Review: Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism

By March 29, 2012

Givens, Terryl L. and Matthew J. Grow. Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

In 1854, Parley P. Pratt, Mormon apostle, theologian, polygamist, and apologist, set out to write his autobiography. In a letter to church historian George Smith, he explained that it was intended to be “a Lean, megre sketch of Church History. As my hurried life, and hurried manner of writing, prevents my branching out on many interesting items” (as quoted on p. 348). As anyone who has read Pratt’s autobiography—published posthumously by his son in 1874—can testify, it goes far beyond the “Lean, megre sketch” he apparently set out to write, and has served as both a ready resource for historians of 19th century Mormonism and a beloved book to thousands and thousands of lay Latter-day Saints to the present day. But Pratt was certainly right in noting that the Autobiography left out “many interesting items.” In Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism, accomplished scholars Terryl Givens and Matthew Grow set out to investigate those “many interesting items”—including many episodes that Pratt would likely never have discussed in detail even if he had the time and space to do so.

What struck me most forcefully while reading Givens and Grow’s book was Parley Pratt’s personality. Described by the authors as having a “tempestuous character,” Pratt comes across (at least to me) as strikingly unlikeable. The very zeal and confidence that made him such a devoted missionary and prolific preacher and pamphleteer also sometimes alienated his colleagues and close friends. The seriousness with which he approached Joseph Smith’s revelations, the Book of Mormon’s message, and the imminent millennium also tended to drown out any hint of a sense of humor in his interactions with others. Lacking in Pratt’s personality is the occasional dose of good humor and self-deprecation one gets when reading the writings and sermons of Joseph Smith or even the more acerbic Brigham Young.[1] That’s not to say that no one liked him—his close relationships with his wives and he and his children’s generally reciprocal love are evident in the glimpses this biography provides into the more intimate details of his personal life. My point is simply that it surprised me as a twenty-first century reader who had previously thought of “the Apostle Paul of Mormonism” as a more thoughtful example of the stock Mormon leader of the 19th century—dedicated, hard-working, and well-spoken, but also able to relax and enjoy the life he found in the Mormon community. Relaxation and the enjoyment of life, suffice it to say, were not Parley Pratt’s strong suits.

Initially unsure about the chosen subtitle for their book, I was convinced in the end that “The Apostle Paul of Mormonism” is an appropriate description of the authors’ subject. Pratt’s extensive missionary travels and his expansive theological writings mark him as the closest parallel to Paul as one is likely to find in early (or modern) Mormonism (his self-assuredness and occasional disagreements with his fellow leaders might also link him to his first-century counterpart). And Givens and Grow succeed wonderfully in illuminating the many marks Pratt left on Mormonism. Pratt was clearly among Mormonism’s most theologically-minded adherents, and anyone grappling with the development of Mormon thought–including many of its most distinctive doctrines—will no longer be able to sidestep Pratt’s contributions. The authors rightly note that Pratt left an “enduring legacy as the principal expounder and shaper of the doctrines Joseph Smith proclaimed,” sometimes “going beyond his prophet predecessor, giving new or additional form to founding principles” (pp. 395-96). Pratt also stands as a notable and important exception to the rule that the Book of Mormon’s text held little unique theological value to early Saints. It is clear that he not only read the book, but also utilized its teachings and doctrines in his sermons and more lengthy explanations and defenses of Mormon theology. At least as notable (to me) is Pratt’s role as a polemicist and apologist, and Givens and Grow’s biography points to the potential of studying the development of Mormon apologists and apologetics—an important subject even less explored than the development of Mormon theology.

