Perspectives on Parley Pratt’s Autobiography: Pratt and the Problem of Separating Latin and Anglo America

By September 3, 2009

David C. Knowlton is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Utah Valley University and author of a number of important studies of Mormonism in Latin America. We’re pleased he has agreed to provide some thoughts on Parley P. Pratt’s mission to Chile and the Latin/Anglo American divide which will be more fully articulated in a pair of forthcoming articles.

The division of America into two, Latin and Anglo is a strange and deceptive cut, particularly when used for academic analysis.  If used to refer simply to matters of nation states the contrast has some utility, but it founders if taken as a statement of cultural separation.  The boundaries are simply far too fuzzy, and probably always have been, simply because of the ways in which colonial, and later national, powers competed in the New World, and because of the ways in which people migrated and engaged one another.

This issue is particularly germane for understanding Mormonism.  Despite its growth outside the New World, Mormonism is almost entirely a religion of the New World.   We can argue, however, that its growth both depended and depends on the separation of Anglo America from Latin America as a political reality at the same time it has depended on blurring the lines.  To understand this, it is useful to look, briefly, at Parley P. Pratt.

Pratt is generally argued to have been the first missionary to Latin America, when he performed his short, and troubled mission to Chile.  But, in Chile Pratt moved in a world dominated by English mercantilism and a local English speaking population, when in Valparaíso.  (In Quillota, though, he was more involved with a monolingual Spanish-speaking world.)  Nevertheless Pratt’s missionary work was made possible and ultimately frustrated by the realities of how the Anglophone world engaged the Hispanophone world at a time of English mercantilism and Chilean involvement in trade with English speaking populations.  But understanding this requires a more careful look than is generally performed.

Pratt was hampered in his efforts by his lack of Spanish, to be sure, though he had more than many give him credit for.   He was well on his way to a usable communicative competence.  This is so, despite the frustration with his linguistic inabilities that fills his autobiography.

Pratt was also hampered by severe differences between his religious culture and that of the Spanish-speaking Catholics he hoped to proselyte.  Pratt’s detailed and extensive dismay at formal Catholic worship illustrates the gap between his expectations and the nature of Latin Catholic practice.  They were deliberately separated worlds, following the council of Trent’s reaction against the Protestant reformation and the periodic reformations of Latin American Catholicism to make it less like the Protestantism that was the base of Mormonism. They also were separations that fit into the political calculus of national elites.

Forming the issue this way, however, over states the difference, just as the ideologues–or should I better say “theologues”–would have it.  Catholicism was more diverse in practice than the theologues liked. As Sociologist Jean Pierre Bastien observed, this diversity provided the most important possibilities for Protestant growth in Latin America.  Many Anglo Protestant missionaries found niches for implanting and cultivating their faith in this Catholic world; Mormons did not.  This is the fact that requires historiographic thought and historical explanation.

Pratt was also hampered by his misreading of the civil war then in course in Chile.  Generally, this is written as some variant of “Pratt arrived in Chile to find a civil war making his mission impossible.”  However, I would argue that idea is a misreading. Prior to departure Pratt was located in San Francisco, the sister port of Valparaíso, where Chileans were a numerous and much commented part of the city.  News from Chile arrived faster than news from Boston and was very current.  Instead of focusing on whether Pratt did or did not know about Chile´s politics, the more important issue is the way Mormonism moved in the world.  In Pratt´s rendering, Mormon success required a relationship with the state and formal liberalism that was not available under the ruling conservatives who won the war, although most people in the worlds in which Pratt moved–those of liberal commerce in the California gold rush–seemed to expect the liberal reformers to win.   Many Protestant groups, in contrast, did not depend on formal acceptance and state sponsored liberalism to the degree Mormonism did.  They found a place in Chilean society, Pratt returned to the US.

In other words, the issue behind Pratt´s short mission to Chile was less one of language and the conservative win, than it was one of how Mormonism fit, i.e. the kinds of social situations it required in Chile in order to establish itself.    Latin America and Anglo America were not cleanly separated.

However, it is one of how cultural projects, including ideas of ethnicity and language fit into political economic space, and the nature of religion in relationship to all of these, were formed and competed in the length and breadth of America.  I mean America from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego and not the Anglo America less Canada, the Caribbean, and Guyana that became the US.

My point is further illustrated by Pratt´s prior, and generally unrecognized, mission to Latin America.  By this I mean specifically his work in California–at the time predominantly Spanish-speaking.  I also mean, with a bit of irony, the settlement of Mormons on a frontier with Mexico-Missouri and later Illinois, and the later migration deeply into Mexican territory, what became Utah and the Mexican west.

This Spanish-speaking world is a shadow, whose lack of historical exploration haunts any attempt to make sense of the hesitant Mormon growth in Mexico, and South America.  The ways in which Mormons interacted with or built barriers against the Spanish population and the Spanish institutions of the frontier of Anglo-American expansion are critical, if we wish to understand the whys and wherefores of Mormon growth, both in what is now the US west and in Mexico.  Arguably it is necessary if we wish to understand Mormon growth in the twentieth century in South America and Central America.

