Parley P. and Mary Wood Pratt
by Ben Parkinson
September 19, 1998
Parley Parker Pratt was born April 12, 1807 in Burlington, New York. Spiritually inclined, and a seeker, he felt moved by the Spirit when he was just married to leave for a mission, though he didn’t belong to any church at the time. He became involved with Sydney Rigdon’s group of Cambellites, a group attempting to duplicate the pure Christianity found in the Bible, in Kirtland, Ohio. While on a preaching tour for them he met an old Baptist deacon who spoke of a book, a strange book, a very strange book, and when Parley started to read it, he lost all interest in anything else, even eating, and read all day. He went to Palmyra looking for Joseph Smith and met Hyrum, and the two of them stayed up all night talking about the Restoration, because neither had any interest in sleep. Parley was baptized in September 1830 and was called on a mission to the Lamanites in October, traveling 1500 miles on foot and becoming one of the first members of the Church to set foot in Independence, Missouri. On the way he and the others preached to Sydney Rigdon’s group in Kirtland and baptized 130, so many that the Church left New York and Pennsylvania and came to Kirtland.
Parley went on Zion’s Camp and was called as an Apostle shortly after. He had many adventures on many missions. Once he was thrown in jail on trumped-up charges and stayed awhile but finally asked the jailer how he would do in a footrace. The jailer said not so good, but his big dog was very good. Parley said, “You’ve compelled me to go a mile with you, and I’ve gone twain, but now I must be on my way, so if you can’t keep up with me, I must take my leave.” Then he took off at a dead run. The jailer was too startled to say anything until he had 50 yards on him. Then he sent the dog after him: “Sic him, boy, sic him!” Parley felt the dog bearing down on him before the idea came to him what to do. Stopping suddenly, he pointed past himself into the woods, yelled, “Sic him, boy, sic him,” and the dog ran right past him. So he made his escape and finished his mission.
Parley was one of the leaders of the Church arrested at the time of the troubles in Far West, Missouri, but was held separately from Joseph Smith and the others. He escaped and made his way across the state incognito, disguising himself and inventing a lively story about how he was a doctor traveling the backways for recreation. He compared the ruse to David’s eating the shewbread from the temple in desperate times, one might be excused for resorting to desperate means. He accompanied the Twelve to England, where he was founding editor of the Millennial Star. (The Prophet saw the Twelve in England in a vision one time, battered and careworn, gathered in a circle, unaware of the Savior standing in the middle because their glances were cast down.)
Parley entered into plural marriage in Nauvoo in late 1843. Mary Wood, through whom we come, was the fourth wife they were sealed in September 1844. Mary was born in Glasgow, Scotland June 18, 1818 and emigrated to Liverpool with as a young girl. She knew the Pratts from when Parley presided over the British Mission. When she joined the Church her father asked her to renounce it, and when she wouldn’t he said, “There is the door.” Parley was in charge of half the big second wagon train of 1847 and was constantly thinking how to manage and care for him. Typically he’d be out guiding his oxen (you can’t drive oxen with reins the way you can a horse, but rather you walk alongside with a stick and call out verbal commands), lost in thought, and pretty soon he’d be way ahead of the oxen and would have to stop and wait, and this happened again and again. He went on an exploration party into the central and southern Utah valleys. When he came back he was camped in Utah valley and woke to find himself covered in 18 inches of snow. He woke up, brushed himself off, looked over the clean expanse of field, and then watched as one by one the other men in his party woke and dug their way out of the ground, like the morning of the resurrection.
Brigham gave Parley a rest for a time in the valley. When he harvested a little of his first crop in 1848, he said “This is the first time since I came into the Church that I have reaped what I have sown.” He had always been on missions or driven off by mobbers before, and even now the crickets were still to come. In 1849 Brigham put him in charge of a crew building a road through what’s now Parleys Canyon. When it was completed he moved to Mountain Dell and was allowed to take his living from the tolls. He was called on other missions, one to San Bernardino and then I think to San Francisco, then finally to Chile. He struggled mightily to learn the language and translate the Book of Mormon but made little headway, and the people were not receptive at that time. I believe he and the wife he traveled with lost a baby there. Though they hadn’t make much headway, Parley became an advocate for people in non-English-speaking countries and proposed that the Twelve divide the Worlds major languages and become experts in them and that the University of Deseret specialize in modern rather than ancient languages, which I suppose was something of an educational controversy at the time. Parley was murdered on May 13, 1857 while on a mission in Arkansas, trying to help a convert escape from an abusive husband, which was one of the events leading up to the Utah War.
Parley is buried in a little park owned by the Church in Arkansas. The exact location within the park was kept a secret (I believe the family organization knows) to keep his grave from being disturbed. I attended a Pratt family meeting a few years back where the idea of bringing his body back to Salt Lake was discussed briefly, though the consensus was, given the fact the park serves as a missionary tool, that he was doing more good where he was. Mary Wood supported herself and her four children as a men’s taylor and hatter. The presidents of the Church wore her hats. She was frugal and tidy, with everything in its place. She did not remarry, though she was proposed to several times, because each time Parley’s face would come to her and she could see no other. She died March 5, 1898. Parley never had enough time to give his families the attention he wanted. Early in his life he was called to leave for Canada with his wife sick in bed. He prayed about his difficulty, and for an answer Heber Kimball came and blessed his wife that she would recover within the hour, which she did. Another time Parley was taking one of his wives to a dance when word came that another wive was in labor. Parley told the wife he was accompanying to the dance that he would dance with her in heaven. He used to write long composite letters with personal reminiscences and endearments in paragraphs and have them cut them up and distribute them among the wives.
Parley wrote a history of his life, edited by his son Parley P. Pratt Jr. and published as the Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt in 1874 and 1888. A third edition, from Deseret Book, was in print continuously from 1938, and there’s been a fourth edition recently. Parley is a vivid and entertaining writer, and the Autobiography is universally recognized as one of the classics of Mormon literature. His A Voice of Warning (1837) was the first LDS book other than the scriptures and was used widely in missionary work throughout the 19th century. He also published Key to the Science of Theology in 1855. He wrote many pamphlets and has been called the father of Mormon pamphleteering. For that matter, one humorous tract, The Devil and Joe Smith, may qualify as the first published piece of Mormon fiction. He composed many hymns, including “The Morning Breaks,” number 1 in the current hymnbook and several others we still sing such as “An Angel from on High” (no. 13), “Come, O Thou King of Kings” (no. 59), and “Jesus Once of Humble Birth (no. 196). His hymns were originally printed mostly in periodicals like The Millennial Star I believe, but he also published a group of them together with a long a narrative poem in The Millennium and Other Poems (1840), the first published book of Mormon poetry. I have a “Sketch of Mary Wood Pratt,” 3 pages, no author listed, copied by me probably from my grandfather’s files, possibly by Mary Pratt Parrish, daughter of Gladys’s full-brother Rey. Mary (Nena as we called her) wrote a 17 page chapter on Parley and Mary Wood in her family history Look to the Rock from Which Ye Are Hewn (Isaiah 51:1) (self-published, about 1984), which is largely about their son Helaman and grandson Rey. Amy Pratt Romney gave an interview to the BYU oral history program 23 and 31 May 1973 that has some on Parley and Mary. I have a copies of all of these.