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Rambling Thoughts on Church HistoryEliza and the Times and Seasons
by James B. Allen
As I was preparing my previous column, I was struck with how well the fifty-one poems by Eliza R. Snow published in the Times and Seasons reflected so much of what was happening in the Church from 1839 to 1846. As a result, I wanted to provide a bit more detail on what this remarkable woman contributed to the life of Nauvoo through her poetry.
Much has been written about Eliza’s extraordinary life and accomplishments, and some is even available online. (See note 1 below.) I will not review her life here but, rather, give only a brief reminder of how important she was in LDS history.
After Eliza was baptized in 1835, she was with the main body of the Church in Kirtland, Missouri, Nauvoo, and Utah. During all that time, she wrote and published a remarkable amount of poetry — more than 500 poems in all — that caught the spirit of nearly everything the Saints experienced. In Missouri, Joseph Smith encouraged her to speak for the Latter-day Saints through her poetry. This, in fact, became a calling, as the Prophet designated her “Zion’s Poetess.”
Always involved in women’s activities, Eliza was elected secretary of the Relief Society in Nauvoo.
On June 29, 1842, she secretly became one of Joseph Smith’s plural wives, married for “time and all eternity.” Her poetry of that period sometimes reflects her deep affection for him. After Joseph’s death she became a plural wife to Brigham Young, marrying him on October 3, 1844. She was as fiercely loyal to him as she was to her first husband, and eventually she became one of plural marriage’s most avid defenders.
In Utah, Eliza was assigned (in 1855) to direct the women’s activities as they participated in the Church’s most sacred ordinances in the Endowment House. In 1867, she was assigned to reestablish the Relief Society and organize Relief Societies through the Church. In 1880, she became the Relief Society’s general president. She also helped establish the Young Women program of the Church as well as the Primary for children. In addition, she spent considerable time visiting Mormon settlements in the Intermountain West, encouraging and organizing women and teaching them the secrets of independence and self-sufficiency.
In the midst of her busy life, Eliza published nine books. They included two books of poetry, a biography of her brother Lorenzo (an apostle and later President of the Church), a collection of letters written in 1872-1873 while touring Europe and the Holy Land with her brother, and five books for children. She was also on the advisory board for the first women’s magazine in the Church, the Woman’s Exponent. She has sometimes been called the “first lady of Mormon letters.”
The poems Eliza published in the Times and Seasons are important in that they reflect what some writers have called “lived Mormonism” in Nauvoo. They reflect the feelings not just of Eliza but also of her admiring readers about the gospel, certain people in Nauvoo, and the trials and tragedies of the Saints.
A few of her poems may seem a bit effusive, even maudlin, to some, but as a corpus they admirably reflect the thoughts and feelings of a remarkable woman who represented a generation. Hopefully, brief comments on some of her poems, along with a few selected lines, will help the reader feel that generation’s emotions and concerns during both the trials and pleasures of Nauvoo.
A few of the poems mentioned below were published elsewhere earlier, but the dates given are those on which the poems were published in the Times and Seasons.Eliza’s first Times and Seasons poem, published in December 1849, was “Slaughter on Shoal Creek, Caldwell County Missouri.” It was a bitter denunciation of those who perpetuated the massacre at Haun’s Mill, in Missouri. Eliza described them as,
men — whose minds would hardly grace
The most ferocious of the brutal race —
Men without hearts — else, would their bosoms bleed
At the commission of so foul a deed
Surely these words resonated powerfully not only with those who were present at the massacre, but also with all those who so recently had been brutally driven from Missouri.
A few years later, Eliza published a similar, perhaps even more bitter, denunciation of Missouri. In November 1843, the Saints sent a second petition to Congress, this one containing 3,419 signatures, asking for redress for their Missouri losses. This may have been what triggered Eliza to write “Missouri” (February 1, 1844). In a sense it is more prose than poetry, and its acrimonious lines clearly echo the bitterness against that state that still lingered in the hearts of many a persecuted Mormon. To quote a few lines:
When thou hadst torn from helpless innocence its rightful protectors, thou didst pollute the holy sanctuary of female virtue, and barbarously trample upon the most sacred gems of domestic felicity!
Therefore, the daughters of Columbia [i.e., the U.S.] count thee a reproach, and blush with indignation at the mention of thy name.
Thou hast become an ignominious stain on the escutcheon of a noble, free and independent Republic — thou art a stink in the nostrils of the Goddess of Liberty.
