Q&A with Terryl Givens and Matthew Grow on Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism, Part II

By September 13, 2011

[What follows are the final six responses from Terryl Givens and Matthew Grow on their recent volume, Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). Part I can be found here. We wish to sincerely thank Terryl and Matt for participating and offering such insightful answers.]

7. From David G: “Historians often separate “the Joseph Smith era” (1820-1844/47) from the “territorial period” (1844/47-1890). Does Pratt’s life problematize this periodization scheme? Stated differently, does looking at Pratt reveal more continuity or change after JS’s death (at least in the Brighamite group)?”

All periodization schemes are inherently problematic. I think that Pratt could be used to support either argument—either continuity or change between the Joseph Smith era and the territorial period. Pratt and the other apostles saw themselves as faithful inheritors of the legacy of Joseph Smith and they sought to extend what they understood as his legacy (including activities from missionary work to plural marriage). Some discontinuities which Pratt’s life highlights includes a decline in doctrinal innovation after Joseph Smith’s death, the establishment of plural marriage as an open system, the turn of missionary work towards the Pacific (including Pratt’s mission to Chile and his supervision of missionary work in California, Hawaii, and other Pacific islands), and an eventual decline in the rich print culture of early Mormonism (Parley’s writing dropped off after the migration to Utah, with the major exception of his Key to the Science of Theology).

8. Being that Pratt was one of the key synthesizers of Mormonism, as well as the fact that a majority of Mormon converts understood LDS theology through his formulations (mostly in print), it is reasonable to expect that he had an important hand in the succession debates. Building off of the last question, what role did Parley Pratt play in the tumultuous succession period?

Pratt played three significant roles during the succession debates. First, Pratt arrived back in Nauvoo in July 1844 before most of his fellow apostles. Pratt’s actions delayed a vote on Sidney Rigdon’s guardianship proposal until the other apostles had returned to Nauvoo; this marked a critical juncture in Mormon history as it allowed the apostles to assemble before the critical vote. The episode is especially poignant and significant from a biographical standpoint because Rigdon had served as Pratt’s initial spiritual mentor in the Campbellite movement and Pratt had brought Rigdon into Mormonism. Second, Pratt played a key role in battling the followers of both Rigdon and James J. Strang in the eastern states during a mission there from late 1844 to summer 1845. We title our two chapters on the years of the succession crisis as “Many Mormonisms,” because of the vigorous battle which occurred and the different movements which resulted. Pratt’s activities shift the emphasis of the succession crisis from Nauvoo to the eastern states and then to England, from the center to the periphery (where perhaps a majority of Mormons lived). The eastern states were particularly chaotic in 1844-1845, in part because of widespread rumors of the apostles’ polygamy and because of the actions of a trio of individuals, William Smith, George J. Adams, and Samuel Brannan, all of whom were involved in plural marriage that was unauthorized by the apostles. Rigdon and Strang found much success in the eastern states; nevertheless, Pratt helped reassure many Saints of the Quorum of the Twelve’s claims, and secured the publishing apparatus for the apostles. Then, during missions to the eastern states in 1844-1845 and to England in 1846-1847, Pratt’s actions helped ensure that the majority of Mormons outside of Nauvoo, particularly the large numbers of British converts, remained loyal to apostolic authority. Third, a mission to England in 1846-1847 by Pratt, John Taylor, and Orson Hyde helped secure the loyalty of most of the English Saints to the Twelve. That loyalty had been jeopardized by the failure of a joint-stock company which had been intended to help the emigration of the English Saints. Its failure, however, left many of the impoverished English Saints even poorer and could have potentially called into question the leadership of the apostles (who had previously given their sanction to the company). Nevertheless, the mission of Pratt, Taylor, and Hyde was very successful.

9. Breck England, in his biography of Parley’s brother Orson, went into detail on the philosophers and theologians Orson was exposed to in his British Mission. These sources, England argued, played a major role in Orson’s understanding and presentation of Mormonism. Did ideas and individuals outside the Mormon faith similarly influence Parley Pratt? In general, how did Pratt understand his own thought in relation to the rest of the theological world?

Parley was not as speculative a theologian as his brother Orson, nor was he as philosophically inclined. While he was gifted intellectually, he doesn’t seem to have had a head for languages—classical or modern— for example. Those writers that influenced him the most were other Restorationists—like the Campbellites—that he wished to differentiate Mormon doctrine from. In other words, our impression is that he was more influenced to react against than to borrow or adapt the writings of his contemporaries. He saw himself in any case primarily as a preacher of the gospel and a man of letters, not a deep thinker, priding himself more on his poetry and hymns and even aspiring to write dramas.

10. It was widely believed—building off of Terryl’s By the Hand of Mormon, among other works—that the actual content of the Book of Mormon (rather than its outward symbol) did not play a large role in early Mormonism. Parley Pratt, with his emphasis on Book of Mormon indianism, millennialism, and even the naming of his children, seems to challenge—or at least nuance—that thesis. How would you describe Pratt’s relationship to the Book of Mormon, and was that relationship typical or unique when compared to his Mormon contemporaries?

