Orson Pratt
Apostle, Pioneer, Philosopher, Scientist and Historian

by Orson F. Whitney,
of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles

One hundred years ago, in a humble village of the Empire State, a man was born of whom it was said, as he lay in his casket at Salt Lake City on the 6th of October, 1881, that he had traveled more miles, preached more sermons, studied and written more upon the gospel and upon science, than any other man in the Church. That man was Orson Pratt, and the speaker who eulogized him was Wilford Woodruff, his fellow apostle and pioneer.

There were many who knew Orson Pratt better than I, but none admired or esteemed him more. And yet my knowledge of him was not based upon intimate association; I scarcely knew him in a social way, and never had the opportunity to converse with him. My acquaintance with the man was wholly of a public character, and the information I possess concerning his career is shared by tens of thousands.

He was of English and Puritan descent, his father’s ancestor, Lieutenant William Pratt, being among the first settlers of Hartford, Connecticut. Lieutenant Pratt’s father was Reverend William Pratt, of Stevenidge, Hertfordshire, England. Orson Pratt was born at Hartford, Washington county, New York, September 19, 1811. His parents were Jared Pratt and his wife Charity Dickinson. Orson was next to the youngest of six children. His elder brother Parley was destined like himself to become a noted preacher and writer, and one of the earliest settlers of the Rocky Mountain region. Jared Pratt was a weaver and a tiller of the soil. He had no faith in creeds or churches, but taught his children to be moral, and to believe in the Bible.

Orson received his first schooling at New Lebanon, Columbia county, in his native state. To that place the family moved when he was three or four years old. He was sent to school several months in each year until the spring of 1822, when he hired out as a farm boy. Whether in school or out, his studious mind was always at work, and at intervals he picked up a knowledge of arithmetic, bookkeeping, geography, grammar and surveying.

Though a frequent reader of the Scriptures, he was not deeply concerned about religion until the autumn of 1829, when he began to pray fervently for spiritual light and guidance. About a year later two elders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came into his neighborhood and held meetings. One of these elders was his brother, Parley P. Pratt, by whom Orson was baptized on the nineteenth anniversary of his birth. October of that year found him at Fayette, Seneca county, the birthplace of the Church, which was then only six months old. While there he met the Prophet Joseph Smith, and was confirmed by him a member and ordained an elder on the first day of November, 1830. His first mission, taken soon after, was to Colesville, in Broome county.

Early in 1831 he followed the fortunes of the Saints to Ohio, and at Kirtland, where he presided over the elders, was ordained a High Priest by Sidney Rigdon. From that time forth he was busy traveling, preaching, and building up branches of the Church. Among his converts in the eastern states were his brother Anson, at Hurlgate, Long Island; Amasa M. Lyman, at Bath, New Hampshire; and the Farr, Snow, and Gates families in Vermont. At Kirtland he taught an evening grammar school, and was himself a student under Professor Seixas, a New York savant, who certified to his proficiency in Hebrew, after a course of instruction extending through eight weeks.

Orson Pratt helped to organize Zion’s Camp, and during the journey to Missouri, whither the expedition went to reinstate the Jackson county Saints upon the lands from which they had been driven by mob violence, he had charge of several wagons. When cholera broke out in camp, he was one of those attacked by it, but his great faith and iron will saved him, while others perished. In Missouri he was a member of the High Council.

At Columbus, Ohio, in April, 1835, he learned that he had been chosen one of the Twelve Apostles, and was expected to be at Kirtland on the twenty-sixth of that month, for ordination. A journey of two days by stage coach enabled him to arrive there on the day appointed, and he was ordained an Apostle under the hands of David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery, two of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon.

When the Church moved from Ohio, Orson Pratt was presiding over a large branch in New York City. Summoned to Far West, Missouri, which had become the headquarters of the Latter-day Saints, he was on his way there with his family, and had reached St. Louis, where he was ice-bound, the rivers being frozen, when he learned of the expulsion of his people from that state. He rejoined them at Quincy, Illinois, in the spring of 1839.

