"The Great Grand Executor":
The Development of the Holy Spirit in the Thought of Orson and Parley Pratt

In the summer of 2009, the Maxwell Institute sponsored a summer seminar for graduate students and advanced undergraduates on the theme of “Parley and Orson Pratt and 19th-century Mormon Thought.” Terryl Givens and Matthew Grow led the seminar. Working papers are unpublished, unedited, unpolished drafts. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the Maxwell Institute or BYU.


Throughout the writings of the brothers Parley and Orson Pratt, the conception of the Holy Spirit plays a central, though widely evolving, role in their theological writings. More than merely reciting scriptures and the teachings of Joseph Smith, the Pratts utilized their own insights, reasoning, and creativity as they elucidated on Mormon theology and tried to synchronize Mormonism’s radical new beliefs and existing scripture into a cohesive and systematic whole. In doing so they both influenced and were influenced by the teachings of Joseph Smith and each other, and while the brothers may have been distanced by geography and personal estrangement, it is clear from their writings that they shared an admiration for each others work as they depended on and built off from the other. While at first the emphasis on the Holy Spirit lies in its mere existence and renewed life in the practices of the Mormons, the role of the Spirit changes as the growing conception of the eternal materiality of spirit shifts their thought from the importance of the mere existence and influence of the Holy Spirit to a focus on its ontological makeup and central role in Mormonisms new cosmology, finding its extreme in Orson’s understanding of the Holy Spirit as the “Great God” or “Great Grand Executor” of the universe.

In the opening pages of his first major theological work, A Voice of Warning and Instruction to all People, Parley writes that the first cause of the confusion and misunderstanding of scriptures by modern Christians lies in the supposition “that direct inspiration by the Holy Ghost was not intended for all ages of the Church, but was confined to primitive times.” Because of this misguided belief, those who supposed this “sought to understand, by their own wisdom, and by their own learning, what could never be clearly understood . . . except by the Spirit of God.”1 In this 1837 pamphlet, Parley almost exclusively uses the term “Holy Ghost” in lieu of “Holy Spirit” as he writes about the importance of the gifts of the Spirit being practiced and utilized by Christians. Here there is no exposition by Parley concerning who are what the Holy Spirit is, only an emphasis on that it is. While focusing on Mormonism as a restoration of primitive Christianity, the importance of the Holy Spirit lies in the gifts of the Spirit, such as the use of tongues and healings as evidence that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is same Church of Christ established by the first Apostles of Jesus. According to Parley, “No man has the right to take this ministry upon himself, but he that is called by revelation, and duly qualified to act in his calling, by the Holy Ghost.”2

The Holy Spirit as the modus operandi by which Parley and saints of the Church ministered permeates virtually all of his works. However—along with Joseph Smith’s early revelations—for the first several years of Parley’s writing, there is almost no discussion on the ontological nature or character of the Holy Spirit prior to Smith’s 1843 revelation (now known as section 131) which taught about the material nature of spirit.3

There is, however, one notable exception to this rule—that being Parley’s essay, “The Regeneration and Eternal Duration of Matter,” included with his 1840 poetic collection, The Millenium and Other Poems. Though he spends the bulk of this essay arguing for the eternal and uncreated existence of matter, he concludes from his arguments that “matter as well as spirit is eternal, uncreated, [and] self-existing.”4 This is perhaps drawn from Smith’s May 1833 revelation (or section 93) which states that “The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy.”5 Parley, however, adds to this when he writes that during the creation of the earth, the waters were “filled with the quickening or life-giving principle, which we call spirit” which began to produce the first fishes and life on the planet.6 According to Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary, a ‘principle’ can be defined as an “Element; constituent part; [or] primordial substance,” with the example sentence: “Modern philosophers suppose matter to be one simple principle, or solid extension diversified by its various shapes.”7 This possible articulation of spirit as matter would precede and possibly influence Smith’s April 1842 teaching by two years where he taught that “spirit, is a substance; . . . it is a material, but . . . it is [a] more pure, elastic, and refined matter than [that of] the body.”8

Following this more explicit revelation by Smith, Parley takes up the matter again a year later in his essay, “The Immortality of the Body,” where he again argues for the eternal and uncreated existence of matter; this time also arguing for the bodily reality of God. Responding to critics who argue from scripture that “God is a spirit” and thus could not have a bodily form, Parley writes:

Is there such a being as an individual intelligence in personal form, without flesh and bones, and without the grosser properties of matter which are tangible to our senses and touch? We freely admit there is. . . . But who shall say that an individual spirit of this kind is . . . not composed of matter, although of a more subtle and refined nature than we are? . . . The fact is, mortal man knows but a very little in regard to the more refined properties of matter as it approaches the confines of spirituality and approximates towards its highest state of refinement, in order to form those links which connect it with mind, or with intelligence.9

Though Parley does not go as far as making the explicit claim that God the Father also has a body of flesh and bone as Jesus does, he explicitly asserts that God’s bodily form requires him to be finitely located in a single space, just as Jesus and our own bodies are. Parley, however, recognizes that a conception of a bodily God such as this requires something else to explain how God, “as an organized intelligent being [can] be every where present.” Alluding to Smith’s December 1832 revelation (or what is known today as section 88, on the light of Christ), Parley writes that “God may be every where present, not in person; but by a proceeding principle which emenates [sic] from him to fill the immensity of space; which principle is light. This proceeding principle is in all things, and is the law by which they live and move and have being.”10

Parley also briefly introduces in this essay the concept of the spirit as a fluid when he argues that the scriptures do not speak of resurrected persons of flesh and bone having blood flowing through their veins, but instead “always substituted the word spirit. Hence we conclude that the immortal body in its new organization is quickened by a fluid called spirit, which emanates from God.”11

In these brief passages, Parley is first to creatively utilize the material composition of spirit to answer the daunting philosophical problem of mind-body dualism as well as the problem of maintaining the omnipresence of God in light of Mormonism’s fairly unique theology of a finitely located Deity. However, following this essay, Parley does not take up the issue of a material spirit again in his pamphlets for a decade, instead only speaking of the Holy Spirit in his previous terms of gifts, prophecy, and revelation. His brother Orson however, picks up Parley’s torch on material spirit a few years later and takes it to bold and controversial new territories.

In the first part of his 1848 series, The Kingdom of God, Orson continues Parley’s arguments, but this time fully equating his brothers appeal to material spirit to the Holy Spirit of the Godhead. Unlike Parley, whose literary style was often poetic and primarily focused on an aesthetic appraisal of Mormon theology, Orson’s writing was much more meticulous as he approached each topic in a logical and scientific fashion. According to Orson, the material and physically located bodies of the Father and the Son require that they “cannot be in two places at the same instance” and “require time for [them] to transport . . . from place to place.”12 [ Building off of Parley, Orson writes that the “Holy Spirit being one part of the Godhead, is also a material substance, . . . [and] is called God in the scriptures, as well as the Father and the Son.”13 While the individual particles of the Holy Spirit are also materially located and cannot be in two places at the same time, for Orson, the Holy Spirit is composed of “inexhaustible quantities” of spiritual particles, and is thus able to be omnipresent as its particles fill the immensity of the universe. Adding to this, Orson writes that the material substance of the Holy Spirit is “intelligent, all-wise, and all-powerful,”14 —attributes which he failed to use when describing the Father and the Son just paragraphs earlier. For Orson, “Each atom of the Holy Spirit is intelligent, and like all other matter has solidity, form, size, and occupies space,” while its “distinguishing characteristics from other matter are its almighty powers and infinite wisdom, and many other glorious attributes which other materials do not possess.”15 Perhaps trying to incorporate Smith’s April 1843 revelation (or section 130) which taught that “the Holy Ghost . . . is a personage of Spirit,”16 for Orson, the person of the Holy Spirit is present when some of its atoms momentarily unite to form the shape of a person. This understanding, according to Orson, solves the problem of how the gift of the Holy Spirit could be shared by more than one person at the same time. Instead of trying to explain how the personal form of the Holy Spirit could be at two places at once, this is accomplished by merely receiving some of the infinite parts of the Holy Spirit, each of which share the attributes of the whole.

This apparent preeminence of the Holy Spirit in Orson’s thought continues into his Absurdities of Immaterialism, written shortly after The Kingdom of God. After spending the first two-thirds of this pamphlet expanding upon Parley’s argument that material spirit solves the problem of mind-body dualism, Orson continues his matter-of-fact speculation, writing that the Holy Spirit “is this glorious and all-powerful substance that governs and controls all other substances . . . ; in it we exist, we live, we move, and by it we receive wisdom, knowledge, and are guided into truth.”17 According to Orson, his conception of the Holy Spirit is the answer to so many of the problems of philosophy and theology. It explains how our material physical bodies can be linked to what seemed to be our immaterial minds, it explains how God can be both physically located and finitely confined to His material body and yet be infinitely present at every location, it explains how the Father and the Son could be all-powerful and all knowing, and it explains how the Father can communicate with humans or control matter from a distance.

