By candle glow and fireplace glare, 13-year-old Erastus Snow scrutinized the two overnight guests in his Vermont home. Orson Pratt and Lyman Johnson, both about age 21, told about a new church barely two years old. Erastus’s parents listened intently, knowing that two of their married sons had already converted to the LDS church. Erastus, familiar with the Bible despite his youth, liked what he heard and then experienced something powerful: “They bore their testimonies, which I readily received,” he said; “the Holy Ghost descended upon me, bearing witness that it was true, and that they were messengers of God.”
At how young an age can spiritual experiences come? Joseph Smith, 14 at the time of the First Vision, first felt spiritually troubled by age 12. Erastus Snow’s spiritual fires, however, first became lit by age nine. The “spiritual biography” of his youth, which follows, shows that young people are capable of great spiritual experiences and devoted religious service long before they reach today’s missionary age.
Born on November 9, 1818, and raised in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, Erastus was the son of Levi Snow, who “never made a profession of Christianity,” and of Lucina Snow, a devout Methodist. She raised Erastus, her dark-haired son with gray eyes, to believe in God at an early age:
“I being born and brought up amongst them (Methodists) … and being taught by my Mother and trained up somewhat in the statutes and admonition of the Lord, wherefore my mind was called up in my youth years, even at the age of nine years I experienced a joy & comfort which the world cannot give and I endeavored for a season to serve the Lord and be a devout example.”
He said that when he was nine, he “became a student of the Bible, beginning with the life and teachings of Christ.”
Elders Pratt and Johnson taught the gospel to Erastus, barely a teenager, during their brief stay at the Snow home. He and his mother both believed, but father Levi was less enthusiastic. “I began to mend my ways,” Erastus noted, “and prayed to God to soften the hearts of my parents that I might have the privilege of obeying the Gospel.”
His prayers were answered. Through his mother’s intercession with his father. Erastus was allowed to visit his LDS brother, William, at nearby Charleston, Vermont. William baptized his teenage brother on February 2, 1833, through ice in cold Lake Derby. His baptism was ice-cold, but his eagerness to spread the gospel grew red-hot. “I then desired to preach the Gospel and began to search the scriptures that I might be able to instruct others.”
LDS missionaries who passed through the Snows’ neighborhood recognized Erastus’s burning desire to preach, so on June 28, 1834, Elder John F. Boynton ordained him a teacher and told him to start preaching. “I worked on the farm and preached in the neighborhood on Sundays,” Erastus said, and “many were convinced of the truth and some made willing to obey it.”
Four days after his 16th birthday, Erastus was ordained a priest by his brother William and told to teach and baptize. He linked up with his young relative James Snow, also age 16, for a ten-day preaching mission into the Vermont countryside. Starting on November 22, 1834, they journeyed to Danville, where they “held a meeting with the brethren.” The two priests held two meetings at Sheffield, and then spoke to “a large attentive audience.” At Glover, they visited Albany, Irasburg, Troy, and Jay, “preaching and calling upon people to repent.” At Jay, they met with local Saints on the Sabbath and “administered the Lord’s supper and in the evening we held a public meeting.” The young priests visited Troy, Newport, Salem, Charleston, Newark, Burk, and Sundon.
After the trip, James Snow said, “we did exceedingly rejoice.” He and Erastus “could truly say that the Lord was merciful unto us in very deed in that he did fill our mouths with words that our enemies could neither gainsay nor resist, and prejudice gave way.”
With his first preaching trip ended, Erastus worked on the family farm a winter and attended a short term of school. In the spring of 1835, still 16, he “labored what I could, some in the neighboring churches and some in the adjoining towns until the first of June when I went to the state of New Hampshire and laboured a while in Lisbon and the adjacent country … but none at this time obeyed the truth.” That year, 1835, he helped his father with spring and summer work. “I was father’s chief help on the farm,” he recalled, “but always carried a pocket Bible or some of the religious works with me to the field, and when my team was resting, I was reading. Father sometimes thought my team owed a debt of gratitude to my Bible.”
That August, Apostle Luke S. Johnson ordained 16-year-old Erastus to be an elder. The new elder then became junior companion to Apostle William E. McLellin during a trip into New Hampshire. At Littleton they parted, and Erastus headed West, preaching on the way and performing his first baptism—Zadock Parker. That fall he “baptized many people and organized a branch of the Church in the towns of Lyman and Littleton, in New Hampshire.”
