The Essential Parley P. Pratt

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A collection of writings from Mormonism’s most prolific and widely published defender.

Classics in Mormon Thought Series, No. 1

April, 1990


One of the first converts to the LDS church, Parley Parker Pratt (1807-57) would eventually become early Mormonism’s most famous and widely published defender. Born in western New York, he converted to Mormonism in late 1830 and was called to the Quorum of Twelve Apostles five years later as one of its founding members. He was strong-willed and largely self-educated, as his vitae reflects: he served several missions for the church; participated in Zion’s Camp, the militia which marched to Missouri to rescue threatened church members; quarreled with Joseph Smith over finances and narrowly escaped excommunication; founded the Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star in England; married several plural wives in Nauvoo, Illinois; immigrated to the Great Salt Lake valley; and continued to fill additional overseas missions.

Best known for his fiery apologetic writings such as A Voice of Warning (1837), Key to the Science of Theology (1855), and for his autobiography which was published posthumously in 1874 by his son, who wrote most of it, Pratt nevertheless defined Mormon doctrine and theology for much of the nineteenth century. He was killed in 1857 in Arkansas by the estranged husband of one of his polygamous wives. The husband, an outsider, did not share Pratt’s and other Mormons’ contempt for civil authority over marriage.

Peter L. Crawley, professor of mathematics at Brigham Young University, is the author of Algebraic Theory of Lattices; History of Brigham Young, 1847-67A Descriptive Bibliography of the Mormon Church, 1830-1847Mormon Imprints in Great Britain and the Empire, 1836-1857; and The State of Deseret. He contributed the foreword to The Essential Parley P. Pratt.

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5 reviews for The Essential Parley P. Pratt

  1. Kenneth H. Winn, Church History

    Parley Pratt was the veritable Trotsky of the early Mormon movement. With the exception of Mormon founder Joseph Smith and his successor, Brigham Young, Pratt is probably the most interesting figure in the early church. He was certainly its most skilled polemicist. Pratt led a fascinating life. An indefatigable missionary whose travels took him from England to Chile, his was a life of high drama and narrow escape that came to an end when he was murdered in Arkansas in 1857 by the estranged husband of his polygamous bride. Pratt left scarcely a thought unrecorded from the time he joined the Mormon church in 1830 at the age of’ twenty-three to the day of his assassination. While he is best remembered for his Autobiography and two seminal works, A Voice of Warning—the most important and successful proselytizing trace in Mormon history—and Key to the Science of Theology, any serious student of Mormonism must turn to a number of his writings for insight into the early church.

    This slender volume is outfitted with a good but brief biography of Pratt’s life, composed by the publisher, and an equally good but brief essay by Peter Crawley recreating the theological milieu of Pratt’s work and its subsequent influence on others. While books of this nature tend to be too long, this one is too short; general readers will have had their fill of Pratt’s prose, scholars will need to turn to the originals for fuller texts.

  2. Deseret Book Club Review

    First in Signature Books’s new “Classics in Mormon Thought Series,” The Essential Parley P. Pratt contains the writings of one of the most important theologians of the Church’s founding years. Peter L. Crawley, professor of mathematics at Brigham Young University, writes the foreword to this collection of essays and commentary from a great Mormon pioneer. Crawley explains that “Pratt is remembered mainly as a writer of hymns, the author of a lively autobiography, or as ‘one of the great explorers, orators, and missionaries of the Mormons.’ Forgotten is the fact that this composer of hymns all but single-handedly instigated Mormon book publishing.”

    Included among the twenty selections are “The Kingdom of God,” “Intelligence and Affection,” “Origin of the Universe,” and “Spiritual Communication.” The Essential Parley P. Pratt is for lovers of Mormon history and students of Latter-day Saint theology.

  3. David L. Bigler, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought

    At least one Latter-day Saint in the early days of the Church truly understood what it means to have the heavens open and God speak after centuries of silence. Parley Parker Pratt, one of Mormonism’s original Twelve Apostles, ordained at age twenty-seven by Joseph Smith himself, knew in his soul that revealed truth—final, full, and absolute—could never compromise or co-exist with human dogmas or systems. It would prevail over them and within the lifetime of the believer sweep to universal dominion. Anything less would deny its superiority.