That word “stink” may seem harsh, but it is interesting to note that the same word was used by Joseph Smith in the meeting that approved the petition. The doctrine of “states’ rights” prevented the federal government from intervening within a state, and therefore it could not intervene in Missouri to help the Mormons. Said Joseph in that meeting: “The State rights doctrines are what feed mobs. They are a dead carcass — a stink, and they shall ascend up as a stink offering in the nose of the Almighty.”
However, Eliza’s next poem in the Times and Seasons was couched in quite a different tone and reflected something entirely different: an appreciation for the principle of continuing revelation as well as Eliza’s hearty support for the 1833 revelation known as the Word of Wisdom. Titled “The Word of Wisdom,” the poem showed concern that some Nauvoo Saints did not live it, foreshadowing, in a sense, Eliza’s later well-known strict interpretation in the face of laxity on the part of the Saints in Utah. The first and third stanzas read:
Lord imparted from above
The word of wisdom for our blessing,
But shall it unto many prove
A gift that is not worth possessing?
. . . .
Has self denial grown a task?
Or has that word been vainly spoken;
Or why, I fain would humbly ask,
Why is that word, so often broken.
This poem, first published in August 1840, was later set to music by George Careless and appeared in some LDS hymnals from 1875 to 1950. (See note 2 below.) In a way it reminds me of one stanza of a song Eliza wrote for the Sunday School in 1867 and is still in the current LDS hymnal. The second stanza of “In Our Lovely Deseret” focuses on the Word of Wisdom:
the children may live long, and be beautiful and strong
Tea and coffee and tobacco, they despise.
Drink no liquor and they eat but a very little meat;
They are seeking to be great and good and wise.
Eliza’s hope was that singing this hymn often enough would keep the Utah Saints from the same laxness she saw in Nauvoo.
When someone prominent in Nauvoo passed away, Eliza often wrote and published poetic elegies or remembrances. Sometimes they included elaborate headings that, themselves, revealed the admiration she and others felt for the deceased. These headings may seem maudlin today, but they resonated with the readers of that day.
For example, Eliza’s third poem in the Times and Seasons (October 1840) was headed “ELEGY. On the death of the dearly beloved, and much lamented father in Israel, Joseph Smith Sen. a Patriarch in the church of Latter Day Saints; who died at Nauvoo, Sept. 14th, 1840.” It eulogized the Prophet’s father as a great and highly beloved man and ended with the assurance of his eventual resurrection in glory. As the first half of the final stanza said:
his earthly part is sleeping
Lowly, ‘neath the prairie sod;
Soon the grave will yield its keeping —
Yield to life, the man of god.
In a similar manner Eliza eulogized U.S. President William Henry Harrison (June 1, 1841), who died after only a month in office but who was admired by the Latter-day Saints largely because he had opposed Martin Van Buren in the 1840 election.
Another poem (September 1, 1840) extolled Don Carlos Smith, brother of the Prophet and editor of the Times and Seasons.
After the death of Robert Thompson, co-editor of the Times and Seasons, she published a poem of comfort to his wife, Mercy (September 15, 1841). In the same issue she published lines of comfort to the mourning relatives of Oliver Granger. That poem, which began “Hark! From afar; a funeral knell,” was later set to music and included in LDS hymnals until 1927.
“Thou aged saint, can words avail” (August 15, 1842) was intended to comfort John Henry David Tyson, whose son had been killed accidentally by a rifle shot. “The Hero’s Reward” (March 1, 1843) memorialized Elder George W. Gee, who died while on a mission in Pittsburgh. “To Mrs. Parley P. Pratt” (March 1, 1844) was written to the wife of Elder Parley P. Pratt after the death of their son Nathan. Likewise, “To Mrs. Sylvia P. Lyon” (March 15, 1844) was written to comfort the wife of Windsor Lyon after the death of their three-year-old daughter, their third child to die in infancy.
In the same issue of the paper Eliza published her “Reflections at the funeral of Joel F. Scovill....” This poem reflected, as well as anything could, the attitude of many a faithful Saint toward life and death. It began:
spirit had departed and had left
The mortal tenement a lifeless form!
I sat beside his coffin, but for him
I had no tears to shed. How could I weep?
His years, indeed, had been but few, but then
He was a saint, and he has gone to join
The spirits of the just. There was to him
No bitterness in death. The pow’r of faith
Imparted through the glorious gospel of
The Son of God has shorn the monster of
His terrors and sting. . . .
Freed from mortality and all its ills;
To die as he has died, is endless gain.
