Mormonism's Apostle Paul

John G. Turner

In May 1857, a jilted husband found the man who had taken his wife and children. After tracking him to western Arkansas, he organized a posse to cut off his escape, followed him into a thicket of trees, pulled him from his horse, and stabbed him repeatedly near his heart. Hector McLean left to fetch a gun, returned, and shot Mormon apostle Parley P. Pratt in the neck.

Terryl Givens and Matt Grow's new The Apostle Paul of Mormonism tells the often dramatic story of Pratt's tumultuous fifty years. Shortly after deciding to become a Campbellite minister, Pratt encountered the Book of Mormon, read it, and believed. As the title suggests, the authors emphasize Pratt's missionary travels and writings. In the nineteenth century, Mormons leaders often recommended Pratt's 1837 Voice of Warning to inquirers as an introduction to the Mormon faith. As they follow Pratt across the United States and to England and Chile, co-authors Givens and Grow provide an accessible and colorful introduction to the first quarter-century of Mormon history, theology, and missions.

The book has many virtues. For a co-authored book, the narrative is seamless, though one can appreciate Givens's typically lucid exposition of the early evolution of Mormon theology. I am also impressed with their discussion of Parley's experience with plural marriage. Over the past fifteen years of Pratt's life, polygamy brought repeated bouts of estrangement and conflict. For instance, the widowed Pratt's second wife Mary Ann ultimately chose to be sealed by proxy to Joseph Smith for eternity in the Nauvoo Temple. In that same venue, Parley's own brother Orson Pratt accused him of adultery, a charge later repeated by Brigham Young in relation to unauthorized plural marriages. Regularly dispatched by Young on missions, Pratt endured considerable poverty and years of separation from his family.

Those looking for an entry point into Mormon History for themselves or their students should give this volume serious consideration. Pratt stands alongside Joseph Smith as a formative influence on key developments within Mormon theology, and he is at the center of struggles between "Many Mormonisms" (as the authors put it) after Smith's 1844 murder. The authors also took the care (and expense) to obtain a series of very helpful maps to accompany the narrative.

I've long found the furor over Pratt's murder fascinating. His murder sparked a mixture of outrage (mostly in Utah) and justification (in the rest of the country) in 1857. Historians debate its contribution to the ensuing Utah War and the September 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre (compare Ron Walker, et al., Massacre at Mountain Meadows and Will Bagley's Blood of the Prophets on those points). Givens and Grow point to the newspaper coverage of Pratt's violent death as a demonstration of "the profound depths to which American opinion of Mormonism had plummeted in the wake of plural marriage and the tumult over governance in Utah." That is no doubt true. Americans would probably have approved of Hector McLean's actions had his victim not been a Mormon apostle, but Parley's religion made his death a national story, and the circumstances of the case gave anti-Mormons considerable fodder.

I hardly think Pratt deserved to be stabbed and shot for his marriage to Eleanor McLean, who saw in Mormonism (among other things) a way to escape from an abusive marriage. But it's not surprising that many Americans concluded that Pratt deserved his bloody fate. "[A] man ought to be ashamed of himself," the Nauvoo Neighbor had quipped in 1843, "to run away with another man's wife, when there are so many maiden ladies with their trunks all packed ready for a start!" Mormon apostle George A. Smith had argued that "mountain common law" gave husbands the moral right to kill men who slept with their wives. The Utah territorial legislature codified such justifiable homicides in 1852 when it provided immunity for husbands to kill "in a sudden heat of passion caused by the attempt of any such offender to commit a rape upon his wife, daughter, sister, mother, or other female relation or dependent ... or when the defilement has actually been committed." In Texas, for instance, a cuckolded husband could kill his wife's "ravisher ... at any time before he has escaped from the presence of his victim." Unlike George A. Smith's comment, neither of those laws suggested that a man could act with McLean's level of premeditation. Across the country, though, juries in a series of high-profile murder cases in the 1850s and 1860s used an "unwritten law" to extend that privilege to include premeditation. [See Hendrik Hartog, "Lawyering, Husbands' Rights, and 'the Unwritten Law' in Nineteenth-Century America," Journal of American History 84 (June 1997): 67-96]. In keeping with such conventions, Americans justified Parley's murder. While he lay dying, Pratt insisted that he hadn't stolen another man's wife. "[T]hey were oppressed," he said, "and I did for them what I would do for the oppressed anywhere." McLean defended his actions with pride and enjoyed his moment of fame. "I look upon it as the best act of my life," he stated. Neither Hector McLean nor Parley Pratt regretted their actions.


Christopher said…
Thanks for the review, John. I'm awaiting my copy and will post my thoughts when I finish.

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