Eliza Roxcy Snow was the acknowledged leader of Mormon pioneer women of the nineteenth century. She served from 1867 to her death as general president of the Relief Society, the highest position of ecclesiastical leadership available to a woman in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Born in Becket, Massachusetts, in 1804, she grew up on the Ohio frontier. Educated in frontier schools, Eliza was quick to read and compose, eventually publishing verses in the local Ravenna Courier and Ohio Star. Upon her conversion to Mormonism in 1835, she moved to Kirtland, Ohio, and became governess to the children of Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet. Her family followed her there. When persecution became intolerable in Ohio, the family moved first to Missouri in 1838, and then to Illinois in 1839. Eliza continued to publish verses, among them "O My Father," a favorite Mormon hymn.
In 1842 Snow participated in the founding of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo. She was married as a plural wife to Joseph Smith in June 1842, and, after his death, to Brigham Young in October 1844. She had no children by either marriage.
She traveled across the plains with the 1847 Mormon migration, leaving a detailed diary of the journey. Upon her arrival in Utah, she collected her verses for publication--one volume in 1856, the other in 1877. She helped her brother Lorenzo found the Polysophical Society in 1854 and was mentor to women writers in Utah.
Her churchwide service began in 1867 when, under Brigham Young's direction, she reorganized the Relief Society. With a core of "leading sisters," she traveled throughout the Mormon settlements in the Intermountain West, advising on the organization not only of the women's groups, but also of the Primary, an association for children, and the Young Ladies Mutual Improvement Association. Her visits locally were viewed as second only to those of the church's First Presidency in importance.
She was the informal advisor to LDS Church president Brigham Young in women's matters. Under her leadership, women attended medical schools and taught midwifery and home nursing; established The Woman's Exponent, a semi-monthly newspaper; planted wheat and built granaries; built Relief Society halls in most settlements; held mass meetings and participated in the political process, and were, in 1870, the first women to vote in a regular election; mounted a centennial Fair in 1876; and established a commission store as outlet for their home production. At age seventy-eight Snow chaired the board which founded the Deseret Hospital.
Besides her extended speaking tours, Snow published nine books: the two poetry volumes, a biography of her brother Lorenzo, catechisms, hymnals, and tune books, a life of Jesus for children, and a collection of letters recording her 1872-73 visit to Europe and Palestine.
Her major contribution was encouraging women to activity for the public weal and to take responsibility for their own eternal salvation. "Greatness is usefulness," and "there is no limit to what we can accomplish," were frequent themes of Eliza Snow. She died in Salt Lake City on 5 December 1887.
See: Keith Terry, Eliza (1981); Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, "The Eliza Enigma: The Life and Legend of Eliza R. Snow," Dialogue 11 (Spring 1978); Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, "`The Leading Sisters': A Female Hierarchy in Nineteenth Century Mormon Society," Journal of Mormon History 9 (1982).
Maureen Ursenbach Beecher