But in my estimation, the most important contribution The Apostle Paul of Mormonism makes to the prevailing historiography is providing a non Joseph Smith-centric narrative of Mormonism’s formative years. In fact, I would go so far as to say this is the best such narrative yet written. Instead of traveling from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois with Joseph Smith and the larger body of Saints in the 1830s and 1840s, the reader gets a glimpse into the endlessly mobile and often chaotic world that Mormonism was for many of its earliest converts. Instead of seeing recently-ordained missionaries like Pratt sent off from Kirtland and then return a year or so later, we travel with the itinerant preacher, visiting scattered branches of newly-converted Mormon women and men, and returning to the ever-changing gathering place when they do. What emerges in such a narrative as this is not only a new point of view from which to view Mormonism’s development; readers also gain a sense of the exhilaration (both positive and negative) that those arriving in Kirtland or Nauvoo fresh from the mission field must have felt as they learned of strange new doctrines and secretive practices. Even accomplished apostles and recognized leaders like Pratt experienced the rapidly evolving nature of early Mormon theology, worship, and social practices (to say nothing of maintaining their own family relationships in the face of such intense travel schedules and prolonged absences from kin) in often haphazard fashion; a new revelation or transformation seemingly awaiting them at the end of each journey. Historians of Mormon thought and theology, lived religion, and missionary work will all especially want to read this book.

While there is thus much to praise in The Apostle Paul of Mormonism and I heartily recommend it to all interested readers, it does have some shortcomings. As mentioned above, Givens and Grow succeed in explicating and expanding on the “many interesting items” from Pratt’s life and connecting them to larger developments in Mormon thought and practice. Their praiseworthy efforts are sometimes uneven, though, and several seemingly significant subjects are left under-explored or almost ignored altogether. While the authors succeed in exploring the dynamics of Pratt’s polygamous marriages and family life (spending an entire chapter on it), their analysis of Parley’s views on race leave something to be desired, with commentary popping up intermittently throughout the book and never with much more than a sentence or paragraph of sustained attention. This is an odd omission in light of Pratt’s interactions with native peoples of all sorts (in various parts of North America, in Chile, and in California, where he helped oversee Mormon missionary efforts in Hawaii) throughout his life and the attention he regularly gave to “Lamanites” in his public and personal writings. I was also disappointed to see some important secondary sources missing in the book’s endnotes (though that may be the fault of the publisher as much as that of the authors, as extensive endnotes often have to be cut down to make page and/or word limit requirements).  I was quite surprised, though, to find no mention of the papers written and presented under the tutelage of Grow and Givens in the summer of 2009 at BYU (at least that I could find. I’m happy to be corrected on this point). Perhaps such exclusions are no big deal, but for those like myself who turn to the endnotes looking for references to secondary literature and further readings on various topics only briefly discussed in the text, it is somewhat disappointing.

Beyond omissions of this sort, I was left wondering at the book’s end about the significance of Pratt’s life and legacy. It is clear that he left a lasting impact on Mormonism, but I’m less sure what Pratt’s life says about American (religious) history more generally? In the book’s conclusion, the authors do highlight the ways in which Pratt was a living embodiment of sometimes conflicting impulses in the early American republic, but fail to fully connect those discontinuities to larger themes throughout the bulk of the book. Perhaps this was all intentional; the authors set out to write an academic biography of a fascinating figure, and their narrative of his life and legacy is both important and impressive. And perhaps it is also a good thing, raising a whole host of potentially significant and fruitful research questions; on Mormon theologies of race, Mormon missiology, the history and development of Mormon apologetics, and the experience of 19th century Mormons “ungathered” for one reason or another, to name just a few. One thing is sure—those future researchers cannot be excused for not engaging Parley Pratt’s central role and lasting influence on these and a number of other developments in Mormon history.


[1] I should note that I don’t think Givens and Grow intended to portray Pratt as less than likable. In fact, their respect and fondness for him and his contributions to Mormonism is obvious throughout, and they may very well disagree to some extent with my own assessment of Pratt’s personality.

