December 10, 2010

Review: Hedges and Holzapfel, "Within These Prison Walls: Lorenzo Snow's Record Book, 1886-1897"

Title: Within These Prison Walls: Lorenzo Snow's Record Book, 1886-1897
Editors: Andrew H. Hedges, Richard Neitzel Holzapfel
Publisher: Provo: Religious Studies Center/Salt Lake City: Deseret Book
Genre: History
Year: 2010
Pages: 152
ISBN13: 9780842527620
Binding: Hardcover
Price: 21.99

Lorenzo Snow, an apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was sent on an unusual mission to the Utah Territorial Penitentiary in 1886. He wasn't sent in the capacity of a prison chaplain or spiritual advisor and his mission call didn't come from the President of the LDS Church. A grand jury called Snow to serve as an inmate under the conviction of "unlawful cohabitation." Judge Orlando W. Powers rejected Snow's appeal to the Utah Territorial Supreme Court, arguing:
The American idea of government is founded on the Christian idea of home,—where one father and one mother, each equal of the other, happy in the consequences of mutual and eternal affections, rear about the hearthstone an intelligent and God-fearing family (xxxv). 
In addition to keeping busy by organizing "classes among the inmates in reading, writing, math, and bookkeeping," Snow corresponded with friends, family, and fellow inmates, copying some of his prison writings into a small black record book of 224 lined pages (xliv, liii). The contents of this book have been meticulously transcribed and published in Within These Prison Walls: Lorenzo Snow's Record Book, 1886-1897.

Although Snow was imprisoned, the editors note, his "words escaped from within the prison walls to be shared with the outside world" (lvi). They give three reasons why the record book merits publication. First, making the record book available helps illuminate Snow's "thoughts, personality, and personal life" by giving access to his humor, compassion, and poetry style. Second, the poems and letters contain items of doctrinal significance on matters like premortality, the afterlife, the origin of plural marriage, and the potential godhood of humankind. Third, the book is "an important primary source for students of the federal antipolygamy crusade" (lvi-lviii).

Most surprising to me was the amount of poetry included; by far the majority of the record book consists of poems written to friends and family, or written from family to Snow. 79 pages of the transcribed pages are poetry, compared to 7 pages of letter prose and 8 pages of a table including names, ages, sentences, fines, and convictions of Snow's fellow "cohabs." In addition, 25 color images of pages from the original record book are spread throughout the transcription. The book is rounded out with a lengthy and detailed introduction, a list of the record book entries, an appendix with details about the people mentioned throughout the book and a short index.

Snow's poems were typically written to buoy up other inmates or to console family members on the outside. He frequently invoked the premortal life as a time when Latter-day Saints accepted their future trials and made covenants not to deny one another, as in this poem to Elder Stanley Taylor:

Fierce, cruel hands have torn from thee
That sacred boon, sweet liberty
And forced thee here Earth's lowest hell
To dwell forlorn in murders' cell.

     But list O, list, to what is told
     That 'fore this Globe from chaos rolled
     What there occurred—forgotten now,
     Yet still those facts we should allow

Aloft beyond high ether blue
There Spirits dwelt, and also you
Were there amid that mighty host
Of noble souls each true and just.

     Thy name there stood in letters bold
     In sacred Book of life enrolled,
     By reason this 'cause thou hadst hailed
     With joyful heart what God unvailed:—

This purpose grand, those Spirits raise
Like Gods to be—explained that way;
And hence arose this promise thine
To come to Earth this stormy time:—

     Fierce trials meet devoid of fear,
     Thy Priesthood too, thy calling here
     With heart and soul to magnify
     In doing which thy gory lies.

When forced within these prison walls
Thy heart thereby t'would never pall
But show to man and Gods on high
Thy wives thou never would'st deny. (46-49)

The book is well edited and well bound. The record book's contents are not entirely unique, nor the poetry especially stunning. (For instance, Snow used the same meter in practically every poem he wrote and sometimes made use of the same rhymes and lines. Readers will recognize "as man now is, our God once was," 113). The introduction of the volume excellently places Snow's record book within the larger context of Latter-day Saint prison writings. Alongside a few bright flashes of intimate exchanges, such as that between Lorenzo and his sister Eliza R. Snow, Snow's record gives an interesting glimpse into how Latter-day Saints employed  LDS beliefs to make sense of an extremely trying time in the history of the LDS Church.