“A General Overview of Orson Pratt’s Life.” 

Jared Pratt Reunion, Sept 10, 2011

Amy Grant, Great Great Granddaughter 

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Orson Pratt.  One of the original twelve apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Orson, born on September 19, 1811, was the fourth of the five sons of Jared and Charity Pratt.  He became a distinguished scientist, scholar, writer, visionary, author, political leader, and missionary of the early Church and helped lay a firm foundation on which we build today.  The husband of ten wives, Orson was the father of 22 sons and 23 daughters, 29 of whom lived to have children of their own.  His descendants now number many thousands.

Dear Pratt family, upon request I’m sending you a copy of my tribute to Grandpa Pratt’s life.  Because of time restraints speaking at our reunion, I edited out some of what I wanted to say.  You get the whole writing. Enjoy


In 9 days, on Sept 19th, we celebrate our grandfather Orson Pratt’s 200th birthday.  I believe he is overlooking this celebration—especially today’s.  His elect blood runs through many of our veins and emerges as part of who we are.  His life and legacy live on.

Even after four generations, I feel a special closeness to grandfather, Orson Pratt. I sorrow for the loss of his journals and writings, which were burned by his first wife Sarah in 1864 while he was on one of his many missions, as well as other records which were lost when the home of one of his sons was destroyed by fire. As his writings burned, a part of us was also lost. 

Ever since I was a young girl, I’ve felt an attachment to my great, great grandfather.  I’ve often thought of his exceptional intellect and his extraordinary commitment to serve the Lord—no matter what the personal cost.  His commitment and service to his prophet and the Lord at enormous sacrifice has been a great influence in my life, as I’m sure it has been for thousands more. 

Many have said Orson Pratt was 50 years ahead of his time; others have even stretched that to 100 years.  Either case, I’ve found myself, in many instances, ahead of my time in my thinking and vision. When others balk, unable to envision or understand, I console myself by thinking that Grandpa Orson felt the same frustrations—on a much larger scale.  I’ve actually pictured myself in the heavens sitting under a tree with him for hours on end, having wonderful in-depth conversations while he teaches me many things. I can hardly wait!

I unite with you in expressing our eternal love, our deepest respect and adoration, and enduring gratitude to Grandpa Orson, on his 200th birthday, for who he was (and is) and the extraordinary contributions he made to science and the restoration of the gospel and its furtherance, thus laying the foundation upon which we build our current lives.

Who was this man who came from obscurity and made a profound impact on the Restoration of the true and everlasting gospel? … Who helped set the foundation upon which the fledgling Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could grow to millions stretching around the world?…Who brought education and intellect to high levels in the wilderness of the West? …It was our grandfather, from whence many of us come.

Orson was the fourth of five sons of Jared and Charity Pratt, born Sept 19, 1811 in Hartford, NY.  Jared’s  ancestors were of solid New England Puritan stock, inheriting a tradition of spiritual depth

and strong independence in religious matters. Charity Dickinson, Orson’s mother, was a descendant of New England notables from the Mayflower immigrants.

Another ancestor from England, Lieutenant William Pratt was one of the first Pratts in America.  He helped establish Hartford, Connecticut, which became the fountainhead of the democratic principles that gave rise to the revolutionary spirit in America.  The Pratts’ role was significant to the intellectual and spiritual heritage of their descendants.

Jared and Charity Pratt taught their children faith in the right of each individual to his own inner light.  They helped nourish the culture of democracy and religious individualism in which God could restore Christ’s true and eternal gospel, where the restoration movement could take root. Strong Christian beliefs were distilled as they taught their children to pray and to read the Bible. 

Thus began the young Orson, exceptionally smart and having a never-ending inquisitive mind. Moving regularly, he hired himself out for work. With little time for schooling, he took advantage of every opportunity to learn. 

