Parley P. Pratt
Parley Parker Pratt was born on April 12, 1807, in Burlington, New York, to Jared and Charity Pratt. The Pratt family, like the family of Joseph Smith, struggled financially and moved several times. Jared and Charity Pratt did not belong to a church, though they frequently attended various denominations and taught their sons a respect for the Bible and Christian faith. Parley became a religious seeker, beginning a serious study of the scriptures at age 12. As he grew older, he wondered at the discrepancies between biblical teachings and contemporary churches. Desiring to follow God, Parley joined a Baptist church at age 18, though he remained dissatisfied.
The following year the Pratts lost their farm, prompting Parley to move to frontier Ohio, where he envisioned conducting missionary work among Native Americans. After spending a winter in a “small hut” with only the Bible and a “few other books” for companions, he returned to New York the following spring to see Thankful Halsey, whom he had previously courted. Parley shared his religious views with her and asked her to marry him. On September 9, 1827, Parley and Thankful were married. She was ten years older than he. Shortly after their marriage, they settled a plot of land in Cleveland, Ohio, which was then on the frontier of the United States. He joined a local Campbellite church where Sidney Rigdon was preacher. The Campbellites sought to restore the practices of New Testament Christianity. Still, he felt uneasy, that the authority to act in God's name was not found in the Campbellite Church. Pratt decided to also become a preacher and sold his property, feeling that if he dedicated himself to the Lord's service, the Lord would provide for his financial needs. He and Thankful, with ten dollars to their name, left for New York. While Thankful headed on, Parley felt prompted to abandon the journey in Newark, New Jersey.
While traveling through New York, Pratt came across a copy of the Book of Mormon. He read virtually the entire book in one sitting and was convinced that it was true. He later recalled:
- “I read all day; eating was a burden, I had no desire for food; sleep was a burden when the night came, for I preferred reading to sleep.”
Feeling the confirmation of the Holy Ghost, Parley wrote:
- “I knew and comprehended that the book was true. … My joy was now full.”
Determined to meet Joseph Smith, Parley traveled to Palmyra, where he instead found Hyrum Smith, who instructed him about the Restoration. In the Church of Jesus Christ, Parley recognized the authority, simplicity, and purity he had long sought. On September 1, 1830, just five months after the Church was founded, Pratt was baptized by Oliver Cowdery. He was soon ordained an Elder, then left to visit family. His younger brother Orson Pratt became interested in the Church and was baptized just a short time later on September 19, 1830. Orson, too, later became an apostle.
In October of 1830, Pratt met the Prophet Joseph Smith and was asked to join a missionary group that was going to teach the Native Americans. On their way west, Pratt visited his old minister, Sidney Rigdon, and was successful in converting Rigdon and 130 members of his congregation to the Church in just three weeks. With this strong congregation established in Ohio, the Church shifted its headquarters there. Parley P. Pratt served many missions: to the Eastern United States, Southern United States, England, the Pacific Islands, and South America. He taught many people who would later become leaders of the Church, including his brother Orson Pratt, Frederick G. Williams, John Taylor, Joseph Fielding, and his sisters Mary and Mercy. Mary later married Hyrum Smith and was the mother of future Mormon Church President Joseph F. Smith.
Pratt organized a School of the Prophets in Jackson County (see Doctrine and Covenants 97:3), experienced the tumult of Missouri persecution, and recruited for and marched in Zion’s Camp. In 1835, along with his brother Orson, he received a call as one of the original Twelve Apostles. The following spring, Parley—deeply in debt and with Thankful seriously ill—hesitated about serving another mission. Heber C. Kimball, a fellow Apostle, blessed Parley with specific promises: Thankful would be healed and would give birth to a son, their first after nine years of marriage, and Parley would fulfill a mission in Canada which would serve as a stepping-stone for the gospel to be taken to England. Elder Kimball’s blessing proved prophetic. In Canada, Parley helped convert several individuals who became some of the first missionaries to England, including John Taylor, later the third President of the Church, and his wife Leonora. Following Parley’s return, Thankful gave birth to a son in March 1837, though she died a few hours later.
When Parley returned from Canada to Kirtland, Ohio, the Church was embroiled in controversy, resulting from a combination of internal divisions, persecution, and a national financial panic. Parley became disillusioned for a short time, but he humbled himself and sought forgiveness from Joseph Smith.
When Missourians forced the Saints from the state in late 1838, Parley was arrested with other Church leaders and imprisoned for eight months in Richmond and Columbia, Missouri. Temporarily detained with President Smith and others in a hotel in Independence on the way to Richmond, he slipped out unnoticed one snowy morning and quickly reached the woods outside the city. However, when he realized that his escape might subject his brethren to a “storm of trouble, or even of death,” he chose to return to the hotel. Though homeless and imprisoned, with his family and the Saints exiled from the state, Parley felt “more firm than ever in the faith of Jesus.”
