Eliza R. Snow is revered for her prominent role in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A poet and prophetess, she served as the first secretary of the Relief Society (1842-44) and later as its second general president (1880-87). Sister Snow was an older sister to Lorenzo Snow, who served as the fifth president of the Church, and a plural wife to Joseph Smith and later to Brigham Young.
In 1845, while living in the home of Stephen Markham after the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, Eliza R. Snow authored the poem that became known as “O My Father.” According to Jaynann Morgan Payne, “her little room [in the attic] had bare walls and floor, except for a small rag rug beside her bed. On a small bedside table lay the Holy Bible, her beloved Book of Mormon, and a tiny gold pencil the Prophet had given her and with which she wrote this immortal poem” (Ensign, 1973). It is the best-known source for the Latter-day Saint belief in a Heavenly Mother.
The poem first appeared in print in Times and Seasons on November 15, 1845 under the title, “My Father in Heaven.” Already an accomplished poet, this was “the last poem that Eliza R. Snow wrote before she and her fellow Saints were driven from Nauvoo. … As she faced the hardships of the long trek westward, it is not surprising that she was moved to write a poem about longing for home. In terms of an earthly home, she was virtually a displaced refugee, yet she took comfort in looking toward her divine home and loving heavenly parents” (Karen Lynn Davidson, Our Latter-day Hymns: The Stories and the Messages , 321).
Each verse of “O My Father” is a chiasm, with the exception of the last verse which is a parallelism. A study of the structure of the poem shows it to be a case study for the process of spiritual enlightenment that is enhanced by the greater endowment of knowledge available through the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. In this article, a diagram and analysis of each verse is presented.
Verse 1: In this introductory verse, Eliza R. Snow acknowledges the existence of God as a self-evident truth. She then asks three inspired questions about her relationship to Him: 1) about returning to His presence after this life; 2) about living in his presence prior to her physical birth; 3) about having a close father-daughter relationship with Him prior to her physical birth. Chiasmus in this verse serves to answer each of these questions, except for the timing of her death (which would happen four decades later).
A: O my Father, thou that dwellest
B: In the high and glorious place,
C: When shall I regain thy presence
D: And again behold thy face?
D: In thy holy habitation,
C: Did my spirit once reside?
B: In my first primeval childhood
A: Was I nurtured near thy side?
A=A: “Father” equals “thy side.” Prior to her physical birth Sister Snow had a close father-daughter relationship with God, who “nurtured” her spirit and prepared her for mortality.
B=B: “[H]igh and glorious place” equals “primeval childhood.” The word “primeval” means “very old or ancient.” Hence, “my first primeval childhood” refers to Sister Snow’s spirit birth and upbringing in the “high and glorious” presence of God, the father of her spirit.
C=C: “[R]egain thy presence” equates with “once reside.” After her mortal life is over, Sister Snow will return to the presence of God.
D=D: “[T]hy face” equates with “thy holy habitation.” When Sister Snow returns to the presence of God, she will resume the close father-daughter relationship she enjoyed prior to her mortal birth.
Verse 2: After posing her questions in the first verse, Eliza R. Snow uses the second verse to explain the origin of these questions — an intuition or feeling she had often experienced that suggested a divine origin and purpose to her life. Chiasmus in this verse contrasts what she had learned intuitively with the expanded understanding she gained through the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.
A: For a wise and glorious purpose Thou hast placed me here on earth
B: And withheld the recollection Of my former friends and birth;
B: Yet ofttimes a secret something Whispered, “You’re a stranger here,”
A: And I felt that I had wandered From a more exalted sphere.
A=A: “[A] wise and glorious purpose” is an expansion of “I felt that I had wandered” and “earth” contrasts with “more exalted sphere.” Her intuition had suggested that she had “wandered” from the presence of God, but she would later learn that her presence on earth was deliberate, that God had sent her from His “more exalted sphere” for “a wise and glorious purpose.”