Orson wrote: “I saw much of the world and was tossed about without any permanent abiding place; but through the grace of God, I was kept from many of the evils to which young people are exposed. The early impressions of morality and religion, instilled into my mind by my parents, always remained with me; and I often felt a great anxiety to be prepared for ‘a future state’.”

Orson regularly retired to some secret place in the fields or solitary wilderness while others slept, bowing and praying for hours, with a broken heart and contrite spirit, beseeching the Lord to manifest His will concerning him. 

At 18, he hired himself out to make enough money to board at a school for 4 months studying geography, grammar, and surveying.  That closed his formal education….and just months ahead Orson’s ‘future state’ of becoming a great man of historical significance would begin.

The beginning  answer from the Lord as to His will concerning Orson, came in the form of his beloved older brother, Parley, newly baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, carrying a Book of Mormon, and on fire with a testimony of its truthfulness.

For Orson, it was an answer to his fervent prayers, and he knew what Joseph Smith was teaching was the divine revelation he had been seeking.  He was baptized by Parley on his 19th birthday, Sept 19, 1830, just months after the Church was organized.  I can imagine his ecstatic joy! 

His ‘future state’ had begun!  “He was to become an eminent educator, scientist, editor, lecturer, debater, orator, legislator, philosopher, mathematician, author, astronomer, and pioneer; and through it all, he was a humble fearless, faithful, gifted expounder of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ”  (forward in “Masterful Discourses and Writings of Orson Pratt”…1962) 

He immediately went to see Joseph Smith and stayed with him for about a month.  During that time on November 4, 1830, the Lord, Jesus Christ, provided a personal revelation to Orson through the prophet, recorded in Section 34 of the Doctrine and Covenants.

In part, Orson was told, quote: …”Orson, my son,…more blessed are you because you are called of me to preach my gospel…preparing the way of the Lord for his second coming.”

Section 34: 

“My son, Orson, hearken and hear and behold what I, the Lord God, shall say unto you, even Jesus Christ your redeemer; the light and the life of the world, a light which shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not;  who so loved the world that he gave his own life, that as many as would believe might become the sons of God.  Wherefore you are my son; and blessed are you because you have believed; and more blessed are you because you are called of me to preach my gospel—to lift up your voice as with the sound of a trump, both long and loud, and cry repentance unto a crooked and perverse generation, preparing the way of the Lord for his second coming.

 For behold, verily, verily, I say unto you, the time is soon at hand that I shall come in a cloud with power and great glory. And it shall be a great day at the time of my coming, for all nations shall tremble. But before that great day shall come, the sun shall be darkened, and the moon be turned into blood; and the stars shall refuse their shining, and some shall fall, and great destructions await the wicked.

Wherefore, lift up your voice and spare not, for the Lord God hath spoken; therefore prophesy, and it shall be given by the power of the Holy Ghost.  And if you are faithful, behold, I am with you until I come—and verily, verily, I say unto you, I come quickly.  I am your Lord and your Redeemer.  Even so, Amen.”

Orson Pratt’s fervent prayers were answered.  He heard the Lord’s will concerning him. He took on the mantle of missionary work given to him personally by Jesus Christ and never took it off, willing to sacrifice all he had for that purpose.

Just before his 20th birthday, Joseph Smith ordained Orson an Elder, and he immediately left for his first mission to Colesville, NY becoming, along with his brother Parley, one of the first and greatest missionaries of his time. 

At age 23 in 1834, he became a member of that little band of two hundred Latter-day Saints who marched from eastern Ohio to western Missouri to rescue their fellow religionists in what is known as Zion’s camp. 

In April 1835, at age 24, Orson was called to be a member of the original Latter-day Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. As a member of the Quorum of 12, he was active in the discussions that resulted in the selection of Brigham Young to replace Joseph Smith as Prophet of the Latter-day Saints. 

