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Eliza Snow is arguably the most prominent woman in early Mormon history. She is like Mother Teresa, Susan B. Anthony, and Abigail Adams rolled into one. Eliza was adviser and consort to Brigham Young and frontier president of the Relief Society. Eliza was influential in the formation of both the children’s ministry (Primary) and the youth ministry (now called Young Men and Young Women). Eliza presided over Utah women when they obtained female suffrage in Utah in 1870, fully fifty years before female suffrage became law in the United States. [1]

In addition to this impressive legacy, Eliza Snow was regarded as a prophetess. Her hundreds of poems were treasured, from the simple poems that might comfort those who had lost an infant to the sweeping poems that conveyed the doctrines of Zion. [2]

Eliza as Deceitful Seducer

In 1984 Doubleday published Mormon Enigma, a biography of Emma Hale [Smith] written by Linda King Newell and Dr. Valeen Tippetts Avery. In 1984 there was great excitement about a number of previously unknown documents from early Mormon history, including documents painting Joseph Smith as being committed to a magical worldview, telling of a vision of a white salamander, and documenting Joseph’s use of magic to dig for money.

As Linda Newell and Valeen Avery put together their view of Joseph’s wife, Emma, they used these new documents to inform their understanding of the man Emma loved. They found Joseph to be a flawed man who wedded and bedded women behind Emma’s back. The betrayal Val Avery felt Joseph had practiced caused her great distress. Avery could only write about Joseph and these women for a few minutes before she would literally feel the gorge rise within her. Avery would vomit, then lie down to regain her composure enough to write for a few more minutes. [3]

The women Newell and Avery believed Joseph had bedded were anathema. Of all Emma’s friends Newell and Avery said bedded Emma’s husband, Eliza Snow was the worst. She had been Emma’s confidante in the Relief Society. Emma had taken Eliza into her own home. In return, the authors believed, Eliza had betrayed Emma by sleeping with Emma’s husband under Emma’s own roof.

Newell and Avery’s book won the Evans Biography Award, the Mormon History Association Best Book Award, and the John Whitmer Historical Association Best Book Award. But the mainstream Mormon community was shocked by the harsh portrayal of their founding prophet. Newell and Avery were not excommunicated, but they were prohibited from discussing their research or book in Church meetings. [4]

In late 1985, seemingly unrelated to Newell and Avery, a bomber targeted Steven Christensen and Christensen’s employer, J. Gary Sheets. Christensen and Kathy Sheets were killed. Investigators initially suspected the bombings were associated with a failing investment business Sheets and Christensen had been involved in. However the bomber struck again the next day, this time severely injuring Mark Hofmann. Hofmann had allegedly discovered numerous historical documents relevant to early Mormonism. Steven Christensen had been one of Hofmann’s clients. As the investigation proceeded, Mark Hofmann was identified as the bomber, and his documents were determined to be forgeries. [5]

Ten years after publication of Mormon Enigma, Newell and Avery issued an updated edition. The 1994 edition removed the information that had come directly from the Hofmann forgeries. However the underlying structure of the book remained, portraying a good woman betrayed by a craven husband and deceitful female friends. More than a few women influenced by Mormon Enigma consider Eliza Snow to be a traitor and foul liar, the archetype of Emma’s female friends and associates who are presumed to have lain with Emma’s husband.

A Rape in Missouri

At the March 2016 Church History Symposium in Provo, Utah, Professor Andrea Radke-Moss of BYU-I presented during the Women in Danger session. Professor Radke-Moss’s presentation was titled “Beyond Petticoats and Poultices: Finding a Women’s History of the Mormon-Missouri War of 1838. ” The audience grew silent as Professor Radke-Moss recounted her conclusions from a recent find. Eliza Snow, she asserted, had been raped during the 1838 persecutions by a gang of eight Missouri men. The rape was said to have rendered Eliza infertile.

The news spread like wildfire, fanned by summary articles appearing in the Salt Lake Tribune. [6] A few decried the violation of privacy constituted by the publication of this information. Ex-Mormons predictably considered the story a hoax. However the overwhelming response was sorrow for Eliza’s suffering and fierce gratitude on the part of modern abuse survivors to discover Eliza had been a fellow sufferer.

Professor Radke-Moss discussed the reliability of her source, Alice Merrill [Horne]. Alice Merrill [Horne] had been an activist for women’s rights and an accomplished artist. She was elected to the Utah State Legislature, had served on the LDS Church Relief Society general board, and became second president of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers. Alice had learned of the rape in the home of her grandmother, Bathsheba [Smith], wife of Joseph Smith’s cousin, George A. Smith. Eliza Snow was a close friend of Bathsheba [Smith] and a frequent visitor to the Smith home. So it was entirely possible Alice had heard of the reported rape. However Alice was only a child at the time she overheard the confidences that informed her mature recollection.

The pertinent excerpt from the autobiography of Alice Merrill [Horne] is a mere 200 words:

“The most important Mormon women of the nineteenth century often gathered at the Smith home abutting the Church Historian’s Office.”

Alice would sit on her “grandmother’s lap and listen, catching . . . the whispered word unraveling, spelling, and signs made by those ladies.”

Regarding the rape, Alice wrote: “There was a saint—a Prophetess, a Poet, an intellectual, seized by brutal mobbers—used by those eight demons and left not dead, but worse. The horror, the anguish, despair, hopelessness of the innocent victim was dwelt upon. [W]hat future was there for such a one? All the aspirations of a saintly virgin—that maiden of purity—had met martyrdom!”

“The prophet heard and had compassion. This Saint, whose lofty ideals, whose person had been crucified, was yet to become the corner of female work. To her, no child could be born and yet she would be a Mother in Israel. One to whom all eyes should turn, to whom all ears would listen to hear her sing (in tongues) the praises of Zion. She was promised honor above all women, save only Emma, but her marriage to the prophet would be only for heaven.” [7]

The reported gang-rape by eight mobbers initially seems extreme. But contemporary accounts from the Missouri persecutions contain graphic details that put the reported rape of Eliza into context.

