Jill Mulvay Derr on Eliza R. Snow (Smith)

This past Friday, my wife and I (and many other folks) had the privilege of hearing Jill Mulvay Derr speak to the Miller-Eccles study group about Eliza R. Snow Smith. The presentation was great.

Professor Derr talked about the place of Eliza R. Snow Smith: When and how Eliza chose to take Joseph Smith’s name, what it meant, and how that story fits into the other narratives of the church past — polygamy, Emma, the disestablishment and reestablishment of the Relief Society, and the changing role of women in the church between the 1840s and 1880s. The talk was very interesting and informative.

It was held at the Miller-Eccles group in Southern California. I saw many familiar and newly-familiar faces there: Armand Mauss, Mike Parker of FAIR, John and Brooke Williams, and Carolyn Kline and her long-tressed husband (and former T&S guest) Mike McBride, who carried Baby E in the sling the entire time.

I was able to talk briefly to Professor Derr. There is a lot of forthcoming or in-progress material in this area. Her book of Eliza R. Snow’s poetry (written with Karen Lynn Davidson) is coming out next year. Her in-progress biography of Eliza R. Snow (with Kathleen Flake) does not yet have a solid ETA; of course, when it is finished, it becomes an immediate must-own for every student of Mormon history. Professor Derr also read portions of her presentation (relating to the temple trip) from an article in progress, which sounded fascinating.

My notes follow. As with any notes, I tried to be accurate and catch the important things said. I can’t claim to have caught everything, though, and I may have missed points or made inadvertent errors in my writing. Any errors are my own fault, and I hope I don’t misrepresent anyone’s statements here.

9/15/2006 Miller-Eccles – Jill Mulvay Derr on Eliza R. Snow

How Eliza became Eliza R. Snow Smith.
Exploring her relationship with Joseph Smith in four ways:
1.Initial encounter and impressions.
2.The 1842 marriage
3.Relief society work
4.Her use of the Smith name.

In 1868, she was asked by BY to help reestablish Relief Societies in Utah.
From 1868 to her death in 1887, she was the leader of the movement of LDS women.
She was set apart in 1880, but known as the RS leader long before.
Established RS, YW mutual, Primary.
Head of women’s organizations
ERS was the most prominent 19th century LDS woman.
Who she was, in years leading up.

Lived in Ohio, age 4 till the exit by the Saints in 1838.
Published her first poem at 21, under the pseudonym Angerona (the goddess of silence).
Wanted to write, but keep her name unknown.
An old suitor of hers, James Walker (later a Protestant minister, author of a book on the Plan of Salvation that is still in print) was the editor of the magazine she published in.

She met JS in winter 1830-31. Her family was friends with Sidney Rigdon.
She studied JS, said that he had an honest face.
The testimonies of Whitmer & Cowdery “thrilled my soul.�
Juxtaposition – thrilled by the testimonies, not so much by JS himself.
Her mother and sister baptized early, ERS waited 4 more years.
She was a Campbellite (Christian primitivists). Studied with Campbell and Walter Scott, intellectual, powerful orators.
JS probably not as impressive a speaker, at that time.

1835, her mother and sister returned from a meeting, discussing the gifts of the spirit.
ERS was impressed by the gifts of the spirit, and by the restored order of the church.
Joined the church; gave her inheritance for the building of the Kirtland temple.
Lived with Joseph and Emma, twice, in Kirtland.
Deep appreciation of JS as prophet.

Left Kirtland with the Saints.
Wrote much peotry before joining the church.
Wrote two hymns, quickly, after joining. Then, a period of silence.
1836-1839, haven’t found anything she wrote.
Time of dissension, apostasy in Kirtland, move from Ohio.
Tradition (from the GA Smith family) is that ERS was raped by Missourians.
She wrote disproportionately about Missourians, a great deal of rage.

Poem, “On Being Importun’dâ€?, about being asked to write.
Examined in the (forthcoming) Derr/Karen Lynn Davidson book on poetry.
From the 1842-44 journal, including older poems copied over.
Derr & Davidson date this poem to 1839.
The friend may be JS, importuning her to write again.
Some time, maybe more than once, at the end of the Missouri period, he asked her to write, on behalf of the church.

