Eliza R. Snow and the Gospel of Work

Eliza R. Snow reveals much about herself when she describes her early search for religion:

[W]hen I asked, like one of old, “What must I do to be saved?” and was told that I must have a change of heart, and, to obtain it, I must feel myself to be the worst of sinners, and acknowledge the justice of God in consigning me to everlasting torment, the common-sense with which God had endowed me, revolted, for I knew I had lived a virtuous and conscientious life, and no consideration could extort from me a confession so absurd. [1]

By claiming freedom from hell on the basis of her own merit, Snow transgressed against a standard trope of Christian autobiography dating back to Augustine’s Confessions and evidenced in the title of John Bunyan’s 17th-century classic Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners: instead of a life radically transformed by God from the grossest depravity to a state of grace, she understood her life as basically good and freely oriented toward God. From the perspective of Augustinian or Calvinist orthodoxy (not necessarily shared, to be sure, by other participants in the Second Great Awakening), Snow’s position might appear in the suspect guise of works-righteousness. Rather than claim to merit heaven by her works, I believe that she worked diligently to show her love for God. This energetic life of serving God by serving other people is why we honor her today, on the anniversary of  her death.

Snow was perhaps most diligent of all with her pen—to the point that she could justly be called the patron saint of Mormon writers. Her 1877 Sketch of My Life recalls a schoolgirl given to rendering her assignments in verse. By her early twenties she was writing for publication under a pen name. Almost immediately after arriving in Illinois in 1839, she was doing the same. [2] She recalls this charming detail of her pioneer experience:

I was to start immediately, and what about my outfit? Its extent must be determined by the amt. of means. On examining my purse, I found it contained one dime (ten cents)—I was nearly minus ink—I could not go without that article: one dime was just the price of one bottle, and I made the purchase. [3]

Thus outfitted, Snow was able to “Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving” and “make melody to [her] God on the lyre”: poems occupy many a leaf in her trail diary. [4]

Once in Utah, Snow only became more energetic. She was active in public affairs, as when, Deborah-like, she wrote a fierce poem directed “To the Ladies of the United States Camp in a Crusade against the ‘Mormons.'” Taking on the roles of lay theologian and hymn-writer, she gave us our strongest warrant for belief in a Heavenly Mother. In such things she, like Nephi, labored to write to persuade others to believe in Christ and to rejoice in the divine, both masculine and feminine.

Far from a retiring poet in the garret, the anxiously engaged Snow was an indefatigable community organizer. As the second President of the Relief Society, she traveled extensively, making sure the sisters knew how to administer the ritual healings that were an important part of Mormon women’s lives at the time. [5] She was also heavily involved in the organization of both the Primary and Young Women’s organizations, in addition to presiding over the founding board of Deseret Hospital. [6]

Eliza R. Snow combined the virtues of both Mary and Martha, choosing the “good part” of listening to the Word while also working busily to build the kingdom. A pioneer throughout her life, she, like Abraham, declared herself a stranger and a pilgrim faithfully in search of a country. Her country was Zion, and she worked hard to bring it into being on more fronts than most people can manage. On this day, may we all take courage and inspiration from her example and go do something to make Zion more of a present reality—acts of healing, whether literal or with words. In this way, perhaps the legacy of this great Mormon woman will live on.

MLP

MLP

Mormon Lectionary Project

Eliza Roxcy Snow, 1887

Judges 5 (NRSV); Psalm 147 (NRSV); Luke 10:38-42 (NRSV); Hebrews 11:8-16; 2 Nephi 25:20-26; D&C 58:26-29

The Collect: O God, our Father and Mother who gave us being: grant us a portion of the vigorous love for Zion which you instilled in your servant Eliza R. Snow, that we through your grace and our diligence might become one, even as you are one with each other, worlds without end. Amen.

For the music, here is one of Eliza R. Snow’s best hymns:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SLZxMicw0Jw]

Notes

[1] Eliza R. Snow, Sketch of My Life, in The Personal Writings of Eliza Roxcy Snow, ed. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2000), 9.

[2] Ibid., 7-8, 15.

[3] Ibid., 25.

[4] Snow’s trail diary also appears in Beecher’s edition.

[5] Jonathan A. Stapley and Kristine Wright, “Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism,” Journal of Mormon History 37.1 (2011): 23-28.

[6] Snow, 36-37, 40-41.

Comments

  1. You had me at “community organizer”.

    But yes: Eliza was busy. Even though she lived in a period where mere survival was enough to consume the day, she was a prolific author and, as you note, a robust part of the Restoration. She was incredible.

  2. Great stuff Jason. Thanks.

  3. Steve: it’s absolutely staggering to think of how much she had going on, and how late into her life she managed to run full steam ahead. A truly impressive person.

  4. Lovely.

  5. She’s also a terrific counterexample to essentialist assertions about women’s “natural” ability to nurture and corresponding lack of ambition :)

  6. Kristine: indeed!

  7. I am keeping this for my daughters. How I wish these were the lessons we and our youth were taught. Thank you.

  8. “How I wish these were the lessons we and our youth were taught.”