Hyrum wrote the guards in Liberty jail had attempted in vain to feed Joseph Smith on human flesh for five days. [8] Then they:

“boasted of their great achievements at Haun’s Mill and at other places, telling us how many houses they had burned …how many rapes they had committed… saying they had lashed one woman upon one of the damned ‘Mormon’ meeting benches, tying her hands and feet fast, and sixteen of them abused her as much as they had a mind to, and then left her bound and exposed…

“We had heard of these acts of cruelty previous to this time, but we were slow to believe that such acts had been perpetrated. The lady who was the subject of this brutality did not recover her health to be able to help herself for more than three months afterwards.” [9]

During the same series of affidavits, Parley P. Pratt explained:

“They have also named one or two individual females of our society, whom they have forcibly bound, and twenty or thirty of them, one after another, committed rape upon them. One of these females was a daughter of a respectable family with whom I have been long acquainted, and with whom I have since conversed and learned that it was truly the case. Delicacy at present forbids my mentioning the names.”

In addition to rapes, murder, and burnings, the soldiers acknowledged looting and laying waste to the money, crops, and animals of the Mormons. Parley continued:

“Of these crimes, of which the soldiers boasted, the general officers freely conversed and corroborated the same. And even General Doniphan, who professed to be opposed to such proceedings, acknowledged the truth of them, and gave us several particulars in detail.” [10]

In 1865 Mosiah Hancock wrote an autobiography in which he described Missouri atrocities he had personally witnessed as a child:

“I saw a thing in the shape of a man grab an infant from its mother’s arms and bash it’s brains out against a tree…

“I saw the fiends tie a young person to a bench—she was scarcely sixteen years of age—and fourteen things in human form performed “that” upon their victim which would cause a hyena to revolt at their fiendish orgies! It continued long after their fainting victim had become unconscious…” [11]

The murders, rapes, looting, and wastage were intended to force the surviving Mormons from the state of Missouri. In the case of rape, women were just the vehicle by which a message was being conveyed. In the 1830s there was no point in naming the victims. Being identified as the object of such violence could do nothing to heal the hurt.

Alice Merrill did likely hear that someone had been raped. However Alice’s tender age when hearing the tale combine with public silence regarding the victims’ identities to permit doubt. Alice’s certainty that the rape rendered Eliza infertile is an unwarranted projection. Had Eliza been the one brutally raped, it is doubtful even Eliza could have been certain the rape had rendered her infertile.

It is possible Eliza and Bathsheba had been describing the rape of another woman in terms that Alice Merrill misunderstood. For example, Eliza had been the housemate of Jonathan Harriman Holmes both in Kirtland and Nauvoo. Eliza would have been unusually aware Marietta Carter [Holmes] had been killed by a gang of men from Missouri. Though the account we have from Marietta’s daughter does not specify that rape occurred, it seems the deadly attack would have involved rape. Alternately, the victims of respectable family who had been known to Parley P. Pratt would have similarly been known to Eliza and Bathsheba.

The possible rape of Eliza must not be discarded lightly. However Alice was young and may have misunderstood. It cannot be certain Eliza herself was the victim or that the described violence necessarily rendered Eliza infertile. There are other stories to consider, including hints in poems written by Eliza’s own pen.

Eliza and the Stairs

One reason so many are convinced of Emma’s supposed rejection of plural marriage is a story involving Eliza. A third-hand account describes Eliza as pregnant and losing the child.

“A door opposite opened and dainty, little, dark-haired Eliza R. Snow (she was “heavy with child”) came out… Joseph then walked on to the stairway, where he tenderly kissed Eliza, and then came on down stairs toward Brother Rich. Just as he reached the bottom step, there was a commotion on the stairway, and both Joseph and Brother Rich turned quickly to see Eliza come tumbling down the stairs. Emma had pushed her, in a fit of rage and jealousy; she stood at the top of the stairs, glowering, her countenance a picture of hell. Joseph quickly picked up the little lady, and with her in his arms, he turned and looked up at Emma, who then burst into tears and ran to her room. Joseph carried the hurt and bruised Eliza up the stairs and to her room. ‘Her hip was injured and that is why she always afterward favored that leg,’ said Charles C. Rich. ‘She lost the unborn babe.’ ” [12]

Charles C. Rich was a member of the Nauvoo High Council and a General in the Nauvoo Legion at the time of the reported observation. [13] He would have been aware numerous women had been seduced in 1842. The sight of a single woman who was pregnant and suffering a miscarriage would have been shocking but understandable under the circumstances. Shortly before Joseph’s death in 1844, Charles C. Rich learned of the New and Everlasting Covenant. This would be the first time Charles C. Rich might have suspected Eliza’s reported pregnancy was not necessarily caused by a seducer.

Charles C. Rich would become an apostle in the LDS Church in 1849. Apostle Rich told the tale to his son, Ben E. Rich, born 1855. Wallace Aird MacDonald learned the story when Ben Rich was President of the Southern States Mission. The story was likely told during the time Aird was assigned to the Mission Office starting in December 1905, when Aird was almost 19 years old. The extant written version is contained in the notes of Eliza’s nephew, Leroi Snow, who had received a letter from Aird MacDonald.

As the oral history passed from Apostle Rich to MacDonald, the men projected motives, actions, and feelings onto Emma. But no observer could have confidently inferred Emma’s actions and emotions at the time of Eliza’s reported fall. A version cleansed of interpolation is below:

A door opposite opened and Eliza R. Snow (she was pregnant) came out… Joseph then walked on to the stairway, where he embraced Eliza, and then came on down stairs toward Brother Rich. There was a commotion. Joseph and Brother Rich turned quickly and saw Eliza tumbling down the stairs. Emma stood at the top of the stairs.

Joseph quickly picked up Eliza and looked up at Emma, who burst into tears. Joseph carried the hurt and bruised Eliza home.

“Her hip was injured and that is why she always afterward favored that leg,” said Charles C. Rich. “She lost the unborn babe.”

Anti-Mormon, Wilhelm Ritter von Wymetal, under the pseudonym Wilhelm Wyl, recounted a version of the tale in 1886, where Emma feels “outraged as a wife and betrayed as a friend” and so takes a broom to Eliza in revenge. [14] Eliza’s nephew, LeRoi Snow, said Emma knocked Eliza down the stairs, causing a miscarriage, though this assertion may have been written after LeRoi received MacDonald’s letter. [15] Mary Barzee Boyce recounted a rumor from her son-in-law’s mother, Aidah Clement, saying Emma pulled Eliza R. Snow downstairs by the hair of her head. [16]

In Utah, where Eliza was respected and Emma had failed to gather to the west with the Saints, these stories painted Emma Smith as crazed and violent. But today a humanized Emma is seen as the victim. Modern critics of Eliza say Emma’s reaction was natural after learning her friend’s unborn child had been engendered by Emma’s husband, Joseph.