Pratt always had a powerful love for the Book of Mormon. For instance, he named all of his sons except for Parley Jr. after Book of Mormon figures: Nephi, Lehi, Helaman, Mormon, Teancum, Abinadi, Alma, Ether, and even two Moronis! An adopted American Indian girl received the name Abish. And we know from his early pamphlet on the “Shameful Outrage” at Mentor, published in 1835, that he made Book of Mormon texts the subject of his sermons. If I [Terryl] were writing By the Hand today, I would point to Pratt as an exception to the more common uses to which the Book of Mormon was put, i.e., as a sign whose principal evidence was to be found in the testimony of the witnesses, not the content of the scripture itself. Even so, Pratt followed some of his contemporaries insofar as when he did cite Book of Mormon passages, it was largely to buttress Mormon preaching about the imminence of the millennium. Even Pratt did little to plumb the theologically unique contributions of the Book of Mormon, such as the Fortunate Fall, a more egalitarian view of revelation, or the centrality of moral agency to atonement theory.

11. One of the most surprising elements of the biography, at least for me, is Parley Pratt’s constant frustration with finances. You note how his Autobiography reminisces a blessing from Heber Kimball that promised three things: a child (he and his wife Thankful had been childless), missionary success, and financial wealth. While the first two promises were fulfilled, the last promise always eluded the Mormon apostle. How do finances play a role in Pratt’s narrative?

Pratt’s financial troubles played a crucial role in his life (and are a great example of the financial challenges of itinerant ministers and missionaries in Mormonism and other religious groups of the era). The “stu-boy” bulldog story, in which Parley outwitted a sheriff and his dog in early 1831, is undoubtedly one of the most famous incidents of the Autobiography. Pratt did not say, however, that he had been jailed not for disturbing the peace or another missionary-related charged, but for leaving behind unpaid (though disputed) debts when he had left Ohio the previous year. Frequent missions and frequent moves (including expulsion from Missouri on two occasions) left Pratt continually impoverished. Whereas Kimball’s 1836 blessing was spectacularly fulfilled in some ways (including a namesake son born after he and Thankful had been childless for nearly ten years and missionary success in Canada that would open the doors for missionary work in England), the promise that Parley would one day have gold and silver till he loathed to count it was conspicuously unfulfilled. There were two moments in Pratt’s life in which he was on the verge of financial success—in Nauvoo, when he partnered with Erastus Snow in operating a store; and in Salt Lake City, when his “Golden Pass” toll road opened in 1849 (at the future site of I-80 through Parley’s Canyon). Both times he left behind possible financial success for a missionary call. He sometimes expressed frustration that he and his family suffered poverty while other Saints, including many members of his apostolic quorum, enjoyed more comfortable lives. Near the end of his life, Pratt began to interpret Kimball’s prophecy in a spiritual way. In 1854, Kimball again blessed Pratt, this time promising that Pratt’s family would have “every good thing” and that his posterity would be “as numerous as the stars of heaven. Indeed, Pratt came to see, at least in part, his large family as the fulfillment of the blessing of riches. He comforted himself and his family in their shared poverty by recalling that God “has counted me worthy of Laboring in his cause for a Quarter of a century” and had allowed him to marry “some of the choisest spirits of this fallen sphere” and to father “some noble souls.” He envisioned that in the future, when a man blessed “a faithful and virtuous woman, or faithful and virtuous sons and daughters,” he would state, “The Lord make thee fruitful, and multiply thee, and make thee as the house of Parley, of old; who were faithful in all things. . . .and the Lord multiplied them; and delighted to Honor them.”

12. I found some of the most powerful moments within the biography to be descriptions of Pratt’s family dynamics. As an ecclesiastical leader who had little assets, lots of wives and children, and was constantly sent on missions, the Pratt family appears to have been in a constant state of basic survival. What surprised you about how Parley handled his family, and, perhaps more interestingly, how the family handled Parley?

Pratt’s family life is conspicuously absent from his Autobiography. But there are wonderful sources to recreate it, including many family letters and reminiscences from several of his wives. What emerged from the sources was Pratt’s deep attachment to his family and the tension in his life between his devotion to his family and his frequent missions. In our chapter, “Parley and Mrs. Pratt(s),” we explore Pratt’s polygamous family during the early Utah period. Parley was a particularly proud polygamist and strong defender of the system. He married twelve women and fathered thirty children. His family dynamics reveal many of the complexities of plural marriage, including divorces to two of his wives, tensions among some of the others, and the financial stresses of communal living. Of course, his involvement in plural marriage also led to his murder at the hands of the estranged (and, according to reliable accounts, abusive and alcoholic) husband of his twelfth wife. In his letters to his wives, Pratt often resorted to expansive and abstract rhetoric about the power of love, and indeed his pamphlets explore this issue in detail, but he also understood the pragmatic side of family life, telling his wife Agatha that love was “takeing care of hogs and getting a living.” The reminiscences and letters of most of his wives portray a happy and generally harmonious household, and the evidence suggests that this was true.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Great interview.

    Comment by Clark — September 13, 2011 @ 11:31 am

  2. Fantastic, guys.

    Comment by WVS — September 13, 2011 @ 12:15 pm

  3. Thanks for posting the interview. Enjoyed it.

    Comment by BHodges — September 13, 2011 @ 1:30 pm


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