After the brilliant red, yellow, and orange autumn leaves had fallen and winter’s chill set in, Erastus bid good-bye to parents, kin, friends, and Vermont. On November 8, 1835, the day before his 17th birthday, he and Elder Hazen Aldrich started West for Kirtland, Ohio, to meet the Prophet Joseph Smith. Levi Snow, knowing his son preferred preaching to farming, gave Erastus permission to leave and also put 15 dollars into the youngster’s pocket.
Despite winter storms that blocked their boat on Lake Erie, Erastus and Hazen Aldrich managed to reach Kirtland, Ohio, early in December 1835—a 700-mile trip. There Erastus met Joseph Smith for the first time and inspected the nearly finished Kirtland Temple. For several weeks Erastus boarded with the Smiths, earning his keep by doing chores. “During the winter I continued to preach on the Sabbath in Kirtland and the surrounding neighborhood,” he said, “and attended grammar school during the week, which was taught by Sidney Rigdon.”
When the Church organized its first quorum of elders, Erastus became a charter member. In March 1836, he and about 300 others met for the dedication of the Kirtland Temple. A great spiritual outpouring overwhelmed those present on the occasion, including Erastus. “The spirit of prophecy was bountifully poured out on us,” he said, and he was promised that one day he would perform important work in the Rocky Mountains. The dedication services impressed the teenager:
“We all, like as did Israel when they surrounded Jericho, with one united voice gave a loud shout of Hosannah, Hosannah, Hosannah, to God and the Lamb, Amen, Amen, Amen, and Amen. When this was done the Holy Ghost shed forth upon us; some received visions of the judgments that were to be poured out upon this generation; some spoke in tongues, some interpreted; others prophesied; others saw Zion in her glory, and the angels came and worshipped with us, and some saw them, yea even twelve legions of them, the chariots of Israel and the horsemen thereof.”
Later that season 17-year-old Erastus was taken from the elders quorum to be a member of the newly formed Second Quorum of the Seventies.
After receiving a patriarchal blessing from Joseph Smith, Sr. and finishing a term of school, Erastus left about April 16, 1836, “on foot and alone with a small hand valise containing a few Church works and a pair of socks, with five cents in my pocket, being all my worldly wealth,” and headed for Pennsylvania. During this nine-month mission he traveled 1,600 miles on foot, held 220 meetings, and baptized about 60 persons.
In the spring of 1837, Erastus and other missionaries revisited places from his previous trip and entered new areas of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, “baptizing and organizing a number of branches.” In Bridgeport, Pennsylvania, he was pelted with rotten eggs and driven from town. At Leitersburg, Maryland, he held a 12-hour discussion with a Campbellite preacher, one of many long theological debates the young missionary said he won during his trip. In Pennsylvania two sisters, nearly dead, were healed by his priesthood administration. After preaching 147 sermons in seven months and baptizing about 40 people, he returned to Kirtland on December 5, 1837, a month after his 19th birthday.
He began 1838 by taking another missionary trip, but in May he was called back to Kirtland. Joseph Smith and the Twelve had moved to Missouri, so Erastus with about 40 others headed West to join them. He arrived at Far West, Missouri, on August 8, 1838. There, to his joy he found his converted mother and unconverted father who had settled with the Saints in Missouri. He had not seen them since his departure from Vermont two years before. Of Erastus’s ten brothers and sisters, all but two had become Latter-day Saints. His father never accepted baptism.
For a few weeks Erastus lived at the home of Joseph Smith, where he earned board and room by chopping firewood, hauling water, and doing chores. But when hostilities escalated against the Saints, “I was among the defenders of Far West when it was surrounded by government troops, and I laid down my rifle with the rest of the brethren on demand of General Clark, at which time Joseph (Smith) was arrested and put into Liberty Jail.”
On December 13, 1838, a month after Erastus ended his teenage years by turning 20, he married Artimesia Beman. He became a school teacher in Missouri but soon joined the general exodus of Saints to Illinois. By age 20, he had already performed almost a lifetime’s worth of missionary work for the Church. Nevertheless, his services had barely begun. During the Nauvoo period he took more proselyting trips. Next, he helped pioneer the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1847. In 1849 at age 30 he was called to be an Apostle and sent to Denmark, which he opened for missionary work. Later he became a beloved leader and colonizer of southern and central Utah.
Erastus Snow’s religious fire, kindled when he was a boy of nine, was still flaming brightly when he died as a senior Apostle at age 70 in 1888 in Salt Lake City.
Sources: Erastus Snow, Journal, 1818–37, LDS Church Archives. “Apostle Erastus Fairbanks Snow,” Our Pioneer Heritage (1963), 298–303. Andrew Karl Larson, Erastus Snow: The Life of a Missionary and Pioneer for the Early Mormon Church (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1971). Journal of J. C. Snow, 1817–37, LDS Church Archives.