Perspectives on Parley Pratt’s Autobiography: Pratt and the Enervating Power of Evil

By August 14, 2009

In my spare moments this summer, I returned to Pratt’s Autobiography just to see what would strike me. Probably because of my continuing work on Mormon theodicy, my interest in the changing Mormon conceptions of evil and the accompanying shift in apotropaic ritual, I was most interested in several passages dealing with Pratt’s view of evil in the world. I did not find lengthy ramblings about the devil or demons, but I did find a few short asides which were no less important and insightful for their brevity. Pratt clearly beleives that the world is not only a fallen place, but a place that is still falling. He employs the common tropes of darkness and light with some regularity to depict the difference between those with the Truth and those without it. More interesting to me, however, is Pratt’s accounts of the physicality and materiality of evil. The first instance bearing examination here is a case of demonic possession and exorcism that Pratt encountered in the early summer of 1836 while serving a mission in Toronto, Canada. The excerpt is lengthy, but worth quoting in full.

Now there was living in that neighborhood a young man and his wife, named Whitney; he was a blacksmith by trade; their residence was perhaps a mile or more from this Lamphere’s, where I held my semi- monthly meetings. His wife was taken down very suddenly about that time with a strange affliction. She would be prostrated by some power invisible to those about her, and, in an agony of distress indescribable, she would be drawn and twisted in every limb and joint, and would almost, in fact, be pulled out of joint. Sometimes, when thrown on to the bed, and while four or five stout men were endeavoring to hold her, she would be so drawn out of all shape as to only touch the bed with her heels and the back part of her head. She would be bruised, cramped and pinched, while she would groan, scream, froth at the mouth, etc. She often cried out that she could see two devils in human form, who were thus operating upon her, and that she could hear them talk; but, as the bystanders could not see them, but only see the effects, they did not know what to think or how to understand.

She would have one of these spells once in about twenty-four hours, and when a period of these spells were over she would lie in bed so lame, and bruised, and sore, and helpless that she could not rise alone, or even sit up, for some weeks. All this time she had to have watchers both night and day, and sometimes four and five at a time, insomuch that the neighbors were worn out and weary with watching. Mr. Whitney sent for me two or three times, or left word for me to call next time I visited the neighborhood. This, however, I had neglected to do, owing to the extreme pressure of labors upon me in so large a circuit of meetings–indeed, I had not a moment to spare. At last, as I came round on the circuit again, the woman, who had often requested to see the man of God, that he might minister to her relief, declared she would see him anyhow, for she knew she could be healed if she could but get sight of him. In her agony she sprang from her bed, cleared herself from her frightened husband and others, who were trying to hold her, and ran for Mr. Lamphere’s, where I was then holding meeting. At first, to use her own words, she felt very weak, and nearly fainted, but her strength came to her, and increased at every step till she reached the meeting. Her friends were all astonished, and in alarm, lest she should die in the attempt, tried to pursue her, and they several times laid hold of her and tried to force or persuade her back. “No,” said she, “let me see the man of God; I can but die, and I cannot endure such affliction any longer.” On she came, until at last they gave up and said, “Let her go, perhaps it will be according to her faith.” So she came, and when the thing was explained the eyes of the whole multitude were upon her. I ceased to preach, and, stepping to her in the presence of the whole meeting, I laid my hands upon her and said, “Sister, be of good cheer, thy sins are forgiven, thy faith hath made thee whole; and, in the name of Jesus Christ, I rebuke the devils and unclean spirits, and command them to trouble thee no more.” She returned home well, went about her housekeeping, and remained well from that time forth.[1]

