Parley P. Pratt offered a detailed look at the post-life spirit world

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 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.

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19 Responses to Parley P. Pratt offered a detailed look at the post-life spirit world

  1. Gregory A. Clark says:

    “A healthier meal”? Who could possibly swallow this? Wait. Don’t answer that. ;)

    Pratt’s spirit world is a complete fantasy, with not a shred of empirical evidence to support it. The column is a well-written, well-researched historical piece–on the powers and psychology of self-delusion, and its subsequent institutionalization.

    Whether that delusion is better termed “theology” or “religion” is left as an exercise for the reader. ;)

    • Doug Gibson says:

      Greg, I appreciate the comment. I have a question after reading it. Is there any religion or theology that espouses an afterlife, or existence where spirits congregate, that you would regard as not delusional?

      • Mark Sparkman says:

        Well said, my friend. There seem to me to be three choices in this realm of thought: Organized religion. Deism, or Atheism. Perhaps agnosticism falls in there. But so many of your critics wish to disprove one mythology with another — a fool’s errand, which I’m guessing you were looking to pre-empt here.

      • Florence says:

        Call it delusional if you will, however LDS Elder
        [Pratt's] observations “ring true” as far as
        “been through hell, trying to make it to heaven”.
        Many [Free Masons Alc-hemists] employ “strong-
        drink” {i.e. Alcohol} that deal primarily with
        “binge drinking on a mission”.
        A time to differentiate clean “spirits” from the
        lesser grade “impure spirits”, that when utilized
        properly may communicate with other realms,
        dominions and sphere’s.
        After the [mission] of liquor consumption is abated,
        a “post cognitive recollection skill” may be had and
        future “recalls” of space and time only requires
        a couple of beers, a cassette recorder, and an
        [Easy Boy Rocker]. “Recovered [AA]” & C.T.R.

        Thanks Doug

  2. Lucky Jack says:

    With no earthly evidence of Pratt’s post life spirit world, one must assume it is merely wishful thinking on his part. If one is merely making up in one’s mind, a vision of what one would hope an after life would be like, he could have done much better than a world of eternal punishment, rehabilitation, and missionary work.

    If one is going to just make up a post life spirit world that has a purpose of eternal progress for the individual spirit, Michael Newton’s books Journey Of Souls and Destiny Of Souls, both paint a picture of a post life spirit world, and earthly world as well, that have much greater potential for happiness and progress without so much need for punishment to help the individual learn lessons and progress.

    I certainly can not know what Mr. Pratt’s intentions were with the teaching of Joseph Smith’s post life spirit world. I can say, however, that it was obviously a poor effort to make improvements on the Catholic and Protestant versions of it. Leaving still many holes in the plan and creating still far too much focus on punishment in place of progress, and endless efforts of missionary work in a place that an omniscient god should certainly have more effective and less boring, mundane forms of teaching truths to spirits that are in a place of punishment due mostly to a lack of access to truths and proper upbringing in the first place.

    I guess what I am getting at is this. Why do we continue to study teachings that produce no actual earthly good while being inferior to other placebic fantasies?

  3. rls says:

    – one thing i’ve learned in this life: i’ve gained more happiness serving others than i ever have serving myself — why should the rules of happiness change after physical death? — as long as we exist, either physically or spiritually, our greatest joy will come in seeking the welfare of others, and they ours –

  4. Gregory A. Clark says:

    Oops, sorry for the delay, Doug. Too many other posts elsewhere. ;)

    Probably not. Granted, “delusion” is a strong word, so I might scale it down a bit for some versions of what people believe. But when the after-life is populated with all the specifics that PPP provides, the word “delusion” plausibly applies.

    Of course, deliberate “deceit” is also possible. And it often is the case.

    But many other times, the faithful are in good part lying to themselves. They have to, in order to believe. Which is why religion poisons [almost] everything. Or “theology,” if you prefer. ;) It’s the willful abrogation of reality. You rightly wouldn’t give a column inch to a reporter who claimed to have divined a factual news story by looking into his hat. But millions give 10% of their income on just that basis. Go figure.

    Your column here doesn’t provide much sense as to how PPP claimed to know what he claimed. Other than his “I suppose.”

    Which ain’t quite much of anything.

    On a semantic note, psychiatry gives a formal pass in applying “delusion” to counterfactual beliefs caused by assimilation of common religious beliefs. Those beliefs aren’t delusional in the sense being due to an individual’s own genuine mental illness. They’re due to indoctrination instead.

    But they’re counterfactual just the same.

    • trytoseeitmyway says:

      The arrogance of the empiricist is to deny reality (it’s “counterfactual,” he says) to anything that isn’t subject to empirical analysis or proof (or refutation, to be technical about it).

