Lorenzo Snow: Decisions of a Young Man


Many young men and women in the Church come to grips with religion seriously for the first time during their teens and twenties, when they face difficult decisions about missions, marriage, college, military service, and religion. Lorenzo Snow, the fifth President of the Church, met just such a crisis during his own young adulthood.

Bright Prospects

Lorenzo Snow was one of the few early Church leaders who had an opportunity for formal college training. Young Lorenzo attended Oberlin College, a Presbyterian college with a national reputation for its progressiveness. It was one of the first American colleges to admit young women equally with young men. In 1830, a group of prominent young men who had banded together to oppose slavery moved as a group to Oberlin. In 1836, they persuaded Charles Finney, a prominent minister, to come to Oberlin as professor of theology. All of this happened about the time Lorenzo Snow attended school there.

Lorenzo went to Oberlin, “full of worldly aspirations, with bright prospects and means to gratify my ambition in acquiring a liberal college education.” Coming from a wealthy family, he had many 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. Yet, as he observed happenings around 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.”

“A Light Arose in My Understanding”

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, along with her mother and sister, had joined the Church and moved to Kirtland, Ohio, while Lorenzo was at Oberlin. Sensing that he, too, might find satisfaction in the gospel, Eliza watched for an opportunity to bring Lorenzo to Kirtland, where he might come to know the Prophet Joseph Smith and be influenced by him.

Lorenzo had met Joseph Smith briefly in 1831 in Hiram, Ohio, and felt that the Prophet was “honest and sincere.” At that time, he said, “A light arose in my understanding which has never been extinguished.” Later, while studying at Oberlin, Lorenzo met David W. Patten, an Apostle, and discussed the gospel further with him. As a result, he began to argue in defense of the Church—and fell out of favor with students and professors at the college.

In the early days of American education, every respectable scholar was required to learn Hebrew and Greek. In 1836, Joseph Smith and other Church leaders in Kirtland, Ohio, had organized the School of the Prophets and had employed a Hebrew scholar, Dr. Joshua Seixas, to teach there. Lorenzo had just completed his study of classical languages at Oberlin but had not as yet mastered Hebrew; so Eliza invited her younger brother to come to Kirtland and study Hebrew. He accepted. Lorenzo probably never dreamed what a change would be effected in his life by his journey to Kirtland.

A Wrestle with Pride

In Kirtland, Lorenzo was 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.” The Prophet’s 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 then 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 startled the young man, but as he continued to seek the Lord, the Patriarch’s promise was fulfilled. Lorenzo was baptized in 1836, at the age of twenty-two. Yet he still felt incomplete. He desired to have all doubt removed; he wanted a greater confirmation of the Spirit than he had previously received.

A Perfect Knowledge

Two or three weeks after his baptism, Lorenzo received the certainty he desired. 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 like brass over his head. But though he did not feel in the mood for prayer, he went, as he was accustomed to do, to his place of prayer.

“I had no sooner opened my lips in an effort to pray,” he later said, “than I heard a sound, just above my head, like the rustling of silken robes, and immediately the Spirit of God descended upon me, completely enveloping my whole person, filling me, from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet, and O, the joy and happiness I felt! No language can describe the almost instantaneous transition from a dense cloud of mental and spiritual darkness into a refulgence of light and knowledge, as it was at that time imparted to my understanding. I then received a perfect knowledge that God lives, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and of the restoration of the holy Priesthood, and the fulness of the Gospel. It was a complete baptism—a tangible immersion … even more real and physical in its effects upon every part of my system than the immersion by water.”

This knowledge was of far greater value to him than all the wealth and honors the world could bestow. In faith, he had made his decision to join the Saints, and in response to his faith, the Lord had given him the peace of mind he had desired.

Without Purse or Scrip

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.

Sidney Rigdon, a member of the First Presidency and a former minister himself, recognized the importance of education and encouraged Lorenzo to continue with his schooling. However, the former Oberlin student now 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.

In the spring of 1837 he was called to serve, and he set out alone to preach in Ohio without purse or scrip. This was to be one of the hardest ordeals of his life.

“It was … a severe trial to my natural feelings of independence to go without purse or scrip—especially the purse,” he said; “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 with trust in the 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. He made eight calls 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. He served a faithful mission in his home state, baptizing some of his relatives and friends. Then he moved with the Saints to Missouri.

More Missions

By the autumn of 1838, the spirit of his missionary calling began to press so heavily on his mind that he longed to engage again in its labors, though he had been ill through much of the summer. His strength was depleted, but he felt that if he would make the effort to embark in the Lord’s service, God would supply the needed strength. Therefore, when the call came, he set out to share the gospel, contrary to the advice and wishes of his parents. At first he could walk only 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, Lorenzo labored in four states. Then in February, he was in Kentucky, preparing for his return home—a journey of more than five hundred miles through deep snow. With only $1.25 in his pocket, he had deep faith that the Lord would provide.

This return trip was a difficult one. During most of the journey, his socks were soaked from mud, snow, and rain, and he was fortunate if he found lodging near a fire. The trip completely emaciated the young missionary, and when he returned home to his loved ones, they did not recognize him. Under their care, he collapsed and was seized with a violent fever. He remained in bed for many days.

