Book Review: Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism

“If Pratt wanted to leave for posterity a record of his apostolic role in providential history, he also wanted to leave for futurity the story of the flesh and blood Parley P. Pratt (393).” Regardless of whether we agree with Givens & Grow on this point, it is the lens through which we ought to view their recent biography. Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism is a substantial addition to Pratt’s timeworn autobiography, an attempt to fill out our understanding of the man – both who Pratt was and also the critical (though often overlooked) contribution he made to Mormonism and its theology.

While I take this to be the explicit aim of the authors, I’m more interested in the normative impact this biography will potentially make on its readers. Or maybe I’m merely so focused on my own agenda that I can’t help but exploit Givens & Grow toward this end.[1] Regardless, in this biography of one of the key figures in the Restoration, I see the potential for a restoration (or at least reemphasis) of three critical and interrelated aspects of early Mormonism[2]: a restoration of the specifically Mormon notion of prophet; a restoration of the contextual and dialogic nature of prophetic revelation; and a restoration of intelligence as the glory of God and the focus on education that this belief entails.[3]

But first, let me just outright endorse the book as worthwhile. The telling of Mormon history has shifted in recent decades from being an official, sacral-historical narrative toward a more academic and theologically “neutral” telling. This pronounced shift, however, hasn’t much changed the relevance of the old slogan that we as Mormons have a history more than a theology – a slogan that arises in no small part out of Pratt’s missionary efforts, wherein he used “events, rather than doctrines, as the principal exhibits of the truthfulness of Mormonism, thus making its history foundational to its theology” (93). I think recent scholarship has increased rather than stymied our passionate and narcissistic taste for history. Consequently, I’m confident Mormons of most any stripe will find it a rewarding book. This biography is not only a worthy contribution to the telling of the tale of early Mormonism (however one views the theological dimensions of our history), but is absolutely delightful in the way that Pratt’s involvement and perspective drive the telling. The focus and the details are a function of Pratt himself – where he was and what he was doing. Two quick examples: perhaps my favorite is the way in which the authors treat the succession crisis in the wake of Joseph & Hyrum’s martyrdom, wherein they focus on the “periphery” of Mormonism (the Eastern US and England) where Pratt worked doggedly and successfully to secure the bulk of the saints under the leadership of the Apostles (see Chapters 8-9, especially 222-235). The narration of the Kirtland Period and Pratt’s temporary estrangement from Joseph Smith is also a gem (see especially 97-102). Those already familiar with church history will nonetheless find rewarding this perspectival (and perfectly adequate) telling. In short, I recommend it.

On to the interrelated restorations.


Mormon prophets

Ivan Karamazov at the beginning of Dostoevski’s most famous chapter (“Rebellion”):

“I must make one confession” Ivan began. “I could never understand how one can love one’s neighbours. It’s just one’s neighbours, to my mind, that one can’t love, though one might love those at a distance. I once read somewhere of John the Merciful, a saint, that when a hungry, frozen beggar came to him, he took him into his bed, held him in his arms, and began breathing into his mouth, which was putrid and loathsome from some awful disease. I am convinced that he did that from ‘self-laceration,’ from the self-laceration of falsity, for the sake of the charity imposed by duty, as a penance laid on him. For anyone to love a man, he must be hidden, for as soon as he shows his face, love is gone.”

There is something undeniably plausible and poignant in Ivan’s cynical claim. But as Dostoevski works hard to show through the course of The Brother’s Karamazov, it’s also deeply misguided, even perverse. Many live their lives affirming Ivan’s proposition, however. Notably, among these have been the dissenters and detractors of Mormonism since our inception. This belief has been a mainstay of anti-Mormon literature, particularly in the 20th century, whose authors are firmly committed to the idea that Mormons could never maintain their love for and faith in our cherished founders should we know the truth of their lives and faults. Ironically, in combing the historical details of our prophets’ lives, these authors fail to take into account the greater context (or perhaps they ignore that context, since it undermines the Ivan-ish premise they depend on): our early church leaders, such as Parley Pratt, led saints who were generally well informed (sometimes intimately well informed) concerning their faults and frailties. These saints knew, for example, that Parley married another man’s wife – more than once (see 227-229, and of course the whole tale of his eventual murder in Chapter 14). He did little to nothing to hide the fact. Certainly some saints were wonderfully disillusioned by such events, particularly after Joseph’s death. James Strang and others worked hard to exploit such facts and frailties and lead saints away from the apostles (253-254). In addition the saints had to follow such mortals into severe temporal hardship without a glorious retrospective narrative of God’s sustaining power. They saw their prophets’ weaknesses and sometimes suffered significant pain on account of them. Early saints knew Joseph and Brigham and Parley “up close” – they were neighbors. And loved them anyway. It’s silly to think that we are different today in our capacity to know and love our prophets.

