Warning: If you have grown sick with the number of Parley Pratt posts coming from me lately, it’s about to get worse; much, much worse.
Parley Pratt’s significance in early Mormonism cannot be over-stated. While Joseph Smith is (understandably) always looked at when one examines early Mormonism, and Brigham Young is obviously the second most important figure in the nineteenth century, Pratt served to expand, explain, and most significantly, frame the doctrines the LDS Church has come to be known by. What the Prophet left as inchoate, fragmented, or unwritten, Parley systematized, defended, and made popular. In short, Pratt worked to shape how we understood Joseph Smith’s revelations and teachings. The subtitle of his upcoming biography, to be published by Oxford University Press, sums his role up nicely: The St. Paul of Mormonism.
Central to Pratt’s significance was his understanding of the power of print. His literary ourve was as diverse as it was expansive. His Voice of Warning was Mormonism’s first lengthy text, a 216 page millenarian tract written in 1837 that never mentioned Joseph Smith by name. He then turned his attention to refuting claims by opposing ministers, and his pamphlets took on a largely apologetic and polemical tone. Finally, Pratt’s 1844-45 writings exuberantly focused on the possibilities of Mormon doctrine, attempting to parse out the theological implications of many of Joseph Smith’s under-developed teachings. These later texts are triumphalist in tone and audacious in scope as they navigate the potential of a rich and radically new ontology. Published in 1855 as his magnum opus, Key to the Science of Theology is, in my humble opinion, the most important Mormon theological work of the early Utah period, and perhaps the entire nineteenth century.
His most read work, however, would be published two decades after that—that is, almost two decades after his death. The Autobiography of Parley Parker Pratt was published in 1874, after being edited and possibly revised by his son primarily and fellow apostles serving in the Church Historical Office generally. This is the work that makes Parley Pratt well known even today–personally, it was one of the first books in Mormon history I read. Excluding Lucy Mack Smith’s Biographical Sketches, Parley’s was the most important historical work written in the nineteenth century. Due to his poetic and very readable literary style, the autobiography has been reprinted numerous times with various presses, and remains one of the most-read texts today.
The book itself is fascinating, and rewards any in-depth study. It’s use of literary devises, its decisions on what parts of history to emphasize and what parts to ignore, and its overall narrative commentary sheds light on both early Mormonism and how Parley Pratt wished us to understand early Mormonism. Unfortunately, excepting a handful of attempts, it has not received the in-depth study it deserves. That’s where this series comes in: one month, 10 posts, 10 authors, and 10 different topics, including,
- Yours truly on the Autobiography as personal redemption and restoration of the “glory days.” (July 23)
- Matthew Grow, co-author of the upcoming Pratt biography, on the writing of the Autobiography itself. (June 27)
- Adriane Rodrigues, MA in American Literature from Brazil, on literary devices used in the Autobiography. (July 30)
- Ryan Tobler on the context of autobiographical writings in America. (August 3)
- Christopher Blythe, MA student at Utah State, on the book’s portrayal of the martyrdom and succession. (August 6)
- Steve Taysom on Parley’s Autobiography and dealing with the problem of evil. (August 10)
- Jordan Watkins on theology within the Autobiography. (August 13)
- Joe Spencer, Masters in Library Science, San Jose State University, on Poetry in the Autobiography. (August 17)
- David Grua on the text and Pratt’s earlier writings of the Missouri persecutions. (August 20)
- Matt Bowman on the importance of personal narratives in shaping how we today view early LDS history.(August 24)
- Lessons learned/series wrap-up. (August 27)
This is just a rough schedule, but I can promise that starting Thursday, expect around two posts a week, probably every Monday and Thursday (we may also have some special guest bloggers added towards the end of the series). If you want to read the Autobiography itself, the first edition is found at BYU’s 19th Century Mormon Publications. By the end of August, we should all have a better understanding of this largely significant text.
 Two noteworthy studies are R. A. Christmas, “The Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt: Some Literary, Historical, and Critical Reflections,” Dialogue 1 (Spring 1966): 33-43; Taunalyn Ford Rutherford, “‘Properly Presented’: The Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt” (master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1995).