Orson Pratt: The Gage of Philosophy

Recently, I asked many of my friends and associates to name five general authorities from the Church in the 1800’s. The most-mentioned men were Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Parley P. Pratt, Wilford Woodruff, and John Taylor.  Not one mentioned Orson Pratt.

This apostle, known by some in the Church (mostly just as one of the names of the original apostles) has largely become a forgotten man today. In his time, however, “to many Americans and Europeans… he was the best-known Mormon besides Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.” What was he known for? “He was the foremost intellectual in the Church… he was, at the time of his death in 1881, the oldest and most experienced general authority of the Church. He was one of the first missionaries, one of the original group of Twelve Apostles, the official Church Historian, and the leading Mormon scripturist. He was the first Mormon in the Salt Lake Valley, the leading exponent of Mormon doctrine, and for seven terms served as speaker of the territory’s House of Representatives. With forty-five children, he was the father of one of America’s largest families. But for a brief excommunication in 1842 he might have succeeded Brigham Young as president of the Mormon Church.” (Arrington, Leonard J. Forward to the Life and Thought of Orson Pratt by Breck England.) He was one of the most important and influential contributors to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Mormon people, and we draw upon those contributions to this day, whether we realize it or not.

Despite his influence and importance, he is but a shadow in our minds today. I knew of him, but not much about him until recently. What sparked an interest in learning more about this man was that I discovered my wife is a descendant of him. The purpose of this post is now to share what I have learned about Orson Pratt.

Conversion and Early Ministry

Orson Pratt at a young age

Orson came from solid New England Puritan stock, with a history of fleeing from religious persecution. Included in this group was the New England preacher John Lathrop, Mayflower immigrants John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley, and Anne M. Hutchinson—the brilliant rebel exile of Boston.  His parents had “no faith in the modern sectarian principles of Christianity” (Orson Pratt, “History of Orson Pratt,” Millenial Star 27:39), though they taught the children morality and the Bible. Orson rarely attended a church, but was full of religious questions stemming from his Bible study. When he was eighteen, he began seeking for information “to be prepared for a future state” and “‘often retired to some secret place in the lonely fields or solitary wilderness’ while others slept, bowing and praying for hours…. ‘the greatest desire of my heart,’ he wrote, ‘was for the Lord to manifest His will concerning me.’” (Breck England, the Life and Thought of Orson Pratt, [Salt Lake City: University Press, 1985] 16.) Coming from a stock of religiously-minded-yet-dissident family, he was not a part of any religious group in his youth, but believed in Christ and sought for truth.

Meanwhile, his brother, Parley, came in contact with Joseph Smith’s family and joined the newly-formed Church of Jesus Christ in the year 1830. Soon thereafter, he came to his family’s home in Canaan, NY to share the newly-found gospel. His only notable success among his family at the time was his younger brother, Orson. Feeling he had found an answer to his prayers, Orson was baptized by Parley on his 19th birthday, September 19, 1830.  (ibid. 17-19.)

Like his older brother, Orson was filled with missionary zeal from the start, and a few months after meeting the prophet Joseph Smith, left to serve his first mission.  He served in New York for a few months, visited the growing community of Saints in Kirtland, OH and was chosen to travel to Missouri to meet the Prophet, preaching along the way. He did so, accompanied by Parley, and despite fevers and illness, visited the small branch that was forming in Jackson County, MO. After recovering somewhat, he traveled back to Ohio, again preaching along the way. After helping to reorganize the Church a bit (on assignment from the Prophet), Orson left on yet another missionary journey back to New England, where he performed a few healings and had many converts. He returned to Kirtland and participated in the School of the Prophets for the winter, only to return to his labours in the East. His missionary work was interrupted by participating in what has been known as Zion’s Camp, which he saw as a vindication of his faith. To intensify his experience, despite having contracted cholera, he went on a preaching tour on the way home that took eight months. (ibid.  21-37.) Constant missionary service was to become the pattern of his life.

