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The Nineteenth-Century Historical Context of Eliza R. Snow’s Discourses


Eliza R. Snow’s sermons reflect Latter-day Saint beliefs and practices of the nineteenth century. Much of what she taught remains just as relevant to Saints today as it was for the audiences in her time. To take one obvious example, she spoke frequently of the importance of church members, women and men, working together in unity. However, some beliefs and practices have changed significantly since Snow’s time. The following paragraphs identify some of these areas of change. These paragraphs also describe Snow’s personal experiences with some of these beliefs and practices to provide valuable historical context for understanding her discourses.

Adam’s Altar in Adam-ondi-Ahman

In 1835, Joseph Smith prepared an “Instruction on Priesthood” that spoke of “the valley of Adam-ondi-ahman” as the location where Adam gave his last blessing to his posterity before his death.1 In May 1838, Smith and others traveled north of Far West, Caldwell County, Missouri, seeking land on which the Saints could settle. In Daviess County, near the Grand River, they found a prominent knoll called Spring Hill. Smith there dictated a revelation identifying the region as Adam-ondi-Ahman, “the place where Adam shall come to visit his people” at some future time. According to Smith’s journal, at Spring Hill the group found the remains of an old “Nephitish” (Native American) altar.2 Later accounts given by some of Smith’s contemporaries incorrectly remembered him identifying the structure as an altar constructed by Adam at the location where Adam offered sacrifices after being cast out of the Garden of Eden. Archeological evidence indicates the remains were from a Native American burial ground.3

The Snow family traveled from Kirtland, Ohio, to Missouri and settled in Adam-ondi-Ahman, arriving at the end of July 1838. They left a few months later in December.4 During this time, Eliza R. Snow may have visited the stone structure that she incorrectly understood to be Adam’s altar.

See also:

Jacob W. Olmstead, “Far West and Adam-ondi-Ahman: D&C 115, 116, 117,” in Revelations in Context

Adam-ondi-Ahman,” Church History Topics

Adam-ondi-Ahman, Missouri” (geographical entry), The Joseph Smith Papers

Eve and the Fall

During Eliza R. Snow’s lifetime, women were generally seen as subordinate to men in American culture and were expected to be submissive to men. Women in Utah Territory and other parts of the United States had limited legal rights compared to men. Snow and many others in the church understood that this gendered inequality existed in part because Eve was the first to partake of the fruit in the Garden of Eden and then persuaded Adam to partake. According to this nineteenth-century theology, as Eve was the first to sin, she and her daughters were placed in a secondary position. Snow also believed that the “curse of Eve”—that her desire should be to her husband, and that he should rule over her—was not to last forever. Redemption for Eve and all women, according to Snow, came “by honoring God in all the institutions he has revealed to us,” including marriage—and specifically at this time, plural marriage.5

Leaders of the church today—drawing on Joseph Smith’s revelation that is now the Book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price—consider Eve a woman of wisdom and courage who recognized the implications of the choice she made in Eden: “Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient” (Moses 5:11). Eve was a partner and a companion with Adam and became the “mother of all living” (Moses 4:26). In his 1918 vision of the redemption of the dead, Joseph F. Smith (president of the church, 1901–1918) saw “our glorious Mother Eve, with many of her faithful daughters” (Doctrine and Covenants 138:39). Gordon B. Hinckley (president of the church, 1995–2008) considered Eve “God’s final creation, the grand summation of all of the marvelous work that had gone before.”6 Russell M. Nelson, who became president of the church in 2018, declared in 2015, “We need women who have the courage and vision of our Mother Eve.”7

See also:

Lisa Olsen Tait, “Susa Young Gates and the Vision of the Redemption of the Dead: D&C 138,” in Revelations in Context

Interactions with People of Other Beliefs

Drawing upon scriptural references to Gentiles as people who were not of the house of Israel, early Latter-day Saints used this same term for people not of their faith. Joseph Smith envisioned a kingdom of God in which the Saints could both politically rule themselves and be self-sufficient. Brigham Young had that same vision for Utah Territory, where the Saints initially lived in isolation from the outside world.

In the 1850s and 1860s, more and more settlers came to Utah seeking economic and political opportunities. Young grew concerned with what he perceived as a threat to Latter-day Saints. In late 1866, church leaders began instructing the Saints to stop buying from merchants who were anti-Mormon, or enemies to the church.8 The imminent completion of the transcontinental railroad promised an even greater influx of people of other beliefs. At an October 1868 meeting of the School of the Prophets, Young furthered the divide, issuing a firm boycott of all Gentile businesses. He and others voted that those who solicited Gentiles “should be cut off from the Church.”9

Eliza R. Snow took this charge seriously, viewing women as the primary consumers of items needed for domestic use and the Relief Society as an organization through which she could teach women according to Young’s requests. She often spoke of trading with Gentiles as deleterious and in opposition to building the kingdom of God. Snow condemned “the foolish, extravagant and disgusting fashions of the godless gentile world.” She also expressed concern for the “strong-minded” women of the world who claimed “woman’s sovereignty”; instead, she encouraged Latter-day Saint women to understand counsel from priesthood leaders.10

