on the front page of the Deseret News and other papers."
Eliza's suitor, James Barr Walker, whom she ultimately rejected, was part owner of the Western Courier, and their poetry to each other was published in the paper.
“Poetry could be called a nineteenth-century equivalent of blogging,” Davidson said. “Many of Eliza’s poems were back-and-forth discussions with other poets.”
Eliza’s poems include faith, determination, humor and compassion, Davidson said. “She was in tune with local and world events and was always able to help her fellow Saints strengthen their faith and deepen their thinking,” Davidson said.
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