Perspectives on Parley Pratt’s Autobiography: Matt Grow on “Writing the Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt”

By July 30, 2009

[This 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 under George Marsden. His first book, a biography on Thomas L. Kane, was published with Yale University Press. He is currently co-authoring a biography of Pratt,┬átentatively┬átitled Parley Parker Pratt: The Saint Paul of Mormonism, to be published with with Oxford University Press. Matt is an assistant professor of history and director of the Center for Communal Studies at the University of Southern Indiana.]

In late 1853, Orson Pratt, then in Washington, D.C., excitedly wrote to his brother Parley about an effort to publish genealogical information on the descendants of their ancestor William Pratt, a Puritan who migrated from England to Connecticut in the 1630s. Orson had already pledged his assistance to the project’s compiler, Congregationalist minister Frederick W. Chapman. Learning that Parley and Orson were “prominent men in this Church,” Chapman asked them to write autobiographical sketches for his planned volume. Parley replied that “a mere sketch of the outlines of [my] truly eventful life would occupy several hundred pages” and speculated that Chapman would not publish it “if it ‘contained the truth as it is in Jesus.'” Orson encouraged Parley to “Try them and See” and praised his brother’s “interesting, easy, flowing stile.” Working together and with the “dictations of the Holy Spirit,” Orson hoped they might “write something that shall hereafter prove a blessing to our brethren.” Parley refused or ignored Orson’s entreaties, and Chapman’s book, published in 1864, contained biographies of the brothers written by Orson after Parley’s death.[1]

Within a few months of this correspondence, Parley embarked on a project to narrate his “truly eventful life” in “several hundred pages.” In July 1854, after Parley arrived in San Francisco to preside over the Church’s Pacific Mission, he began writing his autobiography. Within a month, he had written an impressive 250 manuscript pages, bringing the story “up to the prison, in Boon Co. Mo. 1839” (roughly half of the published autobiography).[2] He described the project to Church Historian George A. Smith as “A Lean, megre sketch of Church History. As my hurried life, and hurried manner of writing, prevents my branching out on many interesting items.” He further told Smith, “I am determined to complete it now if the Lord will. If I miss this opportunity I have my doubts whether it will be writen at all.” Perhaps, he thought, his autobiography might be published in California.[3]

To accomplish this goal, Pratt hired George Q. Cannon, a talented missionary returning from Hawaii, as his scribe. Cannon, who copied 300 pages over the next six weeks for $50, relished the work (perhaps because his three companions dug potatoes to earn money for their trip home).[4] By mid-November, Pratt had completed an additional 100 manuscript pages, bringing his history “up to the begining of the year 41. it is neetly revised and chapters and headings all finished up to that time ready for the press, or to leave to my children; or to the archives of the church.”[5] Without Cannon’s assistance and with mounting responsibilities in California, Pratt’s pace slowed, though he continued to work intermittently on it. In addition, a financial crisis in San Francisco dried up any funds that Pratt might have raised from local church members to fund its publication.

In writing his autobiography, Pratt relied heavily on his previous writings. After extensive analysis, Pratt family historian Steven Pratt concluded that almost ninety percent of the text is either based on or copied from earlier works, which he generally revised and condensed, particularly his books about the Missouri Persecution and articles from the Millennial Star.[6] The autobiography also includes items from his book of poetry, The Millennium; his earliest pamphlet, Shameful Outrage; his manuscript family record; various letters and journals; and other newspaper articles. For instance, the most famous episode of the autobiography–Pratt’s account of Joseph Smith’s rebuking of the guards in Richmond Jail in November 1838–first appeared in the Deseret News in 1853, spurred by Pratt’s reading part of the “History of Joseph Smith” in the newspaper. Pratt also described the event in an 1854 play, the “Mormon Prisoners,” and included his Deseret News article verbatim in his autobiography. Pratt generally avoided or minimized controversial subjects; the published autobiography also contains little information on his wives and children.