Article filed under Biography Book and Journal Reviews Miscellaneous Theology


  1. the potential of studying the development of Mormon apologists and apologetics

    Amen. We need closer scrutiny of the ways apologetic discourse operates as theological practice. This can be done by examining early apologetic exchanges (as G&G do in this book with Pratt) as well as more recent examples like Stephen Robinson’s work and stuff from FARMS, etc. The shifting of roles is interesting, the “lay apologist” verses apologetic discourse by Pratt, as well as a few recent conference addresses by Elder Holland, etc.

    the most important contribution The Apostle Paul of Mormonism makes to the prevailing historiography is providing a non Joseph Smith-centric narrative

    Well said. The Mormonism of the outliers, and arguments over how accurate it is to view such outliers as peripheral, etc. Great paragraph.

    Weren’t participants of the summer seminar mentioned in the acknowledgements?

    about American (religious) history more generally?

    I got the feeling the book was already longer than what the publisher might have liked, and while I think this is an important question I think the Pratt bio can be used as a good source from which that particular question can be addressed in journal publications, etc. As for the legacy of Pratt in general I thought the ending was truncated a bit too much, I would have liked a bit more discussion on the ongoing usage of Pratt in contemporary Mormonism, in addition to situating him within wider American religious history. Like you said, “raising a whole host of potentially significant and fruitful research questions.”

    Nice review.

    Comment by BHodges — March 29, 2012 @ 8:07 am

  2. Very nice, Chris. Thanks for the review. I agree that we need more solid “counternarratives” that allow us to de-center the Joseph-centric accounts that have predominated. While there are other such accounts, mostly in the form of biographies, this is certainly the most academically-rigorous one that I can think of. It’s disappointing that the authors didn’t engage race in a significant fashion. How do they do on gender? You mention that they have an entire chapter on PPP’s wives and families–do they utilize the literature on women, gender, and sexuality to enrich the discussion?

    Comment by David G. — March 29, 2012 @ 9:07 am

  3. Thanks, Blair. And no, the summer seminar participants aren’t mentioned in the (unusually brief) acknowledgments.

    Thanks, David. I agree that it’s too bad that race didn’t receive more attention. It shows up throughout the book, but never with sustained analysis. The chapter on Pratt’s families is really good in the sense that it provides a fascinating portrait of how polygamous marriages operated, and more importantly, how those with often absentee fathers and husbands (due to missionary travels) functioned. Givens and Grow obviously benefitted from and utilized the existing literature on the subject to ground their narrative, but there’s not much direct engagement with the gendered and sexual dynamics of polygamous families.

    Comment by Christopher — March 29, 2012 @ 2:13 pm

  4. Wonderful review, Chris; I think you do a splendid job at pointing out the virtues and shortcomings of the book.

    Comment by Ben P — March 29, 2012 @ 4:05 pm

  5. Great review, Christopher. Thanks for posting it. I’m always interested in collaborative research/writing projects. How well do you think they succeeded in that collaboration?

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 29, 2012 @ 6:38 pm

  6. Thanks, Ben and J.

    Overall, I think they did really well, J. Both are good writers so there’s not much noticeable change when one takes the lead on a chapter here or there, though knowing each’s research interests and expertise, it’s not difficult to discern which author wrote certain chapters and which handled others.

    Comment by Christopher — March 29, 2012 @ 7:39 pm

  7. Thanks Chris

    Comment by Steve Fleming — March 30, 2012 @ 1:15 am

  8. Chris,

    Thanks for the generous review of the book. I think you capture nicely what we hoped to do with our narrative (i.e., a non-Joseph-centric narrative of early Mormonism, which Pratt, with his almost continual travels, portrays well). And I appreciate the other thoughtful comments.

    A couple of thoughts: in this day of easy-to-search electronic databases and other such resources, I don’t find it particularly necessary to have long endnotes listing every available source on a particular topic. They’re somewhat nice for the serious researcher, but not relevant to most readers. I don’t think secondary sources, even important ones, should be listed just to be listed (and to show that the author is aware of them, has read them, etc.)–rather, they should be listed if they either directly inform the text or indirectly but substantially inform the context for the text and the thinking of the authors. And, yes, our acknowledgments are sparse (generally just mentioning people who gave substantial research support or who read the manuscript or portions of it–I’m personally not a big fan of the list-everybody-with-whom-you’ve-ever-discussed-anything-in-the-book in the acknowledgments), but it would have been a good idea to specifically mention the participants in the summer seminar, which I very much enjoyed.