I think it’s true that we now live (and often have faith in and love) “at a distance” from our early leaders. Books like this one help collapse that distance and can at times be rather uncomfortable for us – they revive the sometimes “putrid and loathsome” breath of our founders. They do not, however (at least by themselves), rob us of our love and faith; and importantly, those of us who continue faithfully do not do so merely out of self-laceration or duty.

Givens and Grow have written a biography capable of not only informing readers concerning Pratt’s life and various aspects of early Mormonism, but also of restoring the specific kind of “up close” love and faith that early Mormons had in their leaders. There’s no specific evidence that this was part of their agenda. The book is painstakingly impartial, to the point of being dull in some of the most exciting historical parts (their discussion of the restoration of temple rituals was perhaps the most disappointing part of the book; they somehow convey very clearly the fact that the temple utterly electrified Pratt and do so with utterly un-electrifying prose – see 207-209). This is, perhaps, why their book can play so well the role of restoration for faithful readers. Their sometimes clinical narration and occasional speculation succeeds in presenting us with a “flesh and blood” Parley – one that allows for a range of reactions, including that of a more genuine love and faith. The “at a distance” love Ivan understands is necessarily superficial, a sort of fantasy. It’s a two-dimensional, abstract love. Which is not to say that it’s not real. But it’s certainly not the full-blooded love for one’s flesh and blood neighbor. And this is the service that candid biographies do: they give us a human instead of a myth to love.

The implication of this restoration of course extends beyond Parley and early Mormonism. The reality is, almost all of us live necessarily “at a distance” from President Monson and the rest of our prophets today. The experience of coming to know Brother Pratt on a much more flesh & blood level, and glimpsing the relationship he sustained with numerous saints who knew him up close, allows us to understand what faith in living, human prophets is – including those prophets living today. It reminds us of what we as Mormons mean by “prophet.” We do not mean angel. We do not mean perfect medium of God. We mean someone like Parley, who was occasionally doctrinally ignorant or inaccurate (88), insensitive (231), vain (75), tactless (76-79), self-pitying (256), and someone who was sometimes in outright disagreement with his direct ecclesiastical authority (269-270) just as Moses occasionally was with God. Prophets are human – a frightening and glorious prospect that is through and through Mormon. We love them, we have faith in them, and we find ourselves incredibly rewarded by the intermediary role they play between the heavens and the church body generally (and sometimes us individually). These undeniably mortal souls are for us just as undeniably “agent[s] of divine providence with a leading role in an unfolding cosmic design. . . . conduit[s] for the continuing reality of the miraculous” (123).[4]


Contextual and dialogic revelation

When we learn of them in context we’re sometimes scandalized by the 1890 and 1978 revelations concerning polygamy and priesthood – they seem so clearly to be responses to popular pressure. Or at least, external pressure, arguments and actions seem so relevant to the specific texture of the subsequent revelation. Feeling scandalized on account of their permeability, however, requires an assumption that genuine prophetic revelation is culturally ex nihilo. Givens and Grow, in their discussion of doctrinal developments in early Mormonism and specifically Pratt’s involvement therein, help us to see that cultural influence is not unique to 1890 and 1978 – rather, it has always been a part of our prophetic revelations. Revelation is almost always in response to context and, similar to good ideas and breakthroughs generally, almost always develops out of dialogue.

Givens and Grow try to make the case that with numerous “key doctrines,” including doctrines we all today take as obviously part of the restoration Joseph Smith unfolded, “Pratt went beyond his prophet predecessor, giving new or additional form to founding principles” (396). At times their claim is even stronger: “The genesis of all these ideas found in Pratt’s pamphlet is hard to trace” (172). In addition to giving “new form” or interpretation to Joseph’s ideas, it’s clear that the authors think Pratt sometimes founded ideas that were subsequently endorsed by Joseph. To be honest, while it’s certainly possible, the authors simply don’t make their case. Their best example concerns the Articles of Faith; but here, as elsewhere, Givens and Grow ignore the Book of Mormon as an obvious source for these ideas, and there is never an obvious case cited where Pratt is the originator.

On the other hand, what is undeniable is the fact that Joseph spent a good deal of time talking with people like Parley; Joseph often gave others the assignment of articulating or simply adopted others’ articulation of doctrine. And these “others” were not always apostles like Parley; in fact, they were not always Mormon at all. (“[Alexander] Campbell himself accused Smith of simply stealing, with Rigdon’s complicity, elements of his own theology. Many parallels clearly existed” (74).)

