The Pratt Brothers, the Holy Spirit, and Navigating Materialist Theology

By June 16, 2009

For early Mormon writers, their growing materialist theology brought several theological problems for their rationalistic minds to solve. Placing God within a physical body that takes up physical place perceivably posed threats to God?s omnipotence, omniscience, and, especially, omnipresence. Thus, many were left to determine how a godhead composed of three personages could be everywhere at the same time and have power over everything in the universe. The answer, at least for the Pratt brothers, was a redefinition of the Holy Ghost.

?One personage of the Holy Spirit could not be in two or more places at the same instant,? Orson Pratt reasoned, ?for such a condition is absolutely impossible, for any one person, being or particle.”[1] To counter this, Orson proposed a two-part definition of the Holy Spirit?a ?holy tandem,? if you will. Beyond being seen as ?a Holy Being who constitutes the third person of the Trinity,? it must also be considered as ?an inexhaustible quantity of pure living, intelligent, powerful Substance, diffused through all worlds in boundless space, and capable of filling myriads of tabernacles, and consequently, of assuming their forms.”[2] Thus, in this rational apostle?s mind, the best analogy for understanding the Godhead is one of different containers of water: ?The oneness of the Godhead may be in some measure illustrated by two gallons of pure water, existing in separate vessels, representing the Father and Son, and an ocean of pure water, representing the Holy Ghost.”[3] This provided the Godhead a way to be all-powerful and all-present with the expansive nature of the Holy Spirit.

The Father and Son govern the immensity of creation, not by their own actual presence, but by the actual presence of the Spirit?The persons of the Father and Son can be in heaven, and yet, through the agency of the Spirit, act upon the earth. An omnipresent person is impossible, but an omnipresent substance, diffused through space, is not only consistent, but reasonable.[4]

Parley Pratt picked up on this idea in his theological magnum opus. But Pratt takes it even a step further, not even mentioning the Holy Ghost’s presence as a “personage,” but only as a “divine substance or fluid.” He wrote that ?this substance, like all others, is one of the elements of material or physical existence,? but it ?is widely diffused among the elements of space.? It works under the control of ?the Great Eloheim? serving as the moving act behind all intelligences. It is ?omnipresent by reason of the infinitude of its particles, and it comprehends all things.” Summing it up as ?the attributes of the eternal power and Godhead,” this description seems to come closer to a material version of the Holy Ghost in the Lectures on Faith than to Joseph Smith?s Nauvoo theology.[5]

When writing about the role of ordinances, Parley spoke again on the nature of the third ?member? of the Godhead. He explained that this divine ?substance? could be imparted ?by touch, or by the laying on of hands,? where the holy element could naturally flow from one person to another, reasoning that it ?is as much in accordance with the laws of nature, as for water to seek its own level; air, its equilibrium; or heat, and electricity, their own mediums of conveyance.” The only difference between this spiritual transfer and an electric charge, is that the former is conditional upon the worthiness of the recipient.[6] Thus, for both Parley and Orson, to possess the Holy Spirit meant that your body literally contained this divine substance.

This was also how the Pratt brothers dealt with miracles and spiritual gifts. God could perform miracles, they reasoned, because his spiritual substance could penetrate all matter and than manipulate it to do God’s bidding. All spiritual gifts, whether it be tongues, prophecy, revelation, or healing, occurred because the individual had an added amount of the Holy Spirit that could perform the task necessary.[7] Even the remission of sins came as a result of “the purifying qualities of the Holy Ghost, which, like fire, consumes or destroys the unholy affections of those who are made partakers of it.?[8]

Such an approach is necessary, however, because of the Pratt brother?s strong belief in physical and eternal laws. While many contemporary Protestants argued for a rational theology where God and religion could be understood through common senses, these Mormon theologians took this idea to its apex by proposing a God who must find a way to navigate within these natural laws. The Holy Spirit, he explained, doesn?t obey laws ?passively and blindly,? but rather ?voluntarily and understandingly? because it is aware of its surroundings. In his pamphlet Great First Cause, he even went so far as to claim that this divine substance incorporates all of the eternal boundaries.[9] Thus, the Pratts? God not only follows infinite laws, but in a way possesses them, taking the principle of Baconian to an extent that it would have made Francis Bacon even blush.


