Terryl L. Givens and Matthew J. Grow, Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism, Oxford University Press, October 2011, 521 pages.
In the early 19th century, preacher La Roy Sunderland denounced Mormonism as “a delusion . . . manifestly and monstrously absurd.” He explained that Mormonism was based on three texts: the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and Parley P. Pratt’s A Voice of Warning. Pratt wrote a rebuttal to Sunderland, but he did not dispute Sunderland’s characterization of A Voice of Warning. This wasn’t just personal pride: Brigham Young lauded the book and it has been claimed that Joseph Smith called it a standard work. It may be hard for a 21st century Saint to appreciate Pratt’s enormous contribution to LDS thought; I suspect very few people today read A Voice of Warning or Pratt’s autobiography [ftnt1]. Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism should do much to restore our understanding of Pratt’s pivotal role in the Restoration. And what’s great about this biography is that it isn’t just one damn fact after another [ftnt 2]; rather, the authors work hard to contextualize Pratt. Which means that this isn’t just a biography of Pratt but also a good introduction to 19th century Mormonism.
That said, I’m going to start with a complaint: I don’t like the title. Perhaps it is petty and churlish to complain about that [ftnt 3], but the title isn’t a throwaway line; the authors spend significant time in the introduction and epilogue explaining how Pratt served the same role for Joseph Smith that Paul served for Jesus. I can understand the need to contextualize Pratt for the non-LDS reader (the book is published by Oxford, not by an LDS press) and calling him “the Apostle Paul of Mormonism” clearly does that. Of course, the Jesus-Paul situation is complicated by the fact that Jesus didn’t write anything (that we have). Perhaps a better analogy than Jesus : Paul :: Joseph Smith : Parley P. Pratt would be Jesus : Luke :: Joseph Smith : Parley P. Pratt, since that analogy preserves the problem that we don’t know which ideas to attribute to the founder and which to the writer.
Which leads us to my second issue with this book: I’m sure I’m not the only one who is desperately curious to separate out which ideas were originally Joseph Smith’s and which were Pratt’s, and the authors do devote significant time to this issue, but I’m left unresolved and unconvinced. The authors say that “Pratt saw his role not as innovator, but as systematizer and popularizer” (p6). But given the lack of a paper trail [ftnt 4], that strikes me as a somewhat difficult claim to sustain. Pratt was, clearly, a popularizer of Joseph Smith’s teachings, but whether he was a systematizer seems unreconstructable: To what extent did Pratt innovate theologically? To what extent was Pratt simply the first to record ideas that had already been fully articulated by Joseph Smith? To what extent did Pratt bungle Joseph’s teachings? (There is somewhat funny story about Pratt mangling the account of the First Vision.) The authors admit at one point that “the genesis of all of these ideas found in Pratt’s pamphlet is hard to trace” (p172). But the larger claim of Pratt as a systemitizer in the Pauline mold feels unsubstantiated.
The title also creates an implicit comparison between Joseph Smith and Jesus Christ that will make some LDS wince a little, not to mention (and I am not the first to point this out) that the Apostle Paul of Mormonism is . . . the Apostle Paul. I wish they had gone with “The Archer of Paradise” as a subtitle. That was W.W. Phelp’s nickname for Pratt, because he “always hit the mark” (p64).
OK, I’m done complaining. Now I can tell you what I liked about the book.
The authors did an excellent job of conveying who Pratt was. I’m sure you have read biographies that didn’t leave you with the sense that you understood now what made the subject tick. Givens and Grow manage to let us know Pratt. We see him share his testimony while eggs drip from him. They refer frequently to “Pratt’s unflinching bluntness” (p79) and the problems that it caused for him and the Church. We see Pratt performing poorly in religious debates and dancing awkwardly. We see his pain at unsuccessful missions. We see his sense of humor and lack thereof. Most amazingly, we see again and again the role that extreme poverty played in the life of Pratt and his family: two of his children may have died of malnutrition (p277). The high point of the book is the chapter “Parley and Mrs. Pratt(s),” which examines his complicated family life. By the end, you have a real sense of Pratt’s personality.
Givens and Grow also have a knack for contextualization. For example, they point out that Pratt was one of the first converts who didn’t come from the Smiths’ social circle but that “Pratt represented a different kind of convert, who became convinced of Mormonism’s truth claims by reading the Book of Mormon and not through association with Smith” (p33). This path to conversion meant that Pratt’s “relationship to Smith never evolved into the unalloyed adoration of Brigham Young or the fanatical attachment of Porter Rockwell” (p35). The influence that “Baconianism” had on Pratt is explained (p104, 124), and this is very helpful in situating some of Pratt’s writings. They even make the virulent anti-communism of the 20th century church more understandable inasmuch as it developed out of Pratt’s view of history (p108-109). They contextualize some of the violent persecution faced by the early church through a helpful explanation of the ways in which “the lines between mobs and these militia units was sometimes fluid and nebulous” (p136) and further explaining that not only Mormons but also Catholics and abolitionists and the Irish were similarly targeted, along with members of virtually all minority religious groups. They mention how the people of Quincy protected and helped the Saints. (If you are sensing my disapproval of people who paint the LDS as the one and only group to ever be violently dissed by Americans, good pick up.) They really excel at locating Pratt’s life not just in his personal context but in the larger world; the sections on print culture and the role of the margins in the success of new religious movements and the different rhetorical position of Mormon missionaries as opposed to other Christian missionaries abroad in relation to their opinion of the US government are insightful.