The Western Epic began.  Orson was the scout and scientific observer for the first pioneer company led by Brigham Young.  He helped William Clayton design an odometer to record the wagon miles traveled each day.  On July 21, 1847, Orson was the first to enter the valley of the Great Salt Lake, with Erastus Snow close behind. The next day the advanced party arrived.  By July 23rd, Orson had formally dedicated the valley to the Lord and the site for the modern city of Salt Lake, as well as the habitation of the Saints; and he preached his first sermon.  He had begun diverting the streams for irrigation before Brigham Young arrived on the 24th.

With amazing accuracy given the crude instruments in his possession, Orson Pratt established the SL Base and Meridian and did the initial survey work to lay out SLC and surrounding territories—as far West as San Diego and as far East as the Missouri.

As a dedicated and effective missionary, Orson crossed the ocean 16 times to preach and write in Great Britain.  In his late thirties, he was appointed president of all the branches of the Church in Great Britain and adjacent countries.  From 1848 to 1850, he was instrumental in building LDS membership from 18,000 to 31,000.  Within those 2 years, he also chartered and fitted out twenty ships loaded with Saints for Utah. 

While directing the missionaries, caring for the members, delivering sermons to large audiences in the principal cities of England and Scotland, and editing the Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Orson wrote fifteen pamphlets on Mormon doctrine that were published and circulated to thousands in Europe and America, and are still regarded as perhaps the most significant contributions to Mormon theology and metaphysics in the 19th century.

His writings were influential in formulating the Latter-day Saints’ idea of God, the religious basis of polygamy, the pre-earthly existence of spirits, the resurrection, and the doctrine of the gathering of Israel.

To many American and Europeans in the 19th century, Orson Pratt was the best known Mormon besides Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. He was the foremost intellectual in the church, scripturist, and the leading exponent of Mormon doctrines.

Grandpa Orson helped divide the Book of Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants into verse format and provided appropriate cross references. 

But for a brief five month excommunication in 1842 over his personal doubts of polygamy, which eliminated his seniority of Apostleship, he might have succeeded Brigham Young as President of the Church. However, his influence on the doctrine and history of the Latter-day Saints can only be compared to Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and his brother, Parley Parker Pratt.  Though he never presided, his works and his words were incalculably important to Mormon history. 

Once converted to the principles of polygamy, he was chosen to make the first public announcement and defense of the practice of plural marriage in 1852, and became its chief advocate.  Marrying ten wives, he fathered 22 sons and 23 daughters, 29 of which lived to have children of their own.  His descendants now number many thousands. 

Orson was more than a missionary and theologian.  He was one of the first serious genealogists in the Church, understanding at great depth the tremendous importance of uniting families for eternity. He served as the official church historian from 1874 to 1881 at the time of his death.  He was a politician, serving for seven terms as speaker of the territory’s House of Representatives.  He was a surveyor, Greek and Hebrew linguist, and a philosopher.  He was known for his keen analytical mind as an accomplished mathematician, and left in manuscript an elaborate work in differential calculus. 

He had a strong interest in astronomy, and spent many long hours in an observatory established on Temple Square.  Like Joseph, he saw the cosmos as a ‘great school of experience.’ Way before it was ‘scientific thought’, he espoused that the never-ending universe expanded with ‘matter unorganized.’ 

In the signs and systems of the heavens, he found the direction to a new Palestine in the vanguard of the Mormon exodus.  He had an understanding of astronomy and the universe very few ever acquire.  Orson found Latter-day Saint doctrine made sense in both science and what the scriptures had to teach.

His book, ‘Key to the Universe, published in Liverpool in 1879, was an early attempt to stretch the Latter-day Saints’ gospel beyond a simple theological pattern, thus introducing a wider philosophical meaning to church thought.

With his brother, Parley, he was a founding regent of the University of Deseret, now the University of Utah. He offered many science based lectures there and elsewhere. He was one of the outstanding scientists of his day.