Givens has elsewhere discussed the idea of the Mormon sense of “dialogic revelation.” There he reads Mormon revelation as being a “personalized, dialogic exchange” between God and man.[5]  Here, however, Givens along with Grow gives us a notion of dialogic revelation wherein the dialogue is more inclusive. We get revelation as a triangular flow that operates between humans and between those humans and God. Joseph engaged in revelatory dialogue with God. He also engaged in revelatory dialogue with Parley. Importantly, it seems clear that at least some of Joseph’s revelations from God could not have taken place apart from his dialogue with Parley. As the book makes clear, many other men and women took part in this three-way dialogue as well.

This is Mormon revelation. And this is how our prophets facilitate and receive it.


Intelligence and Education

Finally, I can’t help but briefly indulge myself by noting a third and related restoration. Parley was as much as anything else an intellectual – however one wants to define that word. I loved the account of his wife, Ann Agatha Walker, that while crossing the plains Parley

drove the largest wagon we had with three yoke of cattle; he would walk along side of them, and the first thing you knew you would see him three or four rods ahead. The slow walk of the team could not keep pace with his active mind. Often he would recollect, turn back to his team, see that all was all right, hurry them up, and do the same thing again. . . . His mind was ever on the alert for the benefit of the company. (267)

Pratt likewise exulted in Joseph’s emphasis on education and intellectual development. For him and many of the early saints this was an important core of what Mormonism was.

Nineteenth-century Mormonism was conspicuous in the way it addressed, through both theology and institutional practice, the realms of intellect and heart. From the School of the Prophets to the University of Nauvoo, Smith made education central to Mormonism. The most visible social dimension of Mormonism, the Saints’ geographical dislocation to achieve literal gathering, directly resulted from this emphasis. “Intelligence is the great object of our holy religion,” Smith declared, and “is the result of education, and education can only be obtained by living in compact society; One of the principal objects, then, of our coming together, is to obtain the advantages of education; and in order to do this, compact society is absolutely necessary. (212)

I think (and certainly hope) that our conversations here at Times and Seasons are, however weak, an outgrowth of this very principle. Intelligence was, and may we insist that it still be the great object of our holy religion. As Joseph also said, “A man is saved no faster than he gains knowledge . . . hence [we] need revelation to assist us and give us knowledge of the things of God.”[6] Why else would we need prophets and revelation?

I think Julie was right: the book lacks “sparkle” (though it certainly has its moments; and the epilogue is pure gold); if you want sparkle, read the autobiography. But in saying this I am merely making a descriptive point, not a normative one. In articulating the life of Parley Parker Pratt, Givens and Grow can’t help but articulate three perhaps unique but certainly conspicuous and interrelated elements of Mormonism: mortal prophets, dialogic revelation, and the divinity of education. The normative point is that, at least for me, reading this biography put the fire of these Restoration principles deep in my bones.

[1] This is obviously true at least in the sense that, while my time and your attention span necessitate a limited review (even if I can’t help but wax long-winded), it’s still my choice as to what I’ll focus on. I would very much like to (but won’t) also discuss such things as apologetics, sexuality, and theological narrative, all of which are prominent themes in the book.

[2] I sometimes worry that we might have apostatized from these founding principles. Apostasy is of course a matter of degree. But maybe that’s still too strong of a word. I hope it is. At the least these principles have been conspicuously inconspicuous in our more recent history.

[3] Readership of this book is bound to be limited, and I do not mean to overstate the book’s potential impact. My comments here concern its potential among readers (no doubt a relatively small group), and not its potential to directly affect the Church as a whole. I do think works of this caliber, however, inevitably affect the larger membership, if only in a limited, delayed, and often indirect way.

[4] This book is clearly not alone in performing this function; as I mentioned, more candid portrayals of our leaders is undoubtedly the current trend among Mormon historians. I think this book performs that function particularly well, however, since most of us do not realize how in debt we are to Parley, we do not have the sort of abiding testimony in him that we do in Joseph Smith, and we’re not being let in on a mountain of inside information that was previously unavailable (e.g., as is the case with Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith and Prince’s biography of David O. McKay respectively). That is, we have perhaps less knowledge, excitement and devotion to Parley personally, which more keenly focuses our attention on his mortality and divine authority – or at least it has the potential to do so.

[5] See By the Hand of Mormonism 217; dialogic revelation is the subject of Chapter 8.

[6] 10 April 1842; recorded by Wilford Woodruff.

2 comments for “Book Review: Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism

  1. January 8, 2012 at 1:52 am

    Wonderful, James. Lots of meat to chew on here.

  2. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    January 8, 2012 at 12:37 pm

    Just received the book for Christmas. It is always nice to have some guideposts on interesting features to watch for as I travel through a new narratve landscape.

Comments are closed.