The Zion Camp missionary journey ended when he miraculously came across a Church publication in Cincinnati that specifically called him back to Kirtland for a special “meeting of the elders.” He had two days from when he found the announcement to get there, so he took a stagecoach and arrived just in time to find the meeting in progress. “No one had had any word of him since he had left Missouri, but some among them had prophesied that he would arrive in time. The occasion was momentous, for Orson found that he had been chosen to serve, along with his brother Parley, as one of a new priesthood quorum, the Council of the Twelve Apostles.” (ibid., 39.) He later wrote, in reflection of his feelings: “I looked upon the Twelve Apostles who lived in ancient days with a great deal of reverence—not by virtue of the flesh, nor their own natural capacities, but they were great because God called them. When Joseph told me that I would be one of the Twelve, I knew all things were possible with God, but it seemed to me that I would have to be altogether changed to occupy such a great position in the Church and Kingdom of our God.”  (quoted in ibid., 40.)


Orson’s older brother, Parley P. Pratt

Throughout the time that Orson Pratt served as an apostle, he continued his missionary zeal. Yet, he also had troubled times lying ahead. When economic panic hit the US in the late 1830’s, Kirtland was shaken to the core. Many worried that they would lose everything and be plunged into debt. An anti-bank called the Kirtland Safety society had been formed under the Prophet’s direction, which proved to be a drain on everyone’s finances in the end. It was ultimately shut down. Even before it was closed, however, Orson “became disenchanted with Joseph Smith’s management and, concomitantly, with the Prophet’s leadership of the Church.” (ibid. 49.) After Parley pinned Joseph as a scapegoat for the ongoing financial disaster, he was brought before the High Council of Kirtland to answer charges of following a course “injurious to the Church of God.” Orson’s close friend Lyman E. Johnson was also brought before the court on similar charges. Parley refused to be tried by Joseph Smith or Sidney Rigdon and the trial broke up in confusion. That same day, Orson and Lyman brought an affidavit before Bishop Newel K. Whitney’s court: “We prefer the following charges against Pres. Joseph Smith, Jr. viz. for lying and misrepresentation—also for extortion—and for speaking disrespectfully, against his brethren behind their backs.” (ibid. 50-51.) He seems to have been in a state of panic, worrying about supporting his wife and newborn son. Eventually, however, his feelings were soothed a bit and he left on another mission, where he focused on the core principles of the gospel. He decided to stay with the principles of Mormonism, even if he had problems with the leaders.

He served faithfully, continuing to preach the restored gospel and build up the Church. When the Quorum of the Twelve left on their group mission to England in 1839, Orson was assigned to open the gospel in Scotland. He determined to do a great work in the great cultural center and Scottish capital of Edinburgh, praying for two hundred souls to be converted. He worked there for nine months, preaching in the streets seven times every Sabbath, and publishing the first of his many missionary tracts—Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions—a document that in many ways foreshadowed Joseph Smith’s Wentworth letter. It contained the first printed account of the First Vision, told the story of the Book of Mormon coming forth (based on Oliver Cowdery’s account of those events), and one of the first sketches of the doctrine of the Church, which foreshadowed the Articles of Faith. Work went slowly at first, but by the time he left, the Edinburgh conference numbered 226 members, just above the number he had prayed for. (ibid. 66-71.)

He was selected by Brigham Young to be the mission president of the British mission in October 1840 and administered there for six months before returning to Nauvoo. Upon his return, he stepped right into one of the worst times of his life.

By the time Orson returned from Britain, Joseph Smith had formally taken at least one plural wife, Louisa Bearman…. It is difficult to ascertain how much or little Orson knew of this in 1841…. One man who was fully aware of the Prophet’s polygamy doctrine was Mayor John C. Bennett. During the absence of the Twelve, Bennett had been made associate president of the Church and was very much in Joseph’s confidence. Bennett had led a checkered moral life, with an abandoned family somewhere in Ohio, and had been expelled from the Ohio Masons for improper behavior. Upon his arrival in Nauvoo he taught free love privately to at least one impressionable Nauvoo woman….

“Joseph Smith’s doctrine of plural marriage and Bennett’s counterfeit version were thus taught simultaneously and in secret at Nauvoo.” (ibid. 76-77.) This created some interesting and unfortunate results. Orson’s wife, Sarah Marinda Pratt was one of those victimized. John C. Bennett and Sarah both claimed that Joseph approached her, claiming that “the Lord has given you to me as one of my spiritual wives. I have the blessings of Jacob granted me, as he granted holy men of old, and I have long looked upon you with favor, and hope you will not deny me.” Bennett claimed that Sarah responded: “I have one good husband and that is enough for me.” (ibid. 77) According to their accounts, Sarah was enraged, but in the spring of 1842 Joseph renewed his attempts and even kissed her. Orson arrived home and was told this account of Joseph seeking his wife.

