[This is the first post of the “Perspectives on Parley Pratt’s Autobiography” Series]
The details behind the writing (compilation?) of the Autobiography will be detailed in Matt Grow’s post next week. This post, however, focuses on Parley’s motivation behind the book. I argue that the text was written for two central reasons, beyond the obvious reason of providing the Saints with a first-hand account of the Church’s early history. First, it was a way for Pratt to restore the “glory days” of Mormonism–written during a difficult period of the apostle, re-examining the past was a way to relive fond memories and perhaps revive his slightly diminished position within the Church. And second, by setting the narrative form that many following books would follow, Pratt was able to write it in a way that redeemed previous mistakes. In short, Parley Pratt had a personal agenda in writing his Autobiography, and the result was a rich text pregnant with possibilities of how to examine Pratt’s mind.
During the Nauvoo period, Parley was at the center of the LDS Church. After publishing Voice of Warning and Mormonism Unveiled in 1837-38, the first two book-length works written by a Mormon, his voice became the preeminent one in print. During the 12’s mission to Britain, Parley was the editor for the Church periodical Millennial Star and thus all the British Saints learned from his writings. He published numerous tracts in response to anti-Mormons, and his refutation of their critiques became standards for Mormon apologetics. Once back in Nauvoo, his importance only grew in the sight of the membership, as his writings increased in Times and Seasons, The Prophet (the Mormon press in New York and main publication for the Eastern Saints), and a couple of his own pamphlets. After Joseph Smith’s death, it was Pratt who was sent to the Eastern states to solidify the branches there in favor of the apostolic succession. To put it simply, Pratt was at a center spot of the growing hierarchy, the main voice of printed Mormonism, and a major figure in the eyes of the Latter-day Saints.
However, Parley did not always stay in the limelight, for several reasons. The first was largely practical: the trek west required the Church to focus on practical matters (i.e., the Saint’s survival), and settlement in the Utah Territory only amplified their survival focus; there was not time or need for theological treatise, but instead just farming and colonizing. The second reason for Parley’s declining role was a public and sharp chastisement from Brigham Young during the migration. This combination of not having a chance to publish and a public knock from the new prophet led to a diminished role for the once celebrated apostle. During this same period, Parley’s brother Orson was flourishing. Serving as president of the British mission, Orson set out on a daring publishing venture that dwarfed anything Parley ever accomplished. While most pamphlets of the period were published in the thousand to ten thousand range, with very few exceptions, Orson’s multiplied those numbers to the point that it seriously strapped the Church financially and largely led to Brigham’s decision a decade later to cease all publishing. Even if his works did not sell as well as he had hoped, though, Orson’s voice was now the loudest among Mormon authors, and he had taken his older brother’s place as the grand explicator of Mormon theology.
To rub even more salt in his wounds, Parley and Orson would go almost half a decade without any communication due to an argument between the two brothers in the Nauvoo Temple. Further, though Parley had taken on several wives by this point, his second wife (his first died in 1837) had divorced him over polygamy; it was a tough time for the Pratt family. There were also problems beyond mere familial relations. While Orson was thriving in England, Parley was plum miserable in Chile during the Church’s first mission to South America. Away from the body of the Saints, having problems with the Spanish language, and suffering third-world accommodations, Parley was lonely, frustrated, and homesick. Thus, in 1851, he decided to revisit the “glory days” by writing about his earlier life.
The story presented in Pratt’s Autobiography is thrilling, adventurous, and, most importantly, triumphalist. The numerous difficulties Parley had experienced (including his brief apostasy in 1837, his fight with Orson, his chastisement at the hands of Brigham) were either dramatically downplayed or ignored altogether. He presented himself as at the center of Mormon activities, taking part in the most important missionary activities, defending the Church in the front lines of battle, and learning at the feet of Joseph Smith. Polygamy is not mentioned, and Parley exults about how in 1840 he learned from Joseph Smith that “the wife of my bosom might be secured to me for time and all eternity”—a statement that is highly ironic when considering that his then-wife later left him over Joseph’s teachings on marriage. The daring, witty, visionary, and sympathetic figure presented in text was how Parley wanted us to remember him; the charismatic leader, successful missionary, and influential writer was what Parley wished he still was.
Combined with restoring the past was Pratt’s desire to redeem past failures. As is common with human nature, Pratt felt bad about previous mistakes he had made, and saw the Autobiography as a chance to correct them. For instance, he interrupts his narrative of escaping Richmond Prison in order to give detailed accounts of how the other prisoners made it out, justifying this apparently tangential story by reasoning, “it impolite and disrespectful to get myself out of a bad place until I have first seen my friends all safely out.” While this seems a respectable reason in itself, Pratt then reveals his deeper motivation: “True, I did not strictly observe this rule of good breeding in the escape itself; therefore it becomes me to take the more care to observe it now…” Thus, granting his fellow prisoners a prominent role in his narrative redeemed his earlier forgetfulness.
Similarly, Pratt regretted how he dealt with Samuel Brannan, a local leader in New York. Brannan had been tried for misconduct, but Pratt worked to get him reinstated to his position after he felt Brannan had demonstrated sufficient remorse. However, much to Pratt’s chagrin, Brannan later became a thorn in the side of the Church when he sailed a group of Saints from New York to California, and then publicly left the Church, taking many individuals with him. Pratt wrote that Brannan was “a corrupt and wicked man,” and that he had “always regretted having taken any measures to have him restored to fellowship…” However, he concluded, “if I erred, it was on the side of mercy.” Pratt knew that his readers would be curious when they came upon Brannan’s name in the narrative, and thus felt he needed to defend himself by explaining he was just being “merciful,” and that their decision had been done charitably—it was not their fault that Brannan took advantage of their kindess.
Parley Pratt’s restoration to glory and redemption from mistakes came ultimately, however, through his lynching in 1857; as is often the case, early death can do wonders to one’s image. But the publication of the Autobiography solidified his reputation, and now that text is largely what he is known for, almost to the extent that hearing about the things he glosses over in his narrative come as a surprise. I’m sure this pleases Parley Pratt, as this work is by far the most successful accomplishment of his distinguished career.
 It should be kept in mind, especially on a topic like this, that it is difficult to deduce what parts of the text were revised, expanded, or altered by later editors of the book.
 He was of such importance that one average LDS member thought Pratt was a likely candidate to succeed Joseph Smith.
 At the center of this chastisement was Parley’s reorganization of one of the pioneer camps. Apparently, Brigham had established the Camp according to his familial and dynastic organization, revolving around the largely expanded law of adoption. Pratt, however, reorganized the company in what he felt was a more efficient way. Since Pratt didn’t take part in any adoption rituals, this may be part of a larger rejection of the practice. (shout-out to J Stapley for sharing his Nauvoo adoption statistics with me)
 As Peter Crawley told a group of us at the Pratt seminar: Parley Pratt gave birth to Mormon publications, and Orson Pratt killed it.
 This argument based around several things, including Orson’s wife and her ordeal with Joseph Smith/John C. Bennett.
 This idea of restoring the “glory days” through writing reminiscences has been explored in two recent essays: Thomas G. Alexander, “The Past as Decline from a Golden Age: Early Mormonism’s Restorationist Tendency,” and D. Michael Quinn, “‘My Eyes were Holden in Those Days’: A Study of Selective Memory,” both in the recent William E. McLellin Papers (Signature, 2007).
 Pratt, Autobiography (1st edition), 329.
 Ibid, 290.
 Ibid, 375-376.
 Personally, I was shocked when I found out about his brief apostasy in 1837—surely that wasn’t the faithful Parley I read about in his Autobiography!