The Discourses of Eliza R. Snow

“Do business properly and orderly as the men so that the history of the same may be handed down to future generations of the daughters of Zion.” – ERS to the Salt Lake City Eleventh Ward Relief Society, March 3, 1869.

I have spent a lot of time in the documents of the restoration—journals, sermon reports, correspondence, meeting minutes. The things that often get public attention are items such as church leader diaries that document the activities and opinions of themselves and other church leaders. They are important, but there is something I love far more.

And for the love of all that is holy, can we please cut it with the “Team Emma” and “Team Eliza” shtick?

As I first started working in the archives of our people—trying to document practices, beliefs, and teachings—I came to the minutes of our Relief Societies. I still remember those first boxes of microfilm that the minders handed over to me. Brigham Young had shut things down after the death of Joseph Smith, and after some fits and starts, he realized that the church needed the Relief Society, and Eliza R. Snow worked to help the wards of the church establish them again—Nauvoo minutes in hand.

If you want to find evidence of the viability of restored Gospel look to the Relief Society minutes. This last week I worked through Alma and Amulek’s ministry to the Zoramites. After Amulek exhorted the people to cry to God unceasingly, he also gave them a warning (Alma 34:28):

[I]f ye turn away the needy, and the naked, and visit not the sick and afflicted, and impart of your substance, if ye have, to those who stand in need—I say unto you, if ye do not any of these things, behold, your prayer is vain, and availeth you nothing, and ye are as hypocrites who do deny the faith.

Joseph Smith’s and Brigham Young’s sermons are fun. The Council of Fifty minutes are a riot. Wilford Woodruff’s and George Q. Cannon’s diaries are fantastic. And the careful minutes of the Relief Societes document a true religion that evidence Amulek’s aspirations in spades. They also have their fun, riotous, and fantastic moments as well.

This week, the Church Historian’s Press have released the first portion of content for the The Discourses of Eliza R. Snow. This project follows in the pathway of the George Q. Cannon diaries, the Emmeline Wells diaries, and the George F. Richards diaries. All of these projects have online portals that link to annotated transcripts of the relevant documents. All of them are important and open new possibilities for research. All of them expand access to important material. But the ERS sermons are doing something that those others do not.

The first batch of content for the ERS Discourses is from 1868 and 1869, the years where Eliza toured the territory guiding the newly formed Relief Societies. The accounts of her words were kept by dozens of individual Society secretaries. Though not as high fidelity as shorthand, these dedicated historians captured more than ERS’s words. The staff at he CHL have also linked to the digitized records, so that one can move from transcript to minute book instantaneously and continue the records.

I had several of these sermons in my files, but not nearly all. How could I have? But the professionals have scoured through the extant documents to catalog 1,200 sermons. They have added images of locations where possible. They have mapped the sermons to help situate and contextualize the sermons and Societies. They have given timelines, and calendars. So what do we find?

I found additional documentation for women participating in the healing and blessing liturgies of the church. On June 11, 1868 at the Kasville Ward Society, she closed with a blessing: “I bless you in the name of the Lord and by the authority I hold.” And she taught the Salt Lake Fourteen Ward on May 26, 1868 that “Sisters ought to teach each other. If we are united we shall have the spirit of healing, so that the sick shall be brought to us, we shall lay our hands upon them & they shall be raised up.” Those that are not raised up must be attended to in their infirmity (various sermons).

ERS instructed on Relief Society teachers (of the visiting sort), frequently emphasizing the need to have the Holy Spirit with them. To the Farmington ward on June 3, 1868 she suggested that “when you find a Sister who is cast down in her feelings, and sees no beauty in our holy religion try to comfort them[.]” To the Salt Lake Twentieth Ward on July 10, 1868 she said that “In performing their duties, to do good, that Spiritual food was as much needed, as temporal. When they talked to the people, they should speak words of comfort—do not wound their feelings, for that does no good.” To the Fourteenth Ward on August 5, 1868, she anticipated Thomas Monson by a century: “The office of teacher is one which no person is fully qualified to fill: but if they are called, & step forward & try to magnify their calling, they will do right & God will qualify them for it.”

