Arthur R. Bassett, “Lorenzo Snow: The Decisions of a College Student,” New Era, Jan 1972, 35
Many young men in the Church come to grips with religion seriously for the first time during their college years when they are forced to make difficult decisions concerning missions, military service, and religion in general. Lorenzo Snow, one of the few early leaders of the Church who had an opportunity for formal college training, met just such a crisis during his own college experience.
President Snow had the privilege of attending Oberlin, one of the most interesting colleges of his day. Oberlin was a Presbyterian college that had quickly acquired a national reputation for its progressive nature. For example, it was one of the first American schools to become coeducational, admitting girls on an equal basis with young men. In 1830 a group of prominent young men who had become concerned with the problems of slavery banded together to oppose the practice. Becoming disgruntled with opposition against them at Lane Theological School in Cincinnati, they moved together as a group to Oberlin, Ohio, in 1836 and persuaded Charles Finney, one of the most prominent ministers of that era to come to Oberlin as professor of theology. All of this happened about the same time Lorenzo Snow attended Oberlin.
Lorenzo went to college, according to his own admission, as “a young man full of worldly aspirations, with bright prospects and means to gratify my ambition in acquiring a liberal college education.” Coming, as he did, from a wealthy family, he had many wealthy, proud friends and relatives who watched eagerly for him to achieve high honors in life. One of his acquaintances, William McKinley, later became President of the United States. Lorenzo was expected, as were all respectable young men of his day, to develop a certain degree of piety and concern for religious matters in his life. Yet, as he observed happenings on and about the campus, he wrote to his sister, Eliza, “If there is nothing better than is to be found here at Oberlin College, goodbye to all religion.”
Eliza, always close to her brother, had worried about him because of his interest in military affairs. Born in 1814, at the end of America’s “second war of Independence” and during the Napoleonic era, Lorenzo had been attracted by the glamour of a soldier’s life. Eliza had always worried that her brother’s life would be cut short on some foreign battlefield. Her mind, however, had been turned to religious matters. She and Lorenzo’s mother had previously joined the Church, and Eliza had moved to Kirtland, Ohio, while Lorenzo was at Oberlin. Sensing that he also might find satisfaction in Mormonism, she watched for an opportunity to bring Lorenzo to Kirtland, where he might come to know the Prophet Joseph Smith and be influenced by him.
Her chance came in 1836, when Joseph and other Church leaders were engaged in the School of the Prophets. In the early days of American education every respectable scholar was required to learn Hebrew and Greek. Lorenzo had just completed his study of classical languages at Oberlin but had not as yet mastered Hebrew; so Eliza, knowing that a Hebrew scholar, Dr. Joshua Seixas, had been employed to teach the School of the Prophets, invited her younger brother to come to Kirtland and study Hebrew. He accepted. Lorenzo was already mildly curious about the religion his sister had embraced, but he probably never dreamed what a change would be effected in his life by his journey to Kirtland.
He was most deeply impressed by Joseph Smith, Sr., the patriarch of the Church and father of the prophet. Still wrestling with his pride and worldly ambitions, Lorenzo found himself caught in a spiritual struggle. He listened to the Prophet as he spoke on occasion “filled with the Holy Ghost, speaking as with the voice of an archangel and filled with the power of God,” his whole person shining and his face lightened until it appeared as “the whiteness of the driven snow.”
Lorenzo’s soul responded—but his mind held back. What would it mean to his friends and relatives who were anticipating a brilliant future for him if he were to “disappoint those expectations and join the poor, ignorant, despised ‘Mormons’ ” as they were at that day regarded.
Father Smith was sensitive to the problems of young Lorenzo and advised him on one occasion, “Don’t worry, take it calmly and the Lord will show you the truth of this great latter-day work, and you will want to be baptized.” This comment initially startled the young man, but as he continued to seek the Lord, the promise of the patriarch was fulfilled. Lorenzo was baptized. Yet he still felt incomplete religiously. He desired more than anything to have all doubt removed; he wanted a greater confirmation of the Spirit than he had previously received.
Two or three weeks after his baptism he received the certainty he had desired, but not in the way he had expected it. During the time he had sought his initial testimony of the gospel, he had retired each night to a grove near his home and sought the Lord in prayer. One evening he felt no inclination to pray. The heavens, he said, seemed as brass over his head. However, though he did not feel in the mood for prayer, he went, as he was accustomed to do, to his place of prayer.
As he prayed, he felt the spirit of God completely enveloping his body and filling him with a joy unlike any experience he had undergone before. All doubt was driven from his mind as he felt himself immersed in the influence of the Holy Ghost in a way that was “even more real and physical in its effects” upon his system than his immersion in the waters of baptism.
He knew what he had desired to know about God and the restoration of the gospel, and this knowledge was of far greater value to him than all the wealth and honors. the world could bestow. His decision had been made in faith to cast his lot with the Saints, and in response to his faith, he had gained the peace of mind he had desired.
However, no war is won in a single battle, and Lorenzo Snow, just like everyone else, had to continue to struggle in order to grow spiritually. His next struggle fits a pattern known and appreciated by many who have served as missionaries.
