Church History

The Lion and the Lioness: Brigham Young and Eliza R. Snow
Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The Lion and the Lioness: Brigham Young and Eliza R. Snow

Remembering Eliza
On June 19, 1880, Eliza R. Snow was sustained as the president of the Relief Society. But she had served as its president since 1867, when Brigham Young named her to establish Relief Societies in Utah wards.

The Lion and the Lioness: Brigham Young and Eliza R. Snow
Jill Mulvay Derr

For the last two decades of her life, from 1867 to 1887, Eliza R. Snow directed several Latter-day Saint organizations, overseeing the work of the Relief Society, the Young Ladies’ association, and the Primary for children. Eliza played a critical role in integrating women into the Church’s organizational structure, where they could assume the responsibilities Latter-day Saint women still carry in ministering to women, young women, and children. Eliza did not provoke the change single-handedly. It was the crowning achievement of her partnership with Brigham. President of the Church and presidentess of Relief Society, the two of them worked together to usher in a new era for Latter-day Saint women. They put into effect the pattern of familial and organizational partnership Joseph Smith had introduced in Nauvoo, an ideal that was not fully realized until Brigham and Eliza united to achieve it. The trust, respect, and rapport the two of them had developed as prophet and poetess and as husband and wife enabled them to overcome the misunderstandings that clouded women’s work in the 1840s and 1850s and to establish the Relief Society as a permanent and integral part of the organization of the Church.

Even though Eliza was not officially designated or set apart as the second general president of the Relief Society until 1880, more than a decade before that she began presiding over the work of the women’s organizations by the calling and authorization of Brigham Young. In this capacity, she was both known and remembered as “presidentess.” The term was the title nineteenth-century Latter-day Saint women used for their local and general Relief Society presidents. In Utah, Brigham Young also used the term. Presidentess was the title Eliza had ascribed to Brigham’s first wife, Mary Ann Angell, anticipating, perhaps, that Mary Ann would be as Joseph’s first wife, Emma, had been: the leader of Latter-day Saint women ecclesiastically (through the Relief Society) and liturgically (in temple ordinances). But, despite the precedents, “there was no assumption of power” in the behavior of Mary Ann Angell. Intelligent, highly cultivated, dignified, and spiritually sensitive, “Mother Young” guarded her privacy. She chose to live apart from the extended family in the busy Beehive House and Lion House, preferring to reside in the nearby White House. She was a loving, supportive companion to her husband but was not a woman to move into public life as a writer of petitions, organizer, and speaker. Eliza was just one year younger than Mary Ann Angell, and both of them were older than most of the other wives by one or two decades. This seniority and her experience and inclination fitted her for a public role, the role of presidentess that Brigham eventually accorded her.

When in 1867 Brigham called Eliza to firmly reestablish lapsed and waning Relief Societies, he had absolute confidence in her loyalty. As poet and as his wife of twenty years, she had proven herself an unfailing supporter. Brigham and Eliza exemplified the harmony they expected from the men and women they were teaching to work together institutionally— harmony that would enable the Relief Society to expand its responsibilities and accomplish good for its female members and the community as a whole.