Mormon Enigma and an earlier article on the subject in BYU Studies [17] cast doubt on the reliability of the staircase reports. Newell, Avery, and others pointed out Eliza was teaching school every day during the February 1843 timeframe often presumed to be the date of the fall. They also pointed out that neither the Smith homestead nor the Mansion House had a staircase that fits the narrative of the story. But it is rarely questioned that Eliza slept with Joseph. An uninformed Emma is portrayed as enraged and jealous upon learning of the betrayal associated with the sexual activity presumed to have occurred between Eliza and Joseph.[18]

Rumors of the alleged infertility caused by the gang rape have passed amongst female researchers for years, attributed to a tradition in the George A. Smith family. [19] Thus some women have rejected the Charles C. Rich tale entirely. In a memorable encounter, a female researcher after a Daughters of Utah Pioneers (DUP) meeting insisted, “Eliza was never pregnant!”

However the Rich account passed from Charles C. Rich to his mature son Ben Rich, then was conveyed to Wallace Aird MacDonald when he was a mature teen. The man initially relating the oral history was an Apostle at the time of the telling and an associate of Eliza Snow. Both other men relating the story would become Mission Presidents. The tale as finally recorded therefore has a known provenance, with each raconteur a mature and admirable adult. We must consider the possibility that Eliza Snow could have been pregnant. If she was pregnant, the presumed father would be Joseph Smith. But Eliza’s writings and an understanding of Nauvoo in 1842 suggest another possibility.

Eliza as Possible Victim of Seduction

The women who became plural wives in 1842 were widows or foreigners, abandoned wives or orphans. These women had much in common with women who had been pressured to have sex with Bennett and his Strikers, suggesting they were being rescued from the seducers.

Eliza provided an affidavit in 1869 stating she had been sealed to Joseph Smith on June 29, 1842, placing her “marriage” to Joseph in the middle of the fallout related to John C. Bennett’s departure from Nauvoo. Eliza had been deserted by her father, Oliver Snow, a few days before the sealing. The timing suggests Joseph married Eliza because she needed rescuing as well.

Few are willing to consider that Eliza could have yielded to persuasion to engage in illicit intercourse. But there is no reason to think Eliza was taken in by the crude tale of acceptable illicit sex that persuaded Catherine Laur [Fuller] to allow Bennett into her bed. By 1842 Bennett had developed an elaborate taxonomy or categorization for the female participants in illicit intercourse. In Bennett’s attacks on Joseph Smith and Mormonism, Bennett would describe a Mormon Seraglio with three categories of females. [20] Bennett’s writings may suggest much about Bennett’s activities, as there is no indication they accurately reflected Joseph Smith’s teachings.

The initial “order” Bennett described was allegedly the Cyprian Saints, made up of women whose sin had been discovered and corrected by the Relief Society. The women Bennett styled as Cyprian Saints resemble those women who were not allowed into Relief Society, like Lucy Ann Munjar. [21] Eliza was not evicted from Relief Society, so was not a Cyprian Saint.

The second “order” in Bennett’s female sexual hierarchy was allegedly the Chambered Sisters of Charity. Bennett wrote: “This order comprises that class of females who indulge their sensual propensities, without restraint, whether married or single, by the express permission of the Prophet… [They] are much more numerous than the Cyprian Saints. This results naturally from the greater respectability of their order.” This second group arguably included the many women, like Catherine Laur [Fuller], who had been seduced by Bennett or his Strikers but who were not initially discovered by the Relief Society. [22] The implied hedonism of this second category is not credible for Eliza.

The highest “order” in Bennett’s female hierarchy was the Consecratees of the Cloister or Cloistered Saints. “This degree is composed of females whether married or unmarried, who, by an express grant and gift of God, through his Prophet the Holy Joe, are set apart and consecrated to the use and benefit of particular individuals as secret, spiritual wives… When an Apostle, High Priest, Elder, or Scribe, conceives an affection for a female, and he has satisfactorily ascertained that she experiences a mutual flame, he communicates confidentially to the Prophet his affaire du Coeur and requests him to inquire of the Lord…” [23]

Bennett’s invention of “Cloistered Saint,” appears to be an adaptation to clothe illicit intercourse in language acceptable to believers. We see this in the language reportedly used with Martha Brotherton:

“It is lawful and right before God—I know it is. . . . I have the keys of the kingdom, and whatever I bind on earth is bound in heaven, and whatever I loose on earth is loosed in heaven, and if you will accept of [it], you shall be blessed—God shall bless you, and my blessing shall rest upon you; and if you will be led by him, you will do well; for I know [he] will take care of you.” [24]

This excerpt was used by Dr. Bennett for the express purpose of attacking Joseph. Given the late date, it may represent the pinnacle of the rhetoric used by the Strikers to clothe their seduction in language acceptable to Joseph’s most faithful followers. Despite the talk of binding, there is no indication in Martha’s account that the marriage itself was necessarily supposed to be eternal or that it tied families together in an eternal covenant. This language just tells the woman to submit to the man despite lack of legal marriage. The man would then take care of her, like a rich man might take care of his mistress.

This sort of language, derived from Joseph’s legitimate teachings and body of scripture, would permit the Strikers to continue their activities even among those who had been warned against promiscuous illicit intercourse. We see both Chauncey Higbee and William Smith asked Catherine Laur [Fuller] to become their secret spiritual wife in an attempt to prevent her legitimate marriage to William Warren in April 1842. Happily, they failed.

Might Eliza have been willing to be a Cloistered Saint? Eliza would write a poem titled The Bride’s Avowal. [25] A representative excerpt reads:

“Dearest, the hour approaches,

Our destinies to twine

In one eternal wreath of fate,

As holy beings join…

I would not sell thy confidence,

For all the pearls that strew

The ocean’s bed or all the gems

That sparkle in Peru.” [26]

The poem appears to accept the proposal that someone, perhaps Eliza, become a secret bride. In the poem the bride has not joined herself to the beloved in the eternal wreath of fate. The poem is too sensual to suppose it was actually intended for a maidenly friend for her wedding day. It is not certain when Eliza wrote this poem, or when the woman in the poem planned to entwine herself with her dearest. Given Eliza’s later poetic language, it appears this poem could have been addressed to Dr. Bennett.

