Parley P. Pratt’s ‘A Voice of Warning’: The Original ‘Gospel Principles’

Parley P. Pratt’s ‘A Voice of Warning’: The Original ‘Gospel Principles’

When introduced, Religions need a story, a framework, and a context.

Most Christian religions, when introducing Christianity, do not just hand someone a copy of the Bible, tell them to start reading at the Beginning of Genesis, and assume that at the end, they will, on their own, come to understand and agree as to why their organization and belief structure is important for them. Individuals are guided, and given a context for the scriptural records.

Today, in the modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, when introducing the Church and the message of Salvation and Restoration they bear, Missionaries cover a brief outline of the essentials of context to those they teach in a series of lessons:

  • The Message of the Restoration: The Historical Context and Pattern of Prophetic priesthood authority, dispensations and apostasy.
  • The Plan of Salvation: The Cosmic and spiritual context and purpose of where we personally fit into the world (“Where did we come from, why are we here, and where are we going?”)
  • The Gospel of Jesus Christ: The practical element of the Gospel – the central and personal role of Jesus Christ in how we are able to accept God’s salvation, and practically fulfill the Plan of Happiness in our Personal Lives

This is followed by teaching individual commandments and standards to assist in the development of the newly consecrated life. Following initiation into the Church (through baptism and confirmation) an additional lesson of further organizational and practical principles are taught.

Separate from this is a Sunday School class, and associated manual called ‘Gospel Principles’, which fleshes out the detailed pieces of the structure and overview of the ‘story’ presented by the Missionary lessons.

As individuals read the scriptures individually throughout this process, they have specific things to look for, and a basic understanding of the general scheme of things according to the current understanding of the Church. They are scripturally, historically, and doctrinally oriented.

Classic Context: Parley P. Pratt Style

Parley P. Pratt’s seminal 1837 volume a Voice of Warning and Instruction to All People (for a long time the most read Mormon publication apart from the Book of Mormon itself) attempts, and succeeds, at being the very first clear, concise, and organized presentation of the Context and Story of Mormonism. It it truly the first presentation of a ‘Gospel Principles’ book in the Church.

However, Pratt’s volume is very personal. Far from being an anonymous and committee-shaped exposition, it is very clear the voice of Warning is Parley’s: an Apostle of Jesus Christ — and he is speaking directly to you.

There is not much in Parley’s volume that would be brand new for the well-read and up-to-date saints of his day. In fact, much of his content has already been presented, albeit in a much longer, drier, and polemical form, directed to members by Sidney Rigdon in the pages of the Evening and the Morning Star and the Messenger and Advocate. Subscribers and readers of those publication would find the book to be a useful (and portable) sum of all the material presented therein.

What Pratt does that is unique is to correlate and organize the message into one of simple logic – all the while closely obeying president Joseph Smith’s charge to the Twelve and their missionary efforts to only speak of the First principles of the Gospel as it has been revealed, and to specifically avoid frank references to auxiliary doctrinal information, such as Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon’s  Vision of the degrees of glory, the understanding of Zion being physically located in Missouri, as well as the other revelations in the recently published Doctrine and Covenants.

These more advanced concepts were to be taught later, once the first principles were accepted and complied with. In fact, in the first edition of the work, while the Book of Mormon is presented, the name of Joseph Smith is not. Quotations from the Doctrine and Covenants are given, but the reference of the text’s source is not volunteered.

The 1837 Missionary Message of Parley P. Pratt as presented in A Voice of Warning can be outlined like this:

  • Authenticity and necessity of Prophecy
    • Presentation that Prophets accurately foretold what we now know as History
    • Presentation of authoritative Prophetic accounts of the Future, leading up to the reign of the Kingdom of God
  • The Kingdom of God
    • What the Kingdom is
    • How to identify the Kingdom
    • How to become part of the Kingdom
  • The Book of Mormon
    • Witness of the reality of the renewed covenant of the  Kingdom today
  • (Proclamation and Warning to All)
  • The Restitution of All Things
    • Resurrection of the Body
    • Restoration of the Earth to a pure form
    • Two New Jerusalems: Jerusalem and Zion
  • The Dealings of God with All Nations
    • All who hear the message by authorized messengers are accountable.
    • All who live in an age where the message is not authorized to be sent are not accountable.
  • Chart contrasting the “Doctrine of Christ” with a somewhat humorous presentation of the “Popular Doctrines of the 19th Century”

‘Believers’ vs ‘spiritualizers’

The key assumption made by Pratt in his book that he doesn’t even attempt to argue (believing that it is understood and recognized by the general Christian audience of the day) is that the Bible contains a single, cohesive and historical documentary narrative from the beginning of time.

