Included with the new Grandin Press Forgotten Classics edition of A Voice of Warning was Parley P. Pratt’s work of nearly two decades later, A Key to the Science of Theology. As I promised in my review of A Voice of Warning, here are my initial thoughts on reading Parley’s Key.
Identifying the Key
The preface to Parley Parker Pratt’s A Key to the Science of Theology, while setting the scene of his present day struggles, also clearly describes the world in which we now live:
The present is an age of progress, of change, of rapid advance, and of wonderful revolutions.
The very foundations of society – social, political, commercial, moral and religious, seem to be shaken as with a mighty earthquake, from centre to circumference. All things tremble; creation groans; the world is in travail, and pains to be delivered.
A new era has dawned upon our planet, and is advancing with accelerated force – with giant strides.
[Advances in’ technology], with their progressive improvements in speed, safety and convenience, are extending and multiplying the means of travel, of trade, of association, and intercommunication between countries whose inhabitants have been comparatively unknown to, or estranged from, each other.
Pratt goes on from there to contrast the vast improvements in all aspects of industrial and societal life with the apparent and decided lack of development in the areas of religion and theology.
“The Creeds of the Fathers,” says Pratt, “seem to have been cast in the mould of other ages…not sufficiently elastic to expand with the expansion of mind, to grow with the growth, and advance with the progressive principles of the age.”
Here, in the preface, is the key to Key.
To Pratt, religion and theology did not consist of a deposit of static knowledge, it was a true and living science – in fact, the most comprehensive of all sciences – that demanded study, innovation, and exploration. Theology was indeed the overarching umbrella of all sciences, and a true understanding of it must come as “gathered from revelation, history, prophecy, reason and analogy” – all united and working together.
The Key to unlocking this science was Revelation – reception of knowledge directly from Heaven. Without this is the Key, the source of continuing Knowledge of God – the Key that had been lost to and rejected by history – the science of Theology could not progress. It would lie dead, and remain irrelevant to later generations.
However, Parley’s continuous and bold message to the world was that this Key had indeed returned – been restored – in the events surrounding the divine calling of Joseph Smith, Jr. as a prophet of God.
Exercising the Key
During his life, the Prophet Joseph presented a virtual flood of new information under the banner of Revelation. However, while he oversaw the publication of individual revelatory documents, he never personally arranged a systematic theology. He left the expounding and organizing of the information initially presented by him to others. Many of Joseph’s unique doctrines of the Restoration, although printed and scattered piecemeal throughout his sermons and printed revelations, were never presented or arranged or published in such a way to tell a complete story, and to be self-sustaining in that way.
Parley Parker Pratt’s first major tome, A Voice of Warning (1836), while being an important powerhouse volume expounding upon the practical role of the Restored Church in the context of its official affiliation with and representation of the earthly Kingdom of God – specifically avoided principles of theology, such as the nature of God, and an explanation of the Spiritual Realms. It told an important story, but it didn’t tell the whole story.
This was for two key reasons. The first being that a great deal of that information had not been explicitly presented yet in Revelations to the Church, the second being that the material that had been presented at the time (specifically Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon’s Vision of the Degrees of Glory) was specifically presented to the Missionaries as prohibited material, not to be initially taught as part of their evangelical message.
Organizing the Story
Upon Joseph’s death, and the Succession Crisis that followed, there was a surprising amount of work that needed to be done in order to collate and systematize the vast amount of revealed principles that Joseph has expounded upon. This was no easy task.
But for Parley, this was exactly how it should be. Living Revelation, while being the centerpiece and bedrock for the ability of understanding theology, was not the only element of Theology. He picked up the pieces of Joseph’s wide-ranging doctrine, and, under a motivation fueled by his Apostolic calling and burning testimony of the Restoration, filled in the gaps with his understanding of history, the former scriptures, reason, and analogy.
The results, as presented in A Key to the Science of Theology, are presented as an example – a template – of how Theology should be studied. A Creed not set in stone, but designed to be adjusted by further advances in the sciences of Revelation, Scriptural Studies, Logic, and observation of the world in general.
This, to me, is the greatest and most powerful – and applicable – message of the work.
It has been re-phrased recently in a speech by present-day Apostle Dallin H. Oaks, who explained that there are “threefold sources of truth about man and the universe: science, the scriptures, and continuing revelation”1
Influence and Conclusion
Pratt’s clear and logical expounding upon the principles and concepts of the Eternal World have had an incredible influence on every generation of Church leaders and members to follow. Even among senior leaders in the Church during his own life, he was viewed as a de facto doctrinal authority (the Bruce R. McConkie of his day, you might say). President Brigham Young himself used examples, logic, and language from Pratt’s work to express and further expound upon his own inspired messages to the saints.
While not officially textually canonized, one can say many of the conclusions and streams of logic Parley expounds upon in this book have been unofficially intellectually canonized in the mind of many members of the Church. A Key to the Science of Theology , partially by being the first, and partially by being so good at what it set out to do, firmly set the paradigm by which the revelations of the Restoration would be understood and interpreted for generations to come.
However, based on the philosophy expressed in this same book, the last thing it appears Pratt would have wanted would to be for the material he expounded upon to be received as a concrete and unbreakable creed, as the final word on all these subjects.
While expressed as the best current understanding of Revealed Truth, Pratt, based on his dedicated and prayerful study of the nature of Theology, fully expected for the conclusions to need to be revised by further advances in revelation, understanding of scriptural texts, advances in science, and logical application of all of those elements put together. It is the very nature of scientific inquiry and observation.
Copernicus and Einstein both were groundbreaking scientists in their respective fields – yet further light and knowledge have build upon their findings, and allowed our understanding of the natural world to expand. The obsoleteness of certain of their observations and conclusions in accordance with the ebb and flow of scientific progression do not make their initial conclusions and methodologies less respectable, and valuable of study. Their works were, and are, key markers in the progression of human understanding of the cosmos.
Among many of his titles, I think giving Parley the appellation of Copernicus of Mormon Theology would be highly appropriate, and fitting.2 His isn’t the final word, but I wouldn’t like to imagine a world without him.
I highly recommend this book to anyone would consider themselves a seeker after truth. Whether or not you agree with all of the conclusions presented, reading this book with an open mind can and should be an edifying and enlightening experience. And I think that’s what Parley would have wanted.
272 pages. Grandin Press.