[1] Orson Pratt, “The Holy Spirit,” in Orson Pratt, A Series of Pamphlets, 50. There is some debate as to when this pamphlet was first written, some claiming it is 1852 while others say it is 1857 (the masthead says 1852, but there is some suspicion that it is back-dated–mostly because it seems to be quoting from things that first appeared in 1856). This is only significant for those of us who are entranced by influence debates: if it is the earlier date, then Parley is probably taking most of his “spiritual fluid” rhetoric from Orson; if it’s the later date, then it’s probably the other way around. But, for the sake of this post, it really doesn’t matter.

[2] O. Pratt, “The Holy Spirit,” 56.

[3] Orson Pratt, Absurdities of Immaterialism, or, A Reply to T. W. P. Taylder?s Pamphlet, entitled, ?The Materialism of the Mormons or Latter-Day Saints, Examined and Exposed (Liverpool: R. James, 1849), 25.

[4] O. Pratt, Absurdities of Immaterialism, 30.

[5] Parley P. Pratt, The Key to the Science of Theology: Designed as an Introduction to the First Principles of Spiritual Philosophy; Religion; Law and Government; As Delivered by the Ancients, and as Restored in This Age, For the Final Development of Universal Peace, Truth and Knowledge (Liverpool: F. D. Richards, 1855), 39-40.

[6] P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology, 96-97.

[7] See Orson Pratt, “Spiritual Gifts,” in O. Pratt, A Series of Pamphlets, 65.

[8] O. Pratt, “The Holy Spirit,” 58.

[9] Orson Pratt, Great First Cause, or the Self-Moving Forces of the Universe (Liverpool: R. James, 1851), 16.

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


  1. Another interesting post Ben. I am not sure what direction you wanted to take your post, but if you don’t mind I would like to share with you a comment by Peter Crawley that for me captures the Pratt brothers. The quote is from Pete’s intro to “The Essential Parley P. Pratt”.

    “Key to Theology is Mormonism’s earliest comprehensive synthetical work. Its scope is complete….. Unlike the writings of Orson Pratt, Parley’s brother, which are definitive, almost dogmatic, Key to Theology is poetic, allusive, at times ambiguous. It is a masterly book.”

    The subject of the Holy Ghost is fascinating. The historical and theological development of Mormon thought on the Holy Ghost is quite amazing. All the players from Joseph Smith to James Talmage makes for fun history. Have you read Vern Swenson’s article in “Line Upon Line”?

    Comment by Joe Geisner — June 16, 2009 @ 11:55 pm

  2. Thanks for the comment and engagement, Joe. I read Swanson’s piece a couple years ago, but I don’t remember much about it–I’ll have to check it out tomorrow. I agree that the development of the Holy Ghost is fascinating–to be honest, I have no idea how widespread this particular view was held (since Annie Clark Tanner said that Sunday Schools assigned Key to Theology every other year, most must have been exposed to it), or how long it lasted (probably until Talmage). What’s specifically interesting is how Orson and Parley go against Joseph on this topic: Orson reluctantly admits that Joseph was probably right about the Holy Spirit being in part a personage, but Parley doesn’t even do that.

    The comparison between Orson and Parley is an interesting topic in and of itself. Where Orson tried to prove his theological arguments with reason–specifically claiming that his theology could be proven without revelation–Parley saw revelation as something to go hand in hand with empirical knowledge; while ideas just flow out of Parley’s works without any attribution or reference (very frustrating for those of us trying to determine what he is reading and where he is getting his ideas from), Orson’s works quote from, engage, and reference a vast amount of contemporary theological works, revealing how he saw himself as part of a larger philosophical dialogue; where Orson uses mathematical theorems and scientific strategems, Parley opens each of his chapters with poetry.

