Givens and Grown want Parley P. Pratt to be the “apostle Paul of Mormonism.” I am intrigued by this suggestion and think it deserves some attention.

Givens and Grow admit that their are important and obvious differences between Paul and Pratt: Paul was an educated Jew, Pratt a “self-taught back-woodsman”; Paul was a “champion of celibacy,” Pratt a “promulgator of polygamy” (p. 5). For the authors, these differences do not have the weight of certain archetypal similarities, however. Givens and Grow believe both men had (p. 5):

1. “[A] deep sense of the divine importance of their apostolic calling.”

2. “[A] bold, blunt, outspoken style that led to frequent controversies.”

3. Frequent clashes with their religious colleagues: “Paul clashed with Peter, Pratt dissented at times from both Smith and Young.”

4. A religious devotion before their conversion.

5. A deep commitment to their new cause, “driven by a belief in an oncoming millennium.”

Givens and Grow make this comparison, and indeed make it a subtitle to their book, for three stated reasons (pp. 5-8):

1. Paul and Pratt are responsible for systematising and popularising their founder’s teachings. Both thus illustrate a “crucial stage of any new religious movement: the creation, explication, and popularization of a theological system.”

2. Paul and Pratt were tireless proselytizers, contributing to the expansion of their new religions, their stories serving as “a window” onto the early expansion of their faiths and, in some ways, on the intersection of religion and the ordinary people they met.

3. Both Paul and Pratt “reveled in opposition and persecution,” personifying the culture of persecution often present in new religions.

One could focus on where Paul and Pratt differ beyond what Givens and Grow already offer — certainly Paul has ended up being far more influential on human history than Pratt will almost certainly ever be, and Pratt did not offer so radical a turn as Paul (the de-judaizing of Christianity). However, as a frame for telling Pratt’s story, I think it serves a useful purpose: Pratt as writer, missionary, and martyr.

Perhaps the historians can answer this question: what other biographies do we have that tell the tale of “X, the Y of Z”?


  1. The book was chock full of excellence. I am a major Pratt-ite or however one would phrase it though.

  2. The first one that springs to mind:
    Brigham Young: American Moses
    But there are literally hundred of the following type:
    The Lion of the Lord: A Biography of Brigham Young
    Boyd K. Packer: A Watchman on the Tower
    Defender of the Faith: The B. H. Roberts Story

  3. Parley P. Pratt? Nice. I’ve been reviewing his history for a footnote for a Keepapitchinin post for tomorrow. What a character!

    So, are you looking strictly for person-to-person comparisons, or for archetypes? A classic example of the archetype title would be “George Washington: The Father of His Country.” (Hmm. I suppose Moses and Paul are archetypes.)

    Speaking of biography titles, one of the more distinctive biography naming trends in Mormon history is Frank Gibbons’ so-so series about the prophets: Wilford Woodruff: Wondrous Worker, Prophet of God; Heber J. Grant: Man of Steel, Prophet of God; Brigham Young: Modern Moses, Prophet of God; etc.

    And back to the thought about archetypes. Now we have “Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism.” Given a few decades or centuries, I suppose Pratt could become the archetype and we could have a book named “The Apostle Paul: The Parley P. Pratt of Early Christianity.”

  4. Yeah, I’m kind of looking for person-to-person comparisons like Brigham Young:Moses.

  5. My immediate sense was that they are a little strained but in this case, it provides a useful point of reference, especially for a non-Mormon audience for whom the first question would be, “who is Parley Pratt?” I wonder if this was something OUP wanted.

  6. I’ve always been intrigued by the comparison of Brigham Young to Moses, since I see Joseph Smith as more of a Moses figure (leaving society and wandering in the wilderness, looking for a promised land) and Brigham Young more as a Joshua figure (entering the promised land and buliding a kingdom).

    As far as Pratt goes, I think Paul is a good comparison – largely because of the disagreemnt with central authority aspect. In an important way, they both were zealots – all or nothing absolutists – glorying, as you note, in opposition and persecution as a sign of the rightness of their cause. Neither would have been accepted or tolerated a few generations after their time – and I’m not convinced that’s a bad thing. Radicals have a necessary place in the formation of new organizations, but, as those organziations mature, they can kill just as easily as they can created.