ERS taught that it was the duty of the RS “to adminster to the poor, not only in body or in clothing but the poor in spirit & those cast down” (SL Sixth Ward, August 14, 1868). The bishop of the Salt Lake Eighth ward declared on May 12, 1868 that they were to “become one, when we gather the poor, help to sustain them.” ERS responded that “his were words of wisdom, were as apples of gold in baskets of Silver.”

ERS also strategically militates against theological misogyny: “has woman anything to do in this great work of salvation, or are the sisters merely machines to be saved by the brethren” she asked. She was careful at this time, knowing what was at stake, but she was unapologetic that women have a place in the work of God and in the work of the church just as they did in ancient times.

Thank you and congratulations to all of the people who have worked on this project. We are your beneficiaries.


  1. Yes, very exciting! I understand that the CHP web site has now enabled search across all databases (ERS, GQC, EBW, etc) so have fun with that, too!

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks, Lisa! I’m hoping that they increase the search functionality with time.

  3. Geoff-Aus says:

    She was a real leader. Prophet

  4. Fantastic! Her words are still relevant today. Thank you!

  5. Does it include some of her views on “garden cosmology”?

  6. Jpv, some references come through:

    “do not give where it is not needed be wise and faithful stuards [stewards] try to assist one another I bless you in the name of Jesus if we are faithful we shall become as Eve did stand at the head of a world”

    “Joseph Smith, said every man, & woman, who was faithful in this world, would go fourth on an earth as Adam, and Eve. That is but one item of the blessings God has in store for us if we are faithful”

    I’m happy to see her attribution to Joseph on this teaching. I’ve long believed that BY would have been unlikely to make it up out of wholeclothe as the temple ceremony so clearly points to it Joseph taught some things in secret that he passed on to BY to set in order. To many people want to throw BY under the bus, but I believe, for all his faults, he was faithful to Joseph to his last day.

  7. J. Stapley says:

    jpv, the folks at the CHL included on the ERS website a couple of short sections on “historical context“–basically noting areas of teaching that conflict with modern understanding and practice. One of those essays is on Eve and the Fall.

    The discussion in that section is the predominant narrative throughout ERS’s teaching in relation to Adam and Eve. There are documents, including sermons included in this last batch in which she appears to support BY’s teachings on the topic. It is not obvious how this jibes with her better documented interpretations of the Fall. So it is complicated. Unlike S-ute, I’m disinclined to take this evidence that JS taught it particularly seriously. Look forward to my forthcoming article on the topic.

  8. J,
    So you think she’d lying? I know you won’t say that, do you’ll just suggest that her memory blurred years later and she mingled it with fealty towards Brigham. I don’t think that comports with her character. There’s honestly nothing wrong with what she said.

    I’m ok that it’s not taught. It caused confusion and issue in the day it was revealed (or invented out of whole clothe if you prefer) by the people who understood it best. But I’ve never read that quote above before, and I’ve long suspected it. So it’s interesting to see my suspicions confirmed.

  9. J. Stapley says:

    Sute, I don’t know you, or your background, and the following comment may feel patronizing. You have outlined a couple very important errors that people commonly make when approaching the past.

    First, when trying to reconstruct and analyze the beliefs of people in the past we need to be critical in our approach to evidence. Joseph Smith, for example, left us a boatload of documents and texts that are descriptive of his cosmology. He was remarkably consistent in the last 5 years of his life. Some people who are inclined to locate cherished beliefs within JS go so far as to suggest that all of these teachings were a subterfuge in order to hide true beliefs that they like. This is conspiratorial thinking and is bankrupt scholarship. You need real evidence.

    Second, presuming for a moment that the secretary at the relief society meeting accurately transcribed the content of ERS’s words (something that isn’t obvious), there are many, many possible reasons for someone making such a statement without firsthand contemporaneous knowledge. People do this all of the time, in every aspect of their lives. How many in the church today, including church leaders, have made statements about JS or church history that they believed were accurate, but on critical evaluation aren’t supportable. This doesn’t make them lying or liars. The best evidence is that ERS learned about Brigham Young’s teachings about Adam and Eve, from the same place everyone else did–BY.

    ERS’s statement is interesting in that it is evidence for ERS’s beliefs in the late 1860s, but it is extremely poor evidence for JS’s beliefs in the early 1840s.

  10. J., thanks for this.

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