It would be hard to overstate the importance of George Q. Cannon to nineteenth-century Mormonism–if you haven’t done so yet, you must read David Bitton’s exhaustive biography of the man–and there are few documentary records more important that Cannon’s diaries. Over a decade ago, the first of what was to be a long series of published editions of Cannon’s journals appeared, covering his California mission. Two years ago, the second volume of the series, covering his Hawaiian mission, finally arrived. If they continued at that rate, we might finally make it to the last volume by the end of the century.
Yet that patient publication rate ended today with the official online release of the LDS Church Historian’s Press digital edition of Cannon’s journals, which provides content for nearly all of the voluminous journals’ content. The home page for the project is here. Here are a few pages to make yourself familiar with this new endeavor:
The entire digital project will eventually include around 2.5 million words. It is one of the most exhaustive documentary collections of nineteenth-century Mormonism, and Cannon’s keen eye to ideas, institutions, policies, and people make him a very adept observer. Concurrent with the opening of this digital project, they have posted most of the content from Cannon’s 1855-1875 journals, which includes sixteen physical volumes, and the project hopes to provide the rest soon. Die-hard fans of Mormon history will immediately recognize the importance of this collection.
Of course, given the nature of some of Cannon’s entries, not everything could be included. This is how their editorial policy explains restrictions:
Preparing the journals of religious leaders for publication poses serious ethical challenges. The work of these leaders, by its very nature, involves them in many matters that are sacred, private, or confidential. Matters of great sacredness deserve reverence. Divulging some kinds of information may violate principles of privacy, and persons who confess to religious leaders or communicate other information in a confidential setting expect that leaders will maintain their confidences. The Church History Department has long-standing policies that govern the release or publication of sacred, private, or confidential information. In publishing Cannon’s journal, we have sought to honor these principles while also making as much information as possible available to the public and clearly indicating any omissions. As such, some details of the original journal have been withheld, such as information about temple ceremonies and names of individuals involved in church disciplinary councils. We have also occasionally redacted some journal entries that refer to deeply personal matters between Cannon and his family that he clearly wished to keep confidential. In every instance where the text has been redacted, a notation has been made in the text explaining the reason for and extent of the redaction. In the installment of the journal covering 1855 to 1875, approximately 0.5% of the text has been withheld for these reasons.
I’m sure there will be some who focus on that 0.5%, but I think the 99.5% is more than enough to keep us busy.
Several features become quickly apparently when you scroll through the website. The journals are broken into decades, and within each decades by months. (It is also quickly apparently that Cannon was an uneven journal keeper, as some years, like 1871, have only a few entries.) When you click on a month, it takes you to a page that breaks the entries into days, along with a very helpful timeline/overview (often with direct quotations) to help orient your research. Unlike with the Joseph Smith Papers, there is not a high-resolution image of each page, but only a transcription. Some might miss the images, but perhaps those will come later. I found the format quite readable, personally, and it will reward rushed perusals just as much as systematic readings.
Given my interests in political history, I immediately turned to Cannon’s 1870s journals to see what he has to say about his time in Washington. I was not disappointed. “The President of the United States wants us sacrificed,” he wrote on February 6, 1873, as the anti-polygamy legislation’s wheels started to turn. “This is a time concerning which the prophets Joseph and Brigham and others have spoken,” he explained, “the time when we would have <the government> arrayed against us in a national capacity as towns, counties and States had done in their spheres.” This is an important moment in the evolution of Mormon relations to the federal government, and Cannon is an important and adept observer of it. During Joseph Smith’s time, they believed the federal government was the only political body strong enough to save them; now, after the Civil War, they feared the federal government was too strong and prone to destroy them. “The constitution has fallen into <disrepute>,” he mused twenty days later, “and the will of the majority has taken its place” (February 26, 1873). Of course, Cannon himself would come to pay for these developments by serving in a state penitentiary.
I could go on. There are lots of topics that might interest readers: Cannon’s views on polygamy; his perspective on the evolution of Church leadership during the 1860s; his mission to Britain; his account of Salt Lake City social life. This is a gem of a resource, and kudos are due to the Church History Library for making this available. In an age of increasing digital scholarship, this model of documentary presentation might be the most efficient means to providing access to some of our most important sources.