Parley P. Pratt, Writing, and the History of Reading

By July 8, 2008

Beginning in the 1830s, Parley P. Pratt produced a tremendous amount of literature describing his people’s persecutions. Pratt wrote not only for his fellow religionists, but also as a means to inform other Americans of the Mormon plight and seek redress.[1] Of the hundreds of pages of his prose, among the most significant included his Extra of the Mormon newspaper The Evening and the Morning Star entitled “‘Mormons,’ So Called”, which is perhaps the most comprehensive contemporary description of the 1833-1834 Jackson County expulsion.[2] Pratt included this Extra as part of his eighty-four page history of the Missouri persecutions that he published in 1839.[3] In turn, this history later formed the basis of parts of Pratt’s autobiography.[4] Beyond his narrative contributions, Pratt also wrote several poems describing his people’s sufferings that he published in 1840 in The Millennium and Other Poems.[5]

Historian Kenneth Winn has described Pratt as the leading Mormon commentator on the Missouri persecutions, likely a reference to Pratt’s production in comparison to other Mormons.[6]No other Mormon author during Pratt’s lifetime could claim a comparable corpus of writings on the persecutions. Sidney Rigdon wrote a descriptive pamphlet that coincidentally also contained eighty-four pages, but he wrote little else on the subject.[7] In terms of poetry describing the persecutions, Eliza R. Snow was the only Latter-day Saint that rivaled Pratt’s production.[8] Assessing Pratt’s literary output and comparing it to others is a simple task, but understanding how his contemporaries read, interpreted, and used his writings is a more difficult issue. Information concerning the circulation of Pratt’s writings is limited, and it was not uncommon for writers at the time to “borrow” the writings of others without acknowledging the debt, making it difficult to determine Pratt’s influence on other authors.[9]Although further research may provide some clues as to what ordinary Mormons and non-Mormons thought of Pratt’s work, such an investigation will be limited from the start. The question of how contemporary readers understood texts has plagued intellectual historians for decades. American Studies scholar Richard Slotkin, whose own early work faced such criticism, has argued that while historians are unlikely to find an abundance of direct evidence in answer to the question, we can examine what publishers thought worth printing as a means to understand what themes appealed to readers.[10] We know for example that printers thought enough of Pratt’s 1839 history to reprint it two additional times in 1840, that the editors of the Times and Seasonsfound it worthwhile to not only advertise the work but also reprint part of it and print several of his poems, and at least one Mormon, John Pulsipher, felt justified in “borrowing” one of Pratt’s poems and claiming it as his own. On his twenty-first birthday Pulsipher adapted Pratt’s poem “Birthday in Prison.” Not knowing that true origin of the poem, Wallace Stegner opined that Pulsipher’s “jingle is a compendium of Mormon self-righteousness and long-suffering expressed in ladies’ magazine clichés”.[11] As a producer of Mormon memory of persecution, Pratt therefore spoke to themes that printers (as well as Pulsipher) believed would appeal to readers.


[1] For example, in his History Pratt wrote: “Awake, O Americans-Arise, O sons and daughters of freedom, restore a persecuted and injured people to their rights as citizens of a free Republic. Down with tyranny and oppression, and rescue your liberties from the brink of ruin. Redeem your much injured country from the awful stain upon its honor; and let the cries of helpless orphans and the tears of the sorrowing widow cease to ascend up before the Lord for vengeance upon the heads of those who have slain, plundered, imprisoned and driven the Saints” (69).

[2] Parley P. Pratt and others, “‘Mormons,’ So Called,” Extra, The Evening and the Morning Star, February 1834.

[3] Parley P. Pratt, History of the Late Persecution Inflicted By the State of Missouri Upon the Mormons, In which Ten Thousand American Citizens were Robbed, Plundered, and Driven from the State, and Many Others Murdered, Martyred, &c. for Their Religion, and All This By Military Force, By Order of the Executive (Detroit: Dawson and Bates, 1839).

[4] Pratt, Autobiography (1874).

[5] Pratt, The Millennium (1840).

[6] Kenneth H. Winn, Exiles in a Land of Liberty: Mormons in American 1830-1844 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 147.

