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Orson Pratt: Early Advocate of the Book of Mormon

TitleOrson Pratt: Early Advocate of the Book of Mormon
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1984
AuthorsWhittaker, David J.
Issue Number4
Date PublishedApril 1984
KeywordsChapter and Verse Structure; Conversion; Early Church History; Pratt, Orson; Testimony

Traces Orson Pratt’s work as a “student, advocate, and editor” of the Book of Mormon. Recounts how he drew heavily on the work of his brother, Parley P. Pratt, and on his own scientific background to defend the Book of Mormon. Tells of his work in making extensive format changes to the 1879 edition of the Book of Mormon to make it more accessible to students.


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Orson Pratt: Early Advocate of the Book of Mormon

By David J. Whittaker

Little did nineteen-year-old Orson Pratt know when he was baptized less than six months after the April 1830 organization of the Church that he was to become as devoted a student and proponent of the Book of Mormon as any in Church history. Through his spoken and written defenses of the doctrines of the Church, particularly of the Book of Mormon, many other converts would subsequently come into the Church. And later, as an Apostle, he would have responsibility in preparing new editions of the book he defended so tirelessly.

Shortly after his baptism, young Orson Pratt met Joseph Smith, who, under the Lord’s direction, called him to the ministry and “to lift up [his] voice as with the sound of a trump, both long and loud, and cry repentance.” (D&C 34:6.) Orson immediately accepted the first of his many mission calls, not at all confident that his testimony was sufficient:

“I felt as though I was not qualified to stand before the people, and tell them that the Book of Mormon was divine revelation, and that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, unless I had a stronger testimony than that afforded by ancient prophets. However great my assurance might be, it seemed to me, that to know for myself, it required a witness independent of the testimony of others.”

When he sought this sure witness, he did not receive it immediately. “But,” he records, “when the Lord saw the integrity of my heart and the anxiety of my mind—when He saw that I was willing to travel hundreds of miles for the sake of learning the principles of the truth, He gave me a testimony for myself, which conferred upon me the most perfect knowledge that Joseph Smith was a true prophet, and that … the Book of Mormon, was in reality a Divine revelation, and that God had once more, in reality, spoken to the human family. What joy this knowledge gave me!”1

Five years later, sure in his testimony, he was called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. It was while serving as an Apostle-missionary in Great Britain that he published his first pamphlet, An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records (1840). This tract contained the first published account of the First Vision, as well as several details about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon found in no other early Church literature.

Returning home from his mission, Elder Pratt encountered in Nauvoo some serious misunderstandings regarding the Prophet Joseph Smith. He asked that his name be removed from the records of the Church until he could satisfy his questions. After five months, the Prophet warmly welcomed him back into the Quorum of the Twelve.

Elder Pratt continued throughout his life to serve the kingdom as a writer and record keeper. A member of the first advance company of the main body of Saints to come West in 1847, he kept a detailed record of the trek. Later, as mission president in Europe, Elder Pratt was editor of the weekly The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, where he defended and expounded the gospel. During his editorship, circulation increased from 3,700 to 22,000. By the end of his twenty-nine months as mission president, he had also written fifteen pamphlets in defense of Latter-day Saint doctrines.

While serving a later mission in Washington, D.C., Elder Pratt published The Seer, a defense of the Church, which increasingly was coming under political attack. Between 1856 and 1858, he again presided over the European mission and wrote eight more pamphlets on specific Church doctrines.

In order to see the significance of Orson Pratt’s contribution as a defender of the Book of Mormon, we must know something about the temper of the times in which he lived. Even before the Book of Mormon came off the press in March 1830, it came under fierce attack. Thus, early missionaries had to defend its origin and content continually. Their chief defenses, which were also presented in the Latter-day Saint press, were the following:

  1. Personal witness from the Holy Ghost would confirm the truth of the book to the honest seeker. This defense was the most widely used.
  2. The Bible itself foretold the coming forth of the Book of Mormon—the “stick of Ephraim” referred to in Ezekiel 37 [Ezek. 37]. In an age when many people studied the Bible, this was a persuasive appeal.
  3. Ruins of ancient American cities told of the existence of a civilized people on the American continent.
  4. The simplicity of the Book of Mormon’s language and the power of its contents bear witness of its truthfulness. In the first long defense of the Book of Mormon, William W. Phelps used these arguments, in combination with personal testimony, biblical witness, and archaeological evidences.2

As anti-Mormon publications proliferated, so did longer, more thorough defenses of the faith—in such publications as the Latter-day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate and the Millennial Star. But perhaps the most important Book of Mormon defense of this period was written by Orson Pratt’s brother, Parley P. Pratt.

A Voice of Warning and Instruction to All People, published in 1837, devoted an entire chapter to defending the Book of Mormon. That chapter began by noting the fact that few Book of Mormon critics had actually read the book, then combined the approaches noted above, extending the historical and archaeological evidences to produce a powerful testimony. Parley also pointed out that the Book of Mormon provides new information about past events, that it tells of the origin of the American Indian, that it speaks of events yet to come, and that it reveals the fulness of the gospel.

