This article originally appeared in History of Utah, Vol.4
by Orson F. Whitney
This famous Apostle and Pioneer, one of the most prominent figures in the founding of Utah, was born at Hartford, Washington county, New York, September 19, 1811. His parents were Jared and Charity Dickinson Pratt, aud his father’s ancestor, Lieutenant William Pratt, with his elder brother John, was among the first settlers of Hartford, Connecticut. These brothers were sons of the Rev. William Pratt of Stevenidge, Hertfordshire, England. Orson Pratt was next to the youngest of six children, the fourth child in the family being his brother, Parley P. Pratt, destined like himself to become a noted preacher and writer, and amon” those first upon the ground as colonizers and settlers of the Rocky Mountain region. The younger brother is here given precedence, for the reason that he was one of the Pioneers proper, and the.first of that historic band to set foot upon the site of Salt Lake City, the earliest white settlement in these parts.
The parents of Orson Pratt were poor, and he also was fated to plod through life in comparative poverty, so far as this world’s wealth was concerned; but he was rich in powers of mind and accumulations of knowledge, treasures beyond compute. Orson Pratt was an intellectual millionaire.
His father began life as a weaver, but subsequently became a tiller of the soil. He taught his children to be moral and honest, and to believe in the Bible, bnt he had no faith in creeds and churches. When Orson was three or four years old the family moved from his birthplace to New Lebanon, Columbia county, in the same State, where he was sent to school several months in each year until the spring of 1822, when he began hiring out as a farm boy. At intervals he picked up a knowledge of arithmetic, bookkeeping, geography, grammar and surveying. Though a frequent reader of the scriptures, it was not until the autumn of 1829 that he began to pray fervently and “seek after the Lord.’’ This continued for about a year, when two Elders of the Latter-day Church came into his neighborhood and held several meetings which he attended. One of these Elders was his brother Parley, a recent convert to the Mormon faith, by whom Orson was baptized on the nineteenth anniversary of his birth.
October of that year found him at the birthplace of the Church—Fayette, Seneca County, New York—upon a visit to the Prophet Joseph Smith, by whom he was confirmed and ordained an Elder on the first day of November. His first mission, taken soon afterward, was to Colesville, in Broome county. Early in 1831 he followed the Prophet to Kirtland, Ohio, and after preaching for several months in that region, set out for Jackson county, Missouri, with his brother Parley, in compliance with a revelation directing many of the Elders to-travel two by two to that land, preaching by the way. The Pratt brothers held fifty meetings en route and baptized eleven souls.
At Kirtland, January 25, 1832, Orson Pratt was appointed to preside over the Elders of the Church, and was set apart to that Presidency uDder the hands of Sidney Rigdon. At the conference where this appointment was made the Prophet voiced a revelation in the presence of the whole assembly, assigning many of the Elders to missions. Orson Pratt and Lyman E. Johnson were sent to the Eastern States. Prior to starting, the former, on February 2nd, was ordained a High Priest by Sidney Rigdon, under the direction of the Prophet. During his mission he baptized and confirmed his eldest brother, Anson Pratt, at Hurlgate, Long Island, and after visiting his parents at Canaan, Columbia county. New York, proceeded northward with Elder Johnson. At Bath, New Hampshire, they baptized, among fourteen others, Amasa M. Lyman. In Vermont they baptized Winslow Farr, William Snow, Zerubbabel Snow and others, and on a subsequent mission to that State Orson Pratt brought Gardner Snow, Willard Snow and Jacob Gates into the Church. In the intervals of several other missions to the East, he attended the School of the Prophets, worked upon the Temple and in the Church printing office at Kirtland, and boarded for a season in the Prophet’s family.
In February, 1834, Orson Pratt and Orson Hyde were directed to travel together and assist in “gathering up the strength of the Lord’s house,’’ preparatory to “the redemption of Zion.” Many other Elders participated in this labor, which resulted in the organization of “ Zion’s Camp.’’ In the journey to Missouri Orson Pratt had charge of a number of the wagons. He was one of those attacked with cholera, but his great faith .. and iron will saved him while others perished. As one of the standing High Council in Zion, he with Bishop Edward Partridge visited the scattered Saints in Clay County, setting in order the various branches.
