Latter-day Saint History

Five questions and answers about Parley P. Pratt

The life of Parley P. Pratt is inextricably linked with the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While it’s true that he left a detailed description of Joseph Smith’s appearance, there’s much more to his story.

Terryl L. Givens and Matthew J. Grow shed additional light on Pratt’s life and his influence on the early history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in their new biography, “Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism.” The contents of the book, along with a recent lecture by the authors at Benchmark Books in Salt Lake City, provide answers to many questions about Pratt, including the following:

In what ways is Elder Parley Pratt comparable to the Apostle Paul?

Givens and Grow refer to Pratt in the subtitle of their biography as “the Apostle Paul of Mormonism.” While the authors acknowledge there are significant differences between the two, they also point out three ways in which Pratt is similar to the Apostle Paul.

First, just as Paul’s writings “systematized and popularized Jesus’s teachings,” Pratt was a prolific writer who both clarified and expanded upon key doctrines revealed by Joseph Smith Jr. His writings helped bring masses into the newly formed church and continue to influence Mormon theology today.

Second, Pratt mirrored the Apostle Paul in “extensive missionary travels (that) helped put his movement on the path from small sect to worldwide religion.” Pratt’s unique gifts and his commitment to missionary work led Brigham Young to declare men like Pratt “ought never to be called upon to do (another day’s) work,” but rather should devote their lives to missionary service. Year after year, mission after mission, Pratt wore out his life in preaching the gospel.

Lastly, just as Paul endured persecution and died for his beliefs, so Pratt “reveled in opposition and persecution, and in his own eyes and the beliefs of the Latter-day Saints, met a martyr’s death.”

How accurate is Parley P. Pratt’s autobiography?

Pratt had a flair for the dramatic, but Givens and Grow find Pratt’s autobiography to be very accurate. In fact, the authors rely heavily upon Pratt’s self-portrait in their own work.

At the same time, they point out autobiographies “conceal as much as they reveal,” and explain Pratt’s work is no exception. While his writings are factual, “he’s telling the story of how he became the Apostle he was in the 1850s.”

Consequently, certain events are unevenly emphasized (such as his imprisonment in Missouri) while others are generally omitted (such as details about his family life).


What was the nature of Parley Pratt’s relationship with Joseph Smith?

Pratt revered Joseph as a prophet of God. He “enjoyed Smith’s intimate association at a number of periods in his life, including their initial confinement together in Missouri.” He soaked in the Prophet’s teachings and friendship.

However, unlike many others who were deeply influenced by Joseph’s “prophetic charisma,” the Book of Mormon was Pratt’s primary tool of conversion. His “esteem for Smith was a function of his respect for the office he held and the role he filled in the Latter-day restoration.”

Pratt parted ways with Joseph once in 1837 “in a personal dispute over a failed business transaction.” While it was a dark period in his life, he soon sought reconciliation and “never again wavered in his devotion to Smith or the church he led.”

His autobiography records, “I went to brother Joseph in tears, and, with a broken heart and contrite spirit, confessed wherein I had erred in spirit, murmured, or done or said amiss.”

Joseph was quick to forgive and the two remained close for the rest of their lives.

What was the influence of Parley P. Pratt on early Mormon theology?

Pratt had a substantial influence on early Mormon doctrine.

In certain instances, Pratt may have taken doctrines taught by the Prophet and proceeded to teach or expand upon them. In other instances, Pratt may have shared his thoughts with Joseph, “who later embraced them and confirmed them.”

One example relates to the doctrine of theosis that teaches men and women can become like God. Joseph taught this principle in his famous King Follett Sermon, and yet “you find that in Parley’s writings several years before you find it in Joseph’s writings.”

While it is sometimes difficult to pin down the precise origin of various doctrines, “it certainly seems that Parley … very much influenced the development of early Mormon theology.”

What were Pratt’s most influential books?

Pratt was a prolific writer. Aside from Joseph and Brigham Young, Pratt was “the most influential figure in shaping early Mormon history, culture, and theology.” He viewed writing as a way to preach the gospel and published 31 books and pamphlets.

Two books in particular “attained near-canonical status, remained among the most widely read Mormon works for several decades after his death, and continue to shape the contours of Mormon theology:” “Voice of Warning” (1837) and “Key to the Science of Theology” (1855).

“Voice of Warning” was a phenomenally successful missionary tool, second in printed works only to the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants.

 “Key to the Science of Theology” is considered to be Pratt’s magnum opus and “ambitiously (reaches) beyond first principles to attempt a comprehensive cosmology and ontology.”
While each of his books and pamphlets were important in their own way, these two books are thought to be the most influential of Pratt’s writings.

*This article originally appeared in the Deseret News on October 30, 2011.

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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