At this point in Orson’s writings, though the Holy Spirit shares the classical theological attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence, it is nonetheless still subject to and governed or controlled by the Father and the Son. This, however, begins to change two years later in his Great First Cause, when Orson—writing the only time theologically with his academic title (A.M.) instead of his apostolic title—provides his own cosmological argument to prove the existence of the Holy Spirit.

After arguing for the eternal existence of matter and the impossibility of inert matter acting unprovoked, Orson concludes that there must be an eternal substance which can act and create forces from within itself. He concludes that “All the organizations of the worlds,” including the “spiritual personages of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, must . . . have been the result of the self combinations and unions of the pre-existent, intelligent, and eternal particles of substance. These eternal Forces and Powers are the Great First Cause of all things and events that have had a beginning.”18 Then, building from William Paley’s argument from design—which states that complex objects cannot have come about by chance, but show signs of design and thus imply a designer— Orson argues that because “the spiritual personages of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, must exhibit more evidences of design. . . . we are compelled to believe that these . . . must have had a beginning, for inasmuch as they indicate a design there must have been an anterior designer—[and] this designer must have been a self-moving intelligent substance capable of organizing itself into one or more most glorious presonages [sic].”19 Orson concludes by personifying “this substance which is the Great First Cause” as he alludes (like his brother Parley) to section 88 of the Doctrine and Covenants, saying that “He is in all things and through all things, and the law by which all things are governed; and all things are not only by him and for him, but OF him. His majesty and power, His wisdom and greatness, His goodness and love, shine forth in every department of creation, with a glory that is ineffable, immortal and eternal.”20

Perhaps because he saw himself writing as an academic instead of an apostle, Orson does not explicitly call this personified First Great Cause the Holy Spirit. In fact, the term Holy Spirit is not used at all in this pamphlet as Orson instead uses Holy Ghost when referring to the personages of the Godhead. That he believed it to be the Holy Spirit becomes abundantly clear two years later in his most ambitious and controversial theological endeavor, The Seer.

Here, Orson tries to solve the problem of how the persons of the Father and Son could have had a beginning, but could at the same time be referred to in the scriptures as existing from all eternity. Looking at several modern revelations which speak of the eternal existence of Jesus Christ, Orson writes, “This past endless existence of Christ has reference to the fulness of Truth, and Light, and Knowledge which now dwells in His person. The attributes are personified and called God: these had no beginning.” For Orson, it is not the person of Christ that has existed for eternity, but his attributes which exist eternally. He continues:

The attributes of Jesus Christ, or in other words, the fulness of Truth existed for endless ages before His person was formed. Before the spiritual body or personage of Christ was born in the heavenly world, there were innumerable worlds in existence, each peopled with myriads of personages, and each were filled with all the fulness of Truth, which is called by various names, such as, God, the Great I AM, the Father, the Son, Jesus Christ, &c. All these names, as well as the personal pronouns He, His, and Him, are applied to the FULNESS OF TRUTH, [all capitalized] wherever it or He may dwell, whether in one tabernacle or in unnumbered millions. This Great God—the FULNESS OF TRUTH, can dwell in all worlds at the same instant—can be everywhere present—can be in all things, round about all tings and through all things. . . . He is the only living and true God, and besides Him there is no God: He is the only God worshipped [sic] by the righteous of all the worlds; for He exists in all worlds, and dwells in all his fulness in countless millions of tabernacles.21

According to Orson, it was by attaining a fulness of this divine substance that the Father, Jesus, and all the other Gods before us gain Godly attributes, and it is in the same manner that we as humans can also become Gods.

It is this final shift in his theology—which promoted the Great God of substance and attributes as our God of worship—that brought on the strong hand of criticism from Brigham Young. Though Orson defended himself, arguing that it was the only way in which he could reconcile Mormonism’s teachings on the plurality of Gods and still maintain the scriptural demands for omnipotence, omniscience, and the omnipresence of God, after receiving Young’s rebuke he nonetheless stepped back in his writings and ceased to further elucidate on this theology in The Seer. After a few issues of relative silence on the matter, Orson dedicated one more section in the March 1854 edition of The Seer to examine the so-called powers of nature in light of his theology. For Orson, it is the Holy Spirit which controls matter and is behind what we have normally called the powers or laws of nature. Orson writes, “It is God, or in other words, the Holy Spirit which is associated in a greater or less degree with every particle of matter in the universe. . . . [I]t is this All-wise, Omnipresent, and Almighty substance, that unites system with system, under its own forces, so regulated . . . and yet so nicely adjusted to prevent worlds from rushing on worlds, as they fly with inconceivable velocity in their appointed orbits.”22

In the remaining five issues of The Seer, Orson drops nearly all references and names for divinity, except for the simple and generic ‘God’ while writing on theological matters. It was in this manner that Orson perhaps was able to maintain his theology and write without either drawing further criticism or betraying his own beliefs.

