Perspectives on Parley Pratt’s Autobiography: Writing as Restoration and Redemption

By July 23, 2009

[This is the first post of the “Perspectives on Parley Pratt’s Autobiography” Series]

The details behind the writing (compilation?) of the Autobiography will be detailed in Matt Grow’s post next week. This post, however, focuses on Parley’s motivation behind the book. I argue that the text was written for two central reasons, beyond the obvious reason of providing the Saints with a first-hand account of the Church’s early history. First, it was a way for Pratt to restore the “glory days” of Mormonism–written during a difficult period of the apostle, re-examining the past was a way to relive fond memories and perhaps revive his slightly diminished position within the Church. And second, by setting the narrative form that many following books would follow, Pratt was able to write it in a way that redeemed previous mistakes. In short, Parley Pratt had a personal agenda in writing his Autobiography, and the result was a rich text pregnant with possibilities of how to examine Pratt’s mind.[1]

During the Nauvoo period, Parley was at the center of the LDS Church. After publishing Voice of Warning and Mormonism Unveiled in 1837-38, the first two book-length works written by a Mormon, his voice became the preeminent one in print. During the 12’s mission to Britain, Parley was the editor for the Church periodical Millennial Star and thus all the British Saints learned from his writings. He published numerous tracts in response to anti-Mormons, and his refutation of their critiques became standards for Mormon apologetics. Once back in Nauvoo, his importance only grew in the sight of the membership, as his writings increased in Times and SeasonsThe Prophet (the Mormon press in New York and main publication for the Eastern Saints), and a couple of his own pamphlets. After Joseph Smith’s death, it was Pratt who was sent to the Eastern states to solidify the branches there in favor of the apostolic succession. To put it simply, Pratt was at a center spot of the growing hierarchy, the main voice of printed Mormonism, and a major figure in the eyes of the Latter-day Saints.[2]

However, Parley did not always stay in the limelight, for several reasons. The first was largely practical: the trek west required the Church to focus on practical matters (i.e., the Saint’s survival), and settlement in the Utah Territory only amplified their survival focus; there was not time or need for theological treatise, but instead just farming and colonizing. The second reason for Parley’s declining role was a public and sharp chastisement from Brigham Young during the migration.[3] This combination of not having a chance to publish and a public knock from the new prophet led to a diminished role for the once celebrated apostle. During this same period, Parley’s brother Orson was flourishing. Serving as president of the British mission, Orson set out on a daring publishing venture that dwarfed anything Parley ever accomplished. While most pamphlets of the period were published in the thousand to ten thousand range, with very few exceptions, Orson’s multiplied those numbers to the point that it seriously strapped the Church financially and largely led to Brigham’s decision a decade later to cease all publishing.[4] Even if his works did not sell as well as he had hoped, though, Orson’s voice was now the loudest among Mormon authors, and he had taken his older brother’s place as the grand explicator of Mormon theology.

To rub even more salt in his wounds, Parley and Orson would go almost half a decade without any communication due to an argument between the two brothers in the Nauvoo Temple.[5] Further, though Parley had taken on several wives by this point, his second wife (his first died in 1837) had divorced him over polygamy; it was a tough time for the Pratt family. There were also problems beyond mere familial relations. While Orson was thriving in England, Parley was plum miserable in Chile during the Church’s first mission to South America. Away from the body of the Saints, having problems with the Spanish language, and suffering third-world accommodations, Parley was lonely, frustrated, and homesick. Thus, in 1851, he decided to revisit the “glory days” by writing about his earlier life.[6]

The story presented in Pratt’s Autobiography is thrilling, adventurous, and, most importantly, triumphalist. The numerous difficulties Parley had experienced (including his brief apostasy in 1837, his fight with Orson, his chastisement at the hands of Brigham) were either dramatically downplayed or ignored altogether. He presented himself as at the center of Mormon activities, taking part in the most important missionary activities, defending the Church in the front lines of battle, and learning at the feet of Joseph Smith. Polygamy is not mentioned, and Parley exults about how in 1840 he learned from Joseph Smith that “the wife of my bosom might be secured to me for time and all eternity”[7]—a statement that is highly ironic when considering that his then-wife later left him over Joseph’s teachings on marriage. The daring, witty, visionary, and sympathetic figure presented in text was how Parley wanted us to remember him; the charismatic leader, successful missionary, and influential writer was what Parley wished he still was.