    “I will state as a prophecy, that there will not be an unbelieving Gentile upon this continent 50 years hence,” Parley wrote in 1838, “and if they are not greatly scourged, and in a great measure overthrown, within five or ten years from this date, then the Book of Mormon will have proved itself false” (p. 24). Driven by this belief, the largely self-educated New Yorker became the young faith’s first theologian and most ardent propagandist. While Pratt’s writings may strike some today as overly aggressive, they accurately reflect the militancy and zeal of a nineteenth-century millennial movement charged with establishing the kingdom of God on earth as a condition of Christ’s return. Poor timing could be one reason Parley is best known today as a missionary or composer of hymns, while his younger brother, Orson, also an apostle, gets the credit for being an intellectual.

    Now this new collection of Parley’s most significant works, The Essential Parley P. Pratt, published by Signature Books under the direction of Peter L. Crawley of Brigham Young University, restores Pratt to his rightful place in Mormon annals. It is highly appropriate that Pratt was chosen to be first in a new “Classics in Mormon Thought Series” that will include the writings and sermons of such notables as Brigham Young, John Taylor, Joseph Smith, Wilford Woodruff, B. H. Roberts, John Widtsoe, James Talmage, and others.

    Presented in this handsome volume are the original texts of twenty of the apostle’s most important writings, including “The Kingdom of God” from Mormonism’s most successful missionary piece, A Voice of Warning, published in twenty-four English editions before 1900, and “Keys of the Mysteries of the Godhead” from Key to the Science of Theology, his most comprehensive work. Well worth the investment by itself is the foreword by Crawley, an authority on early Mormon publications, who evaluates Pratt’s contribution to the theology of the Church and influence on other Mormon authors.

    A gifted writer, Pratt was also a born publicist and anything but shy. He once informed the Queen of England that her government was just one of the toes of the great image, spoken of by Daniel, that would be smashed by the “stone cut out of the mountain without hands” (p. 88), referring to the Mormon kingdom. He then printed his letter in pamphlet form for widest distribution. Pratt’s case for the gospel “as Restored in this Age” was closely reasoned, internally sound, and founded squarely on the Bible, which he knew almost by heart. In defending Joseph Smith, he was emotional and convincing. And on offense, his preferred stance, the Archer of Paradise, as he was named by W. W. Phelps, shot real arrows from his bow. In a piece entitled “Zion’s Watchman Unmasked, and Its Editor, Mr. L. R. Sunderland, Exposed; Truth Vindicated; The Devil Mad, and Priestcraft in Danger!” Pratt flatly told a Methodist critic that his church was “a system of idolatry” and “a daughter of the great mother of harlots” (p. 47).

    Few Mormon writings better convey the chiliastic spirit of the early church than Pratt’s article, “One Hundred Years Hence. 1945,” written in 1845, in which he describes Zion and the world in 1945, “some forty or fifty years” after the cataclysmic events of the last days. Looking a century ahead, he relates how workmen, digging the foundation for a new temple “where it is supposed the City of New York once stood,” discover a lead box which contained “some coin of the old government of the United States” (p. 142).

    Students of Mormon theology will find much to think about in Pratt’s expositions on the eternal nature of matter and spirit, the immortality of the physical body, and the plurality of Gods. And historians who care to look closely will discover in his writings important clues to the causes of conflict in the Church’s turbulent early years. For example, Pratt’s description of the kingdom of God as an “organized government on the earth” probably reveals the real reason for repeated accusations of treason and insurrection in Missouri, Illinois, and Utah Territory. Supporting this view are his later remarks on this theme in Utah, not included in this volume.

    And Pratt’s warning that “the remnants of Jacob will go through among the Gentiles and tear them in pieces, like a lion among the flocks of sheep” (p. 24) could hardly add to the comfort of settlers on an exposed frontier when Mormon missionaries visited neighboring Indian tribes. It almost amounts to an eerie foretelling of what happened to a train of Arkansas emigrants in 1857 at a place on the Spanish Trail, called Mountain Meadows, following by four months the apostle’s brutal murder in Arkansas.

    Did such doctrines reflect the views of either Mormonism’s founding prophet or Brigham Young? Not necessarily, according to Crawley, who holds that much of Mormon theology “exists primarily in the minds of the members” (p. xxiii), supposedly including Pratt. He argues that doctrines are passed from one generation to the next by believers, who “ultimately speak only for themselves” (p. xxiii) and are reinterpreted roughly every thirty years by the faith’s intellectuals. Whatever one may think of this doctrine, which is pretty revolutionary in itself, there is no better way to catch the spirit of early Mormonism than to read this book.

