August 5, 2011

Review: Givens and Grow, "Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism"

Title: Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism
Authors: Terryl L. Givens, Matthew J. Grow
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Genre: Biography/Religion
Year: 2011
Pages: 592
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN13: 978-0-19537-573-2
Price: $34.95

As a young LDS missionary I was thrilled reading Parley P. Pratt's epic biography. I marveled at his tales of harrowing prison time and daring escapes, the Missouri persecutions, missionary travels, his view of the early Mormon Church and Joseph Smith. I wondered why such things didn't seem to happen today. Since then I've come to believe that autobiographies can often obscure as much as they reveal, and Pratt's book is no different (historian Benjamin Park has done excellent work on framing Pratt's autobiography as his way of maintaining relevance and connection to a LDS movement he sometimes felt adrift from; work which the biographers employ, though my index-less advanced copy of the book prevents my providing a page number for it!). A new biography of the Mormon apostle tempers Pratt's autobiographical enthusiasm, offsetting his memories with many mundane actualities to bring him back down to earth a bit—enough to make him appear simultaneously less amazing and all the more compelling.

Pratt is a hat-rack kind of fellow, and biographers Terryl Givens and Matthew Grow include the requisite listsone written by Pratt ("farmer, a servant, a fisher, a digger, a beggar, a preacher, an author, an editor, a senator, a traveler, a merchant, an elder and an Apostle of Jesus Christ," p. 3), and one of their own devising ("a missionary, hymnist, explorer, politician, theologian, satirist, editor, and historian," p. 393). Each of these roles plays out in the course of Givens's and Grow's chronologically-based story of Pratt's life. But the role most important to Pratt, the biographers note, was that of apostle. Pratt's "affinity with [the Apostle] Paul was clear" (393).

They list three key reasons to justify the biography's subtitle ("The Apostle Paul of Mormonism"). First, they argue that Pratt's writings greatly aided in systematizing and popularizing the teachings of Joseph Smith, much like Paul's writings have done for the teachings of Jesus Christ (5-7). Second, Pratt's wide-reaching missionary travels did much to help disseminate Mormonism (7). Finally, Pratt encountered much persecution and, ultimately, became a martyr to his faith "in his own eyes and the beliefs of the Latter-day Saints" (8).

Speaking of the Latter-day Saints, the biography is clearly written for a broader audience. The authors take time to extrapolate from developments in Mormonism to the development of various religious movements generally (see, for example, 260). At the same time, I believe an academically-oriented biography such as this is a great medium through which current Mormons can become better familiar with the early development of their Church. Contextual details which are not commonly brought up in homiletic church history accounts permeate the narrative. The biographers situate Mormonism within 19th century millennial movements and seekerism (107, 115), trace the beginnings of Mormon apologetics (167), flesh out the political and personal factors which exacerbated the conflicts in Missouri (131-3, etc.), note similarities between the LDS temple and Masonry (208), and describe a handful of practices no longer employed in the Church, including rebaptisms and spiritual adoption (264, 272). A full chapter, in addition to excerpts throughout the book, is spent focusing specifically on Pratt's plural wives and the dynamics of plural marriage in early Mormonism. They also refer repeatedly to a sort of revelatory eclecticism, through which Joseph Smith is said to have been inspired as much by events in his environment as by heavenly manifestations (7, 208). Sometimes, they note, the records simply don't make it clear whether certain ideas were first expressed by Joseph Smith to his congregants, or to Joseph Smith by friends and fellow Church leaders like Pratt (172). Perhaps unbeknownst to many current Mormons, Pratt left a huge imprint on Mormon beliefs. They may be surprised to know that the Articles of Faith weren't composed by Joseph Smith for the famous Wentworth Letter, but were borrowed and slightly adjusted by him from earlier efforts by Parley and Orson Pratt, to take one of many examples (171).

Despite an overall tone of candor, the authors very occasionally overlook controversial points. For instance, they leave out the age of Fanny Alger, purported first plural wife of Joseph Smith (95). At the same time, they also avoid over-promoting some instances heralded as miraculous by contemporary Latter-day Saints, such as the storm which supposedly prevented mobs from attacking Zion's Camp members at Fishing River (69).

The publicity materials for the biography note that Pratt is a forefather of both Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsmanwhich is of interest due to their current participation in the upcoming US presidential election— but the authors don't mention it. They also forego in-depth discussion of later editing of Pratt's writings, though they mention a few changes made by LDS Church leaders when later doctrinal developments made Pratt's work appear inaccurate.

Nevertheless, theologically-minded readers will doubtless enjoy exegesis of several of Pratt's most important publications, including his Voice of Warning, Key to the Science of Theology, and an array of theological essays and poems. In my opinion, the book really hits its stride when they start analyzing Pratt's A Voice of Warning, spending plenty of time throughout the rest of the book examining Pratt's doctrinal propositions and assertions (104, 114-127). It will be fun to see reactions to descriptions of Pratt's take on human identity, spirit matter, and "intelligences" (332). Even if readers disagree with the analysis of any particular theological point, the contention that Pratt wasn't much concerned to make Mormon teachings "pass muster" with broader Christianity is patently clear here (334).  

History-minded folks will be pleased to read their account of the so-called succession crisis, which followed the death of Joseph Smith. Pratt, they argue, played a key role in maintaining allegiance to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles amongst outlying Mormon branches throughout the eastern United States and Great Britain (beginning at p. 222). Attention to such lesser-known non-Nauvoo Mormons is a welcome part of current Mormon studies. Analysis of Pratt's views of "Lamanites," American Indians, and other races depicts his interesting paradigm shift in the concept of Zion and Lehi's seed (70, 304). 

As this biography is a collaboration, it would be interesting to know how the authors divvied things up. The narrative voice is pretty seamless, but every once in a while a nice Givens-esque turn of phrase glows like a firefly: "Like Pratt, [Thomas] Dick had been consumed by the spectacle of a scientific juggernaut that was already opening worlds immense and minute to human knowledge, and would leave in its wake any theology too timid to follow" (170-171).

The biography closes with the account of Pratt's death at the hands of Hector McLean, the enraged spouse of Pratt's last plural wife, Eleanor. Apparently, subsequent efforts by Pratt descendants to locate Pratt's grave and exhume the body in order to bury him in Utah were evidently not deemed relevant enough for inclusion. Thankfully, the authors did not build the book as a veiled history of the LDS Church and Joseph Smith (Smith's martyrdom, for instance, is described in one paragraph, 219). They also don't slavishly follow Pratt's autobiography; this book does not read as an extended essay on that popular work, nor does it make use of it uncritically. As for Pratt's claim that in his youth he exhibited "an originality of mind, seldom exhibited" by others, they can't resist ribbing him a little: "No bragging here, just the truth, he insisted" (16). They are not averse to mentioning Prat's questionable recollections and character flaws. They dissect the famous story Pratt tells of tricking a policeman's bulldog, discovering that while he claimed to be arrested on the basis of religious persecution, it most likely resulted more from some outstanding debts he incurred as an earlier resident of that town (43-44). Surprising to me, given the way Pratt's fiery writings were often peppered with wit, Pratt could be morose and was often somber and intense in person, as opposed to being jovial and overly humorous.

Givens and Grow have crafted a great biography. The included maps are very useful in keeping track of Pratt's journeys, the first appendix is very useful in keeping track of his voluminous publications and the second appendix his voluminous family. They follow him on missions, through deserts, over mountains, away from policemen, and ultimately toward his vision of the Kingdom of God.