    It’s probably true that we could have done more on race, particularly Pratt’s views on African Americans. But I do think we cover in different sections his significant and evolving views on Lamanites/Indians and what that meant for larger Mormon views on the topic. And I think it’s these racial views of Lamanites/Indians that were by far the most significant in Pratt’s thought.

    I think there’s an inherent tension in a biography between the individual’s story and the effort to shed light on a larger context. Certainly, we hoped to place Pratt in the broader contexts of American religious history, western history, the history of Christian theology, etc. Often times, I think this context is somewhat implicit–it informs the biography, it shapes the biography, but the arguments growing out of it aren’t always explicit (so as to not get in the way of the unfolding story of Pratt’s life). For instance, when discussing plural marriage, I don’t think that an explicit theoretical discussion of the gendered dynamics of polygamous families would have been particularly helpful in the text of the biography, but the literature on it certainly shapes the narrative.


    Comment by Matt — March 30, 2012 @ 7:24 am

  9. Matt — I always find it interesting how scholars approach biography. In the field of women’ s studies, there has been a significant debate in recent years over the nature of biography and whether or not it can be integrated into feminist scholarship. Any walk through a bookstore shows the problem with most biographies — they create the illusion that great men and women are exceptional people who are able to accomplish great feats out of shear genius of will. This approach obscures the power dynamics that allowed such people to succeed. Feminists have tried to reclaim the genre by arguing for a biography which uses individual lives as a lens to view their cultural and historical context. Linda Colley’s book on Elizabeth Marsh and Allan Greer’s book on Catherine Tekakwitha are excellent examples.

    What I appreciated about your book is that the family chapter illustrates the importance of polygamy and family in Pratt’s life. Do I wish the power dynamics had been laid more bare? Of course, but that’s not the book you were trying to write. BUT, in response to your post, I do think it’s possible to write a biography in which the gendered (and I should add racial) dynamics of polygamous families are central to the narrative. I actually think such a book is what is ultimately lacking from Mormon Studies. Every Mormon patriarch from Wilford Woodruff to Brigham Young to Parley Pratt relied on the labor of their wives and children to sustain their families in their absence. Parley’s travels would have been impossible without his wives and their reproductive work (and I mean that in the Marxist rather than the biological sense). In writing a biography, a choice has to be made about whether to let the life or the argument dictate the story. In choosing to emphasize the life, you wrote an excellent, readable biography of Pratt. I just wanted to emphasize that it was indeed a choice and the tensions that you mention in your post could have been resolved in a different way in which the arguments about race and gender were paramount. Such a biography would be a very different type of book but it would be no less a biography.

    Comment by Amanda HK — March 30, 2012 @ 8:06 am

  10. Thanks for stopping by and responding, Matt! I think you’re right that much of my critique is a matter of preference, and while I tend to favor more detailed citations and more explicit engagement with historical context and broader themes, I certainly understand your reasons for taking the approach you did. I think Amanda raises some important points, and am glad your book is prompting these sorts of conversations; another reason to sing its praises!

    Comment by Christopher — March 30, 2012 @ 8:40 am

  11. Great review, Chris. I am, as you might guess, very interested in how the book’s narrative handles Pratt’s experiences and perceptions of theology and how those might reflect broader trends of experience for contemporary Saints. From what you say, I may have to move it up in the batting order. Thanks for the insight.

    Comment by Ryan T. — March 30, 2012 @ 11:51 am

  12. […] aside, I read Terryl Givens and Matt Grow’s biography of Parley P. Pratt (see my review here) shortly after completing A Life of Reinvention. In many respects, Pratt possessed a similar place […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Malcolm X and Mormon Studies: A short review and some reflections on comparative religion — April 17, 2012 @ 9:33 pm


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