Joseph Smith publicly cut Bennett off from the Church in June 1842. Eliza’s father, Oliver Snow, decided to leave Nauvoo the day after Bennett’s ouster, departing a week later after putting his affairs in order. [27] This timing suggests Oliver might have been one of the many guilty individuals who was never publicly exposed.

Eliza remained in Nauvoo and moved into the home of Sarah Cleveland, one of Emma’s Relief Society counselors. If she had been willing to fulfil the promise of her poem, entwining herself with her “dearest,” she could have been carrying the seducer’s child.

On June 29, 1842, Eliza records the first entry in the journal she was given at the formation of the Relief Society on March 17, 1842:

“This is a day of much interest to my feelings. Reflecting on past occurrences, a variety of thoughts have presented themselves to my mind with regard to events which have chas’d each other in rapid succession in the scenery of human life…

“I am contemplating the present state of society—the powers of darkness, and the prejudices of the human mind which stand array’d like an impregnable barrier against the work of God.” [28]

Eliza would later state that this was the day she covenanted with Joseph Smith, with Sarah Cleveland standing as witness. Eliza’s journal gives no hint of her sealing to Joseph Smith. Instead, it reflects thoughts of a woman who seems aware of gross sins.

Eviction and Shelter

On August 12, 1842, Elvira Cowles visited Eliza at the home of Sarah Cleveland. The visit might not have been mentioned had it not immediately preceded disturbing events. On August 13th Eliza’s sensual and secretive poem, The Bride’s Avowal, was published in the Nauvoo newspaper, The Wasp.

William Smith was editor of The Wasp and had been complicit in Bennett’s seductions. Though William attacked Bennett in his paper, William had also shown a willingness to damage Joseph Smith. [29] William’s future actions would demonstrate a continued willingness to seduce women, so he had motive to encourage the idea that leading women were willing to be secret wives. [30] Given Dr. Bennett’s published accusations, those reading the poem William published could only have concluded that Eliza was Joseph’s willing lover.

The day the poem was published, Sarah Cleveland made it clear Eliza could no longer remain in the Cleveland home. Eliza would write, “Mrs. Cleveland having come to the determination of moving on to her lot; my former expectations were frustrated…” [31] Eliza’s father, Oliver, prepared to take his daughter away from Nauvoo to his new home in Walnut Grove.

Learning that Eliza had been evicted and might be forced to leave Nauvoo, Emma Hale [Smith] sent Elvira Cowles to extend the offer of shelter in the Smith homestead. Eliza accepted. Oliver Snow, prevented from retrieving his daughter, wrote: “Eliza cannot leave our Prophet.” [32]

Possible Offer of Pretend Marriage

We know of at least one plural marriage that included a victim of the 1842 seductions. Mary Clift was impregnated by Gustavus Hills and would subsequently be taken into the household of Theodore Turley. Family histories indicated Mary’s 1842 child, Jason, had been fathered by Turley. But the testimonies given by both Mary Clift and Gustavus Hills before the Nauvoo Stake High Council in fall 1842 make it clear Jason was fathered by Gustavus Hills, not by Theodore Turley.

Unfortunately, Theodore Turley and Mary Clift are somewhat obscure. It cannot be certain Mary Clift was actually a part of the Turley household until the conception of her subsequent child, Ephraim, conceived in approximately May, 1844.

The first known pretend marriage occurred between Sarah Ann Whitney and her brother-in-law, widower Joseph C. Kingsbury. [33] Kingsbury would describe the matter in these terms:

“…on the 16th day Oct. [1842] Caroline My Wife Died after a Severe Sickness of three Months & being delivered of A Son the Same day of her death Which Lived Thirteen Hours (his Name is Newel)

“I remain Alone & felt as though I had Lost Some part of myself, for Truly She was a grate help meat to me and how thankful I feal thinking I Shall See & meat her again to enjoy each other Society for Ever to part no more & also my two little sons Joseph W & Newel for my desires is to live long upon the Earth to See that all things is prepared to meat them all in the Celestial Kingdom of Glory ^in the presents of God^ Standing at their head according to the order & Glory of God and on the 29th of April 1843 I according to President Joseph Smith Council & others agread to Stand by Sarah ^Ann^ Whitney as Supposed to be her husband & had a pretended marriage for the purpose of Bringing about the purposes of God in these last days as spoken by the mouth of the prophets Isiah Jeremiah Ezekiel and also Joseph Smith, & Sarah Ann should rec’d a Great Glory Honner & Eternal Lives and I Also Should Rec’d a Great Glory Honner & Eternal lives to the full desire of my heart in having my Companion Caroline in the first Reserection to lcaim [sic] her & no one to have power to take her from me…”[34]

Joseph Kingsbury’s record of the ceremony sealing him to Caroline further illustrates the expectation Kingsbury had of reunion with his departed wife. Kingsbury’s record of the words Joseph Smith said reads:

“And thy Companion Caroline who is now dead thou shalt have in the first reserection for I Seal thee up for and in her behalf to Come forth in the first Reserection unto Eternal lives (and it shall be as though She was present herself) and thou shalt hail her and She Shall be thine and no one Shall have power to take her from thee.

“And you both Shall be crowned and enthroned to dwell together in a Kingdom in the Celestial Glory in the presents of God. And you shall enjoy each other Society & embraces in all the fullness of the Gospell of Jesus Christ Wourls [sic] without end And I seal these blessings upon thee and for thy Companion in the Name of Jesus Christ for thou Shalt receive the holy anointing & Endowment in this Life to prepare you for all these blessings even so Amen.” [35]

Kingsbury’s record of his pretended marriage to Whitney and subsequent sealing to his deceased wife contains three features of note:

  • Grief over the recent death of a wife and child
  • Promise the man would be eternally united to his deceased wife and children for participating in the pretended marriage
  • Description of a glorious reunion in the first resurrection, never to be parted.

Had Eliza been pregnant, she would have benefited from having a public husband who could pass as the father. But Kingsbury’s record suggests a widower willing to stand as a pretend husband was the one who stood to benefit most from an eternal standpoint in those early days of Celestial Marriage.