Enraged, Orson approached Joseph and to never insult his wife in that manner again. Joseph then related his side of the story: he was innocent, and John C. Bennett had been Sarah’s lover. It became known that John had seduced several women around town and Joseph announced that he would be disfellowshipped. Orson refused to believe Joseph, preferring to side with his wife, and refused to sanction the disfellowshipment. From that time in May 1842, Orson was “out of harmony” with his quorum. He had gone from a zealous missionary to a rebellious soul.

John C. Bennett

Bennett was soon expelled from Nauvoo. Orson was caught between believing his prophet had attempted to seduce his wife or that his wife had committed adultery while he was gone. “Under these circumstances, his mind temporarily gave way, and he wandered away, no one knew where… He was found some five miles below Nauvoo, sitting on a rock on the bank of the Mississippi River, having lost his hat.” (ibid. 78-79.)  He withdrew from society, and his quorum strove with him, trying to help bring him back into the fold. He still did not comply and was excommunicated August 20, 1842.

Soon after his excommunication, a flood of affidavits and statements from respectable citizens in Nauvoo supporting Joseph’s story entered the scene. People who had housed Sarah spoke of Bennett staying late at night and being very close to her, stating “their conduct was anything but virtuous.” Other statements were of a similar nature, and a few days after, Orson Pratt published a statement that denied he had “renounced the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, but believed that its doctrine which has been published extensively in both America and Europe, is pure and according to the scriptures of eternal truth… There is something in it which seems to whisper that ‘God is there’” (quote ibid., 83). His biographer summarized the situation by stating he: “had no quarrel with the restored Gospel, but a personal conflict with Joseph Smith’s alleged misconduct.” (ibid. 84.)

When Bennett sent a letter to Orson and Sidney Rigdon (who had a daughter that had been involved with John as well) that December seeking assistance in a plot to kidnap Joseph and return him for “trial” in Missouri, Orson immediately turned it over to Joseph. This seems to have ended hard feelings between them, and Joseph called the quorum together and dismissed Orson’s excommunication on a technicality. He was rebaptized (a sign of recommitment) along with his wife. His faith had been tested, putting him between his wife and the prophet. “Ultimately, he chose both his wife and the prophet, laying the entire blame for the scandal upon Bennett.” (ibid 85.)


After Joseph Smith’s death, the Quorum of the Twelve emerged from the succession crisis as the leaders of the majority of the Saints. To escape the mobs, they began the exodus to the Rockies. Orson would soon play a leading role in this journey. The original idea had been to leave Nauvoo with a small vanguard group, finding the path that the rest could follow.  A flood of Saints followed their leaders, however, and attempted the initial crossing of Iowa. To help deal with this deluge of Saints and to grow grain for those who would follow, Orson and Parley Pratt helped find a few sights for and build up temporary settlements, most notably Garden Grove and Mount Pisgah. He joined the group as they reached the settlement that would become Winter Quarters and helped as he could there.

A scientist and a mathematician by interest and trade (he had taught for a few years at the school in Nauvoo), he worked to chart out their location and prepared to plot out the whole trek to the Great Basin. When Brigham Young selected the vanguard group to travel West, Orson was selected (along with Wilford Woodruff) as one of the leaders of the three companies. All along the way, he checked and rechecked their location by calculations, sometimes feeling the map was off and that he could create a more accurate one (though modern examination does not always agree). He worked with William Clayton to create a machine to attach to their wagon wheel and keep track of how many miles they had traveled. He kept notes in his journal of such things, hoping to create a record to lead future Saints to their destination.

