Parley P. Pratt was an early Mormon apostle and author. He was born April 12, 1807, to Jared Pratt and Charity Dickenson in Burlington, New York. Pratt was a descendent of Pilgrims on the Pratt side of the family. He had limited education because his family moved often, but he read extensively and was very well self-educated.
Parley became a Baptist when he was eighteen, although not fully satisfied as to their truthfulness. He married Thankful Halsey on September 9, 1827, and they settled in Cleveland, Ohio. Parley heard Sydney Rigdon speak soon after his marriage and joined his congregation. (Rigdon later became a Mormon apostle, but at that time he was a preacher for a group called the Disciples or Campbellites.) Pratt was thrilled to hear someone actually teaching New Testament gospel, but still worried about the issue of authority. He saw in his own studies that the apostles had been given the authority to continue teaching after Jesus Christ died, and he felt there ought to be apostles with authority today. Despite his concerns, Pratt joined that movement and became a preacher.
Parley P. Pratt Conversion to Mormonism
In 1830 he was preaching in Ohio near Cleveland when he returned home to New York for a visit. There he heard about the Book of Mormon through a Baptist minister. He read part of it and was strongly moved.
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. As I read, the spirit of the Lord was upon me, and I knew and comprehended that the book was true, as plainly and manifestly as a man comprehends and knows that he exists. My joy was now full, as it were, and I rejoiced sufficiently to more than pay me for all the sorrows, sacrifices and toils of my life.
He decided to travel to Manchester to meet Joseph Smith. There, he found Joseph’s brother, Hyrum Smith. On September 1, 1830, Parley went to Fayette with Hyrum to be baptized. He became an elder (priesthood holder) following his baptism and then returned home to teach his family about Mormonism. His brother Orson Pratt became a member of the Church.
Parley P. Pratt was called as one of the original members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on February 14, 1835. The twelve men of this quorum, which still exists today, are called to be special witness of Jesus Christ and to preach the gospel throughout the world.
In October he accepted his first call to be a missionary. He was sent to the edge of Missouri to work with Native Americans. As he and his companions traveled there, they took opportunities to teach Mormonism to those they met. While in Kirtland, Ohio, they encountered Sydney Rigdon and shared the religion with him. Rigdon and many others in Rigdon’s congregation, including his wife, were converted. When the missionaries began their work with Native Americans, they taught and converted people in the Catteraugus tribe near Buffalo, the Wyandots in Ohio, and the Delaware, just outside of Missouri.
The following year he would serve several other missions, including one to the Shakers.
In June of 1831, Parley P. Pratt become one of the first High Priests at a church conference. Following this he and his brother traveled to another conference in Missouri, preaching as they traveled.
In 1833, Joseph Smith received a revelation that God was pleased with Parley P. Pratt and that he would continue to lead the school as long as he remained worthy. Shortly thereafter, he and the other Mormons were driven from their homes by mobs that burned their houses, killed their crops, and murdered many of the Church members. They settled across the river for a time.
Persecution of Mormons
In 1834, the Mormons pressured the governor to keep his promise to allow the Mormons to return to their homes and to defend themselves against attack. Parley P. Pratt and Orson Hyde approached him with this request, but the governor refused to honor his commitment to them and to religious freedom.
The following year, Parley P. Pratt would attain his highest office in the church. When the first group of apostles were named, he was ranked number seven by age. (Today apostles are ranked by length of time in office, but since the first group was called at the same time, they ranked by age.) As an apostle, he had a special calling to testify of Jesus Christ. He traveled to Canada in 1836 to establish several congregations and then went to New York to do the same. His first wife, Thankful, died a few hours after giving birth. Parley briefly lost faith in the church in all the turmoil of family and religious life, complicated by excessive persecutions, but quickly returned and requested forgiveness.
He moved to Caldwell County in 1838, but once again mobs attacked the Mormons. Governor Boggs had issued the infamous extermination order, making it legal to murder Mormons. The Mormons had not yet learned of it, but the mobs had. When the mob militia arrived, the Mormons attempted to negotiate peacefully with them, but the next day, Colonel Hinkle met with General Lucas and, without authorization, promised to deliver Joseph Smith and other church leaders to the mob and allowed church members to be driven from their homes and many to be murdered. The mobs destroyed property valued in the millions of dollars.
Pratt and other church leaders remained in jail for eight months while the Mormons escaped to Illinois. Parley P. Pratt wrote a book about Mormon persecutions while in prison. During the trials for these types of arrests, typically those coming to testify on behalf of the accused were arrested, leaving only people testifying against them and generally chosen from the mobs that placed them in jail. The men were able to escape after a change of venue. Pratt had escaped once before, alone, but returned when he realized it might endanger the other prisoners. One person in the group was re-arrested, but released when it was acknowledged there were no actual charges against any of the men.
In 1840, Parley P. Pratt served a mission in England and began publishing a Mormon newspaper called the Millennial Star. The following year, he was appointed president over all the British conferences. In 1845, he was appointed head of the conferences of the Middle States and New England. Headquartered in New York, he published The Prophet, a periodical.
He returned home to Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1846, but following the murder of Joseph Smith, the Mormons were forced to leave Illinois. Pratt left ten days after the first group. A month after the arduous journey to Utah ended, Pratt and several other men were sent to England. The two men who oversaw that area of the church had been disfellowshipped (loss of full membership privileges) for misconduct regarding church funds.
When they returned home early the next year, they came to Winter Quarters to meet with Brigham Young and to report on events in England. They were asked to take charge of Winter Quarters and to lead them to Utah, which they did.
Leading in Utah
A provisional government was established in Utah and Parley P. Pratt helped to create the constitution. When Utah was accepted as a United States territory, he was elected to the legislative council. In the following years, he would serve several more missions and also enter into the practice of polygamy. He wrote many tracts, articles, and books, the best-known of which is Key to the Science of Theology.
Parley also worked with George D. Watt in the 1850s to develop the Deseret Alphabet, which worked phonetically and was intended to help many immigrants and converts from different countries to learn English more easily so everyone could communicate more effectively.
In 1856, Parley was called to serve a mission to the eastern States. 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.” On May 13, 1857, shortly after his 50th birthday, Parley was murdered outside the small town of Van Buren, Arkansas, by Hector McLean, former husband of a wife Parley took in a polygamous marriage. Hector was a man who abused both alcohol and his wife. She left him and eventually married Parley in Utah.
McLean felt Parley had stolen his wife and children (rather than recognizing his own abusive nature had driven them away) and pursued him across the country. Parley was arrested for the alleged crime and was found not guilty by a judge who then released him in secret, realizing Parley’s life was in danger.
With two friends on McLean’s side, they tracked Parley down. Parley was shot him six times and stabbed twice, being left to bleed to death. As he lay dying, Parley testified to those who had come to help: “I die a firm believer in the Gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith. … I know that the Gospel is true and that Joseph Smith was a prophet of the living God, I am dying a martyr to the faith.”
This article is adapted from Every Person in the Doctrine and Covenants by Lynn F. Price, Cedar Fort, 2007, with additional information from Matthew J. Grow, “The Extraordinary Life of Parley P. Pratt,” Ensign, April 2007.
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.