Today, as an LDS leader, Parley P. Pratt is mostly mentioned and taught as a subject of history, but not theology. We see his much-read, edited autobiography, as well as a little-read scholarly biography, on book shelves, and his name is listed as the author of several songs in the LDS hymn book.
Pratt was more than that, of course. In the 19th century his books on theology, available free on the web today, were required reading for serious church members. In the first decades of the church, Pratt used the power of the then-still embryonic printing press to great advantage to spread Mormonism. He printed broadsides that served as rebuttals to preachers’ attacks on Mormonism, he printed accounts of Mormons’ grievances in conflicts in Missouri and other locations, and he was a featured player in the young church’s foray into magazines. Today, with printed press still ubiquitous and even obsolete to some, it can be difficult to comprehend the power in the 1830s of holding a pamphlet, broadside, periodical or book that preserved theological ideas.
There’s a convenient website to learn about Pratt. It’s at http://jared.pratt-family.org/ I peruse it often, eager to learn more about this amazing man, who lived a half a century and died a violent death, pursued by a cuckold whose wife he had married. (Brigham Young referred to Pratt’s activities as “whoring,” but there was no prurience in Pratt’s actions. His theology on earth saw no conflict in taking the unhappy wife, and Mormon convert, of a drunken spousal abuser as his own plural wife. His placid acceptance of his own violent death adds support to this assessment.)
Pratt’s writings on the post-life spirit world, while not often cited today, clearly laid a framework for how the spirit world is taught today in the LDS Church. It’s key to understand that to be “active” in the Mormon church requires service. And there’s no defined approved amount of service. Example: at our ward conference on Sunday, our stake president definitively told the congregation that more service is needed. Further explanation: as Pratt taught years ago, Mormonism believes that every person on earth needs to be taught the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As with many other Christian religions, Mormons are taught that every person who has lived on earth will accept Christ as his or her savior.
Almost 161 years ago, Pratt laid out the spirit world in a General Conference address on April 7, 1853, in Salt Lake City. Pratt described the spirits that left life as “organized intelligences,” created long before they entered and departed earth, a second estate to Mormons. Pratt taught that the spirit, being material, contained the shape and characteristics of a mortal body. The spirit also retained what we had learned in the first estate (pre-existence) and the second estate (earth). These characteristics included knowledge, emotions, passions, beliefs, and vices.
In the discourse, he says: “Let a given quantity of this element, thus endowed, or capacitated, be organized in the size and form of man, let every organ be developed, formed, and endowed, precisely after the pattern or model of man’s outward or fleshly tabernacle, what would we call this individual organized portion of the spiritual element?
“We would call it a spiritual body; an individual intelligence; an agent endowed with life, with a degree of independence, or inherent will; with the powers of motion, of thought, and with the attributes of moral, intellectual, and sympathetic affections and emotions.
“We would conceive of it as possessing eyes to see, ears to hear, hands to handle, as in possession of the organ of taste, of smelling and of speech.
“Such beings are we, when we have laid off this outward tabernacle of flesh. We are in every way interested, in our relationships, kindred ties, sympathies, affections, and hopes as if we had continued to live, but had stepped aside, and were experiencing the loneliness of absence for a season. Our ancestors, our posterity, to the remotest ages of antiquity, or of future time, are all brought within the circle of our sphere of joys, sorrows, interests, or expectations; each forms a link in the great chain of life, and in the science of mutual salvation, improvement, and exaltation through the blood of the Lamb.”
(Pratt also taught what Mormons are taught today, that after we die, the “veil,” which prevented a knowledge of our first estate — thereby allowing free agency — is lifted, and we recall our entire existence. )
But, getting back to the spirit world, Pratt describes it as having “many places” and “degrees.” Mormons like to use the terms “Paradise,” where more-righteous exist, and “spirit prison,’ where unrighteous spirits reside. Pratt describes it in deeper terms. The more unrighteous a person is in the spirit world, the longer the sinner’s wait — in darkness and misery — before he or she receive education, and ultimately accepts the Gospel.
Here is how Pratt describes the lowest degrees of the spirit world: “I will suppose, in the spirit world, a grade of spirits of the lowest order, composed of murderers, robbers, thieves, adulterers, drunkards, and persons ignorant, uncultivated, etc., who are in prison, or in hell, without hope, without God, and unworthy as yet of gospel instruction. Such spirits, if they could communicate, would not tell you of the resurrection, or of any of the gospel truths; for they know nothing about them. They would not tell you about heaven, or priesthood, for in all their meanderings in the world of spirits, they have never been privileged with the ministry of a holy priest. If they should tell all the truth they possess, they could not tell much.”
Ultimately, as Pratt and current LDS doctrine define, the responsibilities of righteous spirits mandate more service. The second estate is not a period of blissful rest, but more missionary work. In fact, Pratt is a bit prescient in his disdain of today’s pop-fascination with “ghost-hunting,” as well as the fad of spiritualism, which was beginning its long popularity in the mid-19th century. As Pratt explains in his discourse, the righteous spirits have little interest in what occurs on earth; they are far too preoccupied with serving the countless spirits who need assistance.
He even describes what the spirit world must be like for the slain Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith, saying: “… if I were to judge from the acquaintance I had with him in this life, and from my knowledge of the spirit of priesthood I would suppose him to be so hurried as to have little or no time to cast an eye or a thought after his friends on the earth. He was always busy while here, and so are we. The spirit of our holy ordination and anointing will not let us rest. The spirit of his calling will never suffer him to rest, while satan, sin, death or darkness possess a foot of ground on this earth. While the spirit world contains the spirit of one of his friends, or the grave holds captive one of their bodies he will never rest, or slacken his labors.”
Parley P. Pratt envisioned a world of spirits with missionaries, and their superiors, on the run, constantly busy, trying to fulfill what is the mantra of Mormonism’s Heavenly Father, who is quoted in LDS scripture as such, “… this is my work and my glory — to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39, The Pearl of Great Price)
Today’s LDS General Conference sessions often feature shorter, earnest “peanut butter & jelly” speeches that reflect a safer, more cautious era. Pratt’s discourses and writings, while not in variance with the core beliefs of today, provide a rougher, but healthier meal.