“Parley P. Pratt,” Church History Topics
“Parley P. Pratt”
In the late summer of 1830, Parley P. Pratt, then 23 years old, came across a copy of the Book of Mormon. A native of New York, Pratt had moved to Ohio but felt spiritually prompted to return to New York and preach. The Book of Mormon thrilled him. “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,” he later wrote, concluding, “I knew and comprehended that the book was true.”1 He contacted members of Joseph Smith’s family and was soon baptized.
Almost immediately after Pratt’s baptism, Joseph Smith received revelation calling Pratt on a mission to preach to American Indians on the western frontier of the United States.2 En route, Pratt and his companions stopped near Kirtland, Ohio, to speak with his former pastor, Sidney Rigdon. More than 100 people in and around Kirtland, including Sidney and Phebe Rigdon, soon joined the Church.3 In 1835 Pratt was called to be one of the original members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the latter days.4 In 1836 he served a mission in Canada that resulted in the conversions of future Church President John Taylor and his wife, Leonora, as well as Mary Fielding, who later married Hyrum Smith and became the mother and grandmother of future Church Presidents.5
When the Latter-day Saints were expelled from the state of Missouri in 1838–39, Pratt was arrested because of his participation in a battle against Missourians and spent several months in jail in Richmond and Columbia, Missouri, before escaping and joining the main body of the Saints in Illinois.6 Between 1839 and 1842, he participated in the apostolic mission to England that led to thousands of conversions. Then, in 1847, Pratt and John Taylor led a large wagon company across the plains to the Salt Lake Valley, following the trail blazed by the vanguard company a few months earlier.
Pratt had a vision for establishing the Church across the globe. During the early 1850s, he supervised missionary work in the vast Pacific area of the Church, traveling twice to California and corresponding with missionaries throughout the Pacific. He traveled to Chile, where he studied Spanish and attempted to share the gospel, becoming, along with his wife Phebe and his companion Rufus Allen, the first missionaries in South America. He wrote to Brigham Young, suggesting that all members of the Quorum of the Twelve learn other languages so that they could take the gospel to the world. When he returned to California, he taught Spanish to others.
A gifted writer, Pratt wrote books, pamphlets, newspaper articles, poetry, and hymns to explain and defend his faith. In 1837 he wrote A Voice of Warning, one of the most popular missionary books of the 19th century. While in England, he founded and edited a newspaper titled the Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star.7 In 1855 he published Key to the Science of Theology, an explanation of Church doctrine and theology. He also wrote an autobiography that was published after his death.
While a young man, Pratt married Thankful Halsey, who also converted to the Church and supported him in his various missions until she died in childbirth with their first child, Parley Jr., in 1837. He then married a widow, Mary Ann Frost Stearns, who joined him on his mission to England. The Pratts were introduced to the principle of plural marriage when they returned from England, and they accepted the principle together. Pratt married his first plural wife in 1843, eventually marrying 12 women in his lifetime. He was the father of 30 children. His wives described a generally harmonious household, and Pratt expressed his deep love for his family in letters while on his missionary journeys.
His final wife, Eleanor Jane McComb, had converted to the Church while living in California. According to her account, her husband Hector McLean was an abusive alcoholic who sent their three children to live with her parents in New Orleans after she was baptized. Because of her husband’s abuse, she left him and moved to Salt Lake City. At a time when divorces were difficult to obtain, Eleanor, like many other 19th-century Americans in similar circumstances, considered her marriage ended even though they were not legally divorced.8 She married Pratt in November 1855 and accompanied him on a mission to the eastern states, hoping to retrieve her children from her parents’ home. Her father alerted her estranged husband of her attempt, and he convinced an Arkansas marshal to arrest Pratt in May 1857. A federal judge postponed the case and later released Pratt, but McLean followed Pratt and killed him. The Latter-day Saints deeply mourned his loss.
Four years before his death, Pratt reflected on his life in a letter to a friend from his youth. His faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ had transformed his life and taken him far from his boyhood home in New York. “In short,” he wrote, “I have been a farmer, a servant, a fisher, a digger, a beggar, a preacher, an author, an editor, a senator, a merchant, an elder, and an Apostle of Jesus Christ.” Always a missionary, Pratt gave his friend the message he had given to so many throughout his life: “Search the scriptures,” obey the message of the gospel, be baptized, and “help us to build up the kingdom of God and its righteousness.”9