Perspectives on Parley Pratt’s Autobiography: Persecution, Memory, and Mormon Identity

By August 17, 2009

A year ago, almost to the day, I found myself discussing my masters’ thesis on the role of memory and persecution in shaping Mormon identity during the 1840s and 1850s with Mary Richards, a professor of history at BYU. She mentioned wryly that she enjoyed my thesis a great deal, but that she had noted my heavy reliance on the writings of Parley P. Pratt. She suggested in a joking way that perhaps I should change my title to “Parley Pratt’s Memory of Persecution.” I laughed along with her, but defended myself by saying that Pratt had written far more about the persecutions than anyone else. Historian Ken Winn agrees with me, arguing in his Exiles in a Land of Liberty that Pratt was the foremost Mormon commentator on the Missouri conflict (147).

Starting with his co-authored 1834 Evening and Morning Star Extra describing the Jackson County persecutions, Pratt wrote hundreds of pages of commentary on the Mormon persecutions in pamphlets, letters, poems, editorials, proclamations, and even fictional pieces. His 1874 autobiography reflected his earlier interest in writing about persecution, with almost 1/3 of the chapters dedicated in whole or in part to describing the Missouri persecutions (17 of 54), and another chapter dealing with the martyrdom and expulsion from Illinois (which another segment in this series will treat). There are also scattered references throughout the text to individual instances of persecution in Pratt’s life.

Pratt’s persecution narrative is not what modern historians would consider objective history. He was a partisan in the conflicts with the Missourians and he felt he had a duty to convince the American nation that he and his fellow Saints were innocent of the charges of treason and murder levied against them. Like his earlier writings, Pratt located the Saints within two primary contexts or discourses. First, persecution was evidence that the Mormons were members of an imagined community with God’s ancient peoples, and that Boggs and his compatriots were likewise part of an imagined community of God’s enemies. Pratt predicted that “the most cruel persecutors of the Christians or Reformers, in Pagan or Papal Rome, will startle with astonishment from their long slumbers, and with a shudder of the deepest horror, and a frown of the most indignant contempt, they will look upon her [Missouri’s] unheard of deeds of blind infatuation, and unconscionable absurdity” (136).

In addition, Pratt also presented the Latter-day Saints within America’s revolutionary tradition, portraying his people as virtuous citizens defending the nation’s republican institutions against the corruption of mob rule in Missouri and Illinois. He described how the Saints had elected local leaders that “would stand for equal rights, and for the laws and constitution of the country. And in this way they hoped to withstand the storm which had so long beat upon them, and whose black clouds now seemed lowering in awful gloom, and preparing to burst, with overwhelming fury, upon all who dare to stand for liberty and law” (113). In describing the election of Boggs, Pratt related that

In the meantime, the majority of the state so far countenanced these outrages that they actually elected Lilburn W. Boggs (one of the oldest actors in the scenes of Jackson County, who had assisted in murder and plunder and the expulsion of twelve hundred citizens in 1833) for governor of the state and placed him in the executive chair, instead of suspending him by the neck between the heavens and the earth, as his crimes had justly merited. This movement may be said to have put an end to liberty, law and government in that state…thus corruption, rebellion and conspiracy had spread on every side, being fostered and encouraged by a large majority of the state, and thus the treason became general. (112-13)

Identity is a slippery thing. Pratt here demonstrated his ability to construct both the Saints and their opponents in one place as heirs of the cosmic battle between good and evil and in another place as heirs of the republican struggle between virtue and corruption. To be clear, these constructs are not mutually exclusive, but rather given different situations and rhetorical moments, Pratt was able to shape how the past was remembered.

Much of the autobiography’s Missouri sections are simply revisions of prose or poetry that appeared in earlier publications. Pratt made dozens of subtle revisions throughout the text, but most of the changes are literary or grammatical. One change, or rather omission, does deserve comment here. In the face of public accusations and legal indictments for treason, murder, arson, and larceny, stemming from the October 1838 Mormon preemptive strikes on Daviess County, Missouri, few Latter-day Saints were willing to publicly discuss or even acknowledge these things. As Richard Bushman has noted, “When the Mormons thought of Missouri, they did not remember looting houses or burning stores. They believed they had acted solely in their own defense” (RSR, 390). Although Pratt did assure his readers often that Mormon men did defend their families and homes, he did so in vague terms. There was one instance, however, where Pratt acknowledged Mormon depredations in northwestern Missouri. In his 1839 history of the persecutions (the link is to the 1840 edition), Pratt related that “it is said that some of our troops, exasperated to the highest degree, retaliated in some instances by plundering and burning houses, and bringing the spoil to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, whose provisions and clothing had been robbed from them; and upon the whole, I am rather inclined to believe it is the case; for human nature cannot endure all things” (History, 32-33). This passage, which admittedly is not as forthright as modern interpreters would prefer, was not included in the published autobiography. Forthright or not, its 1839 publication is significant, and its omission in 1874 is likewise noteworthy.