[7] Sidney Rigdon, An Appeal to the American People: Being an Account of the Persecutions of the Church of Latter Day Saints; and the Barbarities Inflicted on them by the Inhabitants of the State of Missouri (Cincinnati: Glezen and Shephard, 1840). John P. Greene published a 43-page compilation of documents on Missouri (John P. Greene, Facts Relative to the Expulsion of the Mormons or Latter Day Saints, From the State of Missouri, Under the “Exterminating Order.” [Cincinnati: R. P. Brooks, 1839]). Hundreds of Latter-day Saints wrote short redress petitions that were presented to Congress on multiple occasions during the 1840s. Most of these petitions were transcribed and published in Clark V. Johnson, ed., Mormon Redress Petitions: Documents of the 1833-1838 Missouri Conflict (Provo: Religious Studies Center, 1992). The Times and Seasons throughout the 1840s also published dozens of short persecution narratives and poems by different authors during the 1840s. In terms of total pages, the only publication that compares to Pratt’s output was the serialized “History of Joseph Smith,” a multi-author hybrid autobiography/biography of the prophet published in the Times and Seasons, Deseret News, and Millennial Star (see Howard C. Searle, “Early Mormon Historiography: Writing the History of the Mormons, 1830-1858,” PhD. diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1979).

[8] Many of her poems describing persecution were published in Poems, Religious, Historical, and Political, vol. 1 (Liverpool: F. D. Richards, 1856).

[9]See Peter Crawley, A Descriptive Bibliography of the Mormon Church, 1830-1847 (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1997), 42-43, 89-90, 98-100 and Peter L. Crawley, “Foreword,” in The Essential Parley P. Pratt (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990), xx-xxiii.

[10] On the role of producers in the construction of myths, see Richard Slotkin, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890, paperback edition (1985; Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994), 26-32.
[11] Parley P. Pratt, Late persecution of the Church of Jesus Christ, of Latter Day Saints: Ten Thousand American Citizens Robbed, Plundered, and Banished; Others Imprisoned, and Others Martyred for their Religion: With a Sketch of their Rise, Progress and Doctrine (New York: J. W. Harrison, 1840) reproduced the original pamphlet with few revisions but with the additions of a new historical and doctrinal introduction, as well as several historical documents and newspaper clippings. Parley P. Pratt, History of the Late Persecution Inflicted By the State of Missouri Upon the Mormons, In which Ten Thousand American Citizens were Robbed, Plundered, and Driven from the State, and Many Others Murdered, Martyred, &c. for Their Religion, and All This By Military Force, By Order of the Executive (Mexico, New York: Oswego County Democrat, 1840) reproduced the original pamphlet with few if any revisions or additions. “A History, of the Persecution, of the Church of Jesus Christ, of Latter Day Saints in Missouri,” Times and Seasons, April 1840, 81-82 reproduced a portion of Pratt’s narrative describing the 1838 persecutions. Parley P. Pratt, “Pratt’s Defense,” Times and Seasons, January 1840, 48. Parley P. Pratt, “Zion in Captivity: A Lamentation,” Times and Seasons, February 1840, 64. Parley P. Pratt, “Cry of the Martyrs,” Times and Seasons, September 2, 1844, 639. Wallace Stegner, The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail (1964; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992), 200-201. Perhaps some enterprising graduate student will explore the influence of ladies’ magazines on Pratt’s thought (Stan, interested?).

Article filed under Biography Categories of Periodization: Origins Cultural History Memory


  1. To satisfy the curious, here is Pratt’s poem “Birthday in Prison”, with Pulsipher’s deletions and insertions.

    This is the day that gave me birth/ In eighteen hundred twenty seven/ From distant worlds unseen I came to earth/ Far from my native heaven/ Thirty and two Twenty & one long years have pass’d,/ To grief and sorrow given;/ And now to crown my woes at last/ I am confined to prison We’re to the mountains driven./ ‘Tis not for crimes that I we have done/ That to my foes I’m given by our foes we’re driven,/ But to the world I am we are unknown,/ And my our rewards in heaven./ What troubled scenes may yet ensue/ To strew my our path with sorrow,/ Is not for me us to know, ’tis true/ I boast we know not of to-morrow./ One thing is sure, this life at best/ Is like a troubled ocean;/ I often We often wish my life ourselves at rest/ From all its dire commotion./ But let its troubled bosom heave,/ Its surges beat around me;/ To truth, eternal truth, I cleave,/ Its floods can never drown me. (The Millennium, 70-71)

