The LDS Church History Library Publishes Digital Version of the George Q. Cannon Journals

By April 14, 2016

CannonIt 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.

Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 8.38.23 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 8.41.33 AMSeveral 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.

Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 8.45.17 AMGiven 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.

Happy reading!

Article filed under Announcements and Events Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Digital Humanities


  1. Make sure to go read J Stapley and WVS’s conversation about this digital collection over at BCC:

    They offer more detailed insight into redaction issues and individual excerpts.

    Comment by Ben P — April 14, 2016 @ 8:07 am

  2. Great write-up, Ben. This is pretty extraordinary news.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 14, 2016 @ 8:28 am

  3. Wonderful write-up, Ben, and very exciting to see this come to fruition. Browsing the journals, this is the first passage I came across. Holy crap. So much packed into one entry:

    “25 January 1874

    After attending to Department business yesterday I went to the House. Mr. Robbins of North Carolina was speaking against Civil Rights Bill. His speech was able in many respects, but indiscreet and impolitic. The Democrats are not wise in their movements. They lack a great and respected leader in the House to whom they would look up and be guided by. There are several who would probably like to be leaders, but no one acknowledged as such. A full-blooded negro ? Cain, of South Carolina ? followed Robbins to the delight of the Republicans. He is a glib talker and made several sallies in reply to Robbins, which created great laughter and applause. Such a scene must be very bitter to the old slave owners of the South. Their former slaves recognized as their equals on the floor of the House and applauded to the echo in their retorts upon Southern men and in holding up to shame Southern policy. In looking back to my first visit to Washington in <1858->1859-1860 in ante-bellum days and contrasting the situation then with affairs now I can scarcely repress my astonishment at the wonderful change which has been accomplished. [I received a letter today from my youngest wife. I was filled with joy while reading that she was pregnant. It is God who has blessed her. A windy, cold day. I prayed to God in my temple clothing just like I normally do every Sabbath day.] In evening preparing copy for the Juvenile”

    That includes commentary on Reconstruction era politics, including remarks on black congressmen (Richard H. Cain, incidentally, was a well-known Methodist preacher, first with the MEC and then, later, in the AME), as well as casual asides about praying in temple robes and his youngest wife being pregnant. Hell, even the Juvenile Instructor gets a mention. All in a single entry.

    Comment by Christopher — April 14, 2016 @ 8:44 am

  4. Nice work Ben. Great overview of this milestone project.

    Comment by WVS — April 14, 2016 @ 8:47 am

  5. Thanks Ben, this is a heckuva thing to finally see.

    You noticed, as did I, that large gaps exist in the journals. Do we know that these are Cannon’s gaps and not forthcoming entries that will be filled in later? I assume the former, because it would be odd for the CHP to upload only part of a year out of order then plug in the gaps later. But I’d love to see a comprehensive breakdown of each volume and what it covers. There’s a chart at the site that compares the journals to the daybooks, but it only shows the years of each volume, not down to the day.

    Comment by John Hatch — April 14, 2016 @ 9:24 am

  6. Aaaaand as I poked around I found the photographs page that includes a photo and the date span of every journal and daybook. A wonderful touch.

    Comment by John Hatch — April 14, 2016 @ 9:27 am

  7. John: The gaps in the journal are Cannon’s. We know of no other Cannon journals for the 1855-1875 time period.

    Comment by Matt Grow — April 14, 2016 @ 10:16 am

  8. Thanks Matt! The detailed source notes for what is on the site and the photographs of future volumes and their time span helped me figure that out as well. What a great website.

    Comment by John Hatch — April 15, 2016 @ 9:46 am

  9. “the 99.5% is more than enough to keep us busy”

    Definitely! What a great new resource! I pulled up the database and have been typing in all my normal search terms/names of people in my current project. He doesn’t tend to include much on the topic or group of people, but I did find one great little anecdote. There’s no way I would have found the anecdote without this database going online, since I’ve never had reason to suspect that GQC would be related to my project in any significant way, so many thanks to the Historian’s Press.

    Comment by Amy T — April 15, 2016 @ 10:32 am

  10. […] forthcoming. Bloggers quickly weighed in to celebrate the news; Ben Park wrote about the significance of the Cannon journals at Juvenile Instructor while Jonathan Stapley and blogger WVS discussed the editorial procedures […]

    Pingback by Mormon News, April 11?15 | Signature Books — April 15, 2016 @ 10:46 am

  11. *drool* Thanks Ben! I know what my weekend is going to look like 🙂

    Comment by Jeff T — April 15, 2016 @ 11:24 am


Recent Comments

Daniel Stone on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “Thanks much for posting this, Joey!”

Mel Johnson on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “This JWHA will be outstanding, maybe the best ever. I encourage all Restoration historians and cultural studies people to attend along with their friends. The setting at…”

Gary Bergera on George F. Richards' journals: “I remember reading through the microfilms of the Richards's journals in the mid- to late-1970s. Nothing was redacted. They were amazing.”

Jeff T on George F. Richards' journals: “Thanks, Stapley!”

Hannah Jung on George F. Richards' journals: “That is exciting! I had no idea this was in the works! Any idea when the plan is to release the next twenty years of…”

Ben S on CFP at BYU Studies:: “Some clarifying comments here.”