As Political Surf readers know, I mentioned the new biography of early Mormon leader Parley P. Pratt, “Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism,” Oxford University Press, 2011, by Terryl L. Givens and Matthew J. Grow, in a previous blog that dealt with Pratt’s death (read). I will be reviewing the biography soon in the print edition of The Standard-Examiner. However, I had the opportunity to ask the authors, Givens and Grow, some questions about Pratt, his contemporaries, and the biography. The results are below:
Q: Did Pratt view his calling in life as an apostle to be as the apostles in the Book of Acts, such as as receiving visions, being persecuted or martyred, as Stephen, performing miracles, debating disbelievers, gathering and counseling members, and preaching without recompense and living in poverty?
A: There is no doubt that Pratt saw his calling as an apostle as consistent with the New Testament pattern of apostleship. He was a fervent restorationist, was convinced that Joseph Smith had received the authority and keys necessary to restore the kingdom of God, and personally experienced those spiritual gifts such as healing that he believed were sure evidence of an authentic restoration. His willingness to leave his family behind time and again to preach the gospel at home and in foreign lands, and suffer persecution and imprisonment for the gospel’s sake, was in part a consequence of the
office he held and the biblical precedent of apostolic sacrifice and martyrdom.
Q: As a premillennialist, did Pratt have any theories as to a particular time Christ was going to return. Would he have been amazed that Christ had not returned by 2011?
A: Pratt’s millennial expectations preceded his conversion to Mormonism, but found particular focus and support from two events. First was his exposure to the Book of Mormon itself-Isaiah’s “ensign to the nations.” Second was its reinforcement of his personal interest in the spiritual destiny of the American Indians. In light of Book of Mormon prophecies, he read the Indian Removal Act of 1830 as a providential episode that heralded the gathering of that segment of Israel, and was convinced the Second Coming was accordingly imminent. Smith’s announcement of the city of Zion to be built further confirmed him in his sense that he was living on the cusp of millennial events.
The failure to realize the promise of Zion in Missouri was devastating to Pratt, as it was to thousands of his co-religionists.
Q: Pratt’s books and pamphlets, although rarely discussed today, are so much a part of Mormonism’s deepest beliefs. Did these emulate mostly from his private talks with Joseph Smith or from his personal study? And did he ever run into conflict on his published doctrine with Brigham Young, as his brother Orson often did?
A: Because so little is recorded of Smith’s Kirtland teachings and personal interactions with other leaders, it is impossible to know how much of Pratt’s writing was directly derivative of Smith’s ideas, and how much was Pratt’s own extrapolation and elaboration of seeds he garnered from Smith and his revelations. Most likely, it was both. Smith did on one occasion complain that Pratt and other “great big
elders” were passing off his ideas as their own. Some later editions of Pratt’s writings had portions edited out, but we found no evidence of Young criticizing any particular ideas of his. Rather, Young recommended Pratt’s writings to others.
Q: Did Brigham Young like Parley P. Pratt? An earlier biography of Pratt (Stanley) claimed the prophet disliked him and kept him away via constant missions?
A: In general, Young and Pratt seem to have had a good relationship, though there were moments of tension and conflict. For instance, during the trek west, Young rebuked Pratt over several issues related to authority and organization of the trek west. In general, though, Young respected Pratt for his preaching and literary talents, as well
as his willingness and ability to take on difficult tasks like the Southern Utah Expedition, and Pratt accepted Young as his quorum president (and later Church president) and looked to him for guidance and advice.
Q: Regarding Pratt’s murder, do you think he wished to be a martyr or had resigned himself to dying when he left the Van Buren jail?
A: The last years of Pratt’s life were marked by disappointment in the millennium deferred, and in the failure of the Saints to attain the high standards expected of them. (Their unwillingness to generously support his missionary endeavors was one factor in that perception). He missed his family terribly during his missions, and was worn out
emotionally and physically. In his final days, he refused to take precautions to defend himself against the man thirsting for his blood, and certainly met his death with uncommon equanimity.
Q: What are some unanswered questions about Parley P. Pratt that are still left to be discovered by historians?
A: One important question relates to your question 3. How much of a role did Pratt have as a catalyst to Joseph Smith’s own expansion of his ideas, especially in regard to human theosis, which Pratt discussed in print long before the King Follett discourse? Another question might be the enduring theological legacy of Pratt’s works. How did Pratt’s books, especially Voice of Warning and Key to the Science of Theology, shape Mormon thought throughout the nineteenth century and the twentieth (and indeed to the present)?