FORT SMITH, Ark. "Religion and Reaction: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Parley P. Pratt" was the title of an academic conference and series of commemorative events held April 20-22 in Fort Smith, Van Buren, and Alma, Ark., marking the bicentennial of Elder Pratt's birth April 12, 1807, and the sesquicentennial of his martyrdom in Arkansas on May 13, 1857.
The conference attracted historians, scholars, Pratt descendants, and interested persons from 12 states and Germany, according to Greg Armstrong, a conference organizer and an associate professor of Spanish at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith.
Sponsored by the Arkansas State History Commission, Fort Smith Historical Society, and the Bicentennial Perspectives Committee a coalition of professors, students, and interested individuals the conference was keynoted by Jan Shipps, well-known author and scholar on Mormon history topics, who spoke on "The Career of a New Religion in the Mid-Nineteenth Century."
Supported by grants from the Arkansas Humanities Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau, the conference was the first of its kind in Arkansas to examine the life of a prominent 19th century LDS apostle, missionary, pioneer and poet, Brother Armstrong said.
Richard E. Turley Jr., managing director of the LDS Family and Church History Department, presented "Parley P. Pratt and the Mountain Meadows Massacre."
Presenters from BYU included Susan Easton Black, "Parley Pratt's Testimony of Joseph Smith's Prophetic Call"; Alonso Gaskill, "The Spiritual Legacy of Parley Parker Pratt"; David J. Whittaker, "Parley P. Pratt's Role in the Shaping of Early Mormon Apologetics"; and Alexander Baugh, "Parley Pratt's Letters During His Missouri Imprisonment."
"Parley P. Pratt was incarcerated in Independence, Richmond, and Columbia, Mo., from Oct. 31, 1838, to July 4, 1839, a period of over eight months," Brother Baugh noted in his presentation. "During this time, he corresponded with his wife, Mary Ann Frost, extended family members, friends, and Missouri officials. Eleven letters from his Missouri imprisonment experience have survived. These letters provide historians with valuable information and details regarding the events associated with the period following the Mormon surrender to Missouri authorities and the incarceration experiences of the Mormon leaders. Moreover, Pratt's writings reveal his undying love for his wife and children, his complete faith and confidence in God, and his firm conviction in the truths of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ."
Sister Black admonished: "For those who struggle to gain a testimony of Joseph Smith's prophetic calling, learn from the steps taken by Parley. For Parley, it started with scripture literacy. He had an early interest in reading. From his mother he learned to love the scriptures....
"With scripture literacy and a love for Jesus Christ, he was prepared to learn of Joseph Smith through a new scripture the Book of Mormon, Another Testament of Jesus Christ....
"The Book of Mormon caused Parley to want to know more about the translator. Parley journeyed to Palmyra, the place where the Book of Mormon was published, to learn more....
"Of his meeting Joseph Smith, Parley wrote: 'He received me with a hearty welcome, and with that frank and kind manner so universal with him in after years. On Sunday we held a meeting at his house; the two large rooms were filled with attentive listeners, and he invited me to preach. I did so, and afterwards listened with interest to a discourse from his own mouth, filled with intelligence and wisdom.'
"Parley was baptized by Oliver Cowdery and for the next 13 1/2 years, was a close associate and friend of Joseph Smith."
Commemorative events began with a welcome banquet Friday evening which included a greeting by Dr. Paul Beran, chancellor of the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith, a posthumous recognition of Arkansas citizens who assisted Elder Pratt and his widow Eleanor 150 years ago at the time of Elder Pratt's murder, a vocal duet with text by Elder Pratt sung by Roxane LaCombe of the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith and David Warner, a great-great-great-grandson of Parley. The banquet program concluded with a surprise recorded appearance by Lloyd Newell and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir greeting all who were in attendance.
Following the banquet a live "Nashville Tribute" concert by Jason Deere, Dan Truman, Ron Saltmarsh, and Brad Hull was co-sponsored by the UA-Fort Smith LDSSA and a five stake YSA / LDS Institute Council, many of whom served as volunteers for the Friday concert and Saturday events.
Saturday evening conference attendees were treated to a readers' theater presentation at the King Opera House, a historic venue in downtown Van Buren just a block from the Crawford County Courthouse where Parley and Eleanor Pratt appeared before Judge Ogden and were acquitted on false larceny charges.
"Parley P. Pratt: His Story, His Words, His Music," was compiled, written, and directed for the bicentennial commemoration by Michael McCurdy, general manager of the Arkansas Repertory Theater in Little Rock with music under the direction of Jeanie Pierson of Maumelle, Ark., and performers from the Little Rock Arkansas Stake.
On Sunday morning approximately 50 family members and friends met at the Pratt grave site near Alma for an informal gathering and dedication of Elder Pratt's grave, the exact location of which was only recently determined using latest technologies, Brother Armstrong said.
The Pratt grave site is considered by many to be the most sacred gathering place in Arkansas, he said, since the nearest temples are in surrounding states of Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.
The final commemorative event was a fireside hosted by the Fort Smith Arkansas Stake with guest speaker Robert J. Grow, president of the Jared Pratt Family Association. In his remarks, Brother Grow paid tribute to the many Arkansas residents who were helpful to Elder Pratt and his widow 150 years ago. President Glenn Titsworth of the Fort Smith Arkansas Stake asked all those to stand who had ever taken part in maintenance and service projects or Church activities at the grave site. Nearly everyone in the stake center stood.
Proceedings of the academic conference will be available to interested persons in the future, according to Brother Armstrong.