How could this be accomplished by one of so little formal education?? I believe, it is another example of being tutored by the Holy Ghost.  We know of another man of such tutorship , the Prophet Joseph Smith who was very close to Orson Pratt.  Both dedicated their lives to spreading the truth of Christ’s restored gospel in preparation for His second coming.  Both were blessed with intellectual understandings way beyond their time.

The story of our beloved great grandfather is very much the story of the Latter-day Saints in the 19th century.  It is a drama of spiritual strength and determination played out against the forces of prejudice and mob violence.  His friends and brother, Parley, were imprisoned; ten of his children died in misery on the plains or at sea; and he himself fought snow blindness and racking (ague) fevers and shivers (malaria-like symptoms), and other health challenges, as he repeatedly walked continental distances to spread the good news of Christ’s restored gospel. 

Orson occasionally presented problems for minds that were less learned, academically oriented, intellectual, or as deep thinking and systematic than his own.  He was a man ahead of his time in many aspects. As a philosopher with an exceptional penetrating intellect and courageous heart, coupled with being a powerful speaker and persuasive writer, he sometimes had ‘run-ins’ with Brigham Young and other community leaders.

However, when some Latter-day Saints censured him for public statements that had not been previously cleared by “headquarters”,  Brigham Young, who fully understood Pratt’s value replied,  “If you were to chop up Elder Pratt into one inch square pieces, each piece would cry out ‘Mormonism is true!’   Brother Orson,” Brigham declared, “I want you to do just as you have done in your apostleship!”

Orson was the 10th Church Historian and Recorder (a priesthood calling) from 1874 to 1881.  Wilford Woodruff was his assistant.  Dying of diabetes, with a severe attack of nausea, he went to the Historian’s Office to work reportedly on his 70th birthday.  After years of dedicated service and sacrifice up to his end, a few days later Orson passed away with little worldly possessions on October 3, 1881.  A convert in 1830, he was the oldest the most experienced general authority of the Church. He was buried in the Salt Lake cemetery.  

An impression came to me as I prepared this…I strongly felt that the Lord’s personal calling to Orson to preach His gospel with the sound of a trump, both long and loud preparing for His second coming continues through his descendants as a calling  to his blood line.  It is part of the legacy he left to us….that we are to carry this mantle of responsibility as his descendants.

May each of us treasure our legacy left by our grandfather….who blazed the trail of faith, dedication, and obedience to his prophet.  May we hold to the rod and to each other for support in our trials, and may we face them in the relentless way he did in building the cause of Zion against all adversities.  May we be worthy to sit in his presence in the Celestial Heavens.  May Grandpa’s calling to missionary work and preparing for the Lord’s second coming continue with us.  It’s in our blood. 

To this end, I pray that we may give back to him our faith and our exemplary lives, as he gave it to us.  In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.  (Amy Grant)

 Amy is the great great granddaughter of Orson and Adelia….

1. Orson Pratt / Adelia Ann Bishop

2. Lucy Adelia Bishop Pratt / Ashton Nebeker

3. Amy Bell Nebeker / Horace Slack

4. Edith Slack / Raymond Hanks

5. Amy LaRae Hanks / Leo Grant

Among other writings, information taken from Breck England’s book: “ The Life & Thought of Orson Pratt” published in 1985.  “At long last, more than 145 years after his death, Orson Pratt is now the subject of a major biography.  The Life and Thought Of Orson Pratt is at once a contribution to American intellectual history. We can all be grateful for Breck England’s admirably detailed biography and for its fascinating insight into Mormon, Western, American, and British history.” Leonard J. Arrington  (much of my information was taken from his forward

 Statement made by Solomon F. Kimball at the church Historian’s office, January 4, 1919:

 “The reason that Orson Pratt’s history was never published was that when Orson Pratt lived at St. George along about the year 1864, his first wife Sarah M. Pratt took all of his records out in the backyard and made a bon-fire of them while her husband was on a mission.    Other records were lost when the home of one of Orson Pratt’s sons was destroyed by fire.”