      So a caterpillar empiricist would tell you that butterflies are counterfactual. It’d be wrong, of course. We know that because we have a perspective from outside a caterpillar’s empirical universe.

      • Lucky Jack says:

        Cognitive dissonance is the creator of terrible analogies. Caterpillars and butterflies exist on the same empirical plane. Humans, and empirically non existent spirits and angels, do not.

  5. laverl09 says:

    Doug, thanks for posting Parley Pratt’s view of the spirit world. He and the other Pratts are among my favorite LDS theologians. It’s only logical that there is a spirit world for us to go to to continue our work started here on the physical world so that ALL those who didn’t have a chance to be exposed to the teachings of Jesus here can have that opportunity there. It wouldn’t be fair to judge people for not accepting Jesus if they have never heard of him. This is one of the basic tenets of Mormonism that is VERY attractive to me.
    One point Pratt makes that I take exception to is that our memory of our premortal life will be restored as soon as we die. And I’m not alone in this:
    Neal Maxwell says:
    “The memories of the first estate are not accessible in the second estate.” [That Ye May Believe. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1992, pp. 93-94]
    “The veil of forgetfulness of the first estate apparently will not be suddenly, automatically, and totally removed at the time of our temporal death. This veil, a condition of our entire second estate, is
    associated with and is part of our time of mortal trial, testing, proving, and overcoming by faith—and thus will continue in some key respects into the spirit world.” (The Promise of Discipleship, p. 111).
    The reason that I go along with a continuation of the veil of forgetfulness in the spirit world is that if we could all of a sudden know all we knew before we came to this earth, there would be no test of our faith. This component is needed in the spirit world as well for those who have not yet had a chance to learn the Gospel and make decisions that will determine if they are willing to “accept” Christ’s teachings or “reject” them.

    • Lucky Jack says:

      The “test of our faith” concept is proven wrong every day here in the real world. Many people are shown the truth about cigarettes and cancer yet, many still chose to disobey the warnings and smoke cigarettes. Many are shown the dangers of unprotected sex yet, many still chose to have unprotected sex and have to deal with unwanted pregnancies and STDs. So it stands to reason that even if god did exist, and he did reveal all truths to his children, it stands to reason that it would still take discipline and “faith” to follow truth rather than one’s own desires. The “facts” have never been a sure protection against folly. That’s where the whole “Invisible god for the sake of faith” idea falls short.

    • Doug Gibson says:

      Thanks for sharing the Maxwell quote.

  6. M.D. says:

    Empiricists usually criticize those who have faith by arguing that the faithful lack credible evidence for their belief. They may criticize those who have faith for being “delusional,” “deceitful” etc., but just because they don’t see any evidence doesn’t mean there is none for those who believe. The fact is, those who have faith and believe in God do so because they have (for themselves) spiritual evidence that God exists.

    Before you start yelling at me (please, can’t we all be nice?), think of this: what is color? Does color exist? I would say so. I see it. You may or may not see it. Yet, you could argue color is not real; it’s just an illusion or delusion of the mind. Let me explain. Your retina has 3 types of cone cells, each is most receptive to 3 different wavelengths of light ranging from about 400-700nm. Those cone cells are connected to bipolar cells, ganglion cells etc., which send electrochemical signals to the optic nerve. The input is then sent through the thalamus into the visual cortex. Your brain interprets those signals from the cones (which it has gathered from the outside world that is colorless) and combines it with prior information it knows about the world to create colors.

    In fact, all of the information that we experience through our senses has to be interpreted by our brain. You wouldn’t doubt that the keyboard in front of your computer exists. You can touch it. You can type words with it. You can smash it into little pieces if you want. The same is true for those with faith. They’ve had an experience with the divine. They’ve felt its presence. It has been interpreted by the brain just like any other sensation. If indeed there was something divine out there, and you could experience it, wouldn’t it be the brain that experiences it just like it experiences flavor, color, pleasure and pain?

    Please, respect those who believe. You may not know what “proof” they have that they are not willing to share with those who would only mock them or say they are delusional. It is written in 1 Corinthians, “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

  7. Brother Florence says:

    A good education causeth the Alchemist to hold close to his
    stalwart testimony of [Jesus the Christ], a good stout cup of
    (tm)Maxwell House; and the impherical “Proof” found in the
    unimbodied spirit forms in an [Assembly of Spirits].

    Keep Coming back. It works if you work it.

  8. Gregory A. Clark says:

    Oh my. So many words, so little evidence. But that’s no surprise. There is no objective empirical evidence to be had–for the afterlife reports of Sylvia Browne, or those of Pratt. And of course, the “faith” argument applies just as much to her, as to him. Hand over your money folks. Both were happy to take it.

