The George Q. Cannon journals provide insights into Mormon conceptions of race in the nineteenth century. Cannon had a long tenure in the Quorum of the Twelve, as a counselor to different church presidents, and extensive involvement in writing and publishing. Because of this participation in church leadership and publication, Cannon’s writings show how church leaders conceived of race as the church changed and expanded during the nineteenth century. I will give a few examples here of instances in his journal where he discusses racial ideologies, but there are many more.
Cannon’s account of his mission from 1850 to 1854 in Hawai‘i is important reading for understanding the beginnings of Mormonism on the islands, and the Pacific more broadly. His entries from January and February 1851 detail how he felt he needed to stay on the islands and preach to native Hawaiians, rather than leave as other missionaries were planning to do since they could not find enough white people to teach. He worked hard over the next few months to learn the Hawaiian language. On 18 March 1851, he had a long meeting with a man named David Malo, who had knowledge of Hawaiian history. Cannon recalls: “I told him that I thought they [Hawaiians] were descendants of Israel because they resembled them very much. He said his thought was the same because they had observed the same things observed by the Israelites.” Cannon was not the first Mormon to argue that Hawaiians and other peoples in the Pacific were of the House of Israel, but his journals show how he developed these ideas and used them as a reason to continue teaching native Hawaiians.
Cannon’s journals also give details about the beginning of a gathering place for Mormons in Hawai‘i. Rather than encouraging native Hawaiians to gather to Zion, they were told by missionaries and then Brigham Young to be patient, and prepare themselves by working on a plantation established in Hawai‘i. See Cannon’s 18 August 1853 and 26 July 1854 entries for more information.
Encounters with Native Americans, and discussions with church leaders and government officials about Indian relations, are throughout Cannon’s writings. Cannon’s entries indicate how church leaders worked alongside the US government in civilizing efforts. There are many examples over the years of displacement and constructing gathering places for different Native American tribes and sending missionaries to convert them. One such example is the many entries about the Washakie settlement. On 17 October 1881, Cannon and other prominent church leaders made a visit to the settlement. Cannon remarked: “The improvement that this people have made is very encouraging. They looked clean, & many of the women, if their faces had been concealed, might have passed, so far as dress was concerned for white women.”
Cannon made connections and comparisons between Native Americans and the people of the Pacific, like many other Mormons in the period. In a 19 May 1889 address in Manti, he spoke about who he saw as being included in the House of Israel, hearkening back to his ideas in Hawai‘i from nearly forty years earlier: “The Gentiles were rejecting the Gospel, and were persecuting and killing the Elders, and the time seemed near at hand when we should have to turn to the House of Israel. Already they were receiving the Gospel and seemed to be inspired to receive it. I spoke of the Sandwich Islanders, of the Maories of New Zealand, and of the people of the Samoan Group, and the Indians in our own country.”
These peoples in the Americas and the Pacific who Cannon and many others saw as resembling one another were included in the House of Israel. But people of African descent were not included. Cannon’s journal is an important source for understanding what arguments church leaders used for their positions of racial exclusion from the priesthood and the temple ordinances. In a 1 February 1881 entry, Cannon recounts a conversation he had with Floyd King of Louisiana. Floyd asked what the Mormon position was on “intermarriage with inferior races.” Floyd was “delighted” to hear that church leaders were against intermarriage. Floyd “said such views would cause thousands to rally around us…He predicted great things for us in the future; that we believed in procreation and in preserving the purity of the dominant or pure Aryan race.”
Cannon’s journal includes a few instances where church leaders discussed and debated their policies towards people of African descent. In his 22 August 1895 entry, Cannon and members of the First Presidency and Quorum discussed Jane Manning James, an African American member who continued to petition the First Presidency to let her receive her temple endowments. Cannon said “we had a very full conversation concerning the colored race and their rights under the Gospel.” The case of another woman was also brought up. This woman was white but had married a black man and had a child. She had later remarried a white man and had additional children. In this meeting, “fear was expressed that if she were permitted to go into the Temple, her children borne to the colored man might wish to have ordinances performed for themselves, which might be difficult to refuse if their mother were permitted to officiate.” The requests from both these women to enter the temple were denied.
These entries scattered throughout the decades of Cannon’s journal indicate what Cannon and other church leaders thought of Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, and Africans. Cannon placed Pacific Islanders and Native Americans in the House of Israel, though lower on the racial hierarchy. These people should be converted, civilized, and gathered, even if not always to the Salt Lake Valley. People of African descent and were in a wholly different category in their minds, since they had the “blood of Cain in their veins” (see 1 March 1900 entry). Cannon and other Mormons are not wholly unique in their conceptions of racial difference in the nineteenth century. But having these records more accessible makes it possible for researchers to see how Mormons expressed these racial ideologies. The consequences of these racial constructions and racial hierarchies are still very present within the church today. It is therefore imperative that scholars help to uncover this past. Historians can use Cannon’s journals along with other records in their writings to show how Mormons put their own spin on Euro-American racial constructions.