Pratt: American Hero

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.[1] 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.”[2] 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.


  1. The Givens and Grow book really opened my eyes to what a feisty person Parley was. If I remember right there is even a time when the doors were locked on him at a church he wanted to preach at so he just yelled through the walls. (Correct me if I am wrong)

    What a character! And yet so successful.

  2. Great point about the American perspective. I guess we’re stuck with it for a significant portion of the early history if the focus is on the missionary effort itself, or at least on the “Apostolic missions”. But I think there must be a wealth of untapped material relating to more local efforts. That’s one reason I think your stake’s efforts with the Benbow Farm/United Brethren material have been so important over the years.

  3. J. Stapley says:

    Agreed, John. And there has been some work on local evangalization efforts. But there is much more to be done.

  4. I don’t believe that Christ or Joseph Smith would ever call PPPratt a hero, but instead an imposter and false prophet, for that is what Christ and Joseph said anyone preaching, practicing or believing in polygamy was.

  5. Meldrum the Less says:

    One of the most interesting and neglected chapters of Pratt’s life is the final one. Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe he was murdered by the legal husband of one of his plural wives. The perpetrator was found innocent even though he boldly proclaimed his bloody deed because the jury thought it was justified. More dramatic than any of the lame, made-for-TV trials we watch today.Shorter too.The hysteria over this event was a key ingredient in the toxic brew in southern Utah that made the Mountain Meadows Massacre possible. So yes, pick an issue of his time and the life of PPP has something interesting to say. I want to read this book.

    Sometimes, in a dark hour I am prone to think along the lines you express above. I find polygamy entirely revolting. But even from the perspective of PPP the imposter do you not find some element of the hero in his life events? From the darkest most critical perspective I can image, I think PPP could have been deluded but he was certainly sincere and so very fascinating. This same Jesus tells us all that we like PPP are sinners and he forgives us when we call on his name. By any evangelical standard I can come up with PPP is saved, however much or little he is misguided. And that is about the best I am hoping for myself.

    Your statement also implies that Joseph Smith thought the believing, preaching and practice of polygamy was inconsistent with true prophethood, is this correct? If you have not been exposed to this information already, Joseph Smith had at least 30 polygamous wives perhaps more.Your statement, the way I take it,is rendered logically inconsistent by this widely admitted historcal fact.

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