Combined with restoring the past was Pratt’s desire to redeem past failures. As is common with human nature, Pratt felt bad about previous mistakes he had made, and saw the Autobiography as a chance to correct them. For instance, he interrupts his narrative of escaping Richmond Prison in order to give detailed accounts of how the other prisoners made it out, justifying this apparently tangential story by reasoning, ?it impolite and disrespectful to get myself out of a bad place until I have first seen my friends all safely out.? While this seems a respectable reason in itself, Pratt then reveals his deeper motivation: “True, I did not strictly observe this rule of good breeding in the escape itself; therefore it becomes me to take the more care to observe it now…”[8] Thus, granting his fellow prisoners a prominent role in his narrative redeemed his earlier forgetfulness.

Similarly, Pratt regretted how he dealt with Samuel Brannan, a local leader in New York. Brannan had been tried for misconduct, but Pratt worked to get him reinstated to his position after he felt Brannan had demonstrated sufficient remorse. However, much to Pratt’s chagrin, Brannan later became a thorn in the side of the Church when he sailed a group of Saints from New York to California, and then publicly left the Church, taking many individuals with him. Pratt wrote that Brannan was “a corrupt and wicked man,” and that he had “always regretted having taken any measures to have him restored to fellowship…” However, he concluded, “if I erred, it was on the side of mercy.”[9] Pratt knew that his readers would be curious when they came upon Brannan’s name in the narrative, and thus felt he needed to defend himself by explaining he was just being “merciful,” and that their decision had been done charitably—it was not their fault that Brannan took advantage of their kindess.

Parley Pratt’s restoration to glory and redemption from mistakes came ultimately, however, through his lynching in 1857; as is often the case, early death can do wonders to one’s image. But the publication of the Autobiography solidified his reputation, and now that text is largely what he is known for, almost to the extent that hearing about the things he glosses over in his narrative come as a surprise.[10] I’m sure this pleases Parley Pratt, as this work is by far the most successful accomplishment of his distinguished career.


[1] It should be kept in mind, especially on a topic like this, that it is difficult to deduce what parts of the text were revised, expanded, or altered by later editors of the book.

[2] He was of such importance that one average LDS member thought Pratt was a likely candidate to succeed Joseph Smith.

[3] At the center of this chastisement was Parley’s reorganization of one of the pioneer camps. Apparently, Brigham had established the Camp according to his familial and dynastic organization, revolving around the largely expanded law of adoption. Pratt, however, reorganized the company in what he felt was a more efficient way. Since Pratt didn’t take part in any adoption rituals, this may be part of a larger rejection of the practice. (shout-out to J Stapley for sharing his Nauvoo adoption statistics with me)

[4] As Peter Crawley told a group of us at the Pratt seminar: Parley Pratt gave birth to Mormon publications, and Orson Pratt killed it.

[5] This argument based around several things, including Orson’s wife and her ordeal with Joseph Smith/John C. Bennett.

[6] This idea of restoring the “glory days” through writing reminiscences has been explored in two recent essays: Thomas G. Alexander, ?The Past as Decline from a Golden Age: Early Mormonism?s Restorationist Tendency,? and D. Michael Quinn, ??My Eyes were Holden in Those Days?: A Study of Selective Memory,? both in the recent William E. McLellin Papers (Signature, 2007).

[7] Pratt, Autobiography (1st edition), 329.

[8] Ibid, 290.

[9] Ibid, 375-376.

[10] Personally, I was shocked when I found out about his brief apostasy in 1837—surely that wasn’t the faithful Parley I read about in his Autobiography!

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


  1. Very interesting Ben, thanks for the post. I think Pratt’s words as you’ve outlined here provide compelling evidence of his desire to shape his and others’ memories of the past.

    Comment by Jared T — July 23, 2009 @ 9:20 am

  2. I love the idea of writing as restoration and redemption. It calls to mind something James Baldwin said about his decision to write: “The leap demanded that I commit myself to the clear impossibility of becoming a writer, and attempting to save my family that way” (ref). Of course, the family he was talking about redeeming was his racial family, an idea playwright Suzan-Lori Parks carries on in her repetition and revision of American history (see, for instance, The America Play in which she presents variations on the theme of Abraham Lincoln and her postmodern play with what she calls The Great Hole of History). I see a similar idea in your brief exploration of Pratt’s motivation to write as a way of not only restoring and redeeming himself, but restoring and redeeming what he felt was the essence of Mormonism, the glory of his people.

