Eliza R. Snow’s Elegies and Mormon Theology

For six weeks in the summer of 2010, researchers convened at the Maxwell Institute to investigate the theme “The Foundations of Mormon Theology.” The seminar was sponsored by the Mormon Scholars Foundation, hosted by the Maxwell Institute, and directed by Terryl Givens.The 2010 Summer Seminar Working Papers were presented at a BYU symposium on July 8, 2010. Working papers are unpublished, unedited, unpolished drafts. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the Maxwell Institute or BYU.

 

One year into her public poetic career, Eliza R. Snow received a printed request from the editors of the Ravenna, Ohio, Western Courier, to “‘sing the mournful Requiem of our departed Sages, Jefferson and Adams.’”1 Throughout her career, Snow composed numerous elegies, most about less illustrious or “historically significant”2 subjects. Like renowned nineteenth-century poet Lydia Huntley Sigourney, Snow wrote over two dozen elegies for children, almost half of the total number of elegies she wrote.3 The rest of Snow’s elegies were mostly for members of the church community, leaders and laypeople alike. Snow’s elegies provided fertile ground for the exploration of a Mormon theology of death.

In her poems, Snow presented a developing Mormon doctrine of death that accounted not only for resurrection, a renewal of the body, but for an active continuation of spiritual life after death and an eventual reunion of family members. This eschatology was based on an “optimistic sorrow,”4 which permitted circumscribed mourning for the deceased. A group of three elegies, composed to honor four members of the Smith family, serve as excellent illustrations of Snow outlining a distinctively Mormon eschatology. With these elegies, Snow conceptualized the continuation of ecclesiastical life after death, contributing to the idea of an invisible church structure beyond the veil. Overall, Snow’s elegizing contributed to the vibrancy of death in the culture and theology of Mormonism.

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Considered chronologically, Snow’s elegies reflect an expanding eschatological vision. This vision eventually leads to a sharper picture of family members linked together and participating in post-mortal work. In her earlier elegies, departed spirits join their Mormon brothers and sisters on the other side. Assurance of these spirits’ welfare comes from knowing that they died in a state of righteousness. As Snow’s compositions approach the date of the martyrdom and continue beyond it, departed spirits become more active after death. In the same way that she visualizes the Smiths advocating Zion’s cause before the throne of heaven she visualizes ordinary saints participating in an essential gospel work.

In the elegy for Robert Thompson, addressed to his wife, Mercy Thompson,5 Snow expresses great sympathy for the bereft Mercy: “Fair mourner, I would gladly quell/ Thy grief, and bid thy sorrows rest;/ But ah I’m bound with sorrow’s spell,/ And grief is lab’ring in my breast!” (1-4). Grief renders her poetry ineffectual: “My lyre is all unstrung—/Its cords seem flutt’ring lose on air/ Its keys unnerved . . . with grief” (13-16). But Snow quickly comforts Mercy with “faith,” which “sounds a triumph o’er the tomb” (24). “Celestial glory” subdues Snow’s grief and revives her lyre (see 30-31). Snow assures Mercy that “‘Tis well with the departed one:/ His christian lamp was shining bright. . . . His spirit join’d ‘the saints in light’” (33-36). Thus, comfort comes from knowing Robert was a worthy Christian during his life, which has assured him a place with the blessed. Snow does not specify what Robert will be doing with “‘the saints in light’.”

Similarly in Oliver Granger’s 1841 elegy,6 Snow focuses on Granger’s restful state after he has completed his earthly race (see 14): “He sleeps—his troubles here, are o’er. . . . His spirit has returned to God,/ To mingle with the blest” (23-24). This elegy encourages hope by looking “forward to a scene/ Where sorrow will not intervene,/ Nor friends, of friends, be reft” (29-30). This general belief in post-resurrection unity becomes more specific in later child elegies, where Snow presents the poetic possibility that children will be reunited with their parents in an eternally efficacious way. Snow metaphorizes five-year-old Nathan Pratt as a flower killed by frost and as a “tender branch . . . torn/ Assunder from the parent tree” (37-38). In the day of resurrection, Nathan “back to the trunk . . . shall be borne,/ And grafted for eternity” (39-40)

Increased specificity in post-mortal activities can be seen in Snow’s 1844 “Reflections at the Funeral of Joel F. Scovil,” who died at the age of fourteen. After she expresses aggrieved feelings, “the spirit of the living God” (26) imparts a “vision” to her “mind” that “all/ Is well” (28-29). She confidently proclaims, “He’s gone to do a work for them [his parents]/ Of everlasting consequence” (30-31). Speaking of the infant Don Carlos Lyman, Snow says, “Sweet was its visit but its stay/ On earth was short—’twas call’d away/ By kindred spirits to fulfil/ Its calling and Jehovah’s will” (9-12). Even an infant has an important calling that God has called it to do, a calling that will be performed beyond the veil. The hope for reunion with loved ones, as well as a sense of their special mission, weakens death and its attendant sorrow and comfortingly designates death as one step in a saint’s eternal progression.