A poem in Eliza’s diary the month after she begins living in the Smith household may provide evidence she knew such a pretend marriage was contemplated. On September 17, 1842, following a stirring sermon on the resurrection, Eliza composed the following:

Conjugal [36]

Like two streams, whose gentle forces

Mingling, in one current blend—

Like two waves, whose outward courses

To the ocean’s bosom tend—

Like two angels [37] that kiss each other

In the presence of the sun—

Like two drops that run together

And forever are but one,

May your mutual vows be plighted—

May your hearts, no longer twain

And your spirits be united

In an everlasting chain. [38]

Jonathan Holmes had lived with the Smiths from 1835 through 1837. He had returned to the Smith household after the August 1840 death of his wife and infant child. Eliza had known Jonathan in Kirtland and was now his housemate. If Jonathan were being asked to be a pretend husband, it is plausible Eliza would know. If pregnant, Eliza was likely the intended wife.

Eliza’s poetry suggested resurrection could lead to the reunion of spouses parted by death, echoing the promise Joseph C. Kingsbury received in 1843 for agreeing to a pretended marriage to Sarah Whitney.

The poem in the journal was modified at some point after composition. The word that appears to have been “angels” was scraped from the page and replaced with “rays.” The line under the title of the poem now contains a dedication “To Jonathan & Elvira.”

Scholars of Eliza’s life and poetry have been content to consider the poem a simple celebration of the forthcoming December marriage of Eliza’s housemates, Elvira Annie Cowles and Jonathan Harriman Holmes.

However Elvira’s descendants and a family friend repeatedly confirm that Elvira was not functionally Jonathan’s wife until after Joseph’s death. Why, then, did Eliza write such a glorious poem about a marriage that would apparently not be consummated until 1845, over two years later? The September 1842 poem was more likely intended to celebrate the eventual reunion between Jonathan and the deceased Marietta. Two possibilities arise:

  • Eliza had learned of the glorious promises offered to the bereaved in association with her own sealing to Joseph Smith. For some reason Eliza had been informed the marriage between Elvira and Jonathan, months hence, would provide Jonathan the promise of eternal union with Marietta in the first resurrection.
  • Eliza was herself was to be party to a union that would provide Jonathan“Great Glory Honner & Eternal lives,” having his companion Marietta in the first resurrection to claim her & no one to have power to take her from him.

Eliza’s November 1842 Poems

The story told by Charles C. Rich indicates Eliza had been pregnant, yet lost the unborn child. Those attempting to date the fall have assumed it was associated with a dramatic and violent rejection by Emma Smith. They have supposed the date must have been February 1843, when Eliza leaves the Smith household. But an Eliza who was cherished by Emma Smith could have miscarried without being forced to leave the Smith household.

The stories about Eliza and the staircase were written by people who had not lived in Nauvoo. They appear not to have known their versions of the story were impossible for either the Homestead or the Mansion House, which was under construction in 1842. There is no central staircase in the Mansion House. The staircase in the Homestead is a small, enclosed stair. [39]

However the scene Charles C. Rich reported could have occurred in the Red Brick Store. The store stood near the bank of the Mississippi River, with a staircase running from the back of the store up to Joseph’s second story office. This would be a natural location for Charles C. Rich to meet with Joseph. It was the location of the Relief Society meetings Eliza and Emma participated in. Though the original configuration of the staircase in the Red Brick Store is unknown, it was used to carry freight from the river up to the storeroom on the second story. Therefore the original staircase would have been wide and unenclosed. The reported fall could have been simply that, a fall. Eliza, if pregnant, could have just been a woman in long skirts tragically tripping on stairs she had negotiated successfully before.

In November 1842 we find a series of four poems in Eliza Snow’s journal. The first poem is dated November 16 and the date written after the last poem is November 30.

When considered as a set, it is possible these poems reflect the miscarriage reported by Charles C. Rich, Eliza’s rage at her seducer, and her decision to clothe her former error in the robes of “conscious innocence.” Rather than merely summarize conclusions, large sections of the poems are included for the benefit of readers unable to access the full poems or the journal manuscript images.

Death. The first poem lacks regular meter and rhyme. Eliza titled the poem Apostrophe to Death. In literature, an apostrophe is an address to the personification of an idea or an absent being. Eliza was a celebrated poet, so it is not incongruous that she would have used such a word in a private journal.

The poem is shot through with imagery from the Book of Mormon and evokes John Donne’s poem, Death, be not proud. [40] Pertinent excerpts of Eliza’s poem read:

What art thou, Death?–I’ve seen thy visage and

Have heard thy sound–the deep, low, murm’ring sound…

Thy land is called

A land of shadows; and thy path, a path

Of blind contingence gloominess and fear–

Thy form, comprising all that’s terrible;

For all the terrors that have cross’d the earth,

Or crept into its lower depths, have been

Associated with the thoughts of Death!

…Seen as thou art, by inspiration’s light,

Thou hast no look the righteous need to fear,

With all thy ghastliness–amid the grief

Thy presence brings. I hear a thrilling tone

Of music, sweet as seraph notes that ride

Upon the balmy breath of summer eve.

Art thou a tyrant, holding the black reins

Of destiny that binds the future course

Of man’s existence? No: thou art, O Death!

A haggard porter, charg’d to wait before

The Grave, life’s portal to the worlds on high. [41]

There are no recorded deaths in Nauvoo during October and November of 1842 that appear to have obviously inspired Eliza’s extended address on the devastation caused by mortal death. [42]

The Everlasting Covenant versus The Vile Wretch. Another poem is also free verse, without regular rhyme or rhythm. Based on a note written in the manuscript, this poem was published in the Times and Seasons under the title Saturday Night Thoughts. It seems likely that “Saturday” was a reference to a time immediately prior to Christ’s anticipated Second Coming, rather than an actual day of the week.

Saturday Night Thoughts gives Eliza’s testimony, and this poem was one of the two Eliza used to conclude her autobiography in 1885, titled “Sketch of My Life.” The excerpts included here are transcribed directly from Eliza’s journal.

Two aspects of this poem stand out with respect to the history of plural marriage and illicit intercourse. First is the clear reference to Abraham’s sacrifice, the spirit of “Elijah’s God” and the Everlasting Covenant:

God, who commanded Abraham to leave

His native country and to offer up

On the lone alter, where no eye beheld

But that which never sleeps, an only son;

Is still the same, and thousands who have made

A covenant with him by sacrifice.

