October 19, 2007

Pratt Says You Don't Know Nothing

(figuratively speaking) Orson Pratt October 22, 1854 Orson Pratt was largely a self-educated man. His interest in science, philosophy, and gaining knowledge in general were the flags he flew highest throughout his life. While fellow members of the vanguard of pioneers traveling to Utah were playing games, making jokes, or simply resting on the trail Orson had other things in mind. He was busy was scurrying up hillsides with his scientific instruments, taking measurements on the horizon, locating current latitude and longitude, reading his barometer, comparing terrain with maps of former adventurers, detailing insect population and plant life, and reading books. While the gospel emphasizes moderation in all things, it is likely we can all take a page from Orson's zeal. He wanted to know anything he could know. His church publications in Europe show a vast knowledge of contemporary and classic philosophers; he wasn't an intellectual lightweight. He was particularly interested in astronomy and mathematics; becoming a professor at the University of Deseret on those subjects in addition to offering private tutoring. This freedom of thought sometimes placed him in opposition with the status quo leading to disagreements and censures from President Brigham Young over doctrinal matters. Despite some differences in what they believed about the mechanics of "intelligences," or the exact physical nature of the Holy Ghost, Brigham believed Orson could be trusted to lead the European missions, and did so for many years. When some concerned saints questioned Brigham about some of Pratt's unorthodox theories, Brigham is reported to have said "If you were to chop up Elder Pratt into inch-square pieces, each piece would cry out, 'Mormonism is true!'"[1] Given this background, his comments in the following sermon are enlightening, as well as instructive. On this occasion Heber C. Kimball had invited Elder Pratt to speak on the subject of his choosing, and so his sermon was titled:




Obviously this topic outreaches the first principles and ordinances, and demonstrate Pratt loved to speculate about what he called "the Philosophy of Mormonism." He cautioned his listeners, however, by beginning his address with a disclaimer:
It is delightful to me, to speak of the things that belong to the salvation of the human family-to speak of God and of His works, plans, and purposes, so far as they are revealed for the salvation and benefit of man. But, at the same time, I realize that there is but a small degree-a very small degree, indeed, of the purposes of God unfolded to the mind of man.

The amount of knowledge, which we in our present state are in possession of, is extremely limited, so that when compared with that vast amount of knowledge that fills eternity, we might say that man, in his highest attainments here in this life, is, as it were, nothing.

However far he may expand his intellectual powers, and faculties by studying, by meditation, by seeking unto the Lord diligently for the inspiration of the Spirit, yet all that he can possibly receive and attain to here is, comparatively speaking, nothing.