The early part of the year 1835 found him on his way back to Kirtland, under leave of absence, and accompanied part way by his brother, William D. Pratt. While on his first visit to Missouri he had suffered from fever and ague, which now returned, brought on by over-exertion in traveling. “Sometimes,” says he, “I lay down upon the wet prairies, many miles from any house, being unable to travel.” In the streets of Columbus, Ohio, a man passed to whom he felt impelled to speak; he proved to be a Latter-day Saint, the only one in that city. At the home of this brother the worn traveler tarried certain days, and there read in a late number of the “Messenger and Advocate,” published at Kirtland, that he had been chosen one of the Twelve Apostles, and was requested to be at headquarters on the 2Gth of April. A two-days journey by stage enabled him to arrive there on the day appointed.
He was ordained an Apostle under the hands of David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery, two of the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon, and on the same day was blessed by Joseph Smith, Sr., the Prophet’s father, who was the Patriarch of the Church. He accompanied his fellow Apostles on their first mission, through the Middle and Eastern States, aud in October, 1835, raised up a small branch in Beaver county, Pennsylvania, ordaining Dr. Sampson Avard an Elder to take charge of it.
The 4th of July, 1836, was Orson Pratt’s wedding day. He chose as his wife Miss Sarah M. Bates, sister to Ormus E. Bates, of Henderson, New York. Apostle Luke Johnson performed the ceremony, which took place while they were on a mission in that State.
At the time of the exodus of the Saints from Ohio, Apostle Pratt was presiding over a large branch of the Church in New York City. Summoned to Missouri, lie started with his family for Far West, but was detained by the ice at St. Louis, where he arrived about the middle of November, 1838. He rejoined his driven people at Quincy, Illinois, the next spring. His brother Parley was at that time a prisoner in the hands of the Missourians, but made his escape in July following, through the instrumentality of his brother Orson and other friends. The latter was one of those who risked their lives by returning to Far West to fulfil prophecy, on the historic date, April 26, 1839.
The ensuing autumn found our Apostle again in New York City, where he embarked with others of the Twelve in the spring of 1840, for Englaud. April of that year saw him iu Edinburgh, Scotland, where he preached for about nine months and raised up a branch of over two hundred Latter-day Saints. While upon this mission he published his noted pamphlet, “Remarkable Visions,” which was re-published in New York.
His time from the spring of 1841 to the summer of 1844 was spent at Nauvoo—where > he had charge of a mathematical school and was a member of the City Council—and upon various missions in the East. As a city councilor he helped to draw up a memorial to Congress, which he afterwards presented at the seat of government. There he tarried for ten weeks, preaching, baptizing, and in his leisure moments calculating eclipses and preparing his first almanac for publication in 1845. It was entitled “The Prophetic Almanac,” and was calculated from the latitude and meridian of Nauvoo and other American towns. “From 1836 to 1844,” says the Apostle, “1 occupied much of my leisure time in study, and made myself thoroughly acquainted with algebra, geometry, trigonometry, conic sections, differential and integral calculus, astronomy and most of the physical sciences. These studies 1 pursued without the assistance of a teacher.” He was still in the east when he heard of the murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, and soon afterwards he returned to Nauvoo. The following year he presided over the branches in the Eastern and Middle States, but returned home in November to prepare for his departure to the West.
He left Nauvoo February 14, 1846, accompanied by his family—four wives and three small children, the youngest a babe three weeks old. Financially exhausted by his frequent missions and the great amount of gratuitous service he had rendered, he had to be assisted to an outfit with which to begin the long journey lying before him. April 24th found him at Garden Grove, where the question of sending a band of pioneers, men without families, across the Rocky Mountains, with seed-grain, farming utensils, provisions, etc., to prepare for those who would follow, was considered in a council of the Apostles and laid before the people. At the next halting place, Mount Pisgah, it was decided by President Young and the Apostles that during the absence of the pioneers the main body of the people should tarry on the Pottawattomie lands at and around Council Bluffs, if the Indian owners would consent. While Orson Pratt was following in the wake of President Young to the Missouri River, one of his wives, Louisa Chandler Pratt, died of typhus fever on the 12th of June, between Mount Pisgah and Council Bluffs.