Some incidents along the way give humorous insight into his character. He “claimed that he could not understand people who had time for ‘nonsense.’ His own native curiosity occupied him constantly on the trail, with observations of herb and insect life, the geological dream that surrounded them, and the moon and stars from Chimney Rock…. [At Devil’s Gate], he detected five strata of scoriated rock in the cliffs and climbed Devil’s Gate with his barometer and thermometer while others amused themselves with firing guns to hear the echo and shoving rocks down the sheer cliff just to see them  burst the Sweetwater cataracts.” (Ibid. 125-7.) He was more focused on learning and expanding his understanding.

As the Saints crossed the boundary of present-day Utah, Brigham Young fell ill with “mountain fever.” He instructed that a smaller group push ahead and prepare the way for the main group. Orson was selected to lead it. As such, when they reached the valley, Orson was with the first few Mormon men to see and enter what would become Salt Lake City. When he and Erastus Snow first saw the valley, they “could not refrain from a shout of joy which almost involuntarily escaped our lips the moment this grand and lovely scene was within our view.” The shouted “Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna!” and entered their promised land. Orson completed the first circuit of the area, and moved his little company into the valley. On July 23, Orson dedicated “the land to God, to consecrate the site of a city of Saints, and to express thanksgiving for their preservation.” They then went to work. The next day, Brigham Young arrived and approved of the site Orson had chosen. (see ibid. 132-133.)

The Salt Lake City meridian marker

Orson helped explore the region and lay out the city. He began the surveying, starting at the corner of what was designated as the temple block and checkered the city into ten acre square blocks. “This was to be the fixed center of Zion, the point from which the Great Basin would be laid out in a vast square graph of section and township…. The Great Salt Lake Base and Meridian, still marked by a little stone shaft at the intersection of South Temple and Main streets, remains one of only four baselines still in use in the United States.” (ibid. 137.) A month after he began surveying, the leaders went back to Winter Quarters to lead the remainder of the Saints west.

Missionary and Spokesman

From Winter Quarters, Orson was assigned to return to England as mission president. He proved an effective missionary once more, publishing a copious amount of pamphlets and periodical articles in the Millennial Star, training the missionaries he supervised, and overseeing the emigration of thousands of Saints to America. The pamphlets were important summaries of Church doctrine in their time, covering such topics as the Kingdom of God, an anthropomorphic God, the divine calling of Joseph Smith, and so forth—grouping all the proof texts together for the restored Church and its positions in one place and dumping it into the laps of the orthodox churches. Pamphlets and booklets such as Divine Authority, The Kingdom of God, The Absurdities of Immaterialism, and The Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon flooded the industrial land of Great Britain and thousands of individuals flooded into the Church in response. These publications drew the ire and response of some of the clergy of the time, but they were very effective. During this stay, “[Orson] wrote numerous tracts, and published in all, several millions, scattering them broadcast over the whole British realm…. These, united with the active, comprising (we should estimate) 5,000 elders, constituted the vast missionary machinery by which Orson Pratt brought into the Church, in two years, nearly 18,000 souls.” (Quoted in ibid. 156.) This voyage alone could have qualified him as one of the great missionaries of our dispensation, but it was only one of many missionary voyages and visits to England.

Orson Pratt in later years

Elder Pratt has been labeled by William W. Phelps as “The Gage of Philosophy” (ibid. 100), and he was often looked to as the doctrinal authority of the Church. Yet, his interest in philosophy and science led him into speculation and putting forth of ideals that were not and are not considered doctrine in his publications. Yet, many of those ideas are present in an undercurrent of Mormon culture today. One such example is the idea of “intelligences” being small units of matter with the capacity to respond to other intelligences, making up the known universe under God’s directions. While such ideas have roots in Joseph Smith’s teachings, they also dabble in the science and metaphysics of his time. Even though his speculation would draw fire from Church leadership throughout his life, he was well respected in his time and in many ways helped crystalize both the official and cultural doctrine of the Latter-day Saints.