    Then let them be! Leverage the flexibility built into the new youth curriculum: parental input is supposed to be part of how it works, so make your voice heard!

  9. Not to detract from Eliza, but of course she was deeply flawed, like the rest of us. She was, like others, fairly racist. From the complete poetry of Eliza R. Snow – she talks about blacks in poem 213 being cursed, and then in following poem 214 side by side we see her advocating for the equality of (white) women. This sort of paradoxical behavior is not atypical, but it is regrettable. I hope we can take the best of her example.

    213
    Reformers and reforms, now in our own
    United States, clashing tornado-like,
    Are threat’ning dissolution all around.
    Slavery and anti-slavery — what a strife !

    *’Japhet shall dwell.within the tents of Shein,
    And Ham shall be his servant” long ago
    The Prophet said : ’tis being now fulfill’d.

    The curse of the Almighty rests upon
    The color ‘d race. In His own time — by His
    Own means, not ours, that curse will be remov’d.

    214 POEMS.

    And woman, too, aspires for something, and
    She knows not what, which, if attain *d, would prove

    Her very wishes not to be her wish.
    Sun, moon, and stars, and vagrant comets too,
    Leaving their orbits, ranging side by side,
    Contending for prerogatives, as well
    Might seek to change the laws that govern them.

    As woman to transcend the sphere which God
    Through disobedience has assign ‘d to her,
    And seek and claim equality with man.
    She led in the transgression, and was plac’d,
    By Eloheim’s unchangeable decree.
    In a subservient and dependent sphere.

  10. Thanks for this useful provision of balance, Steve.

  11. J. Stapley says:

    Jill Derr’s bio is going to be so great. I can’t wait for it.

  12. Thank you Jason K. What a fitting tribute to a remarkable woman.

    I’d like to back up to the answer to her prayer: “[W]hen I asked, like one of old, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ and was told that I must have a change of heart, and, to obtain it, I must feel myself to be the worst of sinners, and acknowledge the justice of God in consigning me to everlasting torment…”

    I think that this is absolutely compatible with the truth, but just doesn’t go far enough. What I mean is, I think it should continue with “nevertheless, the mercy and love of God will NOT consign thee to everlasting torment, even if His justice alone could (or would or should).

    I think she answers this question herself with those beautiful lyrics in the video you posted: “How great, how glorious, how complete, Redemption’s grand design, where justice, love, and mercy meet, In harmony Divine!” (Justice combined with His mercy & love save us. Justice alone condemns us all.)

    Perhaps she was mistaken in “claiming her own freedom from hell on the basis of her own merit.” As I understand it there are really 2 truths about ourselves: 1. Our irreparable nothingness. 2. Our stainless divine nature that is God IN us. To only see 1. but not 2. probably inclines us to a heap of despair, paralyzed by hopelessness – obviously, Eliza didn’t do that, as evidenced by her life of great works.

  13. Jen K.: your comment nicely nuances something I was trying to do (in too compressed a fashion) in the opening of the post, which is to suggest that Eliza’s statement defies the easy categorization of the usual works/grace theological debate. I probably should have written “by appearing to claim her own freedom…”

  14. Jason K. – yes, I think you’re right – she “appeared to claim”. It seems she understood more deeply than that. And I noticed I made an assumption that Eliza’s question & answer about salvation was a prayer of hers – but the OP states no such thing. Do you know the context or setting of her asking “What must I do to be saved?” (Was she asking religious leaders? Consulting scripture?)

  15. The statement is from an autobiography written some 50 years after the fact. I suspect that, in the context of the Second Great Awakening, the question is rhetorical and indicates a deep concern for the welfare of her soul, with the response recorded in her Sketch being a summary (perhaps/probably polemical) of what she took to be the prevailing views she encountered from religious leaders while seeking her spiritual welfare.

  16. Thank you!

  17. Alpineglow says:

    Steve, I don’t actually read that poem as advocating what we would think of equality for women. She seems to me to be critiquing the contention and disorder that comes from women trying to leave their God-ordained spheres, like planetary objects leaving their orbits. In that way, the theme of the poem is very similar to the other one on race. Neither seems to fully endorse the inequality (though with the gender poem, that might just be my optimistic reading), but at the same time both fully disapprove of agitating for change.

    My understanding is that she was much more cautious than, say, Emmeline Wells on the topic of women’s rights. Susan Madsen’s book on Wells’s public life notes that Snow was slow to come around to the idea of women’s suffrage, for example.

    Not that any of that undermines your main point: Snow was a complicated person.

  18. Jen K. asks, Do you know the context or setting of her asking “What must I do to be saved?” (Was she asking religious leaders? Consulting scripture?)

    Well, it was the question of the times, as religion went. All the rest of the “Lo, here!” and “Lo, there!” is just garnish. The answer she got, unsatisfying as it was to her, was the stock response. For that matter, for many of us who come to the Church from other traditions have trouble believing that a just God would consign us to everlasting torment – it’s one of the glaring inconsistencies that in many cases drove us out of our previous traditions. In my case, it kept me away from any of the Protestant sects after leaving Catholicism. I recall asking one pastor, “Why would that be ‘justice’?” I don’t recall his answer, but it wasn’t satisfactory.