[We are honored that Terryl Givens and Matthew Grow have agreed to participate in this Q&A about their recent volume, Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). These questions are a composite of those solicited in a previous thread. Part I includes the first six responses; Part II, which will be posted tomorrow, includes the last six.]
1. First, let’s start with the book’s subtitle: “The Apostle Paul of Mormonism.” One of the reasons for this descriptor, you write in the introduction, was that Pratt helped systematize and popularize Mormonism’s beliefs. Could you elaborate more on this? How has Pratt’s influence lasted long since his death, even after many of his theological tracts are forgotten?
We may not read Pratt’s tracts today, but they gave shape to many core Mormon doctrines directly and indirectly. His views on spirit birth influenced Orson, who was quoted by Young, who has been quoted by prophets and primary songs ever since. He was first to formulate many of the Articles of Faith in rough form. He boldly taught theosis six years before Joseph Smith’s King Follett sermon, and we describe other such examples in the biography. His works were considered on a par with the standard works by the 19th century church, were studied in Utah Sunday Schools generations before the Book of Mormon was, and were Mormonism’s most widely used proselytizing texts all the way into the 20th century.
2. There seems to be an inherent tension between a leader of a movement and a figure that seeks to systematize that movement’s belief and practice. How would you describe the relationship between Parley Pratt with Joseph Smith and then, later, Brigham Young? Did Pratt always bow to their authority, and were Smith and Young always appreciative of Pratt’s endeavors?
Pratt saw himself as loyal to both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and they both recognized Pratt’s commitment and his literary and preaching talents. He described Smith with unambiguous regard (“the gifts, wisdom and devotion of a Daniel were united with the boldness, courage, temperance, perseverance and generosity of a Cyrus”). Nevertheless, Pratt made clear that 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.
Certainly, Pratt dissented at times from both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, making clear that his commitment to Mormonism rested not on devotion to a charismatic leader but spiritual and intellectual assent to the religion’s doctrines. The question is right that there is an inherent tension between a movement’s leader and someone like Pratt, who systematized and popularized the belief structure. Joseph Smith once complained of the “great big elders,” including Pratt, who had stolen his ideas. In the 1837 financial crisis in Kirtland, Pratt lashed out at Smith, whom he temporarily held responsible for the loss of his home. Even as he composed an angry letter which rebuked Smith, Pratt nevertheless reiterated his belief in the Book of Mormon and Smith’s doctrines. Pratt clashed more frequently with Brigham Young than he had Joseph Smith, particularly over issues of authority during the era between Smith’s martyrdom in 1844 and when Young was ordained as Church President in 1847. While Young and Orson Pratt had running battles over doctrinal issues, however, Young appreciated Parley’s writings and often recommended his books.
3. You write that one potential reason there hasn’t been a definitive biography on Parley Pratt yet is that his Autobiography has been so influential and has been assumed comprehensive. After working through Pratt’s entire life, what conclusions have you come to regarding his Autobiography? How accurate, exhaustive, or thesis-driven do you see the work? How does the Autobiography fit into Pratt’s larger literary corpus?
J. J. Rousseau’s Confessions (1789) is often considered the first modern autobiography. In his introduction, Rousseau takes the rather startling position that he may play fast and loose with the facts, but the product of his writing will be a work that is in every way true to the nature of the subject. A cynic calls that rationalization. A more generous reader might agree that brute facts don’t always convey the full truth. The liberties Pratt took with his facts were relatively few and minor. And they were not always calculated to place him in a better light—though often they did. But they could also be read as an attempt to capture the essential reality of the times and events he experienced within the context of providential history as he understood it. (We are thinking here of such episodes as his 1830 arrest for debt, and the rescue of his wife during the Missouri war). And of course, Pratt never finished his autobiography, said very little about his domestic life, passed over most bumps and personality conflicts in early Church history, and could not of course assess his own theological contributions in any larger context. So his autobiography is a marvelous literary accomplishment and window into his life and times—but it’s a window with a limited view.
4. Speaking of texts, what types of sources are available for the student of Parley Pratt? In the Acknowledgements you hint at the work that Steven Pratt has done in compiling the papers of Pratt, and many have heard the lore about Pratt’s work being destroyed in an abandoned trunk. How many letters and other materials comprise these collections, and where are they centrally located?
