Book review: Terryl Givens’ “Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism”

What does your everyday Mormon recall about one of Mormonism’s most important founding figures and most colorful characters, Parley P. Pratt? Before reading this book, I couldn’t recall an awful lot. I know that his name pops up in the hymnbook a few times. After a quick peek, he wrote a few well-known ones including “The Morning Breaks” and “An Angel from on High.” So he dealt with hymns praising the restoration and the Book of Mormon. In they attended seminary, Mormons might recall the miraculous conversion story of Pratt, how his fateful encounter with the Book of Mormon led him to staying up all night to read it, such that he eating was a chore if he had to put the book down.

And those who have driven Utah’s highways might also be familiar with Parley’s Canyon when heading towards Park City or Wyoming. Other than that, Pratt is just a mysterious name that sounds familiar, but we can’t quite recall exactly what he did. Terryl Givens has done a good job here in this biography outlining the many roles that Pratt played in the early days of the Church.

Pratt was a pre-millennialist who believed in a restoration of the primitive Church before he even heard of Joseph Smith. He was part of the Campbellite movement that was popular in its time, but converted to Mormonism when he encountered the Book of Mormon.

Pratt was a missionary to the Native Americans, strongly believing that they were the descendants of the Book of Mormon Lamanites, but his glorious dreams were foiled at the hands of federal Indian agents who were antagonistic to his cause.

Pratt was a theologian who not only fleshed out many of the doctrines that Joseph Smith propounded, but likely contributed many of his own ideas to Mormon theology. His use of pamphlets spread the Mormon message, and his books “Voice of Warning” and “Key to the Science of Theology” expounded on the materialistic worldview of Mormonism that combined the earthly and the spiritual.

Pratt suffered for his religion. He was the Mormon who faced the longest incarceration for his beliefs during the Missouri crisis, and lost much property at the hands of the Missourians, and it was his words that crafted the victim narrative that imprints Mormonism to this day.

Pratt was one of the first missionaries called to Britain where he helped build up a strong base for the Church starting its own publication base, the Millennial Star. During the succession crisis, it was largely his efforts that kept the British saints loyal to the apostles.

Pratt clashed a few times with leaders of the church, first with Joseph Smith and then with Brigham Young. This was partly due to a strong personality and partly due to the lack of clear definitions of what role the Twelve were supposed to play. Pratt blamed Joseph for his financial losses when the Mormon bank went under, but he quickly repented and was back in Joseph’s good graces. He clashed with Brigham multiple times regarding the authority of the Twelve as Brigham was cementing his role as president of the Church. One of the key issues at stake was who had the authority to perform plural marriages.

In the course of his lifetime, Pratt has twelve plural wives. His first wife, Thankful, died early on. His second wife, Ann Frost, was originally very close to him, but became alienated as Pratt took on more wives while polygamy was still a closely guarded secret. Another wife, Mary, left him in Utah when she didn’t have a clear role in the family. The rest of his wives stayed true to him and never left Mormonism.

Pratt was also an explorer as the saints were settling in Utah. He built the road that would eventually become I-80 up today’s Parley’s Canyon. He led an expedition town to current-day Saint George to survey the land for potential settlements.

Pratt served as mission president in the Pacific, opening missionary work in California, the Hawaiian islands, and Australia, with a brief stint in Chile that ended in failure due to poor planning. Chile had no religious freedom (Catholicism was the only religion that was allowed), and he still hadn’t mastered Spanish.

Pratt met his untimely death after marrying a new convert, Eleanor McLean. Eleanor was estranged from her husband, Hector, who was an alcoholic, and didn’t support his wife’s conversion to Mormonism. The relationship wasn’t healthy, and Eleanor left her husband to be with the saints in Utah where Pratt married her. On a mission back East, Hector hunted Pratt down and eventually killed him in Arkansas. Mormons saw Pratt as a martyr, while the rest of America ate the scandal up in a day was America was condemning Mormonism as anti-American and immoral.

Terryl does a very fair job at this portrait of a complex man in an evolving religious landscape. It isn’t clear-cut, and many Mormons may find the portrayal to be unfair to Pratt in some respects, and Joseph Smith and Brigham Young as well. I am glad that Terryl is able to confront it honestly, and lets the audience evaluate the character of Pratt for themselves. I see Pratt as a man who was firmly committed to his beliefs. He didn’t deviate from them and he wanted to live them to their fullest implications. He may have had a proclivity for confrontation, but that is where he thrived. Brother Pratt was a good man who helped hold the Church together in a difficult time of transition.

Givens sticks to the original punctation and spelling of source documents, which sometimes makes the reading a little difficult, but he provides help when the it may be ambiguous what the meaning is.  He uses extensive quotes from Pratt’s personal letters, his autobiography, and his writings in the work, but goes well beyong Pratt’s autobiography.  He also quotes in parts some of the negative press Pratt got back in the day (man, some of those papers were really harsh, coming out with blatant ad hominem attacks.  You thought we got bad press today!)

Givens does a very good job of creating a setting.  1840-50 Utah was a wild place!  Mormons, Indians, 49ers on the way to the gold rush in California.  We Mormons sometimes don’t get the full historical setting, because we like the white-washed picture in Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration.  I’m really glad to get the full story, because it makes it so much more real– real individuals, with real lives, who made mistakes and interacted with others just as complex and real as themselves.

