July 4 run honors Mormon leader Parley P. Pratt and his escape from jail

Tuesday, July 1, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:00 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 1, 2014
The Parley P. Pratt Memorial Freedom Run will commemorate early Mormon leader Parley P. Pratt's escape from Boone County jail 175 years ago on July 4. Gerald Neuffer, one of Parley P. Pratt's great-great-grandsons, will participate in the race.

COLUMBIA — It was July 1839, and Parley P. Pratt was locked up in the Boone County jail. 

The 22-year-old, a leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had been arrested after a series of conflicts between Mormon followers and their detractors.

Parley P. Pratt Memorial Freedom Run

When: 7:30 a.m. (Registration begins at 6:45 a.m.)

Where: Twin Lakes Recreation Area, 2500 Chapel Hills Road

Cost: Free (T-shirts available for $4; first come, first served.)

Details: There is no pre-registration for the event. There will be Fourth of July-related ceremonies and a speaker will share the Parley P. Pratt story before the race. The run/walk will be followed by a pancake breakfast and an award ceremony for the winners.

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After waiting eight months for a trial, Pratt was fed up and wanted out. He and a group of friends conspired to hide a horse in the woods nearby to expedite a getaway. 

On the Fourth of July, as Columbia celebrated Independence Day with parades, bands and military salutes, Pratt calmly awaited his supper. When the jailer turned the key to offer him a pot of coffee, Pratt burst through the door and ran down the stairs.

Parley Pratt was free.

On Friday, 175 years after the notorious July 4 escape, Columbia's Mormon congregations will mark the occasion with a four-mile race at the Twin Lakes Recreation Area.

It will be the 20th anniversary of the Parley P. Pratt Memorial Freedom Run, which begins at 7:30 a.m. with a flag ceremony and recitation of Pratt's story. The run along the MKT Nature and Fitness Trail begins at 7:50 a.m.

The event brings special attention to religious freedom and tolerance, along with the general freedoms celebrated on Independence Day, said event coordinator Newell Kitchen.

"Normally you wouldn’t celebrate a jail break," he said.

Pratt's legacy

Pratt is recognized today as one of the most important early figures in the history of the Mormon church.

According to the book, "Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism," by Terryl Givens and Matthew Grow, he served as a pioneer for the church on missions in New England, Canada, Great Britain and South America.

Pratt was among the first Mormons to emigrate to the West, settling in what would become Utah Territory. He explored a canyon in Salt Lake City that is now named in his honor.

Pratt chronicled Mormon history, drafted several books on theology and wrote poems that became church hymns. He was an apostle of the Mormon church, one of the first members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, organized by the faith's founder Joseph Smith.

He was the father of 35 children and had 12 wives. In 1857 he was murdered by the estranged husband of his twelfth wife. He is the great-great grandfather of former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and great-great-great grandfather of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.

Escape from county jail

Part of his history is his daring escape from the Boone County jail in Columbia, which he described in an autobiographical account. He was put in jail during the aftermath of conflicts in Missouri between Mormons and non-Mormons in 1838, later known as the Missouri Mormon War.

Kitchen said Lilburn Boggs, the governor at the time, was convinced the members of the church needed to be expelled from the state. In October 1838, Boggs issued Missouri Executive Order 44, known as the Mormon Extermination Order, effectively forcing the followers to leave the state.

Smith and his followers, including Pratt, were imprisoned instead. Pratt spent time in the Richmond prison, just east of Kansas City, without a trial date. He successfully sought a change of venue, which sent him to Columbia.

In early July, he plotted his escape with the help of his brother and friends, picking the holiday as a local distraction. He and his fellow prisoners used a shirt and red strips of cloth to fashion a flag bearing an eagle and the word "Liberty" and hung it from the window of their jail cell.

In his autobiography, Pratt recounted the reaction of the people who saw the flag from the town square: "'Liberty! Liberty! What have the Mormons to do with celebrating liberty in a damned old prison?'"

After securing his freedom, Pratt had a series of misfortunes  — he lost his horse,  then made his way on foot for several days without food until crossing the Mississippi River and leaving Missouri behind.

MU descendant

One of the participants in Friday's race will be retired MU professor Gerald Neuffer, 92, one of Pratt's great-great grandsons. He trains by walking four miles every day at 6 a.m.

"That's my best time of the day," he said. "My mind is clear, and I can solve all the world's problems."

Neuffer was born in Preston, Idaho, and came to MU in 1947 to continue his education. He studied under geneticist Lewis Stadler and became a noted researcher himself, publishing a book on the genetics of corn.

When Neuffer came to Missouri, more than 100 years after Boggs issued the Mormon Extermination Order, he said he still felt apprehensive about being a Mormon in the state.

It wasn't until 1976 that Gov. Kit Bond officially repealed the executive order. Illinois, where the Mormons fled after leaving Missouri, didn't issue an official apology for its persecution of the group until 2004.

Neuffer said he believes the church is respected in the community now, and he is proud of his Pratt heritage.

"All the people know about (my relation) here," he said. "In the church, we have a big thing about genealogies. ... We know our ancestors back, everybody within four generations, and what's available we go back further than that."

He has seven children of his own and, now, 35 great-grandchildren, and they are distant but true descendants of Parley Pratt.

"We appreciate having him as an ancestor," Neuffer said. "It means I better behave and set a good example."

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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