    Comment by David G. — July 8, 2008 @ 11:10 pm

  2. Great post, David. It recalls to mind a foolishness on my part. You may have seen the compilation of Parley’s writings entitled “Pre-Assassination Writings of Parley P. Pratt”. I used to think. Well, what other kinds of writings could there be? Then I realized it referred not to Pratt’s assassination, but that of Joseph Smith.

    I’m excited to see how the likes of Terryl Givens and Matt Grow treat Parley’s literary legacy.

    Comment by Jared T. — July 8, 2008 @ 11:17 pm

  3. Me too, Jared. That’s going to be a great biography.

    Comment by David G. — July 8, 2008 @ 11:19 pm

  4. I wish we could redeem the editors of that volume, Jared, but they were referring to Pratt’s death, not JS’s. At least two of the pieces included in the compilation was written after 1844.

    Comment by David G. — July 8, 2008 @ 11:21 pm

  5. Nooo….oh man. I was told that by one of the pro book dealers, but never checked it out. So, my first instinct was correct… That’s so funny.

    Comment by Jared T. — July 8, 2008 @ 11:23 pm

  6. I agree; very funny. Usually the next part of the joke goes like this: “I’m waiting for volume 2: The Post-Assassination Writings…”

    Comment by David G. — July 8, 2008 @ 11:24 pm

  7. As for how contemporary readers understood texts, the last several decades have come up with some workable methodologies: reception history, studies of ownership and marginalia, or publication history, to name a few (that you used in your post). It’s a difficult but not intractable problem. I was interested to see edition history applied to Parley P. Pratt. Were the two 1840 reprints from Mormon presses?

    Comment by Jonathan Green — July 9, 2008 @ 12:44 am

  8. Great post, David. My favorite part is that your footnote text exceeds that of the main body; very “Quinn” of you ;).

    Comment by Ben — July 9, 2008 @ 9:17 am

  9. Jonathan – As far as a I know, none of Pratt’s editions (including the original 1839) were done by Mormon presses.

    Comment by David G. — July 9, 2008 @ 10:06 am

  10. Interesting implications from a historical perspective, indeed. Thanks for the post.

    Comment by BHodges — July 9, 2008 @ 11:07 am

  11. I just found this gloss of the 1839 history by the editors of the Times and Seasons.

    We have received a copy of the history of the late persecution in Missouri, written by P. P. Pratt, while imprisoned in that State; published at Detroit, Michigan. It contains 84 pages written in a concise and comprehensive manner; beginning with the outrages of Jackson county, he exhibits the most conspicuous characters, in their unhallowed conduct from that time, until the whole society of the saints were driven from the State. It contains an account of his miraculous escape from prison, also the escape of Elder Morris Phelps, at the same time. We could say much in favor of the style and boldness of the writer, but this is not our object; the plain unvarnished statement of facts, which can be demonstrated by thousands; is what pleases us, though it’s but a small pamphlet, yet we would that all ears were made to hear it, and that every true Republican would awake from the slumber that has so long pervaded this Republic, and no longer suffer innocence to groan under the lash of murderers and tyrants, and would raise the standard of “equal rights,” and bring to condign punishment, those that have trampled with impunity upon our wholsome constitution, and made laws and Justice a mere by-word. (Times and Seasons, January 1840, 43)

    If anyone has read the history, I think they’d agree with me that it is anything but “concise.” It’s obvious that Pratt wrote it in stages and it is at times choppy. I think he would have been well served to get an editor to smooth it out.

    Comment by David G. — July 9, 2008 @ 11:21 am

  12. The question of how contemporary readers understood texts has plagued intellectual historians for decades.

    Yes, and that makes some questions quite thorny. We can say such texts were widely discussed in some circles but it’s hard to tell how the average person reacted. Not just to Pratt’s views but even such things as Brigham Young’s theological innovations. Usually what gets discussed is their influence in hymnals, a few court cases, other major sermons and the like. But it’s pretty hard to tell how many people even believed them let alone worried about them.