    Concerning Parley’s Key to Theology, it was by far one of the most fascinating works I have ever read, and probably the most systematic of all his tracts–mostly because he took several years to compose it rather than just locking himself in a room for a few days and cranking out page after page. However, my all-time favorite writing of Parley has to be “Intelligence and Affection”–that piece was as religiously exciting for me as it was academically.

    Comment by Ben — June 17, 2009 @ 12:35 am

  3. I really like your comments in #2. Your enthusiasm for the Pratt’s is quite contagious and exciting. The time you have spent reading and studying their writings is impressive. I have to admit I have not tackled Orson. The volume of his writing and addresses has been over whelming. With Parley I have found him more manageable and interesting.

    I know this is blasphemous, but I find Parley?s analysis on God and the Holy Ghost more satisfying from a theological stand point.

    You write that you are again reading the article by Swanson soon, but the two Orson Pratt quotes Swanson provides are important to your discussion. The first is from Feb.18, 1855 with Orson vacillating: “But I will not say that the Holy Ghost is a personage. . . . I will tell you what I believe in regard to the Holy Ghost’s being a person; but I know of no revelation that states that this is the fact, neither is there any that informs us that it is not the fact, so we are left to form our own conclusions upon the subject. . . . It is in fact, a matter of doubt with many, and of uncertainty, I believe, with all, whether there is a personal Holy Spirit or not . . . consequently I cannot fully make up my mind one way or the other. JofD 2:337-338

    The second from the Millennial Star 12:308, 1851 ?We are not there informed whether the third, called the Holy Spirit is a personage or not.?

    I think the problems with Joseph Smith’s teachings are complex. Much of his teachings those last few years were in private. Also, the lack of documentation, the ambiguity of his teachings, and the precedent of earlier teachings that were Mormon scripture. Swanson goes into detail about this and Brigham Young’s teaching.

    It is all so interesting.Sorry for the long post.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — June 17, 2009 @ 1:48 am

  4. Fascinating. In his 1857 text, “The Holy Spirit,” he quotes from “The History of Joseph Smith” (printed in 1856) a statement where JS said that the HG was a personage, and it is there that he first concedes that the HG could be both a personage and a substance. I wonder if that is the first time he was introduced to that idea.

    (and don’t feel bad about your feelings re: parley and orson’s belief in the HG–at times I feel that temptation as well 🙂 )

    Comment by Ben — June 17, 2009 @ 6:44 am

  5. It was also O. Pratt that edited the HJS on the personage of the Holy Spirit for inclusion in the D&C. The difference between the HJS and the source material there are very interesting, I’m curious as to whether Pratt had access to it (though it doesn’t appear so from his redaction).

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 17, 2009 @ 10:52 am

  6. J: We wondered that very thing, but it looks like the editing was already done in the Manuscript History of the Church by 1854, and he just copied it “as is” into the D&C.

    Comment by Ben — June 17, 2009 @ 10:59 am

  7. I hope you don’t mind my continued commenting on this post. I find it quite enjoyable.

    It seems Smith did not teach the Holy Ghost as personage until Feb. 1841 and March 1841 and is only recorded by William McIntire. Smith’s first public statement was in Jan. 1843 and published in T&S May 1843.

    Even with the 1856 publication of HJS you have Young saying in 1857 Least you should mistake me, I will say that I do not wish you to understand that the Holy Ghost is a personage having a tabernacle like the Father and the Son; but he is God’s messenger that diffuses his influence through all the works of the Almighty. JofD 6:95 George Q. Cannon, B.H. Roberts and others are more explicit about not being a personage right up to the turn of the century, after D&C 130 is published. It is important to note though Young in this quote calls the Holy Ghost a “he” and not an “it”, but in the address he does use “it” at times.

