Parley Parker Pratt (1807-1857) profoundly shaped early Mormon history through his leadership as an apostle and his prolific writings elaborating and defending Latter-day Saint theology. Parley was the third of five sons born to Jared and Charity Pratt, farmers who moved several times around eastern New York in search of economic opportunity though they primarily found debt and disappointment. Though he received little formal education, Pratt was intellectually curious and pursued self-education.
In the late 1820s, Parley moved to Ohio and became associated with Sidney Rigdon and the Campbellites, a religious movement which emphasized the restoration of the purity and practices of the New Testament Church. An encounter with the Book of Mormon in 1830 converted him to Mormonism. That fall, a revelation to Joseph Smith directed Pratt and three others to travel from New York to Missouri and preach to the Native Americans. Along the way, Pratt stopped in Kirtland, Ohio, and taught Rigdon, who became a prominent Mormon leader, and many members of his congregation. Their conversions transformed Kirtland into a center of early Mormonism. Soon after, Smith and the other New York Mormons moved there. In 1835, Smith called Pratt, along with his brother Orson, as members of the newly-formed Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, a position they served in for the remainder of their lives.
As an apostle, Pratt played a key role in the expansion and internationalization of early Mormonism. On a mission to Canada in 1836, Pratt taught a Methodist lay preacher named John Taylor, who became the Church's third President. He participated in the critical mission of the Apostles to England in 1840-41, when thousands joined Mormonism and immigrated to the United States. He also helped settle Utah and led an effort to discover the natural resources of southern Utah. In the 1850s, Pratt's two missions to gold rush California and a mission to Chile (the first Mormon mission in Latin America) helped orient the Church towards the Pacific Rim and Latin America. His constant missions left himself and his family in a state of almost perpetual poverty.
Pratt exerted a profound influence on Mormon thought through his preaching and writing. Pratt wrote not only doctrinal texts, but also poetry, hymns, and fiction. His Voice of Warning (1837), a missionary pamphlet, became one of the most widely read Mormon writings over the next half century. In 1840, Pratt served as the founding editor for the Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star, the Church's influential British periodical. In Key to the Science of Theology (1855), Pratt produced Mormonism's first comprehensive theological treatise. His Autobiography (1874) remains a classic in Mormon literature.
How did Parley Pratt die in Arkansas?
In 1851, Eleanor McComb McLean and her husband Hector McLean attended a Mormon meeting in San Francisco. Eleanor soon converted to the Church while Hector remained steadfastly opposed to her conversion to Mormonism. According to Eleanor's testimony and other historical evidence, her husband was an abusive alcoholic. Once, upon discovering Eleanor singing a Mormon hymn, he beat her and threw her into the street, locking her out of her home. Nevertheless, Hector consented to Eleanor's baptism into the Mormon faith in 1854. After Eleanor's baptism, Parley Pratt arrived in San Francisco along with his wife Elizabeth for a mission in 1854-1855; Pratt attempted to mediate the marital disputes between Eleanor and Hector. In January 1855, Hector McLean sent their three children to New Orleans, without Eleanor's knowledge, to live with her parents, ostensibly to protect them from Mormonism. Eleanor immediately sailed to New Orleans after her children; she considered Hector's acts as a final betrayal and viewed their marriage as over. Eleanor's parents also opposed her conversion to Mormonism and blocked her efforts to take her children to Utah. As a woman and as a member of an unpopular religious minority, Eleanor had little chance of legally gaining custody of her own children from her parents or from obtaining a divorce from Hector. After her unsuccessful attempt to regain custody of her children, Eleanor traveled to Utah in the summer of 1855, where she married Pratt as a plural wife. Prior to her arrival in Utah, Eleanor had not been romantically involved with Pratt.
In 1856, in the midst of the rising national clamor against the Mormons that preceded President James Buchanan's decision to send a federal army to Utah a year later, Brigham Young called Pratt on a mission to the eastern United States. While Pratt preached throughout the East during the fall of 1856 and the winter of 1856-57 (including stops in New York City, Cincinnati, and St. Louis), Eleanor traveled from Utah to New Orleans to recover her three children from her parents' home. After retrieving her children in December 1856, Eleanor headed towards Texas with her final objective being Utah.