At this time, Orson and Parley had not seen each other for nearly a decade. Their mission callings, as well as an emotion estrangement between the brothers several years earlier, kept their communication confined to infrequent letters and reading each others writings. Just before completing The Seer, Orson sent a letter to Parley praising his works, telling his brother “There are no writings in the church with the exception of the revelations, which I esteem more highly than yours; and I think were you to give your time more to writing and publishing it would . . . be a blessing to millions.”23 Parley took up his brothers challenge, writing his theological magnum opus, which he finished and published in 1855 with the title, Key to the Science of Theology. Just as Orson had utilized ideas first introduced by his brother, Parley in turn clearly pulls from Orson’s writings, including The Seer. In this book, Parley reverses his terminology from his Voice of Warning, this time almost exclusively using the term ‘Holy Spirit’ in lieu of ‘Holy Ghost.’ Like his earlier work, Parley argues that the gifts of the Spirit, especially revelation are of utmost importance—the very “key to the science of Theology,” he writes, “is the key of divine revelation.”24

While revelation may have been the key to his theology, in Parley’s book it is the Holy Spirit which brings together his seven sciences of revelation, worlds, knowledge, life, faith, spiritual gifts, and “all other sciences and useful arts.”25 Nearly quoting his brother verbātim, Parley writes that the “substance called the Holy Spirit” is “diffused among the elements of space” and “is the grand moving cause of all intelligences.” It “is the great, positive, controlling element of all other elements. It is omnipresent by reason of the infinitude of its particles, and it comprehends . . . . the past, present and future in all their fullness.” “In short,” Parley writes, using language from The Seer, the Holy Spirit “is the attributes of the eternal power and Godhead.”26 Finally, alluding to The Seer‘s explanation of exaltation, he writes, “Those beings who receive of [the Holy Spirit’s] fullness are called sons of God, because they are perfected in all its attributes and powers, and, being in communication with it, can, by its use, perform all things.”27

Absent from his theology though, is any discussion of the person or personage of the Holy Spirit. This would perhaps explain Parley’s use of the term Holy Spirit, as it could better connote a substance or ethereal material, while the term Holy Ghost seems to imply more of a personage. For Parley, the Holy Spirit is merely “a divine substance or fluid” whose “communicative properties . . . bears some resemblance or analogy to the laws or operations of electricity.”28 It is by being filled with this divine fluid that enabled Jesus to speak with truth and perform miracles, and it is in this same manner that a person is able to have the gifts of the Spirit.

Furthermore, unlike Orson, Parley does not fully take his brother’s final step of explicitly making the Holy Spirit the Great God of the universe. This may be due to Parley’s disagreement with this part of Orson’s theology, or perhaps was intentionally left out to avoid the same rebukes Orson had received by Young. If it is due to the latter, Parley certainly hints at Orson’s controversial theology. He writes of a “Supreme Head”29 who is in control of all who have attained the attributes of God by receiving “a fullness of that holiest of all elements, which is called the Holy Spirit.” This Holy Spirit “contains, in itself, a fullness of the attributes of light, intelligence, wisdom, love and power.” And it is this wisdom that is the “motive power which moves to action the grand creative power” of Gods and “inspires the Gods to multiply their species.”30 Though Parley also uses terms such as ‘the Father’ to describe the “Grand Head, who is Father of all,”31 because of Orson’s claim that many terms such as these are used to describe the primordial Great God, it is unclear exactly how much of Orson’s theology Parley subscribed to, or if any minor edits were made to distance himself from it. Unfortunately Parley died less than two years after the printing of Key to the Science of Theology, providing no more elucidation on this subject.

