August 22, 2006

"We contemplate the emancipation of the world": Pratt's 4th of July Oration

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Parley P. Pratt
July 4, 1853

During 4th of July celebration of 1853 Elder Parley P. Pratt's seemingly-failed mission to Chile November 1851 to October 1852[1] was on his mind as he gave a stirring sermon on freedom, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. Parley's comments give us a glimpse of his own personal views on government, America, freedom, and the gospel. He was convinced the Constitution was inspired by God, and could even leaven the "despotic nations" of the entire world:

The longer I live, and the more acquainted I am with men and things, the more I realize that these movements, and particularly that instrument called the Constitution of American Liberty, was certainly dictated by the spirit of wisdom, by a spirit of unparalleled liberality, and by a spirit of political utility. And if that Constitution be carried out by a just and wise administration, it is calculated to benefit not only all the people that are born under its particular jurisdiction, but all the people of the earth, of whatever nation, kindred, tongue, religion, or tradition, that may seek to take a shelter under its banner.
As Ralph C. Hancock explained in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism:
While LDS scripture reinforces the traditional Christian duty of "respect and deference" to civil laws and governments in general as "instituted of God for the benefit of man" (D&C 134:1, 6), Latter-day Saints attach special significance to the Constitution of the United States of America. They believe that the Lord "established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom [he] raised up unto this very purpose" (D&C 101:80).[2]
Importantly, this view of divine inspiration underlying the Constitution is (or perhaps should be) tempered in LDS thought as being mediated through fallible humans, thus existing as something of a neccessary lesser law until the Millennial reign of Christ when He will rule as King. Eventually, "the darkness which has covered the earth will be chased away, light will prevail, liberty triumph, mankind be free, the nations be brethren, and none have need to say to his neighbor, 'Know ye the Lord,' or the truth, which is just the same thing; for all will know Him, from the least to the greatest."

Such great things would grow out of the small seed of freedom planted in the Constitution; which, in the meantime, would be in the hands of imperfect humans, as Hancock explains:
...New needs and circumstances might require the continued exercise of inspired human wisdom by statesmen and citizens alike. LDS leaders have taught that the Constitution is not to be considered perfect and complete in every detail...but as subject to development and adaptation...President Brigham Young explained that the Constitution "is a progressive—a gradual work"; the founders "laid the foundation, and it was for after generations to rear the superstructure upon it" (JD 7:13-15).[3]
Likewise Pratt seemed to get at the root of a crucial issue in his next comments: the difference between the document on one hand, and the Government (and thus, the interpretation of the document) on the other. "Paper itself cannot enforce its own precepts" he explained, "and unhallowed principles in the people, or in the rulers which they choose, may pervert any form of government, however sacred, true, and liberal...Much depends on the feeling and action of the people in their choice of men and measures, and much depends on the administration of those they may choose."

The principles in the Constitution, then, "embrace eternal truths, principles of eternal liberty" for all people, even "the great, fundamental eternal principles of liberty to rational beings," which Parley listed as "liberty of conscience, liberty to do business, liberty to increase in intelligence and in improvement, in the comforts, conveniences, and elegances of this life, and in the intellectual principles that tend to progress in all lives."

Parley opined on the unlikely story that is America; the few versus the many, the external pressure and internal faction, the hardships in providing for their well-being without the "modern" conveniences of railroad, steamboat and telegraph. Seeing how far America had come, Parley exclaimed "Our hearts beat high for liberty"; millions throughout the nation "dwelling securely under the same banner to celebrate the day on which freedom dawned," the 4th of July. 

Recognizing the "shackles" still hampering humanity in countries across the globe, he believed America could provide an example for the world as a city set on a hill that cannot be hid; encouraging not violent revolutions, which Parley said have been tried in vain, but peaceful emancipation under the influence of God:
When we contemplate the designs of the country, and its influence, we contemplate not merely our own liberty, happiness, and progress, nationally and individually, but we contemplate the emancipation of the world, the flowing of the nations to this fountain, and to the occupation of these elements, blending together in one common brotherhood.
This would not occur through bloody revolution by whole nations, but rather "one by one, family by family" would join and spread the cause of freedom following the example of other free nations of the world, though it would not happen for "a long time." Thus, Parley coupled the ensign spoken of in Isaiah 18 with the cause of freedom with the gospel which would leaven the world- not by compulsion- but that truth and freedom would be an "indirect influence" so overwhelming, self-evident and good, that the other nations would bow to the ensign.

Triumphantly, Parley declared the change would be
of such magnitude and greatness, that language is inadequate to express the probable result; we can only borrow the language of the Prophets, which is also insufficient to convey the idea properly, that is: The earth shall be full of knowledge, light, liberty, [and] brotherly kindness...[D]arkness will flee away, oppression will be known no more, and men will employ blacksmiths to beat up their old weapons of war into plowshares and pruning hooks...The world will be renovated both politically and religiously. 
Considering his comments to be only "partial ideas," Parley felt these principles included "all the practical truths in the universe that are within the grasp of mortal man" and that learning of them "may reach into immortality." He concluded:
We will acknowledge the hand of God in the movements of men, and in the development of minds, the result of which will be the fulfillment of what the Prophet has spoken—the renovation of our race, and the establishment of a universal Kingdom of God, in which His will will be done on earth as it is done in heaven (JD 1:137-143).[4]


Painting: Christ in America by Minerva Teichert (1888-1976). For more on Pratt's mission to Chile see A. Delbert Palmer, Mark L. Grover, "Hoping to Establish a Presence: Parley P. Pratt's 1851 Mission to Chile," BYU Studies 38:4 (1999), 115-138.

Ralph C. Hancock, "Constitution of the United States of America," Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1.

ibid. Take, for instance, Hugh Nibley's comments:

Politics, as practiced on earth, belongs to the ways of men...The moral is clear: the children of God can work well with the men of the world, and bestow great blessings by their services--but there comes a time when one must draw the line and make a choice between the two governments. Such a choice was forced on the Mormons very early, and a very hard choice it was, but they did not flinch before it. "We will go along with you as far as we can; but where we can't we won't;" and no hard feelings (Nibley, "Beyond Politics." BYU Studies 15:1, [1974], pp. 4-5). 

An excellent study on the Millennial expectations of the Latter-day Saints is Grant Underwood's The Millenarian Worl of Early Mormonism. Parley believed that the timing of the second coming of Christ was not particularly fixed beyond mankind's ability to affect it. See "Can We Hasten or Delay the Second Coming?" for a brief look at various LDS perspectives on the issue. For a good launchpad on LDS views of the Constitution and political science see the sources compiled at Education for Eternity.For more on "Americanism" and the LDS Church, see "How 'American' Is the Church?"

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