See also:

Cooperative Movement,” Church History Topics

Plural Marriage

Initially upon hearing about the practice of plural marriage, Eliza R. Snow was perplexed. She wrote, “The subject was very repugnant to my feelings—so directly was it in opposition to my educated prepossessions, that it seemed as though all the prejudices of my ancestors for generations past congregated around me.”11 However, her views changed, and she came to believe that the principle of plural marriage came from God. Snow was sealed to Joseph Smith as a plural wife on 29 June 1842.12 In Nauvoo, the practice was kept secret and not widely discussed. In Utah, the Saints were open about living the principle, and it was frequently mentioned in public sermons and discourses. As federal antipolygamy legislation pressured the Saints, Snow and other women became increasingly verbal in speaking publicly to defend their religious freedoms. Snow spoke to many Relief Societies about plural marriage, testifying that the practice was required for exaltation, which the Saints believed at that time.

After Snow’s death, church president Wilford Woodruff issued a manifesto in 1890 that led to the end of the practice of plural marriage. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints no longer practices plural marriage or teaches that it is required for exaltation.

See also:

Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Gospel Topics

Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo,” Gospel Topics

Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah,” Gospel Topics

The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage,” Gospel Topics

Priesthood, Relief Society, and Women

Joseph Smith conferred priesthood authority upon other men and ordained them to offices in the priesthood. In 1830s America, the word priesthood was defined as “the office or character of a priest” and “the order of men set apart for sacred offices.”13 Over time, an extensive structure of priesthood offices and quorums was established.

In Nauvoo in March 1842, a group of women desired to organize a sewing society; they asked Eliza R. Snow to write a constitution and bylaws. When she showed Smith her draft, he responded that he would organize the women “in the Order of the Priesthood after the pattern of the Church.”14 He did so on 17 March, using his priesthood authority to organize the Relief Society, thereby giving women a formal, authorized ministry as part of the church structure. At that organizational meeting, Smith spoke of “ordain[ing]” women.15 At the time, members of the church sometimes used ordain in a broad sense, often interchangeably with set apart and not always referring to priesthood office. For much of the nineteenth century, in fact, the terms ordain and set apart were often used interchangeably and sometimes together. Over time, the verb ordain came to be associated only with the laying on of hands in connection with a man receiving a priesthood office.

In the minute books containing Snow’s sermons, many people, including her, used the word ordain in situations when modern Latter-day Saint usage would call for set apart. Snow also often referred to the Relief Society as an “order,” or spoke of groups of Relief Society women being a “quorum.” In such cases, she was using these terms in a generic organizational sense—as roughly equivalent to committee or board.

At the founding meeting of the Nauvoo Relief Society, Joseph Smith advised that “if any Officers are wanted to carry out the designs of the Institution, let them be appointed and set apart, as Deacons, Teachers &c.”16 Snow and Sarah M. Granger Kimball took this counsel literally in May 1868 within the Salt Lake City Fifteenth Ward Relief Society. In describing ward Relief Society officers and their responsibilities, they used terms often associated with priesthood offices, including “deaconesses” and “teachers.”17 Some other ward societies may have followed suit, but deaconesses was never widely adopted. In any case, women were not considered as having priesthood authority simply by virtue of their title.

The role of teacher has played and continues to play an integral role in the Relief Society. Beginning in Nauvoo in 1843, the Relief Society was divided into four geographical units, or wards. Women visited each family to determine physical needs and seek donations.18 According to the document Kimball and Snow prepared for the Fifteenth Ward society, “teachers” were assigned to visit neighborhood blocks once a month to ascertain the temporal and spiritual needs of families and individuals. These teachers reported to a president of the teachers and acted as their own “quorum” or committee, and some kept their own minutes.19 Snow often spoke specifically to these teachers, encouraging personal ministry and discernment. Although the roles and terminology related to visiting committees, teachers, and visiting teachers have changed over time, the concepts of charity and ministry remain the same.

See also:

Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women,” Gospel Topics

Ministering with Authority” section of Introduction, First Fifty Years of Relief Society website

“‘Pure Religion’: Watchcare and Ministering through Visiting Teaching,” Daughters in My Kingdom: The History and Work of Relief Society

Relief Society Membership in the Nineteenth Century

Eliza R. Snow was one of the founding members of the Nauvoo Relief Society. She preserved the original society’s minute book and used it as a pattern when she established and instructed later Relief Societies. Joseph Smith had encouraged the women to act according to parliamentary procedure, a system of rules that emphasized order, the equal right of all members to speak, and keeping minutes of meetings. In Utah, Snow worked to continue many of the practices of the original society.