Due to the respect he earned as the doctrinal expert of Mormonism, Orson was often chosen to be the spokesperson for the Church. In a somewhat ironic twist, when the Brethren decided to go public about polygamy, Orson was the man chosen for the job. In August 1852, Orson spoke in general conference on the topic of “marriage.” In this speech, he outlined the Biblical practice of polygamy and outlined four central reasons for Mormons to live polygamy. After he was done, Brigham Young took the floor, spoke on the doctrines and ordinances of “the last dispensation,” and the revelation on celestial marriage recorded by Joseph Smith in 1843 was read over the pulpit for the first time (see ibid., 175). Almost immediately after this conference, Orson went to Washington D.C. to “preside and also to write and publish… illustrative of the principles and doctrines of the Church.” (ibid., 176) Soon after arriving, he started up a monthly periodical entitled The Seer and published a series of articles on polygamy as well as the preexistence, methodically vindicating and outlining both ideas. He worked on publishing many other articles during his time in Washington, being the primary writer for the periodical, defending and expounding the doctrines of Mormonism as he saw them. Later on, he would defend polygamy in a debate with US president Ulysses S. Grant’s chaplain where both ends felt they had achieved a smashing victory over the other (ibid., 241-246). In addition, at times when Brigham Young was too busy running the temporal affairs of the Church, members would ask Orson for clarification on doctrinal points (ibid., 253). During his lifetime, Elder Pratt was considered the authority on Church doctrine.

One of Elder Pratt’s publications

His greatest sermon, “The Majesty of God” reflected many of his most central ideals. He quoted extensively from what is now D&C 88 and went on to preach about the nature of God. He spoke of the order of planetary motion and stated “This would seem to exhibit before us the nature of that Being whom we worship. We worship him because of his glory, greatness, goodness, justice, mercy, knowledge, and wisdom. We worship him, because he has the power to govern and control the universe, and because he has commanded us so to do. He is a personage; and we are told that in the beginning man was created in his image. We are also told that we are his sons and his daughters, that we were begotten by him, before the foundation of this world; that we are his offspring, as much so as the little children in this room are the offspring of their parents.”

He dwelt on the nature of light as spoken of in the revelations and said:

Perhaps you may ask me why I dwell on this mysterious subject? I answer, why did the Lord dwell upon it forty−two years ago, if he did not want us, in some measure to understand it? Would he speak at random? Would he give a revelation without expecting that the people would ever try to understand it? If the Lord wished us to understand something, and condescended to reveal something, why should we, after forty−two years of experience, think that we are stepping over our bounds in trying to approximately comprehend what the Lord desired us to understand, in some measure, forty−two years ago? It is an old sectarian whim and notion, to suppose that we must not try to understand revelation…. I do not want the people to leave baptism, or to cast from their minds, and forget the first principles of the doctrine of Christ; but, on the contrary, you should always retain them in your memories…. Do not suppose, however, that those first principles are the only ones to be learned; do not become stereotyped in your feelings, and think that you must always dwell upon them and proceed no further. If there be knowledge concerning the future; if there be knowledge concerning the present; if there be knowledge concerning ages that are past, any species of knowledge that would be beneficial to the mind of man, let us seek for it, and that which we can not obtain by using the light which God has placed within us, by using our reasoning powers, by reading books, or by human wisdom alone, let us seek to a higher source − to that Being who is filled with knowledge, and who has given laws to all things and who, in his wisdom, goodness, justice and mercy, controls all things according to their capacity, and according to the various spheres and conditions in which they are placed. (JD 17:326-27.)

Here was pure Orson Pratt, speaking of the astronomy and science he loved to illustrate the orderly nature of God, pointing out the premortal existence and divine nature in man, and searching deeper for an understanding of truth and knowledge. He went on to add that

All truths he sees as indistinguishably divine. The laws of Newton were ‘a revelation… concerning the forces of the universe’; the elasticity of the ether, the velocity of light, and the motions of the planets are all equally holy manifestations of the grand progress of the ‘intelligences’ towards perfection.

The lord of the fields ‘shows the light of his countenance’ to each of his kingdoms in succession, runs a parable of the ‘Olive Leaf’ [Section 88] symbolizing to Orson an evolutionary process of achieving divinity. As the Creator strives with each of his innumerable creations in turn, ‘in our hour and in our season,’ the ‘veils’ are gradually removed: ‘By and by, when each of these creations has fulfilled the measure and bounds set and the times given… it and its inhabitants who are worthy will be made celestial… Then… there will be no intervening veil between God and his people… They will be able to see him at all times.’ For Orson, the ‘majesty of God’ meant that ‘all things are before him’; he knows all because nothing is veiled from his sight, and the same potential lies dormant and undeveloped in man. Orson saw the gaining of knowledge as the prime sacred imperative, without which man has no purpose. (Orson Pratt, 280.)