Are leaving witness to its sacred truth.

Jehovah speaking has proclaimed his will

The proclamation sounded in my ear.

It touched my heart. I listened to the sound,

Counted the cost and laid my earthly all

Upon the altar, and with purpose fix’d

Unalterably while the spirit of

Elijah’s God within my bosom reigns

Embraced the Everlasting Covenant

And am determin’d now to be a saint

And numbered with the tried & faithful ones…[43]

The second striking aspect of this poem is the evocative description of the vile apostasy that attempted to seduce the faithful. While it is possible to see only spiritual assault, Eliza’s words could be read as describing sexual seduction.

It is no trifling thing to be a saint…

To stand unwav’ring, undismay’d

And unseduc’d, when the base hypocrite

Whose deeds take hold on hell, whose face is garb’d

With saintly looks, drawn out by sacrilege

From the profession, but assum’d and thrown

Around him for a mantle to enclose

The black corruption of a putrid heart!

To stand on virtue’s lofty pinnacle,

Clad in the heav’nly robes of innocence,

Amid that worse than every other blast–

The blast that strikes at moral character

With floods of falsehood foaming with abuse…–

Thrown side by side and face to face [44] with that

Foul hearted spirit, blacker than the soul

Of midnight’s darkest shade, the traitor,

The vile wretch that feeds his sordid selfishness

Upon the peace and blood of innocence!

The faithless, rottenhearted wretch, whose tongue

Speaks words of trust and fond fidelity,

While treach’ry, like a viper, coils behind

The smile that dances in his evil eye.– [45]

One could presume Eliza’s anger at the vile wretch was only because he was peddling apostasy. However Dr. Bennett and his associates had been engaged in actual sexual seduction, literally positioning themselves upon the innocent, side by side and face to face. In July Eliza had helped present Governor Carlin a petition specifically decrying Bennett as a vile wretch.

A refuge might be found in considering that Eliza was not writing of her own innocence, that she was not herself the saint whose moral character was being blasted by the vile wretch. What could occurred after November 15 to evoke such a visceral response to Dr. Bennett’s activities from so many months before? The doubting scholar must answer this question.

It has been suggested that the language of this poem merely documents a detail of the reported 1838 gang rape, where Eliza was lured into danger by an individual she trusted. Such an interpretation fails to explain the totality of the poem, the resonance with the illicit intercourse activities of Dr. Bennett, or the reason Eliza would write about an 1838 rape in 1842.

It is striking that Eliza indicates that corruption of moral character is “worse than every other blast.” Even if Eliza herself had not been raped, she knew of the rapes. Eliza clearly suggests even rape was not as damaging as the moral corruption caused by the abusive, traitorous, selfish, vile, faithless, treacherous, evil, viperous wretch “speaking words of trust.”

Conscious Innocence. In another November poem, Eliza embraces the forgiveness of Christ, the ability to return to “conscious innocence.” This poem speaks of “vile reproach” and triumphing over every ill.

The noblest, proudest joys that this

World’s favor can dispense,

Are far inferior to the bliss

Of conscious innocence…

It makes the righteous soul rejoice

With weight of ills opprest;

To feel the soothing “still small voice”

Low whisp’ring in the breast…

And when in Christ, the Spirit finds

That sweet, that promis’d rest;

In spite of ev’ry pow’r that binds

We feel that we are blest.

Though vile reproach its volumes swell

And friends withdraw their love;[46]

If conscience whisper “all is well,’

And God and heav’n approve.

We’ll triumph over ev’ry ill

And hold our treasure fast;

And stand at length on Zion’s hill,

Secure from ev’ry blast.[47]

It is worth noting that Emma Hale [Smith] used the phrase “conscious innocence” in letters written to Joseph Smith in Liberty jail. [48]

Though this poem appears in the journal before Saturday Night Thoughts, the last six lines of the poem are crammed into the margin along the right edge of the poem. This suggests that the next page already had writing on it.

Retirement. In the final poem composed during these two weeks, Eliza contemplates solitude. Nauvoo and the Smith household were entirely crowded. Yet Eliza had been able to find a period of solitude. Such retirement could have been merely the artist rejoicing in a found time to think. But the solitude could also have been caused by a need to recuperate from the reported fall.

O how sweet is retirement! how precious these hours

They are dearer to me than midsummer’s gay flow’rs.

Their soft stillness and silence awaken the Muse–

‘Tis a time–’tis a place that the minstrel should choose

While so sweetly the moments in silence pass by

When there’s nobody here but Eliza and I…

Eliza writes “November, Wed, 30th” following this last poem. At the bottom of the page, Eliza begins her journal entry for December 12, 1842, talking about how she had commenced schoolteaching in the Masonic Hall. The ink she uses in December is distinct from the ink used in the earlier portions of the journal.


Sometime prior to December 1842, Eliza modified the poem she had written about angels kissing each other in the presence of the sun. The modification represents the first time Eliza used scraping to alter the journal she received in March 1842. In that era, even terrible allegations regarding adultery were redacted merely by lining through still-legible words. Eliza would not use scraping again to edit for many months. No other scraping edit significant changes the potential meaning of the text.

On February 11, 1843, Eliza “Took board and had my lodgings removed to the residence of br. J. Holmes.” [49] This date, often presumed to coincide with the incident at the stairs, appears to have been caused by Joseph’s activity of “changing furniture in the house to receive Mother Smith in the family…” [50] Jonathan, Eliza, and Elvira were re-united. [51]

Eliza Roxcy Snow [Smith] – Notes

Eliza Snow is arguably the most honored woman of Mormon history. Yet she is reviled by some for supposedly marrying Joseph Smith without the approval or knowledge of Emma Hale [Smith].

A story recounted by Alice Merrill [Horne] describes Eliza’s brutal rape by eight Missouri men. A tale originating with Charles C. Rich depicts a pregnant Eliza pushed down a flight of stairs by an enraged Emma Smith. Though there are problems with each story, it appears the original core of each may be valid.

Eliza’s Nauvoo journal contains several poems which may have bearing on Eliza’s experience in the year she covenanted with Joseph Smith.