- His love and respect for the Prophet Joseph also deepened. One night in the Richmond Jail, as guards in “dreadful blasphemies and filthy language” boasted of their participation in the Saints’ persecution, Joseph rebuked them in the name of Jesus Christ in a “voice of thunder”: “SILENCE, ye fiends of the infernal pit. … Cease such talk, or you or I die THIS INSTANT!” The “quailing guards … begged his pardon.” Parley wrote, “Dignity and majesty have I seen but once, as it stood in chains, at midnight, in a dungeon in an obscure village of Missouri.”
Following the transfer of Joseph and other prisoners to Liberty Jail, Parley remained in Richmond Jail. He sorely missed his second wife, Mary Ann Frost, and felt he received comfort from his first wife, Thankful. His brother Orson helped him escape, fittingly, on Independence Day, July 4, 1839, from the jail in Columbia, after which they joined the Saints at Nauvoo.
Shortly after his return to Nauvoo, Parley served an apostolic mission to England, where thousands joined the Church. Along with his missionary service, Pratt was a printer, writer, and editor of the Church’s publication of The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star starting in 1839. Pratt also wrote over fifty hymns, including the lyrics to three popular Mormon hymns: "Jesus, Once of Humble Birth," "The Morning Breaks," and "Come, O Thou King of Kings." He was also the first person to write a book about Mormonism, entitled A Voice of Warning. It was very popular among Mormons in the nineteenth century and is still available today. The book was instrumental in the conversion of thousands. Parley understood the power of print and used publishing to advance the cause of the gospel, printing and distributing pamphlets by the thousands. He was blessed with a poetic mind, a romantic spirit, and an engaging style, and his voluminous writings ensured that the Latter-day Saint message received an eloquent defense. He wrote a moving autobiography, which was published just after his death. The autobiography captures the spirit and excitement of the early decades of the Restoration.
In Nauvoo, Parley and his family were beset by poverty. In 1843, his family—“consisting of wife and her sister, five children, hired girl, and hundreds of goers and comers”—lived in one small room. However, Parley Pratt preferred togetherness in poverty to the loneliness of travel. He rejoiced in the work of the Church and in the doctrine of the eternal nature of the family unit.
After Joseph Smith was martyred, Parley Pratt opposed the machinations of Sidney Rigdon to become the Church's protector and instead supported Brigham Young. In February 1846 Parley and his family were part of the forced exodus from Illinois. Like so many other Saints, he spent his last minutes in Nauvoo traveling down Parley Street before ferrying his family across the Mississippi River. Pratt and his family moved to Utah with the body of the Church. Pratt was essential in establishing camps along the Mormon Trail, including Garden City and Mt. Pisgah, Nebraska. He also led a company of pioneers across the plains to the Salt Lake Valley.
In the 1850’s, with the help of George D. Watt, Pratt developed the Deseret Alphabet, which was designed to help the many immigrants from Europe learn English. In the 1850's he lived in California, presiding over missionary work there and in the Pacific. In 1851 he sailed from gold rush San Francisco to Valparaiso, Chile, along with his wife and another missionary, making the trio the first missionaries to South America. Unfortunately, civil unrest, restrictive laws against non-Catholic religions, struggles with the language, the death of an infant son, and lack of adequate funds cut short this early effort. Parley continued to study Spanish, however, and envisioned a day when the Church would sweep Latin America. In 1856, Pratt was called on another mission, this time to the eastern United States.
While on his mission, Parley sensed his approaching death. He wrote home, “I long to do my duty while here and then go to rest in the paradise of God.” Indeed, Parley stated, “I neither dread nor fear death, but I anticipate changing worlds with joy inexhaustible.” Parley was tracked by a man named Hector McLean, who was upset with Pratt for marrying his former wife, Eleanor McLean. He pressed charges against Pratt, but Pratt was released. A short time later, on May 13, 1857, just before his 50th birthday, Pratt was ambushed and killed by McLean and two other men near Van Buren, Arkansas. A monument marks his grave.
Parley P. Pratt considered his life to be strange and miraculous. He said that his beliefs had entangled him in a wide range of difficulties:
- “I have lain months in gloomy dungeons, and been loaded with chains. I have been visited there by visions of Angels and Spirits, and been delivered by miracles.”
During his life, he said he had been a farmer, a servant, a fisher, a digger, a preacher, an author, an editor, a traveler, a merchant, an elder, and an Apostle of Jesus Christ.
- Matthew J. Grow, “The Extraordinary Life of Parley P. Pratt,” Ensign, Apr 2007, 56–61.
- Parley P. Pratt, Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt (1985), 10.
- Parley P. Pratt to Mrs. Rockwood, Dec. 9, 1838, A. P. Rockwood Collection, LDS Church Archives.
- Pratt, Autobiography, 179–80. Italics removed.
- Ensign, April, 2007.
For more information about Parley P. Pratt, his life, his family, or his death, visit http://www.pratt-family.org
For documents, letters, and newspaper articles about Parley P. Pratt, visit http://jared.pratt-family.org/parley_histories/list_parley_histories.html