    I found this fascinating quote from Rick Grunder’s “Mormon Parallels”. I did not check all of Rick’s Holy Ghost parallels, but their seems to be quite a number. When you compare this to the Pratt brothers writings the comparison is quite interesting.

    We have too little realized the exceeding love of the Holy Ghost to man. The love of the Father is clear, he spared not his Son; the love of the Son is clear, he died for us; and so let the love of the Divine Spirit be equally dear to us. O how much he has done for us; how ready he is to do all things in us! Who was it raised up all the righteous men of old to be our patterns? Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Prophets, Kings, Apostles, Martyrs, in every age. Who was it raised them up to maintain the truth for us??the Holy Ghost. Who inspired the whole Bible in every jot and tittle??the Holy Ghost. By whom did the Virgin Mary conceive our Divine Redeemer??by the power of the Holy Ghost. Who raised him from the dead??he was quickened by the Spirit. Who called forth witnesses in each age of the Church of Christ; Christian fathers, Waldenses, Lollards, Reformers, Puritans, and faithful men to this day??the Holy Ghost has thus blessed the world, and conveyed to us the truths of God. [p. 38] THE TIME TO FAVOUR ZION; By the Rev. E. Bickersteth, 1840.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — June 17, 2009 @ 1:44 pm

  8. Fascinating, Joe. As I mentioned above, I am pretty ignorant as to how the Holy Ghost was viewed in Utah during the same period, so I found BY’s statement interesting. It is really a puzzle how these guys used (or didn’t use) JS’s (albeit few) statements on the matter. So many questions/issues relating to early Mormon intellectual development.

    And the excerpt from Bickersteth is nothing short of awesome.

    Comment by Ben — June 17, 2009 @ 2:32 pm

  9. Noah Worcester, a highly influential Unitarian or binitarian-leaning innovator of the early 1800s, devised a system whereby the Son could be a completely separate personage distinct from the Father (created after and by the Father), and yet still be divine through literal inheritance. Worcester also offered an early-Mormon-style view of the Holy Spirit as extremely important and the medium of God’s power, but not a personage. The following excerpt does not contain Worcester’s full explanation of the Holy Spirit, but it does include a water analogy . . .

    If it were admitted [for the sake of argument], that the term God means three self-existent Persons, even on that supposition the phrase, the Spirit of God, would not imply that the Spirit is one of those Persons, but it would be the Spirit of three Persons.

    If the Holy Spirit be a self-existent Person distinct from the Father, it is doubtless an important truth, and one which we should not expect would have been unrevealed until the taking place of the Gospel dispensation. . . . [pp. 125 26]

    We are required to love the Father, and to love the Son, as two distinct Persons; but where do you find any requirement to love the Spirit as a Person distinct from the Father or the Son? Not in the Bible.
    . . . . .
    We have an account, in the visions of John, of the Throne of God and of the Lamb; but does John make any mention of the Throne of the Holy Ghost? Or is there any intimation in the Bible, that the Spirit, as a Person, has a Throne in Heaven? [p. 139]

    Such a Trinity in unity as appears to be represented in the Scriptures, may be illustrated by the following simile?

    Suppose [i.e., imagine] a FOUNTAIN OF LIVING WATERS, a necessary MEDIUM OF EFFUSION, or display, and an abundant STREAM proceeding from the Fountain through the Medium, and spreading far and wide, producing the most beneficial effects—

    Let this FOUNTAIN be supposed to represent the “ONE GOD, the FATHER, of whom are all things.” In this fountain we may contemplate infinite intelligence, almighty power, and unbounded benevolence—

    Let the MEDIUM represent the “ONE LORD JESUS CHRIST, by whom are all things.” Let this Medium be [p. 140 ends] considered as an intelligent Being truly derived from God before the worlds, in one view properly distinct from the Father, and in another view perfectly united by the indwelling of Divine fulness?

    Let the STREAM, proceeding from the Fountain through the Medium, represent the HOLY SPIRIT, which proceedeth from the Father, through the Son, and operates through the universe.

