Mormonism’s Varying Influences on Orson Pratt’s Thought

By June 9, 2009

Biographer Breck England argued that Orson Pratt’s interpretation of Joseph Smith’s revelations and teachings largely shaped Pratt’s thought.[1] In his introduction, England noted that Pratt “made a lifelong effort to construct a rational theology on the revelatory foundation laid by Joseph Smith.”[2] Certainly, contemporary philosophical and scientific thought impacted and informed a number of Pratt’s ideas. For example, England proposed that the Scottish philosophy Pratt contacted in Edinburgh during the early 1840s “profoundly influenced” Pratt’s ideas on religion and science.[3] Non-Mormon sources, including Newtonian science, also contributed to Pratt’s intelligent-matter theory, but as England proposed, “Orson Pratt’s notions about the materiality of intelligence probably derive more from his understanding of Joseph Smith’s teachings than from readings or lectures he may have absorbed by philosophical or scientific authorities.”[4] Though not the only source of Orson Pratt’s intellectual creativity, Mormon sources served as the most significant influences upon his thought.

Mormonism continued to deeply influence Pratt’s ideas during the last few decades of his life, but Latter-day Saints leaders, including and especially Brigham Young, checked Pratt’s perceived unorthodoxy. Pressure from church leadership contributed to Pratt’s decline in theological discussion, and perhaps stunted his theological thought.[5] England explained that during his later years, Pratt advanced “less and less of his philosophy as he turned to the more abstract and less controversial method of describing Mormon cosmology in mathematical terms.”[6] Given Pratt’s intellectual prowess and what some perceived as unfair ecclesiastical treatment, Pratt could have been, as England noted, “the perfect schismatic.”[7] At the expense of further developing and expanding his theology, Pratt decided to cut back his metaphysical expositions and remain within the organization whose loosely defined doctrines had provided him with what he believed to be the perfect philosophical system.[8] Mormonism functioned as both the primary source of Pratt’s creativity and the most direct reason for his gradual withdrawal from public theological exploration.

As a student of Mormon history and thought, including those aspects deemed unorthodox or strange, I regret Pratt did not further develop his theology. Yet, as one of many descendants of Pratt, I owe my current interest, in part, to his remaining within the LDS faith.

For contemporary Mormon scholars, how does Mormonism foster and/or hinder intellectual creativity?

_________________________________

[1] Smith certainly borrowed from Orson and Parley Pratt as well, as evidenced in what became the Articles of Faith, which he formulated based upon a portion of Orson’s A Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions. Breck England, The Life and Thought of Orson Pratt (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1985), 68-71. Many Latter-day Saints created sketches of the Church’s beliefs prior to Orson, who may have borrowed from any number of these sources. With respect to these early sketches, and their likely influence on what became the Articles of Faith, see David J. Whittaker, “The ‘Articles of Faith’ in Early Mormon Literature and Thought,” in New Views of Mormon History, A Collection of Essays in Honor of Leonard J. Arrington, ed. by David Bitton and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1987), 63-92.

[2] England, The Life and Thought of Orson Pratt, xvi.

[3] England, The Life and Thought of Orson Pratt, 67. As with some nineteenth-century English theologians and American intellectuals, including Thomas Chalmers and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Pratt sought to bring science and religion together.

[4] England, The Life and Thought of Orson Pratt, 102; see also, England, 169. England also noted that, “Any attempt to locate Orson Pratt within an established school of philosophy will falter.” England, 166.

[5] Pratt’s ideas respecting the Mormon Godhead in light of this theory brought public and private priesthood denunciations. See Gary J. Bergera, Conflict in the Quorum: Orson Pratt, Brigham Young, Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002); Breck England, The Life and Thought of Orson Pratt (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1985), 188-193, 206, 209-215, 227-230; and Peter Crawley, A Descriptive Bibliography of the Mormon Church, Volume Two: 1848-1852 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 2005), 188.

[6] England, The Life and Thought of Orson Pratt, 216.

[7] England, The Life and Thought of Orson Pratt, 267.

[8] England noted that “even within the bounds of his adopted church, where he rose near the summit of its leadership, Orson Pratt remained isolated, curiously and assertively set apart in his independence of mind.” Surprisingly, many of the ideas Pratt had developed persisted in the LDS Church, and as England explained, “the twentieth-century Mormon church leans in its dogma much in Orson’s direction.” England, The Life and Thought of Orson Pratt, 20, and 216.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Thanks for posting this, Jordan. England’s description of Orson as the “perfect schismatic” opens up lots of possible ideas–especially for those of us who love studying schisms within the Mormon movement.

    I think the most compelling possibility OP had was during the spiritualist schism of the 1860s, where many of the “intellectual” Mormons, most notably Amasa Lyman, sought truth outside LDS boundaries. Since many of these dissenter’s were Pratt’s own converts from his British missions, it’s very likely that they could have approached him to take part and allow his theological speculations to fully blossom away from Young’s quasi-intellectual dictatorship (as it related to OP, anyway).

    Comment by Ben — June 9, 2009 @ 3:57 pm

  2. It’s nice to see Breck England’s book getting some attention. It’s a wonderful biography and has been a proud part of my library since it’s first printing.

    Comment by larryco_ — June 9, 2009 @ 6:28 pm

  3. But where is footnote 9?

    I think there are encouraging and discouraging contributors to Mormon creativity – pragmatic focus on providing, but vast open cannons and theology and a strong tradition in education.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 9, 2009 @ 7:06 pm

  4. Oh, sorry about that, I included footnote 9 within the text.

    Comment by Jordan W. — June 9, 2009 @ 8:01 pm

  5. Maybe I am a newbie to Orson Pratt, but what would you say were some of his most denounced ideas, at least from England’s perspective (or your own)?

    Comment by Tod Robbins — June 10, 2009 @ 8:42 pm

  6. His ideas on intelligent-matter, the Great God, and his consequent conclusions about the Godhead. For Pratt, the Great God exists as the totality of intelligent matter, which self-combined to form the personal Gods of the Father and the Son. Pratt equates the Holy Spirit with the Great God. Given Pratt’s description of the non-personal Great God, existing as intelligent matter and possessing the divine attributes, Brigham Young accused Pratt of worshiping attributes instead of God.

    There were other issues, of course. Yesterday, Ron Esplin came about spoke to our group about debates between Pratt and Young about the creation of man and Adam-God, on issue on which they markedly differed.

    Though they differed on their ideas, I think Young was equally upset at Pratt’s refusal to budge on what he believed to be true. In some ways, I think their greatest differences can be traced to personality.

    Comment by Jordan W. — June 11, 2009 @ 10:11 am

  7. I think their greatest differences can be traced to personality.

    I think this is right. Parley Pratt taught a lot of the same things, especially in regard to the Holy Spirit, yet we don’t hear much of Brigham coming down on Parley concerning his publications.

    Comment by Ben — June 11, 2009 @ 10:32 am


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