Givens and Grow‘s account of Pratt the missionary is not only innately interesting, it also invites thoughts about Mormon missionary historiography. Owing to my own background, I am naturally drawn to his British missions. Here is what came to my mind as I read the book:
Susan Easton Black has noted the emphasis on the “American gospel hero” in the histories written about British Mormonism. The story of the apostolic missions is generally told as the story of Heber C. Kimball, Joseph Fielding, Brigham Young, and Wilford Woodruff. Givens and Grow provide no exception, for the American Parley P. Pratt is here the “Apostle to the British.” Theirs is a biography of Pratt, not a history of the British Mission, so this is unavoidable, but still, another mark is entered into the “American gospel hero” column. Alas.
Despite this unavoidable continuation of a type, we do find fresh insights along the way. The description of the “temperate” Joseph Fielding vs. Pratt the aggressive defender of Mormonism (p. 186) offers a glimpse into the different personalities of the Mormon apostles who are too often — especially in hagiographic accounts — painted with the same somewhat two-dimensional brush. In Pratt we also get a view of evangelism that isn’t just the treading of the British countryside. Pratt’s role as a writer of tracts and editor of the Millennial Star is given ample and necessary attention, as is his importance as a hymnist (179-181).
David Morris has noted another bias: “Too frequently attempts by scholars to discuss British Mormonism results in publications that mainly deal with the periods 1837-1838 and 1840-1841 that corresponds with the first two apostolic missions. Subsequently, well-rehearsed and repeated accounts neglect a rich seam that is still waiting to be mined.” For me, the most interesting tale of Pratt the missionary is one that is little known (not being part of the 1837-1838/1840-1841 missions): the scramble to secure the allegiance of the British Saints. The 1845 mission to England and Scotland is given some attention, although I would have liked more.
In Parley P. Pratt the tale of 19th century Mormonism is told and we are fortunate that Givens and Grow have proven to be such able biographers. Pick an issue — the Book of Mormon, Nauvoo polygamy, the European missions, the succession crisis, Utah Territory — and Pratt’s life has something interesting to say.
1. “A Profile of a British Saint 1837–1848,” in Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint. History: British Isles, ed. Donald Q. Cannon (Provo, Utah: Department of Church History).
2. “Book Review: Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint Church History, Volume 7: The British Isles,” in IJMS Volume 1 (2008), 176-183.