    Does not this illustration preserve the most perfect unity in God, exalt the Son as Lord of all, and help us to an easy and natural construction of all that is said in the Scriptures of the Holy Spirit?

    In this view of the Trinity, may we not properly ascribe the attributes of Deity either to the Father, the Son, or the Holy spirit, and yet avoid even the appearance of having more Gods than one, or more than one self-existent Person? The Father who is God in the Fountain, is God in the Medium, and God in the Stream; or to drop the metaphor, God the Father is God in the Son and God in the Holy Ghost. [pp. 140-41]

    ? Noah Worcester, BIBLE NEWS, OF THE FATHER, SON, AND HOLY SPIRIT. In a Series of Letters. In Four Parts. . . . Concord [New Hampshire]: Printed by George Hough, 1810.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — June 17, 2009 @ 7:56 pm

  10. 0. very nice.
    1. for what it’s worse I think JSJ understood some cross between patriarchal priesthood and light in those terms and did adamantly embody the Paraclete. doesn’t make pratts wrong but i think we should get facts straight.
    2. this was a common belief in a variety of traditions. not to flog the Swedish horse, but this is ES’s correspondence which he equates with HG. I think Eastern Orthodox reads him that way, and so do various western traditions. i’d want you to contextualize this more.
    3. there’s a lot written about pneumatology; probably worth situating there (my Kittel’s has 120 single space tiny font pages on it, e.g.)

    Comment by smb — June 17, 2009 @ 9:18 pm

  11. Thanks, Rick; you always bring up the best contemporary sources.

    Sam: thanks on all 4 accounts, especially in bringing up more context. I didn’t give this post (or it’s topic) any more than just an afternoon’s thought, so I haven’t even considered contextualizing this theme (and I don’t plan on spending any more time on it), but if I wanted to look at it anymore I will definitely take up your suggestions.

    It’s always great to have such able historians comment on these posts.

    Comment by Ben — June 17, 2009 @ 9:58 pm

  12. Ben, These are great insights. It is so difficult to sort out who influenced whom in the development of Mormon Theology. I’m struck by Mary Ann Sterns Winters’ account of her mother’s marriage to Parley P. Pratt in Kirtland and the journey of the family to New York to serve a mission. Mary Ann implies in her account that her mother played a significant role in helping write A Voice of Warning. “During these times I would have to sit down and keep very still, and I heard the whole of that book read before it ever was printed. . . . I must not make a noise to distrub them . . . I understood they were writing a book about the gospel–and I did try my very best to be a good little girl and do just what was required of me, in self control.”

    Comment by Mark Staker — June 24, 2009 @ 9:39 am

  13. In reading the above, one of my favorite Brigham Young quotes came to mind (JD 4:266):

    We have no light, no power at present, only what is given to us. Brother Hyde calls it borrowing, but I call it a free gift, or begging. The Lord’s giving does not diminish His fountain of spirit that our philosopher brother Orson Pratt speaks of, that he believes occupies universal space, or, in other words, that universal space is filled with, and that every particle of it is a Holy Spirit, and that spirit is all powerful and all wise, full of intelligence and possessing all the attributes of all the Gods in eternity. I hardly dare say what I think and what I know, but that theory, though apparently very plausible and beautiful, is not true, for it is, or would be contradicted by the Prophets, by Jesus and the Apostles, and by all good men who understand the principles of eternity, both those who have lived and are now living on the earth. Brother Hyde was upon this same theory once, and in conversation with brother Joseph Smith advanced the idea that eternity or boundless space was filled with the Spirit of God, or the Holy Ghost. After portraying his views upon that theory very carefully and minutely, he asked brother Joseph what he thought of it? He replied that it appeared very beautiful, and that he did not know of but one serious objection to it. Says brother Hyde, “What is that?” Joseph replied, “it is not true.”

