Parley Parker Pratt (1807–1857) was among the most talented and influential figures in the formative period of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Apostle, missionary, theologian, poet, polemicist, pris¬oner, explorer, polygamist, and finally, in the view of many, martyr. Pratt was born in central New York State to Jared Pratt—a weaver thrown out of employment in his trade by the Industrial Revolution—and his wife, Charity. Like the Prophet Joseph Smith, who was two years his senior, Parley P. Pratt grew up in a family on the margins of the rural economy. Jared Pratt moved from place to place as a landless itinerant laborer whose “means to educate his children were very limited,” although they did have access to what Parley later termed an “excellent system of common school education.” Notwithstanding their limited opportunities, two of Jared and Charity Pratt’s five sons, Parley and his younger brother Orson, would become distinguished among the first generation of Latter-day Saints for their intellectual and rhetorical powers. Parley compensated for the deficiencies in his formal education through an early and avid appetite for reading: “I always loved a book; . . . a book at every leisure moment of my life.” Prominent among these readings was the Bible, which Pratt began to study at the age of seven under the direction of his mother. From this literary self-education, Pratt derived a broad and ready general knowledge and an uncommon facility in writing and public speaking.
Following his 1830 conversion to the Latter-day Saint faith (characteristically, through reading the Book of Mormon), Pratt devoted the remainder of his life to Church service. Although he was frequently absent from Church headquarters on numerous missions in the United States, Canada, Britain, and Chile, he still managed to play a prominent role in many of the key events of early Latter-day Saint history: the establishment of a body of Church members in the neighborhood of Kirtland, Ohio, in 1830; the settlement of Jackson County, Missouri, in 1832, and the forced expulsion the following year; the Zion’s Camp relief expedition; the crisis attending the collapse of the Kirtland real-estate bubble and the failure of the Kirtland Safety Society in 1837; the Missouri troubles of 1838–39 (as a consequence of which Pratt was imprisoned for eight months, a longer period than any other Church leader); the leadership crisis following the assassination of Joseph Smith in 1844; the expulsion from Nauvoo in 1846; and the westward migration to the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Most importantly, Pratt’s active pen generated a series of books and pamphlets that included the first and most influential systematic statement of Latter-day Saint beliefs (A Voice of Warning, 1837), the defining Mormon persecution narrative (History of the Late Persecution Inflicted by the State of Missouri upon the Mormons, 1839), and the foremost nineteenth-century theological treatise (Key to the Science of Theology, 1855).