Pratt returned to Utah in the summer of 1855, where he spent about a year before embarking on a mission to the eastern states in September 1856. While in Utah, Pratt’s wife Keziah Downes copied additional sections of his autography manuscript. Access to eastern printing presses, Pratt hoped, might give him the opportunity to publish his autobiography. Isaiah Coombs, one of his traveling companions to the East, recorded, ?Br Pratt has read 13 chapters of his history to me. . . It is very interesting; so much so that I could have listened to it all day without tiring. I am sure no saint will be without a copy of it when it is printed.[7]

Financial problems, however, prevented Pratt from publishing his autobiography in the East. He told his family in January 1857, “My history is now Complete up to 1851 where my Journal Commences. It will probably not be published in my days. Should any thing happen to me, & the record be preserved I wish it Carefully Compiled, Coppied & taken Care of.”[8] (As Pratt stated, he had revised his autobiography up to 1851, at which point he inserted his later journals.)

In addition, Eleanor McComb, Pratt’s twelfth wife, accompanied Pratt on the initial part of this mission, intent on retrieving her children from her parents in New Orleans, where her estranged husband Hector McLean had sent them following her conversion. When she succeeded, McLean tracked Pratt to avenge himself. Knowing of McLean’s pursuit and fearing for his life, Pratt entrusted his autobiography manuscript to George A. Smith while the two were in St. Louis in March 1857, with instructions to return it to his family. Within two months, McLean killed Pratt in rural Arkansas.

When George A. Smith arrived home in late May 1857, he gave the manuscript to Parley Pratt Jr., Pratt’s oldest son, then twenty years old. Between 1872 and 1874, Apostle John Taylor, whom Pratt had converted, assisted Parley Jr. in preparing the autobiography for publication. Taylor minimized their role, claiming they made few changes “and preserved intact” Parley’s original manuscript “so far as possible.[9]

Because the manuscript has not survived, it is not clear to what extent Taylor and Parley Jr. edited the autobiography, particularly the pre-1851 section. Some information on the amount and type of editing done by Parley Jr. and Taylor can be gained from a comparison of Pratt’s journals in the 1850s with his published autobiography. For the last six years of Pratt’s life, the autobiography contains journals (including the journal of his final mission), letters, and newspaper articles. In preparing the autobiography for publication, Pratt’s journals were first copied (in a document known as the “After Manuscript”) and then edited. In general, passages from his journal and letters about Pratt’s family, both positive and negative, as well as references to financial difficulties and controversial events were excised. (Parley Jr. was also apparently conscious of his own image. His father’s journal recorded that on August 18, 1855, Parley Jr. met him riding on a mule. In the “After Manuscript,” Parley Jr. crossed out “mule” and inserted “horseback,” though the section was eventually cut from the autobiography.)[10]

In seeking subscriptions for the forthcoming book, published in 1874 by the New York publishing firm Russell Brothers, Parley Jr. promised that his father had not emphasized “dull, stale, and uninteresting events,” but had written on “the most noted and striking incidents of, as he says himself, a truly eventful life . . . with an originality, a force and beauty of style peculiar to himself.”[11] At the end of his short editor’s preface to the autobiography, Parley Jr. quoted his father’s Voice of Warning: “Should the author be called to sacrifice his life for the cause of truth, he will have the consolation that it will be said of him, as it was said of Abel, ‘He being dead yet speaketh.'”


[1] Orson Pratt to Parley P. Pratt, 4 April 1854, Parley Pratt Collection, LDS Church Archives.

[2] Parley P. Pratt to Family, 22 August 1854, Parley P. Pratt Collection, LDS Church Archives.

[3] Parley P. Pratt to George A. Smith, 23 August 1854, Parley P. Pratt Collection, LDS Church Archives.

[4] George Q. Cannon Journal, September 1854.

[5] Parley P. Pratt to Mary Wood Pratt, 21 September 1854, Parley P. Pratt Collection, LDS Church Archives.

