Rational Supernaturalism, Part III: The Pratt Brothers and Defining Mormon Doctrine

By November 3, 2008

(very) Loosely continuing on the same theme from parts I and II.

The Nauvoo era became a big turning point for the Mormons in many instances. Not the least of these was their new desire to publish their beliefs to the public. While they had been active in printing while in Kirtland and Missouri with newspapers and published revelations, these were always designed for members or other interested persons. However, once settled in Illinois they began to place their attention on using print to reach the masses. Part of the reason for this was the revelatory injunction to publish all the facts regarding the ?sufferings and abuses put upon them by the people of? Missouri (D&C 123:1).

Another benefit they found in public printing, though, was the success of Parley P. Pratt?s Voice of Warning, published in 1837. By the fall of 1839, it had already sold out almost all of the 3,000 copies of its first edition. This provided a great example for the Church on how print can further the gospel message (David G. discusses Pratt’s importance as a writer of Mormon history, particularly persecution narratives, here). Peter Crawley has argued that once the Church was rid of anti-creedal leaders like David Whitmer and others, Joseph Smith now felt more willing to publicly discuss their unique beliefs and doctrines.[1] While only three polemical tracts had been published before 1838, eighteen were now published in 1840 alone.[2]

With this flowering of new writing, obviously, came with the task of defining our religion publicly in a concise form for the first time. Possibly the first to do so was the introduction to Parley P. Pratt?s second edition of Late Persecution of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. However, to make it more accessible, Pratt shortly afterward revised this introduction and turned it into a four-page pamphlet entitled ?An Address by Judge Higbee and Parley P. Pratt?To the Citizens of Washington and to the Public in General.? In this pamphlet, he writes that his purpose was to ?give some information of our real principles,? with hopes that it would ?be perused in the spirit of candor in which it is written.?[3]

Pratt then lists what he viewed as the key beliefs of the Church, several of which would later be incorporated into Joseph Smith?s Wentworth Letter (now termed the Articles of Faith). This listing, methinks, is highly significant in that it is one of the earliest formulations of a concise summary of Mormon though, at least through Parley P. Pratt’s eyes. First, regarding the godhead, he began that we ?believe in the true and living God, and in Jesus Christ, the sun of God?? It is interesting that he doesn’t mention the Holy Ghost, possibly because this is still early enough in the Church where the Saint’s don’t know quite what to do with the third member of the Godhead yet. (Though Orson Pratt’s 1840 list of basic Mormon doctrines that will be discussed in the next post as well as JS’s Articles of Faith in the Wentworth letter do specifically metnion the Holy Ghost.)

Second, regarding scripture, Pratt presents a very literal position of scriptural interpretation: ?The Scriptures should be taught, understood, and practiced in their most plain, simple, easy, and literal sense, according to the common laws and usage of the language in which they stand.? This should be quite simple, he argues, because ?the prophetical and doctrinal writings contained in the Bible are mostly adapted to the capacities of the simple and unlearned?to the common sense of the people.?[4]

The third principle Pratt discusses is church organization, emphasizing that there should only be ?one system of religion, one church, or assembly of worshippers united in their doctrine, and built upon the TRUTH; and all bearing the general name of Saints. God is not the author of jarring and discordant systems.? He then denounces all the creeds, systems, doctrines, and traditions that he presents as a result of a mass religious apostasy, though admitting that ?there are many sincere and zealous persons in every denomination.?

Regarding how a person is to be saved, he presents as the ?duty of all men to believe the gospel to repent of their sins and to be immersed in water,? as well as given the gift of the Holy Ghost. However, rather than these being just outward signs to God, these last ordinances need to be performed by ministers who hold the ancient authority ?according to the ancient pattern? established with the Saints of the New Testament. To expound on this, Pratt uses the analogy of a British official trying to perform governmental functions here in America; it may be sincere, but still not legit.

In this pamphlet he also deals with the outward signs that should be present with the Saints. These include practices that should be present at meetings like prayer, hymns, exhortations, testimonies, prophesies, speaking in tongues, visions, revelations, etc. He also included ordinances, particularly healings of the sick and the afflicted, as well as ?partaking of the bread and wine?on the first day of the week.? The Church should also exhort members ?to abstain from all immorality,? for practical moral laws should always be considered.

Turning to doctrinal matters, Pratt speaks on both the restoration and gathering of Israel, emphasizing that the prophesies concerning Israel both in the Old World and the New must be fulfilled before the second coming, and thus they don?t buy into ?the predictions of the Rev. Mr. Miller, Rev. Joseph Wolff, and others? that the end of times was within the next decade?there was still too much to be done.

And finally, he ends his list of ?real principles? with the issue of more scripture. The Saints, ?like all other Christians,? Pratt reasons, ?believe in every true book within our knowledge, whether on science, history, or religion.? Thus, he explains, the Book of Mormon must be accepted because it brings forth more truth that corresponds with the Bible, though Pratt is clear in emphasizing that it does not replace the traditional scriptures. This discovery of new truth that presents biblical doctrines plainly should be ?hailed among all nations as one of the most glorious events of the latter times, and as one of the principal means of overwhelming the earth with knowledge.? In Pratt?s mind, no matter the origins of the book, which he only spends half a sentence on, the reader should only rely on the religious message presented within to test its validity.