Exorcisms, of course, have found homes within the ritual complexes of most religious cultures from the beginning of time. Exorcisms directed specifically at human demoniac subjects occur in the New Testament and became codified into the ritual structure of proto-Roman Catholicism in the third century CE. Pratt’s account certainly supports historian Jeffrey Burton Russell’s observation that “underlying exorcism is the assumption that Satan retains some power over the fallen world as well as over the souls of fallen humans.”[2] It is tempting to move glancingly over this story in the Autobiography, categorizing it as one of many miracle stories that Pratt includes as evidence of the restored power of Christ’s Priesthood to the earth. Certainly the story was designed to do that. A close reading of the text, however, suggests yet other themes. Evident just below the surface of the account is Pratt’s emphasis of the enervating effect of the power of evil on human beings. Pratt, unlike most others offering accounts of possession from the early modern period until the present, does not mention ventriloquism as part of the manifested behavior of the victim, but instead focuses entirely on the painful physical contortions visited upon the woman. She fears at one point that she might be destroyed physically by these horrors. She reports feeling physically weak and near the point of collapse. But the physical draining does not stop with the victim. Pratt reports that the woman’s neighbors, dozens of them apparently, were literally “worn out” by the process. The entire scene is one of bodily exhaustion and physical pain. It is perhaps significant that the exorcism leaves the woman free and energetic enough to “return to her housekeeping.”
In two other places in the book, Pratt uses nearly identical language to describe the oppressive feeling that evil exerted on him. In April of 1852, Pratt wrote

Oh, when will the time come? When shall the veil be rent and the full powers of the apostleship be permitted to be exercised on the earth? It must be before long or no flesh be saved–for the powers of darkness prevail abroad to that degree that it can even be felt physically. [3]

Describing a scene that occurred five years later in New York City, Pratt commented “the darkness which broods over this country can be felt–it is no place for me.” [4] As with the account of the exorcism, these two brief snippets raise issues and questions that may yet be important to fully understanding Pratt’s thought. What, for example, is the limit of evil when it comes to inflicting physical suffering on human beings? Is Pratt’s view of evil influenced by his opinions of divine embodiment? By what mechanism(s) did Pratt believe evil could manifest itself as a physical drain on a person, and was it related to his views on the Holy Ghost? I don’t have the answers, but for the moment, I’m happy with the questions.

[1] Parley P. Pratt, Autobiography, 153-154.
[2] Jeffrey Burton Russell, Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984), 125.
[3] Pratt, Autobiography, 403.
[4] Ibid., 444.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Very interesting.

    Oh, when will the time come? When shall the veil be rent and the full powers of the apostleship be permitted to be exercised on the earth? It must be before long or no flesh be saved?for the powers of darkness prevail abroad to that degree that it can even be felt physically.

    So, would PPP have interpreted the later bureaucratization of church authority and the decline in charismatic evidences, whether good or evil, as evidence that the “powers of apostleship” were being allowed to operate more fully on the earth? Does PPP see institutionalization as one of the powers of apostleship?

    Comment by Edje Jeter — August 14, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

  2. I certainly think that’s a plausible scenario. Pratt sees the situation as fluid and indicates in other parts of the book that the powers of good are fettered for one reason or another. Of course, Joseph Smith also suggested as much from time to time.

    Comment by SC Taysom — August 14, 2009 @ 6:31 pm

  3. Good questions and a nice close reading. In view of examples like these, it seems hard to doubt that Parley’s conceptions of evil relate somehow to his ideas about the materiality of (good) spirit. For his thought to keep some symmetry, it seems like evil would necessarily hold some material component as well, although the premises for this are hard to get at: as far as I know neither Orson or Parley addressed the problem of evil too explicitly.

    Since Pratt’s appreciation of divine and human embodiment were so robust, I wonder in particular about his thoughts on the disembodiment of Satan. Can contemporary views that a chief torture of devils is their disembodiment be traced to Pratt in any way? Still more questions.