    I look forward to the rest of the series.

    Comment by Tyler — July 23, 2009 @ 9:49 am

  3. Nice, Ben. You’ve really outlined some compelling ideological frames for understanding the auto. I remember hearing years ago, although I don’t recall where, speculation that PPP intentially wrote his auto so as to be just longer than the BoM, so he could show that if Joseph did it (produce a 500+ pp work), so could he. I don’t know if there’s any evidence for that view, but the length is suggestive of some possible connection.

    Comment by David G. — July 23, 2009 @ 11:28 am

  4. A great start! Thanks.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — July 23, 2009 @ 11:32 am

  5. Thanks for this, Ben. I think you raise some provocative points here, and am excited about the rest of the series.

    Comment by Christopher — July 23, 2009 @ 12:26 pm

  6. Strong work, Ben.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 23, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

  7. Ooh, I hope the rest of the series is like this. Fantastic.

    Parley exults about how in 1840 he learned from Joseph Smith that ?the wife of my bosom might be secured to me for time and all eternity?

    I always interpreted “the wife of my bosom” as referring to his first love, Thankful.

    Comment by Ben Pratt — July 23, 2009 @ 3:16 pm

  8. To be honest, Ben, I thought the same thing for the first time while writing this on the train this morning. However, I decided that what I wrote could (somewhat) fly in that the context in which he put it in, and how he wrote it, made it seem like he was implying (whether intentionally or unintentionally) his then-current wife.

    Plus, after I had written it, I was just too lazy to change it. 🙂

    But I do think you are right.

    Comment by Ben — July 23, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

  9. Interesting post, Ben. I think the central idea of Parley feeling somewhat displaced in Mormonism from the mid-1840s to the mid-1850s is a fascinating one.

    A correction: Pratt does mention polygamy, including a discourse on it from the 1850s (chapter 51).

    Comment by Matt — July 23, 2009 @ 3:56 pm

  10. Matt: thanks for the correction (although you are unravelling my credibility 🙂 ).

    In preparing for this post, I only skimmed the first 3/4ths again, so I obviously missed the later chapters and relied on my horrible memory, even if I just read it a couple months ago (man, I am getting old…).

    Comment by Ben — July 23, 2009 @ 4:06 pm

  11. Very interesting. I have a question that is somewhat tangentially related… when did it become common for Mormon pioneers to write autobiographies as part of an end-of-life review? Most of the ones I have read come from the late, late 19th century or the early 20th century but that could be because of my particular interests, which don’t lie with the earliest Mormon converts. Has anyone ever explored the reasons why this became popular for the common saints as well as church leaders? Could the initial reasons of the general Mormon population for writing autobiographies similar to Pratt’s (i.e. a sense of loss and marginalization after the Manifesto and as the original pioneers began to die away)?

    I really don’t have any answers. I ask these questions out of ignorance.

    Comment by Amanda H. — July 23, 2009 @ 6:40 pm

  12. Amanda, my sense is that the main wave started in the 1870s and 1880s, and reflected the desires of the aging generation to strengthen their legacy among the rising generation. There is also the context of the polygamy raids, and many of these autobiographies emphasize the early persecutions, so there’s a didactic angle too.

    David Wrobel, although he doesn’t deal with Utah much (if at all), has written in Promised Lands about the broader phenomenon of the pioneer generation in the West establishing pioneer societies during the last quarter of the 19th century. He argues that these societies and the nostalgia they promoted represented an effort by the elderly to hold on to their status in a rapidly changing world that didn’t value their contributions.

    Comment by David G. — July 23, 2009 @ 6:47 pm

  13. Interesting stuff. The PPP Autobiography has long been high on my list of books to read. I still want to read it, but now I’d like to find a modern biography to go with it.

    I do hope that you don’t blow all of the fairy dust off of the Autobiography. I wonder (without having read it) how much PPP was inspired by the Lord to write what he did. What were his “spiritual” missions and accomplishments.