Elder Pratt was not only considered the doctrinal authority of his day, but he was also considered the primary scripturian of the Church and was given the task of revising the scriptures of the Church during the late 1870’s. “He spent many hours pouring over the revelations and the Book of Mormon drawing detailed cross-references, breaking up illogical or amorphous paragraphs into shorter verses, and rearranging the texts in modest ways. Misspellings were corrected… and modifying phrases and reference pronouns moved around to make better sense. All in all, Orson Pratt was responsible for about three percent of the differences between the original Book of Mormon and present-day editions. Orson also arranged the Doctrine and Covenants chronologically; his was the first edition to contain 136 sections in the order given by revelation. Another project was the revision of the Pearl of Great Price, a singular book of scripture containing writings of Joseph Smith” (ibid., 255). The 1844 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants had contained 111 sections (Doctrine and Covenants Institute Manual [2001], 2), and to this Orson Pratt adding many pieces from the history of the Church, including the sections from Joseph Smith in Nauvoo. The Pearl of Great Price had been circulated as a missionary pamphlet put together by Elder Franklin D. Richards in the 1850’s but was not yet considered canonical scripture. Elder Pratt added sections of the Book of Moses to this compilation, revised it and it was accepted as a standard work of the Church in October of 1880 (Pearl of Great Price Institue Manual [2000], 2). As such, Elder Pratt stands as one of the largest influences on Latter-day Saint scriptures as we know them today.

Orson Pratt was also assigned to serve as Church Historian. In this position, he sought to put together an orderly history of the Church and to record every day’s events in a “journal history” of the Church. (Orson Pratt., 262-63.) As part of his initiative, he traveled with Elder Joseph F. Smith during the year 1878 to Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, and New York to “reconstruct the past, to take affidavits, and to evaluate the remains of Mormonism’s bloody trail, recording the story before the witnesses to it disappear forever.” (ibid., 268-269.) They met with David Whitmer, members of the Reorganized Church, and visited the Hill Cumorah. He worked hard in his calling, helping to preserve the history of the Saints.

In a somewhat connected ideal, while he was in Washington D.C. in the 1850’s, Orson became interested in his genealogy. He wrote all the relatives he could think of for information on his ancestors, and found a man by the name of Rev. Frederick W. Chapman who had information on much of his family. Orson was eager to learn what Chapman had found and also sought to help in research, returning to Britain to scour the parish records there. There continued a lively correspondence between the two that eventually led to the publication of a definitive book on the Pratt family in America. Thus, Orson was “the first Mormon to research his own lineage on a systematic basis, fully four decades before the small beginnings of the Genealogical Society of Utah.” (England, Orson Pratt, 183.)


The Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet and His Progenitors for Many Generations

During the summer of 1853, Orson made a brief journey to England, hoping to be able to search for his ancestors. While there, he picked up a manuscript from Almon W. Babbit, a disaffected Mormon from the Nauvoo days. It was a remarkable document—a biography of Joseph Smith written by his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, who was three years away from death at that point. It delighted Orson, and he arranged to have it printed in England.

Unfortunately, the book would become a cause of conflict between him and Brigham Young, among other things. President Young condemned the publication as “utterly unreliable as a history as it contains many falsehoods and mistakes.” He went on to say: “We do not with such a book to be lying on our shelves to be taken up in after years, and read by our children as true history…. It is transmitting lies to posterity… and we know that the curse of God will rest upon every one… who keeps these books for his children to learn and believe in lies.” (James R. Clark, ed., Messages of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1833-1964, 6 volumes. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965-75], 2:229-31.) He advised the Saints to destroy all copies of this history.

What would the cause of concern be for Brigham Young, that he found the biography so dangerous? The book focused on the Smith family’s role in bringing forth the Church as much as Joseph Smith himself, and two of his biggest rivals in claiming succession from Joseph Smith. William Smith had claimed that, as patriarch of the Church, he was the rightful ruler of the organization, which was a cause of considerable trouble to the other apostles during the succession crisis. He was still alive at that point, and the book gave him a sympathetic treatment, much to President Young’s chagrin (England, Orson Pratt, 229). In addition, at the time of the book’s publication “the sons of Joseph Smith, Jr., were in Salt Lake City… doing missionary work and advancing the claims of the Reorganized Church.” (Irene M. Bates and E. Gary Smith, Lost Legacy, the Mormon Office of Presiding Patriarch [Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996], 131). In both cases, President Young may have felt threatened by the Smith family and that the biography would support their case.