  7. In the forthcoming Jacob Hamblin bio, Todd Compton notes how several previous biographers have made him out to be the “Leatherstocking of Mormonism”…

  8. I hate the title. The Apostle Paul is the Apostle Paul of Mormonism.

  9. Are there non-Mormon bios that do this? Like, I dunno, Margaret Thatcher: the Boadicea of Modern Britain.

  10. Ha! Love that comment.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    I wonder how this would go over as a biography title: _Joseph Smith: American Jesus_.

  12. Don’t we have “American Muhammad”?

  13. Some biographies I found in OCLC Worldcat:

    American Cicero : the life of Charles Carroll
    Harriet Tubman : the Moses of her people
    Harriet Tubman : Moses of the Underground Railroad
    Jeff. Davis, “president” of traitors, robbers, and pirates; the Nero of the 19th century.
    The Plato of Praed Street : the life and times of Almroth Wright

  14. john f.: I don’t know whether to commend your consistency or to point out yet again that your intentional obtuseness on this point is neither helpful nor accurate.

    Givens and Grow themselves weighed in on the title in the Q&A at JI last year for those interested.

  15. Did you say anything there that would or should get me thinking otherwise? You just said I was “overreacting.” Not much of an argument there.

  16. I wrote a piece discussing the history of naming early Mormons after Paul. For instance, in the 1880’s the Utah historian Edward Tullidge dubbed Orson, and not Parley, the “St. Paul of the Latter Days” or the “St. Paul of Mormondom.” There is even one historian that called Brigham Young the St. Paul of Mormonism. Givens and Grow are not inventing this appellation tradition out of whole cloth. In one sense, whether intended or not, they are shifting the title from Orson to Parley.

  17. john f.: Others tell me that you’re a smart fellow, so I’m trying to make sense of what appears to me your general obtuseness on this point. I didn’t offer an argument on that other thread, but John Hamer did:

    John F (#4): I’m sure the authors don’t want to unclaim St. Paul for Mormonism. Their intent was probably to say “the St. Paul of the Restoration” or of the Restored Gospel — but a press has to get the word “Mormon” in there, otherwise people outside the Mormon community won’t get it.

    At the time, you called this a “good point!” For whatever reason, JH’s explanation of the obvious—that two faithful, believing Latter-day Saint historians were not in fact claiming that “that Mormonism does not see itself as directly in the inheritance of the work of Paul”—is no longer sufficient. If you don’t like the book’s title, that’s obviously fine (it’s not my favorite, either). But your continued misrepresentation of the author’s intent is getting a bit old after two+ years. For what it’s worth (and even a cursory glance through the book’s introduction would demonstrate as much), PPP himself explicitly and on more than one occasion compared himself to the Apostle Paul.

    And just to bring my little rant here back on topic (somewhat, anyway), let me ask if you complained this much about Leonard Arrington subtitling his biography of Brigham Young “American Moses”? Is that evidence that Arrington was trying to convince his readers that Mormonism does not accept Moses as a prophet of God?

  18. I am just wrapping up my master’s thesis on Pratt. I’ve been focusing on his theology, namely his eschatology and cosmology, and what contemporary ideas/events shaped his thinking. I would say that for me, the comparison of Pratt to the Apostle Paul is most striking in the way they both tailored their messages to specific audiences. Pratt wrote numerous tracts with particular groups of people in mind, always attempting to draw the reader into the Mormon world-view through ideas they would already understand. In my thesis, for example, I argue that in trying to combat the threat of Spiritualism in California in the 1850s, he framed much of his cosmology in “Key to the Science of Theology” in a way that would appeal to Spiritualists, or Mormons who may have been flirting with it at the time. Thus, you get Pratt using words like “second sight” and “clairvoyance” in a Mormon context, and making statements about the cosmos that sound very similar to the writings of Andrew Jackson Davis. His purpose was always to show that the Mormon take on such matters was superior and to warn people of false doctrines.