This post in our ongoing series on the George Q. Cannon diaries, which are now published on the Church Historian’s Press website, comes from Matthew J. Grow, director of publications at the Church History Library.
I’m grateful that Juvenile Instructor is spotlighting the George Q. Cannon journal. Those of us who have worked on the Cannon journal at the Church History Department are excited that the journal is now available to all who would like to read it and use it in their own research and writing.
This journal deserves a preeminent place among Mormon journals. Indeed, I would go beyond that. Cannon’s journals are among the finest in the history of the U.S. West, the history of American religion, the history of the nineteenth-century United States. The quality of his observations; the scope of his activities; the depth of the individual journal entries; the longevity of the journal—all make this an essential resource. It is difficult to imagine a topic in Mormon history that involves the second half of the nineteenth century that would not be enriched by using Cannon’s journal. If you are interested in questions of politics (local or national) or business or religious practice or plural marriage or the actions of Mormon leaders or even whether a giant creature inhabited Bear Lake, you need to examine this journal.
In this post, I want to reflect on what we learn about Brigham Young from Cannon’s journal. My interest in this topic is because I’m cowriting a biography of Young with Ron Walker. Young was a towering figure in Cannon’s life. Young called Cannon on a series of missions: as a gold missionary to California; to Hawaii; back to California to edit a Church newspaper and preside over the mission; to the eastern states after the Utah War to improve Mormon public image; to England in 1860 as president of the mission. Young performed the ceremony when Cannon married his first wife in 1854 and ordained him an apostle in 1860. In April 1873, Cannon was sustained as a counselor in the First Presidency to Young.
Following his death, Cannon gave a sense of what Young meant to him: “To describe my feelings upon the death of this man of God, whom I loved so much and who had always treated me with such kindness and affection, is impossible. His family, because of his partiality and affection for me and the desire which he always manifested to have my company when I was at home, to eat with him, to spend my evenings with him, and when we visited the settlements on preaching excursions, to have me stop where he stopped, called me his last wife.” (Cannon, Journal, Aug. 29, 1877.)
Cannon may have preferred a different description, writing that Brigham Young treated him as a son. It’s clear that Young, particularly in his final years, relied on Cannon as a counselor on matters of politics, business, and ecclesiastical matters. Whether you call him a counselor or a son or the “last wife,” Cannon was not an unbiased observer when it came to Young. For Cannon, Young was an example of how the Holy Spirit magnified men beyond their natural abilities. “On my part,” he wrote, “he was in my eyes as perfect a man as I ever knew. I never desired to see his faults; I closed my eyes to them. To me he was a prophet of God, the head of the dispensation on the earth, holding the keys under the prophet Joseph, and in my mind there clustered about him, holding this position, everything holy and sacred and to be revered.” Cannon understood that not everyone, not even every Church leader, saw Young as he did. In the months after Young’s death, Cannon came to understand how some other Church leaders had “felt oppressed” by Young as he “ruled with so strong and stiff a hand.” They felt “that he transcended the bounds of the authority which he legitimately held.” (Aug. 29, 1887.)
So from Cannon, we cannot expect—and we do not receive—an evaluation of Young’s weaknesses along with his faults, his failings along with his triumphs. But what we do receive is the views of someone extremely close to Young who reports on his daily actions, the topics of his sermons, how he approached the issues large and small of his day.
Notwithstanding his closeness to Young, Cannon’s interactions with him were often by letter, as he sought counsel while on missions and while he served as territorial delegate from Utah to the U.S. Congress. The letters between Cannon and Young demonstrate Young’s conflicting inclinations to micromanage situations, even from afar, and to grant authority and decision-making power to others. At times, Young delved deeply into the details, while other times he made clear that he trusted Cannon’s judgment and would respect his decisions.
When Cannon was in Utah, his journal entries give us a sense of the rhythms of Young’s daily, weekly, and yearly routines. Take, for instance, a few days in September 1875. On September 16, Cannon arrived in town following a visit to northern Utah. He visited Young, finding him “recovering from an attack of rheumatism,” and “spent the day and dined with him.” (Sept. 16, 1875.) He again spent the day with Young the next day, along with his uncle John Taylor. They went “out riding around the city,” then they ate, then they went riding again. They talked extensively upon the resurrection, as John Taylor had written an article at Young’s request “exposing the fallacies of an article written by Sister E. R. Snow on the same subject and published in the Woman’s Exponent.” An interesting choice for Young—rather than address the problem directly with Eliza Snow, who was of course his plural wife, he chose to correct her statements through Taylor’s editorial. Following their riding, Young, Cannon, and Taylor went back to Young’s house to attend a surprise party for his son Willard, who was soon leaving to “go to the post assigned him as second lieutenant in the engineer corps.” (Sept. 17, 1875.)
On August 23, 1876, Cannon recorded that he spent the day with Young, first at the office and then at “the Menagerie and Circus.” Afterward, they ate together and then Young took Cannon “thro’ the City and through the farming land adjacent on the South.” (Aug. 23, 1876.) The day before, Cannon noted that he and Young “met with a large number of Navajo Indians in President Young’s school House.” (Aug. 22, 1876.) The journals demonstrate Young working in his office until 10:00 at night; spending time in ecclesiastical, political, and business councils; and enjoying his home life and the cultural and social events of Salt Lake City.
Cannon also gives us a sense of Young’s approach to public speaking. In November 1870, they traveled together to Tooele. On November 5, Young spoke for 13 minutes, giving an “instructive & consoling” sermon, praising what they had accomplished there and warning them of apostasy. (Nov. 5, 1870.) The next day, Brigham again addressed the Tooele Saints, this time for 39 minutes, dwelling on the dangers of mining and riches: “It is a tradition that if a man have wealth, he must indulge in luxury; if he have luxury, he must have extravagance; and with extravagance he must have sin. Better for the Saints to raise potatoes & to live on them and live their religion & enjoy its blessings than to have the riches of the earth & apostatize.” But the Saints would yet have the riches of the earth, as the gold would be brought to Zion: “The streets of the New Jerusalem will yet be paved with it, vessels, utensils, candlesticks &c will be made of it.” (Nov. 6, 1870.) A week later, they were in Ogden and Young spoke for 85 minutes on a “great variety of instructions.” (Nov. 13, 1870.) Cannon didn’t bother to record them in his journal as a shorthand reporter was on hand. A few days later, Cannon read the sermon to Young, “with a view to its publication.” (Nov. 17, 1870.) Cannon acknowledged that some of Young’s sermons were “severe,” but others were “very kind & fatherly.” (June 22, 1875; Nov. 19, 1870.)