“A family of martyrs”7 : The Smiths

The existence and importance of a work beyond the veil achieves its height in the group of elegies for the church’s first family, the Smiths, including Joseph Smith Sr., Don Carlos Smith, and Joseph Smith Jr. and Hyrum Smith. Snow encourages the sacred Zion community to mourn their fallen heroes’ deaths before considering their now-exalted station. The Smiths are pictured very specifically as carrying on the work beyond the grave and interceding for Zion’s cause before God’s throne.

The first elegy Snow published following her elegy on Jefferson and Adams, and her first for a Mormon, was on Joseph Smith Sr.8 Snow portrays Nauvoo in 1840 as a sacred community replete with mourners: “Zion’s noblest sons are weeping:/ See her daughters, bath’d in tears,/ Where the Patriarch is sleeping. . . . That his loss is felt sincerely,/ Thousand weeping saints declare” (lines 1-3; 11-12). The elevated tone of this poem underscores the gravity of Joseph Sr.’s passing to the Saints. She enumerates his worthy qualities and his value to the Zion community, but says that the community would “not recall him/ From a paradise of bliss” (33-34). They have his memory to cherish (39) and their faith to console them and soothe their grief (42). Their faith should reside in the fact that “his spirit’s flown/ Upward, to a holier station,/Nearer the celestial throne” (42-44).

But, having faith in the fact that Joseph Smith Sr. is at home in a heavenly realm is not the complete cause for the Saints’ consolation. Rather, it is what he is doing “nearer the celestial throne” that gives them comfort. There he “plead[s] the cause of Zion,/ In the council of the JUST —/ In the court, the saints rely on,/ Pending causes to ADJUST”(43-46).

This sounds like it could have come from a Catholic hagiography and not from a Mormon elegy. The idea of a deceased saint interceding at the throne of heaven seems to subvert a Christ-centered soteriology, which Mormons followed. At the same time, it fits with the Mormon notion of postmortem spiritual conversion.

According to Mary Ann Meyers, “This conception of a dynamic afterlife was not greatly emphasized until after the prophet’s death,” and she cites Parley Pratt’s elaboration of “the Spirit world as a ‘place of preparation, instruction or education, where spirits are chastened or improved.’”9 Meyers mentions a couple of references by Joseph Smith Jr. to the nature of the afterlife, including the King Follett assertion that “I know that my testimony is true, hence when I talk to these mourners; what have they lost, they are only separated from their bodies for a short season; their spirits existed co-equal with God, and they now exist in a place where they converse together, the same as we do on earth.”10 Yet, in a sermon Joseph Smith Jr. delivered in October 1843 commemorating the death of General James Adams, he is recorded to have said the following: “He had . . .gone to a more important work—of opening up a more effectualdoor for the dead. The spirits of the just are exalted to a greater andmore glorious work—hence they are blessed in departing hence.Enveloped in flaming fire, they are not far from us.”11

This is another piece of evidence that Joseph Smith Jr. had been working with the idea of spiritual work beyond the grave for a few years before his death. Indeed, Snow’s appropriation of this idea for the elegies on the Smith family might be added support for the existence of the idea in Mormon thought even earlier. Regardless of the date of the idea’s emergence, it does seem fairly clear that her elegies elevate the Smith family to a special status in Mormonism by placing them in significant post-mortal roles. This can be seen in the next elegy she wrote for a Smith, Don Carlos, who died at the age of twenty-five.12 In this elegy, her eschatological hagiography expands to include a linking of Smith family members’ post-mortal efforts. Again, the tone of this elegy is elevated, almost epic: “Th’ insatiate archer, Death, once more/ Has bath’d his shaft in human gore” (1-2). After listing Don Carlos’s graces—“pure integrity of heart” (15), “devotedness to Zion’s weal” (18), and “a reputation free from blame” (20)—she expresses a sense of corporate grief: “Ours, is the sorrow—ours the loss” (25). But she instantly frames it within a redemption narrative. It is “thro’ the triumphs of the Cross” that “his noble part by death [is] set free” (26-27). Don Carlos follows in “the steps the Savior trod,” thus reaching paradise (see 29-30).