Third, they’ve done a bang-up job of including fascinating details: if you don’t know what the excitable Ohio Mormons termed “sailing in the boat to the Lamanites” (p51), you’ll find out! And even if you had slogged through A Voice of Warning, you might not have realized that the first edition did not mention Joseph Smith’s name (it was included in the revised edition). Pratt’s version of Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary is hilarious.
Fourth, I feel that they have been frank but fair in their treatment of difficult issues. Pratt was seriously ticked after the Kirtland banking crisis and publicly criticized Joseph Smith. He was deeply involved in polygamy and the secrecy surrounding it. Some readers may also feel challenged be material that suggests that Church doctrine has changed over time (at one point, Pratt taught that God did not have a body). Most members will be familiar with the famous scene of Joseph Smith commanding “SILENCE, ye fiends of the infernal pit” to jailors boasting about attacking Mormons; the authors suggest that “Pratt perhaps embellished the scene” (p144). They note, “as so often in his writings, Pratt’s hyperbole threatened to undermine his credibility” (p151). If you are easily disturbed by such things, you will not appreciate the difference in prophetic opinions regarding the meaning of Pratt’s death (although I thought it was fascinating).
One final matter: I feel the need to address a rather unfair review that this book received in the Deseret News. I read that review before reading this book, and noted its warning that “the book contains mature subject matter, including discussions about sexual dimensions of polygamy, accounts of persecutory violence toward the early church (including a disturbing and graphic account of the rape of at least one Mormon woman), and the extremely violent nature of Pratt’s own death.”
So of course I was on the look out for GRAPHIC SEX AND VIOLENCE while reading. But I found that that warning was, to put it charitably, hyperbolic. The discussion of the sexual dimensions of polygamy is minimal to the point of nonexistence, unless you think Pratt shouldn’t have written about kissing one of his wives (admittedly, it is in a letter addressed to all of his wives, and that’s definitely creepy, but it is hardly graphic).
The rape comment is perplexing; here are all of the references to rape in the book:
“Furthermore, ‘one or two individual females of our society’ had been ‘forcibly bound & twenty or thirty of them one after another committed rape upon.’ (Pratt later confirmed one case of rape with the woman’s family.)” (p140).
“The prisoners suffered the further torment of listening to their captors boasting of ‘defiling by force wives, daughters, and virgins’” (p144).
“Illinois newspapers, Pratt noted, condemned ‘the cold blooded murder, by the mob of Missouri, of Mormon men and children, the violation of females, the destroying of property” (p152).
That’s it. Those may be (they should be) disturbing, but they are not graphic. Similarly, the depiction of Pratt’s death is no more graphic than is necessary to describe what happened to him.
So I am disappointed by this characterization and concerned that it might scare off readers. The review continues from what I quoted above to say, “Although the material is appropriately set within the context of overall themes and events, the book is not recommended for readers under the age of 18.”
Frankly, if your kid is old enough to show interest and slog through a 400-plus-page books on a 19th century church leader published by a staid university press, they can probably handle the material. They’ve almost certainly encountered far more graphic sex and violence in books they have been assigned for school, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, etc.
And perhaps you think I am overemphasizing one paragraph from a review at the expense of the rest. Well, there is so very little meat to the review–strike out the boilerplate about the authors’ previous works and the information about the appendices, and you’ll see that the review is virtually content-free–that the GRAPHIC SEX WARNING looms large as one of the very few substantive comments about the content of the book in the entire review.
Which makes it even more disappointing, excessive, and prudish. [Update: See comment #6 below for the review author's response to this critique.]
Where does this book fit in the world of Mormon Studies? Well, we’ve had a great run of biographies within the last decade, most notably including David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (review here, noteworthy because the authors had access to President McKay’s private papers), Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (review here, which received significant national attention), and Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (review here, unique for its author (the subject’s son) and format (disputes between author and publisher [Deseret Book] led to a slightly different and much franker edition of the book being included on a CD tucked into the hardback). The Pratt biography belongs in the same class as the McKay, Smith, and Kimball books: it is a serious biography with an academic approach and it is well worth reading. But it doesn’t quite . . . sparkle . . . as much as those three did. I think the average reader is going to be more familiar with the ground covered here, if only because they have read Rough Stone Rolling or Brigham Young: American Moses and get regular doses of 19th century church history at church. The basic outlines of early Church history are much more familiar than some of the issues raised in, for example, the McKay book. So there isn’t quite the wow factor here. At the same time, focusing on Pratt, a major figure to be sure but not a prophet, does give a somewhat different spin to the events of church history; it isn’t quite history from underneath, but it isn’t a prophet’s biography, either. And focusing on Pratt gives the authors the excuse to focus on church history “at the margins,” where Pratt was serving his missions.
To sum: this is an excellent book, despite its flaws, and anyone with a serious interest in Mormon history should read it.
[ftnt1] Although I do wonder if the ereader revolution just might cause a resurgence of interest in these books, now that they are easily accessible and free.
[ftnt 2] That’s my favorite line from Guns, Germs, and Steel: that sometimes we treat history as if it just consists of one damn fact after another.
[ftnt 3] But please note that I could be even more petty and complain about the numerous errors in this book that any decent copyeditor should have caught but didn’t.
[ftnt 4] It is perhaps not coincidental that we have this from Joseph Smith: “O Lord, deliver us in thy due time from the little narrow prison almost as it were total darkness of paper, pen, and ink and a crooked, broken, scattered and imperfect language,” but this from Pratt: “There is power in language. Power to . . . move upon the spirits of nations like the spirit of God moved on the face of the waters” (p64). Obviously, each one had a position more nuanced than these quotes would suggest, but they do seem to be reflective of an overall difference in temperament related to the written word.
Note: The publisher provided me a review copy of this book.