During the previous summer, while the Saints were still in Missouri, the Prophet, voicing the word of the Lord, had directed the Apostles to take a mission to Europe, and the appointment designated the very date upon which they should leave Far West, starting from the Temple lot in that city. This was before the mob troubles arose, and before there was any prospect of an armed collision between Missourians and “Mormons.” But now all was changed! The Saints had been driven out; and it was almost as much as a “Mormon’s” life was worth to be seen in Missouri. The day set for the departure of the Apostles was approaching, but they were far away, and the mob leaders were boasting that “Joe Smith’s prophecy” concerning the event would fail. Joseph himself was a prisoner in the hands of the Missourians, as was his brother, Hyrum Smith, also Parley P. Pratt, and other leaders; but Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Orson Pratt, John Taylor, and others of the Twelve were at liberty, and they determined to fulfil the Prophet’s prediction. Accordingly before daybreak on the day appointed, April 26, 1839, they rode into Far West, held a meeting on the Temple lot, ordained Wilford Woodruff and George A. Smith to the Apostleship, and started upon their foreign mission; the enemy meanwhile wrapt in slumber, oblivious to what was taking place.

Delayed by the founding of Nauvoo, Illinois, and by an epidemic of fever and ague that swept over that newly settled region, the Apostles did not cross the Atlantic until about a year later. Landing at Liverpool, penniless, and among strangers, they remained in Great Britain a little over twelve months, during which period they baptized seven or eight thousand persons, and raised up branches of the Church in almost every noted city and town throughout the united Kingdom. They also established a periodical, The Millennial Star, with Parley P. Pratt as editor; published five thousand copies of the Book of Mormon, fifty thousand tracts, and three thousand hymn books; besides emigrating a thousand people to Nauvoo, and founding a permanent emigration agency. The British mission had previously been opened by Heber C. Kimball and Orson Hyde, with their associates; now its foundations were laid broad and deep.

In the assignment of mission fields Scotland fell to orson Pratt. It has been said that a Scotchman should always be in the right, for he is hard to turn. The Apostle proved the truth of this saying during his experience in and around Edinburgh, where he fasted, prayed, and preached for nine months, succeeding, after much difficulty, in raising up a branch of more than two hundred members. His patient zeal never flagged. His daily climbs up the slopes of Arthur’s Seat, a mountain overlooking the town and from the summit of which he besought the God of Israel to give him the hearts of that people, is one of the picturesque episodes of “Mormon” missionary life. While upon this mission he published his pamphlet, Remarkable Visions, the perusal of which drew many into the Church. He returned to America early in 1841.

During the next few years he resided at Nauvoo, where he had charge of a mathematical school, and was a member of the city council. He also filled missions in the east, and at the city of Washington presented a memorial, prepared by himself and others, and signed by the members of the Nauvoo city council, praying for redress of the wrongs suffered by the Saints while in Missouri. During his leisure hours he calculated eclipses and prepared an almanac for publication in 1845. It was entitled The Prophetic Almanac, and was calculated from the latitude and meridian of Nauvoo and other American towns. “From 1836 to 1844,” says the Apostle, “I occupied much of my leisure time in study, and made myself thoroughly acquainted with algebra, geometry, trigonometry, conic sections, differential and integral calculus, astronomy, and most of the physical sciences. These studies I pursued without the assistance of a teacher.” He was in the east when the Prophet and the Patriarch were slain, and returned to Nauvoo soon after the martyrdom.

The exodus of the Latter-day Saints from Illinois began in February, 1846. The Mississippi river was frozen over, and some of the companies crossed on the ice. Orson Pratt, who had recently returned from another eastern mission, was one of the leaders of this migratory movement, which was destined to redeem an arid waste, and found an empire in the heart of the Great American Desert. During their slow progress over the snow-covered or rain-soaked prairies, to the bluffs of the Missouri river, the pilgrims halted many times, and were even under the necessity of forming temporary settlements, Garden Grove and Mount Pisgah, at which places the leaders, in council, decided to send a company of pioneers to the Rocky mountains, in advance of the main body of the people. Preparations for this expedition were under way when, at the Bluffs, in July, 1846, the enlistment of the “Mormon” battalion, five hundred volunteers, as part of the United States military force then invading Mexico and her provinces, postponed the departure of the pioneers until the next season.