First poems, late 1838, full of rage about persecutions.
Other poetry.
“Narcissa to Narcissus� poem, 1839.
(Narcissa was an early psudonymn she had used in Ravenna Courier poems.)
(She had used many – Narcissa, Ironica, Pocahontas, many more. All pre-joining the church.)
The Narcissa poem may be about JS.
The “deaf ear� stanza – the period of 4 years prior to her baptism.
Is it too much like a love poem to be ERS to JS? Maybe just a powerful friend poem.

Emma and Eliza.
Good friends.
ERS was the RS secretary, traveling with Emma
August 1842, moved into JS household, after June plural marriage to JS.
While living in household, wrote a series of affectionate poems to JS.
(Discussed in Maureen Ursenbach Beecher article in Dialogue, “Inadvertent Disclosure.�)
Poems express a love for JS.
Also, discusses the tension of the secret relationship.
A poem on difficulties. “Does a focus belong to pell mell?� “Deep intricate puzzle.� “Can vice into virtue give birth?�
Poem published. (Neighbor or Wasp).
Did Emma know about the ERS plural marriage? We don’t know.
Tangled poem. She was a friend to Emma, maybe keeping secret from her.
Moving out – no confirmation of the rumors (that Emma threw her down the stairs). Those stories are all many years after the fact, probably unreliable.
Moved out of the Smith house in February 1843.
All we have is a very terse ERS journal entry.

JS gave sermons to the women in Nauvoo – ERS recorded them.
She used the minuted to reestablish the RS, in 1868.
One picture we have of her is from the late 1870’s – an extremely powerful woman.
She administered gifts of the spirit – spoke in tongues, prophecy.
Her titles were presidentess, poetess, prophetess.

1880 trip, with Zina.
In Nauvoo, plural marriage was kept quiet.
Not publicly acknowledged until 1852.
Reorganized church, antipolygamy stance and denial that polygamy ever took place under JS.
RLDS missionaries coming to Utah, 1860s and 70s, the Smith sons.
ERS letter 1879 to Deseret News affirming that JS taught plural marriage, signed as one of JS wives.
Also, wrote a strong piece opposed to the [Supreme Court] Reynolds decision.
At some time in that period, 1879-80, began taking JS name.
Defying both Reynolds and Emma’s anti-polygamy campaign.
The April 1880 Women’s Exponent, identifies her as Eliza R. Snow Smith.
Zina and Emily Partridge experimented with taking Smith name at the same time, but it didn’t stick.
ERS kept JS’s watch, as a relic. Showed it to primary children. Told primary children wherever she visited about plural marriage.
1880, birthday celebration for JS – ERS and Zina recognized, as JS wives.
ERS helped do endowments, in St. George Temple, with Zina.
Trip with Zina – ERS participated in many sealing circles, sealing people to JS.
By the 1880s, widely known as Elisa R. Snow Smith.
Her grave reads Eliza R. Snow Smith.


Q: What was her relationship with BY?

A: Very interesting relationship. She talked about BY in her trail journals. In Utah, the relationship develops. There is initial distance between them. They are united because both are extremely devoted to JS. It was BY who appointed her to do the temple work, reorganize the RS. They were close. BY’s daughter talks about her, sitting at BY’s right hand. There are interesting ERS letters about their familial interactions.

Taking the Smith name, happened later. What is she doing? One part, is reacting to Emma and to the Reynolds decision. She was a tremendous advocate of plural marriage.

Also, in June 1880, she was set apart as RS president. She had been performing the role since 1868, but wasn’t set apart. This expands, but also delimits, her responsibilities. When it was informal, she was in charge of it all. In 1880, the presidencies split – Primary, YW mutual improvement, RS.

1880, in some ways, with JT as president, a different dynamic. She had lived in BY’s household. There was a companionate interaction. This did not happen with JT. Small clashes with JT on administration. One card she could always play, she was a JS wife. She was accustomed to exercising familial family authority.

Q: Having children?

A: There is speculation that she was physically damaged from the rape. Also, the fact that she married late.

Q: And the miscarriage story? Emma, causing miscarriage?

A: The problem is, all the people who tell it are 40 years later. ERS never says anything to indicate this.

Q: Zina was also married to both JS and BY, and she took BY’s name. Why the difference?

A: Zina had children with BY. Also, ERS was a known, independent woman, before she was married either to JS or BY.

Q: Did ERS take Emma’s role, in Utah?