[Later, after showing great feeling for the bereaved parents, she continued]
My heart was moved with tenderness; and grief
For one short moment weigh’d my feelings down
But then the spirit of the living God
Waked with its light the vision of my mind,
And I exclaim’d within myself, all, all
Is well. He’s gone to do a work for them
Of everlasting consequence; and they,
Ere long shall understand the purposes
Of him who holds the destinies of man;
In this their present loss; and then their joy
Will be unspeakable.
On June 27, 1844, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were brutally murdered at Carthage, Illinois. Though his death tore at her heartstrings like little else could have, Eliza could still say nothing publicly about the fact that Joseph was, in fact, her husband. However, she quickly took pen in hand and four days later published “The Assassination of Gen’s Joseph Smith and Hyrum Smith First Presidents of the Church of Latter-day Saints; Who Were Massacred by a Mob, in Carthage, Hancock County, Ill., on 27th June, 1844.” This heartfelt elegy was meant to reflect the voice of an entire shocked and bereaved community. As Jill Derr and Karen Davidson have described it:
In this funeral elegy ERS speaks as the Saint’s communal poetic voice, expressing their collective grief. She apostrophizes, in the formal style of an epic lament, first the heavens, then the state of Illinois, the murderers themselves, the “shades of our patriot fathers,” “Columbia,” and “persecution”.... Even as she excoriates those responsible and cries out for revenge, her main purpose is to place Smith within the pantheon of sacred martyrs (Derr and Davidson, 296).
The elegy begins:
heavens attend! Let all the earth give ear!
Let Gods and Seraphs, men and angels hear —
The worlds on high — the universe shall know
What awful scenes are acted here below!
Had nature’s self a heart, her heart would bleed
At the recital of that horrid deed;
For never, since the Son of God was slain
Has blood so noble, flow’d from human vein
As that which now, on God for vengeance calls
From “freedom’s ground” — from Carthage prison walls.
The 85-line elegy continued to bemoan the loss of the prophets who, Eliza emphasized, had broken no laws but had been sacrificed to “appease the ragings of a brutish clan.” She also prayed for the God of Jacob to support the Saints as they mourned their prophet. At the end she also admonished the mourners:
Saints! Be still, and know that god is just —
With steadfast purpose in his promise trust;
Girded with sackcloth, own his mighty hand,
And wait his judgments on this guilty land!
The noble martyrs now have gone to move
The cause of Zion in the courts above.
Eliza could not express what was no doubt her deepest heartache, the loss of her husband, for her marriage to him remained a secret. However, when she wrote her “Sketch of My Life” many years later she told of the spiritual experience that convinced her that plural marriage was of divine origin, bore witnesses of how she learned to love it, and told of her marriage to Joseph Smith. She also harked back to the time she saw the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum lying together — a sight, she said, that would appall the heart of any true American. But, she continued, “What it was for loving wives and children, the loyal heart may feel, but let language keep silent!” (Underline in the original. See Beecher, Personal Writings, 17.) Clearly, this was an expression of the deep pain she felt inside but could not utter at the time.
Persecution, sorrow, and death were certainly not the only things Eliza captured with her pen. In fact, they were only a small part of all she wrote. In the pages of the Times and Seasons she covered such things as love of country, conversion, appreciation for living individuals, and various important happenings in Nauvoo.
In “Columbia — My Country” (published in the Quincy Whig November 14, 1840 and republished in the Times and Seasons on December 1), Eliza praised America by contrasting it with other places she had read about. At the end, however, she could not help but remind her readers of the fact that they had just been driven out of the place they considered Zion:
Oh! I find no country yet,
Like our Columbia, dear;
And often times almost forget
I live an exile here.
At times she became autobiographical. “The Narrow Way” (March 1, 1841) began “When I espouse’s the cause of truth,” and told of her conversion and commitment. “Saturday Evening Thoughts” (January 2, 1843) also briefly recalled her conversion and then looked to the future. “The Ode of Genius to Truth” (January 1, 1844) was not autobiographical but, in a sense, it was related. “I’ll sing to thee, O Truth!” it began, and went on to personify and praise “Truth” in the most glowing of terms.
She also sang not just of herself but of other people she admired. “To Elder L. Snow, London, Eng.” (May 2, 1842) was addressed to her missionary brother, Lorenzo. It rejoiced in the grand work he was doing for the Lord but also reminded him of how Eliza and others in Nauvoo felt about him and would welcome him home when his work was done. Before he left England her brother arranged to have two copies of The Book of Mormon presented to Queen Victoria. This led Eliza to compose a poem, “Queen Victoria” (January 1, 1844), celebrating what this might mean. She described the grandeur of the queen’s domain then turned the poem into a wish:
would she now her influence bend —
The influence of royalty,
Messiah’s kingdom to extend
And Zion’s “nursing mother” be.