Filled with Peace

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 broke loose and tumbled 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 involving the Apostle Paul. (See Acts 27.) 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 many more years of missionary labors. As an Apostle, he opened missionary work in Italy, Switzerland, and Malta, and oversaw the Italian translation of the Book of Mormon. He later served in the northwestern United States, Hawaii, and the Holy Land. Before his missions were completed, he had crossed the ocean eight times, had traveled over one hundred and fifty thousand miles, and had borne his own expenses through it all.

On 13 September 1898, at age eighty-four, Lorenzo Snow became the fifth President of the Church. President Snow should be remembered for many things: for his refined, gentlemanly manner, for his deep spiritual commitment to the Lord; for his great abilities as a colonizer and a legislator; for his work as an educator. He should be especially remembered as a missionary. One of the major thrusts of his administration was that of fostering missionary efforts worldwide. He sent out young men to serve as stake missionaries 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, Austria, and Latin America. 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.

“A Full and Honest Tithing”

Perhaps the major contribution of Lorenzo Snow’s ministry as President of the Church was his reemphasis on the payment of tithes among the Latter-day Saints, which enabled the Church to become financially solvent. In 1898, the Church had many large debts, because the United States government had seized most of the Church’s assets over the issue of plural marriage. In 1899, President Snow told the members of the Church: “This is the answer to our financial problems. Even though as a Church we are heavily in debt, I say unto you that, if this people will pay a full and honest tithing, the shackles of indebtedness will be removed from us.” The Saints responded faithfully, and the Church’s debts were resolved before President Snow’s death.

“Face to Face”

A lifetime of spiritual experiences for Lorenzo Snow was climaxed following the death of President Wilford Woodruff. President Snow, who was then serving as President of the Quorum of the Twelve, went to the Salt Lake Temple. Dressed in his temple robes, he knelt to pray, reminding the Lord that he had often prayed that President Woodruff would outlive him, so that he would not be required to carry the heavy responsibilities as President of the Church. But he then told the Lord that he would do whatever was required of him.

After his prayer, President Snow waited for an answer from the Lord, but nothing came. Later, as he was walking through a corridor, a glorious manifestation was suddenly opened up to him: The Lord Jesus Christ appeared to him. President Snow later told his granddaughter about the experience, showing her the spot in the temple where it had occurred. She wrote:

“Grand-pa came a step nearer and held out his left hand and said: ‘He stood right here, about three feet above the floor. It looked as though He stood on a plate of solid gold.’

“Grand-pa told me what a glorious personage the Savior is and described His hands, feet, countenance and beautiful white robes, all of which were of such a glory of whiteness and brightness that he could hardly gaze upon Him.

“Then he came another step nearer and put his right hand on my head and said: ‘Now, grand-daughter, I want you to remember that this is the testimony of your grand-father, that he told you with his own lips that he actually saw the Savior, here in the Temple, and talked with Him face to face.’”

One is left to wonder what might have happened if Lorenzo Snow, as a young college student, had decided that religion was not for him.

Lorenzo Snow Highlights, 1814–1901

Year

Age

Event

1814

3 April: Born in Mantua, Ohio.

1831

17

Mother and sister join LDS Church; he hears Joseph Smith speak.

1835

21

Enters Oberlin College; sister, Eliza, joins the Church.

1836

22

Attends Hebrew school in Kirtland. Is baptized on 19 June.

1837

23

Serves mission in Ohio.

1838–39

24–25

Moves to Far West, Missouri; serves a mission in midwestern U.S.

1840–43

26–29

Serves a mission to Great Britain; presents a copy of the Book of Mormon to Queen Victoria.

1845

31

Marries.

1846–48

32–34

Crosses the plains to the Great Salt Lake Valley.

1849

35

12 February: Is ordained an Apostle.

1849–52

35–38

Serves a mission to Europe, opening the work in Italy, Switzerland, and Malta.

1852–81

38

Is elected to the Utah legislature; serves for twenty-nine years.

1853

39

Is called to preside over colonization of Brigham City, Utah.

1864

50

Serves a short-term mission to Hawaii.

1872–73

58–59

Travels to Palestine; assists in the second dedication of the land for the return of the Jews.

1872–82

58–68

Serves as president of the Utah Territorial Council.

1873–77

59–63

Serves as counselor to President Brigham Young.

1885

71

Serves a mission to American Indians in northwestern U.S.

1886–87

72–73

Serves eleven-month prison term for practicing plural marriage.

1889

75

April: Becomes president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

1893

79

Becomes president of the Salt Lake Temple.

1898

84

13 September: Is sustained the fifth President of the Church.

1899

85

Reemphasizes tithing throughout the Church.

1901

87

10 October: Dies in Salt Lake City.

Sources

  1. 1.

    Eliza R. Snow, Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow, Salt Lake City, 1884.

  2. 2.

    LeRoi C. Snow, “An Experience of My Father’s,” Improvement Era, September 1933, pages 677–79.

  3. 3.

    Francis M. Gibbons, Lorenzo Snow, Spiritual Giant, Prophet of God, Salt Lake City, 1982.

  4. 4.

    “Lorenzo Snow,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Paul Mann