A: Yes. Emma was the first woman endowed, and ministered to the women. ERS took that role in Utah. Womens’ temple work was under the RS direction until 1910 (Bathsheba Smith). (Emmeline Wells, was the first not to hold.)

The priestess and presidentess role, Emma had played, and ERS took that role. We see echoes of this in small towns, the bishop being the husband of the RS president.

The RS suffered, not having that in JT’s presidency. Women’s roles were rationalized, not familialized.

Q: Was she like another first presidency counselor?

Q: Who reined in the RS? We read of early times, women blessing the sick. Who ended that? Was it JT? JFS?

A: JS taught those lessons to the women of the church in Nauvoo. Women could heal the sick. He quoted the scripture in Mark, signs follow all who believe – and he specifically said to the RS, signs follow believers “whether male or female.�

Familial structure existed. Women had power, and ERS maximized the power in that structure.
BY originally said no RS would be reestablished. ERS negotiated this, negotiated a space for women to meet. Institutionalized womens organization. The institutional groundwork survives the polygamy persecutions.

Changes in womens roles on institutionalization. Before institutionalization, women are allowed to heal, and so forth. Afterwards, this is put with the quorums. Also, before, single women serving as missionaries. After institutionalization, questions about priesthood versus non priesthood roles. The move to blessing as a priesthood ordinance. Washing and anointing, which was previously done outside, pulled back to the temple.

Q: JS as a progressive, regarding women.

A: Yes. BY, too, by the end of his life.

Q: What was ERS relation with Emma after leaving the JS home?

A: We still see Emma mentioned in the diary, she is not avoiding her. There were negative encounters with unnamed people (perhaps Emma), but ERS was very guarded.
She wrote a poem, November 1844, for David Smith birth.
Both ERS and Emma were absent from RS meetings, in 1843.

Q: BY wariness of the RS – a holdover from Nauvoo, where the RS served as Emma’s anti-polygamy dissent group.

A: Yes. We see this in the 1844 reconvening of the RS. Meeting covering the petition against polygamy.
There is little information about what was said at the meeting. We don’t know.
Emma made statements about acting under her authority – we don’t know how to read them.
JT later said, Emma used her position in the RS to pervert the sisters, to oppose polygamy.
JS himself, said he had no trouble on plural marriage until the RS petition against it.

Q: BY also worried about other power centers. He closed the RS, he closed the 70s quorums.

A: BY statement, March 1845 – I don’t want the RS to meet again. Very strongly worded statement.
By 1868 reestablishment, under ERS, ERS making very clear, the sisters won’t speak against polygamy.

Q: Did ERS see herself as holding the priesthood? What was her perception?

A: Good question. She says, in her rhetoric to the RS, “do we not hold the priesthood?� The priesthood is not men, it is the power of God to transform. The importance of working with the priesthood.
Later, after statements made limiting her authority, she would decline to bless, say, “if I had the power.�

17 comments for “Jill Mulvay Derr on Eliza R. Snow (Smith)

  1. September 18, 2006 at 9:39 am

    Kaimi, I thought the rules for attending this group included “no recording”–isn’t publicly posting a report (not to mention quoting participants by name, presumably without permission) a breach of those rules?

  2. meems
    September 18, 2006 at 9:42 am

    Wow, what an interesting lecture and an amazing woman. I’d love to know more about her. Would have loved to have been there. Thanks so much for including this write up and these notes, but next time, could you please include the full-color PowerPoint with visuals that you do so well?

  3. meems
    September 18, 2006 at 9:44 am

    Ha! I didn’t see the Deep Sea’s comment before I posted. I don’t think posting notes is the same as “no recording” though. I think it’s actually really different. Isn’t it?

  4. Rosalynde Welch
    September 18, 2006 at 10:14 am

    Hi Deep Sea— The directors of the group are fine with notes being disseminated in this way, and in fact have made their own notes available for that purpose on occasion.

  5. Kaimi Wenger
    September 18, 2006 at 11:05 am


    I’ve seen Miller-Eccles notes made available before, so I don’t think I’m breaching ettiquette there. I asked Jill about it, and I mentioned it to a Miller Eccles director at the meeting, who seemed okay with it.

    You’re right about the notes on specific questions; I noted down when people I knew (like Mike McBride) asked a question, because, well, they were my notes. That was up here at first; for this forum, I’ve now taken out that information.