Parley Pratt also wrote other important works in response to the growing body of anti-Mormon literature, many specifically defending the Book of Mormon. Orson Pratt later built much of his defense of the new scripture around the approaches Parley had used in A Voice of Warning and in his other tracts.

In addition to pamphlets, there appeared very early in the Church several concordances specifically designed to assist students of the scriptures. Lorenzo D. Barnes’s References to Prove the Gospel in its Fulness was issued in 1841, and the next year Benjamin Winchester published the Synopsis of the Holy Scriptures. Both works proved to be useful tools for early missionaries. These works, together with Charles B. Thompson’s 1841 Evidences in Proof of the Book of Mormon provided the Church with a rich resource for the study and defense of the Book of Mormon.

The first published record we have of Orson Pratt’s missionary work tells that he “explained his faith and gave a brief history of the book of Mormon [and] united it with the Holy Bible.”3 The Book of Mormon was always at the core of his missionary work.

His most extended defense of the book, titled The Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon, was an essay published in six parts between October 1850 and January 1851 while he was president of the British Mission. It was later gathered into a single volume. This ninety-six-page essay reveals several things about Orson Pratt’s particular approach to defending the Book of Mormon:

  1. He took a logical, systematic approach. For example, he began the essay by establishing an either/or proposition. (“Either the book is true or it is not.”) He then proceeded to argue that continuing revelation is necessary, scriptural, and reasonable. With these basic propositions in place, he employed a systematic process of reasoning to substantiate his assertion that the book is in fact true. This tack is not surprising in light of Orson’s interest in and study of mathematics and astronomy.
  2. Orson drew upon the Bible as a proof text. In other words, he showed that the very arguments used to prove the divinity of the Bible could be used to support the claims of the Book of Mormon. Orson used this line of reasoning in many of his other writings and discourses.4
  3. He relied heavily on archaeological and historical evidence to substantiate his position.
  4. He relied on material from an earlier period in Latter-day Saint literature, particularly the writings of his brother Parley. For him, the early events of the Restoration and the Joseph Smith story provided strong evidences of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. His major argument was always that the Book of Mormon provides evidence that God has continued to speak to mankind.
  5. Orson clarified and elaborated on arguments already advanced: first, the “two sticks” argument of Ezekiel 37 [Ezek. 37], and second, that North and South America was the land of promise for the remnant of Joseph, as suggested in Genesis 49 [Gen. 49].
  6. Finally, he compared events of the Book of Mormon with emerging archeological information on Central America, particularly that by Stephens and Catherwood.5 For Orson Pratt, the detailed history of the Book of Mormon gave convincing evidence that a young New England farm boy could not have fabricated it. And he was confident that further discoveries would substantiate its truth.

But, for all his study of the text of the Book of Mormon, for all his published defenses of it, and for all of his official assignments (including that of Church historian from 1874 until his death in 1881), his most lasting contribution was probably as editor of the 1879 edition of the Book of Mormon. Three decades earlier he had been responsible for helping prepare the important 1849 edition. But in the 1879 edition, he made the most extensive format changes to that point. He made smaller chapters, dividing the larger books; numbered verses; and added extensive references, including biblical citations, cross-references, and his own explanatory footnotes. These format changes, probably his greatest legacy to the modern Church, evidence his desire to make the scriptures more accessible to other Book of Mormon students.

This 1874 edition of the Book of Mormon shows Orson Pratt’s proposed format changes. He suggested smaller chapters and numbered verses, added cross references, and wrote explanatory footnotes. The new edition was first issued in 1879.

Before Orson Pratt’s work, the book had been in straight narrative form. Now readers could easily find information by locating the cited verses, as well as by referring to the cross references to material in the other standard works. And some of Orson Pratt’s notes, though not considered official Church statements, helped shape the thought of many of the next generation of Latter-day Saint scholars, George Reynolds being one notable example.

Perhaps little of Orson Pratt’s Book of Mormon scholarship was original. But it all bore the mark of a devoted believer. And his detailed analyses and proofs, which employed methods borrowed from his scientific background, used an orderly and logical approach that have influenced generations of Book of Mormon defenders.

Orson Pratt held a lifelong conviction that the Book of Mormon was one of mankind’s greatest treasures. “And yet,” he lamented, “how many there are of the Latter-day Saints who suffer this book to remain upon their shelves, week after week, without ever reading a page of these precious things.”6

As student, advocate, and editor, Orson Pratt sought throughout his life to make these “precious things” available to his generation. His work lives on today as a legacy of faith and devotion to truth.

David J. Whittaker, a Sunday School teacher and father of four children, is the University Archivist, Brigham Young University.

  1. In Journal of Discourses, 12:85.
  2. The Evening and The Morning Star, Jan. 1833, pp. 57–59.
  3. The Brookville Enquirer, quoted in Latter-day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, Feb. 1835, p. 77. See also Orson’s letter to Oliver Cowdery in Messenger and Advocate, 1 March 1835, pp. 89–90.
  4. Examples of this approach are in Journal of Discourses, 7:22–38; 14:289–99; 16:209–20; 19:350–57; 21:168–78.
  5. John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, 2 vols (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1841), and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, 2 vols (London: John Murray, 1843).
  6. In Journal of Discourses, 19:213.