    Comment by Ryan T — August 14, 2009 @ 8:10 pm

  4. Thanks for the post. I like the questions.

    Comment by BHodges — August 14, 2009 @ 11:38 pm

  5. I noticed you used that nonsensical 3rd century CE instead of A.D. I am still trying to figure out who and why they determined the “common era” began in the year A.D. 1 instead of choosing a year like A.D. 1500 or so which would have made more sense. It’s just a big game being hoisted upon us by secular scholars, historians and scientists to eliminate reference to the Saviour whent referencing the historical timeline. I’m surprised you fell for it.

    Comment by Michael — August 15, 2009 @ 7:14 am

  6. Michael, I don’t know about SC, but I didn’t fall. I jumped.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — August 15, 2009 @ 8:14 am

  7. Uh oh, fellas. He figured out our nefarious master plan. I didn’t fall for it! I invented it mwahahahahaahahh

    Comment by SC Taysom — August 15, 2009 @ 10:28 am

  8. Besides your secular agenda, SC, this is an awesome post.

    I agree with you and Ryan that a lot of PPP’s views stems from his staunch materialism–many of his 1845 writings seem to present most of his theological views from stemming from the “riches of Materialism” (“Materiality,” May 1845).

    Comment by Ben — August 15, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

  9. I think that this idea of evil is fairly common in early Mormonism, even into the Utah period. Probably because I reread it recently, I am reminded of Hosea Stout’s namessake and his passing on the trail west:

    [1846 June 27] ?Clear and warm. My child was still worse The water falling very slowly?My child seemed strangely affected to night after laying hands on him we found him to [be] troubled with evil spirits who I knew now were determined on his destruction He would show all signs of wrath to wards me & his mother and appearantly try to talk. His looks were demoniac accopanied by the most frightful gestures I ever saw in a child. His strength was greater than in the days of his health.

    [pg. 171] At times I felt almost to cowl at his fierce ghastly & horrid look and even felt to withdraw from the painful scene for truly the powers of darkness now prevailed here. We were shut up in the waggon with nothing to behold or contemplate but this devoted child thus writhing under the power of the destroyer It was now late in the night & he getting worse when we came to the conclusion to lay hands on him again that the powers of darkness might be rebuked if he could not be raised up. Thus alone my wife & me over our only and dearest son struggled in sorrow and affliction with this last determination that we would not yield with the portion of the Priesthood which we had to the evil spirits After laying hands on him and rebuking the evil spirits he took a Different course He ceased to manifest a desire to talk & his ghastly and frightful gestures and with a set and determined eye gazed at me as if concious of what had been done…

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 15, 2009 @ 3:38 pm

  10. Interesting quotes J. These follow the very common trope of increased strength among demoniacs, which is also present in the Pratt account (as the demon gets stronger, the victim gets weaker).

    Comment by SC Taysom — August 15, 2009 @ 3:55 pm

  11. I should add also that Mormons seem to fall broadly into line with other Antebellum Americans when it comes to beliefs about the devil and evil spirits. Maybe this is because Joseph Smith did less to revise understandings of the nature of evil (although there is some to be sure) than he did with regard to the nature of God.

    Comment by SC Taysom — August 15, 2009 @ 3:59 pm

  12. Revival culture and the destroying angel seem independtoy relevant here. The contoritons of death to sin and the dense connections between bodies physical sickness and he destroyer. Dang ipod makes typos. Interesting theme.

    Comment by Smb — August 16, 2009 @ 8:14 am

  13. Thanks Sam. I agree that any serious effort to make sense of Pratt’s ideas about evil would certainly necessitate contextualization in revivalism (Ann Taves would be a place to start). On another note, it seems as if your iPod might need an exorcism.

    Comment by SC Taysom — August 16, 2009 @ 2:49 pm

  14. amen to that ipod exorcism. i was thinking specifically of the trope of dying to sin–i’ve found some interesting mormon sources on this. and the destroyer is in my MHA WoW paper–I was impressed to see just how assiduously personified the destroyer was once I got into the sources. good luck.

    Comment by smb — August 16, 2009 @ 9:12 pm


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