  6. Russ Frandsen
    September 18, 2006 at 11:35 am

    At Miller Eccles, we do have a “no recording” policy. I have in the past sent out summaries of our meetings. I always ask permission from the speaker before making notes or summaries available. As a courtesy to our speakers, anyone who wishes to publicly circulate notes of a presentation should discuss it with our speakers.

    Prof. Derr made a highly interesting presentation. Thanks to Kaimi for note taking. I hope to see a lot of you at our next meeting in October with Joseph Bentley describing the legal trials of Joseph Smith.

    On the issue of equality of the sexes, Eliza R. Snow believed in the absolute equality of the sexes before the fall. She believed that the fall introduced temporary circumstances for mortality, and that in the post-mortal life, full equality will be reestablished. She believed the Priesthood Power is the power to redeem in this mortal life.

  7. September 18, 2006 at 11:55 am

    Thanks for this. I will very much look forward to the autobiography. The last response that you gave (“if I had the power”) seems a bit anachronistic and I have a hard time putting it in a chronology. Granted, it was much earlier, but one of my favorite stories is one which President Grant told in General Conf. on five sepperate occasions (if I remember correctly). As a boy he was playing on the floor during a Relief Society meeting and Eliza blesses him in tongues…good stuff.

  8. September 18, 2006 at 11:56 am

    er, biography.

  9. Kaimi Wenger
    September 18, 2006 at 1:28 pm

    Also, DMI Dave has a write-up of the presentation (from Saturday, I think, because I didn’t see him there on Friday — though it sounds pretty much the same) at Bloggernacle Times: http://www.bloggernacle.org/?p=427 .

  10. September 18, 2006 at 2:09 pm

    “Her in-progress biography of Eliza R. Snow (with Kathleen Flake) does not yet have a solid ETA; of course, when it is finished, it becomes an immediate must-own for every student of Mormon history.”

    No kidding! Melissa has been looking for a decent biography of Eliza R. Snow (as well as a decent biography of Mary Fielding Smith) for years. The publication of Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith, so that finally there was a scholarly biography of the Prophet to match Avery and Newell’s bio of Emma, only makes our desire for an ERS bio even stronger. Keep at it, Professor Derr!

  11. September 18, 2006 at 2:15 pm

    So interesting. Thank you, Kaimi.

  12. Kaimi Wenger
    September 18, 2006 at 2:29 pm

    FWIW, Russell, I asked what the best existing source was on Eliza, and she recommended Maureen Ursenbach Beecher’s book, The Pesonal Writings of Eliza R. Snow.

  13. anon
    September 18, 2006 at 4:18 pm

    what’s the rape story? never heard allusions to that.

  14. paul frandsen
    September 18, 2006 at 6:14 pm

    Kaimi, thank you for the post. I so wanted to be at the meeting Saturday night, but it didn’t work out. ERS is fascinating. What a powerful biography to have out and sold in deseret book like RSR has been (hopefully sheri dew can facilitate that type of wide distribution).

    It was also nice to get more clarification regarding emma and eliza on the stairs. Reading your post points out my deficiencies in knowledge from that period. Information on that era seems hard to come by from unbiased sources?

  15. Kaimi Wenger
    September 18, 2006 at 7:33 pm


    That was a first for me, too. Jill said her source was a traditional account from the George Albert Smith family.


    The stairs story has always been a fun one, and a little too good to be true in my opinion. Emma catches Joseph and Eliza kissing, throws Eliza down the stairs, causes her to miscarry and never have children.

    The story is in Brodie (at 375) and in Mormon Enigma (134). According to Tippets and Avery, it first appeared in print in 1887 in an anti-Mormon source. Jill Derr seemed highly skeptical of the story.

  16. Tatiana
    September 18, 2006 at 7:47 pm

    I’m so glad to get more information about her. I would love to learn more about her life and the life of Emmaline B. Wells. It seems the early church was very progressive on women’s rights and roles. I wonder what happened? Do you think we can get there again? I think we are being aimed in that direction, perhaps.

  17. September 19, 2006 at 6:16 pm

    Todd and I attended the Sat. night session and left wanting more discussion. It sounds like perhaps the orange county meeting was able to fit more in. I thought it was interesting to see her as a progressive on women’s rights and roles while also being a fierce advocate of plural marriage and a staunch believer in the purpose of priesthood power on earth. It makes me want to get into her head. I can’t wait for the biography.

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