Orson Pratt was one of the one hundred and forty-three men led by President Brigham Young from the Missouri river westward during the spring and summer of 1847. They started from the “Mormon” town of Winter Quarters (now Florence, Nebraska), about the middle of April, arriving in Salt Lake Valley on Saturday, the 24th of July. Brother Pratt entered the valley three days in advance of the general arrival.

It happened thus. President Young, after leaving Fort Bridger, had been attacked by mountain fever, and under his direction Orson Pratt, with a number of men and wagons, led the way down Echo canyon, up East canyon, through and over the Wasatch mountains toward the shores of the Great Salt Lake. From the summit of Big mountain, on the nineteenth of July, Orson Pratt and John Brown, riding ahead of their companions, caught the first glimpse of the valley; and on the 21st, Orson Pratt and Erastus Snow, the latter a messenger from President Young, emerged from Emigration canyon, a little south of where Fort Douglas now stands. They had a single saddle horse, and were riding by turns. The day being warm, Brother Snow took off his coat and hung it loosely over the saddle bow. Missing it, he rode back toward the mountains to look for it, leaving his companion to walk on alone to the banks of City creek. This stream then divided into two branches, one flowing south, the other west. Thus it was that Orson Pratt was the first of the pioneers to tread the site of Salt Lake City.

Any other member of that historic band might have done as much, had chance or destiny so decided; but how many of them could have laid out the town that was founded here that memorable summer? This honor also fell to Orson Pratt who, assisted by Henry G. Sherwood, ran the original survey of Salt Lake City, on Monday, the second of August. He ascertained the altitude of the valley, and determined its latitude and longitude. We are also indebted to Orson Pratt and a few men like him for what we know of the experiences of the pioneers during and after their journey to the west.

From the summer of 1848 to the spring of 1851, this Apostle presided over the European mission, with headquarters at Liverpool. The British Isles contained at that time, according to his published statement, about 40,000 Latter-day Saints. President Pratt’s reputation as speaker and writer had preceded him, and the sun of his fame now rose nigh to the zenith. As president, preacher, editor, and author, he labored almost incessantly. Every noted town in the three kingdoms heard the sound of his voice, deep, sonorous, powerful, proclaiming with fervid and fearless eloquence the principles he had been sent to promulge—the principles of the Everlasting Gospel. While editing the Millennial Star , he wrote, published and distributed many pamphlets on philosophical themes, and with means obtained from the sale of his works, supplied the urgent needs of a portion of his family who were still on the Iowa frontier. He was visiting them in the spring of 1850, when he received word from President Young that he was honorably released from his mission and at liberty to return to Utah.

In the Legislative Assembly of the Territory, almost from the beginning, Orson Pratt was a member of the Council, and he sat is every subsequent Legislature when at home. During several sessions he was Speaker of the House of Representatives.

As one of the corps of instructors of the University of Deseret, now University of Utah, he delivered, in the winter and spring of 1851-1852, a series of twelve public lectures on astronomy, which awakened general interest. He had now achieved fame in the field of higher mathematics, having discovered, in November, 1850, a law governing planetary rotation, and subsequently making other scientific discoveries. Professor Proctor, the astronomer, while lecturing at Salt Lake City early in the eighties, referred almost reverently to Professor Pratt, expressing the opinion that there were but four real mathematicians in the world, and that Orson Pratt was one of them. He was such an ardent lover of knowledge, and so anxious to disseminate it, that he offered to teach the youth of the community free, if they would give their time to study.

In August, 1852, he took up a temporary residence in Washington, D. C., where he published The Seer, a periodical devoted to the dissemination of “Mormon” doctrines. In its columns appeared the revelation on Plural Marriage and Joseph Smith’s prophecy on War. At the same time he presided over the Latter-day Saints in all the states of the Union and in the adjoining British provinces. Then followed another presiding mission in Great Britain, from which he returned by way of California, while Johnston’s army, sent to Utah to put down an imaginary rebellion, was in winter quarters east of the Wasatch mountains.

The spring of 1864 found the Apostle at Vienna, endeavoring to obtain a foothold for missionary work in the Austrian capital. But the laws of that country were too stringent for such an undertaking, and he, with his companion, Elder William W. Riter, returned to England. There President Pratt published, in May, 1866, an edition of his mathematical work, PRatt’s Cubic and Bi-Quadratic Equations. Three years later, in New York City, he transcribed and published the Book of Mormon in the phonetic characters of “The Deseret Alphabet.”

