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. 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.
 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.