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Quotes

Just as Paul clashed with Peter, Pratt dissented at times from both Smith and Young, making clear that his commitment to Mormonism rested not on devotion to a charismatic leader but spiritual and intellectual assent to the religion’s doctrines.

Many of Smith’s converts and close associates fell under a spell that supporters and detractors alike strove to explain, invoking words like “magnetic” and “mesmerizing.” But Pratt had been converted by the Book of Mormon, not prophetic charisma. He later described Smith with unambiguous regard (“the gifts, wisdom and devotion of a Daniel were united with the boldness, courage, temperance, perseverance and generosity of a Cyrus”), but his relationship with Smith never evolved into the unalloyed adoration of Brigham Young or the fanatical attachment of Porter Rockwell. Pratt’s esteem for Smith was a function of his respect for the office he held and the role he filled in the latter-day restoration.

If Campbell’s followers had in many cases found the Mormon message amenable to their version of the gospel, the ones who were not drawn in by that message could be especially resentful of Mormons, whom they considered religious plagiarists and poachers.

For My Part I never can rest untill My Eyes have seen my Redeemer until I have gazed like Nephi upon the gloryes of the Celestial world until I Can Come into full communion and familiar Converse with the angels of glory and the Spirits of just men made Perfect through the Blood of Christ and I testify to All Both Small and great, Both Male and female that if they stop short of the full Enjoyment of these things They Stop Short of the Blessings freely offered to Every Creature in the Gospel.

Pratt reasonably expected that Smith would take back the property in satisfaction of the note. Smith, however, had sold the note to the bank for either cash or as collateral for another transaction and left Pratt to answer to the bank. Pratt thus offered to return the lots to Rigdon, as an officer of the bank, but “he wanted my house and home also.” Reeling from this unexpected demand and the specter of financial ruin, Pratt felt betrayed by both Rigdon and Smith, the men who had served as his spiritual fathers.

Three contexts—Baconianism, millennialism, and antebellum America’s oratorical culture—informed the intellectual universe that Pratt inhabited, and shed light on his rationalistic outlook, theology, and language. These contexts not only conditioned Pratt’s mental world; through him and his contemporaries, they also formed the content and tone of early Mormon thinking about the meaning of restoration and Joseph Smith’s role in it.

Premillennialists like Pratt saw their primary missionary responsibility as preaching the gospel and thereby saving the righteous few from apocalypse, not paving the way to social renewal and earthly bliss.

his writings reinforced a Mormon collective identity forged in persecution and indelibly shaped Latter-day Saint memory. Throughout the nineteenth century, and in some ways until the present, Mormon memory of their victimhood at the hands of fellow Americans has created an oppositional identity between the Saints and the larger culture.

On one typical Sunday, Pratt sermonized on “the authenticity of the Book of mormon and the origin of the American Indians.” The phrasing affirms the peculiar role the Book of Mormon played in his—and most Mormon—minds. Few clerics would preach on “the authenticity of the Bible,” but rather on some message taken from it. The Book of Mormon, by contrast, was important because—if authentic—it was an emblem of larger events unfolding outside it.

If Smith instigated Mormonism’s essential beliefs, Pratt organized, elaborated, and defended them in a manner that gave them the enduring life and complexion they have in the church to this day. Pratt was, in this sense, the first theologian of Mormonism.

For Pratt, God’s perfect compliance with eternal law both constitutes his own supreme power and indicates that path whereby humans can become his full heirs and genuine “partakers of the divine nature.” These eternal laws or “principles” thus become empowering and liberating rather than confining.

The genesis of all these ideas found in Pratt’s pamphlet is hard to trace. Smith did not always publicly preach the doctrines of the kingdom as fast as he received or formulated them. Pratt enjoyed Smith’s intimate association at a number of periods in his life, including their initial confinement together in Missouri, shortly before Pratt wrote this treatise of speculative theology. On such occasions, Smith may have shared ideas that he would only later promulgate to a mass audience. He first conceived of plural marriage, for example, in the early 1830s but only slowly divulged the doctrine to an inner circle that expanded over time. Other doctrines he seems to have withheld out of frustration with the Saints’ incapacity for novel ideas. He complained that “I have tried for a number of years to get the minds of the saints prepared to recieve the things of God, but we freequently see some of them after suffering all they have for the work of God will fly to peaces like glass as soon as any thing Comes that is Contrary to their traditions. They cannot stand the fire at all.”

Joseph Smith had boasted that “the Latter-day Saints have no creed, but are ready to believe all true principles that exist.” Accordingly, he exercised little control over the marketplace of Mormon ideas; now, as versions of the gospel were proliferating and a succession crisis had yet to play out fully, it became more imperative than ever to manage Mormonism’s message.

Pratt often displayed an Old Testament sternness of character, an affinity for the God of justice more than the God of mercy, which erupted in conflicts with enemies of the faith and in frustration with colleagues in the faith.

Pratt was clearly a man like Luther, born to strife. As an administrator, he sank into gloomy despondency. Placed in the middle of the fray, he returned to life, to spiritual and intellectual vigor. Fractiousness within the ranks disheartened him. Opposition from without enlivened him.

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