    There’s a major element of Mormon religious thought that is perhaps essentially unknowable.

    It applies not just to 19th century Mormonism or even mid 20th century Mormon (how much influence did BRM hold?) but even today. How much do we really know about what the average Mormon believes today? Of course for recent decades we have much more writing and of course people who were alive who can give anecdotal accounts. (I think the fact Mormon Doctrine was quoted so much in Church lessons and meetings indicates its influence) But it tends to be more a matter of degree.

    Comment by Clark — July 9, 2008 @ 1:39 pm

  13. It would be interesting to know the arrangements between Pratt and his publishers. Did he pay them to print his work, or did they pay him? If so, did they plan on selling to Mormons, or to the general populace?

    Figuring out what people in general thought of a given work or doctrine is difficult compared to methods of textual interpretation that only require you to read the text, such as the New Critical style of reading poetry that is often taught as the beginning and end of analyzing poems. But it’s not impossible. With reception studies of enough different sources, or enough digging through archives, you can put together a decent argument about what people in general believed. It’s still an interpretation based on incomplete and imperfect evidence, but what isn’t?

    Comment by Jonathan Green — July 9, 2008 @ 1:59 pm

  14. From what I understand, Pratt paid the publishers to print the pamphlets, but I’m not sure of specific arrangements. Did he pay for them up front? Or did he pay in credit? I am fairly sure that Pratt and other Mormons expected to sell the pamphlets, and not the printers themselves.

    Comment by David G. — July 9, 2008 @ 4:46 pm

  15. We know that at least one non-Mormon read and approved of Pratt’s 1839 history. John Gunnison relied on it in writing his own history of the Mormons. After quoting Pratt’s description of the Haun’s Mill massacre, Gunnison wrote that

    we have a picture of horrors and inhumanity toward his people which would surpass our belief, if we did not know that a lawless mob were the actors in the scenes, or an uncontrolled, exasperated soldiery. There were too many authenticated facts that make the blood curdle as we contemplate them, to deny that foul injustice was often practised; — and the deeds of savage brutality, whose disgusting details we pass in silence, make us sigh that they could be enacted by American citizens (J. W. Gunnison, The Mormons, or Latter-Day Saints, in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake: A History of their Rise and Progress, Peculiar Doctrines, Present Condition, and Prospects, Derived from Personal Observation, During a Residence among Them, ed. Robert Kent Fielding [1852; Brookline, Mass.: Paradigm Publications, 1993], 110)

    Gunnison’s primary concern in citing Pratt is that American citizens perpetrated the massacre, and tries to marginalize the perpetrators by describing them as “a lawless mob” or “an uncontrolled, exasperated soldiery.”

    Comment by David G. — July 9, 2008 @ 5:11 pm

  16. […] Mormon who attempted to do so was Parley P. Pratt (hat-tip to David’s recent post on Pratt’s writing, which led me to spend my Sunday afternoon re-reading many of his great […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » From the Archives: Is Mormonism Utterly Absurd or Completely Rational? — July 14, 2008 @ 9:12 am

  17. Beware the humorous verse. It will teach you some lessons.

    Comment by Humorous Verse — August 18, 2008 @ 9:39 am

  18. […] Pratt’s importance as a writer of Mormon history, particularly persecution narratives, here). Peter Crawley has argued that once the Church was rid of anti-creedal leaders like David Whitmer […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Rational Supernaturalism, Part III: The Pratt Brothers and Defining Mormon Doctrine — November 3, 2008 @ 4:03 pm

  19. I know this thread is long and dead, but I needed someplace to share this fun anecdote.

    I spent a few down hours in Barnes and Noble this afternoon (where else would you spend your free time?). While there, I found their “Essential Readings Series” section, which included books like Franklin’s Autobiography, Nietszche’s The Antichrist, and Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Then, I was shocked to see their most recent addition: Parley Pratt’s Voice of Warning. Cool.

    Comment by Ben — December 31, 2008 @ 9:21 pm

  20. That’s awesome, Ben!

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — December 31, 2008 @ 9:45 pm

  21. Wow, that is something.

    Comment by David G. — January 1, 2009 @ 1:36 am


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