The Nauvoo era became a big turning point for the Mormons in many instances. Not the least of these was their new desire to publish their beliefs to the public. While they had been active in printing while in Kirtland and Missouri with newspapers and published revelations, these were always designed for members or other interested persons. However, once settled in Illinois they began to place their attention on using print to reach the masses. Part of the reason for this was the revelatory injunction to publish all the facts regarding the “sufferings and abuses put upon them by the people of” Missouri (D&C 123:1).
Another benefit they found in public printing, though, was the success of Parley P. Pratt’s Voice of Warning, published in 1837. By the fall of 1839, it had already sold out almost all of the 3,000 copies of its first edition. This provided a great example for the Church on how print can further the gospel message (David G. discusses 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 and others, Joseph Smith now felt more willing to publicly discuss their unique beliefs and doctrines. While only three polemical tracts had been published before 1838, eighteen were now published in 1840 alone.
With this flowering of new writing, obviously, came with the task of defining our religion publicly in a concise form for the first time. Possibly the first to do so was the introduction to Parley P. Pratt’s second edition of Late Persecution of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. However, to make it more accessible, Pratt shortly afterward revised this introduction and turned it into a four-page pamphlet entitled “An Address by Judge Higbee and Parley P. Pratt…To the Citizens of Washington and to the Public in General.” In this pamphlet, he writes that his purpose was to “give some information of our real principles,” with hopes that it would “be perused in the spirit of candor in which it is written.”
Pratt then lists what he viewed as the key beliefs of the Church, several of which would later be incorporated into Joseph Smith’s Wentworth Letter (now termed the Articles of Faith). This listing, methinks, is highly significant in that it is one of the earliest formulations of a concise summary of Mormon though, at least through Parley P. Pratt’s eyes. First, regarding the godhead, he began that we “believe in the true and living God, and in Jesus Christ, the sun of God…” It is interesting that he doesn’t mention the Holy Ghost, possibly because this is still early enough in the Church where the Saint’s don’t know quite what to do with the third member of the Godhead yet. (Though Orson Pratt’s 1840 list of basic Mormon doctrines that will be discussed in the next post as well as JS’s Articles of Faith in the Wentworth letter do specifically metnion the Holy Ghost.)
Second, regarding scripture, Pratt presents a very literal position of scriptural interpretation: “The Scriptures should be taught, understood, and practiced in their most plain, simple, easy, and literal sense, according to the common laws and usage of the language in which they stand.” This should be quite simple, he argues, because “the prophetical and doctrinal writings contained in the Bible are mostly adapted to the capacities of the simple and unlearned—to the common sense of the people.”
The third principle Pratt discusses is church organization, emphasizing that there should only be “one system of religion, one church, or assembly of worshippers united in their doctrine, and built upon the TRUTH; and all bearing the general name of Saints. God is not the author of jarring and discordant systems.” He then denounces all the creeds, systems, doctrines, and traditions that he presents as a result of a mass religious apostasy, though admitting that “there are many sincere and zealous persons in every denomination.”
Regarding how a person is to be saved, he presents as the “duty of all men to believe the gospel to repent of their sins and to be immersed in water,” as well as given the gift of the Holy Ghost. However, rather than these being just outward signs to God, these last ordinances need to be performed by ministers who hold the ancient authority “according to the ancient pattern” established with the Saints of the New Testament. To expound on this, Pratt uses the analogy of a British official trying to perform governmental functions here in America; it may be sincere, but still not legit.
In this pamphlet he also deals with the outward signs that should be present with the Saints. These include practices that should be present at meetings like prayer, hymns, exhortations, testimonies, prophesies, speaking in tongues, visions, revelations, etc. He also included ordinances, particularly healings of the sick and the afflicted, as well as “partaking of the bread and wine…on the first day of the week.” The Church should also exhort members “to abstain from all immorality,” for practical moral laws should always be considered.
Turning to doctrinal matters, Pratt speaks on both the restoration and gathering of Israel, emphasizing that the prophesies concerning Israel both in the Old World and the New must be fulfilled before the second coming, and thus they don’t buy into “the predictions of the Rev. Mr. Miller, Rev. Joseph Wolff, and others” that the end of times was within the next decade—there was still too much to be done.
And finally, he ends his list of “real principles” with the issue of more scripture. The Saints, “like all other Christians,” Pratt reasons, “believe in every true book within our knowledge, whether on science, history, or religion.” Thus, he explains, the Book of Mormon must be accepted because it brings forth more truth that corresponds with the Bible, though Pratt is clear in emphasizing that it does not replace the traditional scriptures. This discovery of new truth that presents biblical doctrines plainly should be “hailed among all nations as one of the most glorious events of the latter times, and as one of the principal means of overwhelming the earth with knowledge.” In Pratt’s mind, no matter the origins of the book, which he only spends half a sentence on, the reader should only rely on the religious message presented within to test its validity.
Perhaps an even more interesting way of approaching this specific text and this broader theme of publicly defining Mormon doctrine is to compare Parley’s presentation with others, specifically his brother Orson. The year 1840 also saw the publication of Orson Pratt’s Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records, which he ends a point-by-point summary of Mormon beliefs, many of which are copied wholesale into Joseph Smith’s Wentworth Letter. I was going to compare and contrast the two brothers’ pamphlets, but I will save that for another day since this post has already gone way too long. (Edge and I seem to share the same problem of not being able to fit a topic into a single post.)
But, as a topic of discussion, what parts of Pratt’s summary of the Church stick out to you? What parts did Pratt neglect that you feel is significant?
 Peter Crawley, “The Passage of Mormon Primitivism,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 13 (Winter 1980): 34.
 Another major reason for the explosion of Mormon writings was the Apostles’ mission to Britain, where many of the new pamphlets were published.
 Parley P. Pratt and Elias Higbee, “An Address by Judge Higbee and Parley P. Pratt, Ministers of the Gospel, of the Church of Jesus Christ of ‘Latter-day Saints,’ to the Citizens of Washington and to the Public in General,” Washington, D.C., 9 February 1840. Later republished in Times and Seasons 1 (March 1840): 6870. Digitized image found here.
 Phil Barlow argues in his Mormons and the Bible that the early Saints were “selectively literal” in their biblical interpretations, though I am too lazy to look up his summarized argument and page number.