I recently finished reading Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism (OUP, 2011), by Terryl L. Givens and Matthew J. Grow. Most Mormons know Pratt by name from reading the Doctrine and Covenants. A few Mormons have read Pratt’s autobiography, which gives some idea of the extent of his missionary travels, but provides little detail about his influential writings or his busy family life (he had 9 wives and 23 children at the time of his death). Any reader of this biography will come to appreciate just how significant a role Pratt played in the early LDS Church, almost from the moment of his conversion in 1830 right up to his death in 1857. Here are a few of the highlights from the book.
Missions. In the 19th century, serving a mission imposed a good deal of financial and personal hardship, yet Pratt was called on and faithfully served mission after mission, including: the Lamanite Mission of 1830, which took Pratt through northern Ohio, where almost as an afterthought he converted his acquaintance Sidney Rigdon and practically doubled the membership of the Church within a few months; to England, with other members of the Twelve; to the East and again to England following the death of Joseph Smith, to successfully convince most of the not-in-Nauvoo Mormons to follow the leadership of Brigham Young and the apostles rather than other claimants; then later to California, including six months in Chile pioneering LDS missionary work in South America. With John Taylor, Pratt led a large company of Saints across the Plains in 1847. I was fascinated by Pratt’s leadership of a group that explored Southern Utah for nine weeks over the harsh winter of 1849-50. Pratt was a man of almost limitless energy.
Writings. Pratt wrote dozens of missionary tracts and published hundreds of newspaper articles, some in LDS publications and others in reply to critical newspaper stories about the Church. (We didn’t get much good press in the 19th century.) Pratt’s two books A Voice of Warning (1837) and Key to the Science of Theology (1855) were LDS bestsellers in the 19th century, not to mention his autobiography, published posthumously in 1874. His books were to 19th-century Mormonism what Talmage’s Jesus the Christ and Articles of Faith were to the 20th.
Polygamy. Plural marriage hangs over the entire narrative. It’s there when Pratt bickered with his brother Orson about the legitimacy of the sealing to one of Pratt’s plural wives. It’s there when he traveled to the East to keep far-flung Mormon congregations loyal to the apostles, attacking some LDS dissidents for practicing (illegitimate) polygamy but carefully avoiding the fact that the apostles and a few other LDS leaders were also practicing (in Pratt’s eyes, legitimate) polygamy. It’s there when his second first wife Mary Ann left Pratt and his plural wives on the trail in Iowa in 1846 to return to her family in Nauvoo. (They never reconciled and she obtained a divorce in 1853.) It’s there when he was in California with a couple of his plural wives, introducing them as his “wife and sister.” It’s there at the end of his life, when the estranged husband of his most recent plural wife Eleanor hunted down Pratt with the assistance of local officials in Arkansas, then killed him. Say what you want, polygamy was just a mess from beginning to end. That it didn’t spell the end of the LDS Church in the 19th century ought to strengthen your faith.
There are a dozen other topics that could be addressed. The Articles of Faith as penned by Joseph Smith were modeled on a summary of Mormon beliefs authored by Pratt two years earlier (p. 172). Pratt was the first systematizer of Joseph Smith’s innovative doctrinal ideas: “Pratt assembled these ideas for the first time in something like a systematic form, the prime instance of Pratt acting the part of Paul to Smith’s teachings” (p. 169). While in the East during the succession crisis in late 1844 and faced with disputes and disaffection by local leaders, Pratt developed and applied the distinction between general and local authorities: “Local officials would have authority only with their own district; …. Only the apostles possessed authority that was universal rather than local” (p. 233). His mission to Chile changed his view of “the Lamanites,” which he broadened to include all the indigenous people of North and South America (p. 304). In his Key to the Science of Theology, Pratt was an early and forceful advocate of Couplet theology (p. 331-35).
Pratt has not always received the recognition he deserves for his many contributions to the doctrine and development of the early LDS Church. This biography should change that.