  4. Gerald E. Jones, John Whitmer Historical Journal

    The choice of Parley P. Pratt as the first subject in a series of books on Latter-day Saint writers was very appropriate. Peter Crawley gives a helpful introduction and reminds us that Pratt was the first pamphleteer, other than a couple of single-page sheets, in defending and propounding Mormonism. Pratt thus influenced nearly all who followed him for at least a century. Crawley also states that The Voice of Warning was “the most important of all noncanonical books” (xvi).

    The first selection of fourteen pages is from The Voice of Warning titled, “The Kingdom of God.” Pratt bases his discussion on an episcopal polity reading of the New Testament and regrettably does not directly address the congregational or presbyterian modes of church government. Nevertheless, it is a clear and persuasive argument for the LDS position. He also discusses the need for the manifestation of spiritual gifts. The second selection is far longer (15-47) and is almost vitriolic in its attack on an anti-Mormon article by the Reverend L. R. Sunderland. Pratt displays a far more moderate tone and injects some humor in two selections that use a dialogue approach. The first, “An Epistle of Demetrius, Junior, the Silversmith, to the workman of like occupation, Preserve Our Craft, and to Put Down the Latter Day Saints,” is self-explanatory (88-86). The second is a dialogue between the devil and Joseph Smith which is surprisingly cordial in nature (131-40).

    “The Regeneration and Eternal Duration of Matter . . .” (48-68) is a brief argument on the eternality of matter but also discusses the fall, atonement, salvation, grace, works (among other topics), very cogently. One page (57) contains perhaps one of the most clear and forceful statements on the LDS position in relation to other Christians found anywhere. Though Pratt takes the scriptures very literally, he also recognizes the opportunity for reason. He eloquently exclaims that a glorious field in intelligence now lies before us, yet but partially explored. . . . What an intellectual banquet spreads itself invitingly to our appetites, calling into lively exercise every power and faculty of the mind, and giving full scope to all the great and ennobling passions of the soul. Love, joy, hope, ambition, faith, and all the virtuous principles of the human mind may here expand and grow, and flourish (62). This enlightened approach is also stressed in “The Fountain of Knowledge” (97-103). Pratt rejoices in the mind’s capacity for “infinite expansion, while a boundless field is extended on all sides, inviting enquiry and meditation” (98). Though we are to use our minds, Pratt reminds us in “Plain Facts . . .” that there is a need for continual modern revelation from God (74-82). This is founded on the human ability to receive guidance via the Holy Ghost. Pratt admonishes all to obey “this monitor within” and thus “welcomes . . . every true and holy principle within his reach—he puts it into pratice, and seeks for more: his mind expands; the field of intelligence opens around, above, beneath him” (165).

    There are some things Pratt approaches but then leaves us wanting. He recognizes the limitations of omnipresence (19) but does not give us his views on omnipotence and omniscience. There is also a difficulty with his discussion of spirit and matter. He holds that matter is indestructible, a pre-nuclear reaction view, and that matter/space cannot be occupied simultaneously with other matter (189), and yet he also claims that “all the elements are spiritual, all are physical, all are material, tangible realities. Spirit is matter, and matter is full of spirit (194). It is difficult to have it both ways without explanation which here is nonexistent. The variety and scope of Parley Pratt’s writing is impressive—doctrine, autobiography, poetry, dialogue, invective, and subtle persuasion. He is very articulate for his time and education. Many would claim him to be inspired beyond his natural abilities.

    One of Pratt’s contributions lies in his epistemology. He follows the lead of Joseph Smith in accepting the material world as real. He uses the empirical position to defend his position and to criticize the more idealistic religionists of the day. He also employs the rational approach. The truth is logical for Pratt, and illogical positions are discarded. But his position was balanced with a strong acceptance of the spiritual world as well. The revelatory and intuitive feelings of the spirit were part of Pratt’s overall view. The three—rational, empirical and spiritual—were all needed and used to check and balance each other. The Truth was provable all three ways, and if not, it could be shelved or recognized that faith would have to carry on until all the evidence was in. This tradition is seen in Brigham Young, Orson Pratt, B. H. Roberts, James E. Talmage, and John A. Widtsoe in the LDS fold. The RLDS have had a more dominant aspect of this view in their hierarchy. There are tensions in the traditions as a result. Some have difficulty keeping Pratt’s balance. Some tend to reject the spiritual manifestations as nonverifiable and are quite uncomfortable with seemingly supernatural and superstitious claims. On the other hand some tend to become anti-intellectual and declare their spiritual lives off-limits to criticism by scientists, philosophers, and agnostics. It is for this reason that a careful consideration of Parley P. Pratt is vital. What he had to say and how he said it is very relevant to today’s student of the Mormon tradition and its theological development.