Perhaps an even more interesting way of approaching this specific text and this broader theme of publicly defining Mormon doctrine is to compare Parley’s presentation with others, specifically his brother Orson. The year 1840 also saw the publication of Orson Pratt’s Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records, which he ends a point-by-point summary of Mormon beliefs, many of which are copied wholesale into Joseph Smith’s Wentworth Letter. I was going to compare and contrast the two brothers’ pamphlets, but I will save that for another day since this post has already gone way too long. (Edge and I seem to share the same problem of not being able to fit a topic into a single post.)

But, as a topic of discussion, what parts of Pratt’s summary of the Church stick out to you? What parts did Pratt neglect that you feel is significant?


[1] Peter Crawley, ?The Passage of Mormon Primitivism,? Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 13 (Winter 1980): 34.

[2] Another major reason for the explosion of Mormon writings was the Apostles’ mission to Britain, where many of the new pamphlets were published.

[3] Parley P. Pratt and Elias Higbee, ?An Address by Judge Higbee and Parley P. Pratt, Ministers of the Gospel, of the Church of Jesus Christ of ?Latter-day Saints,? to the Citizens of Washington and to the Public in General,? Washington, D.C., 9 February 1840. Later republished in Times and Seasons 1 (March 1840): 6870. Digitized image found here.

[4] Phil Barlow argues in his Mormons and the Bible that the early Saints were “selectively literal” in their biblical interpretations, though I am too lazy to look up his summarized argument and page number.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Cultural History Intellectual History Theology


  1. Thanks, Ben. It’s another success.

    Pratt’s “plain, simple, easy, and literal sense” version of scriptural interpretation sounds like a Jacksonianist offshoot (the we-don’t-need-no-stinking-lawyers part).

    I find the analogy of the British official performing American governmental functions interesting in two ways. First, it would seem to have a nationalistic edge on it less than thirty years after the War of 1812. Second, it’s similar to but stronger than the analogy we used on my mission: would you accept my authority if I tried to pull you over and give you a speeding ticket? As a sovereign citizen, police authority derives partially from me, whereas the Brit has not even that wisp of a shred of a scrap.

    Your gloss on the Book of Mormon’s position, “In Pratt?s mind, no matter the origins of the book, which he only spends half a sentence on, the reader should only rely on the religious message presented within,” would seem to contradict T Given’s _By the Hand of Mormon_. As I recall (it’s been years since I read it), he argues that the origin was the big news for early church members.

    Comment by Edje — November 3, 2008 @ 10:31 am

  2. Concerning the British official analogy, it is fun that later that year Pratt publishes this pamphlet under a new name in England…only this time makes it an American officer trying to do things in Britain. Makes sense, no? (And I think the speeding ticket analogy is now universal–it was my mission’s favorite as well.)

    As for the Book of Mormon: your right, in almost every other tract the origins are what are important. That is what makes this pamphlet so interesting to me–absolutely no focus on the origins, translation, found in a hill, etc. It must have been a specific message or a specific audience he was intending for this specific pamphlet. Very weird. I should have made that more clear though: almost every other tract emphasized the origin as “the big news for early church members.”

    Comment by Ben — November 3, 2008 @ 10:45 am

  3. Pratt’s bit on interpreting scripture smack’s of the anti-creedal anti-Calvinist perspective popularized by Campbell and Elias Smith.

    It also is saturated in the anti-cessationism that the Pratt’s focused on since the beginning.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 3, 2008 @ 10:52 am

  4. You talkin’ about me and my brothers? No? Okay.

    I was struck by the same thing as Edje regarding the origin of the Book of Mormon, having read Givens’ book last year. That is pretty weird.

    Then again, what converted Parley in the first place was the *message* of the Book of Mormon, rather than the *origin*. Evidently that aspect of it was the most important to him even nearly ten years later.

    Comment by Ben Pratt — November 3, 2008 @ 12:18 pm

  5. J: I felt the same things regarding Pratt’s take on scriptural interpretation; thanks for pointing it out.

    Ben: If you publish your own articles of faith, I’ll gladly add you to the comparisons ;). I hadn’t thought of the connection with Pratt’s original conversion focused on the message rather than origins. Good observation.

    Comment by Ben — November 3, 2008 @ 12:31 pm

  6. … according to the common laws and usage of the language in which they stand

    Of course that’s where push goes to shove. I think though Pratt’s principle is worth remembering. Just that one shouldn’t treat it as excluding allegory, metaphor or so forth. Nor does it exclude fallibilism. (He’s not promoting inerrancy after all)

    The problem is that lots of people want the “simple and literal” part minus the “according to the common laws and usage of the language in which they stand” part.

    Comment by Clark — November 3, 2008 @ 8:16 pm

  7. BTW – the interesting thing to ask is how much Pratt’s views of hermeneutics came from Smith (who obviously spent a lot of time learning both language and style of writing) and how much from other sources.

    Comment by Clark — November 3, 2008 @ 8:19 pm

  8. Worth remembering the American reflex of the Scottish Common Sense realism philosophical school in this–Pratt (and to a lesser extent Smith) regularly sounds like he’s reading from a C.S. manifesto. I think it’ll be hard to give a credible account of early Mormonism without coming to terms with their appropriation of the themes and tools of the common sense school. The content of the BoM plays to a central role for the BoM, serving simultaneously as an internal and external evidence of the Bible, a way to channel commonsense Bible interpretation. When emphasizing it as internal evidence, the origins aren’t as important–in fact in the circular logic of most Common Sense, the fact that it was an internal evidence _proved_ the BoM divine. Interesting to think about how FARMS-style apologia draws from and modifies this older tradition.

    Comment by smb — November 6, 2008 @ 10:26 pm


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