[6] R. Steven Pratt, “The Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt: A Study of the Sources,” unpublished paper.

[7] Isaiah Coombs Journal, 11 October 1856, LDS Church Archives.

[8] PPP to Family, 3 January 1857, PPP Collection, LDS Church Archives.

[9] Taylor, “To the Public,” Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt.

[10] Pratt, “”The Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt: A Study of the Sources.” The “After Manuscript” is at the LDS Church Archives.

[11] Parley P. Pratt, Jr., “Prospectus to the Life and Writings of the Late Elder Parley Parker Pratt,” Deseret News, 5 February 1873, 15.

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


  1. Matt,

    This is great work. I can’t wait for the biography. Your “Liberty to the Downtrodden” is one of the best biographies I have read. Ben has done a wonderful service in having this knowledgeable group put together these interesting posts.

    How tragic the original manuscript is lost. I am not clear about the “After Manuscript”. Has this been published? Is the original 1850-1853 journal extant?

    I have heard of journals in the possession of descendants locked away in a trunk. Have you heard of this Matt?

    If possible, I would like to ask about Pratt’s work titled “The Angel of the Prairies”. People seem to insist it is a work of fiction. I have no problem with this, but it reads as though Pratt is telling about a dream he actually had. It’s a dream so in that sense it is fiction, but for Pratt is sounds like a real experience. It reads as something that would have fit quite well in his Autobiography. Do you have any thoughts?

    Comment by Joe Geisner — July 30, 2009 @ 10:42 am

  2. This is really quite helpful. I’m quite interested in Pratt’s account of the healings at Montrose. If written in 1854, it would be the first narrative account of the events written by quite a number of years. Do you know if he had written early accounts? Is there any indication that it was significantly edited.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 30, 2009 @ 11:12 am

  3. Thanks Matt. Excellent, as always. Is there a plan to do a scholarly edition of the Auto, with sources identified and commentary?

    Comment by David G. — July 30, 2009 @ 11:27 am

  4. …and yes, I forgot to mention it, but David G. asks a question I had been wondering as well.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 30, 2009 @ 11:35 am

  5. Excellent. Thanks for this, Matt. David (and Stapley) beat me to it. A scholarly edition would be wonderful

    Comment by Christopher — July 30, 2009 @ 11:50 am

  6. Joe: Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed the Kane biography.

    The “After Manuscript” hasn’t been published. It is a manuscript that contains a copy of Pratt’s 1850s journals that was evidently used in preparation of the manuscript for the autobigraphy. Pratt’s journals from 1851-1852 and 1854-1855 are the only journals which are extant.

    Reva Stanley, Pratt’s great-granddaughter who wrote a biography of him in the 1930s, tells of a trunk full of Pratt’s documents owned by her grandmother. After the grandmother’s death, Reva discovered that the trunk had been sold and the contents destroyed. While it is possible that there are still documents owned by descendants, Steven Pratt (the family historian I mention above) has pursued family sources at great length, so I doubt there’s much more.

    I read “Angel of the Prairies” to be a fictional dream (if I recall correctly, it certainly hints at that in the first paragraphs). It’s a fascinating document and one that needs more analysis and attention than it’s received.

    Comment by Matt — July 30, 2009 @ 12:48 pm

  7. David and J.: I know of no plan to do a scholarly edition of the autobiography. It is certainly a text that could use the attention. Any takers?

    J.: I’ll get back to you, probably tomorrow, about when the section on the Montrose healings was written.

    Comment by Matt — July 30, 2009 @ 12:59 pm

  8. I’m working a bit with “Angel of the Prairies” right now. In my view, it definitely has the markings of a bizarre form of fiction (though not totally unique in the early Church). It employs some of the same literary devices as Pratt incorporates elsewhere. It seems to me to be Parley’s metaphorical way of articulating his meditations/speculations on the imminent Millennium.

    Anyway, back to Matt’s post. Thanks, Matt, for a tightly woven chronology. It’s easy to lose track of a sense of time and development when privileging certain themes; I appreciate having it laid out so plainly.