    Nearly all modern biography seems to want to explain a persons life purely in terms of what the subject did and what was going on around them with a big portion of speculation about what they were thinking in fairly Freudian terms. I am curious about PPP’s inspiration. I think Bushman did an excellent job covering that in Rough Stone Rolling.

    Comment by Tom D — July 23, 2009 @ 7:11 pm

  14. How very interesting! I’m really looking forward to this series. I read his autobiography on my mission when my companion, who was a Pratt, let me read the book. I remember really enjoying it. However, I can’t quite remember the details now. It would certainly be interesting to go back and read it again now that I know a little more about Church history. How extensive was his treatment was of polygamy?

    Comment by Clean Cut — July 23, 2009 @ 8:42 pm

  15. Although some of these claims are a little too speculative for my blood, I thought this post was enlightening overall.

    If I recall correctly, Parley did talk about his 1837 apostasy, although only in very general terms (saying something about how his mind was darkened for a time against Joseph, or something like that).

    Comment by Dennis — July 24, 2009 @ 12:22 am

  16. Amanda: What David said (he knows the period a lot more than I–this is the furthest I have made it away from Nauvoo). I especially agree that it was a trend started to try to reach the second generation of Mormons.

    Tom: but blowing off fairy dust is what we do best!!! (and if I were to speak on Parley’s Auto in sacrament meeting, I would do more of the things you are asking for–this is just a different venue)

    Clean Cut: As Matt said, there is a discourse on it in the book. I am away from my copy right now, but I can say that he doesn’t dwell on it at all through the majority of the text.

    Dennis: your recollection of how Parley dealt with that episode is exactly right (you even got the wording pretty close–impressive). That’s why I said some of these tough issues were either downplayed or ignored, in this case it was the former.

    Comment by Ben — July 24, 2009 @ 12:52 am

  17. Ben (16):

    Yes, Parley’s apostasy was definitely downplayed. I just thought, also, how it’s interesting that Parley makes no mention (I don’t think) about how John Taylor was an important influence in Parley’s rehabilitation (from apostasy). This could have been a pretty cool theme for Parley to explore (Parley helped Taylor join the church, and Taylor helped Parley stay in the church) — why didn’t he? Maybe he simply preferred to completely put that time of his life behind him …?

    Comment by Dennis — July 24, 2009 @ 2:48 pm

  18. Will someone in this series address how the manuscript became a book? I gather from the post that the manuscript version that PPP wrote is not extant. Do we know why? Is the 1st edition the earliest version of the manuscript available? Who was involved in the publication of the book?

    I’m afraid that you’ve made me very curious about the process from manuscript to book in this case. And the example of what happened with Lucy Mack Smith’s History (as outlined in the introduction to the Lucy’s Book edition), there may have indeed been a lot of changes to the manuscript.

    Comment by Kent Larsen — July 24, 2009 @ 3:42 pm

  19. Kent, Matt Grow is scheduled to address the writing of the autobiography in the next post. I assume he’ll deal with some of your questions.

    Comment by David G. — July 24, 2009 @ 3:52 pm

  20. Dennis: those are some important questions.

    Kent: Aha, we have snared you into our trap of interest! David’s right, we will have a post next week by Matt Grow that will deal with all the questions you have. It was originally schedule for Monday, but Ryan T’s will be going up that day since thematically it is a good follow-up to this one. So, look forward to Matt’s next thursday–I just looked it over today, and it’s a good one.

    Comment by Ben — July 24, 2009 @ 7:27 pm

  21. Nice.

    Comment by smb — July 26, 2009 @ 7:20 pm


Recent Comments

J Stuart on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Armand, your response made me unexpectedly emotional. Your work has shaped me as a scholar in many important ways, but your legendary willingness to engage…”

Ardis E. Parshall on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “I've enjoyed these three discussions -- crowned by this response by Armand Mauss himself. It is so representative of his ability and willingness to interact…”

Armand Mauss on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “I am pleasantly surprised and deeply grateful for the three assessments offered in this space this week by Gary Shepherd, Jana Riess, and Matt Bowman.…”

Roger T on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Since I work in Mormon studies, I tend to read a lot. It's impossible to keep up with everything being published, but over the past…”

Jeff T on Q&A with Taylor Petrey,: “Thanks, Taylor!”

Jeff T on The Mechanics of Applying: “Thanks, J!”