To this end, I have two articles in press that attempt to move into this gap, but I urge other scholars of Mormonism to not be befuddled by the Latin America Anglo America conceptual separation and to tackle head on the detailed ways in which Mormonism and Mormons interacted with the institutions and peoples of this frontier, where Spanish and English were used on both sides of national borders.


Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks for this, David; lots of good stuff here to chew on. As one who generally does not look west of the Mississippi, I specifically empathize with the phrase “This Spanish-speaking world is a shadow.”

    I look forward to your articles.

    Comment by Ben — September 3, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

  2. Thanks, David, for giving us a sneak preview of the articles. I agree that the Spanish American context has been almost completely lacking in Mormon history. In regards to your point about 19th century Protestants being successful in Latin America, while Mormons were not, I think it’s useful to add another wrinkle: why were Mormons successful in the Pacific of the 1850s, but not in Latin America? Why were Mormon missionaries able to successfully adapt their cultural interactions with Hawaiian natives but not with natives in Latin America?

    Comment by David G. — September 4, 2009 @ 9:18 am

  3. Excellent. Thanks for contributing this, David. You point out some potentially fruitful areas of analysis for scholars studying Mormonism, and I look forward to seeing your articles in print. Where and when are they going to be published?

    Comment by Christopher — September 4, 2009 @ 10:28 am

  4. Thanks for this write up, David. I’ll look forward to reading the fuller articles.

    Comment by Jared T — September 4, 2009 @ 10:28 am

  5. Interesting post. And that title (“Pratt and the Problem of Latin and Anglo America”) deserves an award for “most intriguing” or something. Good stuff! Thanks.

    Comment by Hunter — September 4, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

  6. David G. You raise an excellent question, about the comparison between Polynesia and Latin America, particularly since Addison Pratt’s efforts and Parley Pratt’s work were close in time. (Note I am broadening the issue to all of Polynesia and not just Hawaii). Some points of analysis here. Addison spoke some Hawaiian and settled in a village, not in an urban intercultural zone. Polynesia was caught in colonial expansion and resistance at the time. Religion was one of the issues of colonial establishment, making religion (Christianity) also available for resistance. Mormonism seems, to me, to have played the role of the EuroAmerican religion most available to express modernity, but yet not that of the colonial powers. It legitimated Polynesians. But, much work needs to be done here and, in my opinion, it needs to be comparative; it is not adequate to simply rely on church growth historiography or individual conversion models.

    Thank you all for your warm reception. It is nice to converse with you here.

    Comment by David Knowlton — September 4, 2009 @ 12:59 pm

  7. One more point, David G. In California–part of Latin America by most measures, Mormons were part of the Anglo occupying force. That fact alone made their reality very different than it was in Polynesia. Hawaii is a good contrast, as Anglo occupation occurred later, after Mormons were established as a heavily Polynesian church, and not colonial in the same way as congregationalist churches (if I have my Hawaiian religious history right.)

    Comment by David Knowlton — September 4, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

  8. You know, David, we were thinking of inviting you to join us just prior to BCC snatching you up. We’re glad you’ve contributed to the blog.

    Those are all excellent points. I think your work in conjunction with Laurie Maffly-Kipps’ articles on Mormon and Protestant missionaries in Hawaii are opening up all kinds of interpretive angles for understanding the spread of Mormonism outside the US.

    Re: Hawaii, although Protestant and Catholic missionaries, along with Anglo-American business interests, had been involved in indirect colonialism on the island since the late 18th century, you’re right that it wasn’t really until the 1890s that the American government really took an interest in directly colonizing the island. I think you’re right that the timing of the arrival of Mormons in CA in HI does play a factor in how things turned out.

    Comment by David G. — September 4, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

  9. Jared,

    I wonder if you’ve ever read Octavio Paz’s _The Labyrinth of Solitude_. It’s been many years since I read it. Though I don’t remember that much about content, it had a real impact on me at the time, the beginning of some feelings that have since flowered into a strong feeling for Hispanic people and culture.

    I don’t know that I could this far down the road distill his thesis out of my memories. But he contrasts how Mexican culture was shaped by the Counter Reformation, rather than the Reformation; and how the historical proximity to the end of the Aztec civilization and the Spanish conquest creates a division in the Mexican identity, and how a profound solitude emerges from that division. I wish I could express it better. He writes about how these factors keep Mexican people on terms with death and tragedy that North Americans have a difficult time recognizing in themselves.

    It would interest me, very much, to view the growth of the church in Latin America in light of his ideas. The thought of it sort of turns on the “this is for you” feeling, in me. But I have a total lack of data, even anecdotal data. I do think I want to find a way to get more involved with Spanish branches and wards whenever I get the chance. ~

    Comment by Thomas Parkin — September 4, 2009 @ 10:39 pm

  10. Thanks, Thomas. I’m aware of it, but I’m not very familiar. I noticed that my name is in the author line, so I just changed it to “guest” as this is a guest post by David Knowlton.

    Comment by Jared T — September 4, 2009 @ 11:25 pm

  11. […] David Knowlton: Pratt and the Problem of Separating Latin and Anglo America […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Perspectives on Parley Pratt’s Autobiography: Series Wrap-up — September 8, 2009 @ 9:52 am


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