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Eliza R. Snow, Account of 1868 Commission, as Recorded in “Sketch of My Life,” April 13, 1885 (Excerpt)

Eliza R. Snow, “Sketch of My Life,” Apr. 13, 1885, pp. [1], [36]–[37] (excerpt); Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley (BANC MSS P-F 57 v.1).

See images of the original document, courtesy of Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, CA.

In the spring of 1868 Brigham Young commissioned Eliza R. Snow to assist in reestablishing local Relief Societies. The following excerpt from her handwritten autobiographical account titled “Sketch of My Life” is the only surviving reference from Snow to that appointment.1 Snow penned “Sketch of My Life” in 1885 for historian Hubert Howe Bancroft, who was then collecting information for his History of Utah.2 Snow does not date the commission, but it seems to be closely tied to the April 1868 general conference, when Young repeated his call for the organization of ward Relief Societies.3

Young likely chose Snow, one of his plural wives who lived with the majority of his other wives and children in the Lion House in Salt Lake City, for this assignment in part because of her familiarity with the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes. As Snow noted in this life sketch, she had served as secretary of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo (1842–1844). Snow’s participation in the 1854–1858 Relief Society meetings appears to have been limited, at least in part, because of her assignment from Young to administer women’s temple ordinances in the Endowment House on the temple block in Salt Lake City. Nevertheless, minutes for a September 1855 church meeting in the Eighteenth Ward note “an Exho[r]tation to the Sisters by Sister Eliza R Snow also remarks by the Bishop in regard to organizing a society to make up clothing for the Poor.”4

Eliza R. Snow

Eliza R. Snow. 1866. Celebrated poet Eliza R. Snow posed for this photo two years before her husband, Brigham Young, commissioned her to assist in organizing local branches of the Relief Society. As Snow worked closely with other women leaders, the Relief Society became the platform for organizing what would become the Young Women and Primary organizations. Snow was set apart as general president of the Relief Society in 1880 and continued to oversee Relief Society work until her death in 1887. Latter-day Saints honored her as the president of all of the women’s organizations. Photograph by the studio of Savage and Ottinger. (Church History Library, Salt Lake City.)

Sketch of my Life5 … [p. [1]] …

The “Female Relief Society” was organized by Joseph Smith in Nauvoo on the 17th of March, 1842. It was organized after the pattern of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day-Saints, with President and Counselors, and accomplished much good in administering to the sick, relieving the wants of the poor, etc. The prophet had donated to the Society a Lot, and the frame of a house, as a commencement for establishing a home for the homeless, but the ruthless hand of persecution thwarted this benevolent purpose—the Prophet was massacred and the Saints driven from their homes.

From the time of the expulsion from Nauvoo, the Female Relief Society remained in status quo until it was reorganized under the direction of Pres. B. Young in the year 1855, commencing in the Fifteenth Ward, S.L. City.6

As I had been intimately associated with, and had officiated as Secretary for the first organization, Pres. Young commissioned me to assist the Bishops in organizing Branches of the Society in their respective Wards; for, at that time, the Bishops had not acquainted themselves with the movement, and did not know how to proceed. To me it was quite a mission, and I took much pleasure in its performance. I felt quite honored and much at home in my associations with the Bishops, and they appreciated my assistance. Each Branch of the Society, although constituting a self-governing body, and empowered to create committees and whatever officers may be needed from time 〈to time,〉 in accomplishing its many and increasing labors, is under the direction of its respective Bishop or presiding officer of the Ward.7

Not long after the re-organization of the Relief Society, Pres. Young told me he was going to give me a 〈another〉 mission. Without the least intimation of what the mission consisted, I replied, “I shall endeavor to fulfil it.” He said, “I want you to instruct the sisters.8 Altho’ my heart went “pit a pat” for the time being, I did not, and could not then form an adequate estimate of the magnitude of the work before me. To carry into effect the President’s requisition, I saw, at once, involved public meetings and public speaking—also travel abroad, [p. [36]] as the Branches of the Society of the sisterhood extended at that time, through several Counties in Utah, and ultimately, all the vallies of the mountains—numbering, at present date, nearly three hundred; besides other Branches in the U.S., Europe, Asia, Islands of the sea, wherever the “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day-Saints” has established its Branches.9 Some years ago, by mutual consent, the word female was dropped, and the Society called “Relief Society.”10

