Eliza Snow, Zion’s Poetess

Perhaps the image most people have when they think of Mormon music is that of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and its towering, soaring rendition of hymns.   In my book, I feature no Mormon women.  That oversight is now corrected.

The most remarkable Eliza Roxcy Snow was born in Massachusetts to Baptist parents, but the Snows welcomed many different religious believers into their home. The family moved to Ohio when Roxcy was two.  Her father held several public offices and she often helped him with clerical duties which helped her develop organizational skill useful to her in later life.  In 1828, they joined Alexander Campbell’s movement, the Disciples of Christ.  When Joseph Smith moved into Hiram, Ohio in 1831 four miles from the Snow family farm, Snow’s mother and sister joined Smith’s Church of Christ.  In 1835, Roxcy was baptized into the Mormon Church and moved to Kirtland, Ohio, the church headquarters.  She donated her fairly large inheritance to the building of the Kirtland Temple.  Roxcy taught school for Smith’s extended family and influenced her younger brother, Lorenzo to become a Mormon.  Lorenzo later became the church’s fifth president.    As the church moved west, she also moved.  After Smith was killed in June of 1844, she claimed to have secretly wed him in June of 1842 as a plural wife.  This, however contrasted with a thousand signature petition she organized in June, 1842 denying Smith was connected with polygamy.  As secretary of the Ladies’ Relief Society, she published a certificate in October 1842 denouncing polygamy.  It appears she must have been conflicted on this subject, at least in this time frame.  Meanwhile, she became the first secretary of the Nauvoo Ladies’ Relief Society under the presidency of Emma, Smith’s first wife.  After Smith’s death, she married Brigham Young as a plural wife and traveled west to the Salt Lake Valley in October 1847.  She always sat to the right of Brigham Young at dinner and family prayer and was his right hand man, for he consulted with her over most things.   When Young appointed her president of a reorganized Relief Society in 1866, she traveled throughout the Utah territory to encourage women to attend meetings, sustain the male leaders and support Young’s programs.  As president of the society until her death in 1887, she emphasized spirituality and self-sufficiency.  The Society sent women to medical school, opened a hospital, operated cooperative stores, and built granaries.  At her death, the relief society had over 22,000 members.  In addition, she traveled all over Utah to promote women’s suffrage, became the editor of the first woman’s newspaper in the world, Women’s Exponent, edited a women’s magazine, helped found Utah’s first hospitals, oversaw a women’s cooperative store, created a silk industry run by LDS women, and published Sunday School hymnals, all to further build the Kingdom of God on earth.  I imagine she could find the time to do all this because, unlike most women of that era, she had no children of her own.  Though she was buried next to Brigham Young, she took the name of Smith in her later years.

Even before her acquaintance with the Mormon Church, she wrote poetry, even writing school lessons in rhyme.  From 1826 to 1832, she published over 20 poems under several pen names.  Some of her poems were later set to music and became important Mormon hymns.  She continued to write religious poetry that was set to music throughout her life. Roxcy wrote as she went to Salt Lake Valley documenting the trail and Utah life.  Joseph Smith called her “Zion’s Poetess”.   Today, the Mormon hymnal includes ten of her works.   One hymn, “Great is the Lord” was published in the Latter Day Saints hymnal in 1835.  Though it has been attached to different tunes, a current LDS composer, Joan Lisonbee Sowards, has put the poem to music.

Susan Adams, Indiana Music Through and Through

Since writing my book and my blog, I have had the opportunity to give presentations to various groups and meet many wonderful new people.  Such happened recently.   At the annual meeting of the Association of Disciple Musicians (ADM), I met Susan Adams.  She nonchalantly mentioned after I gave my first presentation that she had written a hymn published in the Chalice Hymnal of the Disciples of Christ.  I immediately and joyfully interviewed her.   Susan was born in New Albany, Indiana in 1946, a sixth generation Disciple of Christ.  She had the musical talent to study music at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, the largest of the Seven Sisters colleges.  Thereafter, she taught middle school music for 43 years, and was music director and Central Christian Church in New Albany.   She had been a member of ADM for 35 years, and was president of that organization when the idea of the Chalice Hymnal arose.  In 1987, she went to the General Assembly of the Disciples of Christ and they gave the go ahead to work on the new hymnal, even though they had no funds for it.  Thus, the reason it wasn’t published until 1995.   Susan served on the editorial board for the hymnal. Though she is retired from both these endeavors, she is still active, both at the United Church of Christ where she rings bells, sings, and plays the piano and at Corydon Christian Church in Corydon, Indiana where she plays chimes and is choir director.

“I Come to Be Baptized Today” was written during the 1989-1990 school year, later revised in 1993.  She was taking a class in hymnody at Indiana University while working on a doctorate degree.  Her professor, the noted organist Marilyn Keiser, assigned the students to write a hymn.  Not that many hymns relate directly to baptism, and particularly to baptism by immersion, but certainly Susan Adams’ does.  “The waters clear shall soon enfold my body and my old life, too.”  The hymn also refers to standing before the open door.  She said that was inspired by a stained glass window at her New Albany church depicting Christ knocking at the door, a depiction I assume to be based on Revelation 3:20.

I thank you, Susan, for sharing your hymn with us.  And I thank all the other people who have given me new insights on women and hymnody over the past three years.