Because the Nauvoo Relief Society was partly intended to prepare members for the temple, worthiness in this “select Society of the virtuous” was a significant matter. At the 31 March 1842 Relief Society meeting, Joseph Smith said “that none should be received into the society but those who were worthy” and proposed that the “Society go into a close examination of every candidate.” During the same meeting, President Emma Smith said, according to Snow’s minutes, that “we wanted none in this society but those who could and would walk straight and were determined to do good and not evil.”20 In a practice similar to the one used when men entered priesthood quorums, potential Relief Society members were examined for worthiness and loyalty. By 9 June 1842, Joseph Smith suggested that “no person shall be admitted but by presenting regular petition signed by two or three members in good standing in the Society—whoever comes in must be of good report.”21

In 1872, Snow wrote of the original Relief Society: “The Society soon became so popular that even those of doubtful character in several instances applied for admission, and to prevent imposition by extending membership to such ones inadvertently, stricter rules were adopted than seemed requisite at first. Each one wishing to join the Society was required to present a certificate of her good moral character, signed by two or more responsible persons.”22 She taught the women to continue the practice of selective membership. It was not until 1971 that all female members of the church were automatically enrolled in the Relief Society.23

United Order of Enoch

A system called the United Order of Enoch—generally shortened to United Order—stemmed from the scriptural description of Enoch’s “City of Holiness, even Zion,” in which the people were “of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.”24 Inspired in part by this ideal, Joseph Smith first implemented the law of consecration and stewardship under the direction of bishops. Later, Brigham Young encouraged communities of Saints to pool their labor and income to be self-sufficient and to work together to provide for all members. This led to the creation of United Orders in roughly 150 Latter-day Saint settlements in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

United Orders were based on communal agreements to establish cooperative enterprises, share income, and eliminate poverty. Each order operated independently, and bishops had significant discretion in determining how much cooperation was expected in their specific congregations and what form the local order would take. United Orders generally included civic and religious leaders, employees and their employers, and local commercial boards and their investors. In most orders, the members of the order contributed to a common fund and received capital stock and stock payouts. Women usually produced textiles, oversaw education, and provided medical and midwife care, while men worked on farms and public works. Eliza R. Snow encouraged women to do their part and to teach their children and youth to participate as well.

See also:

Consecration and Stewardship,” Church History Topics

Cooperative Movement,” Church History Topics

United Orders,” Church History Topics

Women’s Spiritual Gifts

Eliza R. Snow treasured spiritual gifts as described in the New Testament and in Joseph Smith’s revelations. In March 1842, Joseph Smith summarized these as “the gift of tongues, prophe[c]y, revelation, visions, healing, interpretation of tongues &c.”25 One of the gifts was speaking or singing in tongues, which women often did when they met together. One would speak or sing, and another would interpret. Another spiritual gift women exercised, connected with their ministry among the sick and needy, was to extend blessings of comfort or healing to other women through the laying on of hands and the prayer of faith. Sometimes these blessings involved anointing with oil. As with speaking in tongues, spiritual healing was practiced among nineteenth-century women in evangelical congregations. On 28 April 1842, Joseph Smith instructed Nauvoo Relief Society women in the then-appropriate use of these spiritual gifts, stating, “If the sisters should have faith to heal the sick, let all hold their tongues, and let every thing roll on.”26

Snow and other women spoke in tongues and administered healing blessings in Nauvoo, during the Saints’ trek westward, and in Utah. Sometimes blessings were intended to renew commitment and to bolster faith in small female gatherings that promoted spirituality and sisterhood.

During the twentieth century, church leaders gradually and then exclusively emphasized the scriptural mandate to “call for the elders of the church” (James 5:14) to administer healing blessings.27 The current church handbook states that “only worthy Melchizedek Priesthood holders may administer to the sick or afflicted.”28

See also:

Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women,” Gospel Topics

Gift of Tongues,” Church History Topics

Healing,” Church History Topics

Word of Wisdom

In 1833, two years before Eliza R. Snow was baptized, Joseph Smith received a revelation that soon became known as the Word of Wisdom (today found in section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants). The newly received instruction presented a code of health, forbidding strong or hot drinks. Many early Latter-day Saints, including Snow, understood “hot drinks” to refer to coffee and tea.29 The guideline also advised a diet based on grain and fruit, with meat eaten “sparingly.”

During Snow’s lifetime, church members interpreted the Word of Wisdom in a variety of ways. Some members at this time abstained from coffee and tea, but many accepted them as part of a normal diet.30 In the 1860s and 1870s, Brigham Young renewed an effort for Saints to stop using tea, coffee, tobacco, and liquor.31 Snow carried that directive to the Relief Societies and other organizations to whom she spoke.

In this same time period, Young assigned women to lead out in retrenchment—to be more frugal in meal preparation and clothing while developing home industry and seeking economic self-sufficiency. Snow’s sermons reflect attention to health and women’s domestic reform.

See also:

Retrenchment,” Church History Topics

Word of Wisdom (D&C 89),” Church History Topics

Jed Woodworth, “The Word of Wisdom,” in Revelations in Context