Hector McLean blamed Pratt and Mormonism for the break-up of his family (though Eleanor repeatedly stated he had broken their marriage through his alcoholism, abuse, and religious intolerance). As such, McLean left California and tracked Pratt during his eastern mission in order to exact revenge, almost catching up with him in St. Louis. After Parley received word that Eleanor was heading for Utah with her children, Pratt, recognizing she was in danger, set out to meet her in Oklahoma Indian Territory. Meanwhile, McLean obtained a warrant for both Eleanor's and Parley's arrest by alleging they had stolen the clothes the children were wearing. On this flimsy charge, a U. S. marshal with a military escort arrested them, along with another missionary, George Higginson.
The trio was taken to Van Buren, Arkansas for trial. Parley and Eleanor, through their conduct and declarations of innocence, impressed the local judge, John B. Ogden, who freed Eleanor and acquitted Parley of the charges later that night. Early the next morning, on May 13, 1857, Judge Ogden released Parley and offered him a knife and pistol, knowing that Eleanor's former husband and others with him were waiting in Van Buren for an opportunity to kill Parley. Parley refused the weapons, saying, "Gentlemen, I do not rely on weapons of that kind. My trust is in my God!" Judge Ogden commented, "I never saw a man like him, so quiet, uncomplaining and free from every feeling of revenge"
When McLean learned of Pratt's escape, he immediately followed with several associates. They caught up with Pratt twelve miles from Van Buren. McLean fired six shots. All missed, though some hit his coat and saddle. Pratt was then stabbed twice by McLean in the chest and left for dead. Ten minutes later, McLean returned and shot him at point-blank range in the neck.
A local blacksmith, Zealey Wynn, witnessed the murder and gathered some neighbors. Though surprised to find Pratt alive, they cared for him in his final minutes. Pratt asked that his valuables be sent to his family in Salt Lake City and that his body also be buried there. Pratt also bore a dying testimony: "I die a firm believer in the Gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith, and I wish you to carry this dying testimony. I know that the Gospel is true and that Joseph Smith was a prophet of the Living God, I am dying a martyr to the faith." Eleanor and Elder Higginson soon arrived and prepared Pratt's body for burial in the manner of his faith. Local residents assisted them and William Steward, a mill owner, gave his own coffin for Pratt's burial. Pratt was buried the day following his death in the Wynn family graveyard. Eastern newspapers lauded McLean and celebrated Pratt's death, while the Latter-day Saints mourned Pratt as a martyr.
Why Move Parley Pratt's Remains to Salt Lake City?
Pratt's dying wish was that he be buried in Salt Lake City, with his family and among the Latter-day Saints. (Parley's death in Arkansas was a major tragedy for his family.) National animosity against the Latter-day Saints, which included a federal army being sent to Utah in 1857-1858, made this impossible. The exact location of Pratt's grave was also unclear, particularly since the Wynn Family Cemetery was mostly destroyed during the Civil War. Over the century and a half since Pratt's death, his family has made numerous attempts to find the location of his grave. More than a century ago, his family purchased a plot in the Salt Lake City Cemetery and left the central location empty to allow Pratt to be reburied there. In the 1950s, the family erected a monument in his honor near where he was buried near Alma, Arkansas.
