Perspectives on Parley Pratt’s Autobiography: Introduction

By July 20, 2009

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 opusKey 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,[1] 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,

  1. Yours truly on the Autobiography as personal redemption and restoration of the “glory days.” (July 23)
  2. Matthew Grow, co-author of the upcoming Pratt biography, on the writing of the Autobiography itself. (June 27)
  3. Adriane Rodrigues, MA in American Literature from Brazil, on literary devices used in the Autobiography. (July 30)
  4. Ryan Tobler on the context of autobiographical writings in America. (August 3)
  5. Christopher Blythe, MA student at Utah State, on the book’s portrayal of the martyrdom and succession.  (August 6)
  6. Steve Taysom on Parley’s Autobiography and dealing with the problem of evil. (August 10)
  7. Jordan Watkins on theology within the Autobiography. (August 13)
  8. Joe Spencer, Masters in Library Science, San Jose State University, on Poetry in the Autobiography. (August 17)
  9. David Grua on the text and Pratt’s earlier writings of the Missouri persecutions. (August 20)
  10. Matt Bowman on the importance of personal narratives in shaping how we today view early LDS history.(August 24)
  11. 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.


[1] 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).

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Origins Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period


  1. So excited for this, Ben! No idle prattle here.

    Comment by Elizabeth — July 20, 2009 @ 10:25 am

  2. Wow, that’s an impressive agenda. I love the Autobiography, so I’ll look forward to checking in on this series as it progresses.

    (Who is Matthew’s co-author on the upcoming Oxford bio?)

    Comment by Kevin Barney — July 20, 2009 @ 12:27 pm

  3. Kevin, it’s Terryl Givens.

    I’m looking forward to this, thanks for putting it together, Ben!

    Comment by Jared T — July 20, 2009 @ 12:31 pm

  4. Definitely looking forward to everyone’s contributions to this series. Thanks, Ben, et al.

    Comment by Christopher — July 20, 2009 @ 12:44 pm

  5. Great idea. I am looking forward to the series.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — July 20, 2009 @ 12:54 pm

  6. It looks great!

    Comment by Edje Jeter — July 20, 2009 @ 3:47 pm

  7. I’m excited for this series. Thanks in advance to all involved!

    Comment by Ben Pratt — July 20, 2009 @ 4:24 pm

  8. I borrowed Parley P Pratts auto biography from the institute library I attended about 9 years ago. I still have it. I was recently considering taking it back. I think you’ve just convinced me to borrow it another 9.

    Comment by barcelo — July 20, 2009 @ 8:32 pm

  9. I hope you at least read it? Hey, it’s not that expensive, having been printed and reprinted so many times. Maybe you should consider giving someone else the joy of reading it? Then again, coming from an institute library, perhaps it wouldn’t have even gotten any use at all.

    Comment by Bookie — July 20, 2009 @ 8:49 pm

  10. It sounds like a very interesting series. I’ll be looking forward to reading the posts. And I might even have to pull the biography off the shelf since it’s been about twenty years since I read it last.

    Comment by Researcher — July 20, 2009 @ 8:58 pm

  11. I think you?ve just convinced me to borrow it another 9.

    And I might even have to pull the biography off the shelf since it?s been about twenty years since I read it last.

    And that would make this whole series worth it 🙂

    Comment by Ben — July 20, 2009 @ 9:38 pm

  12. Excellent, excellent, excellent. I’ve long felt the autobiography hasn’t been given the attention it deserves. Any thoughts on expanding the posts and publishing a compilation?

    Comment by Robin Jensen — July 21, 2009 @ 9:10 am

  13. Robin, that’s just the kind of idea that turns a fun little project into a real task! 🙂 But a good idea nonetheless.

    Comment by Jared T — July 21, 2009 @ 9:18 am

  14. Cool! I’m going to reread the biography in honor of this series, and look forward to your posts. I live his autobiography, it’s so sincerely weird. I remember how shocked I was in my first reading, when I hit the big rectangle in the sky vision.