Since the 1970s, Steven Pratt has worked on gathering all known sources related to Parley Pratt. He is at work on a documentary collection of Pratt’s letters and journals. Steve generously gave us access to his rich research files. We look forward to seeing his collection of Parley’s letters in print. Even with the likely destruction of some part of his personal papers (the lore about the paper’s destruction is partly described in Reva Stanley’s Archer of Paradise), there are voluminous sources on Pratt’s life—a few hundred letters written by or to Pratt; some journals from the 1850s; his Autobiography; his writings in newspapers; and his pamphlets and books. Some of Pratt’s family members, including a few of his wives and especially his brother Orson, have good manuscript sources. Pratt’s activities also appear in a large number of Mormon journals and letters, including obvious places (such as the Brigham Young Collection and the Joseph Smith Papers) and the papers of more obscure figures. The vast majority of the manuscript sources are at the LDS Church History Library and at BYU Special Collections.
5. Co-authoring any scholarly work can be very difficult, especially when the collaborators come from different academic backgrounds. It would seem these problems rise significantly when writing a biography, which inherently requires more of a coherent narrative than a traditional monograph. What did you see as the biggest problems with collaboration? How did you overcome those problems? More generally, how did you balance the load of researching and writing a book when you weren’t physically located in the same place?
We came to this project with different kinds of training, and different dominating interests. So it worked out well to divide the writing principally along the lines of theology/intellectual history on the one hand, and social, cultural, and biographical history on the other. We chose the chapters to write according to those preferences. But we also reviewed and edited each others’ drafts at least twice. That improved accuracy and tended to bring our styles closer together. Collaborators need to be willing to edit each other’s work vigorously and to accept such editing in turn. We also communicated frequently—several times a day on occasion—to work through details, interpret evidence, or resolve other issues. And we met together several times in person, both before beginning the actual writing, and at various stages throughout the process. Probably any collaborative project, ours included, is thematically more diffuse than a single-author book. But we hope the trade-off is a book that is more balanced on the whole and draws upon two skill sets. As for the overall experience of collaboration, we enjoyed it enough that we are considering another joint project.
6 This question comes directly from Amanda HK: “I took a class on writing feminist biographies. One of the things that we talked about a lot was the relationship between the historian and their subject. People often end up really liking their subjects and it changes their writing and arguments. What was their relationship with Parley Pratt before writing the biography? Did it change over time? Were there any points when they found their like or dislike of Pratt coloring their writing?”
Terryl: I was surprised to learn, early in our project, of LDS historians who have a visceral dislike for Parley Pratt. As I re-read his autobiography, I came to understand why. Except for his satirical pen, he seemed humorless, too much in earnest, always dutiful and impatient with the church as much as the world, prone to self-righteousness and grandiose rhetoric. But two things shaped my growing admiration for the man. First was the absolute euphoria he conveys when talking about his encounter with the Book of Mormon, and his long-held dream of preaching to the American Indians. In his earliest years in Mormonism, it is abundantly clear that he was convinced he was living on the cusp of the millennium, and was going to play a pivotal role in its unfolding. The collapse of the dream of Zion incident to Zion’s Camp in 1834 devastated him, and his grief was life-long. That gave me more sympathy for the man. Second, his talks from the Tabernacle in his later years were remarkably frank and revealing. He displayed an honesty and vulnerability about his own flaws, his social ineptness and his inability to just relax. That emphasized not just the flesh and blood Parley, but revealed a degree of self-knowledge that I found particularly admirable. Those discoveries, combined with the courage and dignity with which he faced his violent death, drew me powerfully to Pratt.
Matt: I didn’t set out as a historian to become a biographer, and yet both of my major projects have been biographies. I think a biographer should have a certain ambivalence in relationship to their subjects which allows him or her to approach to all of the complexities of a real person in their subject. Certainly, I admire much about Thomas L. Kane and Parley P. Pratt, and yet I also became acutely aware of their flaws, their inconsistencies, and their personality quirks. Readers will have to be the judge, but I don’t think our like or dislike of Pratt has distorted our interpretation of him.