Once there, “he rejoins the ransom’d choir” (31), which likely refers to the community of the saints, “the Spirits of the just” (37)—those who have been saved through faith and righteousness. With a brief homage to Patriarch Smith, Snow says that Don Carlos “hails his noble sire” (32) who “left us for the courts above” (36). In this environment, “where Zion’s welfare is discuss’d” (38), “once more, their kindred spirits join—/ Once more, their efforts to combine/ In Zion’s cause” (39-41). This suggests that Smith family members, along with their patriarchal head, take the lead in the spiritual work being done on the other side. Such a suggestion could be a rhetorical device—an encomium for the sake of an encomium. But, Snow seems to be participating in the project of eschatological familial linking in a special way with the Smiths. They were saints on earth and they are saints in heaven. Their memories are meant to live on. After all, they have nobly led the way by following Christ’s footsteps into heaven. Snow sanctions communal mourning for Don Carlos: “Yes, mourn:—the loss is great to earth—/ A loss of high exalted worth!” (47-48), and ends the poem on that note without any further attempt at mitigating the loss of the Smiths’ deaths.

Sam Brown has noted one of the most important characteristics of the beautiful death,13 a nineteenth-century cultural approach to death and dying. He says, “Perhaps most importantly, the beautiful death emphatically focused on the family ties and friendships about to be dissolved, through both an expressive bereavement and the emphasis on the coherence of the community.”14 In this cultural tradition, appropriate grieving was required. Snow’s emphasis on mourning for the lost members of the Smith family made sense within the culture of the beautiful death but it did not necessarily match the minimalistic Mormon approach to grieving. Her desire to establish ties between the members of the Smith family not only fit within beautiful death culture and within Mormon theology. More importantly, it fleshed out that theology in a vividly poetic way.

Max Cavitch notes, “In literary history, as in all other protocols of remembrance, enshrinement may function as a form of banishment as well as celebration. Elegies, like the persons by whom and about whom they are composed, make bids for immortality. . . . Elegies are among the persistent cultural expressions of the impulse to survive—literally, to live beyond—death’s assaults upon the human (or textual) body and consciousness.”15 Writing elegies memorializing the dead Smiths ensured that they would live on in mourners’ memories. Her elegies become, in a sense, their bodies, their portraits, their representations on earth. Just as the Smiths were linked as a family on earth, in their deaths they are linked spiritually through their poetic portrayals. The lineal chain extends into their poetic post-mortal lives. The capstone elegy that completes the chain is the one written for the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith.16

Snow’s tone here is truly epic. In the first line she calls the “heav’ns” and “all the earth” (1), “Gods and seraphs, men and angels” (2) to hear her verses so that “worlds on high—the universe shall know/ What awful scenes are acted here below” (3-4). To express the sense of devastation about these deaths, she calls upon the earth itself as a possible mourner. She does not see nature as animate, but if it were, “had nature’s self a heart, her heart would bleed/ At the recital of that horrid deed” (5-6). Even if “all thy streams in teary torrents shed/ To mourn the fate of those illustrious dead;/ How vain the tribute” (15-17). She twice expresses an idea similar to the one expressed by John Taylor in the canonized document that is D&C 135: “For never, since the Son of god was slain/ Has blood so noble, flow’d from human vein” (7-8); and “The blackest deed that men or devils know/ Since Calv’ry’s scene, has laid the brothers low!” (69-70).

The mourning of other nations for their “great . . . and mighty men” (41) cannot have been as merited as mourning for “two, so wise, so virtuous, great and good,/ [who] Before on earth, at once, have never stood/ Since the creation” (42-43). Thus, the sacred community “Zion mourns” (67) both a “Prophet, from whose lips have flow’d/ The words of life” (59-60) and “an earthly head” (67). “All hearts with sorrow bleed, and ev’ry eye/ Is bath’d in tears—each bosom heaves a sigh” (75-76). The poem concludes with Snow’s injunction to “be still, and know that God is just” (79). And, as with Joseph Sr. and Don Carlos, she points to Joseph Jr.’s and Hyrum’s role in the afterlife. “The noble martyrs now have gone to move/ The cause of Zion in the courts above” (83-84). They are included in their family’s legacy of work in the spirit world.