August, 1870, was made memorable by a great public discussion in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, where Orson Pratt, the “Mormon” Apostle, debated with Dr. John P. Newman, Methodist pastor and Chaplain of the United States Senate, the question, “Does the Bible Sanction Polygamy?” The debate lasted three days, and was listened to by ten thousand people. The umpires, chosen by both parties, rendered no decision—that being one of the preliminary conditions—but it was the general verdict of “Mormons” and Gentiles that while Newman was the more eloquent, ornately so, at least, Pratt was the better informed, and the more logical. Both men were thorough scriptorians, but the Apostle surprised even his learned opponent by his profound knowledge of the original Hebrew, and his clear-cut mathematical demonstrations. The Boston Banner of Light, commenting on the result, said: “Some one carrying more guns than Dr. Newman will have to be sent out missionarying among the ‘Mormons’.”

In 1874 Orson Pratt became the Church Historian, an office held by him during the remainder of his days. In 1877 he went to England to transcribe and publish an edition of the Book of Mormon in the Pitman phonetic characters, but was recalled almost immediately by the death of President Brigham Young. The ensuing autumn found him revisiting scenes of early “Mormon” history, in company with his fellow Apostle, Joseph F. Smith.

December of that year brought another mission, the last one undertaken by this valiant veteran in the cause of Christ. It was his fifteenth voyage over the ocean; this time to stereotype and publish at Liverpool the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants, as arranged by him in paragraphs, with footnotes and references. He also published while there his astronomical work, Key to the Universe. In London he made a discovery regarding the Great Pyramid of Egypt, a discovery conclusively demonstrating to his mind that the date of the organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is symbolized in the chronological floor line of the Grand Gallery in that ancient monument.

The Apostle was now advanced in years, almost upon the summit of his three score and ten. His appearance was truly patriarchal, hair and beard being white as snow. Powerful in build, though of but medium stature, he was still physically and mentally strong. During the whole period of his final mission, ending in September, 1879, he worked, for weeks at a stretch, not less than eighteen hours out of the twenty-four. The enfeebled state of his health after his return showed that the heavy labor had told severely upon him.

Two years later, on the third day of October, he died at his home in Salt Lake City. Just before breathing his last, he dictated to President Joseph F. Smith, who took down the words as the dying man uttered them, this epitaph, to be placed upon his tombstone: “My body sleeps for a moment, but my testimony lives and shall endure forever.”

“The St. Paul of ‘Mormondom’ “—as Tullidge styles him, was a preacher eloquent and powerful, a theologian learned and profound, a linguist to whom dead languages were an open book, a writer lucid and logical, a scientist of eminent attainments. Essentially a sage, having the philosophical temperament as well as the philosophical cast of mind, he might easily have been classed with the Wise Men of Greece, or even with the Hebrew Prophets.

The philosophical side of his nature may be illustrated by an anecdote. One of the evidences of the humble circumstances in which he lived was a weather-beaten though respectable straw hat which he wore both summer and winter. One day his daughter, Mrs. Joseph Kimball, asked him: “Father, why do you wear a straw hat in winter?” “To keep my head warm,” he answered. “But,” she persisted, “is a straw hat warm in winter?” “Warmer than no hat at all, my daughter,” was the reply—worthy of a Diogenes.

Another incident tells something of his power of concentration, and his ability to control his feelings—all the more remarkable, when it is known that Orson Pratt was as high-spirited as he was fearless and determined. He was preaching at Liverpool, in the open air, when a noisy fellow, pushing his way through the crowd and planting himself squarely in front, began to denounce him. The speaker, without deigning to notice the interruption, raised his stentorian voice, and going right on with his discourse, poured forth a volume of sound that completely drowned the voice of his would-be disturber. The fellow then shouted his objections, but the Apostle, still further increasing his own lung power, again rendered the tones of the hoodlum inaudible. This was kept up until the latter ceased from sheer exhaustion, and retired amid the laughter of the bystanders. The orator then lowered his voice to normal pitch, and continued his subject to the end.