Its first duty is to look after and relieve the wants of the poor, to accomplish which committees are appointed to visit each family residing in their respective districts, at least, 〈once〉 every month, and report to the presiding officers. The cultivation of the members of the Society (which is composed of aged and middle-aged women) physically, mentally, morally, and spiritually, is another prominent feature of the institution, which has proved very beneficial. At the time of its organization in Salt Lake City, the Saints were very poor, and the funds of the Society were raised by contributions of carpet rags, pieces for patchwork etc., which were converted into carpets, quilts—wool carded, spun, and knitted into socks and stockings, by the industry of the members, who met together, sometimes weekly, at others, once in two weeks, to work the crude material into wearing and saleable articles. … [p. [37]] …


  1. [1]The complete document is published in Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, ed., The Personal Writings of Eliza Roxcy Snow, Writings of Frontier Women 5 (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2000), 3, 6–45. Beecher notes that this sketch was likely a revised draft of the memoir Snow wrote for Edward Tullidge’s Women of Mormondom, published in 1877. Tullidge quoted extensively from Snow’s memoir, but his volume does not include Snow’s Relief Society recollections excerpted here. (Edward W. Tullidge, The Women of Mormondom [New York: Tullidge and Crandall, 1877].)

  2. [2]Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of Utah, 1540–1886, Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft 26 (San Francisco: History Company, 1889). A footnote in Bancroft (719n97) references information from Snow’s autobiography, and she is also mentioned as vice president of the Deseret Silk Association in 1880 (726n23). Bancroft’s history makes no mention of the Relief Society or Snow’s leadership of women. For more information on manuscripts collected by Bancroft, see two articles by George Ellsworth: “Hubert Howe Bancroft and the History of Utah,” Utah Historical Quarterly 22, no. 2 (Apr. 1954): 99–124; and “A Guide to the Manuscripts in the Bancroft Library Relating to the History of Utah,” Utah Historical Quarterly 22, no. 3 (July 1954): 197–248.

  3. [3]See Document 3.4.

  4. [4]Eighteenth Ward, Salt Lake Stake, General Minutes, 1854–1976, CHL, vol. 5, Sept. 6, 1855. The Eighteenth Ward bishop at that time was Lorenzo Dow Young, brother of Brigham Young.

  5. [5]text: Title triple underlined in original. The ellipsis points in this excerpt have been supplied by the editors of this volume to indicate omissions from the original document.

  6. [6]Brigham Young called for the organization of ward Relief Societies in June 1854, primarily for the purpose of making clothing for Indian women and children; these groups were sometimes known as Indian Relief Societies. Snow may have differentiated the short-term task of those societies, which ended early in 1855, from the more extended work of caring for the poor. Lydia Granger was appointed president of the Fifteenth Ward Relief Society in 1855, but no Fifteenth Ward Relief Society records are extant for this period. (See introduction to Part 2; Document 2.1; and History, n.d., in Fifteenth Ward, Salt Lake Stake, Relief Society Annual Message, 1873, CHL.)

  7. [7]For Snow’s elaboration on the Relief Society’s organizational structure and relationship to priesthood leaders, see Document 3.6.

  8. [8]At the founding meeting of the Relief Society, Joseph Smith “read the Revelation to Emma Smith, from the book of Doctrine and Covenants; and stated that she was ordain’d at the time, the Revelation was given, to expound the scriptures to all; and to teach the female part of community; and that not she alone, but others, may attain to the same blessings.” (Document 1.2, entry for Mar. 17, 1842; see also Document 1.1.)

  9. [9]The phrase “Numbers 300 branches, July 24, 1880” was inscribed with other words and images on a white silk banner that accompanied three carriages transporting Relief Society leaders in the 1880 Pioneer Day Jubilee procession in Salt Lake City. The banner is preserved in the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City. (“Year of Jubilee,” Woman’s Exponent, Aug. 1, 1880, 9:36; see also p. 436 herein.)

  10. [10]In the fall of 1872, Eliza Snow proposed “the omission of the word ‘Female,’ and the calling of these associations merely ‘Relief Societies.’” Since the name had been established by vote (in the original Female Relief Society of Nauvoo), Snow said, the modification would be “done legally” only if it were approved by vote “from a majority of those interested.” Consequently, local Relief Societies reported the voting in their individual wards. (“F. R. Society Reports,” Woman’s Exponent, Oct. 15, 1872, 1:74; see, for example, “F. R. Society Reports” in Woman’s Exponent, Nov. 15, 1872, 1:90; and Dec. 1, 1872, 1:98.)