Neal W. Kramer is a regular guest contributor to By Common Consent. He is an adjunct faculty member in the department of English at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He is also a member of the Arts and Sciences editorial board at BYU Studies. We thank him for his thoughtful review.
In the early morning hours of 13 May 1857, a tired, solitary, and unarmed released prisoner rode his horse secretly away from Van Buren, Arkansas. The burdens of the past few weeks rested heavily on his shoulders. He had failed in his mission to reunite two children with their mother. Criminal charges had been brought against him and then dropped, but “the South’s extralegal tradition of violence” (374) left him feeling less than safe. Unbeknownst to him, Hector McLean, the children’s father, would leave Van Buren not long thereafter bent on brutal vengeance. McLean and his friends caught up with the man soon enough. McLean fired six shots, each of which missed its mark. He then chased his prey into a thicket of trees, caught him, dragged him from his horse, and stabbed him three times near the heart. A few moments later, McLean returned to the thicket with a derringer and shot his victim in the neck. Satisfied that his honor had been restored, McLean then left Parley P. Pratt in the thicket to die. Pratt survived long enough for someone to find him, tried to arrange some final affairs for his family in Utah, and bore a final testimony. The apostle known to the faithful as The Archer of Paradise then gave up the ghost. One of the great defenders and expounders of Mormonism entered the grave with a note addressed to the Prophet Joseph pinned to his chest.
Terryl L. Givens and Matthew J. Grow, Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 499 pp. Photographs; maps; endnotes; index. Hardback, $34.95, ISBN: 9780195375732.
Soon after his death, Elder Pratt slipped into a narrative about the Church that borders on hagiography. Thankfully, that has now changed. Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism by Terryl L. Givens and Matthew J. Grow adds yet another fine biography to the growing number of books examining early Mormonism and its leaders in what Richard L. Bushman has designated “The Golden Age” of Mormon history. Beautifully written, keenly intelligent, and thorough in its research, this is a book to be savored. Scholars and lay readers alike have known the absence of a biography of Pratt left a gap in our understanding of the early church; Givens and Grow have now shown us just how much of a gap it was. They reveal a man of intense passion, deep faith, and extraordinary commitment: “a missionary, hymnist, explorer, politician, theologian, satirist, and historian” (393). As one of the original twelve apostles in what he called “the most interesting [dispensation] that ever was (393),” the Pratt of this biography gave every last ounce of courage and faith to the building up of Zion. The unfolding of the narrative of his life is one of the great strengths of the work, but the evaluation of Pratt’s work as it engages and propels the restoration guarantees the book’s importance in the further study of the restoration. A few examples of such contributions will suffice, I hope, to encourage as many as possible to read it.
Parley P. Pratt’s life was changed overnight by his first encounter with the Book of Mormon. Within weeks of first reading it in 1830, he met Hyrum Smith, received some instruction about the restoration, and was baptized. By 1831 he became a traveling missionary, the one activity that would most clearly shape the remainder of his life. As Givens and Grow so clearly demonstrate, these early encounters gave direction to the rest of Parley’s life. They are able to emphasize how the Book of Mormon and the restoration it validated excited his mind about God’s purposes for Native Americans and urged a millenarian ministry focused on the building up of Zion. Pratt’s mission to the Lamanites in Missouri fired his imagination. When Missouri was revealed as the New Zion, he threw himself into the work with great energy. He built a house and became a schoolteacher. There he also experienced the violence and brutality of persecution that would give further definition to his experience. And Pratt’s experience would, in turn, give shape to the narrative of the building of Zion being regularly endangered by near satanic persecution. He wrote the first history of the Missouri persecutions while in Liberty Jail in 1839.
Givens and Grow are quick to remind us that Pratt’s pen had much to do with defining how missionary work was to be done and also giving the relative misery and poverty of the persecuted saints a place of honor in the story of the restoration itself. The book reveals that Parley was not the great proselytizer and baptizer that some of his fellow apostles were, especially not like Heber C. Kimball and Wilford Woodruff with their thousands of converts. He did, however, write the first systematic approach to teaching the gospel to investigators and new converts. His A Voice of Warning identified key restoration doctrines and gave biblical support for those doctrines by including specific passages he believed gave clear support to LDS teachings. Givens and grow give us a critical evaluation of the tract and its place in the work. Thousands upon thousands of copies of A Voice of Warning would later be printed and distributed as a near necessity for seeking converts around the world. It also gave Pratt the chance to sell copies at a small profit, thereby financing some of his missionary labors.