    Comment by Johnna — July 21, 2009 @ 10:12 am

  15. Rob: being that I got everyone to sign on with the terms being they only had to write a 3-4 page post, it may be hard to convince them to expand it 🙂

    I, too, would love to see such a compilation, however.

    Comment by Ben — July 21, 2009 @ 10:26 am

  16. Johnna (14), I first read Parley’s autobiography as a teen, so when I re-read it during my mission, that part was *especially* surprising for me, as I by then had ears to hear.

    Comment by Ben Pratt — July 21, 2009 @ 11:04 am

  17. “Parley Pratt?s significance in early Mormonism cannot be over-stated”: what about by Spaulding theorists? Or Star Trek the James Tiberius Odysseus fans? If I may make a humble offering: “Joseph Smith was merely an alternate personality of a multidimensional being named Parley Pratt.”

    Comment by smb — July 21, 2009 @ 10:02 pm

  18. Sam: I think you’re on to something. We still have room in the series, if you want to flesh out this “multidimensional being” thesis a little more.

    Comment by Ben — July 21, 2009 @ 10:32 pm

  19. I think one additional Parley P. Pratt accomplishment should be mentioned here. Pratt was the first to write a work of fiction (and the first theatrical work) about Mormonism.

    A Dialogue Between Joseph Smith and the Devil was published August 25, 1844 in the New York Herald (but was written earlier in the year, before the martyrdom, according to his autobiography). It is a somewhat lighthearted, imaginative work that is worth the read (unlike his even more imaginative other work of fiction, The Angel of the Prairies).

    Give it a look. It is enjoyable.

    Comment by Kent Larsen — July 22, 2009 @ 8:52 pm

  20. Kent: You are right, that is a great piece. I dealt with that text (among others) a few weeks ago.

    Besides fiction, I think “Joe Smith and the Devil” fits in better with another of Parley’s genre: satire. Coupled with “An Epistle of Demetrius,” those texts are a riot and, in all seriousness, quite revealing.

    Comment by Ben — July 22, 2009 @ 9:17 pm

  21. […] Perspectives on Parley Pratt’sKent Larsen: Perspectives on Parley Pratt’sClobberBlog » Nail these to someone’s door: […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Perspectives on Parley Pratt’s Autobiography: Writing as Restoration and Redemption — July 23, 2009 @ 8:46 am

  22. Hi,
    What do you feel about the general belief that Parley Pratt was killed by the scorned husband of one of his polygamous wives?,

    Comment by aidan mccullough — July 23, 2009 @ 10:46 am

  23. Aidan: I’m not sure I’m quite getting what you are asking. Are some people saying he wasn’t “killed by the scorned husband of one of his polygamous wives?” Or are you asking how we feel about that happening (i.e., the morals of it)?

    Comment by Ben — July 23, 2009 @ 10:51 am

  24. Ben?
    email me, please–
    clbruno at hotmail

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — July 24, 2009 @ 12:12 am

  25. […] is third post in the Perspectives of Parley Pratt’s Autobiography series. Matt Grow has a PhD in History from Notre Dame University, where he studied […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Perspectives on Parley Pratt’s Autobiography: Matt Grow on “Writing the Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt” — July 30, 2009 @ 9:05 am

  26. Ben, interestingly PPP’s autobio was one of the first Mormon historical books I read as well. (Other than the typical fare). Looking forward to the series, just now getting caught up.

    Comment by BHodges — July 30, 2009 @ 4:58 pm

  27. […] is the fourth post in the Perspectives on Parley Pratt’s Autobiography series. Adriane Rodrigues Coelho was baptized nearly 23 years ago. She is married to Ricardo Choairy […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Perspectives on Parley Pratt’s Autobiography: Adriane Rodrigues on Pratt’s use of Literary Voice — August 3, 2009 @ 8:26 am

  28. […] Ben Park: Introduction […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Perspectives on Parley Pratt’s Autobiography: Series Wrap-up — September 8, 2009 @ 9:51 am


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