Orson Pratt stood at the head of a patriarchal household, the husband of several wives, the father of forty-five children, thirty-two of whom, evenly divided as to sons and daughters, survived him. Many of these are present today. His direct descendants—children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren—now number nearly four hundred.

It was a foregone conclusion that with a family so large, and a life so devoted to the public interest, he could hardly have died wealthy, even had he so desired. But it is exceedingly doubtful that he ever cherished such a desire. Had he been asked the question, once put to Agassiz, “Why not use your ability to acquire a fortune?” he would probably have answered, as did the greatest naturalist, “I haven’t the time.”

He may have lacked the gift. Be it so. Perhaps he had other gifts, just as great, and even greater. The mind must be fed, as well as the body. “Man shall not live by bread alone,” and he who ministers to the intellect and the spirit is, and ought to be, as consequential in any community as the capitalist, the business man, the politician, the executive, whose skill is in governing men, or acquiring and managing property, and ministering to the physical needs of his fellows. It may yet transpire that the true mission of the man of affairs, in one of its functions at least, is to free such men as Orson Pratt from the excess of business cares and burdens, and give them time to devote to other pursuits, just as important and quite as useful, in the long run, as those which the many most appreciate.

Doubtless there were times when this man found it difficult to provide for his family the bread that perishes. One reason was that, like his great Master, our Elder Brother, he had to “be about his Father’s business,” feeding a starving world with the bread of eternal life.

Why should any man assume, be he writer, preacher, or financier, that his ability was given for his own exclusive benefit, and his neighbor’s ability for the benefit of the public? No gift from God was ever intended for self aggrandizement. All such endowments are altruistic in purpose, and were designed for mutual help and the general good. Nor should aptitude in any direction be rated at its mere market value. Men pay most, as a rule, for things of least consequence. The gifts of the gospel, which are not to be purchased, which are beyond all price, would be discounted in any market in the world. They who despise any of God’s gifts are fit subjects for the divine clemency. They should be forgiven, “for they know not what they do.” All kinds of good men are needed in the work of the Lord, and some day, under a better social system than now prevails, they will be found laboring, every man for the interest of his neighbor, “and doing all things with an eye single to the glory of God.”
“Without purse or scrip”—that was the insignia of the Apostolic mission; and he who gave that mission “had not where to lay his head.” Not that he was powerless to provide for himself and his friends, for he possessed all things; but he made his servants poor, that the world might be proved, and the Lord’s true disciples known. He who gives even a cup of cold water to a servant of God athirst, shall in nowise lose his reward.

The American nation—the whole civilized world, or a great part of it, has gone money-mad, grasping after gold, and caring little or nothing as to how they acquire it; marrying for money, stealing for money, killing for money—anything to get money. “Put money in thy purse,” seems to be the slogan of the present hour; which might be well enough, as to money honestly obtained, if more people were found willing to open their purses, take the money out again, and use it as the divine Giver intended it to be used. “How much is he worth in dollars and cents?” or “What is his capacity for making and keeping?” is too often the gauge of a man’s greatness in these modern times. A false standard, unworthy of a great nation and a great people.

What a predicament the world would be in, if our Heavenly Father should act upon that principle? God’s greatness is shown not so much by his ability to create and possess, as by his willingness to bestow, to give, to share, to minister to the welfare and happiness of his children, to provide ways and means for their advancement, opening for them the avenues of progress leading to those summits of glory which he himself has attained. And he expects us to be like him, to emulate his example, to be perfect even as he is perfect, according to our sphere.
Thank heaven there are some men and some women who bow not down to the god of gold; men and women who are not for sale; men and women with whom the Giver, not the gift, is supreme. Such a man was the Prophet Joseph Smith. Such were his associates and successors. Such men lead us today, and such are all true Latter-day Saints, the world over.

Such a man was Orson Pratt, a true and genuine Apostle. “A rich man,” said President John Taylor at his funeral. Yes, for “he that hath eternal life is rich.” Eternal riches was his quest. In moderate, even lowly circumstances, so far as this world’s wealth was concerned, he was rich in powers of mind and accumulations of knowledge; an intellectual and a spiritual millionaire.

[Improvement Era, Vol. XV, January, 1912, No. 3]


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