In the spring of 1847 he accompanied the President and his pioneer associates on that historic journey which, beginning in April at the Missouri River, and ending in July upon the shores of the Great Salt Lake, led to the founding of Utah and the settlement and development of this intermountain country. Orson Pratt was in charge of the vanguard sent by President Young, who was ill with mountain fever, from Echo Canyon across the Wasatch range into Salt Lake Valley. He and Erastus Snow were the first of the Pioneers to enter the Valley, and the former, as related elsewhere, was the first among them to plant foot upon the site of Salt Lake City. This was on the 21st of July, three days before the arrival of President Young. That he was alone at this time was due to the fact that his comrade had returned toward the mountains to look for his lost coat. The original survey of Salt Lake City was begun by Orson Pratt, with Henry G. Sherwood, on the 2nd of August, and on the 26th of that month, he started, with others of the pioneers, on the return journey to Winter Quarters.
At a conference held there on April 15, 1848, Apostle Pratt was appointed to succeed Elder Orson Spencer as President of the European Mission and as editor of the “Millennial Star,” and in compliance with that call he with his wife Sarah and their children left Winter Quarters about the middle of May and arrived at Liverpool on the 26th of July. The British Mission contained at that time about forty thousand Latter-day Saints. The Apostle’s reputation as a preacher and a writer had preceded him, and the sun of his fame rose well-nigh to its zenith (liming this period. For three years he labored incessantly as President, preacher, editor and author. Every noted town in Great Britain heard the sound of his voice—deep, sonorous, powerful—proclaiming with fervid and fearless eloquence the principles he had been sent forth to promulge. While editing the “Star” he wrote, published and distributed many pamphlets on various subjects pertaining to the doctrine and history of the Church. With means obtained from the sale of liis works he supplied the urgent needs of a portion of his family left on the Iowa frontier. In May, 1850, he paid them a visit, and while there received word from President Young that he was honorably released from his mission and at liberty to return home. Going back to England he remained until the spring of 1851, and then started for Utah, arriving here on the 7th of October.
The following winter he sat as a member of the Council in the first legislative assembly of the Territory of Utah, and was in the legislature during every subsequent session when at home. For several sessions, including the one next preceding his demise, he was speaker of the House. The winter and spring of 1851-2 was occupied in the delivery of a series of twelve lectures on astronomy, which awakened general interest. He was also connected with the University of Deseret as one of its corps of instructors. He was such an ardent lover of knowledge, and so anxious to disseminate it, that he offered at one time to teach the youth of the community free, if they would but give their time to study.
In August, 1852, he was appointed to preside over the Latter-day Saints in all the States of the Union and in the British Provinces of North America. Establishing his headquarters at Washington, D. C., ho there began the publication of “The Seer,” in the columns of which periodical appeared the Prophet Joseph’s Revelation and Prophecy on War and the Revelation on Celestial marriage, then for the first time given to the world. In 1853, while still editing “The Seer,” he made a flying trip to Liverpool, and from April, 1856, to January, 1858, w’as absent from home on another presiding mission in Great Britain. He returned by way of California, while Johnston’s army was in winter quarters east of the Wasatch Mountains. For about two years from 1862 he presided at St. George, in Southern Utah.
In April, 1864, Apostle Pratt was set apart for a mission to Austria, and was accompanied to Vienna by Elder William W. Riter. Finding the laws of that country too stringent to allow them to obtain a footing for missionary work, they returned to England, where in May, 1866, the Apostle published an edition of his mathematical work, “Pratt’s Cubic and Biquadratic Equations.” Three years later, in Now York City, he transcribed and published the Book of Mormon in the phonetic characters called the Deseret Alphabet.
The month of August, 1870, was made memorable by the great public discussion between Orson Pratt the Mormon Apostle, and Dr. John P. Newman, the Methodist Chaplain of the United States Senate, upon the subject “Does the Bible sanction polygamy?” This famous debate took place in the Tabernacle at Salt Lake City, in the presence of ten thousand people, and lasted three days. During its progress the Apostle amazed and bewildered his learned opponent, not only by his thorough familiarity with the scriptures, but by his incisive logic, his clear-cut mathematical demonstrations, his profound knowledge of the original Hebrew and the writings of the most eminent commentators on the Bible.
In 1874 he became the Church Historian, a position held by him during the remainder of his days. In 1877 he went to England, to transcribe and publish an edition of the Book of Mormon in the Pitman phonetic characters, but was almost immediately re-called to Utah by the death of President Brigham Young, in August of that year. In the fall of 1878, Accompanied by Apostle Joseph F. Smith, he visited Nauvoo, Kirtland, the Hill Cumorah and other places of historic interest, and. at Richmond, Ray County, Missouri, had a pleasant interview with David Whitmer, the survivor of the famous Three Witnesses.