This legacy entered the public record as the idea became an increasingly important part of Mormon theology and culture. Twelve years following the martyrdom, “the Western Standard commented that the murderers ‘did not realize that they were removing [Joseph and Hyrum] to a sphere of far more extended usefulness, where they could more effectively help—because [they were] unfettered and untrammeled—to roll forward the designs of God in relation to this latter dispensation.’”17 Joseph Smith Jr.’s death was unlike his father’s in that Joseph Jr.’s death was not a beautiful one, as Douglas Davies has pointed out. For Davies, “it is precisely because he [Smith] was killed that his death is open to a variety of interpretations and becomes a powerful vehicle for value-laden significance.”18 Joseph Smith Jr.’s death is still the most prominent death in Mormonism, and Snow’s elegy records the beginnings of the martyrdom’s traditional significance.

Eliza R. Snow’s elegies develop a specific, uniquely Mormon concept of death’s conquest. She asserts the conviction that death is overcome through Christ’s sacrifice and that it is an active way station for spirits, rather than a restful final destination. The formulation of the premillennial afterlife as a continuation of earthly missions creates an optimistic attitude toward death among Mormons today. Snow’s words upon the death of Willard Richards19 are still theologically salient: “He’s not dead: He has laid his mortality by,/ And has gone to appear in the councils on high—/ In the bonds of pure fellowship; there to be/ with the Saviors that dwell in Eternity” (5-9).

 

NOTES

1. Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry, ed. Jill Mulvay Derr and Karen Lynn Davidson (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2009), 11.

2. Cavitch, American Elegy, 147.

3. See Cavitch, American Elegy, 146.

4. Bishop, M. Guy, “To Overcome the ‘Last Enemy’: Early Mormon Perceptions of Death,” in BYU Studies 26, no. 3 (1986), 3.

5. “Lines Addressed to Mrs. Mercy R. Thompson, the Bereaved Consort of the Late Col. R. B. Thompson, Deceased: of the City of Nauvoo, Ill.” in Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry,184.

6. “Lines, Suggested by Intelligence of the Death of Elder Oliver Granger; and Are Respectfully Inscribed to His Mourning Relatives,” in Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry,187-188.

7. Brown, Samuel. “The ‘Beautiful Death’ in the Smith Family,” in BYU Studies 45, no. 4 (2006), 142.

8. “Elegy On the Death of the Dearly Beloved, and Much Lamented Father in Israel, Joseph Smith Sen. a Patriarch in the Church of Latter-day Saints; Who Died at Nauvoo, Sept. 14th, 1840,” in Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry, 124-126.

9. Meyers, Mary Ann. “Gates Ajar: Death in Mormon Thought and Practice,” in Death in America, ed. David E. Stannard (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), 119.

10. Times and Seasons, p. 615.

11. Ehat, Andrew F. and Lyndon W. Cook. The Words of Joseph Smith (Orem, UT: Grandin Book Company, 1994), 253.

12. Snow, Eliza R. “Lines, Written on the Death of Gen. Don Carlos Smith,” in Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry, 173-175.

13. Some of the characteristics of this phenomenon include a desire for forewarning of death, a faithful and righteous placidity on the deathbed, the presence of earthly and heavenly visitors around the deathbed, and the preservation of the corpse following burial.

14. Brown, “The ‘Beautiful Death’ in the Smith Family,” 124. The Smith family, particularly Joseph Smith Sr., enacted his death in this manner. Lucy Smith incorporated the rest of her family into the beautiful death schema (see 142).

15. Cavitch, Max. American Elegy: The Poetry of Mourning from the Puritans to Whitman (Twin Cities: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 29-30.

16. “The Assassination of Gen’s Joseph Smith and Hyrum Smith First Presidents of the Church of Latter-daySaints; Who Were Massacred by a Mob, in Carthage, Hancock County, Ill., on the 27th June, 1844,” in Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry, 295-299.

17. Meyers, Mary Ann. “Gates Ajar: Death in Mormon Thought and Practice,” in Death in America, ed. David E. Stannard (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), 119.

18. Davies, Douglas J. The Mormon Culture of Salvation: Force, Grace, and Glory (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), 228.

19. Snow, Eliza R. “In Memory of Willard Richards, Counselor to President Brigham Young,” in Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry, 453-455.