The condemnation and recall of the book by Brigham Young was also a part of a larger and longer conflict between Orson Pratt and himself. Characterized as the “thirty-years’ war” by some (Eugene England, Brother Brigham [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1980], 87), the conflict between the two stubborn and opinionated men flared up off and on from the time shortly after Joseph Smith, Jr.’s death, and some have even pointed further back to Orson’s difficulties in Kirtland and Nauvoo. They butted heads when Brigham Young put forth the idea of reorganizing a First Presidency with himself as its head in 1847 and Orson Pratt opposed the motion on the ground that “the New Testament… was a sufficient model of organization—with apostles set in the Church to govern as a body. But when Brigham declared that he was motivated by revelation, Orson was satisfied, spoke in favor, and even seconded the motion.” (England, Orson Pratt, 141.) Though he had accepted the motion, his initial opposition was not forgotten.

“Brigham feared the dangerous effects of Pratt’s logic; Pratt feared the dangerous extremes to which Brigham might go in his impromptu sermons. Thus there was a continuous tensions between Pratt the philosopher and Brigham the Prophet.” ~Leonard J. Arrington

Doctrinal conflicts also raged between the two of them. Brigham Young taught that Adam and Eve were celestial beings sent to colonize the earth and had fallen to a mortal state. Orson opposed this, believing that they were created from the dust of the earth (ibid., 177, 190-191). Orson wrote that the One God of the Bible was really a complex of attributes shared by many individuals who attained exaltation: “The fullness of these attributes is what constitutes God… let it be distinctly remembered, that we have no reference to any particular person or substance, but to truth dwelling in a vast variety of substances” (quoted in ibid., 190), an idea Brigham opposed. Brigham Young felt that God increased eternally in both understanding and power, while Orson contradicted that idea, stating that God had progressed to the limit of knowledge and wisdom. Other conflicts arose over the nature of the Holy Ghost and other ideas.

Brigham Young worked in public and private to control the philosopher, and Mormon theology. He wrote to Orson in 1853, “There are many points in the seer that are not Sound Doctrine” (quoted in ibid., 189), then two years later, he published a notice, condemning the biography of Joseph Smith and portions of the “Seer,” stating that it “contains beautifully written articles; but notwithstanding the general beauty of the style, and the apparent candour and minuteness of the reasoning, the ‘Seer’ has many items of erroneous doctrine.” (ibid., 192.) Thus began the public campaign to reign in the Gage of Philosophy.

Brigham Young denounced some of Orson’s ideas over the pulpit, contradicting him in the October 1855 conference, and attacking his works off and on over the years and allowing other general authorities, such as Jeddidiah Grant, to do the same. Orson agreed to stop writing and preaching some of his ideas that Brigham disagreed with, but once in a while he would publish a work or give a sermon with themes that had been previously opposed, inciting the rage of his president. One such occasion was in 1860 when Elder Pratt taught once more that he worshiped the attributes of God. When President Young called a meeting of general authorities to discipline Orson for his statement and similar ones in previous publications, Elder Pratt defended himself until midnight, but was shot down by the President the Quorum of the Twelve, who cited other passages of his writing against him. Orson was devastated, and thought hard over the situation. In a day or two he returned to President Young and apologized. Orson was stubborn at times, but stated that “I do most earnestly hope that the Saints throughout the world will reject every unsound doctrine which they may discover in the ‘Seer’ or in any of my writings” (ibid., 190) and when pressed to it, spoke and wrote public apologies for his errors.

