Pratt's book was must-Mormon reading long ago

Saturday , July 05, 2014 - 12:00 AM

Standard-Examiner staff

I have always wanted to read early Mormon apostle Parley P. Pratt’s “Key to the Science of Theology,” a book that was heavily read by church members in the 19th century, yet probably would not be placed by most members today. But the book was a must-read 150 years ago.

The book is free electronically, online or Kindle, but it never seemed appropriate to read this tome via technology, and the dead-tree editions were a tad pricey until I found — surprisingly — a 1973 Deseret Book edition in an Ogden thrift store. For $1, I snapped it up and read it one long weekend.

With the exception of Joseph Smith, I find Pratt the most interesting of the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leaders. I can support that claim by merely having skeptics read his autobiography or the recent biography by Terryl L. Givens and Matthew J. Grow.

He was a force of theological energy, a mixture of piety and randiness. He was that curious blend of frontier independence, New Testament fundamentalist and progressive theologian that Mormonism attracted.

He weathered a major dispute with Joseph Smith and frequently angered Brigham Young, but he stayed a stalwart in Mormonism, eventually being murdered in 1857 by the husband of a convert he had taken as a plural wife. Perhaps more than any other early leader, Pratt understood the power of the printed word and his writings likely brought scores of thousands into the young church.

Pratt’s theme in his book is that every theological occurrence is based on a scientific law that we may not understand but is the norm in a higher, celestial sphere occupied by deity.

To be honest, the book is a tough read. Pratt writes in a ponderous, flowery manner in which a lot is used to say a little. On the plus side, the book’s explanation of Mormonism’s Plan of Salvation, with its pre-existence, distinct godly trinity, the earth being renewed to heavenly glory, and degrees of post-mortal salvation and exaltation, is similar to what is taught weekly in LDS chapels. These were extremely provocative concepts even within Mormonism 150-plus years ago, and Pratt’s mastery of the concepts lend credence to accounts that he and Joseph Smith engaged in long, productive conversations on theology during the last several years of Smith’s life.

There are nuggets of unconventional information that get through, such as his belief that the Book of Mormon prophets Lehi and Nephi landed in what is today Chile in South America. Also, in the book, Pratt opines in detail about life in the spirit world. One can imagine that this passage may have been inspired as a rebuttal to the then new fad of spiritualism and summoning the dead.

Pratt writes: “Many spirits of the departed, who are unhappy, linger in lonely wretchedness about the earth, and in the air, and especially about their ancient homesteads, and the places rendered dear to them by the memory of former scenes. The more wicked of these are the kind spoken of in Scripture, as ‘foul spirits,’ ‘unclean spirits,’ spirits who afflict persons in the flesh, and engender various diseases in the human system. They will sometimes enter human bodies, and will distract them, throw them into fits, cast them into the water, into the fire, etc. They will trouble them with dreams, nightmare, hysterics, fever, etc. They will also deform them in body and in features, by convulsions, cramps, contortions, etc., and will sometimes compel them to utter blasphemies, horrible curses, and even words of other languages. If permitted, they will often cause death. Some of these spirits are adulterous, and suggest to the mind all manner of lasciviousness, all kinds of evil thoughts and temptations.

Although there’s a lot of theological fun within the heavy prose (imagine a high priest group lesson extending beyond the lesson’s boundaries), it’s a good idea that this book stays an historical curio to be pored over by church historical buffs. It contains bits and pieces of the biases of earlier church history, some of which extended well into the second half of the 20th century. In this unfortunate passage. Pratt “describes” post-resurrection exaltation, writing:

“The heathen nations, also, will then be redeemed, and will be exalted to the privilege of serving the Saints of the Most High. They will be the ploughmen, the vine-dressers, the gardeners, builders, etc. But the Saints will be the owners of the soil, the proprietors of all real estate, and other precious things; and the kings, governors, and judges of the earth.”

For those with an interest in Mormon history, by all means give Pratt’s “Key to the Science of Theology” a read. As mentioned, its main point of interest is as an early primer on the LDS Plan of Salvation.

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