B=B: “[W]ithheld the recollection” is an expansion of “secret something Whispered” and “former friends and birth” contrasts with “stranger.” Her intuition had also suggested that worldly society was not her native habitat. She would later learn that she had a spirit origin that preceded her physical birth, in the presence of a pleasant social experience (see D&C 130:2), but that this pre-mortal memory had been wisely “withheld” during her mortal sojourn.
Verse 3: Building on the previous verse, where the origin of her questions is described, this verse explains how her intuition could only provide her with a limited knowledge of God. Later, after being blessed with a greater endowment of knowledge, she was able to comprehend and discover greater truths about God. Chiasmus in this verse clarifies this process of spiritual discovery.
A: I had learned to call thee Father,
B: Thru thy Spirit from on high,
C: But, until the key of knowledge
D: Was restored, I knew not why.
D: In the heav’ns are parents single?
C: No, the thought makes reason stare!
B: Truth is reason; truth eternal
A: Tells me I’ve a mother there.
A=A: “Father” corresponds to “mother.” In the heavens parents are not single. Rather, our families on earth follow the same pattern that exists in the heavens. Everyone on earth is a son or daughter of Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother and has the potential to become like them in the eternities.
B=B: “Spirit” equals “Truth.” In context, Eliza R. Snow uses “Spirit” to describe intuition, which helped her understand the ways of God to a limited degree. The scriptures teach that the Spirit testifies of truth (see Moroni 10:5), helping us to understand the ways of God and to make wise choices. In addition to intuition or the light of Christ, the Lord can bless us with greater endowments of spiritual knowledge, such as the gift of the Holy Ghost and the temple endowment.
C=C: “[K]ey of knowledge” equals “reason.” Reason is not incompatible with faith or spiritual knowledge. If one is “governed by the laws which control the realm into which he is delving,” reason can be used to great benefit in every field of endeavor. Eliza R. Snow’s experience suggests that reason governed by the laws of spiritual knowledge is the only way to discover that Heavenly Father has a Helpmeet, our Heavenly Mother.
D=D: “I knew not why” corresponds to “are parents single?” In addition to the three questions she poses in the first verse, Eliza R. Snow was nagged by a question concerning the nature of God and her divine parentage. The answer was revealed to her by the Prophet Joseph Smith and confirmed by the Spirit.
Verse 4: With her expanded knowledge, Eliza R. Snow expresses a greater desire to live a faithful life so she can return to the presence of her Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother. Such is the motivating value of increasing in spiritual knowledge. Parallelism in this verse, in contrast to chiasmus in the first three verses, adds emphasis through repetition of her strong desire to be with her Heavenly Parents.
A: When I leave this frail existence,
B: When I lay this mortal by,
C: Father, Mother, may I meet you
D: In your royal courts on high?
A: Then, at length, when I’ve completed
B: All you sent me forth to do,
C: With your mutual approbation
D: Let me come and dwell with you.
A=A: “[L]eave this frail existence” equals “completed.” The completion of our mortal lives happens, of course, at death. The timing of this event is dictated by God.
B=B: “[M]ortal” equals “sent me forth.” Our existence on earth carries with it the responsibility to accomplish certain things.
C=C: “Father, Mother” equals “mutual.” While Christ is our judge, the commandments originate from Heavenly Father. Our efforts to keep the commandments should be motivated by a desire to please Him. With her expanded understanding, Eliza R. Snow adds to this a desire to please her Heavenly Mother.
D=D: “[R]oyal courts on high” equals “dwell with you.” If we live a life pleasing to our Heavenly Parents, we will be privileged to return to their “royal” presence and “dwell” with them.
Eliza R. Snow’s beloved hymn demonstrates the process of spiritual enlightenment that is available to all men and women. What may begin as intuition can be solidified through revelation and the higher endowments of knowledge available through the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. The key is to ask inspired questions, seek answers from authorized sources, and confirm new knowledge through personal revelation. As we increase in spiritual knowledge, we will develop a greater desire to live in accordance with God’s commandments and one day be prepared to return to the presence of our Heavenly Father and our Heavenly Mother.