    Interested readers can look forward to further volumes in series by Signature. These are a few editorial suggestions: Though Crawley’s introduction is informative, it would be helpful to have a brief page of two outline summary of the author’s life for quick reference as to time and place. Also page numbers of the original text being quoted would be helpful. In the volume reviewed, “Arkansas” stands out on page xiii. Also selection seven is chronologically out of order and should follow ten. I was not disappointed that the autobiographical selection did not include the very humorous account of Pratt’s race with a large dog. All in all, The Essential Parley P. Pratt is a highly recommended book.

  5. Craig L. Foster, Idaho Librarian

    Parley Parker Pratt was probably one of the most dynamic Mormon leaders of the nineteenth century. A gifted writer and articulate theologian, Pratt shaped many aspects of Mormon thought which still affect members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 1835, Pratt was called by Joseph Smith to the original Quorum of Twelve Apostles of the LDS Church. In this capacity he served several missions in the United States and Great Britain, publicly defending Mormonism. Pratt’s life and remarkable career were cut tragically short in 1857 when he was murdered.

    In the process of defending the teachings and doctrines of Mormonism, Parley P. Pratt produced some of the most elegant and profound writing available among the Latter-day Saints. Some of the theological concepts which he discussed were the eternal nature of matter, the nature of God and man, and the sanctity of plural marriage.

    Because this is a collection of the writings and Parley P. Pratt, it goes without saying that the text is well-articulated and interesting. Pratt’s poetic style captivates the reader. The idyllic description of a millennial paradise portrayed in “One Hundred Years Hence. 1945” are filled with irony when the reader reflects on the actual state of the world at that time. Some of his writings are also good examples of the biting polemics of the period.

    In his reply to an anti-Mormon pamphlet written by La Roy Sunderland, Pratt accused him of being a liar and deceiver, and attacked Sunderland’s religious views with such vigor that, according to Peter Crawley in his enlightening foreword, “It established a formula that would be followed by Mormon pamphleteers for another century.” The same format was used by Pratt in his reply to C.S. Bush. Both of these works are included in the book.

    Also included in this collection of works are the theologically significant “The Regeneration and Eternal Duration of Matter,” and “Keys of the Mysteries of the Godhead,” as well as the historically important “‘Mormonism!’ ‘Plurality of Wives!’…” There is no doubt that some of Parley P. Pratt’s finest writing is included in this compilation.

    But for all of the good points about this book, there are as many problems. It would be very difficult to find fault with Pratt’s actual writing and that is not the case here. The problems are found in the editing. Several unanswered question arise when one reads this book. The first question is why these particular works were selected for inclusion, while others were not. At no place in the book is a clear explanation given.

    Another unanswered question is why editorial notes are not present at the end of several of the selections stating that more material had been included in the original publication. An example of this is “Plain Facts, showing the Falsehood and Folly of the Rev. C.S. Bush…” which originally included a little more than eight pages of letters and affidavits at the end of the tract. While these were obviously not authored by Pratt, an editorial note should have been made saying that these pages had been omitted.

    Perhaps the most troubling problem with the book is the lack of annotation. Examples of Parley P. Pratt’s works have been provided and the reader is allowed to reflect on the beautiful style and unique theology of one of Mormonism’s earliest and most prolific spokesmen, which was the goal of the publishers. This, however, is not enough. For example, while the publisher’s preface and the foreword by Peter Crawley are very well-written and insightful, neither provided background on the Rev. C. S. Bush, the subject of one of Pratt’s works. While not a lot is known about C.S. Bush, it should at least have been noted that he was an Anglican minister from Over Peover in the county of Chester and that his tract was published in 1840. An excellent opportunity to provide more than just the bare bones has been lost and it will be left to others to flesh out the background of Pratt’s writings.

    These problems notwithstanding, The Essential Parley P. Pratt does offer the reader valuable insight not only into the history of Mormonism but also into the shaping of aspects of its theology and world view. I would recommend this book, especially if it were bought in conjunction with some basic works covering Mormon history and theology, for any library or personal collection.

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