In December of the same year the venerable Apostle started upon his last foreign mission—his fifteenth voyage across the ocean; this time to stereotype and publish at Liverpool the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants, as arranged by him in paragraphs, with footnotes and references. He also published while there his astronomical work “Key to the Universe.” Prior to this time he had achieved wide fame in the field of higher mathematics. As early as November, 1850, he had discovered a law governing planetary rotation, and subsequently had made other scientific discoveries. Professor Proctor, the astronomer, while lecturing at Salt hake City early in the “eighties,” referred admiringly, almost reverently, to Professor Pratt, and gave it as his opinion that there were but four real mathematicians in the world, and Orson Pratt was one of them. While in London upon his last mission he made a discovery regarding the chronological symbolism of the Great Pyramid, concerning which he had just been reading. This discovery, he claimed, conclusively demonstrated that the date of the organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was symbolized in the grand gallery’s chronological floor line.
Though now an old man, with hair and beard as white as snow, he was still physically and mentally strong and enduring; and while fulfilling this mission worked for weeks at a stretch, not less than eighteen hours out of the twenty-four. At home again in September, 1879, he showed in the enfeebled state of his health that the heavy toil had told severely upon him. From that time he was a sufferer from diabetes, which finally terminated his life.
This patriarchal Apostle was the father of forty-five children, and, at the time of his death, sixteen sons and as many daughters were living. Among the sons are Professor Orson Pratt, musician; Arthur Pratt, ex-chief of police; Laron Pratt, printer; Lorus Pratt, artist; Milando Pratt, a High Councilor of the Salt Lake Stake of Zion; Ray R. Pratt and Royal G. Pratt, both of whom enlisted among the Utah Volunteers during the war with Spain. Among the daughters are Mrs. Willard Weihe, of the Church Historian’s Office, Mrs. Joseph Kimball, Mrs. J. U. Eldredge, Mrs. James Douglass, Mrs. John Silver, Mrs. Willard Snow, Mrs. Anthony Ivins, Mrs. Alvin Beesley,Mrs. James S. Morgan, and the late Mrs. F. M. Bishop. Two of the Apostle’s grand-daughters, Mrs. Viola Pratt Gillette and Miss Ruth Eldredge, are known in the professional world; the former as a singer, the latter as an elocutionist.
Orson Pratt was not only a preacher, eloquent and powerful, a theologian learned and profound, a linguist to whom the dead languages were an open book, a writer lucid and logical, and a scientist of eminent attainments; he was also a philosopher, a fact as clearly evinced in his every day association with his fellows, as in his thoughtful literary productions. An anecdote or two will suffice to illustrate. One of the evidences of the humble circumstances in which he lived was a weather-beaten but respectable straw-hat, which he wore both summer and winter. One of his daughters—Mrs. Kimball— asked him one day, “Father, why do you wear a straw hat in winter?” “To keep my head warm, my child,” he answered. “But is a straw hat warm in winter?’’ she persisted. “Warmer than no hat at all, my daughter,’’ was the reply, worthy of a Diogenes. Another incident also portrays the philosophical side of his nature and emphasizes his powers of concentration and self-mastery; all the more strikingly when it is known that Orson Pratt was naturally as high-spirited as he was determined. He was preaching in the open air at Liverpool, when an arrogant, noisy fellow, emerging from the crowd, planted himself squarely in front and began denouncing him. Without deigning to notice the interruption, the speaker raised his powerful voice and completely drowned that of the disturber. The latter then shouted in stentorian tones, but the Apostle, increasing his own lung power, again rendered him inaudible. This was kept up until the fellow ceased from sheer exhaustion, and retired amid the laughter of the bystanders. The speaker then lowered his voice to its normal pitch and calmly continued his discourse to the end.
Orson Pratt, the meek and faithful Apostle—“the Saint Paul of Mormondom,’’ as Tullidge aptly styled him; a man of whom President Wilford Woodruff said at his funeral, that he had traveled more miles, preached more sermons, studied and written more upon the Gospel and upon science than any other man in the Church,—died at his home in Salt Lake City, October 3rd, 1881. Upon his death bed, just before breathing his last, he dictated to President Joseph F. Smith, who took down the words as he uttered them, the following epitaph, to be placed upon his tombstone: “My body sleeps for a moment, but my testimony lives and shall endure forever.