    And are we saying that the 2000 edition from DB, footnotes and all, isn’t scholarly? ­čÖé

    Comment by Ryan T — July 30, 2009 @ 2:00 pm

  9. I agree, great work, Matt. One bit I’d like to add, and maybe you can comment on this. In late 1873, when Parley Jr. was in New York editing the manuscript for publishing, his wife Romania Bunnell Pratt met him there in December. They spent six weeks together editing and proofreading the autobiography. The source for this is the article on Romania P. Penrose by Christine Croft Waters in Sister Saints.

    After the manuscript was ready, Romania went on to begin her first year in medical school. Do you have any idea how much of this was actual editing and how much was proofreading? I didn’t know about John Taylor’s contribution.

    Comment by Susan W H — July 30, 2009 @ 2:36 pm

  10. Matt,

    Thanks very much, great comments. I hope some time I can pick you brain more about ?The Angel of the Prairies?.

    Ryan brought up the Proctor book. I guess I am not getting the comments. Is this a call for a critical edition similar to Anderson’s “Lucy’s Book” which seems impossible for Pratt Book since the manuscript is missing and the first edition would be the critical edition. Lucy’s Book had multiple lifes.

    The Proctor book seems like a well done book as far as I can tell. There is close to 150 illustrations that bring to life Pratt’s work. The six appendices have some interesting information. The endnotes seem as good as one could expect from a work like this. Please correct me if I am wrong.

    For me, it sounds like the “After Manuscript” is a document that needs to be published. It appears from Matt’s comments this has material that is important.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — July 30, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

  11. Susan,

    Very interesting I found this website for a typescript of the manuscript of the Memoir:

    here is the important quote:

    “December 1873 I left my children with my mother and went to New York City, with the intention of studying medicine. The first six weeks in New York was spent assisting Mr. Pratt proof reading his father?s autobiography. After it was ready for the press I entered a Medical College.”

    Comment by Joe Geisner — July 30, 2009 @ 3:19 pm

  12. Thanks for the background info. It makes me sick to think of great historical documents being locked in some old trunk and then later destroyed. Oh well, get used to it, I guess.

    Comment by BHodges — July 30, 2009 @ 5:58 pm

  13. Matt, this is great! Many thanks.

    Has Steven Pratt considered publishing his analysis paper, perhaps even on the Jared Pratt Family website? It sounds wonderful.

    Joe, I think David, J., and Christopher were hoping for a historiographical approach to the autobiography (e.g. Chapter A of the autobiography is an edited version of Chapter B of A Voice of Warning, etc.)

    Comment by Ben Pratt — July 30, 2009 @ 6:02 pm

  14. It might also be nice to have a critical edition that references the historical literature (historiographical in that sense as well).

    Comment by Ryan T — July 30, 2009 @ 6:07 pm

  15. Well, I have to say, this sure gets me excited to read the upcoming biography!

    Comment by Clean Cut — July 30, 2009 @ 7:00 pm

  16. Susan: Thanks for pointing out the participation of Romania Bunnell Pratt in copyediting the autobiography. The only primary source I know about her participation is the one that Joe referenced.

    It’s been a long time since I looked at the Proctor edition. It certainly has its virtues, as Joe pointed out, especially the photographs. But Ben and Ryan are correct in stating that it doesn’t try to identify the underlying sources of the autobiography or to comment on the editing procedures, etc.

    Comment by Matt — July 30, 2009 @ 7:04 pm

  17. Yeah, no kidding, Clean Cut!

    Comment by Ben Pratt — July 30, 2009 @ 7:31 pm

  18. Thanks Joe and Matt. The Jared Pratt website is excellent, and I have checked it many times, but not lately. I’m glad to know that the memoir is available there.

    Comment by Susan W H — July 30, 2009 @ 8:52 pm

  19. Thanks Ben, Ryan and Matt for your patience with my questions and helping me understand the need for a thorough treatment of sources for the Autobiography.