New scientific tools have now made it possible to mount a new effort to locate his grave. Parley's descendants have used these tools, including ground-penetrating radar and electromagnetic surveys, along with historical descriptions of his burial place, to pinpoint the probable location of his grave. Today, Parley has approximately 22 to 24 living great-grandchildren, his closest living "next of kin." On April 2, 2008, sixteen affidavits of these great-grandchildren, in addition to more than 100 additional affidavits of other descendants, were presented in Crawford County, Arkansas to Circuit Judge Gary Cottrell requesting permission to open the probable grave in an attempt to locate Parley's remains and move them to the plot reserved for him by his family more than a century ago. Cottrell gave permission for the family to open Pratt's probable grave, exhume his remains if they are found, and rebury them in Salt Lake City. Robert J. Grow, a Salt Lake City lawyer and President of the Jared Pratt Family Association, who is leading this effort on behalf of Parley's descendants, explained the motivations of Pratt's descendants, "By removing Parley's remains to Utah, we as a family finally honor his dying request. Parley never came home from his last mission. His family never had a place to grieve for or remember him. No memorial service was ever held on his behalf during the turmoil of 1857. We hope these efforts will help to unify his family and help them remember their heritage. We are conducting these efforts in a spirit of thanksgiving for those citizens of Arkansas who six generations ago aided Parley, his widow, and his missionary companion in their time of greatest extremity and for others who over the last century helped members of the family in their repeated efforts to locate Parley's burial site. (Please see additional comments below thanking specific individuals.) We also hope this effort helps Parley's descendants remember Parley's life of sacrifice and service to his family, the Latter-day Saints, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Pratt Family also owes a special debt of gratitude to the members of the LDS Church in Arkansas who for three generations have preserved and maintained the monument site. Parley's original burial site will remain a special and sacred place for the Pratt family." Grow added, "This is the place where he drew his last breath and gave his last testimony in defense of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Church that he loved."
Thanks from the Pratt Family to the People of Arkansas:
The Pratt family offers its belated thanks to the many Arkansans who showed great kindness to Parley, Eleanor, and George Higginson (Parley's missionary companion) 150 years ago. The following individuals in particular assisted them in their hour of need.
Judge Ogden acquitted Eleanor and Parley after recognizing that the charges against them were ill founded and a ruse, kept Parley over night in protective custody, kept McLean in his office until 2 am trying to convince him not to pursue Parley and trying to prevent a mob from attacking the jail, offered Parley a knife and pistol to protect himself, and eventually gave Eleanor money to go to New Orleans.
Mr. Smith, the proprietor of the local hotel, protected Eleanor from a threatened lynching (saying the mob could do so over his dead body), gave Eleanor the finest linen in his hotel to wrap Parley's body, and did not charge Eleanor for staying at his hotel. She said that he was "all the time very kind to me and escorted me onto the boat" to New Orleans.
Marshall Hays kept Eleanor informed of the court's consideration of Parley's case, arranged a safe escort for her and George Higginson to Fine Springs so she could prepare Parley for burial, and then provided her with safe passage back to Van Buren.
The wife of a local Methodist minister drove Eleanor in a carriage to Fine Springs.
Two unnamed armed escorts accompanied Eleanor and Higginson with the Marshall.
Zealy Wynn, the Frazier brothers, and other eyewitnesses sent for the justice of the peace, provided Parley with water to drink, heard his dying request, and were with Parley when he died.
Zealy Wynn opened his home to prepare Parley for burial and to hold an inquest concerning the murder, made Eleanor and Higginson welcome, and provided a place in his family burial ground for Parley.
William Steward prepared the walnut coffin and pine box for Parley's burial. (Some accounts say William knew Parley in New York many years earlier and may have given his own fine casket to Parley.)
James Orme conducted an honest inquest, may have issued an indictment against McLean, ordered the coffin, and conducted and spoke at Parley's grave side service.
Unnamed volunteers dug the grave and others attended the service in Parley's behalf.
The good people of Fine Springs provided Parley a good Christian burial.
In addition, we would also like to thank those who have helped preserve and care for Parley's burial site.
a. John Steward, Mary Frazier, Carrol Fine and others did their best to help the family find Parley's grave site in the early 1900s. John and Mary, who were eyewitnesses to the burial, in 1912 provided the best historical information about the grave site.
b. Hugh and Ruie Ann Park, of the Press Argus, helped the family in the 1930s and 50s, leading to the purchase of the property and the placement of the monument.
c. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Alma and the surrounding communities cared for the grave site for the last fifty years.
All these actions witness to the goodness of people and to our common humanity that ties us together. Such is our hope of the kinder, gentler world that we all seek. We, as Parley's family and on his and Eleanor's behalf, hope you will accept our belated and heartfelt thank you.