His repeated refrain and complaint isn’t that his hearers don’t view the Bible the same way, not that they don’t believe its infallibility and historicity, it’s that they view many of the prophecies made by the historical figures (especially those Pratt viewed as having a future fulfillment) as having a ‘spiritual’ meaning and fulfillment rather than a ‘literal’ one. His chastising of these ‘spiritualizers’ is plenty.

He is annoyed and frustrated that individuals don’t take the Bible prophecies at face value, as he does. He would clearly agree with Joseph Smith’s assertion, when asked by a minister wherein the Church of Latter Day Saints differed from all others, that: “[Latter Day Saints] believe the Bible, and [other sects of Christianity] do not.”

His presentation is personal, charming, and stirring (and, in certain places on the last chapter’s chart of doctrinal contrasts, downright funny).

If anything, you leave knowing that Parley P. Pratt believed what he was preaching, and truly desired you to believe it too. To him, it was just common sense.

While Pratt’s methods of scriptural exposition used to prove many of his points would be found outdated and quaint by today’s scholastic standards, its importance, rhetorical power and influence in its own time and historical context need not be diminished. Pratt’s logic, style, and presentation remains a powerful force to be reckoned with.

Thoughts on the Grandin Press edition

Grandin Press has beautifully presented this classic text in a new edition, packaged along with Pratt’s later work Key to the Science of Theology (which I will cover at a later time).

The edition presented by Grandin has been completely and attractively typographically reset, and given an attractive and bold cover, featuring a new stylized portrait of Parley P. Pratt (as does other titles in their Parley Pratt collection, including Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, and Classic Works of Parley P. Pratt).

The text itself has been formatted into modern readable paragraphs, and references to current editions of the LDS scriptures have been inserted when citations are made.

In addition are helpful sub-headers that break up the text into thematic units. While I found a couple of the headers to over-state and over-interpret what Pratt actually had written, I found the vast majority of them clear, accurate, and very helpful in preventing ‘reader’s fatigue’. They also created very nice stopping points to bookmark and begin reading later on.

One small personal annoyance: The source of the text reprinted is from a later 1840s revision produced by Pratt himself. The annoyance isn’t with the use of this text, (a perfectly valid presentation most likely expressing Pratt’s latest ideal) as much as the lack of notice making clear this was not the original 1837 edition of the text.

The 1840s edition was different in a few notable ways from its original presentation, such as an expansion and re-writing of much of the chapter on the Book of Mormon providing additional apologetic information as additional evidence to prove the book’s authenticity, as well as the inclusion of a reprint of an article written by Parley’s brother Orson Pratt on the coming forth of the book. A line noting the flawless character and honor of the Book of Mormon witnesses was removed (seeing as Parley no longer believed their honor was anything close to flawless), and a chapter-length ‘Proclamation’ (the original Chapter 5) was also taken out. I want to make clear these editorial decisions were original to Parley Pratt, and not something new with this Grandin Edition. This is a faithful presentation of Parley’s 1840s text.

While a note of which edition of Parley’s text used would have been helpful, I think it would have been additionally fantastic to either footnote or add into an appendix the differing material. I needed to consult online sources to read some of the text as it was originally presented in 1837. The additional text and information, I believe, would be of historical and educational value, and would enhance the presentation, and make it even more complete.

Most readers, however, could not care less. It’s a slight quibble in an overall fantastic and highly readable presentation that I can highly and wholeheartedly recommend.

If you have never been introduced to Parley Pratt’s writings, or would otherwise be interested in reading a concise presentation of how the earliest saints were taught the message of the Restoration, (both reasons for my interest) there is no better place, or time,  to start.

Key to the Science of Theology / A Voice of Warning

272 pages (126 for Voice of Warning portion). Grandin Press.

$15.95

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