Sidney Rigdon, a member of the First Presidency and a former minister himself, recognizing the importance of education, encouraged Lorenzo to continue with his schooling. However, the former Oberlin student had other goals in mind. Though he said he was extremely shy and the thought of preaching to others concerned him deeply, he was still consumed by a desire to share the gospel with others. To him it was the most important thing he could do.
About that time a proclamation from the First Presidency was issued, inviting those who wanted to become members of the elders quorum to submit their names. If approved by the Presidency, they would be ordained. Lorenzo submitted his name, “which is the only time in my life,” he commented later, “that have offered my name for or solicited an office or calling.”
In the spring of 1837 he set out alone to preach without purse or scrip, with the intent of doing missionary work in Ohio. This was to be one of the hardest ordeals of his life, personality-wise.
“It was, however, a severe trial to my natural feelings of independence to go without purse or scrip—especially the purse; for, from the time I was old enough to work, the feeling that I ‘paid my way’ always seemed a necessary adjunct to self respect, and nothing but a positive knowledge that God required it now, as He did anciently of His servants, the Disciples of Jesus, could induce me to go forth dependent on my fellow creatures for the common necessaries of life. But my duty in this respect was clearly made known to me, and I determined to do it.”
With concern in his heart and trust in his Lord, Elder Snow embarked on his first mission. He visited an aunt and then traveled for about thirty miles. Just as the sun was setting, he made his first official call as a Mormon elder and was refused a night’s lodging. Eight calls he made that night before being admitted for the night—“going to bed supperless, and leaving in the morning, minus a breakfast.” This was his first introduction to missionary work, but he refused to let discouragement get him down, and he served a faithful mission in his home state before moving with the Saints to Missouri.
By the autumn of 1838, the spirit of his missionary calling began to press so heavily on his mind that he longed to engage in its labors, though he had been ill through much of the summer. His strength was depleted, but he felt if he would make the effort to embark in the Lord’s service that God would supply the needed strength. Therefore, contrary to the advice and wishes of his parents, he set out to share the gospel. At first he could only walk a short distance before he was forced to sit down and rest, but gradually his strength returned and he was completely restored to health.
During this missionary journey he labored in four states. February found him in Kentucky, preparing for his return to Ohio, a journey of five hundred miles through deep snow. He had only $1.25 in his pocket, but he had a deep faith that the Lord would provide.
This return trip was a difficult one. During most of the trip his socks were wringing wet from mud, snow, and rains, and he was fortunate if he found lodging before a fire. The trip completely emaciated the young missionary, and when he returned to his friends in Ohio, he was not recognized. Under the care of his friends he collapsed and was seized with a violent fever, lying many days prostrate in bed.
Such were the missions in the early career of Lorenzo Snow—and the beginnings of many more. The following year he went to Great Britain. He was upon the sea forty-two stormy days. Writing to his aunt he described the storms:
“Just look at me in your lively imagination, in one of these terrific storms, seated to a large hogshead of water—holding on, with both hands, to ropes near by … the ship reeling and dashing from side to side—now and then a monster wave leaping over the bulwarks, treating all present with a shower bath—see, sitting near me, a man weeping bitterly with terror on his countenance—the next moment a wave shoots over the bulwarks, dashing him from his seat and landing him … on the opposite side, from which he arises with a broken arm and dripping wet.”
Below, boxes were broken loose and were tumbling about among the groaning and crying women and children. Yet, through it all, Elder Snow was filled with peace, for he was on the Lord’s errand. This scene was much like one described by Luke, involving the Apostle Paul. In fact, there was much in Lorenzo Snow that was like Paul in terms of missionary labors. Elder Snow’s mission to Britain was followed in coming years by missionary labors in Italy, Switzerland, Malta, Hawaii, and the Holy Land. Before his missions were completed, he had crossed the ocean eight times, traveled over one hundred and fifty thousand miles, and borne his own expenses through it all.
President Snow should be remembered for many things: for his gentlemanly manner, for his deep spiritual commitment to the Lord, for his great abilities as a colonizer, for his value as an educator; but among all his other virtues, he should be especially remembered as a missionary par excellence. One of the major thrusts of his administration was that of fostering missionary efforts worldwide. He even sent out MIA missionaries to serve in other stakes for a period of five or six months. He assigned Elder Heber J. Grant to open Japan to the teaching of the gospel. He spoke of carrying the gospel to Russia and Austria. And during the first year of his administration, he called over one thousand missionaries to labor throughout the world—a number that had never been sent out before in the history of the Church, and never was again for twenty years.
One is left to wonder what might have happened if Lorenzo Snow, as a busy young college student, had decided that religion was not for him. How many thousands of individuals might not have had the chance to accept the gospel!
[photos] President Snow as he appeared at various stages during his life.
[photos] President Snow
[photo] Lorenzo Snow’s signature.
[photo] A dress belonging to Eliza R. Snow, sister to Lorenzo Snow.
[photo] Two poetic letters exchanged by brother and sister—Lorenzo and Eliza.
[photo] “O My Father” was written on this small lap desk by Eliza.^ Back to top