As a boy growing up in the LDS Church, Brent Beesley had a particular fascination for his great-grandfather, Elder Orson Pratt.
"He was kind of a young man's apostle," reflected Beesley, who was reared with accounts of his ancestor as a scientist with fluency in Greek and Hebrew, an eager and robust trail scout who led the advance party of 1847 Mormon pioneers, and the first Latter-day Saint to enter the Salt Lake Valley.
Elder Pratt's 200th birthday is on Sept. 19 of this year, and Beesley will join many of his fellow Pratt descendants for an observance Sept. 10 at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City, the 2011 reunion of the Jared and Charity Pratt Family Association.
Jared and Charity are the parents of Orson and his illustrious brother and fellow apostle, Parley P. Pratt, who introduced Orson to Mormonism just a few weeks after Parley himself had joined the church.
"I like the idea of Orson as this kind of renaissance man, because he's literally a self-taught mathematician and self-taught astronomer," reflected Matthew J. Grow, director of publications at the Church History Department and a direct descendant of Parley. He and Beesley, chairman and CEO of Heritage Bank in St. George, are helping to organize the reunion.
Born in Hartford, Conn., Orson was baptized on his 19th birthday in 1830 by his elder brother Parley, who also introduced John Taylor and other future Mormon leaders to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That was the year the church was organized by Joseph Smith, who ordained Orson an elder and immediately sent him to Colesville, N.Y., on his first mission.
At age 23, Orson served in the Zion's Camp march, an unsuccessful attempt to regain lands and property lost in the persecutions at Independence, Mo. Like other veterans of that formative experience, Orson became a leader in the church. He was called to be a member of the original Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in April 1835 at age 24.
"Between 1839 and 1841, Orson served a mission in the British Isles and wrote a missionary tract which contained the earliest known public printing of Joseph Smith's First Vision and also materials very similar to what is known today as the Articles of Faith," Beesley said. "Later, he was the mission president for the British Mission and then the European Mission. He crossed the Atlantic a total of 16 times in service of the church."
A professor at the university in Nauvoo, Ill., Orson was on assignment for the church in Washington, D.C., at the time Joseph and Hyrum Smith were murdered in the jail at Carthage, Ill. He reunited with his fellow apostles who, as a quorum under the leadership of Brigham Young, prevailed in the succession crisis that beset the church following the martyrdom.
As scout and scientific observer for the first pioneer company, Elder Pratt helped William Clayton design an odometer to be attached to a covered wagon to record the miles traveled each day. The device was built by Appleton Mile Harmon, a carpenter.
"Reportedly, Brigham Young was often angry with Orson for going too far ahead of the main body of pioneers," Beesley said.
With future apostle Erastus Snow, Orson entered the Salt Lake Valley on July 21, 1847, three days before President Young arrived with the main body of pioneers.
"Erastus went back to find his coat, and Orson explored the valley alone, riding north and west to the Jordan River before returning the night of the 21st to Emigration Canyon."
Even before President Young's arrival, Orson had formally dedicated the valley to the Lord and preached the first sermon, and by July 23rd, streams were already being diverted for irrigation, Beesley said.
With available instruments, Orson established the Salt Lake Base and Meridian and did initial survey work to lay out Salt Lake City's streets. An observatory he built, which stood on Temple Square, is today replicated at This Is the Place Heritage Park.
Though they had personality differences and clashed on some points of doctrine, President Young reposed enough confidence in Orson that he assigned him to write 16 pamphlets in defense of the church. In 1879, Orson helped divide the Book of Mormon into chapters and verses.
Serving as Church Historian and Recorder from 1874 until his death in 1881, Orson is considered the first serious genealogist in the church. In cooperation with the Rev. Frederick Chapman of Connecticut, he obtained and helped publish the names of thousands of his relatives.
In fact, a topic of discussion at the reunion will be the Chapman book, in which Orson, in his own handwriting, kept meticulous genealogical records of the Pratt family, a record that has been donated to the church. Before his death, Orson founded the Jared Pratt Family Association, charging his descendants to keep track of one another. Those descendants include Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, two U.S. presidential contenders.
"We have a computer database with maybe 32,000 descendents of Jared, and we think it's about half-complete," Grow said.
For more information about the reunion, contact Mauri Pratt at email@example.com or call 801-380-8836.