    But, evidence or not, believers will trumpet their faith just the same. Like this:


    It would be difficult to construct a more damning description of faith. Yet Doug’s position is all too common.

    Faith is what takes an intelligent, otherwise thoughtful man and causes him to willfully, deliberately disregard objective, external reality, causes him to reject empirical evidence as “irrelevant.” No matter how compelling that evidence is.

    Faith is deliberate self-deception; it is sanctified self-delusion.

    Don’t get your magic undies all in a wad, faithful ones. The term is apt. Delusion, by definition, is “is a belief held with strong conviction despite superior evidence to the contrary.”

    Or, as Twain wrote, “faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” In life, as well as in science, that’s not a virtue. That’s a vice.

    To wit: Apply Doug’s same standards and criteria to the delusional Pentecostal snake handler who just died—because of his faith in Jesus.

    After all, ’twas the Christ Himself who said, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name… They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them.”

    So, by using Doug’s criteria and standards, no matter how many people die from snake bite, their “faith” remains just the same.

    Delusion is belief in the counterfactual. The term certain applies to such faith. Faith is willful self-delusion.

    Of course there is brain activity associated with perception. Big deal. There is also brain activity associated with dreams and hallucinations.

    But that does NOT mean that those hallucinations—no matter how real they are *subjectively* to the person who experiences them—reflect an *external* reality. Further, one can readily and objectively verify the energy of different wavelengths both visible to humans and invisible to us. There is no comparable objective “spiritual energy.” The comparison between the two is as vacuous as a promise from Jesus.

    The Bible is not evidence. It is the claim.

    So, riddle me this: Why is Doug’s faith—or yours–that a convicted fraudster can divine the history of the Americas by looking into a hat any less delusional than the faith of the Pentecostal preacher? In reality, there is far greater evidence for at least a weak placebo effect (which has nothing to do with Jesus) than there is for the bogus civilizations that Smith fabricated.

    The deeper question is, do you believe Jesus? Or is he just another holy hypocritical huckster, like Joseph Smith?

    Stated another way, is Christ really your LORD and Savior? Or is he just dirty “swine,” a lying “dog”?

    To use the words of the Christ himself. So don’t blame me. I’m just following in the footsteps of the only perfect man to walk the earth. By *your* standards and criteria.

    So step right up. If you believe Jesus, show YOUR real faith, everyone.

    Here’s the deal. I make the poison. You drink it. If you believe in Jesus, it won’t harm you. He said so Himself. Just the same way He said He will grant you eternal life. And the perfect Jesus wouldn’t lie, would He? Would He?

    Any takers? Or are you all….How shall I put it:

    “Cowards.” And “cockroaches.” To borrow the vocabulary of a distinguished journalist.

    The likely reality is, when put to the test, even M.D. won’t show his faith. After all, docs make their living off the fact that Jesus’ promise of faith-healing is a worthless hoax. Even M.D. wouldn’t have the “foolishness” to put his faith to the test, even to help convert this unbeliever, bring me to Christ, and save my soul. Would he?

    Time will tell. Their real answers, and real faith, will be on display for all to see.

    • Ephriam Wordsmith says:

      Latter Day Saint Article of Faith {transliterated}:

      We believe that through the atonement of [Christ], all
      Men may be saved by obedience to the [laws] and
      Ordinances of the gospel.

      So you see. The door that we go “out”, of is the door
      that we [come] “in”.

  9. Gregory A. Clark says:

    Edit to the above. (Doug’s statement was missing. Or apparently missing. But maybe not. After all, absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. ;) )

    Oh my. So many words, so little evidence. But that’s no surprise. There is no objective empirical evidence to be had–for the afterlife reports of Sylvia Browne, or those of Pratt. And of course, the “faith” argument applies just as much to her, as to him. Hand over your money folks. Both were happy to take it.

    But, evidence or not, believers will trumpet their faith just the same. Like this:

  10. Gregory A. Clark says:

    Try try again.
    …Like this:

    Doug Gibson: “My beliefs are based solely on faith. Any discussions of empirical evidence is pop discussion, fun but not relevant.”

    • Zen Wordsmith says:

      A head-hunting cannible reports back to his fellow tribes-
      man, and proclaims to the clan:
      “I have captured a [Christian] Minister, and I do believe that
      he is ready for the “slice and dice!”
      A brute of a fellow in the back of the meat rack joyfully replies:
      “Great” licking his chops, “I have never tasted the likes of a
      bologna and turkey sandwich before!!”

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