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  • Conjugal (September 1842) may have discussed a friend’s eternal union with his deceased wife, a glorious promise then offered only to a widower willing to be a pretend husband.
  • Apostrophe to Death (November 1842) could have been inspired by the miscarriage Charles C. Rich
  • Saturday Night Thoughts (November 1842) celebrates the Everlasting Covenant and decries the traitorous seduction perpetrated by a vile wretch who spoke words of “fond fidelity.”

Eliza wrote “the blast that strikes at moral character” was “worse than every other blast.” It appears Eliza felt Bennett’s attack on moral character was a greater evil than rape. If Eliza was pregnant, as Charles C. Rich reported, these November poems suggest the possibility that the “vile wretch” was the father, rather than Joseph Smith.

[1] Derr, Jill Mulvaney, and Karen Lynn Davidson, Eliza: The Life and Faith of Eliza R. Snow.

[2] Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry, edited by Jill Mulvany Derr and Karen Lynn Davidson, 2009.

[3] Recounted by Jan Shipps in private conversation on May 23, 2010 in the home of Gregory Prince, documented in my post “Mormon Enigma (ex ante), online 15 Apr 2014 at http://www.megstout.com/blog/2010/05/24/mormon-enigma-ex-ante/.

[4] Wikipedia article on Valeen Tippets Avery, online 15 Apr 2014 at https://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Valeen_Tippetts_Avery.

[5] Wikipedia article on Mark Hofmann, online 15 Apr 2014 at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Mark_Hofmann.

[6] Stack, Peggy Fletcher, “Shocking historical finding: Mormon icon Eliza R. Snow was gang-raped by Missouri ruffians,” Salt Lake Tribune, Mar 3, 2016. Online 3 Mar 2016 at http://www.sltrib.com/home/3613791-155/shocking-historical-finding-mormon-icon-eliza. Also “BYU-Idaho historian sheds more light on the 1838 attack on Mormon poet Eliza Snow,” Salt Lake Tribune, Mar 3, 2016. Online 8 Mar 2016 at http://www.sltrib.com/home/3635705-155/byu-idaho-historian-sheds-more-light-on.

[7] Radke-Moss, Andrea, “Eliza R. Snow as a Victim of Sexual Violence in the 1838 Missouri War– the Author’s Reflections on a Source,” The Juvenile Instructor Blog, March 7, 2016. Online 7 Mar 2016 at http://juvenileinstructor.org/eliza-r-snow-as-a-victim-of-sexual-violence-in-the-1838-missouri-war-the-authors-reflections-on-a-source/

[8] The jailers had apparently hoped they could get some good anti-Mormon propaganda out of the tale of “flesh-eating Mormons.” Lyman Wight was the only prisoner to partake of the proffered meat before it was discovered what the jailers had meant by “Mormon meat.” The jailers eventually realized the prisoners would rather starve than eat human flesh and tried to hide what they had done. See History of the Church, Vol. 3, p. 428.

[9] History of the Church, Vol. 3, p. 422. Affidavits of Hyrum Smith et al. “On Affairs in Missouri, 1831-1839; Officially Subscribed to Before the Municipal Court of Nauvoo The First Day of July, 1843.”

[10] History of the Church, Vol. 3, p. 428. “Affidavits of Hyrum Smith et al. On Affairs in Missouri, 1831-1839; Officially Subscribed to Before the Municipal Court of Nauvoo The First Day of July, 1843.”

[11] Autobiography of Mosiah Hancock (1834-1865). Compiled by Amy E. Baird, Victoria H. Jackson, and Laura L. Wassell (daughters of Mosiah Hancock). Online 19 May 2016 at http://www.boap.org/LDS/Early-Saints/MHancock.html.

[12] Leroi Snow, Notes, based on letter from W. Aird Macdonald, based on story told him by his mission president, Ben E. Rich, in 1906-1908. Ben is presumed to have heard the story recounted by his father, the Charles C. Rich present in the story. See Compton, Sacred Loneliness, pp. 314-315, reference on p. 715.

[13] It is proposed that Charles C. Rich could not have seen Eliza being pregnant in 1842 because he did not learn about Celestial marriage and plurality being an approved doctrine until 1844. However everyone knew why women got pregnant, and in 1842 there was a perfectly understandable reason for even a single woman to show up pregnant. Shameful, but understandable. By the time Rich was conveying the story to his son, he believed the pregnant Eliza he had seen had been carrying the Prophet’s son. So what he probably initially saw as a simple fall that ended an embarrassing out of wedlock pregnancy became transformed in his mind to an honored Celestial wife being abused by Joseph’s wife, causing the death of Joseph’s child. This mental paradigm shift does not invalidate the possibility that Rich really did see a fall where a woman he had thought was single starts having a miscarriage before his eyes.

[14] Compton, Sacred Loneliness, p. 314, allegedly cited in Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy, p. 58, but I do not find the story on that page in my edition.

[15] Compton, Sacred Loneliness, p. 314, from Brodie, No Man Knows My History, p. 447.

[16] Compton, Sacred Loneliness, p. 315, from John Boice Blessing Book, CA, MS 8129, p. 40. Also Beecher, Newell, and Avery, BYU Studies, Vol 22, No 1 (1982), p. 93. I personally feel this particular story is more likely to have involved Eliza Partridge, not Eliza R. Snow.

[17] Beecher, Maureen Ursenbach et al., Emma and Eliza and the Stairs, BYU Studies 22/1 (Fall 1982): 86-96.

[18] For example, there is a tale of Emma finding two letters in Joseph’s jacket and becoming enraged, after which Eliza leaves Nauvoo for several months. However even this tale has an alternate explanation based on a fuller understanding of the total history.

[19] Alice Merrill [Horne] was almost certainly the source of this oral tradition.

[20] Bennett, “The Mormon Seraglio,” History of the Saints, pp. 217-225.

[21] Bennett, “The Cyprian Saints,” History of the Saints, pp. 220-221.

[22] Bennett, “The Chambered Sisters of Charity,” History of the Saints, pp. 221-222.

[23] Bennett, “The Consecratees of the Cloister, or Cloistered Saints,” History of the Saints, pp. 223-224.

[24] Martha H. Brotherton, Affidavit dated July 13, 1842, Native American Bulletin, 1 (July 16, 1842), St. Louis. It was also republished in the Sangamo Journal 10 (July 22, 1842), Springfield, Illinois; the Warsaw Signal, July 23, 1842; New York Herald, 8 (July 25, 27, 1842); Louisville Daily Journal 12 (July 25, 1842): 183 (extracts); Alton Telegraph and Democratic Review 7 (July 30, 1842), Alton, Illinois; Quincy Whig 5 (August 6, 1842): [2], Quincy, Illinois; and John C. Bennett, The History of the Saints: Or an Exposé of Joe Smith and Mormonism (Boston: Leland & Whiting, 1842), 236–40.

