Monday, March 4, 2013

Louisa Barnes Pratt

I was first exposed to Louisa Barnes Pratt when I was researching the kinds of healing blessings women performed in the early church. While Louisa's husband was away on one of his many long missions, her daughter showed the early warning signs of small pox after being exposed to the disease. Louisa sent for the Elders to come and administer to her, but they refused – they did not want to catch the disease themselves. In response, she declared, “The devil shall not have power to thus afflict me!” She laid hands on the child and rebuked the fever herself. Her daughter's symptoms never progressed past those initial pimples.

There was something about her courage in the face of disappointment and proactive attitude towards approaching her problems that jumped out at me as I was sifting through materials. I wanted to learn more about this woman. I had no idea how interesting, complicated, and well-documented of a life she led when I set out to write this blog post.
Louisa's conversion to the church was immediate and lasting. About seven years into her marriage with Addison Pratt, Louisa's sister came to visit and introduced the family to the Mormon church, which they joined enthusiastically. As soon as they could get their affairs in order, Louisa and Addison moved their family to Nauvoo.

In 1844, Addison left on his first mission to the Pacific Islands, and the area he opened on the small island of Tubuai made him the first foreign language missionary in the church (speaking Tahitian). Louisa and their four children stayed home.

Addison did not return until 1848, so he was absent for many of the major events of early church history – the introduction of polygamy, Joseph Smith's martyrdom, the migration west, and the beginning of settlement period in Utah. Louisa negotiated them on her own. She taught school and tailored. She trained her own horse. She did what she had to to keep her family afloat. When the saints began migrating, Brigham Young counseled her to join them, but gave no advice for how she could pull it off. She felt frustrated that the very men that sent her husband overseas didn't offer her any assistance in moving her family. But the answer came to her when she was pondering this: “Sister Pratt, they expect you to be smart enough to go yourself without help, and even to assist others.” She said that prompting got her moving, and she decided to “show them what can do.” She outfitted herself and made the trek.

Shortly after Addison's return in 1848, he was asked to return to Tubuai and continue his efforts there. In 1850, Louisa was called to join him as one of the first female missionaries. She studied hard to learn the language, giving herself the task of translating a chapter of the bible every day. She eventually learned the language well enough to teach native children to write their own language, and she gave both biblical and sewing lessons to the women every day. In 1852, the Pratts returned home when the French Government closed the mission. They settled with other Mormons in the San Bernadino community of California.

Home proved to be a difficult thing for the Pratts. Addison was used to being a leader in the church; Louisa was used to running the household. They clashed over how Addison spent his time. They clashed over Addison's refusal to accept polygamy (in a reversal of the stereotyped polygamy narrative, Louisa pushed hard for it in their marriage, and Addison refused). Addison was largely ignored by local leaders, and he was disappointed in the way things were being run. When the US government began threatening military action against the Utah Mormons in 1858, Brigham Young called those in the San Bernadino colony to move back to Utah. Louisa did – Addison did not. It was meant to be temporary, but they lived apart for the remaining 15 years of their marriage.

Louisa settled in Beaver and made a life for herself there. She supported herself financially. Beaver's Relief Society was organized in her home, with her serving as secretary. Her presidency took special attention to ministering to the sick, performing washings, anointings, and laying on of hands to rebuke disease. She became heavily involved in the suffrage movement, penning a dozen articles for the Woman's Exponent on the topic, and she led in Beaver's petition to the territorial legislature to return voting rights to women and allow them to pursue public office. She wrote a memoir. She lived a full and faithful life.

Louisa was strong, self-sufficient, faithful, and serving. She was always willing to do the difficult things her faith required, and she found fulfillment in the path she chose.


The History of Louisa Barnes Pratt: Mormon Missionary Widow and Pioneer, edited by S. George Ellsworth. USU Press (available digitally here).
Daughters of Light, by Carol Lynn Pearson, page 69.

They Came to Nauvoo,” Sept 1979 Ensign, by Lavina Fielding Anderson

Capable of 'Great Good,'” by Brittany Chapman, Women With a Mission series, Church History Department.


Jacqui said...

Louisa is one of my grandmothers. I love her history and as I read it, long for more! Thank you for writing this post.

Jacqui said...

If you ever come across more information, I'd love to know about it. Thanks!

Houston said...