Orson next took a moment to discuss the dichotomy Moses discovered after his grand visions of God's many works as we read in the Pearl of Great Price:
And it came to pass that it was for the space of many hours before Moses did again receive his natural strength like unto man; and he said unto himself: Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.(Moses 1:10)
All of Pratt's nights gazing at the stars through his telescope while the other pioneers slept led him to the same conclusion:
If there were a being then upon the face of the earth, that had a reason to suppose that man was something, it was Moses; but yet in the midst of the visions of the Almighty, and the vast field of knowledge that was opened to his mind-while he was yet gazing upon the workmanship of the hands of God, and looking into the intricacies of the construction of this world-in the midst of all this, he considered himself nothing. That is just the way I feel; and I presume it is the way that almost every one feels who contemplates the greatness of God, and the immensity of knowledge that there is far beyond our reach in this present state of existence.
This initial humility is soon replaced, and even deepened, by what Moses learned from God after concluding that man is nothing; that man is in the image of God, his very work and glory:
At the same time, when we compare our knowledge and our intellectual powers with the glimmerings of light that we see manifested in the brute creation, we may exclaim that man is something-that he is advanced far beyond the apparent manifestations of knowledge that exist among the lower orders of beings...[2] [W]hen we contemplate the reasoning powers and faculties of man-the rational faculty-the abstract ideas that are capable of dwelling in his mind, and then look at the brute creation, we see a vast difference between the two... All these, then, in one sense of the word, are something, instead of being nothing; for all of the works of God are intended to show forth His wisdom, power, and goodness, whether it is in the formation of man, in the formation of the brute creation, or in the formation of the highest or lowest order of intelligence. God is there; His intelligence and power are there; His wisdom and goodness are there; and all His works are marked by His great and glorious attributes.
Moses quoted God saying the same thing, only more briefly:
For behold, this is my work and my glory— to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man (Moses 1:39).
This underscores the plan of salvation and gives clarity to the doctrine that "the glory of God is intelligence," (D&C 93:36) and that "a man is saved no faster than he gets knowledge" (TPJS, 213). As Elder Neal A. Maxwell pointed out, there is a difference between this intelligence (as understood in a gospel sense) and intellectual ability:
Intelligence [is] the ability to perceive truth and act upon it, not simply to accumulate it in the abstract for the thrills of intellectual possession (Deposition of a Disciple, pg. 45).
Elder Pratt wanted all saints to be scholars:
There is something calculated to give great joy and happiness to the mind of man in the idea of improvement, so long as there is anything to be learned-in the idea of progressing and expanding those principles of light and intelligence that already exist within these tabernacles. There is a joy-a satisfaction, existing in the mind of the righteous man, in the discovery of every additional truth; it matters not whether he himself attains this truth by experience, by reason, by reflection, by immediate revelation from higher powers, or by a revelation from his fellow man. It matters not how or in what way or manner he obtains this new truth, it is calculated to inspire his heart with joy and happiness. We see this illustrated in some small degree in the scientific discoveries of modern ages, as well as in those of ancient times.
Elder Pratt found great joy in the discovery of scientific truth, and exulted that joy is so much greater in the discovery of truth regarding eternal life:
There is a perceptive faculty, existing in the bosom of man, that is capable of perceiving light and truth, when it is clearly manifested; such truths are as certain and as sure to him as any other truths; when he obtains the knowledge which he has long hunted after, and spent years, perhaps, in close meditation, reasoning, and study in order to obtain, it gives him such a joy, satisfaction, and ecstasy, that he is hardly capable of retaining himself in the body. The mind of that great man Sir Isaac Newton, one of the great discoverers in modern times, was exercised in a wonderful manner. About the time he unfolded the great law that governs the bodies in the universe, which he termed the law of universal gravitation; his mind was so affected, so full of joy, and so overcome, when he was about laying bare the great truths this law unfolded, that he had to obtain the assistance of some one present in carrying out the calculations. If these scientific truths will have such an effect upon the mind of man, how much greater ought the joy to be, in the hearts of the children of men, in relation to those still greater truths that pertain to eternal life and the exaltation of man in the eternal world!

Elder Pratt looked forward to the time when greater knowledge would be revealed, and above all, did not want to stop learning here and now to prepare for there and then; believing that
...if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come (D&C 130:19).
This continual process of learning should be encouragement enough to keep our minds open and keep learning; it is part of enduring to the end.
That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day (D&C 50:24).
Elder Orson Pratt didn't sit back and wait for that perfect day to arrive, he studied to be prepared for it, and looked forward to it with joy:
There is something glorious in the contemplation of that period of time, when we shall come in possession of greater truths, even before we do obtain them; for we have the promise given to us by the Almighty, that more truths will be revealed and unfolded; and just the bare anticipation of these truths, before they are revealed, are calculated to give great joy and happiness to the mind of man (JD 3:97-105).
Footnotes: [1] This is an extremely brief introduction to the accomplishments of Elder Pratt, he deserves more. For more, see Breck England, The Life and Thought of Orson Pratt. The quote regarding Pratt is in "Journal of President B. Young's Office," 1 October 1860, Brigham Young Papers, Church Archives. I initially discovered the quote in Eugene England, Brother Brigham, pg. 87. For more on the conflict between Orson Pratt and Brigham Young on doctrinal matters see Gary James Bergera, Conflict in the Quorum. [2] When mentioning the fact that man is not only nothing, but that man is indeed something, notice he can't help but digress into a small point on the nature of animals and their part in God's plan, including his beliefs on so-called animal instinct:
He is, indeed, something compared with the small glimmerings of light that exist in the brute creation, in the beasts of the field, in the fowls of the air, and in the fishes of the sea; all these have some degree of knowledge and understanding; and some of them have some degree of information and knowledge that man is not in possession of. Man designates such intelligence by the name of instinct; they seem to be guided by a principle that man, naturally speaking, is not in possession of..


Mr. Grey Spaceman said...

I remember once in seminary my teacher read us this verse:

D&C 88: 118.
118 And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.

It stuck with me. I put it on my missionary plaque. It's sort of been my creedo through life.

LifeOnaPlate said...

That is an excellent verse, and a good creedo. It's one of my favorite things about the Church.

Doc said...

What a great post! I have been thinking a lot along the same lines, and had exactly the same thoughts about Moses. The more you learn, the more you realize you have to learn. Orson Pratt is a great exemplar. Thank You.

LifeOnaPlate said...

Thanks for dropping in.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Elder Pratt would have been nearly as effective in inch-sized pieces but it's comforting to know President Young was random.

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