An Icon and a Legend

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(This is an excerpt from Eliza: The Life and Faith of Eliza R. Snow by Karen Lynn Davidson and Jill Mulvay Derr.)

What can Latter-day Saints draw from the life and writings of Eliza R. Snow? Certainly she is an icon of faith, one of the best known of all Mormon pioneer women. We hear her name often as an example of strength and devotion, and we sing her beloved hymns. When we ponder the precious Latter-day Saint teaching concerning a Mother in Heaven, we think immediately of “O My Father.” In photographs, with her serene expression and her far-seeing eyes that gaze at us across so many decades, Eliza Snow truly looks like the legend she has become.

Sometimes a legend can seem so distant in time, in circumstances so unlike our own, and the life so impossibly heroic, that we might wonder whether the woman behind the legend can really offer us anything to inspire and enrich our own lives. In fact, although the joys and sorrows of women’s lives today may differ from those Eliza experienced, the responses and solutions remain largely the same. She spoke out boldly about her beliefs, and she reached out to others. When hardship came her way, she made the best of her circumstances; at a particularly difficult moment on the trail to Winter Quarters—a “growling, grumbling, devilish, sickly time”—she resolved “to see the game thro’, & enjoy the scenery.”

Many women and men, in reading her poems, have felt that Eliza really knew what it is like to lose a loved one, or to rejoice in friendship, or to suffer under injustice, or to love one’s country, or to overflow with testimony and gratitude. Such experiences are universal among Latter-day Saints, and Eliza’s writings let us know, poem by poem and journal entry by journal entry, that she would understand us nearly perfectly. For our part, we can understand her as well, especially as we come to know her better through her life story and her writings. Like all those who have become legends, Eliza R. Snow was courageous, resourceful, dedicated, and persuasive. And to this list we add the additional traits that so endear her to us as a woman of God: her unflagging testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith and of his prophetic successors, her willingness to sacrifice for the kingdom, her commitment to developing women’s spiritual strength, her love for temples and temple work, and her ever-present vision of the destiny of the Saints as the Lord’s chosen people of the latter days. These values shine through Eliza’s poetry.

Many do not realize that the poetry of Eliza R. Snow is far more than the hymn texts we love. Among her more than five hundred poems are funeral tributes, reflections on home and family, rhymed sermons, nature poems, tributes to her many close friends, playful songs, and complicated epics. Sometimes a private emotion or impulse sparked the idea for a poem. At other times, she was called upon to be a spokeswoman on behalf of the Saints, and thus her words helped the early members of the Church, in times of success and in times of trial, to form their image of themselves and their mission.

(Jill Mulvay Derr and Karen Lynn Davidson, Eliza: The Life and Faith of Eliza R. Snow [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2013], vii-viii.)

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