    Comment by Curtis — June 24, 2009 @ 1:49 pm

  14. Good ‘ol Brigham. We could make a whole collection of things he claimed came out of JS’s mouth.

    But the Holy Spirit was definitely one of the main points of debate between Orson and BY (as portrayed in Bergera’s book). The question is, why did BY get after OP concerning it, but never Parley? Perhaps it’s because PP was killed before he could be chastised. It is interesting how OP obviously knew about JS’s teachings concerning the Holy Ghost, and therefore felt bound to at least acknowledge it as a personage along with the voluminous spirit.

    Comment by Ben — June 24, 2009 @ 2:48 pm

  15. Mark #12,

    Thanks for pointing out the interesting autobiography quote. It makes you wonder if the two collaborated or if Pratt was working with someone else. Has Crawley said anything about this?

    How is “Hearken O Ye People” doing? I look forward to reading the book. Did you have access to the BCR in your research on the Ohio revelations?


    I personally like Crawley’s explanation that Young had little to no problem with Parley because his writings were allusive while Orson’s were dogmatic. “Key” was printed three more times and “Voice” four more times between 1857-1877 while Young was alive. Nothing from Orson between 1857-1877.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — June 24, 2009 @ 9:54 pm

  16. Joe,

    Yes, I had access to transcripts from the BCR while doing my book but I did not cite them because I did not know when the existence of that material would be announced. I was able to cite Bob Woodford’s publication that provided correct dates for the revelations and I drew from other manuscript copies of the revelations that reflected the content of the BCR. (The book focused more on the context rather than the content of the revelations, however, which I could deal with without citing the material. If I did so effectively remains to be seen.)

    Comment by Mark Staker — June 25, 2009 @ 10:37 am

  17. Thank you Mark.

    I look forward to reading your book. I am sure I will learn plenty. Has Greg given you any idea when the book will be available. I have my order in place.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — June 25, 2009 @ 11:45 pm

  18. #13: this actually sounds correct to me.

    Comment by smb — July 2, 2009 @ 11:19 am

  19. Orson Pratt’s pamphlet entitled “The Holy Spirit” was not part of “A Series of Pamphlets.” The first footnote is wrong. It was published by itself in Liverpool, on “November 15, 1856.”

    (See and )

    Orson Pratt published an article bearing the same name in the Millennial Star, vol. 12, no. 20 (15 Oct. 1850), pp. 305-09; and in no. 21 (1 Nov. 1850), pp. 325-28.

    The Pratts first began publishing their philosophical ideas about matter and spirit in The Prophet (25 May 1844 – 24 May 1845), and its successor, The New-York Messenger (5 July 1845 – 15 Dec. 1845). Also of interest is Orson Pratt’s “Prophetic Almanac, for 1846” (c. 1845), which on these subjects is mostly a duplicate of what is found in the two just-mentioned periodicals.

    Parley P. Pratt also published a couple of essays in Nauvoo entitled “Immortality and Eternal Life of the Material Body” and “Intelligence and Affection.”

    I think it’s good to read all of these earlier things first, to get a better understanding of how the beliefs of the Pratt brothers evolved into their view of the impersonal Holy Spirit that Brigham Young condemned.

    Some of the deeper mysteries about intelligence (or “the Holy Spirit,” as the Pratt’s called it), are revealed in an address by Willard Richards, which he gave to the University of Deseret, 17 April 1850. He published his address twice in pamphlet form, and it was also published by Orson Hyde in Frontier Guardian, vol. 2, no. 21 (Kanesville: 13 Nov. 1850), p. [1]. I believe that Richards most likely learned these things firsthand from Joseph Smith. What is taught in there, in my opinion, solves the problem that the Pratt’s couldn’t seem to figure out.

    Comment by John A. Coltharp — January 2, 2011 @ 1:20 am

  20. Thanks for stopping by John, and thanks for pointing out the “Holy Spirit” reference. I actually fixed it later on when I was preparing excerpts of this for publication.

    And I am well aware of the broader written corpus of the Pratt brothers–thanks.

    Comment by Ben — January 2, 2011 @ 3:48 am


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