    I decided to reread Shameful Outrage again and compare it with the Autobiography. Interesting how much more interesting and informative Shameful Outrage is in comparison to the Autobiography.

    I came across the idea that the nameless “New Englander” was a pseudonym for Pratt. In another place it was speculated that William Comstock who wrote “The Burial of the Mormon Girl” was also Pratt. I checked Stanley but could find nothing about this possibility. Any thoughts?

    Comment by Joe Geisner — July 31, 2009 @ 1:21 am

  20. Joe: Thanks for the further thoughts on Shameful Outrage (Pratt’s 1835 pamphlet talking about his egging in Mentor, Ohio). It seems quite likely that the “New Englander” (a supposed eyewitness to the egging whose statement is at the end of Shameful Outrage) was invented by Pratt.

    I hadn’t heard of “The Burial of the Mormon Girl,” so I looked into it. A transcript is here (you have to scroll down):

    This is almost certainly not Pratt, as it was published in September 1841. Pratt spent 1841 in England.

    Comment by Matt — July 31, 2009 @ 7:28 am

  21. Pratt’s “New Englander” shows up in “Angel of the Prairies” also. It seems like a self-identifier for Pratt, although he was brought up in New York. Perhaps he wished to associate himself with that region because of its putative love of liberty, education, etc.

    Comment by Ryan T — July 31, 2009 @ 9:26 am

  22. Can someone tell me more about “Mormon Prisoners?” I’ve never heard of it! I checked Flake, but I don’t see any reference — so I assume it was published in a periodical. Was it in the Deseret News?

    Where can I find more about this?

    Comment by Kent Larsen — July 31, 2009 @ 12:48 pm

  23. Ryan T (21), I too am wroking with “The Angel of the Prairies” and I’ve finished translations of it into two languages. I’d love to compare notes with you on it!

    kent [at] mormonstoday [dot] com

    Comment by Kent Larsen — July 31, 2009 @ 12:50 pm

  24. Kent: “Mormon Prisoners” was never published. There is a manuscript of it in the Parley Pratt collection at the LDS Archives.

    Comment by Matt — July 31, 2009 @ 1:44 pm

  25. The article Matt has listed is really a condensation of my much longer paper on the Autobiography and its Sources. The After Manuscript shows much of the changes especially to the journal entries of the Pratt journals and my longer paper showed a direct comparison of the After Manuscript the Original Journals and the Autobiography. It is my plan to publish the papers of Parley P. Pratt including all of his papers letters, journals, writings and discourses.

    I really enjoyed each of the articles on the Autobiography and therefore believe I should publish the longer paper on the sources and continue with the Papers project that I have been working on for the last 30 years.

    There is much more in the Autobiography that Pratt only commented on scantely such as his experiences with the Shakers in both Ohio and New York and other areas.

    I am more convinced than ever that similar to the Joseph Smith papers that the Parley Pratt Papers need to be published. It would answer much of the questions about early Mormonism.

    In my research much of the genre for Parley;s Autobiography was because of the influence of the Franklin Autobiography and I believe that both his and others follow the same pattern.

    Oh by the way the George A. Smith list of what Parley gave him had many letters and Journals as well as the original manuscript of the Autobiography in George Q. Cannon’s hand.


    Steve Pratt

    Comment by steve pratt — September 14, 2009 @ 4:13 pm

  26. Steve,

    This is great information. Thank you for sharing this with people like myself.

    I agree that this is the best time for you to get the Pratt papers published. With Matt and Terryl Givens biography coming out soon the interest in Parley will be at its height.

    Your “longer paper show[ing] a direct comparison of the After Manuscript the Original Journals and the Autobiography” sounds like a great work. I hope you have this published sooner than later. I would think Journal of Mormon History, John Whitmer Journal, BYU Studies or Dialogue would clamor to publish such an important work.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — September 15, 2009 @ 11:57 am


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