[25] This poem is sufficiently different in tone from Eliza’s other poems, that it seems remotely possible that it was written by someone else and merely attributed to Eliza. However the poem is included without suspicion in at least two modern compilations of Eliza Snow’s poetry.

[26] Eliza R. Snow, “The Bride’s Avowal,” contained in Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry, pp. 210-211.

[27] Eliza R. Snow’s Nauvoo Journal, edited by Maureen Ursenbach, BYU Studies Vol 15:4 (1975), p. 394. Online 16 Apr 2014 at https://byustudies.byu.edu/showtitle.aspx?title=5186.

[28] Eliza R. Snow’s Nauvoo Journal, edited by Maureen Ursenbach, BYU Studies Vol 15:4 (1975), p. 394-5. Online 16 Apr 2014 at https://byustudies.byu.edu/showtitle.aspx?title=5186.

[29] William had beaten Joseph in 1835 so severely he appears to have broken Joseph’s ribs. At the time of the 1838 troubles, William expressed the hope Joseph would never get out of the hands of his enemies alive. See Walker, Kyle R.,  William Smith: In the Shadow of a Prophet, pp. 114-115, 141-142.

[30] It seems Bennett or one of the Strikers could have given the poem to William to publish in the Wasp to encourage the women willing to be secret wives or to discredit Joseph.

[31] Eliza R. Snow’s Nauvoo Journal, edited by Maureen Ursenbach, BYU Studies Vol 15:4 (1975), p. 396. Online 16 Apr 2014 at https://byustudies.byu.edu/showtitle.aspx?title=5186.

[32] Cited in Mormon Enigma, p. 122.

[33] Though Sarah appears not to have been seduced, it was feared her brother was sympathetic to the Higbee boys. Some suggest Joseph planned to make Sarah a conjugal plural wife, allowing the public marriage to Kingsbury to explain a possible pregnancy. However Sarah did not conceive during Joseph’s lifetime.

[34] Kingsbury, Joseph C., The History of Joseph C. Kingsbury Written by this own Hand, pp. 12-13. Original manuscript available at Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, 295 S 1500 E, Salt Lake City, Utah 84112-0860. Online 1 Apr 2016 at http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/Diaries/id/7660.

[35] Kingsbury, Joseph C., The History of Joseph C. Kingsbury Written by this own Hand, pp. 15-16. Original manuscript available at Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, 295 S 1500 E, Salt Lake City, Utah 84112-0860. Online 1 Apr 2016 at http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/Diaries/id/7660.

[36] The poem as currently found in the manuscript of Eliza’s Nauvoo journal includes a dedication to Jonathan and Elvira. However as the ink used to write in the journal does not change until December 1842, it is not entirely clear if the dedication was original or added at some later time.

[37] Snow, Eliza Roxcy, Eliza R. Snow journal, 1842-1882 , Church History Library MS 1439, online 3 Jun 2014 at https://eadview.lds.org/dcbrowser/MS%201439/, files 9 & 10. Also Stout, Meg, Examining the manuscript of Eliza’s journal, online 3 Jun 2014 at http://www.millennialstar.org/manuscript-of-elizas-journal/. The poem has obviously been tampered with, scraping the original word off the paper and replacing it with “rays.” The original word appears to begin with a and ends in s, and is roughly the same length as another instance of “angels” that appears later in Eliza’s journal.

[38] For the poem as it existed by December 1842, see Eliza R. Snow’s Nauvoo Journal, edited by Maureen Ursenbach, BYU Studies Vol 15:4 (1975), p. 399. Online 16 Apr 2014 at https://byustudies.byu.edu/showtitle.aspx?title=5186.

[39] It is impossible to see the head of the stairs from the bottom of the stairs in the Homestead.

[40] John Donne, Death, be not Proud, online 16 Apr 2014 at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/ poem/173363.

[41] Times and Seasons, 15 December 1842.

[42] Cook, Lyndon, Nauvoo Deaths and Marriages, 1839-1845.

[43] Snow, Eliza Roxcy, Eliza R. Snow journal, 1842-1882 , Church History Library MS 1439, online 3 Jun 2014 at https://eadview.lds.org/dcbrowser/MS%201439/, files 16 & 17.

[44] This imagery evokes sexual intimacy between the vile wretch and whatever women is being personified as innocence.

[45] Snow, Eliza Roxcy, Eliza R. Snow journal, 1842-1882 , Church History Library MS 1439, online 3 Jun 2014 at https://eadview.lds.org/dcbrowser/MS%201439/, files 16 & 18.

[46] This is the last line on the page before the content squeezed into the margin.

[47] Snow, Eliza Roxcy, Eliza R. Snow journal, 1842-1882 , Church History Library MS 1439, online 3 Jun 2014 at https://eadview.lds.org/dcbrowser/MS%201439/, file 15.

[48] Letter written in Quincy by Emma Smith to Joseph Smith, imprisoned in Liberty jail, written March 7, 1839.

[49] Eliza R. Snow’s Nauvoo Journal, edited by Maureen Ursenbach, BYU Studies Vol 15:4 (1975), p. 402. Online 16 Apr 2014 at https://byustudies.byu.edu/showtitle.aspx?title=5186.

[50] Faulring, American Prophet’s Record, p. 303.

[51] On July 20, 1843, Eliza writes of an unnamed Sister who came to her, with forbidding and angry looks, her “appearance very plainly manifested the perturbation of her mind.” The next day Eliza would leave Nauvoo to live with the Leavitt’s in the Morley Settlement. While at the Morley Settlement, Eliza would also associate with Sylvia P. Lyon, writing a poem for Sylvia upon the death of Sylvia’s daughter. On April 5, 1844, Eliza returned to Nauvoo to attend Conference. She writes she was counseled to remain in Nauvoo, and by 14 May had been invited to lodge with the Markham family. Eliza was living with the Markhams when Joseph was killed, would travel with the Markhams when the Saints were forced to leave Nauvoo, and would live with them once the exodus arrived at Winter Quarters.