Bookends #2: Book of Mormon Studies–Orson Pratt

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Today’s post is by Terry Foraker.  Ever since its initial publication in 1830, the Book of Mormon has been the subject of countless studies.  This post is the first of a series to introduce those who may be familiar with these studies to some of the more prominent of these writings as a starting point.  While the series is not meant to be comprehensive, and though it is admittedly saturated with my own bias, hopefully it will be a helpful introduction to the rich literature examining the Book of Mormon from a variety of angles.Shortly after the Church was organized in 1830, a 19-year-old named Orson Pratt was introduced to the restored gospel through his older brother, Parley P. Pratt.  Within a few years he would become one of the original members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and a tireless missionary, writer, theologian, and philosopher.  Through his sermons and especially his writings he helped inaugurate a tradition of rigorous inquiry within the church.  He is still regarded as one of the greatest minds the church has known.

Of his many studies, probably none has had a more enduring impact on the church than those concerning the Book of Mormon.  As one of the “founding fathers” of the church, Orson lived in the infancy of Book of Mormon studies, when they had not yet branched out into an examination of its historical, anthropological, archaeological, cultural, political, and literary elements.  Perhaps this is the greatest strength of his Book of Mormon studies; uncluttered by considerations of external evidence, which are frequently undergoing revision, his writings focused almost exclusively on its internal evidences, particularly the consistency between the Book of Mormon and the Bible. 

Orson provided one of the earliest summaries of the contents of the Book of Mormon in his tract An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, which was first published in 1840 and again in 1848.  This tract also provided a detailed account of Joseph Smith’s retrieval and translation of the plates on which the Book of Mormon was written.

This, however, was merely a prelude to his extensive six-part series entitled Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon, which was published in Great Britain in 1850 and 1851.  Here Orson presented what he regarded as numerous incontrovertible evidences for the divine origins of the Book of Mormon from the Bible, using logic to make his arguments.  The sequence of concepts which he presented in this series is of particular interest and is an indication of the scientific approach which he took to his arguments:

Part 1:

  • To expect more Revelation is not Unscriptural
  • To expect more Revelation is not Unreasonable

Part 2:

  • More Revelation is Indisputably Necessary:

First, For the Calling of Officers in the Church

Secondly, To Point out the Duties of the Officers of the Church

Thirdly, To Comfort, Reprove, and Teach the Church

Fourthly, To Unfold to the Church the Future

Part 3:  The Bible alone an insufficient Guide

Part 4:  Evidences of the Book of Mormon and Bible Compared

Part 5:  The Book of Mormon confirmed by Miracles

Part 6:  Prophetic Evidence in Favour of the Book of Mormon

One may quibble with the quality of the evidences which Orson presented in his study, but the progression of ideas-from general to specific, from a position of possibility to one of certainty-is appealing and is one of the strengths of this series.

The series is not without its flaws, of course; Part 5, which consists mainly of testimonies and affidavits from various church members relative to miraculous healings and the like, is a bit too much of a good thing, and in any case they don’t bear much direct relevance to the issue of the Book of Mormon.  Rather, the intent is clearly to persuade readers that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the repository of priesthood authority, and that one who accepts this must by extension believe that the Book of Mormon is divinely inspired of God.  (This argument has been reversed in recent years; members and investigators alike are now advised that once they gain a testimony of the Book of Mormon, then a testimony of priesthood authority and all the rest will follow.)  This segment is not without interest, but it could easily have been left out without at all diminishing from the force of Elder Pratt’s arguments.  This portion would have been more in place in his Series of Pamphlets, published the following year, which contained his writings “Spiritual Gifts” and “Necessity for Miracles”.

A more serious defect involves the nature of Elder Pratt’s rhetoric.   A sense of intense anger fueled much of what Orson Pratt wrote — not surprising, considering that most of his tracts were written in the years following the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith.  Still, it is difficult to imagine that referring to Catholics as being of the “whore” or the “harlot”, or the Protestants as being “the whore’s daughters” would be likely to endear the church to a non-Mormon audience.  On the other hand, it may simply be the result of living in a more politically correct, diversity-tolerant age when the Church goes out of its way to cultivate good relations with members of all faiths.  Regardless, such fiery rhetoric tends to leave a bad taste in more modern mouths.  We can be thankful that, with the possible exception of Bruce R. McConkie, our leaders are far more respectful towards other faiths, even as we hold to our claims of exclusive authority which we will not compromise.

The fact remains, however, that Orson Pratt set an impressive standard with his Book of Mormon studies which still have much teach us about rigorous scriptural analysis.  Plus, which one of us who has seen the layout of the original 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon hasn’t silently thanked him for at least dividing the massive block paragraphs into chapters and verses?

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Comments 6

  1. Thanks for this summary and review, Terry. Orson Pratt is such an interesting figure in our history. I think we sometimes tend to focus so much on Joseph Smith that other important early leaders & their impact on the movement get forgotten.

  2. Terry,

    Good work on this one. I find it interesting that Pratt was interested in whether the Book of Mormon came from God, while today we seem more interested in determining whether it came from the ground, so to speak.

    I also find it interesting that he would think that consistency between the Bible and Book of Mormon is a sign of the Book of Mormon’s authenticity, when today that same consistency is often deployed against historicity. But I assume Pratt was not concerned as much with historicity as with the possibility that God was the author.

  3. I think that for Pratt God being the author and it being historical would be one and the same.

    His “Interesting Account of Several Remarkable visions and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records” certainly presumes historicity.

  4. A more serious defect involves the nature of Elder Pratt’s rhetoric.

    Nicely pointed out. I’m always amazed when I read the discourse of the times at just how much hyperbole was embraced.

    We tend to decry the coarsening of public discourse, and it has some, since the censorship of the 60s vis a vis the airways, but for the most part we deal with far more moderated rhetoric.

  5. I had an astronomy teacher who was a bog Orson Pratt fan. Apparently during the westward trek, Orson carried along his telescope and was always checking the bearings relative to the stars.

    I believe he even has a bullseye quote in which he points out one of the stars in Orion’s belt and says that in it, worlds upon worlds were in creation. Turns out the star he pointed out is in fact a major star cluster and a hotbet for star formation.

    I’ll have to find the reference for the quote…

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