A year after Parley’s publication, however, Orson took up the challenge of writing one more time on this theology in a pamphlet entitled The Holy Spirit. Just as they played off of each others’ writings in the past, Orson once again builds off of Parley’s work, repeatedly describing the Holy Spirit as a divine fluid. He writes, “Heat, light, electricity, and all the varied and grand displays of nature, are but the tremblings, the vibrations, the energetic powers of a living, all-pervading, and most wonderful fluid, full of wisdom and knowledge, called the Holy Spirit.”32 Just as with Parley’s book, it was by being filled with this divine fluid that Jesus was able to perform miracles, and it is likewise that humans are able to possess the gifts of the spirit. Perhaps noting what he saw to be a deficiency in his brother’s Key to the Science of Theology, Orson writes that the terms Holy Ghost and Holy Spirit refer to the same substance and could be used interchangeably. He then uses them as such, spending several pages arguing how the Holy Spirit can meet the scriptural demands to simultaneously be both a fluid as well as a personage, arguing as he did in previous pamphlets that by concentrating its fluid, the Holy Spirit could take on the form of a personage.

Beyond his discussion of the Holy Spirit being a fluid, Orson here adds nothing new to his theology, though perhaps taking one more cue from his brother Parley, Orson presents his theology of the Holy Spirit in a manner that would seem less controversial than (though still compatible with) the theology articulated in The Seer. While Orson writes that the Father and the Son “have the authority to command the Spirit,” the Holy Spirit is nonetheless still “the great grand executor of all the sublime and majestic movements exhibited in boundless space.”33

Despite his attempts to mirror Parley’s more moderate rhetoric, Orson’s writing was nevertheless still condemned by Young and the First Presidency of the Church who issued a public letter condemning this last theological work, asking the Saints to “cut out and destroy” this pamphlet from their volumes of Orson’s writings.34 Ironically, Parley’s Key to the Science of Theology, which had a theology virtually identical to Orson’s Holy Spirit, was reprinted in several editions throughout this time, and left mostly unaltered until the mid-twentieth century.

While it may be argued in either direction whether it was Parley or Orson who provided a greater contribution to and influence on Mormon theology, their concept of the Holy Spirit was primarily a collective development between the two as they continually depended on and built from the creative and intuitive insights provided by each others’ writings. While Orson’s final thoughts on the piece were condemned and Parley’s promoted, they both represented a combined and shared effort to make sense of the radical teachings of Joseph Smith in light of what they thought were scriptural imperatives for the attributes of deity. Though Mormons today tend to shy away from the Pratt’s conception of the Holy Spirit, the Pratts effort to confront the challenge of maintaining the classical attributes of God while embracing Mormonism’s unique theological beliefs, set the standard for approaching this same challenge that Mormon theologians and philosophers are still trying to answer today.



1. Parley P. Pratt, A Voice of Warning and Instruction to all People: or, an introduction to The Faith & Doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,Ninth Edition (Salt Lake City: The Deseret News Steam Printing Establishment, 1874), 3. *Add note about editions.

2.Ibid., 73.

3.D&C 131:7-8. *Include note on Lecture Fifth on Faith.

4. Parley P. Pratt, “The Eternal Duration and Regeneration of Matter,” in The Millennium and Other Poems (*, 1840), 111.

5. Joseph Smith, “Try the Spirits,” Times and Seasons 3, no. 11 (April 1, 1842), 745.

6. Pratt, “The Eternal Duration,” 112. Emphasis added.

7. Webster’s 1828 dictionary

8. D&C 131:7-8.

9. Parley P. Pratt, “Immortality of the Body,” in * (*, 1844), 31. Emphasis added.

10. Ibid., 32. Compare to D&C 88:7, 12-3 which states, “This is the light of Christ . . . Which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space—The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed…”

11. Ibid., 34.

12.Orson Pratt, The Kingdom of God Part 1, 4.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid., 5.

15. Ibid.

16. D&C 130:22.

17. Orson Pratt, Absurdities of Immaterialism, 25.

18. Orson Pratt, Great First Cause, 16. Emphasis added.

19. Ibid. Emphasis added.

20. Ibid.

21. Orson Pratt, “The Pre-Existence of Man,” The Seer, 131.

22. Orson Pratt, “Powers of Nature,” The Seer, 225.

23. Orson Pratt to Parley Pratt, September 12, 1853.

24. Parley Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology, 27.

25. Ibid., 2.

26. Ibid., 38-40.

27. Ibid., 41.

28. Ibid., 100.

29. Ibid., 34.

30. Ibid., 46.

31. Ibid., 35.

32. Orson Pratt, “The Holy Spirit,” 50.

33. Ibid., 55.

34. 1865 First Presidency Letter to Orson Pratt.