Brigham took opportunity to build Orson for the good that he did, telling him that “he never had had any personal feelings, but he was anxious that correct doctrine should be taught for the benefit of the Church and the Nations” (ibid., 213) and stating in public such things as “if you were to chop up Elder Pratt into inch-square pieces, each piece would cry out, ‘Mormonism is true.’” (ibid., xi.) He also trusted him with many significant assignments—including Church historian, speaking assignments, colonizing missions to southern Utah, revision and publication of scriptures, and several missions to England and to Europe—working him hard as long as he could. Leonard J. Arrington also pointed out the fact that “the ongoing controversies between Pratt and Brigham indicate how far the President was willing to go in tolerating differing points of view on key doctrinal questions” (Leonard J. Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses [Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1985], 207). Through all the turmoil between them, President Young never released Orson from his duties or excommunicated him again. Brigham had respect for Orson, even if he had problems with him at times.

As President Young neared his death, however, he did take measures to ensure that Orson would not be following him as president of the Church. He reorganized seniority in the quorum by continuous service, placing Elder Pratt below both John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff in seniority due to his excommunication in 1842. Upon President Brigham Young’s death in 1877, however, “Orson could have been the perfect schismatic: if he had chosen to exploit his legendary position, Taylor’s dignity might not have sufficed to hold the Church together. Orson dismissed this possibility immediately.” (Orson Pratt, 266.) Orson did not exploit his position, but supported President Taylor in his responsibilities, preventing a schism in the Church by accepting what he had been dealt.

It is of interest to note that some of the doctrines Brigham fought Orson Pratt over have since become the official doctrines of the Church. The Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet is quoted in Church publications and official histories, such as the Church History in the Fullness of Times manual. His views on Adam being created from the dust of the earth and on God having reached a fullness (and thus the limits of) knowledge and wisdom have support from recent apostles. At the same time, it must be noted that some of his ideas, such as the nature of the Holy Ghost, intelligences, and worship of the attributes of God rather than a being are not accepted as doctrines of the Church. It is understandable the Brigham Young wanted to rein Orson in and control the philosophies he was putting forward before they poisoned the Church, even if he wasn’t entirely free of the same problem.


Orson’s grave site

Orson died from complications due to diabetes in October of 1881, at age seventy. His final words became his epitaph: “My body sleeps for a moment, but my testimony shall endure forever.” (ibid., 286.) He left an epic legacy behind him, both in family and in influence on the Church.

Orson left to the world a large family who continued a great legacy. He believed very much in the institution of family, stating: “What can be more heavenly and God-like than to see a well regulated family, governed in wisdom and righteousness! It is the commencement of heaven on earth!—it is an organization destined to be eternal.” (The Seer 1:154.) Though his first wife—embittered by polygamy and her husband’s constant absence on missions—left him and the Church, taking all but one of her children with her, Orson managed to raise up a very large family. Orson was survived by thirty living children, fourteen male and sixteen female, through seven wives. The last child to die was Neva Phelps Pratt Shiverick, in 1957. He had many accomplished children, such as Lorus Pratt—an artist who had works displayed in Grand Salon of the Louvre and painted murals for the Salt Lake Temple—and Milando Pratt, an accomplished genealogist. Laron Pratt (the only child of Sarah Marinda Pratt to stay faithful to the Church) organized the first Mormon Sunday school for the deaf in Salt Lake City and “for a nine-year duration he traveled to Ogden each Sunday to teach deaf children the gospel.” He himself was deaf, but was highly proficient in sign language. (Orson Pratt., 296.) His daughters married into many of the leading Mormon families (my wife descends through the Nebekers, a prominent family in Northern Utah). By 1967, Orson Pratt’s descendants numbered 1,158. “This ample family is his most significant legacy—a living one.” (ibid., 298.)

In addition to his family, Orson Pratt did much to build up the Church. He was one of the most successful missionaries of our time; was one of the earliest theologians to give shape and order to the teachings and revelations of Joseph Smith, influencing Mormon doctrine to our day; assisted in the pioneering of Utah; and served for many years as the leading spokesman for the Church. Whether or not you are descended from him, if you have been influenced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you owe a part of that influence to Orson Pratt.


  1. I am no longer certain where you’re getting your information, however great topic. I must spend a while finding out much more or understanding more. Thank you for wonderful information I used to be on the lookout for this information for my mission.

  2. The majority of information for this post comes from Breck England’s The Life and Thought of Orson Pratt. I probably should switch to a more formal reference system for posts like this.

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