John Taylor was with Joseph Smith when he was murdered, and Taylor himself was wounded. “To Elder John Taylor” (August 1, 1844) was an impassioned tribute to him and what he endured during that dreadful time. Eliza concluded the tribute with:
by all generations, of thee shall be said,
“WITH THE BEST OF THE PROPHETS IN PRISON HE BLED.”
After the death of Joseph Smith, the leadership of the Church passed to the Quorum of the Twelve, with Brigham Young as its president. He, then, became the effective leader of the Church. Affirming her loyalty to the new Church leader, as well as to the principle of plural marriage, Eliza secretly married him for “time” (i.e., not “time and all eternity,” as with Joseph Smith). Their mutual respect and affection grew deep over the years.
At this time, however, many in the Church opposed Brigham Young’s leadership, some still wondering where the true mantel had fallen. Eliza’s “To President Brigham Young” (February 15, 1845) emphasized the surety and importance of his new station. Undoubtedly she was doing her part to unify the minds of the Saints on the matter of who God had chosen to lead.
Perhaps referring to the famous meeting in August 1844, when many people testified that as Brigham spoke they heard the voice of Joseph and, in some cases, saw Joseph in his place (see note 3), Eliza wrote, in part,
has gained, like Elisha, a rich behest,
For the mantle of Joseph seems to rest
Upon thee, while the spirit and pow’r divine
That inspir’d his heart, is inspiring thine.
Joseph Smith’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, has been described as a woman of exceptional “spiritual and social vitality.” Highly revered in Nauvoo, she was the focus of still another adulatory poem by Eliza. “The Venerable Lucy Smith” (May 15, 1845) describes much of what Lucy endured over the years as she witnessed the Restoration, followed her son from place, and saw his suffering as well as that of her husband. In one section Eliza referred to an incident that demonstrated not only the brutality of their enemies but the faith of both Lucy and her husband:
Her lord, her consort dragg’d to prison while
With tears and supplicating words, she plead
His innocence, and begg’d for his release.
“Commit the Book of Mormon to the flames”
Replied the “officer of justice” “and
Your husband shall be liberated”: But
Her noble spirit scorn’d to purchase his
Release, on terms so base! At such a price!
She lov’d the truth and fear’d the God of heav’n.
Finally, Eliza wrote not just for Nauvoo but for the ages. Several of her poems were set to music and became hymns. Ten of these are still in the current LDS hymnal:
The thing about poetry, or at least the poetry we see in Church history, is that through it we can feel something of the past. Some of Eliza’s work may not be “great” poetry, but it is profoundly important poetry for it mirrors a society. In it we see not just her but also the faith and feelings of those who read the Times and Seasons, for if it did not resonate with their readers the editors would not have published it. We are glad they did.
1. The best way to find publications about Eliza is to go online to mormonhistory.byu.edu. In that online bibliography go to the advanced search and type in Snow, Eliza. as a subject. There you will find scores of publications listed. If you click on some of them you will see that they were published in BYU Studies and a link is provided to the article in that journal.
Example: you will find an article by Jill Mulvay Derr and Matthew Grow titled “Letters on Mormon Polygamy and Progeny: Eliza R. Snow and Martin Luther Holbrook, 1866-1869.” It was published in BYU Studies, and at the bottom of the entry there is a link that will allow you to read the full text of the article online.
Since that bibliography is so readily available, I will list here only two books that I consider especially important. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, The Personal Writings of Eliza Roxcy Snow (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1995); Jill Mulvay Derr and Karen Lynn Davidson, Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry (Provo and Salt Lake City: BYU Press and University of Utah Press, 2009). The latter book is especially valuable to the subject of this column for it publishes all of the poems written by Eliza. The authors have written a fine introduction as well as separate introductions to each poem. Most of the information in this column, and especially the notes on the poems, is based on this book.
Note 2. See Derr and Davidson, p. 123. See also online http://www.hymnary.org/texts?qu=+in:texts
Also online, at http://www.hoffmanhouse.com/eliza.html, you can find it set to music, under the title “The Lord Imparted From Above,” by W. P. Peterson and arranged by Robert Hoffman and published as sheet music. On the same website you can listen to that arrangement being sung.
Note 3. See Lynne Watkins Jorgensen, “The Mantle of the Prophet Joseph Smith Passes to Brother Brigham: One Hundred Twenty-one Testimonies of a Collective Spiritual Witness,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations 1820-1844, ed. John W. Welch (Provo and Salt Lake City: BYU Press and Deseret Book, 2005), 372-477.
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