When Pratt’s autobiography receives the type of sustained scholarly attention that it deserves, I hope we can get a better sense of its influence on how latter-day Mormons form their identities in relation to the experiences of the early church. I imagine Matt B.’s post in this series will deal with some of my questions. Are there records of print runs? Number of copies sold? How do these numbers (if they exist) compare with other nineteenth-century classics like George Q. Cannon’s biography of Joseph Smith? I seem to recall that B.H. Roberts relied on Pratt’s autobiography in some of his writings on Missouri. How have Mormon historians been shaped by the text? This is obviously very anecdotal, but I recall discussing the autobiography with a friend and colleague at MHA’s 2007 conference in Salt Lake City. My friend related his undergraduate encounter with Pratt’s autobiography, especially the Missouri chapters. His anger at the injustices perpetrated against the Saints caused him to want to avenge them.* How many other Saints have read Pratt’s account and had similar sensations of anger and frustration at the treatment of the early Saints, and how has that shaped how they see themselves today?

* To be clear, my friend was speaking in hyperbole, and in no way intended to start Mountain Meadows II.

Article filed under Biography Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Memory


Comments

  1. Pratt’s persecution narrative is not what modern historians would consider objective history.

    Understatement of the year. 🙂 It brings to mind PP’s 1835 pamphlet “A Shameful Outrage” where he refers to being egged while preaching a sermon as (paraphrasing) “one of the most despicable events in the history of Christianity.”

    In regards to the patriotic context, it reminds me of an 1845 editorial (partially transcribed by Christopher here) that labeled “anti-Mormons” as “a man opposed to the laws of his country.” His martyrdom poetry also comes to mind.

    I wish I had some answers to your questions posed in the last paragraph. I’ll send some smoke signals Matt Grow’s way to see if he can shed any light on print run, etc.

    A wonderful post, David, and a more-than-solid contribution to the series.

    Comment by Ben — August 17, 2009 @ 10:42 am

  2. Very nice. Of course, given our shared interest in memory and persecution narratives, it’s not surprising that I enjoyed reading this.

    Comment by SC Taysom — August 17, 2009 @ 11:38 am

  3. In my first reading of Parley’s Autobiography as a child or teen, I was very much affected by his persecution narrative. Like your friend, I felt a desire for vengeance or at least justice. This desire was somewhat satiated by tales of Civil War horrors in Missouri (much like legends surrounding the ultimate misery of members of the Carthage Greys).

    Comment by Ben Pratt — August 17, 2009 @ 1:05 pm

  4. No doubt the same impulse influenced the publication of the infamous and odious Fate of the Persecutors.

    Comment by SC Taysom — August 17, 2009 @ 1:42 pm

  5. David: This is great. While I get the sense that Parley’s autobiography has been quite popular, I don’t know the early print runs. I think you’re absolutely correct that Parley played a crucial role in shaping the Mormon memory of Missouri. Great catch on the omission in the autobiography of the earlier statement on Mormon depredations.

    SC: In chapter 52 of the autobiography, Pratt helps lay the basis for some of the Fate of the Persecutors. According to Pratt, Mrs. Eunice Corinthia Beckwith, a widow of a Mormon Battalion member, had earlier been married to a member of the Illinois militia. He recorded her testimony in the 1850s that one of the mob at Carthage, a “man named Townsend” was shot by Joseph Smith in the arm as the mob broke into the jail. His wound never healed. Indeed, Pratt wrote, he “literally rotted alive!” But not until he admitted that he now knew Joseph Smith was a prophet.

    On the subject of rotting alive, Mrs. Beckwith also noted that a participant in the Missouri persecutions died in Sacramento in 1849, having been “eaten with worms–a large black headed kind of maggot–which passed through him by myriads, seemingly a half pint at a time! Before he died these maggots were crawling out of his mouth and nose! He literally rotted alive! Even the flesh on his legs burst open and fell from the bones! They gathered up the rotten mass in a blanket and buried him, without awaiting a coffin!”

    Comment by Matt — August 17, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

  6. This is excellent. Thank you, David. At the moment, I’m trying to work out a narrative of early Mormon social and political imaginaries: the persecution narrative is hard to overemphasize in both of these.

    Comment by Ryan T — August 17, 2009 @ 10:51 pm

  7. Thanks, all.

    Comment by David G. — August 18, 2009 @ 1:40 am

  8. David G: really cool post, thanks. It really invites a lot more investigation in regards to the questions you close with. I first read the bio on my mission when I was in more of an “us/them” mentality, and I want to go back to my journal now and see what I wrote about when I was reading it, see if I commented on the persecution aspect of things.

    Comment by BHodges — August 18, 2009 @ 12:50 pm

  9. Cool, Blair. Let us know if you find anything.

    Comment by David G. — August 18, 2009 @ 1:24 pm

  10. This is very nice.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — August 19, 2009 @ 1:09 am

  11. David, thank you for this post.

    Comment by Jared T — August 19, 2009 @ 5:40 pm


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