Book Notes: Thomas Alexander’s biography, Edward Hunter Snow

10.08.2013 | The Maxwell Institute

At the dawn of the twentieth century the LDS Church was in the midst of a transition from “a settlement-founding polygamous and communitarian organization into an increasingly mainstream American church” (347). No survey has covered these shifts in greater detail than Thomas Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition. Alexander’s latest book, Edward Hunter Snow: Pioneer, Educator, Statesman, covers the same transitional period through the experiences of a particular historical figure who not only exemplified but also helped shepherd the fundamental changes being made.

Above all, this biography gives readers a sense of the extremely close ties that existed between the institutional Church and the state of Utah. As the son of an apostle, Edward became a leading figure in the Utah city of St. George, and although he served as a mission president, stake president, and St. George Temple president, his most lasting contributions came in the form of government service. As Alexander outlines, Edward was a key figure in establishing Dixie College and reforming Utah’s arcane and inequitable tax code, and he spent a good deal of his life working as a member of the state’s Democratic party. Snow was a man of progressive vision who helped Utah transition from a “frontier territory into a modern commonwealth.” He  fostered developments in banking, business, transportation, communications, and above all, education. This vision showed through in his view of the LDS religion, as his sermons typically focused on practical matters like tithing, the Word of Wisdom, frugal living, the importance of education, and charitable service.

Edward Hunter Snow is a straightforward, chronological account of one prominent Utah citizen’s life. Alexander doesn’t offer much contextualization or analysis, thus limiting the book’s usefulness. Perhaps the most significant element is the Foreword, which was written by Jeffrey R. Holland. I can’t think of another Mormon history book with a Foreword written by a sitting apostle. Holland praises the “vision, courage, talent, and faith” exhibited by Edward and others who turned the Church’s “less-than-successful ‘Cotton Mission,’ into … the spiritual and civic anchor” of Southern Utah—St. George (9).

While it doesn’t represent an official Church position, it is wonderful to see Elder Holland recommending a book that frankly (if briefly) discusses things like post-manifesto polygamy (133, 246-47), the now-abandoned ordinance of baptism for health (57), prayer circles (242), shifting expectations about Word of Wisdom adherence, changing temple recommend requirements (240-41), and the close Church involvement with political and civic affairs of early Utah. Alexander also touches on a number of interesting circumstances not likely to appear in Sunday School lessons, such as the ordination of a Mountain Meadows Massacre participant as a patriarch (244-45), the deep anxiety of Edward’s wife Hannah, who feared her husband would take a plural wife while serving in the Eastern States mission and suffered from depression at various other times (58, 289), and Edward’s moderate opposition to Chinese immigration after World War I (265).

If you’re interested in Southern Utah history, particularly how the son of an early Mormon apostle helped shape Utah tax policy, education, and civic development through the early 1900s, you’ll profit from Thomas G. Alexander’s Edward Hunter Snow: Pioneer, Educator, Statesman (Norman, OK: Arthur H. Clark Company, 2012).