Financing his ministry was a constant burden for Elder Pratt. Though he tried throughout his life to build profitable businesses to support both his family and his ministry, he never tried a venture that brought him or his family much money. The book emphasizes Parley’s near poverty during all the stages of his life. He struggled with money. However, his difficulties gave him a solid understanding of the powerlessness of the poverty-stricken. Many early converts, especially in the British Mission, had barely enough money to keep themselves fed and clothed. But they also had no real hope of crossing Britain’s class lines and gaining better employment. When financial panic hit in the early1840’s, Parley saw the special need for the poor to be provided for. He knew the need could only be met by removing them from their own society and sending them to Zion. He organized the first shiploads of poor saints to leave Liverpool, sail to the United States, and come to Nauvoo. Reading the book’s account of these events, it was easy for me to see an important and inspiring aspect of the restoration emerge. The poor needed the Church and the Church needed the poor.
Thousands of British Saints made their way to Nauvoo. This influx of convert immigrants was the primary reason Nauvoo grew to be threateningly large in a few short years. But these converts brought much with them. Many had basic skills necessary to the prospering of a growing city; they were coopers, painters, carpenters, blacksmiths, printers, seamstresses, bakers, and so on. They were hungry for work and the independence a good job with a living wage could bring. They knew the rigors of traveling a long distance to reach a better life in Zion. At the same time, they were also introduced to the gospel either directly by the apostles or other elders who served under their direction. For them, the apostles were the Church’s leaders. When Joseph Smith was murdered in 1844 and the question of how the Church was to move forward was raised, the British saints had little difficulty seeing the mantle of leadership fall upon the twelve. When the time came to leave Nauvoo and travel west to Zion, the British saints had already done it once. They must have had some confidence that under apostolic leadership they could do it again. For all this to happen, someone needed to have the vision and the empathy to put a migration program to work. It reveals the Lord at work through Parley P. Pratt and other apostles to save the poor and through them to save the Church. The pattern continues to be crucial to the building up of Zion.
Elder Pratt’s missions were often profoundly difficult. Perhaps his greatest challenge was loneliness. He missed his wife and children, not to mention the loving environment of home. He seldom had the chance, because of finances, to bring his family with him. In the early years, they would often go to live with relatives while he served. Later, after plural marriage was introduced, things became more difficult. With more than one wife, he could now travel with one of them. But the arrangement was dangerous. Since plural marriages among the apostles were kept secret from the members at large until 1853, Parley found himself traveling with a woman he was married to, but looking for all the world like he was carrying on while serving.
As Givens and Grow make very clear, living the principle intensified faith while creating unmanageable family dynamics. After the introduction of the principle, Parley’s wife Mary Ann divorced. Over issues associated with the principle, Parley did not speak with his brother, Orson, for nearly a decade. On the other hand, the women he married under the principle loved him very much. The really liked each other. Long after his death, the family kept together, organizing their economic lives around principles of consecration and self-reliance Elder had learned from the Prophet Joseph Smith so long before.
The manner of entering into plural marriages, however, proved to be almost impossible. Elder Pratt, like other apostles, met women in the mission field whom he later married. As he devoted himself to working out an intellectual justification for plurality, he had come to see plural marriage as a social institution that saved women from social evils like abuse, adultery, and prostitution. He very much came to see himself as a potential redeemer of women from the bondage of bad lives.
Some of Parley P. Pratt’s last missionary journeys took him to the west coast of the United States and then finally to Chile. Again, he was filled with enthusiasm about finding more of Lehi’s children and introducing them to the Book of Mormon. He labored to raise money while organizing the work in California, before he could finally buy passage for himself and one wife to sail to Chile. When they arrived they found a country controlled by the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. Making any friends for the church was very difficult. Relying on his previous experience with publishing, he hoped to translate the Book of Mormon into Spanish as a way of energizing the country. But he simply could not learn Spanish. After struggling, and with little success, he left Chile to return to Salt Lake City.
On the return trip, he stayed in San Francisco to hasten the missionary effort. While there, he met Eleanor McLean, wife of Hector. She had been baptized and wanted her children away from Hector and inside the world of the LDS Church. Parley took up her cause and found her to be charming, well-educated, and spiritually alive. He took her side as she proceeded to try to turn her separation from Hector into a divorce. When Hector refused, Parley pushed harder, eventually marrying Eleanor before a divorce could finalized. Of course, this led finally to Van Buren, Arkansas.
This review barely touches the surface of the wonderful character of the book. It is first and foremost an excellent example of how meticulous scholarship illuminates lives and events long forgotten. The chronological account of the missionary journeys alone justifies the claim that Pratt was Mormonism’s Apostle Paul. But we also meet a strong-willed man firmly committed to the restored gospel. We meet a capacious mind, taking Mormonism’s doctrines into unexplored territory in articles, hymns, books, and tracts. We also find an idealist longing for Zion and the new sociality of the saints it promised. And, of course, we find a man who is stubborn, sometimes irascible, and even boldly disobedient. It’s a beautifully detailed portrait of an early apostle who now will not be so easily forgotten. Thanks to Oxford University Press for continuing to support the best Mormon scholarship; and thanks to all us of us who keep buying books and making certain a market congenial to Oxford’s needs. And thanks most of all to the authors who have given us such a wonderful gift. May they both be blessed!